By Finlo Rohrer
BBC News Magazine
In the era of the high-def DVD and the ubiquitous game console, the board games unwrapped around the world on Christmas Day are a refreshing throwback. But is it all just a bit of fun or can we learn any valuable lessons from the roll of a dice?
Games are not good. Or at least that's what many people would have you believe. In English idiom, the exhortation to "stop playing games" implies manipulation, prevarication, even procrastination.
LEADERS AND THEIR GAMES
Tamerlane - Bloodthirsty 14th Century Turko-Mongol conqueror, loved chess
Claudius - 1st Century Roman Emperor, loved dice
Churchill - 20th Century British prime minister, loved Bezique
WOPR - fictional 20th Century military computer, disliked noughts and crosses
But this is a time of year when games are ascendant. Many will have played a board game over the festive period.
Monopoly is perhaps the quintessential family board game. There can't be too many people in the Western world who are completely unaware of the existence of the game.
It will have been yanked out of millions of dark cupboards over Christmas, dusted off and played. And played. And played. And played some more.
The most obvious life lesson in Monopoly is about patience. Games can last hours. Interminable circuits of the board go on as each player looks for the right roll of the dice to finally buy Bond Street and start getting some houses. It ebbs and flows as fines are paid and then recovered.
For the parent playing Monopoly, the appeal might lie in the ability of Monopoly to swallow a whole day, to neutralise a usually fractious but now ultra competitive child.
In fact this whole vision of Monopoly as the recreational equivalent of spending the night on a mountain looking for enlightenment is a fallacy. Monopoly should really only take about an hour and a half, says retired fireman and tournament player Alan Farrell.
'You'll give me Bow Street for The Strand? OK'
"The main rule that tends to get ignored is the auction. If you land on a property and don't want it, it goes to auction. That's what tends to slow things down and put a lot of people off. If you don't get houses built it will go on forever."
Of course, developing steely patience in children (and adults) is a quality with useful application in both academe and the workplace, whether it's for trawls through textbooks, three hour exams or tackling voluminous reports.
But patience is a side effect of Monopoly, and indeed of any board game. The real raison d'etre is bringing the family together. Where conversation may stutter and fail, the game marches on triumphantly forcing social interaction.
It might be bickering over whether dad's all-conquering laying down of the word "muzhiks" is allowed in Scrabble or fighting for the right to ask all the questions in Trivial Pursuits, but it all still counts as quality family time.
Carrot and stick
It is the same with Pictionary, Ludo, Cluedo, Risk, or anything else.
The carrot is a chance for the competitive children and teenagers to crush the older opposition. The stick is that some form of conversation is necessary for the game to progress.
Many games, like Monopoly, take this social interaction to new heights by placing a premium on negotiation. In Monopoly, deals to waive interest, exchange property and form strategic alliances are common in multiplayer games.
Even at tournament level, Mr Farrell says, these skills are important. "It requires a little bit of negotiating the right deal, unless you are very lucky."
But the king of negotiating games might well be Diplomacy. Perhaps not as well known as its less intense rival Risk, Diplomacy pits seven players against each as nation states fighting over a map of Europe as it was prior to World War I.
While the military element of the game is simple enough, its central attraction lies in the negotiations, alliances, betrayals, poker faces and backstabbing that follow. No player can win - or even hope to survive - without engaging with others and learning to smell false promises.
Learn to be economical with the truth
"The moves side of the game is more or less like checkers or chess," says inventor Allan B Calhamer. "What's different is the negotiation. Nobody is required to tell the truth. It should make you more careful and more alert."
Unlike many games, where the key is simply to play the best moves, without the need to second guess the opponent, Diplomacy requires the playing of the opponent as much as the game. As a result it has found favour outside the home as an educational tool.
"There is a saying in chess 'respond to his capabilities, not his intentions' but in Diplomacy his intentions may make a lot of difference," says Mr Calhamer.
"I've been told that it has been played in the Pentagon and the State Department."
Of course, it's possible to over-egg the idea that life's battles are mirrored in board games, says Mr Calhamer. You might compare your office politics to Monopoly or Diplomacy, but a lid should be kept on that comparison.
Games teach us to win and lose with grace
"When you are at the office you are not manning the Maginot Line. You are not worried about Germany invading Belgium by surprise," he says.
And away from hard-to-quantify skills like negotiation and patience, concrete improvements have been claimed by some games.
There is a long history of studies claiming a link between playing chess and improved memory, analytical skills and other academic abilities in children.
But perhaps we should prefer to laud the "soft" skills that games teach us. How to win and lose with grace, how to play nicely with our families, and how to dissemble, cajole, and gull our way to victory.
Below is a selection of your comments.
Board games are brilliant. Never 'allow' children to win - you only set them up for a fall later on in life! There is no free lunch and never has been.
I've always loved board games starting from an early age. Now in my forties I just love to watch my kids play, even though their attention span is certainly less than mine. My all time favourite games are Diplomacy, The Game of Nations, The Business Game and of course Monopoly. It certainly brings the family together and inspires family interaction, rather than the PS2 of onlining gaming which is mainly a solitary pastime. Long live Board Games!!
Glen Perry, Crickhowell, Mid Wales
Board games are great - played Monopoly, Cluedo, et al as a child and now again as a parent. However, there are plenty of computer games that allow a similar family/group interaction. Not just the board game-like games (Mario Party, lots of the Wii games) but others using turn-taking and utilising the particular skills of individuals to get the group further in a particular game.And I'm sitting here watching my husband and younger son playing some 'fad' game. Basically, it allows them to come together, as equals, and spend a little time together.
Dipsey's Hat, UK
It's really unfortunate that so many people think of Monopoly when you mention 'board games'. This is because Monopoly compares unbelievably poorly when compared with a whole host of stunningly good, well conceived board games , frequently called 'euro games. Monopoly is tedious in the extreme and of course almost completely based on luck. Euro games are far more interactive, socially engaging, challenging and far less defendant on the luck factor. Please do a search on 'Euro board games' to find a board gaming future you didn't think was possible.
Alexander Storch, Pontyberem, Llanelli
I used to love risk, but could never get anyone else to play it with me, as all my friends found it too boring!
I agree board games are a hugely enjoyable past time, especially around the festive period (I do enjoy a bit of Trivial Pursuit or Scrabble myself). But I must say that video games are not all about individual play, in fact online gaming is far less enjoyable than having friends and family around sitting next to you, joining in. I, for one, rarely play online and can safely say that having a few mates around playing Pro Evo is an absolute blast!
Ravi Bal, Essex, United Kingdom
Diplomacy is the ultimate game I agree: seven players all negotiating with each other, waiting with nervousness to see if that deal was kept by their ally, and if their stab will work or not. Not a hint of luck anyway, just down to your skills in moving the pieces and knowing when to make and break deals with your fellow players!
Millis Miller, Wiltshire, UK
Growing up in a diplomatic household moving from place to place every few years made for an unconventional childhood for me and my brother. Still, no matter where we lived, the one constant was our family's love for a nice long evening of Monopoly on Saturdays. It's really quite heartwarming to read that boardgames are still popular and selling well this festive season. The times may change and new technology can be very exciting, but it's nice to think that some traditions will be able to last for a few more generations to come.
Vishnu Venkatesh, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
How about Majong? We used to have Majong parties. Trouble is if you don't play often enough you forget the rules
Richard Sabin, Hua Hin
My favourite is definitely Scrabble and my best single score was with BEZIQUES (the second E was put down by my opponent). The B and the S were on triple words and the Q on double letter. This must have been 30 or 40 years ago - never getting anywhere close since!
We always played Parker Brothers' Yacht Race with my father back in the 60s. I recently found it in mint condition on an auction site and now my new wife and child thinks its the best board game ever. Wind, luck, skill and true sailing rules make this game remarkable.
Mark, Seattle, US