Life & Culture

How I've become totally addicted - to board games

I tell myself my new game is all about the Pesach meal - this is because I’m an addict and addicts are good at rationalising their harmful actions


"Hi, my name’s Josh and I’m an addict. It’s been two days since I bought my last board game.”

Now, as afflictions go, I accept that buying board games may not be seen in the same league as drugs, alcohol and gambling. But it’s taken up my free time, my space, my money, my life. And because none of these things belong to me alone, they’ve also been taken from my family.

To answer your immediate question, no, we’re not talking about Monopoly.

This game is called Agricola and involves a 16th-century farm and trying to keep your family from starving. It’s about quantitative easing, escaping a sinking island and is very complex. But if I could sum up the attraction in one word, it would be: control.

Controlling a world built on rules, while mitigating against varying degrees of chance. Controlling the ownership of a box that contains that world.

And yet, when it comes to buying more and more boards games, so many that I could play a different one every day for years, fill our entire flat including our bedroom with them, so many that I have to hide new purchases in the car, I am very much out of control.

My latest purchase, Ierusalem Anno Domini, is set in Jerusalem in 33AD.

A crowd gathers at the city gates to welcome Jesus of Nazareth to celebrate the Passover seder with his apostles and followers.

It’s all about trying to sit as close as possible to Jesus, but I tell myself it’s all about the Pesach meal. This is because I’m an addict and addicts are good at rationalising their harmful actions to themselves and others.

And what with our propensity for argument, being Jewish probably helps facilitate this process.

Ask my poor wife.

“I can play them with the kids.”

“I can sell them and get most of the money back.”

“They help mitigate cognitive decline.”

“As midlife crises go, surely this is better than a motorbike or infidelity.”

What Judaism has been less helpful with is making me stop. I think this is down to our relationship with God. To admit we are “powerless in our addiction” is to acknowledge that willpower is not enough, but it removes our agency.

What happens to free will when “we make the decision to turn our will and lives over to the care of God”? Can free will exist without willpower? And what use willpower, when you’ve abdicated your free will?

There’s no direct mention of addiction in the Torah, but in the laws given to our people in Deuteronomy, we’re told of the rebellious son, who if gluttonous and a drunkard, all the men of his town should stone to death. Not many steps to recovery after that.

Yes, many have pointed out that this never actually came to pass, but the threat was issued: “As all Israel will hear of it and be afraid.”

Forget the care and empathy, the understanding and interventions of the Christian AA brigade.
Our free will is what makes us human, and with no power over that will, we have no agency, no control over our choices.

There are rabbis who’ve argued that addiction is a form of idolatry, although they’re mostly referring to those for whom substance abuse is a short cut to God’s presence.

This isn’t something which I’ve encountered playing board games, even when I thrash my kids.

When Noah emerged from the ark, the first thing he did was plant a vineyard, and get totally smashed. Chassidic teachings say this was to strip away consciousness and return to a prelapsarian Eden of plentitude and unity with the divine. I think he was just traumatised by the longest family trip ever. Imagine 150 days of “Dad, are we nearly there yet?”

But Noah did get nude so perhaps I’m wrong. What’s most telling though is his reaction upon waking and cursing Canaan because his father Ham saw him in that state. Again, much commentary as to why, but I couldn’t find any that mentioned shame. Could Noah, the perfect man, have lashed out in shame? Shame for failure, shame for being as out of control. The great late Rabbi Sacks identified overcoming addiction as akin to repentance. Acknowledge you’ve done wrong, tick. Make a public admission, tick tick.

But can I commit to change, and regain control?

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