In praise of board games

Stewart Holden and his wife Sarach-Jane playing Scrabble
Stewart Holden and his wife Sarach-Jane playing Scrabble
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As peak board game season approaches, why not ditch the digital, pick up the dice, gather up the Monopoly money and start Trivial Pursuing? Let the games begin!, writes HELEN MCGURK

Christmas is coming, which means many of us can look forward to a post-dinner dust-up over Scrabble as Sherry-infused uncle Bert argues that ‘Qzaxxt’ is ‘‘definitely a word’’.

‘‘Honestly,’ ’ the unscrupulous rogue will contend, ‘‘it’s a type of mineral deposit found in the mountains of Bora Bora. It was just on University Challenge. Look it up if you don’t believe me.’’

We all know an ‘Uncle Bert’, the sort who sneaks a secret squint at his handful of letters, discovers four hard to use Is, then goes back for a double dip.

Worse is cousin Kevin, the smug Scrabble know-it-all, who has memorised all the ludicrous two letter words and wins on ‘zo’ (a cross between a cow and a yak). We all know a ‘Kevin’.

Whether it’s Scrabble, Monopoly, Snakes and Ladders, Operation or Pie Face, board games can be a source of tears, frustration and recrimination, causing even the most placid to lose their (Kerplunk) marbles and resort to the use of coarse Anglo Saxon.

There’s also the chance someone will have to perform the Heimlich manoeuvre on granny after she mistakes a small plastic Monopoly hotel for a Quality Street, but, medical dramas aside, board games are great fun, offering momentary respite from digital overload and an opportunity for friendly warfare.

Stewart Holden, 40, from Newtownabbey has had an interest in board games his whole life.

‘‘I grew up with them as a child and never stopped really.’’

During the 1980s Stewart played Frustration and Ludo, but always had a special tile rack in his heart for Scrabble.

‘‘I played Scrabble from about five or six. When I was at school I found it a really useful for learning and a fun game. Now I have my own children and my son, who is nine, loves playing Scrabble.’’

Just like cute puppies, Stewart believes board games aren’t just for Christmas.

‘‘We play them all year round - either just my wife and I or with the children as well.

‘‘I think board games teach patience and problem solving. It teaches you how to win and also how to lose.

‘‘I think it’s important that children learn how to lose gracefully and not tip the board upside down and storm off in a huff. You do have to accept that when you are playing a game you don’t always win, that’s just the way it is, but it’s still fun to play.’’

And he thinks board games can help reclaim family time, by offering everyone an irresistible offline world.

‘‘We spend so much time on our phones, it’s nice to do something where no one has a phone out or a screen out and you are just sitting there interacting face-to-face.

‘‘A lot of people are saying ‘isn’t it a surprise that board games are so popular’, but whenever we do so much involving screens, computers, phones and everything else, I don’t think it’s a surprise at all that there is a counter movement to that. Even if games change over the decades, the concept of sitting round a table and playing a game with someone you know has remained the same for many years and I think that people like that - it’s a family or friends-orientated thing to do, it’s about social skills and interaction, because there are very few board games that are played in silence.’’

He added: ‘‘It’s nice to play games that are competitive and it’s nice to play games where you sometimes have to collaborate with one or other players to solve a problem together and there’s a bit of a social skills aspect comes into that.’’

Playing games competitively is something Stewart knows all about, for not only was he the 2004 winner of Channel 4’s Countdown, he has also taken part in the World Scrabble Championships three times.

‘‘It’s very, very different to Scrabble with granny at Christmas, it’s a whole different way of playing the game. There’s serious memorising of tens of thousands of words and anagrams and studying the game from a strategic point of view.’’

A highlight of Stewart’s Scrabbling career was at the 2011 World Championships in Warsaw.

‘‘I scored the highest score in any one single game - 694 points, which is an insane level of scoring, but that’s just the way that game went. But the average score at competitive level would be about 350-400 points.’’

In 2013 Stewart published an online Scrabble Players Handbook, (www.scrabbleplayershandbook.com). Over 100,000 copies of the handbook have been downloaded around the world.

‘‘It has also been used as a textbook in schools around the world; in Thailand and Nigeria, in particular, they actually use Scrabble as a language learning tool, which is very pleasing,’’ said Stewart.

A member of the Association of British Scrabble players, Stewart has organised the annual Northern Ireland Scrabble Championships for the last 12 years - an event that attracts around 40 or 50 players from all over Ireland and Britain.

Board games are clearly in Stewart’s blood, he loves them, but just don’t get him started on Monopoly......

‘‘I think Monopoly is one of the worst board games ever created. I absolutely loathe it. It is such a badly designed, boring game. it is everything that board games should not be. It’s just pure luck, there’s very little choice, you just roll a dice and move your piece and that’s it.

‘‘You know probably about one-third of the way through a game who is going to win and then you just have to sit there tediously playing it out - there’s very little opportunity for a comeback; once somebody’s got the properties you’ve just got to sit there until you run out of money and that’s a terrible game - there’s no fun in that at all.’’

Ellie Dix has also been obsessed with board games from an early age, and after teaching and leading a team of school behaviour specialists, she now runs her own board game company, The Dark Imp, and has even written a book, The Board Game Family to highlight the benefits of board games.

She, too, believes board games offer a wealth of benefits.

‘‘It’s easy for parents to get caught up with what needs to be done and forget about having fun together. It’s important for children to see their parents play. Playing should be a normal part of life, for both adults and children.’’

And she said playing games together helps model appropriate behaviour.

‘‘Parents who are humble in victory and cheerful in defeat demonstrate great sportsmanship. Regularly rejoicing in the good fortune or praising clever choices of another player normalises positive attitudes.’’

So, there you have it - as the nights get shorter and there’s not much on telly, why not dig out the Battleships or Cluedo, or enjoy a night on the Scrabble (tiles)?..but probably best not to invite Stewart if you want to avoid a humiliating trouncing.