I’m a huge advocate for board games. I believe this hobby has saved my relationship countless times. I’ve also seen it do wonders for many of my clients — those who were already gamers and those who picked up the hobby after our discussions about new ways to connect.
But we’re not talking about the types of games you grew up with. Uno, Scrabble, Skipbo, Trouble, Sorry, Yahtzee, and Monopoly won’t give you these. To get a better idea of what I mean by “board games,” check out my other articles listing my favorite board games for couples and competitive board games for couples.
But back to you. And your relationship. And your time.
How do you normally spend your time together? Most of the couples I work with initially answer that question with screens.
Too much TV, they say.
We’re always on our phones, they despair.
And sometimes I’ll hear: We’re really into this show right now… which actually could be followed up with a never-ending list of shows they have been “really into” for the last however-many-years.
You might be wondering what is so different about playing hours of board games and watching hours of TV.
Well, I’m so glad you asked.
Board games give us a few benefits that I don’t believe exist in many other types of activities that we can do with our partner — or at least not as efficiently.
Oh, and since women are often the ones reading these articles, I’ll throw this one out there: if your partner is really into watching TV, obsessing over sports, playing video games, or they get lost in their phone, board games can help with that!
They’ll keep your partner engaged in a new world (just like with these other activities) but will also create some great connection (and 8 other things) for the two of you.
1. Creates Connection
You probably knew this would be the first thing on the list. How could playing board games save marriages if they didn’t create connection? But let’s think about this connection for a second.
When you’re playing a game with your partner, there are actually three types of connections that are happening simultaneously:
- Up here
- Down there
Are you super confused? I hope so. Keep reading.
Now picture this. We are seated at a table across from each other playing a game. There is a large rectangle of cardboard between us dotted with little wooden pieces, some plastic figurines, and a few piles of cards scattered around us.
We are talking (up here) and we are moving the game pieces around (down there).
Up here (imagine I’m gesturing between our faces), we are connecting as ourselves with new content to talk about. We’re talking about what just happened in the game, what’s about to happen, what happened last time we played, what would be funny if it happened, what would be terrible if it happened. We’re also talking about non-game things — like what happened earlier today, yesterday, tomorrow, last year, and next year.
Down there (imagine I’m gesturing in a circle above the board game itself), we are connecting as characters in a whole new world. As I move my little plastic person closer to your little plastic person and play that one card you didn’t know I had that gives me some extra resources and a sneak attack, we are connecting through competition, playfulness, strategy, and fantasy.
While up here is our normal world and we are our normal selves, down there we have transported into a new life — a fantasy life — where the rules are different, our strengths change by the minute, and it turns out we have a lot to learn about each other.
Then there’s also the inside connection.
Inside (imagine I’m gesturing to our bodies), we are connecting physiologically as our bodies release oxytocin and dopamine through the pleasure of playing games together. As we engage in board games, our brains are creating and releasing oxytocin that promotes bonding, empathy, trust, and sexual attraction. Oxytocin is so effective at helping us connect with our partner that it is often referred to as “the love hormone.” Board games are of course not the only thing that creates oxytocin (sex, exercise, and breastfeeding do, too).
And in case you were wondering, board games actually have clinical data behind them illustrating their release of oxytocin! While this study about oxytocin and board games showed a link and benefit, the men in the couples actually produced more oxytocin through painting instead of board games.
Maybe this is why my partner and I enjoy painting miniatures for our board games!
Board games also release dopamine, which is the hormone that gets released when we’re being creative. It activates the pleasure center of our brain and helps us feel less stressed and more fulfilled.
If we’re talking about gaming, this can happen through video games too… but board games (being low-tech and tactile) might do it even better! Plus they allow more opportunity for creativity through not just the game itself, but through that “up here” connection with our partner.
So there you have it! Playing board games will help you and your partner connect in all the ways you’re familiar, in new ways you’ve never tried, and through physiological cuddle hormones — in case you aren’t in the mood for sex!
2. Simulates Early Dating
No matter how long ago your early courtship was, you probably remember it being pretty special. After all, there’s a reason why you ended up partnered with this person.
In the beginning of our dating days, learning new things about our partner and watching them interact with the world around them can be intoxicating. We love seeing them solve problems, be creative, get a little risky, and surprise us.
Over months, years, and decades of a relationship or marriage, we sometimes lose the opportunity to witness all of these parts of our special someone. Over time, we create routine and familiarity in our relationship and our lives that is necessary for so many parts of stable and successful long-term marriages.
However, this routine allows only a small part of ourselves to interact with each other.
Board games facilitate more witness and interaction with all of those wonderful parts we originally fell in love with. While we play, we get to see parts of ourselves and our partner that we don’t get to see in daily life.
We learn new things about each other as we’re put into new situations and the excitement can breed a real increase in attraction as we’re suddenly reminded that there’s a funny, creative, critical thinking person who just happens to also sleep next to us, do the dishes, and help find matching shoes for the kids.
Seeing your partner interact with the board game in new ways allows you to interact with your partner in new ways.
It’s really pretty magical.
3. Intellectually Stimulating
If I had a nickel for every time I heard a client tell me they wish they had “deeper conversations” together…
I think one of the hardest things about long-term relationships is the perceived loss of novelty and intrigue. In the beginning, we have an abundance of deep conversations.
In a way, everything is deep because it’s new and we are little sponges, soaking up all the information this gorgeous human in front of us is telling us.
Oftentimes, these early conversations include a lot of intellectual stimulation. We love to hear how this person’s mind works (usually in such beautifully unique ways from ours — which will later come to annoy us) and we crave hearing their thoughts and opinions on everything from how they feel about invasive species to their thoughts on censorship and beyond.
But over time, we step into familiar roles and routine with our partner. We live in what feels like an alternate Groundhog Day universe (sans Bill Murray) where each morning, afternoon, and evening feel similar.
When this happens, most “deep conversations” get left behind. Intellectual stimulation is reserved for the workplace and our professional personas. Our relationship gets only the leftovers from our exciting life outside the house — or in the other room, during a pandemic scenario.
Board games create the opportunity for “deeper” with little effort. You want intellectual stimulation? You got it. Critical thinking? Problem solving? All here. Each game can be like a lively puzzle that keeps you and your partner on your toes until the end. You’ll pull out parts of your brain you haven’t used together in a long time — or maybe ever!
Games also allow you to explore interesting themes. When we think of “board games,” we usually think of something boring like Monopoly or Life. Tsk tsk, my friend. You have so much to learn!
Imagine seeing how many wildly colored cats you can fit onto a boat.
Wandering through a dreamscape as the board shifts and changes around you.
Building cities and trying to keep your factories away from the houses.
Collecting birds to develop a unique (and accurate) ecosystem.
Managing a community of tiny forest creatures all trying to conquer the land.
Battling Sherlock Holmes against Dracula in a duel to the death.
Each of these new themes provides hours of new conversation. New deep conversation. Conversation you never would have considered had you not started playing these silly addictive board games.
Oh, and in case you’re not convinced, the critical thinking skills you’ll use in board gaming won’t just improve your relationship — those skills will also reduce your risk of Alzheimer’s and other mild cognitive impairment in later years.
4. Creates Playfulness
We aren’t even halfway there and I bet you’re already eager to start researching some games. Don’t worry, I’ve put together a list for you of my top board games for couples to get you started.
Now onto the fun part: the playing itself. This is why you really want to game, right?
Board games create an abundance of play — something most relationships don’t do nearly enough. Playfulness is hugely important for relationships. It not only brings us joy and relieves our stress, but it also is directly linked to sexual satisfaction in relationships. Playfulness (both playful touch and playful energy) help to create and sustain desire for sex.
But this article isn’t about that. Get your head in the game! (Get it? Nudge nudge.)
As you’re playing a board game, you’ll also likely find yourself laughing and teasing through your friendly competition. But of course, this competition is meaningless. So even if you get lost in all those fun themes I mentioned earlier, you’ll still need to shrug it off and be okay with losing sometimes.
Or, if you’re like me, tell your partner “asterisk” for anytime they win and you didn’t fully understand the game — just so everyone can pretend you probably would have won if everything was fair and equal. This always brings us some laughs and lightens the mood if it was a tense ending.
Now, this “ability to lose” thing is pretty important. While the rule is a little fuzzy here, it still stands: there is no winning and losing in relationships. If someone wins, you both lose. It’s true in fights and it’s often true in games (at least if you rub it in).
If you win, make sure to keep it fun for your partner. We don’t all handle losing very well.
5. Breaks Routine
I said it earlier, I’ll say it again. Long-term relationships end up in a holding pattern sometimes. Groundhog Day. Wake up, do the day, go to sleep, repeat.
Now don’t get me wrong. Routines can be really effective for us in creating intentionality in our relationship and allowing space for us to prioritize our relationship — if done well.
But most couples end up in a routine that is more autopilot than helpful. Their routines aren’t intentional, meaningful, or values-based. They aren’t prioritizing each other and their marriage, they’re just getting through the day.
Playing board games breaks up this routine. It shakes us out of our autopilot. It removes us from Groundhog Day and temporarily places us into another world — and probably a more exciting one.
This not only creates a new and exciting way for us to interact together but also helps us be more grateful and awake in our daily routine when we return to it.
6. Creates Ritual
You might feel like creating ritual is the same as breaking routine — or maybe you think I’m contradicting myself. These are very different.
Ritual is a ceremony. When we engage in ritual, it creates meaning and marks something as special and important. John Gottman, of the Gottman Institute, talks a lot about how important rituals of connection are for couples in helping to create shared meaning and connection.
There are a million ways to create ritual in your marriage. This is only one of them.
You might be wondering where the ritual in playing board games is if every time you play a game it is supposed to be so different. Four words: Set-up and tear-down.
To illustrate, I’ll give you a sneak peak into my own world. My partner and I have some great gaming rituals.
- Set-Up: This ritual takes place after the kids are asleep. Our game set-up involves turning the lights up (they were dim from bedtime), clearing the dining room table (or sometimes coffee table), arranging the board and components, grabbing lap blankets, preparing tea and a snack, and turning on some music for the background.
- Tear-Down: This ritual takes place after we have both “won” and are walking away from the game with more love and connection — or technically one of us won and the other still feels like it was a blast. Our game tear-down involves packing away the box (sometimes quite a feat), putting away our used dishes, turning down the lights, and talking about the game as we get ready for bed.
These rituals are important because they train us.
For a while, we were making these delicious gluten free chocolate chip cookies every night while we gamed — 2 or 3 for each of us, with a giant glass of milk that we shared. Our bodies became so trained to the “beep” sound of the oven preheating that if I heard this beep, I instantly felt more connected to my partner.
I also craved some milk.
If you can train your body and brain to recognize rituals as connecting, you can sometimes put less work or time into them and it will turn out okay. My partner and I don’t need to play a two-hour board game to feel connected; the ritual of set-up and tear-down works even if we play a shorter 20-minute game.
Every time we engage in these rituals, they are part of the larger picture of connection.
7. Offers Variety
Now I know I just said ritual is important, but variety is too. The main reason I’m not a fan of most of the board and card games people have heard of (like Scrabble, Uno, and Catan) is that they don’t offer enough variety.
If I’m investing $30-$80 into a board game, I want it to have a certain amount of replayability. I want it to keep my attention and captivate me. The problem with most games is that they either don’t have replayability or they aren’t very well designed for two-players. This means they aren’t competitive or interactive enough.
When you look at some of what I think are the best two-player board games, you’ll notice there is a ton of variety.
If you have only one game, you can still get variety from the replayability — meaning the game changes and randomizes enough between each time you play that it surprises you and feels fresh.
While you can certainly have a lively gaming evening life with only one game, I recommend having more than one (to suit different moods and needs).
Through having multiple games, you’ll gain variety in theme, length of play time, types of components (cards, chips, dice, etc.), and personal skills utilized in playing.
Recently, we introduced a friend and her husband to a game called Unmatched. At first, they seemed to begrudgingly play (my partner sort of forced them into learning it while I entertained the kids). After one full play-through, they were hooked and we ran to Fanfare, our local game store, for a copy to send home with them.
A few weeks later, I heard from my friend that her husband was obsessed with the game! For the first time in a long time, they spent their evenings with the TV off and their phones closed — other than a proud selfie of them being geeky gamers.
If you’re needing some variety in your evenings, board games have your back.
8. Engages and Captivates Our Attention (Tactile and Visual)
We haven’t even talked about the best parts of board games yet: all the components!
Hopefully by now you’re realizing that when I’m talking about board games, I’m not talking about the ones you played growing up. While Scrabble, Backgammon, and Yahtzee can be fun, they won’t give you all the benefits we are talking about here. Each time you play, it feels virtually the same (no variety), they aren’t very intellectually stimulating in terms of creating more conversation between the two of you, and they aren’t typically that engaging.
The board games I’m talking about are engaging and captivating on a whole new level. Here’s what I mean.
Our current world is full of static energy. We sit for so many things — and we observe. We sit and observe TV (perhaps for many hours on end), we sit and observe YouTube videos, we sit and observe through audio with podcasts. We sit and we sit and we sit.
Sitting is fine in small doses. After all, I sit for work all the time! (Although I’m considering moving to a standing desk for virtual sessions… do you think anyone will notice?)
When we sit and observe, our body often becomes bored. This is especially true for people with ADHD or addictions; they do a lot of fidgeting.
This fidgeting translates into relationships in some harmful ways. Instead of sitting for a show together, we are also browsing on our phones to keep our hands busy. And for some reason, every couple I’ve ever talked to tells me that this just doesn’t feel very connecting.
Board games with different components keep our hands occupied. You may typically think of scraps of paper, little plastic figurines or wooden pieces, or dice as components. But there is so much more! Poker chips have even become a big part of new gaming components in recent years.
But the best part about components is when there’s variety. It creates a lot of tactile and visual pleasure to have different pieces in front of you to hold and maneuver around. With video games, technically you’re holding your controller and maneuvering the joystick or pressing buttons. This tactile participation probably is part of what captures many people with ADHD or addictions because it plays into their need for stimulation and movement.
Board games can do this even better! Between holding and playing cards, moving and collecting plastic or wooden pieces, and rolling dice, your hands stay engaged — and so does your mind.
Which means when you’re here playing a board game, you’re really here.
9. Begins and Ends
Have you noticed yet that I’m not a fan of endless TV watching for relationships? One of the reasons for this is that it does seem truly endless.
Most of us watch TV shows and movies through streaming channels these days. Sometimes we even brag about how many we are subscribed to. I can watch ANYTHING! Which really turns into: I can watch EVERYTHING!
And you will.
These streaming channels feel like the bane of my existence sometimes. Not only did they recently put my beloved local Family Video out of business, but they also literally never end.
For most of them, the next show or movie will begin within 5-10 seconds if you don’t exit the screen fast enough — a reaction time not all of us have if we can’t even find the remote. This setting can be changed but most of the platforms require you to go to a desktop browser to access and change the setting. I think most people don’t bother to monkey with it.
But what happens when you don’t change that setting? What happens when the shows keep on playing? They never end — that’s what happens.
Video games work in the same way. There’s always a reason why you must keep playing. Maybe until the next saving point, or until this match is over, or until you beat the campaign.
But the addictive nature of video games encourages you to just keep on keeping on.
Won the last one? Play another because you’re riding the high (literally, with all those dopamine hits).
Lost the last one? Play another so you can get your score back up.
Beat the game? Go back through to do all the extra quests that give you end-of-game content — which are technically meaningless but create a strong dopamine response in the brain, trigger feels of success and competence, and sometimes create community with other players.
See what I mean? They never end.
The problem with never ending is that there isn’t an opportunity for different. If you and your partner decide to watch TV for the evening, that’s all you’ll do — likely until you decide to go brush your teeth and get in bed. For most couples, this “endless” TV binge usually ends too late to connect in a meaningful way after.
In my own home, video games are far more troubling than TV streaming. If my partner chooses to play a video game after the kids go to bed, I know he’s likely out for the count and I can see him tomorrow. One game will turn into six and I’ll end up in bed long before he turns off the console.
The worst part is he won’t even notice that we didn’t spend time together that evening.
Board games are very different from this. They don’t go on forever. Remember those rituals we talked about? The set-up and tear-down rituals exist every time.
Meaning every time you play, you get to start and end.
This starting and ending is essential in encouraging us to connect in new and more meaningful ways. When a board game ends, we’ve played for 20-120 minutes and now it’s done. Because the game draws to a close naturally and then engages us in the tear-down ritual, we suddenly face a transition time between activities.
Transition time is important and helpful because it acts as another opportunity to consciously choose. When Netflix, Amazon, Hulu, or Disney+ continue playing and skipping our choice to transition to the next show or not, they are robbing us of our opportunity to choose.
In these times of transition, whether it be after a board game or after a TV show, we get to be conscious consumers for our relationship and ourselves again. We get to be the boss of our life and decide how we will spend the next hour.
This choice is available (with some setting changes) through video streaming but it is far more accessible with board gaming, where we don’t have to make the choice to have a choice — it is just handed to us.
Board Games During the Pandemic
So there you have it. Nine amazing ways that board gaming can create more happiness, fun, and connection in your relationship — as well as lessen your own stress! And if you were curious, board games in the pandemic year of 2020 became incredibly popular! Kickstarter, a crowd-funding platform that offers some great new board games (and oftentimes some very high-quality components), had a record-breaking month with board games mid-COVID.
Oh, and just so you know, your friendships (or long-distance relationships) can also benefit from board games! Board Game Arena hugely improved and expanded their collection of online board games and tabletop games. They now offer 270 games you can play online from afar — for FREE! If you’re missing getting together with friends, try a virtual board game night!