It can be hard to navigate the social world. But board games can help us to develop new friendships.

Part of the reason that meeting new people can be difficult is the fear of not knowing what to say. Making light and pleasant conversation with people you’ve never met before is a skill that feels unachievable to some. Many people hate having to make smalltalk. Others don’t even know where to start. Board games require no smalltalk. Talk immediately revolves around the game – the theme, the rules, the set up, the components, the mechanics, other similar games – not around the individuals at the table. 

When playing a game with new people, nobody feels the need to make random conversation. Most tabletop games require some degree of concentration, so it is not unusual to have periods of silence while you play. In a game-playing context, silences aren’t awkward but natural. 

As there is never the need to make smalltalk, when players do ask each other non-gaming questions, it is much more likely that it is because they are actually interested in the answer. Friendships can develop more naturally when there is no pressure to fill air space.

For people that struggle in social situations, the structure of game-playing can help them to relax and connect. Everybody’s focus is on the game, rather than on individual people. The parameters for success within a board game are explicit and comprehendible. There is a rule-set in which to operate. Players follow a clearly-defined framework. The framework outlines an individual player’s turn, a whole round and the overall arc of the game. This clarity can help people to relax and feel calm. The anxiety that might accompany attending a free-flowing, unstructured gathering, may lessen or disappear when playing board games.

Board games provide us with instant shared experiences. Play a quick 10-minute card game (like Bohnanza) and 10 minutes into meeting new people you have a common shared experience. Play another few times and ‘in jokes’ start to develop when phrases and comments are repeated each time a certain card is played. When you meet someone again that you’ve previously played a game with, you have a shared experience. Something that can start a conversation or perhaps lead to another game.

I have many game-playing friends that I know very little about. We mainly talk about games, puzzles, game design and game events. Sometimes we talk about other things, but often we don’t. These are people that I have become close to. I know odd, disconnected snippets about their lives, but a fuller picture could take years to build up. The thing is, I don’t need to know many facts about these people, because playing games with them tells me all I need to know. 

Through board games I know how they behave when they win, when they lose, when they don’t understand the rules, when someone winds them up and when a plan doesn’t quite come together. I have seen their patience, their creativity, their humility and their wit. I have felt their support, their kindness and their enthusiasm. Tabletop games provide a special shared activity through which we can connect to others, strengthen relationships and ultimately provide a space where we feel like we belong. 

Playing board games with our children not only strengthens our family relationships, but gives them a gateway into a hobby that will help them forge and develop new friendships their entire lives.