Enjoy Learning Board Games: 3 Reasons to Play like a Fool

Are new games stressful when the optimal strategy isn’t clear? Does not-knowing come with negative feelings about your own aptitude or character?

I have an approach to learning board games that’s helped me have more fun, and I hope it can help you too.

Play Like An Absolute Fool:

Make The Most Baseline, Impulsive, Low-Hanging-Fruit, Obviously-Noob Decisions Possible

Sometimes you know a strategy is suboptimal, but there’s only one way to figure out why

Sometimes you know a strategy is suboptimal, but there’s only one way to figure out why

Basically… while the goal of most games is to win, that doesn’t have to be your goal for playing - especially if it’s your first time. There are plenty of other goals…

  • See how far a specific strategy or gimmick can take you.

  • See how much you can [responsibly] upset or amuse someone.

  • Play as if you were a character/faction in the game. Only make choices that your character/faction would ‘realistically’ make (ie, roleplay) and see how you’d fare.

  • See what a ‘default idiot’ strategy looks like, so next time you play, you can learn what differentiates it from a thought-out strategy.

Today we’ll explore three reasons to do that last one.

1: You Learn Faster

It may seem like you wouldn’t learn as much by playing like a fool, but by making incredibly short-sighted and baseline decisions, you make a great control group for yourself. You’re free to experiment, you’re free to take risky moves, and you’re generally able to see what the ‘default’ progress looks like before layering on strategy. That way, once you actually do start using strategy in future games, you can compare to your original fool-game to see exactly how good your strategy fares compared to before.

2: Choice Paralysis is Diminished

“I have to choose it because it has ‘log’ in the name”

“I have to choose it because it has ‘log’ in the name”

Usually choice paralysis comes when you’re having trouble calculating the long-term benefits of each option available to you, and you get nervous about doing the inferior option. I acknowledge it’s easier said than done, but if you can relinquish the need to make optimal decisions and become comfortable with just playing ‘to see what happens’, then there is no longer such thing as the right or wrong choice. Instead, they become ‘tested’ and ‘untested’ decisions, and it’s always up to you which one gets tested.

3: Winning Becomes Less of a Worry

Playing like a fool doesn’t mean disregarding the race for victory, but it does shift the ‘point’ of playing. Instead of your decisions revolving around point-optimization, they’ll revolve around heart-listening-optimization. You’re playing to observe the result of your actions, to see what happens, and that somewhat shifts your goal away from winning this specific game in lieu of better teaching you fundamentals for any games you play in the future.

And, since it’s ‘obvious’ to that you’re probably not going to win this specific game by playing in such a way, with that acceptance comes a freedom to enjoy yourself in every other way.

Learning board games is kind of always rough, but nobody is great the first time they play. It’s okay to be suboptimal. My advice is to lean into that, since you won’t know the best strategy anyway, and to spend your first game exploring your options instead of trying to win.

It’s not necessarily an easy transition to becoming a fool, but if you can swing it, I hope you may find yourself feeling just a little less apprehension when someone decides to bust out a new box on board game night.

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Stay lofty!

Life Tip: Reflect on Odds, Not Results

(Disclaimer: this is not a 'simple trick’. It takes time and effort to actively apply this approach, and the difficulty of doing this depends on your own life experiences. Everyone has different goals, too.)

If you want to grow as a person, you need to self-reflect on your behaviour. However, there’s a lot of ways that self-reflection can actually make you drive out of alignment with your goals instead of towards them. Here’s one way to improve your self-analysis skills below - courtesy of JoINrbs, Slay the Spire and online poker.


I often watch JoINrbs play Slay the Spire on YouTube. He comes from a background of online poker, so his approach to the game is very cool. I assume he’s not the first person to focus on odds more than results, but his cross-application of mindset into Slay the Spire inspired me to apply the mindset from there into to real life. I pasted the snappy version above, but here’s a slightly elaborated version of the life tip below:

"When you self-reflect, ponder if you had made the best decision with the info you had -- not whether or not your decision ended up being successful."

How did we get here? Let's start by talking about games, since this is obviously good game advice too.

What builds suspense in pretty much every element in life is when you care about something but are missing crucial information relating to it. And hey - it turns out every challenging game has unknown outcomes everywhere! You don't know if you’re fast enough to hit the ball. You don't know if your enemy has a trap card. You don't know if you’re going to roll something amazing or awful. You don’t know if your teammate is going to pull through or fail.

The problem is that you usually need to make decisions without being 100% sure what the outcome will be. Let’s use a scenario to exemplify this.

- You’re in a room with a fountain.
- You only have 1 health left.
- The only door leads to a room with a difficult boss fight.
- Drinking from the fountain will either:
> heal you to full health (60% chance).
> deal 1 damgae to you (40% chance).
Do you drink?

Let's say you drink from the fountain… and die. The immediate player reaction may be "Jeez, I shouldn't have drank from that fountain."

But... nope, you had still made the right decision! There's no way you could have killed the final boss with only 1 health. Fate/luck didn't go your way this time, but if you found yourself in that situation a second time, it’d still be correct to make that decision again if your goal was to actually slay the boss instead of just making it to the boss room.

Joinrbs frequently explains this concept in Slay the Spire, when he takes what look like "risky" plays such as fighting difficult Elite enemies early on. As he explains it: while fighting hard enemies now increases damage taken in the next fight (therefore looking riskier), it's actually way better odds for beating the game than taking the 'safe' path.

To oversimplify it, you can think about paths A and B.
Path A: 60% chance of surviving this fight, then a 60% chance of beating the game.
Path B: 90% chance of surviving this fight, then a 20% chance of beating the game.
New players, due to lack of experience, can’t exactly predict what the second percentage chance will be for winning, so they naturally gravitate towards the strategy of dealing with the most immediate threats only. To improve, though, you’ll eventually have to shift towards being okay with taking short-term risks.

Q: What does this have to do with the idea of thinking about odds instead of results?
A: It’s easy to self-reflect on a good decision that went wrong, and erroneously think you had made the wrong choice. Usually when this happens, it’s because you had taken an earlier risk that technically had a better overall chance of meeting your goal, but it didn’t pan out this time.

The focus of your self-improvement should be making good decisions under present variables rather than making decisions that would have worked for last time’s variables. The latter informs the former, but they’re not the same.

Anyway, time for real life.
In real life you'll also have to make difficult decisions without a clear outcome. And sometimes… things will really not work out for you. I’m sorry.

“Do I look like a 0-damage boss to you?”

“Do I look like a 0-damage boss to you?”

But what's been useful to me, and hopefully to you too, is to consider all of the information you have at the moment of a decision, and knowing that with the options in front of you, you may have still done the right thing. What matters in self-improvement is optimizing your ability to make judgement calls.

The actual outcome of your choice (ie succeeding or failing) is most useful as a suggestion as to whether or not your original calculation of odds was correct. For example, if the risk you took in your essay or proposal was shot down for a reason you hadn't thought of - it doesn't necessarily mean the risk wasn't worth taking, but rather you had miscalculated the risk in the first place. You can re-calibrate your ability to assess odds, and your ability to execute a strategy. Similarly, if things went great because someone misinterpreted something in your favour, try to have the humility to recognize that you had technically made a sub-optimal choice but lucked out this time.

And, in general, it’s good to know there's always tons and tons of unknowns. You'll kind of always be hit with random stuff that can be accounted for but never circumvented or alleviated. The best you can really do is play the odds, and get better at reading them. Over time, if you're great at self-reflection, you may find that things will start looking just a little more in your favour.

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Stay lofty!

(PS: One important thing to remember is that different goals will change your decisions. For example, the goal of “maximizing your chance of seeing the boss” is different from “maximizing your chance of killing the boss”. Your goal may be to optimize consistency instead of optimizing maximum gain, and that’s just as valid.)