The Hideout: why board games matter

Rab Florence on reinventing the rulebook every time you play.

In Umberto Eco's brilliant Foucault's Pendulum, we watch as characters play with global conspiracy theory and occultism as a satirical, intellectual game. This game leads the characters down a dark path, but we understand completely why that path is worth following. Games are important. They are important when we're children, and then we forget how important they are for a while as we chase adult pleasures. Then we recognise that those too were games, of a sort, and having won and lost and won and lost we return to more obvious and literal games. Ones we can play on our TVs and place on our tables. Ones that hurt less when we fail.

Increasingly, for people of my generation, the games we are playing are on tables. When I started playing board games regularly about five years ago, it seemed that no-one else in the country was doing it. I'd just finished an exhausting and stressful TV show that saw me reviewing one or more video games every episode, and those video games had all merged into one violent, brown, ugly whole. I was completely and utterly numbed by them. I'd had enough. I wanted to play a different kind of game. After hunting down all the great board games of my youth (Space Hulk, HeroQuest, Warhammer Quest) I flung myself into an online community to find out what board games were out there right now. There was no flesh and blood person I could speak to about board games at that point. I had to type words at strangers in Baltimore or Ontario or Berlin. I had to seek out little points of light, distant illuminated tables, wherever I could find them. The scene, over here in the UK at least, was as good as dead.

But that's all changed. And I think I know why.

The saviour of video games, over the last few years, has been the growth of the indie sector. Those little points of digital light have grown and massed into something bright and warming. We see innovation on a weekly basis. There's always something new, and usually that something new has something new within it. These games, from tiny teams of creators, even make us question what games are. While the big-budget blockbusters remain risk-averse and repetitive, the indie sector zigs and zags and experiments with the form.

When you've played computer and video games for 30 years, as I have, the indie sector's vigour is an essential thing. It keeps us from getting jaded. It's starting to steal headlines too, simply because quality is difficult to ignore. There are no big marketing budgets or PR flim-flam in indie gaming – it's just become embarrassing for major gaming news sources to not talk about what's happening. The indie sector never really went away, but these days it feels like it's “in”, like it's maybe the only part of the industry that genuinely matters. Only ten years ago we would talk about how the “bedroom coder” was a thing of the past. We were wrong. We just hadn't tired enough of the living room entertainment yet to start checking in all those bedrooms. Just like in MTV Cribs, the bedroom is where the magic happens.

It's the magic of innovation that leads us to board games. I've spoken many times before about the emotional benefits of board games. Spending time with people you love, playing at a table, communicating? That's all essential stuff in this age of social networking. But I think the main reason why so many video gamers have started board gaming is that it feels like board games are part of the whole indie movement. Look, almost every board game is an indie game. Most board games are created by one person, and that one person is trying to come up with new ideas, or new spins on old ones. When you have a question about some element of the game, you can often just ask the designer. He'll be on Twitter or something, probably, and will be happy to have you pestering him about a rule clarification. The creator is a human being, not some corporate machine. The indie sector, in video gaming and board gaming, is full of people who are doing what they do for the love of play. Are they making fortunes? No. They're just people like us, who know that games are important. They're the types who understand characters like Eco's imperilled Foucault's Pendulum trio. They would follow that path with them, with us, because hey, this is fun. Games are worth it, whatever the cost.

For children, it's never just about “Will we play today?” It's about “What will we play today?” It's about being stimulated intellectually, and revelling in the creativity of the games they invent. Children rarely play the same game two days in a row. They don't spend entire summers as the same bald, grunting space marine, shooting his way through waves of endlessly re-spawning enemies. They don't spend every single day fighting over who gets to be the main nameless soldier dude in that helicopter full of nameless soldier dudes who are about to land in that nameless Middle Eastern country again. They tweak their games up, change them and introduce new mechanics. It might seem odd to say that your 6-year-olds are creating new game mechanics when they're out in your back garden, but it's true. The minute they ask for a password to the secret hideout, a new mechanic is in the rulebook.

And that's just the thing. Board games, and indie video games, are always changing the password to the hideout. And it's exactly why you should want in.

Archipelago, one of many hugely inventive board games released in the last five years. Photograph: Ludically

Robert Florence is a writer and comedian, and the co-creator of Consolvania and the BBC's Burnistoun. He writes a weekly column on board gaming for Rock, Paper, Shotgun.

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“I see the world in rectangles”: Life as a Lego Master Builder

Nathan Sawaya stunned colleagues when he quit his job as a lawyer to play with Lego full-time. Now everyone from Lady Gaga to Barack Obama’s a fan.

Nathan Sawaya is describing his favourite Lego brick, shiny-eyed and grinning at the thought of it. But he’s not a child proudly displaying a beloved toy. He’s a 43-year-old former corporate lawyer, and well over six foot tall. The brick he is evangelising about is a small 1x2 socket plate with a stud in the centre of its top. He calls this a “Jumper”.

“You know your Lego lingo?” he asks, looking crestfallen when I shake my head. “It has only one stud instead of two, and it allows you to do even more detail because you can offset the brick a little bit. But in general, I focus on the rectangular pieces.”


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Sawaya is one of the world’s eight Lego Master Builders, having left his job at a New York law firm when he was 32 to dedicate his life to building Lego constructions full-time. His most striking works include a torso of a man ripping his chest open with bricks spilling out, called Yellow, a lifesize T-Rex skeleton, a two-metre long model of Brooklyn Bridge, and replicas of famous paintings, including the Mona Lisa, and Edvard Munch’s Scream.

I meet him in a dark exhibition space in a tent on London’s Southbank, where his works are lit up around us. His latest constructions consist of a series of DC Comics superheroes, so we are surrounded by expressionless Supermen flying around us, capes realistically rippling, and a full-size Batmobile with glistening batwings. His boyish eagerness aside, Sawaya himself looks like a comic book villain – a hulking figure dressed in black from top to toe, with a long black overcoat, piercing eyes and thick dark hair.


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Back in his early thirties when he was a lawyer, he would come home after a punishing day at work and do something creative – drawing, painting, sculpting with clay and wire. He soon began to experiment with Lego, constructing models out of sets he had lying around the house. His son, now 17, was never particularly interested in playing with it himself.

“Eventually I made the choice to leave the law firm behind and become a full-time artist who plays with toys,” he beams.

His family was supportive, his colleagues jealous, and his bosses confused – but it wasn’t long until Sawaya found success as a Lego artist. He has had exhibitions of his work on every continent but Antarctica, and gained some high-profile fans. When he was US President, Barack Obama posed with one of his installations – monochrome life-size men sitting on park benches in Washington – and Bill Clinton has a sculpture in his office, as does Lady Gaga in a music video.

“That is the magic of Lego,” he says of his popularity. “It has become a universal language in a way.”


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Sawaya’s Master Builder status means he can buy all his bricks directly from Lego in bulk – not possible for us Lego civilians. He used to buy sets in toy shops and on eBay when starting out; now he can email asking for 500,000 red 2x4 bricks, say, and Lego ships them to him on wooden pallets. He has six million bricks on hand at his studio in Los Angeles. “Millions of each colour and shape and size,” he says. “And they’re all organised by shape and colour.”

He works away for hours at a time in his studio, with his dogs obediently at his feet, in what he describes as a “trance”. He plans designs on special “brick paper” like graph paper, but sometimes he free-builds from his imagination. “I do often see the world in rectangles,” he says, and sometimes he even dreams in bricks.

Just like children do with Lego sets, he simply snaps the bricks together – though he does dab glue between each brick, which triples the time it takes. He describes it as “therapeutic”, but says making a mistake can be “heartbreaking” – he can lose days and weeks of work at a time. “There may be times where I start questioning my choices in life,” he smiles.


Photos: Copyright Jane Hobson

Sawaya faced snobbery from the art world when he first began approaching galleries as a Lego artist. “Oh, is that cars and trucks and little castles?” was the response. He feels it’s now a more acceptable medium. “It makes art accessible,” he says. “And in doing that, it democratises the art world a bit. It allows people to relate to the art. Everyone has snapped a brick together at one point, every child has played a little bit with Lego.

“As an artist, my role is to inspire. And what better way to do it than through a medium everyone is familiar with? If someone sees a marble statue, they can appreciate it, but very few people have marble at home they can chip away at.”

The first Lego creation Sawaya can remember making was a little house, when he was first given the toy at the age of five. He then made a city that grew to 36 square feet. When he was ten, he was desperate for a dog. His parents refused, so he tore all his creations down and built a lifesize one. “It was blocky and very multi-coloured, of course,” he says. “But it was that ‘Aha!’ moment – when I realised it doesn’t have to be on the front of the box. It can be whatever I want.”

The Art of the Brick: DC Super Heroes is on at Upper Ground, Southbank, London, until 3 September 2017.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

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