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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The Wood Wide Web: the world of trees underneath the surface

Mycorrhizal networks, better known as the Wood Wide Web, have allowed scientists to understand the social networks formed by trees underground.

In 1854, Henry David Thoreau published Walden, an extensive rumination on his two years, two months and two days spent in a cabin in the woodlands near Walden Pond. It was situated on a plot of land owned by his friend, mentor and noted transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson.

Thoreau’s escape from the city was a self-imposed experiment - one which sought to find peace and harmony through a minimalistic, simple way of living amongst nature. Voicing his reasons for embarking on the rural getaway, Thoreau said, “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life.”

Walden cemented Thoreau’s reputation as a key figure in naturalism; his reflections have since been studied, his practices meticulously replicated. But in the knowledge that Thoreau’s excursion into the woods was a means to better understand how to integrate into society, curious minds are left to wonder what essays and aphorisms Thoreau would have produced had he known what the botanists of today know of nature’s very own societal networks.

As scientists have now discovered, what lies beneath the ground Thoreau walked upon, and indeed beneath the ground anyone walks upon when near trees, is perhaps the most storied history and study of collaborative society in something which is now known as the mycorrhizal network or the “Wood Wide Web”.

Coined by the journal Nature, the term Wood Wide Web has come to describe the complex mass of interactions between trees and their microbial counterparts underneath the soil. Spend enough time among trees and you may get a sense that they have been around for centuries, standing tall and sturdy, self-sufficient and independent. But anchoring trees and forestry everywhere, and therefore enjoining them into an almost singular superoganism, is a very intimate relationship between their roots and microbes called mycorrhizal fungi.

Understanding the relationship between the roots of trees and mycorrhizal fungi has completely shifted the way we think about the world underneath them. Once thought to be harmful, mycorrhizal fungi are now known to have a bond of mutualism with the roots – a symbiotic connection from which both parties benefit.

Despite the discovery being a recent one, the link between the two goes as far back as 450 million years. A pinch of soil can hold up to seven miles worth of coiled, tubular, thread-like fungi. The fungi release tubes called hyphae which infiltrate the soil and roots in a non-invasive way, creating a tie between tree and fungus at a cellular level. It is this bond which is called mycorrhiza. As a result, plants 20m away from each other can be connected in the same way as plants connected 200 metres away; a hyphal network forms which brings the organisms into connection.

At the heart of the mutualistic relationship is an exchange; the fungi have minerals which the tree needs, and the trees have carbon (which is essentially food) which the fungi need. The trees receive nitrogen for things such as lignin – a component which keep the trees upright, and various other minerals such as phosphorus, magnesium, calcium, copper and more. In return, fungi get the sugars they need from the trees’ ongoing photosynthesis to energise their activities and build their bodies. The connection runs so deep that 20-80% of a tree’s sugar can be transferred to the fungi, while the transfer of nitrogen to trees is such that without the swap, trees would be toy-sized.

It’s a bond that has resulted in some remarkable phenomena. Suzanne Simard, an ecologist at the University of British Columbia, has researched into these back and forth exchanges and has found that rather than competing against one another as often assumed, there is a sort of teamwork between the trees facilitated by the mycorrhizal fungi.

In one particular example, Simard looked at a Douglas fir tree planted next to a birch tree. Upon taking the birch tree out, there was a completely unexpected result: the fir tree – instead of prospering from the reduced competition for sunlight – began to decay and die. The trees were connected underground via the mycorrhizal system, transferring carbon, nitrogen and water to one another, communicating underground, talking to each other. As Simard says in her TED talk, “it might remind you of a sort of intelligence.”

It has been documented that trees share food not just with trees of the same species, but with trees of all kinds of species, forming a social network which some have come to describe as a socialist system. Growth rates are positively affected while seedlings face greater chances of survival. There is in fact a group of plants – the mycoheterotrophic plants of which there are around 400 species – which wouldn’t survive without the mycorrhizal network. These plants are unable to photosynthesise and are therefore heavily dependent on other plants for carbon and minerals.

Over the years, Thoreau has had his fair share of critics who deemed his trip to the woods nothing more than an exercise in self-indulgence and narcissism. Perhaps if Thoreau had the chance to head back to Walden Pond with the knowledge of the Wood Wide Web at hand, he would fully understand that no one man is an island, as no one tree is a forest.