Dealing with Stress: Lessons from a Boardgame

Everyone, including entrepreneurs and the professionals that serve them, has stress.  Things don’t always go as planned.  We worry about the future.  We suffer setbacks, personally and professionally.  The crisis of the day seems overwhelming.  The ability to deal with these stressers, and to keep from becoming overwhelmed, depressed and lethargic, is a critical skill for success.

For me, I draw analogies to different parts of my life, in order to put stress in perspective and push through the pain.  My military career.  My former career as lawyer.  My game playing hobby.

I was introduced to boardgames when I was in 7th grade.  Not the boardgames you can buy at Target or in a toy store, but tabletop games that recreate history or simulate business.  Games like Britannia, in which 4 players recreate the history of Britain from the Roman Invasions to the Norman Invasions.   Games like Medici, in which players bid against each other for cargoes of cloth, fur, and other luxuries to fill their thirteenth century galleys.  Games like Union Pacific, in which players compete to build out the first intercontinental railroad.

This summer, I will attend my 20th World Boardgaming Championships, hosted by the nonprofit Boardgame Players Association.  At the WBC, over 1,500 players from all over the world will gather together for a week to contest these types of games in various tournaments.  As I prepare to travel to Pennsylvania for a week with some good friends, old and new, I wanted to share one lesson from playing games that often helps me keep adversity in perspective and keep moving forward:

You Get New Cards Next Turn.

This will be an esoteric lesson for those of you (ok this will be most of you) that don’t play competitive boardgames.  Let me explain.

One of the games I like best is Mark McLaughlin’s The Napoleonic Wars, published by GMT Games.  This game, where 5 players refight the Napoleonic Wars in some detail, raising armies and fleets and moving them and fighting them across a huge map of Europe, is a “card driven” wargame.  What that means is that, each turn, each player gets a hand of cards.  Each card has a number, 2-5, and an event.  On your turn, you play one card.  You can choose to use the number as “points” to grow troops or move armies across the board.  Or, you can choose to use the event – which might give you additional cards, take cards from other players, add troops, change the allegiance of cities, make or break alliances, etc.

Trust me that this is a great game, and because there are 5 players, all trying to be the sole winner, there are a lot of unexpected events in every game.  You might loose a key battle you thought you would win.  An ally might turn on you, and play a card that hurts you or even join the other side.  The point is that, as in life, you are constantly dealing with the unexpected.   The unfortunate.  And sometimes, you have turn where you have a hand full of 2 point cards, and all seems lost.

But all is not lost.  You get a new hand of cards, every turn.  That next hand might be full of 6 point cards, or contain just the event you need to turn the tide.

Too often, a player who is down or has a bad hand simply gives up.  The player quits trying, and makes unwise moves.  The player gets mad, and throws everything away on revenge.  But it is the player who finds calm in the storm, plays out the bad cards wisely, and waits for that next hand that often snatches victory from the jaws of defeat.

When my hand in life seems full of 2’s, and there are setbacks everywhere, I remind myself that soon, I will get a new hand.  That hand will be better.  That hand will lead to victory.  And unlike The Napoleonic Wars, the game of life doesn’t end after five rounds.  As long as you’re alive, the game goes on.

Deal me in.


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