As I was growing up, we had family game night at least twice a week. We played all sorts of card games and board games, like Stratego, Family Matters, and Cranium. Mom refused to play Monopoly and Risk with my dad and I because our haggling sounded too much like arguing. They’re some of my favorite childhood memories.
That love of games has transferred into my adult years, and luckily we’ve found friends with the same fascination. We’ll lose hours to wonderful games that build worlds of their own.
In my gaming I’ve come across three games in particular, that I believe can strengthen a fiction writer’s skills. The app game, tile game, and card game exercise different skills a writer needs, and I think over time it helps to strengthen those skills.
Flow Free: The App Game
The Flow Free phone and tablet app is a great way to pass the time standing in line or between appointments.
You start with disparate dots on a grid. The grid sizes range from 5×5 to 14×14–the difficulty increases with the size.
You then have to connect all the dots so that no line overlaps, and all lines fit on the board.
This exercise is much like working with several plots and subplots. You start with disparate events and storylines that all have to weave together within the confines of a novel.
The more you play, the more easily you see how the dots will best connect. You’ll start to see paths and patterns before you connect a single dot. This allows you to plot your course before you even begin (much like outlining), which saves a lot of time.
You’ll also learn that when you simply can’t figure out how to fit the pieces together, sometimes the best course of action is to take a step back. When I get stumped on a puzzle–I’ve tried everything I can think of and I still can’t get the lines to flow–I’ll turn off the app and let those lines untangle themselves in the quite of my mind. Very often, a few days later, I’ll open the same puzzle to find the lines coalesce with ease.
Rummikub: The Tile Game
In Rummikub (or Rummy-Q, when I first learned it), 2-4 players each begin with 14 tiles on their board. The object of the game is to get rid of those tiles.
The way to do this is by laying down sets and runs of three or more. Sets of the same number must use tiles of different colors, and runs (3, 4, 5, 6, etc.) must be of the same color.
Here’s where it gets interesting. Once the tiles are on the table, they can be broken up, moved around, and switched in any way imaginable as long as all the tiles are in groups of three once the turn ends.
This can create very long strings of stealing a tile from there so you can break up this set so you can add a seven to that run so you can steal the blue ten so you can… And on and on it can go.
Tracking these long strings in your mind can strengthen your ability to track storylines throughout the length of a novel. What a character says in chapter 3 can affect what s/he does in chapters 7, 9, 12, 25, and so on. The ability to track these strings of cause and effects can save you a great deal of trouble during the editing portion when one change can affect dozens of different places in your story.
Dominion: The Card Game
To set up for Dominion, you must set out several different stacks of cards. Every game begins with three types of money cards (copper, silver, and gold) and three types of property card (estates, duchies, and provinces). Then you choose 10 different action cards at random with which the game will be played. These have titles like Artisan, Bandit, Throne Room, and Merchant and all have different values.
Dominion is a deck-building game. Two to six players start out with 10 cards–7 copper and 3 estates. This is like an initial idea. What they do and how they build that deck differs from there.
The property cards are like backstory. They contain the victory points you need to win the game. Backstory provides important information that help us understand the lies the characters believe and how that influences their current predicament (best explained by Susan May Warren in The Story Equation). But if you add the property cards in too early, they junk up your hand and don’t allow you to move forward. They have to be added in later, at just the right time, to help you win the game without losing any impact.
The money cards are like characters. The more money cards you have–like having more layers to your characters–the more you will be able to accomplish throughout the game. The coppers–the common traits–are easy to come by, but working up to silver and gold is no small feat. It takes careful planning and a little bit of luck to get those bigger cards and those uncommon character traits. But it makes the difference between winning and losing–between engaging and I’ve-seen-that-before.
And the action cards are like, well, action. This adds spice to the game and tension to the novel. Without any the game will lag–and the same can be said for a novel. Action cards give the player special powers that allow the to do more than the original turn limitations. Similarly, action in a novel forces the character to grow in ways they could not had they remained in their original limitations.
Playing Dominion will show you how best layer in these three elements for maximum effect. The more you play, much like the more you write, the more you’ll get a feel for the timing of the game. You’ll notice three distinct periods throughout each game: the opening moves (Act 1), the long middle game (Act 2), and the end game (Act 3). Each game is different, much like each novel, but as you practice, you’ll improve your pacing and strengthen the balance of your novel.
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Have you ever used games to strengthen your skills? What games do you like to play? Any other games I should try? I want to hear from you!