Navigating Board Game Anxiety at Christmas

Sweaty palms, feeling nauseous, shortness of breath, intrusive thoughts of making a fool of yourself. Sound familiar?

By Chloe Still

Chloe is a writer, mental health professional and well-being practitioner, as well as being the owner and creative force behind Mental Health Magic. In her spare time, Chloe can be found covered in small dogs, dinosaurs and/or glitter.

The latest example of this being the DNA testing of our rescue dog, Eliza. This has now turned into ‘Guess Eliza’s Breed!’ with a Christmas unveiling of the results and a prize for the winner. My stepbrother, Robbie, has put down ‘Lion’ and ‘Ostrich’ as his first two guesses… I think I’m in with a chance.

According to The Telegraph, this year family board games are set for a “Christmas comeback”, with a 30% increase in sales. Impressive! To be honest, they never really went away in our family; but then again, we are particularly competitive.

As much as the intention might be harmless fun, bringing out board games at Christmas seems to be a very emotive subject and not just in terms of bad losers. More concerning than that, many people report a genuine experience of anxiety in connection with playing games at gatherings.

Love Letter is a fantastic christmas stocking filler

Sweaty palms, feeling nauseous, shortness of breath, intrusive thoughts of making a fool of yourself or saying the wrong thing, a sudden and inexplicable urge to make the next round of drinks or help with the washing-up. Sound familiar?

I definitely fall in the category of suffering with board game anxiety. If I’ve got my people there (close family and friends), I’m generally ok, but put me with people I don’t know that well or ask me to participate in something that involves some level of performance and I’m a mess - inside, that is. I’ve practiced the art of coming across as calm and confident for years, so in most cases you wouldn’t realise that inside I’m dying. Oh, and that time I gave the wrong answer 4 years ago? Well I often think about that at night when I can’t sleep. Yup.

Socially anxious, unite! (Or, wave awkwardly and then regret it).

Ironically, though, participating in activities such as board games and card games can be really great for boosting confidence, raising self-esteem and easing social anxiety. I don’t think it’s unfair to say that sometimes those that are a little more socially awkward and/or anxious actually enjoy board games the most; I’m definitely one of them.

If more families are planning on getting their board game on this Christmas, to both the delight and horror of those involved, and we know that those who struggle with joining in might actually find their mental health improves as a result, how can we navigate this?

I spoke to various colleagues, friends and family members about this issue. A lot of what they had to say was similar in nature, which is encouraging. I’ve also used board games therapeutically in different mental health settings. Often, we couldn’t get our highly anxious, introverted adolescent service users to say more than two words in front of a group of people, however whack out one of their favourite games and you had to ask them to tone it down! Amazing!

Here’s a round-up of advice and recommendations from those who have experienced board game anxiety personally, as well as professionally:

1. Do Your Research

If you’re the host, make sure you know about the games you have on offer. That way, you can tailor to your audience, avoiding anything that makes people uncomfortable. You can also then answer any questions before you begin. Try not to subject any anxious guests to the unknown; it’s the worst!

If you’re the guest, it won’t do any harm to know a bit about board games yourself. If you know what sort of games you like and dislike, you’ll be able to help the host find something you feel able to engage in. If testing games yourself isn’t something you want to do, try looking at others’ reviews of popular or recent titles – the general public are more likely to give you an honest opinion than the back of the box.

2. It’s All About Choices

Don’t get me wrong, too much choice can be very overwhelming for someone who suffers with anxiety. I’m not suggesting the kind of choice where you have ten board games stacked up in a pile and ask someone to select one (‘What if I choose the wrong one?’ ‘What if everyone hates playing it?’ ‘What if I knock the pile over?!’)

What I am suggesting, however, is making choice available, encouraged and ok.

If you’re the host, have a think about how you can incorporate choice into the gaming section of your gathering. Preferably more than playing vs not playing, as being the only one sitting out can be equally anxiety-provoking. Choice of game type, each with a different participation style, is a good start, or how about an alternate activity for those who don’t wish to join in? A colleague of mine told me that at Christmas their family usually organises a walk for those who don’t want to play instead, which I thought was a nice idea.

3. Offer A Neutral Role

Whilst we’re talking about choice, how about offering someone a role where they are still involved in the game, but in a non-player way; like ‘the banker’ in Monopoly. You could even assign your own role; being in charge of the timer, settling any disputes, snack monitor, DJ; it’s up to you! It doesn’t even need to be a ‘real’ role, just a way to extend the offer of participation to someone who doesn’t feel up to playing.

Some games also offer a role to people who want to be involved but not in the competition itself - a lot of quiz games for example will suggest that teams ask questions to each other, but it’s often more enjoyable for everyone if a player is eager to be a quiz master, instead.

4. Respect The Word ‘No’

As well as just being sound life advice, this is an important one for gamers, too. A little encouragement towards an unwilling participant is fine, it might even help them join in. However, winging on and on at someone who has said they don’t want to play is only going to make them not want to play even more. You never know who might be suffering with anxiety, so someone turning down the offer of a board game might be due to their mental health difficulty, rather than them being grumpy/boring/a spoilsport/ (being grumpy is allowed too, though, even at Christmas!)

As a good friend of mine put it, “Don’t berate yourself if it’s not your thing! Not everyone cooks the turkey and not everyone plays games!” Truth!

5. Find An Ally

Another great suggestion from a colleague was to pair up with someone who doesn’t mind doing the scary stuff. So, get them to do the drawing in Pictionary or even the miming in Charades.

If there’s someone at the gathering that you know quite well, maybe have a chat with them beforehand to let them know how you feel. That way, they can have your back. You could arrange with them to play as a pair, even in single-player games. If you’re the host and someone requests this, be mindful – they may be trying to find a way they feel able to join in, rather than being difficult.

Telestrations is just as much fun to watch as it is to play

Any trivia style games can work well for this of course, as two brains are better than one. Many other games can be played in a team as well, providing both players are happy to chat and discuss moves between them.

Even better are co-operative games, which allow everyone to play on the same team against the game itself. These can sometimes be tricky though, as more competitive players sometimes may end up - accidentally or otherwise - trying to dictate other people’s turns. The best way around this is to play these games with people at roughly the same skill level and make sure everyone knows their turn is their own!

6. Gather Your Comrades

If playing as a pair gives you a one-person buffer, how about a whole team of people? Being part of a team allows you to hide or participate as much as you feel able to. Hopefully, your team members will also be there to offer support if you need it. A word of advice for the host, almost everyone I spoke to mentioned steering away from randomising teams. If people prefer to team up with their mates, let them. After all, it is Christmas, right?!

Why Not Try… ‘Telestrations’ – just as amusing to observe as it is to play!

7. Try a (mostly) Non-Verbal Game

Traditional games like Scrabble work well for this, but for those who aren’t into word play, games like Dixit for a larger group or Patchwork for two players, work really well as games that are more visually focused while remaining more contemplative experiences.

The most common theme (by far) when talking to people about board game anxiety was the utter dread at having to talk/hum/sing/answer in front of people, which of course is the major theme of a lot of the games that end up coming out at Christmas.

It seems in a lot of cases, there has been some kind of initial experience of feeling embarrassed or ‘humiliated’ in front of people, which has gone on to prevent them from being able to enjoy games ever since. If you want to go super safe for your gathering, perhaps suggest something that includes minimal talking, especially any kind of talking in front of a audience.

8. ‘The First Round Doesn’t Count’

Another theme often kicking around in the brains of those with board game anxiety is the idea of ‘getting it wrong’ or ‘ruining it for everyone else’. The idea of doing something in the wrong order, out of turn or just not in the rules at all is definitely a big anxiety-provoker for me.

My anxiety lessens considerably if I feel comfortable with what’s going on and what I’m meant to be doing. Giving everyone a ‘practice round’ (or several) before the real game starts is a great way to help people feel less worried. If you’re the guest, why not team up with an experienced player for the practice rounds? That way you can see what they are doing, and they can explain why.

Establishing the ‘house rules’ clearly at the start – yes, the game itself has its own rules, but we all still manage to play them slightly differently. Make sure everyone is on the same page with your particular version of the rules, or your general rules for gameplay. Making it ok to drop out at any point will also be very reassuring for your guests with anxiety, as there’s less pressure.

9. Practice Ahead of Time

If you suffer from board game anxiety, but actually love the idea of playing board games, why not get some practice in before Christmas Day? If you know what games are going to be on offer, you could play these beforehand and become really familiar with the rules (and maybe even get quite good at the games themselves!) If not, even just becoming more comfortable with the experience of playing board games can be really helpful.

I think one of the main reasons for board game anxiety is because if you only play them at Christmas time, it will always feel new and unfamiliar (exciting for some but frightening for others!) Making it a regular activity will make the whole thing feel much less of a big deal.

10. Create Familiarity

Finally, getting hold of a game that relates to a person’s interests is a really good way of helping them get involved. Yes, playing games can make me feel really anxious, but make it a Harry Potter themed game and I’m all in! There are so many versions of classic games available, you should be able to find something suitable.

Similarly, playing a game that centres around familiarity can also be hard to resist, even for an anxious gamer. Ask me if I want to play a game, I may say no; ask me if I know that song or recognise that logo, I literally cannot help myself. So competitive…

So, there you have it; my top ten tips on navigating Christmas board game anxiety. Hopefully our hosts have gained some ideas to get everyone gaming, and our players have some tricks up their sleeves to help manage their anxiety. I hope you have a wonderful Christmas, and can enjoy some traditional family game time - go smash ‘em!