Zen and the Art of Board Game Design

by | Oct 22, 2016

Changing Perspectives

The title of this post is a bit tongue-in-cheek because of the appropriation fad of making everything Zen or Tao. That being said I actually want to talk about the present moment. I’ve had the great privilege of being in the presence of a man named Yo Hoon Kim. He would tell you that he’s not a Zen master. He’s not Taoist. He’s not Christian. He’s just himself. His lessons, however, tend to skew in the direction of Zen. Yo Hoon talks a lot about being of two minds. When you are anticipating a certain outcome you have one mind in the present and one mind in the future. When you ruminate about the past (particularly in the form of regret) you have one mind in the present and one mind in the past.

Great. How does this apply to tabletop game design? Tabletop games have quite the advantage over video games because they require players to be present in order to play. They create a social situation where players have to engage with each other. This dynamic serves to draw people out of their digital comas. Don’t get me wrong. Video games are fun, the internet is amazing, and streaming content makes watching commercials a thing of the past. Technological innovation is awesome and necessary but it doesn’t really appeal to our nature-seeking human side. In fact, it is overstimulating and locks us into a permanent loop of consuming without comprehending. Only when we are truly in the present moment can we change our perspectives and develop our ability to comprehend the stimuli.

Think about the best teachers you’ve ever had. What was the one thing they all had in common? For me, it was their ability to inspire me to explore the subject matter and go beyond the surface. The worst teachers were the ones obsessed with standardized testing and the rote memorization of facts. The latter does not require comprehension. This type of experience doesn’t ask you to take into account the historical context of an event or to see the beauty of the parabola created by that equation. Give me purpose. Give me context! Help me create wild theories and prove them wrong or inspire me to innovate. None of this is happening if you’re distracted or avoiding the present moment in preparation for a better moment in the distant future or holding onto the glory of the past.

Between the Sunday morning Tai Chi classes and the afternoon Kung Fu class at the Taoist Institute there is a 30 minute break. I usually go to 7-11 and get a snack and then I sit on the couch in the lobby. This is by far the best 15 minutes of my week. I just spent the morning learning and teaching and working hard. I have a few minutes for a snack before I work out for 3 more hours. All I care about is my snack and maybe a magazine in the lobby. It’s amazing. All the other problems of my life fade away. For that moment I am truly present and trying to soak up those precious minutes. I am truly at rest. The same can be said for a board game session. A lot of time we are concerned with winning and we’re snacking and drinking soda but we’re engaged. The rest of the world falls away. I sometimes have that experience when I’m reading a comic book. In either case, the activity roots us in the present and even though we are looking toward the future regarding strategy and tactics, we are in the present moment surrounded by friends on a quest to defeat a dragon or be the best robot or explore a planet. It all depends on the game. The one thing the best games have in common is that they help keep you grounded in the present moment in the real world with real people.

I didn’t realize this at first but the master and student in my game Wu Wei can represent looking to the past and looking to the future. The master is concerned with passing on knowledge from the past and the student is concerned with learning and evolving in the future. At the end of the game, both pieces are integrated into the present moment as they return to the center. Returning to the center requires a journey. If you are Yo Hoon Kim this journey takes place in the space of a breath. If you are more like me then letting go of the future and the past can be an emotional journey fraught with setback at times. Another great concept that Yo Hoon provided was the idea that in the present moment we experience true immortality. In the present moment (where we human beings live), we do not age. There is no regret. There is no anticipation. In the present moment we can truly rest and truly comprehend the universe.


This is a pretty lengthy discussion with Yo Hoon Kim if you are interested in hearing him talk about the present moment and the nature of meditation.

The Taoist Eight Immortals are a popular group of sages that have achieved a corporeal immortality after their “death”. They represent an ideal for Taoist adepts. Only through enlightenment and training were they able to move beyond the constraints of a mortal life. I often think about this version of immortality and compare it to the idea of immortality in the present moment. If I ever get a chance to make an expansion for Wu Wei, I will likely introduce the Eight Immortals to the game. I may even call the expansion Wu Wei: The Eight Immortals Expansion. I can dream right?