Oberlin Blogs

On Games, Board or Otherwise

January 28, 2024

Naci Konar-Steenberg '26

What is there to do on a Friday night at Oberlin? The answer: lots of very different things. Students with a car on campus might go to Cleveland, or to the nearby Crocker Park shopping center. Others might go to a party, or to the ‘Sco, Oberlin’s student run disco. Still others might find themselves dragged to a restaurant by their friends, or to the Apollo Theater to watch a movie. Some people do none of these things, because they have better things to do. These people are going to play board games.

Oberlin really, really likes its board games. In fact, I feel like every single person I’ve met in my time at Oberlin has, at some point, turned to me and said something along the lines of the following: “oh, Naci, do you know ‘Above and Below’ (or ‘Coup,’ or some other board game)? I think you’d really like it. We should play some time.” I thought that I’d spend a blog post taking a look at my experiences playing board games at Oberlin. It goes beyond just playing board games, too – I know multiple people here who have made their own board games. One of them, who actually also introduced me to both "Coup" and "Above and Below," is a board game aficionado with an eye for good game design, who co-DMs my current Dungeons and Dragons game.

Oh, that’s right. I can’t talk about my experience playing board games at Oberlin without taking some time to talk about Dungeons and Dragons. I met my current D&D group in the first week of my freshman year. You see, Oberlin has a program called the PAL program, which consists of groups of incoming freshmen. The purpose of the PAL program is to introduce freshmen to college life. Each PAL group meets every so often during the first week of the fall semester, and one of these meetings consists of a trip to Cleveland, which involves some community service as well as some sightseeing. Our PAL group was assigned to pick up litter by the Lake Erie waterfront. I remember approaching two people who were talking about D&D and sort of inserting myself into their conversation. One of them mentioned something about setting up a game that Sunday. Thirty sessions and five character levels later, that game is still going strong.

Suffice it to say that there’s plenty of D&D to be had on campus. Alongside clubs devoted to role-playing games like D&D, students run ExCos devoted to the subject. “ExCo” is short for “experimental college class.” ExCos are for-credit classes taught by students about a subject that might not be taught inside a traditional classroom. Yes, there are ExCos for games, such as the beginning D&D exco, which is taught every semester, to my knowledge. There are also ExCos for genres of games, such as “DeceptionCo,” an ExCo about deception games. I have a friend who participated in DeceptionCo, and I’ve participated in board game nights held by members of the group.

This was how I got introduced to Blood on the Clocktower, which is one of the most interesting and confounding board games that I’ve ever played. I first played Blood on the Clocktower just a few weeks ago, near the beginning of Winter Term. During Winter Term, Oberlin students carry out projects of their choice which don’t fit neatly into a normal class schedule. Some people come to Oberlin to do this, but many people don’t, which means the campus is mostly empty during Winter Term. It also means that only one of the dining halls on campus is open, specifically the perennially praiseworthy Stevenson Dining Hall, which can get very crowded. One night, when I was having dinner at “Stevie,” a friend came up to me and invited me to “come to Clocktower later.” I asked what this meant, and thus was my mind opened to the world of Blood on the Clocktower.

Blood on the Clocktower is like Mafia (aka Werewolf), with extra steps. The premise of the game is that there’s a demon attacking innocent townspeople. The townspeople have to figure out who the demon might be before all of them are slain. Each player has a specific role to play, which is where things get complex. One role, called the Investigator, begins the game knowing that one of two different players is actually evil. Another role, the Widow, which is aligned with the evil team, causes one good player’s information to become unhelpful. The game is about building theories around information that you receive, while being careful to avoid lies and manipulation by the demon and their minions. Of course, if you’re on the side of evil, then you have to try to distort the facts that the other players have, in order to get them to make bad decisions. Like the Widow, many evil characters have abilities that make other players receive unhelpful information. So good-aligned townsfolk have to always ask themselves if the information that they have is correct, and if so, how they can prove it.

Of course, in my very first game, I didn’t do a very good job. My role was that of the Oracle, which meant that every night, I would learn how many dead players were evil. The problem was that I was sitting right next to the demon, who had an ability that caused the good townsfolk next to them to always receive unhelpful information. So I spent the game convinced that the information that I had received was correct, when in fact, I was being lied to! I didn’t last very long. But I’ve played a few more games since then, and I like to think that I’ve gotten better.

Compared to D&D and Blood on the Clocktower, the final game that I want to talk about in this blog post will seem a little out of place. Chess is a game that I mostly play online these days, although it certainly counts as a board game. I got into chess during the pandemic, as did a lot of people, apparently. Before I came to Oberlin, I hadn’t played much chess “over the board” (i.e., not online), my experience amounting to exactly one tournament where I lost every single game.

So when I came to Oberlin, I started faithfully attending chess club meetings, where I was pleased to find other people in the same place as me: people who hadn’t played chess all their lives, but who wanted to improve their skills. Eventually, I learned that an experienced player in the club was offering a chess ExCo, which I decided to audit (take for no credit). I also tagged along when some members of the club decided to sign up for a tournament. That’s how I found myself getting up at seven in the morning on a Saturday in order to go play chess. Under those circumstances, I’m sure I could have justified it to myself if I had lost all my games, but I didn’t: I won one and tied another. I remember returning to Oberlin satisfied with how I had played.

There are plenty of things to do in Oberlin on a Friday night. In most Oberlin dorms, there are at least a few lounges, so that students can do things like watch movies, hang out with friends, and, of course, play board games. When you get to Oberlin and, on some Friday night, find yourself walking through the halls and listening to conversations happening through muffled lounge doorways, now you’ll know what you’ll find behind those doors.

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