I am going to win.
This is a big deal. I never win. When we sat down today at this picnic table beside the Atlanta Food Truck Park, I steeled myself to lose. With a pulled-pork sandwich, a side order of macaroni & cheese, and a can of Coke in front of me, I didn’t really need to win. My triumph today was to come in form of sunshine and good company.
But now I am going to win, and am now consumed with the intoxicating dizziness of standing on the edge of victory. I lock eyes with my opponent and try not to convey too much a show of smugness. I watch as he consults his hand helplessly. It’s no use. For once, I have simply outplayed him. I cannot believe I am finally going to win.
His eyes never leave mine as the card slides onto the dirty picnic table.
“Age of Magic,” he says, almost apologetically.
All at once the joys of the sunny day and good food are replaced by icy oppressive despair. I am shoved backwards from the precipice of success and left broken on the ground. I am never going to win a game of GOSU.
GOSU is one of the many games that my boyfriend Eliot has taught me. According to the Moonster Games website, GOSU is a card game in which “each player portrays a warlord recruiting goblins to build his army. Each Game Round ends in a Great Battle during which the player with the strongest army scores a victory point. The first player to earn three victory points wins the game. You may also win by fulfilling alternate victory conditions given on the general’s cards.”
Alternate victory conditions are the cause of my downfall today. While my Shibuke goblins and I managed to scrounge together two precious victory points, Eliot and his Dragoon army completed an alternate victory condition unique to their clan. An alternate victory condition wherein the Age of Magic card is essential.
“You played very well,” Eliot immediately attempts to salvage my wounded ego, his hand extended.
I shake his hand because I’m a decent person, but I do so in silence because I am not a great person. I am angry and embarrassed, convinced that my lack of ability at this game reflects poorly on my intelligence. And as the nerdy girlfriend of a fellow nerd, I value my intelligence much more highly than my physical appearance.
A few words on Eliot. Eliot is a twenty-three-year-old computer scientist whom I first messaged on OKCupid on April 30, 2013. Eliot is funny, reasonable, considerate, fascinating and positive. We share many common interests, but have decidedly different temperaments. Eliot helps me calm down about things, and I supply him with boundless enthusiasm. When he reaches out to hold my hand, the world is both thrillingly exciting and soothingly easy all at the same time.
And, finally, Eliot is smart.
My handsome boyfriend is an Ivy League and private high school educated computer programmer whose chief passion in life is board games. Since our third date, I have been introduced to countless new games. On Wednesday evenings, he hosts a gaming night at a local bar. With every paycheck, a new game or expansion is added to his collection. From tabletop games to card games, games are Eliot’s jam.
In the days of my life pre-Eliot, I fancied myself a board game enthusiast. In college, I discovered games like Apples to Apples and even cooperative spooky games like Betrayal at the House on the Hill. The kind of games I knew were a source of yelling and silliness and working together and, ultimately, equality. No one needs to be the smartest in the room to have a good time playing Apples to Apples.
Besides, what would it have mattered to me if it did? In most arenas of my life so far, I am one of the smartest people in the room. As a toddler, I’d approach my mom with big stacks of books and get her to read to me. Becoming too sick to attend school filled me with anxiety and guilt as a child. I devoted my summers in high school to the Governor’s Honors Program and to the Shakespeare Intensive for Teens at the Shakespeare Tavern. In short, I seldom consider myself dumb bunny.
Unfortunately, none of my right-brained English major-variety intelligence is worth much when it comes to the tactical games that Eliot loves. GOSU, for example, is completely strategy-based. Going into this relationship, I had very little brain for strategy. This means that most of the time I’m hanging out with my boyfriend, I am also very literally losing.
Eliot says he dreads getting to the end of a game with me, which breaks my heart. He’s just happy to play the game itself. In his great capacity for reason, he has pointed out to me that I’m getting a lot better and that should be victory enough. But it doesn’t feel like enough to me. Every time I lose I feel dumb. Every time I feel dumb I feel like a girl not worth dating anymore. Post-defeat, worry over my own worth as well as envy over my boyfriend’s cleverness hardens my face. I become a gargoyle of sore loserdom.
My relationship with Eliot is still relatively new. We haven’t had a fight yet, and so I’d say our biggest source of tension so far is my inability to enthusiastically lose a game. After I behave this way, I feel awful. It’s not that I want to make Eliot hate playing games with me. I want to be able to lose graciously and smile warmly as I shake his hand and wish him a game well-played. I want to bounce back quickly and make witty jokes at my own expense. I want to believe Eliot when he assures me that my ability, or lack thereof, to win games in no way impacts his opinion of me.
But I want to win more.
And not just at GOSU. I want to win at Eliot. I want to be a worthy adversary and challenge him at the very games that he introduced to me. I want to come up with a strategy or build an army in a way that he never considered, completely bowling him over with my ingeniousness. I want to impress him every time we play a game. I want to be perfect.
Where Eliot is reasonable and logical, I am ruled entirely by my emotions and passions. So while I am in love and very happy, the truth remains that the sustainability of a long-term relationship is sometimes by its nature very painful to me. As a relationship progresses, not every day can be the most exciting and romantic day in the world. Eventually a person just exists.
Eliot is my boyfriend. For now at least, he is my boyfriend every single day. Neither of us can be a perfect human being every single day. I would never expect Eliot to be. Because I love him, I can offer him the compassion and understanding that I cannot give myself. And so my standards are different. It’s not enough for me to go on and be the same person I normally am. To Eliot, I want to present the best possible version of myself at all times. I have to actually improve and then beat him at these games so he doesn’t go away.
I slipped up today. Both in failing to destroy any of Eliot’s stupid Dragoon goblins and in failing to accept my defeat graciously. A few hours of moping and a frozen yogurt run later, though, I am ready to dust myself off and soldier on. A promise I’ve made to myself before: “Dani, it’s okay. Next time you’re just going to focus on having a good time, win or lose.” And maybe next time I will be able to sneak an artificial smile on my face to get through my inevitable trouncing with as little negative impact on my boyfriend’s opinion of me as possible.
Early on in our relationship, after a loss at a particularly hate-inspiring game called Netrunner, I confessed to Eliot that playing his games makes me feel stupid. I worry that my inability to look at a set of cards and immediately deduce a winning strategy makes me unattractive to him.
He looked me in the eye and said, “Dani, you’re the first girlfriend who has ever wanted to play games. You’re winning.”
Winning. The word rang so beautifully in my ears. For that one moment, I relaxed, secure in the knowledge that I was winning at dating Eliot.
And so we keep on playing.
Sometimes when these losses affect me so strongly I consider telling Eliot, “Hey. Maybe we should take a break on GOSU for a while. I clearly can’t handle it.” But I’m the only girlfriend who has wanted to play games before. This is my alternate victory condition.
UPDATE: Eliot requested that I let everyone know that, since the writing of this essay, I have indeed won a game of GOSU. Like, three times at least. It was awesome.
He also wants you to know that Netrunner is great. Do you want to play with him sometime?