The rules of the game

by Phil Walker-Harding


I love board games, to the point where I’ve even designed a few. You might think, then, that I’m the type of person who quite likes rules. But I’m really not.

Growing up, rules were all around me. I was raised by Christian parents, so there were rules for how to behave at home. I went to a strict private boys’ school, so every day I was almost suffocated by rules. Pull your socks up! Fix your tie! Don’t talk in chapel! My first ever job was in an upmarket software firm, so there were more jackets, more ties, and even more rules.

This isn’t to say I am a rebel or rule-breaker. Quite the opposite. Even as a small child, I had a very tender conscience. I always tried my best to follow all the rules. This meant that I usually kept out of trouble. But it also made me exhausted. I came to hate the rules and to resent the people who made them. Sure, some rules made sense. Like, don’t run across a busy street. But most of them seemed arbitrary, or just something invented to keep others under control.

When it came time to take my faith seriously and really start living Jesus’ way, there they were again — rules. If there’s one thing we know about God, it’s that he makes rules, right? Thou shalt do this, thou shalt not do that. But if God is supposed to love me, and following Jesus is supposed to make me joyful, what’s with all the rules?

This is where my love of board games has taught me something.

From a young age, I loved playing Monopoly, Mousetrap, Uno, and Sorry. I even made up my own board games, creating them out of paper, cardboard, and textas. As I got older, my taste in games changed. But I still love playing board games and I still love designing them! I have even had some of my games published, which has been a real thrill.

If you think about it, what a board game is — at its very heart — is a set of rules. This is what you must do on your turn. You must draw a card here. You must not move your pawn there. The fun in a game comes from the rules. The rules shape the experience. They contain play in just the right way to create excitement, tension, and even joy! When people start breaking the rules of a game, the experience inevitably breaks down. It might be fun to muck around with the rules for a turn or two, but things eventually go sour. Without the rules, the fun disappears.

But the rules of a game don’t feel like the rules at a private boys’ school, do they? We want to follow them! We know that they are there for us. They were designed, created, tested, and refined to bring us something good.

Slowly over time, I have learnt that God is much more like a game designer than a strict headmaster. His rules aren’t arbitrary. He created the world out of his love, and so he knows how the world works best. He is the one who gives life and who gives joy, and that’s what his rules are for.

Living Jesus’ way is not easy. But I think it helps to focus not only on what he asks us to do, but also on why he asks us to do it. Jesus said he came to give us life to the full. Following his way, even when it’s difficult, brings life and joy.

Phil Walker-Harding is board game designer, video producer, and puppeteer who lives in Summer Hill, Sydney. His best-known games are Sushi Go!, Archaeology: The Card Game, and Dungeon Raiders.