Sitcoms rely on characters to be successful. Well, often they rely on stale jokes and a distracted audience, but good sitcoms rely on characters. We only care about the plot if we care about the people the plot is happening to. There are a lot of ways we learn about characters, but few are as clever or as interesting as watching them play a board game. Take a look at 10 examples of board games in your favorite sitcoms.
1. Community | S2E14 – D&D
There are enough board game references in Community to warrant its own list, but none so moving as the first Dungeons and Dragons episode.
Neal is mocked for his weight, given the moniker “Fat Neal”. He gives away a bunch of his stuff because he “won’t need it anymore”. Fearing the worst, the study group organizes an evening of Neal’s favorite game, D&D.
The idea is to cheer Neal up with a bit of high adventure, but Pierce–being a bitter, petty old man–uses it as a chance to belittle Neal even more. Abed’s commitment to being an impartial DM allows Pierce’s character to run off with Neal’s character’s sword. At first, Pierce’s aggression threatens to derail the adventure, leaving Neal worse off than they started.
Pierce is driven to ruin the evening, but in the process becomes a truly compelling villain. When they finally kill Pierce’s character, it’s a victory for Neal over the wanton cruelty that life has dealt him so often.
2. Big Bang Theory | S5E13 – Catan
Big Bang Theory deserves its own list as well, if only to document the damage that Chuck Lorre has done to geek culture. Where Community uses board game as a narrative construct to explore the depths of bullying and depression, Big Bang Theory boils board games down to a joke about bestiality. If you’ve played Catan, you don’t need me to say it.
Big Bang Theory uses Catan to showcase that a geek can get so wrapped up in their own esoteric hobby that they’re oblivious to even the basest form of mockery. Chuck Lorre can go eat a bag of wood.
3. Friends | S3E25 – Strip Happy Days Board Game
In “The One Where They Go to the Beach”, the Friends gang goes to a beach house in search of clues about Phoebe’s dad. Rain ruins their outdoor fun, so they’re stuck inside with nothing to do. Joey recommends a good indoor naked game: strip poker. Once the gang is bored and drunk enough, Joey gets his wish.
Except they don’t have a deck of cards, so they have to decide between a strip Happy Days game and strip knitting supplies.
Score 5 cool points, and somebody else has to take off a piece of clothing. To Joey’s surprise, the group gangs up on him, and pretty soon he’s naked. It’s a funny reversal, since no one else loses clothes… except Monica.
We don’t see who spends their cool points on her, but this episode is the first time where Chandler floats the idea that he and Monica should date. It’s meant half as a joke, but I think this gag is a subtle way of showing that they’re more playful than they’re willing to let on.
4. Parks and Rec | S6E9 – The Cones of Dunshire
Ben Wyatt is out of work for a week, and his compulsions give birth to the most obtuse and complex board game ever seen on TV.
“The object of the game is to accumulate cones. Four cones wins, but in order to get a cone, you have to build a civilization.”
It’s a great gag, and brilliant characterization, but it gets better when he decides to discard his hobby and passes the game to his coworkers. “It had all the fun of the IRS annual federal tax refresher program, without all the state law complexity.”
Hilariously, NBC actually partnered with Mayfair Games to put together a giant Kickstarter campaign in the real world. It’s more a publicity stunt than a Kickstarter, but their promo video is equal parts awful and amazing.
5. How I Met Your Mother | S1E15 –Marshgammon
“It’s called Marshgammon. It combines all the best features of all the best games: Candy Land, I Never, Pictionary. Backgammon sucks. I took the only good part of Backgammon, the ‘gammon, and I left the rest of it in the trash where it belongs.”
Apparently Marshall wins every game with a combination of dumb luck and childlike enthusiasm. We’ve all got that friend (we all hate that friend). So the HIMYM gang have Marshall “run” game night instead of participating.
Marshall and Lily use the incomprehensible rules of Marshgammon to “secretly” interrogate Ted’s new girlfriend. Board games are all about getting to know other people better, and the episode uses game night as a narrative springboard to get each character to tell their most embarrassing and personal stories.
6. King of Queens | S2E16 – Sorry
Winning isn’t everything, unless you’re Carrie Heffernan. The stereotypical sitcom wife is a pathological cheater when it comes to board games: fudging scores, peeking at cards, moving pieces. It’s enough to cast a divide between her and her husband, as they struggle through several game nights with friends.
They say you know someone in 10 minutes of play better than 10 years of conversation. Carrie can’t explain her actions, which have become compulsions, until she remembers a game of Sorry with her father. A sore winner isn’t just a pain to play with; it can be psychologically scarring.
7. Always Sunny in Philedelphia | S7E7 – Chardee Macdennis: The Game of Games
There’s something beautiful about The Gang at Paddy’s Pub creating a game so rage-inducingly frustrating that they nail the board down to prevent Mac from flipping the board halfway through.
Chardee Macdennis is everything incredible about bar games. It has trivia questions like “Dennis is asshole, why Charlie hate?” and answers like “Because Dennis is a bastard man.” It has props and requires the appropriate amount of drunken skills. Each play expands the number of house rules that are as haphazard as they are unbreakable. Truly the game of games.
8. Frasier | S3E18 – Chess
To say that Dr. Frasier Crane thinks highly of himself is a bit of an understatement. An intellectual such as him must be a master chess player, while an average joe like his father, Martin, must be a terrible.
The episode turns that on its ear as Frasier discovers that not only can he not beat his father at chess, he can’t even come close. Frasier can’t accept that his father is better than him at chess and it drives him mad, forcing his father to play game after game.
When Frasier tries to orchestrate a game in the middle of the night by setting off the fire alarm, Martin realizes Frasier is dumbfounded that his dad is smarter than he is, and takes it as an insult.
Martin is a retired police detective; identifying patterns and being a step ahead was his bread and butter. But Frasier, as a doctor of psychiatry, doesn’t respect that kind of common wisdom. Frasier eventually wins when his dad makes a mistake, but the pursuit has given him a greater respect for his dad.
9. Seinfeld | S6E12 – Risk
If you’re looking for an activity to ruin friendships during Festivus, Risk is your board game. If you can’t win, you can still drag it out for hours in the vain hope that your opponent will just leave.
Kramer and Newman refuse to concede a game of Risk that spans hours and then days. First they leave the game in neutral territory (Jerry’s apartment, “like Switzerland”) to make sure nobody cheats. But soon they just start taking the game with them wherever they go.
There are some conversations that sound better in your living room than on a New York subway car.
Kramer: “Ha ha, the Ukraine. Do you know what the Ukraine is? It’s a sitting duck, Newman. The Ukraine is weak. It’s feeble. I think it’s time to put the hurt on the Ukraine.”
Random Subway Guy: “I come from Ukraine. You not say Ukraine weak. How’bout I take your little board and smash it!!”
10. Fresh Prince of Bel Air | S6E6 – Word Game
Will ropes Carlton into a double date to settle a debt. Carlton resists at first, since he already has a girl, but Will promises him a terrible time. The night actually goes well, when the women suggest playing a word game. Will is opposed to the idea until the women suggest a strip variant.
Like the episode of Friends, it seems like strip games foretell a reversal of fate. We cut to the next scene, with Will and Carlton in their boxers, because Carlton can’t pull a vowel to save his life. Even though Carlton doesn’t have romantic intentions here, he’s definitely the kind of nerd who would follow game rules to the letter.
Things go from bad to worse when one of their dates gets a surprise visit from her boyfriend, Mad Dog. Will and Carlton are forced to use their smoothest moves to get out of this predicament, pictured below.
Notice any board game references we missed out? Let us know on our Reddit Forum!