Issue 27: Why I play music while playing games

There's value in a great backing track.


I hope you’re all doing well. I, myself, am doing pretty well, too. I don’t have too much of a preamble today, because I’ve got a topic that I think is a fun one. So let’s get straight to it!

In the latest issue of the very good tabletop games magazine Senet, writer Sara Elsam has a nice piece toward the back end of the magazine about board games and playlists to accompany them. That got me thinking a bit about times I’ve used music to enhance my gaming experiences, and I thought it would be interesting to recall some of those here for you.

Pandemic Legacy Season 2, set to Bohren & der Club of Gore

Some of my favorite board gaming experiences have been legacy games played over the course of multiple play sessions, and few compare to playing Pandemic Legacy Season 2. The game itself was tremendous, and our experience was bolstered by playing with friends who we’d played plenty of Pandemic with outside of the Legacy games.

When things got really hairy toward the end of the game, I ended up spinning a couple Bohren & der Club of Gore records, with Geisterfaust being a particular highlight for me. The best Bohren records are almost interminably slow “doom jazz” albums, featuring the usual instruments of rock music — guitar, bass and drums — joined by vibraphone, that classic Rhodes sound, and a double bass, among other instruments. Each song feels like it’ll never come to a close, with each foreboding note dragging on.

Doom jazz, dark ambient, dark jazz — whatever you want to call it, Bohren & der Club of Gore might not be for you (I love it, though, and I want you to love it, too!), but the sense of dread that came with a tense play of Pandemic Legacy paired just perfectly with, well, the sense of dread that comes with this band.

The Crew with Mort Garson’s Plantasia

Sometimes I wonder if I should rename this newsletter to be directly tied to this game, because I swear I mention it every third issue, if not more frequently. Rest assured, I don’t have much to say about the game right now, but I can say that this game perfectly pairs with this classic of electronic music.

Plantasia is a triumph of synthesizer-led songwriting, and while it was originally composed as an album for plants, I think it fares much better as an album to play a game set in space. (Also, I don’t think my neighbors would appreciate me playing this song to my plants day and night, given they’re all outside.)

The Moog synthesizer sound is iconic, and it’s got such a lovely sci-fi feel, it’s hard for me to think about it any other way. (Especially “Swingin’ Spathiphyllums,” which is really, truly great. And if you get a little bit of a Zelda vibe out of the whole thing, know you’re not alone.)

A few other albums to try out with games

  • Brian Eno, Apollo — a masterpiece of ambient music, it’s slow, but it’s also light, unlike that Bohren & der Club of Gore album I recommended earlier. Given this music was written for a documentary about the U.S. space program, maybe I should have listened to this while playing The Crew. That’s just not how it shook out, I guess.

  • Tina Brooks, Minor Move — This is just a wonderful hard bop album, and it’ll delight everyone listening, especially when you hit that second track. I’ll let you play it on Spotify or something so it’ll be a nice surprise. This one won’t necessarily pair with a game unless it’s something that’s themed around the 1950s, but it’ll be nice to listen to!

  • Stereolab, Emperor Tomato Ketchup — one of the keys of an album to play alongside your games is that it should be interesting, not just something that fades into the background. If it just fades into the background, you could really put anything on with little consequence. If it complements, it’ll be noticeable. (That’s my hypothesis, at least.) Anyway, that’s all to say that this is a super interesting album. It’s perfectly nestled in that experimental pop mode, and it’s a real delight to listen to. That’s honestly the secret here: Just play something interesting, so long as you’re not playing a real-time game that demands precise attention.

What music to play, more generally, when you’re gaming

I’m a person who loves games. I hope that’s obvious, given this newsletter’s very existence. I also love music, as you’ve probably noticed, too.

Maybe you’re already playing music while you play games. If you’re not, why not? Is it too distracting? Just not your thing? That’s totally fine! But if you’d like some music, here are some of my key suggestions:

  • Don’t make it an ordeal — just put some music on, at least after ensuring that your gaming group is OK with it.

  • Consider making it social — maybe if you’ve got a Bluetooth speaker, you can invite other people to play music on it. If you’ve got a turntable, invite people to pick out the next album. It’s a nice break from games, and really, a break from games is important.

  • Consider something that’s not too heavy on vocals — while I have a lot of time for a lot of music, games almost inevitably involve talking, and it can be mentally taxing to listen to lyrics and game-talk simultaneously. Of course, plenty of vocal-heavy music can work, but it’s something you should think about.

  • Find a genre you love. Work within that. For me, hard bop and post-bop jazz have provided many hours of game night music, and they will for a long time yet. The music is timeless, but while it can fade into the background if you’re not paying attention, it can also be really engaging when you do. That’s such a valuable thing.

  • Don’t be afraid to switch things up. Your music doesn’t really have to fit the theme of the game — by way of example, I once played a bunch of sea shanties during a sea-themed game, and I’ll tell you, it wasn’t great. I think I hate sea shanties now. (Thanks, TikTok.) I’ve played music for plants while playing a game set in space. (I wrote about that above. You read that part, right? It’s OK if you didn’t, of course. I skim sometimes, too.) I’ve put on Japanese city pop records mid-game. Really, I don’t think you can go wrong.

  • Finally, have a good time with it. If your friends are demanding a highly thematic, extremely well-planned musical game night, maybe ask them to help make it happen. If you are drawing a blank, maybe just put on an old standby. Or pick a Brian Eno album and see what happens. (True story: I’ve fallen asleep to Music for Airports for the better part of two decades now. So I probably wouldn’t pick that one, because I don’t want to fall asleep while playing games.)

The Summer of Games

To Play: Claim

The list of games to play just grows and grows, and this is one that’s been on my list for a fair bit now. Claim is a two-player trick-taking game in which you and your opponent face off to garner the most favor (I think it’s favor, at least — really, it’s the most cards of a faction) in order to claim the throne. Or something like that. I’m also excited to play Claim 2, which can be combined with Claim for a four-player game. I’ll report back!

Played: Nine Tiles Panic

This game. This game! It’s really a lot of fun. In Nine Tiles Panic, you’re building a 3x3 city while trying to meet three different goals. It’s a simple premise, though each tile is double-sided and has different features on it. All the potential planning you think you might be able to do goes out the window, though, when you consider that ties are broken by the order in which you finish, and there will be lots of ties, and after the first player finishes, everyone else has just 90 seconds to finish. The conceit of the game is simple, but the execution is considerably less so, and I love it. Even if it does take me roughly three hours to score a three-minute round. (I’m exaggerating for effect, obviously. It does take me far too long, though. I think it’s a “me” problem.)

Photo of the Week

L.L.A.M.A., a card game from Reiner Knizia that’s just perfect for playing with your family during your next reunion.

Other stuff

  • The seventh episode of my sci-fi short story podcast dropped yesterday — check it out if you’re so inclined! The first season is just eight episodes long, and it’s composed of stories from Universe Science Fiction. It was a blast to read and record these stories, and I’m already underway on a second season.

  • Garden life is going well out here — we’ve had pattypan squash for days, and they’re not showing much sign of slowing. I do think there’s a little bit of a pollination issue with some of my other summer squash going on, so if you have any advice, I’d love to hear it.

Well, have a lovely week. We’ll talk soon!