NKU professor's passion for board games is a pivotal piece of his life.

By Chris Robertson | Photography by Scott Beseler | Published Feb. 16, 2018
Lex Pulos

One look into Dr. Lex Pulos’s office instantly reveals a passion for board games. From Diplomacy to a framed Monopoly board, board games collected over the years fill the tops of his shelves. Each game has taught him something about the world and the meaning of humanity. Not just a way to spice up his office, this collection is a part of the man himself.

A Colorado Springs native, Pulos teaches Board Game Design (MIN 394) in the College of Informatics. The class teaches students about the mechanics that go into a board game, and they create their own games over the semester, which culminates with one final group project. The relatively new class is one of the more unique courses offered at Northern Kentucky University and teaches students both what constitutes a game and rules that make for gaming success. A course like that needs a professor with a love for board games and years of research. And Pulos has it all in spades.

Pulos’s love for games started at a young age. He points toward a framed map of Colorado Springs, designed with spots for the pieces to move, and explains his passion starts with a “built in narrative.”

The game is Le Tour Colorado—players have to answer obscure questions about the state to win. Pulos calls the game “boring,” but he keeps it as a framed reminder of his childhood, during which he and his family would sit around the table and play. In the Pulos home, family time meant game time.

Sometimes, during family camping trips, a friend of his older brother—autistic and a brilliant historian—would babysit Pulos, and the two would play Risk. After every move, the sitter explained historical details and nuances about the area, battles and armies. The pair would lose themselves for hours on end. Pulos grins, nearly laughs, remembering those days.

“I never wanted to not play with him,” he says. “Any time we played he would tell me about all the historical battles in the region. He explained when they moved and why they moved. If I tried to invade Europe, he’d explain even more.”

Those early experiences helped him understand that board games could be more than just pieces you move to win. He gained an appreciation for strategy and learned to think about the lives lost during wars. He valued bonds he formed playing with others. A self-professed nerd during “the height of nerds,” Pulos, along with his friends, found solace in Magic the Gathering. Gameplay was their safe space to avoid ridicule from bullies.

“What I really enjoy about board games is playing cooperatively and competitively with others,” Pulos explains. “It’s a human moment that’s been lost.”

That’s not to say it’ll never return. He believes the recent popularity increase in board games is bringing these human moments back.

He points to another board framed above his shelf, nearly obscured by the row of games resting on top. It’s a hard-to-find game called I Am Greek that his brother gave to him, kept in his office because of Pulos’s Greek heritage. There’s an entire Greek history inside that board. Board games, he says, go back to ancient civilizations, like Egypt, Rome and Greece.

“Games are a part of history,” he says. “Often we assume they’re for kids, but they’re important for development. They help us develop certain skills, get along with others, deal with anger, victory and success and teach us how to strategize.”

They are a representation of society and culture. The moments for human interaction, Pulos says, can teach us a lot about ourselves.

He points to the Monopoly board hanging on the wall right next to a Wonder Woman poster—it’s his turn to explain history. Monopoly was created by a New Yorker named Elizabeth Magie as a way to teach neighborhood children about finances, investments and economic consequences. After Magie failed to sell the game to alternate investors, The Parker brothers acquired the patents and copyrights, and, in a twist, created a monopoly on the game of the same name.  

Pulos says the game’s history brings attention to deeper cultural issues and creates meaningful conversations about the world. Monopoly was, in fact, one of the first games he analyzed to better understand the world. Currently, Pulos is developing a socially conscious game based on immigration. He wants to bring attention to the reasons people immigrate, giving a much-needed voice to immigrants.

He looks around his office at the collection he’s gained over the years. Pulos started seriously collecting when the tabletop industry exploded. The first tabletop game he played was Arkham PD, a game about 1920s detectives fighting ancient beings. Then, around the time he moved to Cincinnati, he became an avid collector, evidenced by his office’s contents—everything from tabletop games to puzzle games to escape games is represented.

He pulls open the bottom drawer. Inside lie every game his students created, neatly stacked on top of each other. One requires the player to create a robot; another is a prison escape game where the board is revealed when you unfold the box. He’s happy to show off the work, almost radiating pride for his students. Their games are well-developed, and some could even be mistaken for professional level—in fact, he encourages students to get their games published.

Pulos hopes he can help his students understand the knowledge these games can bring, from cultural to historical. Games represent more than a pair of dice or unfolding board. The way Pulos sees it, they’re tools to help us understand what it means to be human.

“I want to use games that help us experience something we might not experience.”