Wednesday, July 7, 2010

That's How I Roll - Part I - The Early Years

Hidey-Ho, Fellow Playas.

How old were you when you last played a board game?   No, not a bored game...a board game.

Were you six?  Twelve? Um,...forty-six?

When I say "board game" what do you think of right away?   Clue?  Candyland?  Payday? Monopoly?  Risk?  Naked Twister? (Ooooo, saucy!)

If you were still a kid when you last played a board game do you still have fuzzy, idyllic memories about a more innocent time when face-to-face social interaction and the occasional semi-innocent bout of trash talk was the order of the day?  Do you find that the world of online video gaming, which tie you to a headset, keyboard, arm brace, chair and monitor is becoming increasingly unsatisfying?   

What if I were to tell you that there was an entire class of board games out there, unlike the examples I just gave you, which are geared specifically to the average adult as well as your inner child?  Games that downplay losing by random chance and avoid direct conflict in lieu of keeping players engaged and entertained the entire time with clever mechanics and highlighting player interaction and strategy?  Games that unshackle you from all all the dread trappings associated with the typical workplace?

You'd probably call me a filthy liar, "X" off this blog and never come back here again.  Yikes, no pressure, huh?

Well, I'm here to assure you that such a thing certainly does exist.  By the end of this series hopefully I'll have given you incentive to seek out some great games that were hitherto unknown to you.  Hopefully you'll buy one, assemble your own batch of Superfriends and have an great evening of old-school entertainment over  snacks and drinks.  I promise it's a recipe for good karma.  As long as you limit the drinking to three bottles of wine  per person 'cuz it could get violent. 

First, my own personal story of board game discovery, which may even be similar to your own.  The first game I can ever remember playing was Snakes and Ladders:

Jumbo Snakes & Ladders

Now this was back in the day before all that politically correct "shoots" foolishness.  I had the crazy Catholic subversive morality version of the game that had virtuous qualities listed on the board like "Faith" and "Reliability" at the base of the ladders and "Vulgarity" (!) and "Murder" (!!) at the tip of the snake's tail where you'd slide back down again.

Nice game for kids, huh?  Allegedly this Hindu game was originally designed to teach larval-stage humans about enlightenment so that good acts led you closer to nirvana (the space marked "100") and the evil squares reduced you to lower levels of existence.

As oddly existential as that is, it's little wonder why most of us adults think all boardgames suck.  Looking back,, Snakes and Ladders is a tragically random exercise in futility.  But, hey, when I was a kid I thought the snakes and the creepy drawings depicting the sins were cool, so there.   This gets only one die pip out of six.   

*Sigh*.  Then there's Monopoly:
Just like me, I'm sure a lot of kids started here: intrigued by the miniature buildings, the money, the colorful board and the cool tokens.  Do you remember the knock-down, drag out, folding-chair fights you'd have with your friends over the privilege of who was gonna be the car?  Too bad most of us didn't use anything close to the proper rules until we moved up into the 'tweens.

Played now, Monopoly is the equivalent of a lame horse that should be sent to the glue factory.  Often you're just sitting around forever waiting for your turn.  It's extremely random since you can lose just because you keep rolling onto your opponent's fully loaded "Boardwalk" space.  It's also predisposed to "analysis paralysis" types who take forever to make decisions.

So, f#@% you, Rich Uncle Douchebags!

Only two pips out of six for you!    


Well, if you thought I was a grim kid for playing Snakes and Ladders, then check this s#!^ out:

Yes, that's right folks, The Sinking of the Titanic: a game for ages 6 and up (!) about one of the worst maritime disasters in nautical history.  Why not Hindenburg Balloon Cup or Chernobyl: The Game of Meltdown Denial?  Cripes...

Which reminds me: when Titanic was a big hit in theaters, some classless ghoul bought a giant inflatable ship stern section and set it up on the Commons so kids could re-enact the scene where the ass-end of the ship tilts up into the air and people slid along the decks and caromed off the bulkheads like little "Plinko" chips.  Eeeeeesh.

Anyway a friend of mine had this one and it represents the first time the theme and mechanics of a board game would make an impression on me. Between the tense "get off the sinking ship" theme and the tilting board, I was hooked!

This one would score higher but I look back on it now and consider it to be about as tasteless as a cardboard popsicle.  It gets three die pips out of six.   

Continuing with the macabre theme, here's the next entry on my list:

I guess the Seventies were a time when people were obsessed with mysteries and disasters.  If you need anymore proof, just look at the fashions at the time!

Anyhoo, after being all impressed with the aforementioned Titanic game, I saved up my shekels to buy it.  The day eventually came when I'd raised enough cash, and I rushed down to the local Woolworth's department store to stake my claim.

Then I saw Bermuda Triangle sitting on the shelf, silently calling to me.  Impulsively, I decided to buy this instead of Sinking of the TitanicBig mistake.  Within days, all of the magnets that you put in the little plastic ships to get them sucked up on the storm clouds were either lost or de-magnitized and not long after, traversing the dreaded Bermuda Triangle was about as scary as passing "Go" in Monopoly.

This taught me an early and valuable lesson about board games: "play before you pay".  As such Bermuda Triangle gets two dice pips out of six:

I rebounded with this bad boy:

Wow, the Six Million Dollar Man!  And you think you got  f#@$&^ over by inflation!   Think of this poor b@$^%#$!  With technology depreciation on top of that, ole' Stevie Austin here would probably only go for about forty beans on Kijiji right now...

But I digress.  So impressed was I by the game's mechanics at the time (Hey, I was FIVE, alright!) I stole the design to make up my own board game based on the movie Clash of the Titans years later.

Sweet Baby Jesus, I was a sad and lonely child...

Anyway, the game hasn't aged well.  In fact, it's pretty terrible.  Current game buyers beware: you may be a slavering fan of 24, Lost, Twilight, Hee Haw or some other licensed property and thus be  predisposed to buying the board game tie-in but nine time out of ten these "games" are typically just a box of cardboard-entombed ass.  You have been warned.
Six Million Dollar Man only rates two pips out of six million.

Having said that, board games from licensed properties can also be awesome.  If you've been following along with the rest of the class ( you'll know by now that my early childhood can be divided into two eras: Before Star Wars and After Star Wars.

This game soon became a beloved staple of my childhood:

The Star Wars: Escape From Death Star Game really ignited my imagination.  As a kid, running through the corridors of the Death Star, rescuing the Princess and gunning down stormtroopers was about as close to nirvana as possible. I'm sure it’s because of this game I'm still such a sucker for "adventure" and "dungeon crawl"-type games as an adult.

But more about that later...

It's still not a great game but it totally pwns Steve Austin's obsolete bionic ass.  Cruising on the fact it has the words Star Wars printed on this box, this one gets three pips out of five on Han's Dice:

Star Wars was so important, it actually deserves a second (but not final!) mention:

It was a Christmas gift from my cousin Janice the first year we moved to Stephenville.  Since it hadn't been delivered by Santa it was placed under the tree a full day before Christmas.  Seeing it just sitting there and knowing full well what it was damn near killed me.  In fact, this was the only time in recorded history when my parents let me open a present before Christmas Day because I was lobbying so doggedly for it, I would have put Pablo Neruda to shame.

Anyway, this one featured more hot "moving board" action, plenty of official Star Wars images and a slew of mini plastic X-Wing fighters.  It was like kid-flavored crystal meth.

It also gets a solid three pips out of six:   

Now, I don't want to give you the impression that all the games I played as a kid were either niche or borderline deviant.  I also played Parker Brothers classics like this one:


Along with equally cockeyed Game of Life (in which you get paid $1000.00 cash every time you breed), Payday is partially to blame for my warped perceptions of adulthood.   Tell me I wasn't pissed when my bank first broke it to me that I wouldn't be earning 10% interest on my savings accounts! 

For setting me up with unrealistic expectations of the future, and generally sucking with more efficiency than Paris Hilton siphoning gas, Payday gets a measly two pips out of six:

Then there's venerable 'ole Clue:


 My cousins introduced me to this one and I was instantly snagged by just how different it was from everything else. As original as it was, I still think it was the unsettling imagery on the cards and board as well as the teeny l'il metal implements of bloodletting that told me: "Ok, now yer playin' an adults game!"


Just have a look at the haunting, evocative images on these cards and try and tell me that they aren't loaded with nefarious subtext. 


*Shudder*.   Looks like a photo study by David Lynch. 

Anyway, for being original and for proving that games can be mature and adult, I'm giving creepy ole' Clue three die pips out of six:

Finally, I'll end this segment with my first real foray into the world of adult gaming which would ensure a life-long passion for the hobby: Chess:  

15in Wooden Folding Chess Set

Just seeing some kids at school playing chess at lunch was enough for me to want to know everything about this cool-looking game that didn't involve luck at all. I learned how to play from a book at the local library called Chess for People Who Can't Even Play Checkers, which probably speaks volumes about my chess “skillz” today.

At the time a next door neighbor originally from India picked up on my interest in the game and starting giving me books filled with annotated games to study. I think this freaked me out just a bit and I backed away from the brink.

Part of me wonders what might have happened if I kept up with it, but I guess I just wasn't passionate enough at the time. Having said that, I still keep coming back to this elegant and beautiful game time and time again.  When it's played well, it's an intellectual ballet, almost an artistic expression.  On the flip side it can be painful to play against someone who's studied the game so much that half of the game feels "scripted".

Nevertheless, Chess is one of my all-time favs and I' gonna give it five pips out of six.  

Next time in my Emblogification Capture Device:
  • A self-conscious youth makes an ill-advised decision to put away childish things.
  • I explain how games can be used to settle global disputes and end war forever. (Guest commentary by Gore Vidal)
  • A game buying experience substitutes nicely for crack cocaine addiction.  
  • I confess to even geekier pursuits (The mind reels!)
  • I conclusively prove that Europeans are waaaaaaay more advanced in the realm of board game appreciation, if not personal hygiene. Kidding! 
Game on, folks!

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