Board Games People Play

THEY say it's true of novels, so it's probably true of board games: Everyone has at least one inside wanting to get out.

To date I haven't discovered the corner where lurks my novel, but I did once invent a board game. I was convinced, for awhile, that it would be the answer to all my financial exigencies. Who doesn't remember hearing how the inventor of Monopoly, even during the Depression, became a millionaire? Nor, by now, can the Trivial Pursuit people be short of a cent or two.

But the catch is that either most people's game has already been invented by someone else - Parker Brothers must have seen them all - or it has some built-in insuperable flaw. Mine was of the latter persuasion.

It was a game for would-be art collectors. The aim was as sublime as it was simple: to put together the ideal collection of 10 masterpieces. There were intricate details I have now entirely forgotten, but I know that an hourglass was of the essence and that steadily inflating prices were one of the many hazards encountered by the players as they strove to display on their private "wall" (like the repository for letters in Scrabble) one Impressionist, one Renaissance portrait, one Picasso, and so on. Then

there would be a sudden collapse of the market; or a trusted dealer would sell you a fake.

I remember feeling an extraordinary sense of competitive urgency taking me over, in the dread that someone else, probably thousands of miles away, was busy inventing exactly the same game, and might patent it first. We inventors are often prey to such worries. Some friends and I played my game a few times. Various modifications were made to the prototype. But the flaw flummoxed me. We could find no way of actually winning, and therefore ending, the game. It just went on forever. I had invented perpetual motion - useful in clocks, but a doubtful thing in board games.

I never did apply for a patent. Other events interceded. Then, years later, I heard that a game on a similar theme was indeed on the market. I've never checked. I wish the perpetrators all the success they deserve: Their game probably has a conclusion.

Actually, the impossibility of ending a game is not necessarily a demerit. Anyone who has ever played Monopoly with only one other person will have experienced, if the properties and cash distribute themselves evenly, the peculiar delights of an all-night stalemate. Both parties become immensely rich and overbearingly propertied as the wee hours accumulate, and the desired monopoly continues to elude either one. Even at dawn, I still own Park Place and Boardwalk and all the utilities, while my opponent h as all the Railroads and his hotels have prolifically sprouted all over the board. With every move we hand each other, almost automatically, multiple thousands. The only comfortable place is jail. Breakfast at last stops play.

Now, in so-called maturer days, it is amazing to look back and realize just how much childhood, and after, was taken up playing board games. Not just board games, of course, but card games of different sorts and ping-pong as well. Long swathes of Saturday evenings or Sunday afternoons, particularly if it was raining, could be happily sacrificed to draughts (which Americans call checkers), Cluedo (Clue), or to Monopoly. It was, at root, a glorious way of wasting time in defiance of all the organized time,

the routine, to which we were so extensively subjected. It was sociable. It was competitive without being really seriously so - unlike the "games" of cricket, rugby, and hockey imposed upon us by school.

I suppose even in our spare-time games, like kittens playing with balls of wool, we were playing at life without realizing it - though for myself it does not seem to have prepared me much for dealing with taking out mortgages or property ownership. I've never solved a murder mystery in real life. In fact, those board games may have made me think of such matters as if they are not quite serious.

Paper money never seems entirely real to me, somehow. The calculated termination of Professor Plum with a candlestick in the dining room seems somehow a consummation to be devoutly wished, on the whole, rather than matter for the courts.

I don't have the opportunity to play board games as often today. This is not because they are being squeezed out of existence by Supernintendo and other computer games; there still seems to be a market for board games old and new. Shop shelves still sport an array of non-electronic games from Backgammon and Yahtzee to "An Evening with Dracula: The Fright of Your Life." While there are board games around of dubious intent (what, for instance, is "Taboo, The Game of Unspeakable Fun"?), there are others inn ocent enough to engage granny and her grandchildren in satisfying and harmless combat.

Then there are a host of games which increasingly require intelligence or at least good memories: "Reminiscing (The Game for People Who Remember the Beatles)," sounds rather testing to me, and I don't know what "Scattergories" might be like.

The Shakespearean quotes game I was given this Christmas turned out not to require knowledge of anything much more than how to play charades badly, though a small command of Elizabethan English helps.

ON the whole, I don't think games requiring university degrees work very well. You shouldn't have to be all that bright to play a board game. Some of my school friends were chess freaks, but I have always found this game intimidatingly intellectual. Too much like hard work. The boys who played chess had that air of tight-knuckled concentration that comes from excessive thinking, from the ability to plan ahead, to anticipate moves. Not my idea of fun at all. Mostly what I like are the silly games, when daf t circumstances develop beyond rational control, where to lose is no slur on the intellect (since no sliver of intellect is involved) and to win is a glory to be celebrated by hoops of dramatized euphoria.

Of course, games are great equalizers. Children are just as likely to trounce you as you them, if the game has just the right amount of unpredictability built into it, and not too much know-how required. My idea of a worthwhile game was ever nontaxing. "Snakes and Ladders" and "Ludo" were in my line when very young; and a marvelous game called "Sorry" was close to my heart when a little older. "Sorry," particularly, involves a delicious degree of frustration and last-minute hazard. It looks as if your o pponent can't help but win, and yet things can still go radically wrong for him as you well surge ahead from miles behind and trounce him at last. Or, of course, vice versa.

Knowledge games proliferate alarmingly today, and I can't say I'm all that keen on these either. I have even heard that some devotees prepare themselves for Trivial Pursuit by learning the answers. How can they so easily overlook the name of the game?

Famous in my house is the occasion I couldn't think what the "first name of a famous 5th-century king of the Huns" was. Everyone was groaning because it was so easy. Oh, come on, Christopher! Oh, for heaven's sake! You know that!!!

But I had gone into amnesia-plus, and probably wouldn't have remembered Bill the Bard's name in such a state. As a last-second stab at something, I blurted out "Oh! How about Oleg?" The laughter still reverberates. Oleg, Oleg the Hun. They sing it in the streets. They call it from the housetops. They chuckle in sudden merriment at the thought. Who says board games are fun?

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