Saturday, January 28, 2006

In Search of Lost Time, Part 2

Part 1 is here.

I had always enjoyed board games and card games as a yougster, and yet if I had ever bothered to think about it, I never would have said that they were a favorite among my various pastimes. Such starry-eyed innocence could not last for long, however. My first contact with the world of grown-up gaming came in 1981 when my parents surprised us with a subscription to Games magazine. For those who are not familiar with the publication, Games is a monthly collection of puzzles and crosswords, and a rather good one at that, but what was important was its annual "Games 100" issue. The Games 100 was a fancy little list of the best available toys for adults; naturally games made up most of the entries, but the feature was also peppered with numerous Rubik's Cube wannabes, proto-electronic handheld games and Neanderthal console systems. Initially I did not make much distinction between the board games and the other forms of entertainment; in addition to 221-B Baker Street and the Blokus ancestor Sudden Death, we also asked "Santa" for the puzzle Missing Link, the programmable tank Big Trak and a beeping beige gadget called Electronic Detective. What I wanted most, however, and which I pointedly did not receive, was a pair of foam fencing swords; I believe that it was judged that my brother and I would find endless occasion for mischief with these devices in our hands and that they might have put my little sister's life in no small peril. In retrospect, my parents may have been right. Anyway, I pored through those pages for hours on end, and I couldn't help but notice and wonder at such mysterious titles as Cosmic Encounter, Diplomacy, Junta, Kingmaker, Speed Circuit, Source of the Nile and War of the Ring.

Everything changed one night in 1982 when my older brother announced at the dinner table that he had joined an after-school game of something called "Dungeons & Dragons". We were all mystified.

"How do you play?"

"You have a character and you go on adventures."

"Adventures where?"


"How do you know when you've won?"

"You don't win. You just play."

"But what are you actually doing?"

He explained, somewhat sulkily, that he had spent the afternoon slaying a giant rat. We all had a good laugh about that, and yet I was chartreuse with envy. In the months that followed I pestered him daily to let me look at his D&D stuff, and, when he eventually grew bored with the game and I inherited his AD&D Player Handbook, I became obsessed with rolling up piles of little paper characters ready for the moment when I found someone to play with.

Well, I never did play D&D all that much—there were too few people interested, it was too hard to get together, and no one was willing to DM for more than two sessions in a row. However, what ended up being more significant than D&D itself was my exposure through D&D to the gaming hobby in general, particularly through the pages of Dragon magazine. I became excited by the idea of challenging play, or more precisely challenging play which did not involve sprinting. However, I soon realized that I had to scale my gaming ambitions down from a big, rollicking role-playing group to something a little less personnel-intensive, and with that in mind I made my first board game purchase, Attack of the Mutants, a cheapie loss leader that I saw advertised in Dragon. The game was a light two-player wargame about a horde of bloodthirsty and immoral mutants trying to break through the defenses of a top secret laboratory in order to reach the chewy scientist center, and it is still somewhat famous in our family mythology because I was constantly (and somewhat na├»vely) trying to coax father, mother and brother into playing it with me and everyone hated it. Amusingly enough, my mother ended up being my primary opponent, as she felt sorry for me and she was at least a little amused by the fact that the mutants were all named after TV characters of the '50s and '60s. I suppose the idea of a radioactive cannibal Donna Reed is pretty funny when you think about it.

The following Christmas saw a change in focus when I scoured the Games 100, as it was now the games that began calling to me. There seemed to be more life in these complex little microcosms than then there could ever be in the wrist-sprainers and the Mongoloid LED daemons; it was as if the rules were magic incantations that would open a door to another world. I was particularly intrigued by the otherworldly Cosmic Encounter and the thoroughly taboo Grass, but in the end I settled for the aerial dogfight game Ace of Aces. This was my first taste of "serious" gaming, and it introduced me to the notion of games in which complexity and difficulty were a cachet. Even learning the game, let alone playing it, was like the indoctrination into a secret society, and this appealed to me a great deal.

The honeymoon for Ace of Aces was somewhat short, however, as my brother and I were soon frustrated by the fact that we couldn't understand why certain choices led to certain results.* Luckily, around about the same time I scored a direct hit with a pair of fantastic** two-player games, the TSR second edition of The Awful Green Things from Outer Space and Snit's Revenge. Nothing could have been a better fit; I loved the themes, I loved the artwork, and I loved the games. The unfolding of the story of the doughty crew of the Znutar and their struggle against alien infiltration and crippling Zgwortz shortage took over my imagination completely. Most importantly, for the first time ever I had a friend who was actually enthusiastic about being on the other side of the table, and I have fond memories of those first peewee gaming sessions.

Now I was hooked, and it was not long after this point—it must have been 1983 or 1984—that this same friend and I one day discovered that the funky toy store that we sometimes visited in nearby Bethel, Connecticut had little "Pocket Games" for sale. We each bought a two-player game, he Ogre and I Necromancer, but I was emboldened to aspire to a multiplayer gaming session by something really really cool, which was Illuminati. I got it home, read the rules, signed my Bavarian Illuminati membership card, and that was that: I loved it. It was the greatest thing I had ever seen or heard of, and, better still, against all odds I actually managed to organize a group of semi-regular victims to come over to my house and play the thing. The games themselves were exercises in pure Machiavellian evil; there were solemn oaths of loyalty immediately followed by vicious backstabbery; there were lies, extortion, and dealings of a low and infamous nature; sometimes there was punching. Oh man, what a blast. Not only did I buy the three following expansions but also the issue of Space Gamer that featured the Monty Python Illuminati. You know things are bad when the Spanish Inquisition controls the post office.

Our tenuous gaming group also enjoyed King of the Tabletop, a Tom Wham*** do-it-yourselfer from the pages of Dragon. This was just an out-and-out dicefest, but the little chits had a lot of personality and there was a simplistic empire-building element to it which I thoroughly enjoyed. Though it did not see as much table time as Illuminati, I loved the game to bits, so much so that in a recent fit of acute nostalgia I re-acquired the back issue of Dragon which featured the game and made myself a new, deluxe copy. Will I ever get a chance to play it? Doubtful. But you never know.

More games followed. I had three books in the Lost Worlds series, namely the fighter-mage, the cold drake and the hill giant; I acquired a ton of Car Wars stuff, and I once even hosted a free-for-all in the Armadillo Autoduel Arena, though I was eliminated in the first ten minutes and so had to sit the rest of the game out; finally I reached the pinnacle of gamerhood with the acquisition of a copy of Axis and Allies.

And then, sometime in 1985...everything stopped. Going into my sophomore year of high school, I reluctantly came to understand that cardboard counters and specialty dice were considered aggressively uncool by most of my peers, and that conflicted with my secret ambitions to attend parties, drink Budweiser and make girls with poofy hair fall in love with me. Other interests were also encroaching, and all my money was soon being immediately handed over to the local record shops. The last hurrah of my bronze age of gaming was an exciting and evocative Call of Cthulhu campaign GM'ed by my old friend Neil. Good ol' Neil; he fudged every rule in the book to keep our guys alive.

And yet I still loved gaming, and even though I had put away all of the wyverns and cabals and killer cars, I found I could still fly under the radar of draconian teenage fashion demands with a deck of playing cards. I picked up myself a copy of Hoyle's, and cribbage became my game of choice for the remainder of my high school years. I almost lapsed back into gamerism on my arrival at college when I visited the initial session of the campus gaming group, but I bolted after becoming affrighted by the profound nerdiness of the members thereof. Instead, I added gin rummy, spades, scopa, chess and darts to my repertoire, and in such pursuits spent many happy hours not-really-gaming with not-really-gamers. I would continue posing as a not-really-gamer for quite some time, even after 1995 when I got hooked on M:tG boosters. It wasn't until I had been secretly ducking in and out of game stores for two or three years that I suddenly thought, "you know, maybe it would be fun to get a new board know, just for kicks. Maybe they still have that Games 100 like when I was a kid? Hey, they do! Hmmm...this 'El Grande' sounds kind of interesting...."

It's all been one long Lost Weekend ever since.


* Interestingly, someone at the office owns the game and just recently explained the hex-map underpinnings of the system to me. Now it all makes perfect sense.

** Or so I thought at the time.

*** Author of Awful Green Things and Snit's Revenge, don'tcha know.


Rick said...

Really great 2-parter Joe, had a good time reading it. If you got to hang out in the "not-really-a-gamer" crowd for a while, then it may have all been worth it!

Thanks for sharing.

DWTripp said...

Even learning the game, let alone playing it, was like the indoctrination into a secret society, and this appealed to me a great deal.

As usual, you manage to winnow things down to a core motivation or insight. I have tried to explain this very point to people I know who fail to see the appeal. Usually with no luck.

This is really one of the major draws that gaming has to many of us and even though I'm not smug about belonging to a secret society, it is pretty special. Nice read, thanks for the excellent overview.

gamesgrandpa said...

Great story. I enjoyed it much. This quote really caught my attention: "it was as if the rules were magic incantations that would open a door to another world." A beautiful description and quite accurate. That could be said of many great games (or great books, for that matter, and perhaps a few great speeches).

The Games Magazine 100 was how I first discovered Euro-games, when I clicked on the Funagain website to see about purchasing one of the games in the 100 list and found a link to BGG.