Saturday, May 29, 2010

Two Minutes Older: Games People Play

Many friends were in ecstasies when Viswanathan Anand recently won against Topalov to remain World Chess Champion and I suppose it was a famous victory. But I have to confess, I don’t get chess. It might have something to do with how badly I play it – my inclination is always to kill everything on the board off in the most bloodthirsty way so that the game can end as quickly as possible and I can return to reading.

Calling chess just another board game is, for the enthusiast or the fanatic, a sacrilege on par with calling the Mahabharata a family feud. As with that other epic battle, some might say of chess as a game, ‘What is not found here is found nowhere.’

I don’t know. As far as I can tell a board game – yes, even chess - is a piece of cardboard, cloth or plastic, a few pieces and several complicated rules. Sometimes, when my friendless, hobbled monarch is being chased all over the board and my mind is full of vengeful thoughts, I want to meet the creator of the game in some dark alley. All that this tells me about human nature is that it hates to be thwarted.

What kind of a perverse mind comes up with board games?

Recently I had the chance to find out. A friend, who has long wanted to quit his job as investment banker and do something creative, has always met with the sort of fragile, tentative encouragement that is reserved for people who are sitting on a narrow ledge outside a window on the 33rd floor of a building. At one time he claimed he wanted to design video games. I recalled the time I wanted to be a world-famous flamenco dancer and muttered a mental ‘yeah, right!’

It turns out that this friend, while he may not have designed the next Grant Theft Auto, had certainly acted upon his intentions. As he unpacked a box that once contained visiting cards, he told me about the board game he had created.

It was – what else? – a battle. Each player got a certain number of cards that gave her certain powers. The ‘board’ was a series of face-down l-shaped pieces that each player had to turn up before playing. There were up to four dies, and various ways in which to use them and the cards to play the game.

The rules were incredibly complex, but as with all board games, they became clearer as we began to play. ‘How long did it take you to do all this?’ I asked.

‘Oh, not long – a couple of weeks,’ my friend replied carelessly and I was speechless with admiration.

In a couple of weeks he had not only thought up the game and its levels of play and rules, but had also hand-made every piece of the game: the dies out of play-doh; the l-shaped, piece-meal board; the playing cards; the pieces (painted-over Scrabble tiles. Now that was sacrilege).

The rules were still being worked out as we played. We tried out different rules to see what would happen to the game. Would it make it too easy? Could the difficulty be split up into another level of play? I felt like the person who made sure there was a duster handy while Einstein was at work.

A few days after that, I happened to read about another bunch of people who spent their genius on inventing board games. Apparently, at an Anglo-Dutch board game conference, two days are reserved for a special event: odds and ends from other board games are all put into a kitty and randomly handed out to participants, who have to invent a new game with every bit of what they’ve been dealt, and make it work (or play) well.

When I told my friend about this, he was thrilled. I imagined his eyes glazing over with ambition and beautiful dreams, and left him to it. Geekiness is its own reward.

I may not have changed my mind entirely about playing board games, but I am beginning to see the adrenalising effects of inventing them. I’m even hoping my friend manages to market his game some day.

(An edited version of this in Zeitgeist, the Saturday edition of The New Indian Express.)


Fëanor said...

A spiffy name. That's what your friend's board game needs. Spiffiness is half the battle.

Space Bar said...

feanor: i think so. i think so. and you made the half-the-battle-won one before i did. bah.

G. Ames said...

Yes we would be talking about a sub standard performance definitely, but saying that this is the mark of Champions, a team that wins without playing at its best, a team that wins ugly. And, in truth, we did win 1-0 because that Green error was so catastrophic, so absurd, so impossible to legislate for, that it shouldn't really come into the equation. Except, of course, it was ALWAYS going to happen if Green was selected. And now Capello has a nightmare problem: pick Green and risk a repeat, or put a replacement under the microscope, knowing he is only there because the first pick has made a terrible blunder. I would have picked Hart from the start. Now I might go with James because of his experience. I would not select Green under any circumstances.