No huge build up this time around, just this: Campfire Burning returns for a final Tale.
It began with an adventure.
And Junior Scrabble, Steeplechase, Mouse Trap, Screwball Scramble, Kong Man and Monopoly.
Monopoly! Little Metal Dog Monopoly. The whole family arguing Monopoly. Board-flipping Monopoly.
No game ever finished Monopoly.
When I was a kid I played a game called Frustration. Stephen, the boy down the street had it, along with light-up Electronic Battleships and a Rubik’s Cube and Simon and many other games I’ve probably forgotten. Frustration was pretty much Ludo: it was a basic roll-and-move game where a player’s only choice was which of his four pieces to move along the track–except there was one crucial difference that made Frustration so much more exciting than Ludo ever was.
You didn’t roll the die in Frustration: you popped it.
Frustration was a Pop-O-Matic game. The die resided in a snow globe hemisphere at the centre of the board, and on your turn you pressed it down–clunk–and released it–pop! The die tumbled and you moved your piece.
Pop-O-Matic dice-rolling. That was exciting as board games were for me.
To begin a game of Frustration you needed to roll a six. You could be stuck on the starting line indefinitely, popping the centre sphere over and over without ever rolling the six you needed to get your first piece onto the board; after that, you still needed to roll three more sixes to get each of your four pieces moving, so you pressed the sphere–clunk, pop, clunk, pop– until your hand was a concave claw where the Pop-O-Matic roller had impressed itself upon your palm.
On your way around the track, if one of Stephen’s pieces landed on the same square as yours you’d be sent back to the beginning, to wait for another six.
When they named this game Frustration they weren’t fooling around.
Even once you’d finished circling the track you still had to roll the perfect number to get your pieces into their finishing positions: four perfect numbers, one for each piece, and all the while if they weren’t home and safe there was the constant danger Stephen would land on one of them and force you through the whole rigmarole all over again. It was an awful game, a cruel game, a game where fickle chance was both friend and enemy, and if it didn’t end with you and Stephen giving each other Whizzer & Chips shiners in an end-of-game brawl, that was only because you’d given up on Frustration in favour of well, something less frustrating.
I hated board games for the longest time. I didn’t get on with Mini Car Wars and could never afford one of those Games Workshop behemoths the other kids in class had. My entire Warhammer 40,000 army was two lead Orks and a Rhino painted Blood Angel red–even Belgium had a better army than that. I tried getting into role-playing games but lunchtimes were never long enough for Dungeons & Dragons, Rifts, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles & Other Strangeness. One by one these games were put away, to eventually be sold off or thrown out.
I played video games instead. A lot of us did.
Earlier this year video games designer Doug Church caused a stir in gaming circles by joining Valve Software. Both Church and Valve have an enviable back catalogue of video games: between them they were responsible for Half-Life, Thief, System Shock, Portal, Deus Ex, Ultima Underworld, Team Fortress 2. Church joining Valve was the video game equivalent of John Lennon joining the Rolling Stones.
PC gaming blog Rock Paper Shotgun announced this news with a picture of Church playing Arkham Horror. Valve hadn’t acquired the Arkham franchise; this was simply a library picture, the first they had to hand, that showed incidentally–like many other video games developers–that Doug Church plays board games.
Rather than talk about video games, more and more video game developers are talking about their RPG sessions and the board games they’ve played at the weekend. Irrational’s Ken Levine has posted pictures of his board game collection on Twitter. Ex-games journalist and current Marvel comics writer Kieron Gillen has tweeted about buying armies of miniatures from Mantic Games. Everywhere people who were once evangelical about video games now can’t keep their big geek mouths shut when it comes to tabletop gaming.
In a 2004 interview Church said video games were increasingly being marketed on story and character at the cost of what makes video games unique: their interactivity. He predicted in time games would become less interactive, so they might be marketed to an audience more used to non-interactive media. Trailers would convey a game’s story and characters rather than game mechanics too difficult to explain–after all, how can you show what it’s like to hide in shadows, sculpt a new world, and take part in a fifty man dungeon raid in a two minute trailer?
This shift away from interactivity accompanies the rise of the video games console. Console gaming, said Church, is about sitting on the sofa, twiddling a control pad and being entertained. In a lot of modern games, interactive sections of gameplay are something to be overcome in order to see the next set piece or the next part of the story. With these kinds of games so prevalent, gamers of a certain age have started going elsewhere for their interactivity fix.
You might think there’s nothing particularly interactive about board games–that they’re inert pieces of board and plastic. But when a player starts moving pieces and playing cards, that’s when the magic happens.
From the second I start playing a game, I bring it to life. Every decision I make–good or bad–moves the game forward; I’m constantly strategizing, looking at the board, looking at my cards and gauging my opponent’s reactions. If I’m playing a co-op game we talk tactics and work towards our shared goal. If not, I’m trying to get inside her head, hazarding guesses as to what she’ll do next, trying to outmaneuver her while she’s doing exactly the same thing to me.
Most non-gamers seem unaware that this is what board games are, now. They think our every decision is still made by dice. They must think we’re idiots; if every board game we played boiled down to the mechanics of Frustration, why the hell would we play them?
My gateway game was Dominion. I’d played Forbidden Island before it and loved it, but with Dominion, I fell in love with these games. Even thinking about it now makes me itch: combining cards together, building a deck, buying cards to amass greater wealth to buy more cards to–eventually–buy victory. Realising I could strike coppers and single victory points from my deck in order to make it leaner, faster, more powerful was a revelation. Playing a final hand to grab the last two provinces and win the game made me feel like a god.
It’s a feeling at odds with modern multiplayer video games. Playing Modern Warfare makes me feel weak, old. When I’m sniped from a distance or otherwise killed without knowing what’s going on, I don’t feel outmaneuvered: the game feels unfair. An elegant hand in Dominion is something to be appreciated and learned from, while a foul-mouthed kid with stealth perks is–once the game’s ended–just a foul-mouthed kid.
As split-screen multiplayer has dried up in favour of faceless online warfare, so people who might once have sat side by side on the settee playing GoldenEye now sit around a table playing board games. Public board game nights like those run by London On Board are becoming so popular they’re filling to capacity. People want to play games with each other, face to face. They want the challenge of learning something new, of interacting both with the game and with one another, where a win isn’t down to visual acuity and deftness of youth but cleverness, strategy and–sometimes–a lucky dice roll.
But I think there’s more to it than that. As mainstream video games become more like movies these cards, figurines and dice remind us of times spent playing, rather than simply being entertained. They exercise imagination, stimulate our sense of wonder: they’re toys we bring to life as surely as we once held epic space battles on the duvet or teddy bear picnics in the back garden. We think as we play, and play as we think, and we do it with our friends, as we used to, as we should.
These stupid bits of card have kept me writing about them for, God, more hours than I care to think of. I’ve enjoyed every second of it.
This is the last Tales from the Fireside column for The Little Metal Dog Show. I honestly don’t know how many of you there are reading this–if anyone is–but if you’ve accompanied me through dungeons, across battlefields and past innumerable flipped Monopoly boards on our journey through tabletop gaming, I thank you, I’m grateful.
There are, of course, more Tales to be told, and I expect–I hope–this column will be reborn again in the future.
The game comes to an end. Your pieces are nearly home–but so are Stephen’s. All either of you needs is the perfect number to move your final piece and win.
You touch the Pop-O-Matic hemisphere at the board’s centre. It’s cool and smooth; it looks like a snow globe but all it really is a fancy way of rolling dice.
You press it–clunk–and release it–pop!–and the die tumbles within its confines.
Slowly–so slowly it seems to take years–the die rolls to a stop.
I want to take a moment to publicly thank Campfire for his fantastic contribution to the site over the last months. His Tales from the Fireside have entertained the bejesus out of me and I’m sad to see them come to a close. However, his fine writing can always be found at his excellent blog – http://campfireburning.wordpress.com/ – and I’m sure that all readers will join me in thanking him too. Good luck to him – may he keep rolling those sixes!