[Our series on the collections of our writers continues! Today it’s the turn of long-time contributor Matt Thrower. If you missed our previous entries, you can now navigate to them using those buttons on the right. Enjoy, everybody!]
Thrower: Well hello there! Nice of you to stop by. Hope you had a good journey. It’s rare we get the chance to entertain adult visitors, with all the space the children take up. So, please, let me show you round the house.
The first thing you learn as a parent is that every other parent lives in a pristine house. Even when chasing after kids has left them looking like exhausted pandas, their houses are still clean and tidy. Naturally, ours has to be the same. We’d all be happier if everyone could drop this charade and wallow in their familial filth. Anyway, it’s nice to have someone here who might appreciate the results.
Hang your coat up over there…
What, those games? Well, I guess they are an odd thing to keep in a hallway. But board games are a great family activity, and those are ones I play with the kids. Here, they’re easy to access but tucked out of sight, so people won’t see them and get the idea I’m some sort of appalling nerd.
Since you’re a regular at SU&SD you might have seen my Automobiles review. It’s kept pride of place since I wrote it, and is still seeing regular play. You might also know perennial site favourite Skull, which is there for party play. Gears of War and its tiny expansion I bought just because it was going out of print. I played it twice and it’s there as (a) a reminder to play it again and (b) a lesson not to buy games for no good reason.
You’d expect to see crowd pleasers like Codenames and King of Tokyo and they’re long-term residents. I have to force the kids to play Specter Ops but I love hidden movement games. I hope that having their father repeatedly pretend to be a werewolf and hunt them down doesn’t scar their childhoods too much. Tales of the Arabian Nights generates its own bedtime stories, as does the excellent Once Upon a Time.
Can we talk about Dungeonquest? That’s my favourite edition of one of my favourite games. Oh, but the tales it can tell! The obligatory first-turn death to a bottomless pit. That time I needed a corridor tile on my last turn and got one: pointing in the wrong direction. My eldest daughter getting a one-in-twelve roll and teleporting out of the dragon’s lair with a single health left. Inside the box there’s a home-made scroll on which we record stories of successful escapes together with their tally.
I’ve still got my first edition copy with both expansions because the figures are beautiful and I can’t bear to part with its own stories. It’s interesting- what keeps you going in the game is hope. The knowledge that one more card, one more dice roll could (against the odds!) turn the game in your favour. And it’s hope that keeps me hanging on to two versions of the same game. The hope I don’t have to grow up and leave my childish things behind.
Now, come upstairs and get a towel. You’ll need a towel if you’re going to stay and I bet you didn’t bring one. Not taking Douglas Adams’ advice eh? Tut tut. Open the airing cupboard and grab one off the pile.
Ah, yes, well I do need somewhere to keep the games I play with grown-ups. Got to put them somewhere to keep the place tidy, so why not with the towels? Yeah, okay, maybe I am a little bit of a nerd.
I can’t resist telling you about Border Reivers. There are only a hundred copies of it in existence. It was made by Jackson Pope who founded short-lived publisher Reiver Games. He wanted to see how the print process worked so he sent one of his own designs off to a professional printer and that was the result. It’s a good, semi-abstract battle game which deserves to be better known. And it reminds me that games can help people grow and create, and can be so much more than us just accumulating boxes.
Speaking of battle games, there’s Cosmic Encounter, the box of which has been totally broken by the weight of expansions inside. Imperial Assault is going the same way. Unrelated except by title, that’s Imperial, the best economic Eurogame ever made, masquerading as a world conquest game. In the same genre, that yellow and black box is the original edition of Nexus Ops. The Fantasy Flight one is better known but the original has the best pieces. They look like they’re made of jelly, reek of solvents and glow under UV light. Hands in the Sea is a wargame about the first Punic War, and it was the best game I played last year.
In fact, this cupboard is a veritable trove of SU&SD favourites. We’ve got Alchemists and Ticket to Ride – the Europe version, of course, for maximum geography education value – plus Star Wars: Armada and Conflict of Heroes. Most observant of you to notice that the cupboard is the entire width of the staircase. Yes, there is a whole other layer of games behind. Yes, that top shelf is bending under the sheer weight of them. No, I’m not going to pull all of the front ones out to show you. There’s Five Tribes and Mansions of Madness and Scrabble, everyone loves Scrabble, right? No?
Never mind how many games I own, look how many clothes you bought! If you need to hang some up, use my wardrobe.
On second thoughts, maybe you’ll just have to live out of your luggage. I suppose I could move that big box there, it’s my X-Wing collection, but there’s nowhere else to put it. Yes, it is games all the way down. You can’t quite see but under all the spaceships there’s Quantum and Ra. Peeking out on the bottom right is glorious dexterity game Pitchcar. I keep my socks and pants in the right hand cupboard, along with Sekigahara and Robinson Crusoe and others. They’re good games, and they deserve better company than my underwear. But needs must and all that.
You’ll see that Quinn’s favourite Memoir ’44 has pride of place there but what’s more interesting to me is the game to its right in the red box. That’s Commands & Colors: Napoleonics and buried somewhere else in that pile is Commands & Colors: Ancients. These are Memoir’s big siblings, all the fun of never having the right command cards with added realism and strategy. Except instead of miniatures they come with hundreds of wooden blocks you have to put stickers on yourself. I’ve never actually finished stickering a whole set, never mind the expansions that litter the house in various states of completion.
I’m going to take a moment to tell you about that big wooden box on top of the wardrobe. Here, help me get it down. It’s heavy. Now, I’ll just unclip the lid and … voila!
It’s a custom box for Arkham Horror. I love the game but I hated sorting out all the cards every time we wanted to play. Especially once you throw expansions in. Now, my Dad tries to take an interest in my hobby but he’s never understood it. He tried playing D&D with me when I was a teen and he always turned left in dungeons (which was fine until he wandered into a trackless maze in the Desert of Desolation).
Anyway, I explained this problem and he made me this box as a present. All I have to do is throw open the lid and we’re ready to go. He built it from bits of leftover wood he had in his shed, but I don’t care. Funny, isn’t it, how we ascribe value to objects? All the games I keep stuffed into corners and closets I could sell, but I don’t. This box is worthless, yet it’s the most precious object in my entire collection.
All right. Perhaps I do have a problem with board games. I own more that I could realistically play. But whenever I think I might have too many, I remind myself about Mike Siggins. He edited the first magazine about European-style games in the UK, called SUMO, now defunct. In an interview once he said he realised he had too many games the day he couldn’t close his upstairs doors any more. The enormous weight of games in the attic was putting too much pressure on the lintels.
Well, maybe I do have some games in the attic too. But not that many. I want to prove it to you, so let’s get the ladder down and take a look. Oh no, that huge pile of boxes there aren’t games. They’re just inserts and empty expansion boxes. Doesn’t everyone keeps their empty expansion boxes in the loft? No, the games are over there to the left.
I sometimes forget what I’ve got up here. I recently opened my copy of War of the Ring, unplayed in years, and found an expansion I didn’t know I had. You seem to take an interest in this stuff, so I can’t resist showing you some of the more interesting things I’ve got up here. There’s some bigger-box games like Mechs vs Minions for starters because this is the only place I can keep them out of sight. You can see some others if you peer in the sides of the boxes. Labyrinth I need to get out again now it’s got an expansion for modern politics. Settlers of Catan, of course, is a hobby game that deserves to be in the mass market while Balderdash is a mass market game that deserves recognition in the hobby.
Let’s take the lid off one.
You might not think memories would need quite such a large box, but that’s what it contains. See Titan? The original Avalon Hill edition is what got me into board gaming. It takes forever but it’s so good. We used to sit up until the small hours, on a Monday for no good reason, just in hope of actually finishing a session. The game is all about recruiting sets of creatures to get better creatures, an unholy fusion of strategy and gambling. No-one cared when we gave up and went home. It was all about huge fistfuls of dice, tottering piles of creature counters and the crazy geometric board.
Some of my oldest games are in there too. I’ve held on to that original copy of Space Hulk over four reprints because I don’t actually like the super-detailed board and figures of the later editions. The stark, simplistic purity of that edition helps keep up the atmosphere. And there’s another game so good that I kept two copies, Fury of Dracula. You can see the Games Workshop one has been badly battered by my love for it. It’s very different from the Fantasy Flight reprints, indeed it might surprise you what a short, streamlined and magnificent game it is. Most of the bells and whistles that FFG added seem to be there to try and stop the Dracula player from cheating which is very easy in the original version. But I’ve always said that if that’s the problem you have with the game, you need a new friends and not a redesign.
D’you know, that’s not all there is. If you look carefully round the house, you’ll find games hidden in all sorts of funny places. In little cupboards. Mixed in with books. Stuffed down the side of sofas. Anywhere that helps me pretend I’m a normal, tidy parent and not someone scheming to get their primary school kids to play Here I Stand. It’ll be great preparation for high-school history. It’s that sort of silly excuse that leaves me with so many.
I know what Quinns said about Diskwars but it’s a surrogate for all the years I spent playing miniatures Warhammer. Same goes for Silver Tower to some extent. I’ve been painting and modelling since age ten, and it’s hard to let go of. All those hours of life, bent over a bench under a desk lamp trying to make zombies look pretty.
Maybe that’s what all these game are about. Trying to recapture those boyish voyages of imagination. Not caring about whether we should interpret a given rule one way or another, or about whether you wrote on the components if it made the game better. Playing a game over and over, changing it, making it yours. Because that’s one of the best things a tabletop game can do that a video game can’t.
Or maybe it’s hope? The audacious optimism that one day, there’ll be time and space to play again. Hope is central to the appeal of an awful lot of games, whether it’s the next die roll or wondering whether or not your neighbour has spotted that you only left two troops in Irkutsk. If us board gamers run on hope, maybe it’s not surprising that so many of us want to hope for a better future too, while we carry on piling the boxes higher and higher around ourselves. Sorry. I don’t blame you for wanting to go. There’s nowhere for you to unpack, nor enough space for you to sleep. Still, at least if you leave I can close my upstairs doors. …for now.