[SU&SD is hugely proud to introduce the Ludological Investigation Society. A regular column on not just what we’re playing, but how we play, written by none other than England’s own Lord Custard Smingleigh.
In this inaugral column Smingleigh offers a heartfelt tale of play, galactic war, and more beautiful boys than he.]
It was the end of the school year at St. Punishment’s School for Boys, and we had finished our end of year exams. Our school work was done, but our time still belonged to the school until it had finished forcing the oldest boys through the educational sausage machine that is the GCSE system, so the teachers allowed us to bring something in to entertain ourselves.
Some brought in decks of cards (with strict gambling prohibition enforced by form master Dr. Blandshaw), some brought in books and magazines, some brought in Game Boys (I’m dating myself here, aren’t I?), and I brought in a board game.
The very concept of “Board Game” was at that point tainted in the minds of my peers by games such as Snakes and Ladders, Monopoly, and Chess. They were considered either unacceptably childish or unacceptably intellectual, but this… This was like an emissary from another world. Battle for the Galaxy: Zylatron. It was a sci-fi battle in a huge box adorned with art that drew every eye as the rest of the class passed me by on the way in. I set it up on two desks pushed together as it would overhang just one, the game distorting the usually sacrosanct geography of the classroom by its presence alone. The pieces, fairly abstract in design, looked sleek and futuristic, like a chess set from the year 5000 and the cheap coloured plastic seemed to glow in the cheap fluorescent lighting.
I picked Blue. My friend Yardley picked Yellow. Our armies and fleets were lined up on half the board and we were about to do battle, when all of a sudden, I noticed the classroom had become very quiet and we were not alone in our corner. My eyes quickly flickered over the board, wondering if I would be scrabbling about on the floor trying to save the irreplaceable pieces from the stamping feet of schoolboys seconds from now. Then someone spoke.
“Mind if I play?” he asked.
It was Rickmansworth. There are popular kids, there are sporty kids, and there are smart kids. In my class I had to suffer the unfairness that Rickmansworth was popular, good at sports, and smart. But on the Board popularity and strength don’t matter. The Board is my territory.
I wordlessly gestured to the Red planet and he sat. Unbidden, his friend Garibaldi sat and took Green. I laid out their pieces. Yardley and Garibaldi were quickly forgotten. Their conflict raged in their half of the board, but it might as well have been a separate game entirely. My focus was Rickmansworth and his Red armies.
His Warriors fought and died valiantly to hold the line in front of his city factories. My Starfighters repeatedly tried to batter their way through his defences to get close enough to dislodge him from the lucrative central city of the board but were repulsed time and again. My Battleships fought with his in the open space that he needed to control to bring reinforcements into the central battlefield but I couldn’t get past his fortified moon. Spectators called out tactical suggestions and smacktalk, and some started placing surreptitious wagers, rising to the heady sums of £1.
I’d like to say this epic duel was fought to a resounding victory with the screaming cheers of a delirious class of schoolkids. I’d prefer to tell a tale in which I triumphed at the last, earning the respect of the most popular kid in the class and ended up being carried shoulder-high across the playground to usher in a new era of enlightenment. Sadly this isn’t a heartwarming coming-of-age earning-the-respect-of-his-peers morality fable. I lost.
His defence held the line long enough for his factories to turn his saved up income into unending numbers of Missiles. My pieces vanished in a storm of flipped over strike cards and he swept away my defences, landed Warriors on my homeworld to capture my capital, then turned to mop up Yardley and Garibaldi, who had fought each other to a state of decrepitude. What were his words of victory? Did he laud his opponents? Did he crow about his own prowess?
“This game,” he said, “is crap.”
He walked away without looking back.
A few years ago I recognised Rickmansworth in a pub in London while I was waiting for friends. We hadn’t spoken since St. Punishment’s. We hadn’t spoken at St. Punishment’s. I nodded to him. He nodded to me. We sat for a while, each alone at our respective tables, and then he got up and walked over to mine.
“Remember that game?”
The next meeting of the Ludological Investigation Society shall be on the broad subject of “House Rules”.
Isn’t it a marvellous thing, that changing the rules of our hobby is as as simple as just talking it over with the other players? That we’re free from the constraints of a dispassionate machine ticking away, enforcing the rules? Free to involve ourselves in the mechanics of any game and tinker to improve it, see what makes a game awesome, or just break bits and see what happens. I love breaking bits and seeing what happens.
Do you use house rules? Do you despise them and insist on rule purity? Do you have any good house rules to share? Do you have a good recipe for snacks? I love snacks. Drop a comment at the bottom of this article and I’ll tip my hat to you.
His Nibs, A. C. “Custard” Smingleigh, O.B.E. (Withdrawn)
Brigadier, Her Majesty’s 3rd Mounted Extremely Irregulars (Catering), (Discharged, Dishon.)