Imagine Paul sat by a crackling fire, speaking calmly to you in his warm, academic, almost mahogany voice…
In fifty years time I shall be a very wrinkly and very old man, but all the stats suggest I’ll still be very much alive and, I imagine, probably still playing board games too. I imagine myself sat with the odd youngster now and then, perhaps grandchildren, great nephews, or just the odd whippersnapper who has tossed a coin in my cup and told me to get a job, but whoever it is I’m sure they’ll ask me what board games were like in my day.
“Board games?” I’ll ask, with a Santa-like twinkle in my eye, a Twainish bounce in my crazy-old-dude hair, “Oh, well it was all very different back then. They didn’t self-assemble, for a start. In fact, it was all something like this…”
“Why is everything going wobbly?!” the Dickensian sprog would cry. “I am afeared!”
“Worry not, tis but a flashback! A flashback to… TORPEDO RUN.”
“Of course, when I was wee, the war was still on. All of England Isle was blockaded on every side by the Gibrovian Navy and many of our favourite Eurogames and Ameritrash couldn’t get through. Even King George IX himself was hit by board game rationing and we once saw pictures of the Royal Family having to make do with a copy of Ludo. The country was at a low.
“Then Torpedo Run came along and changed everything. Invented by those boffins at Bletchley Park, it was a dexterity game that you laid out on the floor, or a huge table if you had one, and upon which you arranged a battleship and a fleet of destroyers, before loading up your submarine with plastic discs and then firing those discs across the board to blow those ships to bits!”
“Not ‘alf. Each ship had a little hole at the bottom of its hull and you were trying to fire your discs into those. Bits of each ship’s superstructure were attached by elastic bands, and a little jolt would release them and send them flying into the air!”
“What’s more, Torpedo Run was such an accurate simulation of naval warfare that we were able to yank many of our youths out of the mines and chuck them straight into boiler rooms or submarines. It turned the war right around and within a year Prime Minister Cummington Cabbage was able to claim victory over the Gibrovian Fascists, although we’d won a war that the Americans again tried to take credit for, even though they joined it late and insisted on fighting every battle in wigs.”
“It must’ve been fantastic, Mister Paul,” the child will say, almost adrift in their own fascination.
“Well. Well. Actually, quite often you’d find the elastic didn’t work properly, so it wouldn’t release ship components when they were struck, or it would be too sensitive and even a slight nudge would make all the vulnerable parts of your battleship explode after one near miss. It was just the sort of ropey manufacturing that inspired a thousand arguments.”
“Oo, look at the size of those guns on that battleship! Could you move them about?”
“Did the game have all sorts of interesting rules?”
“Of course, after the war came Space Crusade, inspired by our own attempts to colonise that dangerous and alien land we now call Wales,” I’ll say as I tap my nose.
“How exciting, Mister Paul! Did you really wear such strange clothes when you were younger?”
“Yes,” I’ll reply, “All our space suits really were gold, and we had lashings of ginger beer piped directly into our mouthpieces. Of course, back in my day we still had to read a lot of things too, rather than sit passively and unquestioningly accept the media that was pumped into our brains, so I wrote a piece about it way back. It’s probably been censored since. Space Crusade was followed up by Advanced Space Crusade, which nobody bought.”
“Nobody bought?!” the child’s eyes would widen like the petals of a young flower, opening up to receive the sunlight of knowledge. They receive a flash of inspiration: “But in that advert the child shouts ‘Plasma gun!’ while revealing a card that shows ‘plasma grenades.’”
“That’s true, but then nothing in that advert remotely resembles how you’d play the game. Just like how the HeroQuest advert was also complete and total nonsense.”
“Oh, Mister Paul,” the child will reply, in an almost seasoned tone, “We’ve all seen that advert. We’ve all mocked it. We’ve all done the silly voices of the children. We’ve all asked if it was Christopher Lee who did the voiceover, and not yet met anyone who could give us a firm answer.”
My frustration will rise. “But don’t you see?! It’s not that, it’s the fact that you don’t play the damn cards that way! The whole advert is entirely inaccurate! It’s a false representation of the game!”
“Do not bellow so!” the child suddenly cries at me, as if possessed of the voice of a Titan, “I am but a fictional representation, a gentle caricature of your own devising through which you indulge in this neo-Platonic dialogue of self-obsessed retro-bilge. I suppose you want to talk about Key to the Kingdom now, too?”
Taken aback, I’ll find myself almost lost for words. “No I do not! Give me some respect. I’d never play a game with such an embarrassing advert. In fact, I don’t remember anyone I know ever buying that, we all the advert was utter tosh. Nor did I ever play the nonsense that was Guess Who. Well, perhaps once.”
“…And I most certainly did not expect the game cards to talk to me. I wasn’t that idiotic. No, uh, in my quaint bedroom under the stairs I was actually playing Ghost Castle, which was endlessly rebranded and reprinted. Some people knew it as Which Witch? or The Real Ghostbusters Game. Here’s a video of it in Dutch, which we all spoke back then, and which nevertheless demonstrates that it was a roll and move game with the most tenuous excuse for dropping a skull onto the board that was supposed to make a few shoddy components move, such as a floor shake or an axe fall. Something they rarely did.”
“I suppose,” the child will go on, hands on hips, “you’re going to say that, as you got older, these adverts got wiser, more savvy and less Dutch.”
I will sense the conversation is slipping away from me. “Well, no,” will be my limp reply.
“In fact,” I explain, wagging my arthritic finger, “I’ve got a perfectly legitimate point to make. The 1980s were the peak of board games advertising, probably the time when they’d have the strongest audience. Since then, we experienced a sad decline. That was no doubt due to the meteoric rise of computer games. It was a little strange, really, as our board games got smarter and smarter, were increasingly better designed and came forward in leaps and bounds. They presented all kinds of clever systems and scenarios for us to get involved with. By, oh, 2012, I was really hoping we’d see them advertised en masse once more. I remember thinking that it was time for things to turn around, time for us all to return to the tabletop. After all, we were all gamers one way or another. What do you have to say to that, eh, you little brat?”
“I hate people who use that phrase,” the child will sneer, “Meteors, by definition, are falling towards the earth.”
“I hope you fall off a bridge,” I’ll say, as the pompous little thing stamps all over my nostalgia.
And that, my friends, is typical of the kind of quaint daydream I indulge in, and of how such things take a tragic tangent. I don’t know if I miss these adverts in particular, but I do miss adverts on television that were telling us to play together. They were as much adverts for friendship as they were for any particular product.
Board games are coming back. We said it when we started the series and many of you already knew this. Here’s hoping the advertising is too.