Pip Remembers When Life was Just a Game
Pip: I think the first board game I ever thought of as a favourite was The Game Of Life.
We had a copy which I think my brother and sister and I had worn my parents down until they bought, then played properly only a handful of times (thus neatly adding fuel to their “board games are awful and we won’t have anything to do with them” fire). But I kept coming back to the box and opening it up at odd moments, sometimes working my way along the track on my own.
The spinner which told you how many spaces to move was one of the reasons I loved it so much. The rainbow colours made a kind of carousel effect as it spun. The little plastic flag thing on the side which indicated which number you’d stopped on made this wonderful-to-me-and-irritating-to-everyone else TTTTTTTT-TUH-TUH-TUH–-TUH––-TUH–––-TUH––––––––-TUH noise. It was a physically fun random number generator on a par with the dice you got in a travel edition of Frustration that my friend owned, where you pushed down on a little plastic bubble so the die inside jumped and rolled.
Our edition of The Game Of Life was from the early nineties. I don’t know what the most recent version is like but this one also had the snaking life track you moved along which was punctuated by three dimensional terrain. You would slot these plastic humps into the correct spaces on the board and then drive your little life-mobile over them. Reaching those areas I always had a sense of anticipation, like something awesome was going to happen. The fact that it never did always left me a little sad.
Going up a mountain range should have had far more exciting options, I thought. Maybe you should have been allowed to meet a dragon. Maybe you would suddenly choose to risk your little plastic pin’s life and see if you survived a black market skydiving assignment. Maybe you should have been able to find a trapdoor in the game that took you to a real life party. I don’t know. It’s probably clear that I don’t know. What I do know is that the options offered were boring and really didn’t cut it.
The same was true of the little plastic houses you slotted into place. I wanted them to have meaning in the game rather than just be part of the set dressing to a convoluted version of snakes and ladders. I wanted to go past a mansion and have the chance to interact with it for some reason. Maybe to commit a burglary or drop in for tea or to buy it. Again, I’m not sure exactly what I was expecting, I just know that I didn’t want those buildings to be so lifeless.
For a purported “favourite” I’m listing a lot of problems with The Game Of Life. That’s because it was never a favourite because of the playing experience. The playing experience was frustrating and shallow. For the most part it was about random chance, not meaningful choice, so the competitive aspect seemed weird to me. That’s why I tried playing it solo, pottering along the track with no-one else around, making my own weird story and not having to argue with my siblings about why I wanted everyone in my car to be pink pegs. Perhaps that explains a lot about my subsequent life choices.
But putting it all together at the start was great. It felt like building a little playset and I loved the tactility of each action; sorting the cards and the money, popping the terrain into position, adding the houses, checking the spinner. I probably would have been happiest if that had been the game, the building of the board. (It occurs to me now that perhaps I should have lobbied for Mousetrap instead of The Game Of Life.)
I was tempted to pick up a second-hand copy to see if the feeling of excitement through assembly came back. The reason I didn’t was that I was worry this would turn into a miserable article about how a happy retirement is an idea which appears to have receded, even disappeared, over the course of my lifetime; about debt incurred through education and a fiercely competitive job market; about how weird it seems that none of the pegs ever leave your car and either wink sadly out of existence or join other cars; about how tracks shouldn’t be all the same length; about how awful the spinner’s random pronouncements now seem…
Instead I’ll say that that pleasure in the tactile nature of boardgames remains. I’ve moved on from The Game Of Life but every time we meet for Shut Up & Sit Down I get incredibly excited about opportunities for punching out the tokens from their cardboard sheets or constructing bits of the play space. I try to keep cool and be all “Oh sure, I can help with that if you need?” But there’s always a part of me that wants to grab all the bits and beetle around in the corner, arranging it just so. At that point I’m playing my own minigame. The one about who is the best at (and the most into) getting the board set up neatly.
I can totally win that game.