Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Old games

Amongst the things that I salvaged from the house in which I grew up were four supermarket bags full of Lego. I found the stuff over a number of trips, each time marvelling at how much of it there was. As well as being practically indestructible (the only pieces of ours that ever broke were two of the large thin bases), Lego has fared remarkably well in terms of both its exchange and use value over the last half century. We had all sorts of trouble – and ultimately failed – in finding a good home to a very good library. We literally couldn’t give away the stuff, which was a source of some heartache. But Lego, it might as well be a global currency, or a precious ore. It keeps going up in price. It’s worth shipping around the world. There’s always a use for it, even in small quantities.

The last find involved one of Lego’s early electric engines, which was used to power a train’s locomotor. I vaguely remember playing with this set. Not much you could do with it, as the carriages came pretty much assembled whole. But the rest of those bags contain mostly the standard universal pieces with which I used to build houses and robots and once, I think, a football stadium. It’s a rather sharp lesson in informational entropy now. Four plastic bags’ worth of chaos.

A chess set forgets the games that are played on it as well but I am glad that it’s the same one I learned the rules on, my father’s. I’ll always love him for never letting me win, not even once. When I eventually did, he was as pleased as I was. Outside the home I played with other, cheaper sets, mostly with some of my schoolmates and my friend Francesco, who also owned an early computerised board. The Chess Challenger, I think it was. At the top level of difficulty – the only one that was actually hard to beat once we figured out the patterns – the machine was allowed to ‘think’ about a move for an indefinite period of time, so he let it run overnight, but the jack of the power adapter was wonky, so there was always a danger that the game would end abruptly if it became dislodged, an event invariably followed by much vigorous cursing.

Francesco and I also played with this quite a bit.

Totòpoli is a bafflingly elaborate horse-racing board game in two parts. First, the players lease and train the horses, as well as acquire facilities like foraging merchants and veterinary practices. This is not too dissimilar from Monopoly, and results in the accumulation of advantage and disadvantage cards, as well as special cards to forestall certain events, except instead of getting out of jail is preventing your top horse from bursting a blood vessel on the home straight. Then, once the training is completed, the board is flipped over and the race can begin. However even that phase comprises two quite different activities: the taking of bets on the outcome, with what money you have left over from part one, and the race itself. As the rulebook explains:
The winner can either be the one with the most money at the end of the race, or the one with the winning horse. This should be decided at the beginning of the race.
You’d hate to play for three solid hours and be left unsure as to who won.

Totòpoli was a lot of fun. But I rescued form the home some things that I don’t recall playing with, and probably belonged to my sister. A rather exquisite medical set, all in plastic but very detailed and missing remarkably few pieces, given how the small parts in today’s equivalents seem to explode out of the packaging and immediately get lost whenever my children are involved. I wonder if this is a function of the relative scarcity of those years.

Of even more uncertain origin was the Pop Songbook Bingo, but it intrigued me so much that I included it with the furniture that was shipped over here. I see now that it’s a standard bingo except instead of numbers it has classic Italian songs. In order to fill one’s card it is necessary to recognise the songs as they are played on a rudimentary music box by inserting the corresponding perforated sheet.

I tried this arrangement and the sound that it produced was more reminiscent of Dante’s Purgatory than of the golden age of our popular music festivals. Maybe it’s the rods of the music box that are rusted or need oiling. At any rate I struggle to imagine how this game – which my sister doesn’t remember either – could possibly have been played more than once or twice. By anyone.

Strange as it is, however, the Pop Songbook Bingo pales in comparison to this game I picked up at a garage sale in the weekend.

Not to be mistaken with the videogame by the same name produced by the Kommunion company, the Missionary Game is designed to teach children of Latter-day Saints families about the proselytising work of their church. It is possible that the makers – The Mountain Top Game Company of Spanish Fork, Utah – may have gone out of the business, given that the game’s website now redirects to an LDS dating site. I wasn’t therefore able to glean very much about the game’s rules, since unfortunately the booklet is missing. But the board is Monopoly-like and the concept seems simple enough: to baptise as many investigators as possible. (‘Investigator’ is the name given by Mormons to individuals open to converting.) Each conversion has its own requirements. For instance, Dwayne and Joan Austin (2 Baptisms) will set you back 4 Love, 4 Inspiration, 3 Gospel Knowledge and 3 Member Friendshipping points. You acquire these by going around the board. The game also features classic chance cards, except here they are called Obedience Cards. Example: ‘You share your care package from home with your companion. You may advance to the Love Pathway.’ (This is one of the lanes that criss-crosses the middle of the board.)

Unless there is something that I’m missing from this setup, I suspect that playing the game would be exceedingly dull. But it may be quite deliberate. The game is clearly a teaching tool. It gamifies missionary work, an activity that is more than a little gamified in its own right by virtue of its goals and quotas, but it also appears to be designed to convey to its young players what the work is actually like. And so the investigator cards tell these highly complex and psychologically detailed stories, all of which are entirely redundant from the point of view of the game. It matters not that Dwayne and Joan Austin have been married for nearly three years; that they were in danger of splitting up before the Missionaries arrived; that Dwayne did not like the idea of giving up smoking. All you’re going to want to know is how many attribute points it will take to convert them. Yet there are dozens of stories like the Austins’ in the game. There is the couple whose eldest son has died. The family in which the husband is a recovering alcoholic. The single woman of 28 who ‘needed a great deal of acceptance from members of the Church before she became willing to change her lifestyle’. Stories packed with morality that demonstrate how to cast the correct judgment.

There are some strange games out there, and even stranger childhoods spent playing them. As for us, my son beat me at Totòpoli today, but it was a close thing.