“Who cares about winning? Let’s get drunk!”– Jason Bateman (Max) from Game Night
Whether my wife Corinne and I are having a game night at home with friends, visiting with my brother-in-law Kyle and wife Christine, or spending time with my brother Jeff and wife Lauren, we have played some wicked awesome board games as of late. In most of the games we play, we are both, my wife and I, extreme novices. We didn’t even have a board game in the house, until now. It has been nice starting a fun new pursuit. Yet, as I put a few board games in my shopping cart the other day, it dawned on me; what is my “games” story? I have explored several topics in the context of nostalgia, but I never considered board games or yard games.
I want to explore my love of random games and share some unique stories. In the end, I find that my newfound love of intense, cut-throat board games is nothing new. Board games come and go, incredible yard game memories are in abundance, the only thing that’s changed is that I am older and only need to win “sixty percent of the time… every time.” It is funny, the number of games I played as a kid, whether a random card game of Bullsh*t with friends at a bus station or Guess Who? with my sister Becky, I wanted to win. I assumed winning was important, maybe not every time, but why play if you don’t win? A kind of terrible way of thinking, but luckily, as an adult, I have no time for that line of reasoning. The fun is the time spent with others. So, join me and roll the dice. No get out of jail free card!
Who Wants to Play a Board Game?
With Halloween season getting closer with each passing day, I recently recalled a creepy board game I played several times, with my best friend Peter, in the mid-1990s. Released in 1991, Nightmare, a Video Board Game, “kicked off the Atmosfear series, a line of horror video board games from Australian duo Brett Clements and Phillip Tanner.” This game was terrifying, especially as a young kid who played it late at night. Nightmare was a game where participants had to insert a VHS tape into the VCR and receive instructions from a creepy “gatekeeper.” Players used “gravestone-shaped pieces and played as either werewolf Gevaudan, poltergeist Hellin, mummy Khufu, zombie Baron Samedi, witch Anne de Chantraine, or vampire Elizabeth Bathory.” Players move pieces around a graveyard, collecting keys and cards labeled Fate, Chance, and Time.
I remember sleeping over my buddy Peter’s house, and at midnight, opening up the game box, placing the VHS in the VCR, and starting a round of Nightmare. It is hilarious thinking about, and I hadn’t thought about it in over twenty years, or at least until I started playing board games recently. Of course, I had to tell everyone about this random ‘90s horror game that utilized a classic VHS tape. At first, everyone looked at me funny, including Corinne, like this can’t be a real game. The fun fact of the internet is that all you need is a couple of clicks away, and “bang,” you have a YouTube video of the gameplay of Nightmare. I take issue with social media culture, but instant access to POP! Culture nostalgia is certainly not one of them.
I enjoy games of this sort, not just horror, but board games or any games that are not necessarily ultra-competitive or organized professionally. I have already explored baseball and video games, so those are not what I am referring to today. Instead, games played one-on-one with a friend or collaboratively with anyone willing to join. I see myself as a pretty active person, someone eager to do something other than sit in front of the television watching a film or playing Borderlands 3 or Resident Evil on PlayStation. I love those pastimes, but I am a social person who enjoys playful moments of competition. I was reminded of this when I visited Kyle for his birthday.
Corinne and I arrived at Kyle’s house with a Daddy’s Dairy decorated ice cream cake in tow, a Brockton, Massachusetts staple. After devouring more than I care to share, we decided to play a short game. Corinne suggested UNO. I had not played UNO in over twenty years, so I was willing to give it a go. As we played, my wife noticed that I shielded, or hid, my cards, shifted my body posture, and appeared like I was deep in thought, as if calculating my subsequent moves. She wasn’t wrong, and while winning is secondary to the fun of playing, I was playing to win! I was anticipating my next move, yes, even while playing UNO.
This moment reminded me that I loved that youthful feeling of playing a game at nearly forty years old. Maybe it’s a tinge of nostalgia, possibly my competitive nature, or the enjoyment of those games I play, whether at a kitchen table or in the backyard. The games I discuss come with a story, often funny, sometimes ridiculous, yet never sad, but a snapshot of my lived experience in a moment of entertaining competition. It is not too often I get the opportunity to share some of these stories, and I have never had the chance to contextualize them in this way. Before doing so, what about films that use “games” as a cinematic device?
Midnight Madness & Random Game Themed Films
Several weeks ago, my brother Jeff and I watched the 1984 film, Cloak & Dagger, far more violent than I remembered. The film centers on Davey, Henry Thomas, his only friend Kim, Christina Nigra, and his imaginary friend Jack Flack, Dabney Coleman. Centered around an Atari video game, espionage, and themes of grief and loss, the movie is one of the earliest films I watched that used a “game” as a central premise of its storyline. In our chat, Jeff and I enjoyed our trip down memory lane, a route populated with nostalgia. We both agreed how fun this movie was when we watched it in our youth. Still, this was another film we were probably too young to watch at that time. Cloak & Dagger is one of the more nostalgic 1980s films that uses a “game” with great precision. However, another film, Clue, was even better.
Starring Tim Curry, Madeline Kahn, Christopher Lloyd, Michael McKean, and Martin Mull, 1985’s Clue is a fabulous murder mystery movie. Clue is filled with drama, suspense, comedy, and bizarre characters while paying homage to the board game that premiered in 1949. I loved playing the game and watching the movie on VHS in the late 1980s. It helped that my family owned the film, and I couldn’t find anyone willing to play the board game since time, to a child, is quickly filled with toys and cartoons. Watching Cloak & Dagger, and sitting back and reflecting on Clue, made me think of other films based on board games, or unique games in general, as long as the movie’s theme stayed true to such a concept.
Although these movies are perfectly appropriate for this conversion, I am not talking about Escape Room, the original Jumanji, or even The Game starring Michael Douglas. I am not referring to 2014’s Ouija either. However, Mike Flanagan’s 2016 Ouija: Origin of Evil is a spectacular prequel that makes the first film, which he had nothing to do with, terrible. The 2016 prequel pays respect to the creepy board that my family owned, though I am not sure why or who played it. The film does showcase the board game in all its fictionalized glory. Still, those films above, and Battleship, utilize a game theme, either board game-related or not, in an attempt to key in on nostalgia or a somewhat manageable premise. Some do it well, Clue, yet others do it horribly, Battleship, but there is one film I think of most.
Midnight Madness is an insanely fun 1980 film starring David Naughton and introducing Michael J. Fox. The film follows five teams of college students, picked by game master Leon, who “participate in his all-night scavenger hunt.” There are no board games but tons of hilarity, various obstacles, lots of colors, and adult themes in a Walt Disney production package. Teenage-based raunchy comedies had been around throughout the 1970s. They continued into the 1980s, and while Midnight Madness shares ideas found in Animal House, Meatballs, or Weird Science, it does not go nearly as far. It maintains its somewhat wholesomeness but still targets teenage audiences.
With a catchy disco era theme song, roller skating in an opening montage, and teams filled with college cliches, Midnight Madness is both tame and intense. Sure, at times, our protagonist is anything but heroic; stereotypes appear throughout the film, nerds, jocks, sorority sisters, and a rich antagonist played by Stephen Furst, famously known as Flounder from Animal House. The team leaders are provided colorful envelopes at the film’s start and meet with Leon. They assemble their teams, and the “great all-nighter” begins, as well as rivalries existent between each group. At the same time, they follow clues during an elaborate scavenger hunt through L.A. Leon’s game riddles/puzzles are fun, the stupidity nostalgic, and you cheer for one team while enjoying each team’s mishaps.
While not Shakespeare or Oscar-worthy, Midnight Madness is ridiculous fun. Sure dumb tropes are scattered throughout the film, many aspects of the film have aged poorly, and most performances are subpar at best, including Fox, but watching it recently brought me back to watching it on VHS as a kid. Although, I recall watching it on a tape that was not store-purchased but “probably” taped illegally off cable television. There are several moments of comedic gold, even if surrounded by some bad dialogue and offensive representations. There are few moments of brevity in the film, as each new riddle brings the teams to new destinations ensuring further hijinks. Overall, a weirdly satisfying retreat into early 1980s cinema.
Shuffle the Deck & Throw the Dice
I remember playing Dungeons & Dragons once in my life, at my friend Peter’s house, with three others. I never played again, but I remember finding the gameplay captivating. A game like that requires several people, all interested in its storyline and eager to participate. Rarely did I have that opportunity. My family did own board games, and I remember them being placed in a drawer in the dining room, under the glass cabinet where my mother kept her porcelain tableware. It was a strange place to keep board games kids would inevitably fight to get into, but somehow nothing ever broke. If the games were not there, then they were in the attic with all the holiday decorations, toys, and everything else that seemed normal in an old New England coastal home’s walkup.
While we had games, they were not adventurous like Dungeons & Dragons, nor did they spark my interest. Sure, we had Monopoly, Checkers, Clue, Operation, Sorry, Battleship, and Guess Who? and those were fun but not exciting. The first “adult” board game I played was Trivial Pursuit. I remember playing it with extended family in New York, and my parents bought it when we returned home. We didn’t play it regularly, but when we did, I enjoyed it. Still, trivia games are not exactly, what I wanted to play, nor are they what I gravitate towards today. Still, these games are often selected, so I am a latecomer to the best, more adventurous, games people play today.
Risk and Monopoly were my favorite strategy games, but there were rarely enough people who wanted to play. Not sure exactly what I liked about each game, world domination or capitalistic greed; both concepts are contrary to who I am. I enjoyed the gameplay, the goal, and the ability to strategize my moves, win or lose. I didn’t need to remember matching faces or random facts; I solely had to create a plan, stick to it, and adapt if my opponents countered such an approach. It was fun buying property before such a thing produced “real world” anxiety and accepting that one should never open the box containing the bouncy ball of war. I was terrible at these games, but I had fun, which is ultimately the point.
More often than not, I was stuck playing card games and random games centered around trivia, but it could have been worse. Seriously, I didn’t know any better anyhow, so for many years, when I played a board game, I accepted that it would be trivia based or an adult game that perfected the concept of shock humor. I mean, these are quicker games, typically, so you can play, have a beer, and laugh with friends. Winning was never essential in those games, just something to pass the time, as you communicated about other things. It’s like that when I play games at a local brewery. I enjoy a craft beer, an IPA or Wheat, and random contests, like an oversized Jenga set or Exploding Kittens. Stupid nonsensical games pair wonderfully with beer.
Playing Scrabble with my brother Jeff in Denver is a perfect example of how one should never mix beer with thought-based games. It was a terrible game. Our final game board makes me think of a scene from Billy Madison, where the Principal, played perfectly by James Downey, tells Billy, Adam Sandler, that his answer is, “one of the most insanely idiotic things I have ever heard. At no point in your rambling, incoherent response were you even close to anything that could be considered a rational thought. Everyone in this room is now dumber for having listened to it. I award you no points, and may God have mercy on your soul.” That sums up my experiences playing games at breweries, including that Scrabble game in Denver.
Each Christmas, my wife’s family enjoys an evening of Balderdash, Taboo, and Telestrations. It is always fun. Yet, instead of winning, we often compete to make each other laugh, usually by forcing my father-in-law read something inappropriate or annoying my brother-in-law Kyle by constantly delaying the game or helping each other out. These trivia/card games are fun for a holiday with family, but strategy games have become my choice for tabletop entertainment. It started with Kyle, who is a wicked video gamer, is equally a board game fanatic. Recently, he suggested instituting a weekly game night. A few weeks ago, my wife and I went over for the first of these nights. At first, we played a game called, Superfight, which I did not enjoy. Shortly after, Kyle introduced us to Settlers of Catan.
For most, Settlers of Catan is an older game, first appearing in 1995 and introducing several expansion packs in the years since. It only took me twenty-six years to learn of its existence and play, but I was immediately smitten with the gameplay. I thoroughly enjoyed building roads, settlements, and cities, calculating trades and acquisitions of wool, grain, lumber, brick, and ore. I watched as my wife gained several development cards, as well as the longest road and army. In the end, it was I who had enough victory points to claim victory in our initial play-through. We played several more times over the last few weeks, and who knew building a “medieval” empire could be cathartic and exhilarating. Although I have to admit the “thief” aspect of the game can get frustrating at times, which, when used against me, makes me feel teamed upon, but that’s part of the fun.
Pandemic was the next strategy game I played with friends at my home. My wife has a former co-worker with whom she became great friends. A couple of weeks ago, we had them over for Thai cuisine, craft beer, and a board game of their choice since they are far more versed on the topic. Before they arrived, Lora, Corinne’s former co-worker, texted letting her know which game she and Joel, her fiancé, were bringing. Pandemic seemed eerily fitting for the times. But neither Corinne nor myself had heard of it. Before their arrival, we went on YouTube and watched a video led by Will Wheaton, who provided an excellent in-depth tutorial. Afterward, Corinne and I felt pretty confident, if nervous. Pandemic is a cooperative game, something I have never played, where all players work together to win, which I learned is difficult.
The object of the game, released in 2008, is to find cures to four diseases spreading throughout the world, contain them from an outbreak, and stop them from becoming epidemics and then a pandemic. Pandemic is “considered one of the most successful cooperative games that have reached mainstream market sales, condensing the type of deep strategy offered by earlier cooperative games into a game that can be played in a limited time by a wider range of players.” The game, which offers players the chance to take on various roles with specific actions, is tough, but that all players work together makes for compelling gameplay. In our initial playthrough, we managed to cure one disease, stop several outbreaks but could not contain the pandemic, and thus, we were defeated, although we worked well together. There is an added intensity due to current COVID pandemic, which the game creators could not have anticipated.
Premiering in 2004, Ticket to Ride is “played on a board depicting a railway map of the United States and southern Canada…Players collect and play train car cards to claim train routes across the map.” I tried this game with Jeff at his home and joined our wives for a hard-fought competition. I went into the game with zero expectations. For his part, Jeff offered a “sink or swim” approach, letting me start the game with little understanding of what to do. It worked as I quickly picked up the game’s strategy and began my journey. It was a great game, although my competitiveness clouded me from getting “route” cards and accumulating more points, thus leading to a rousing defeat. It was humorous when Corinne, believing she won, tossed her route cards onto the board as if they guaranteed her victory. She was ahead in our initial point count, but her cards were of little value. She ended up in third. I fared no better, coming in last.
I had always assumed games like Monopoly, Risk, or Dungeons & Dragons were the preeminent strategy games. It might be true for Dungeons & Dragons, but there is a much larger board game world than I imagined. There is a little something for everyone, and I have only scratched the surface. My wife and I are eager to continue our game nights. Maybe we will add different strategy games. For the time being, I am excited to continue punching my ticket, curing diseases, accumulating wool, and building an ore factory. There is one thing for sure, I will maintain the secrecy of those cards I hold, even if it seems as if I am distrustful of whoever is sitting next to me, my wife included. But, in the end, not all games require a kitchen table.
Competition & Fun Goes Outside
Every year, my wife’s family goes on vacation to Cape Cod, or recently, Lake George. These trips include incredible family fun. I have joined these trips for nearly two decades, and I am always ready and willing to engage in some healthy “yard” entertainment. Ladderball, horseshoes, bocce, and my favorite cornhole constitute a significant part of the weekly fun. Most days, we spend our time outside eating, drinking, conversing, and playing yard games. Sure, volleyball makes an appearance, but it’s those less confined games where we find our excitement. I eagerly await this time, as rarely are so many people in one place, at the same time, and as eager as me to toss a bag.
When I think of outside amusements, more than most, one person comes to mind; my brother Jeff. So many beautiful memories and nostalgic feelings come to me when recalling us competing in tennis at the Fort Phoenix courts, adjacent to a beautiful beach near our childhood home, or a ping-pong match in Nashville as we watched the NFL Draft. Jeff and I are incredibly close but can, at times, be competitive. Previously, I mentioned how one intense wiffleball contest ended with me suffering heatstroke. Jeff and I never know when to quit, but we enjoy our activities, nonetheless. As kids, we would jump into our pool, attempting to knock each other off rafts. We went back and forth until, inevitably, one of us had a bloody nose. Jeff frequently claimed victory in these matches.
Several years ago, Jeff and I, along with our wives, traveled to Florida to visit our father. But my dad wasn’t just living anywhere; he was living in the Villages. According to the 2020 Census, this over fifty retirement community “is the fastest-growing metropolitan area in the United States.” My dad lived there for several years, and I visited several times. We enjoyed touring the area around my dad’s house during our first visit to the Villages, which was unique and had everything, including access to a large pickleball complex with leagues. Those participating in these leagues were very particular “athletes” engaged in competitive matches. All this sounds normal, but it got weird.
Let me start by saying that pickleball uses a “wood or composite paddle,” and two to four players “hit a perforated polymer ball, much like a wiffleball with round holes” over a net. It’s like a mixture of ping-pong and tennis, two sports Jeff and I enjoy. We quickly occupied the court furthest to the side and began our match. It was awesome, our competitiveness electrified us, and around the court, we ran, from side to side, crushing shots. We sweated, and we played our hearts out. But, several people next to us yelled at us for being “obnoxious.” Uncomfortable and slightly deflated, we stopped, but damn, the memory is hilarious and an example of what happens when Jeff and I get competitive.
Game Night has Ended, Until Next Time
I enjoy those fun moments, no matter how crazy they might be. Just the other day, the same day we played Ticket to Ride, I played Jeff in a game of ping-pong in his garage with the door open. There was nice cool air, and we played two epic matches. I lost, of course. But it had been years since I had played him in ping-pong, wiffleball, or even pickleball. It was nostalgic, as if no time had passed. We practiced, we volleyed, we played. It was as if we were kids again, playing at the local Activity Center and using all the time allowed before we had to give up the table. I enjoy the thrill of winning, besting Jeff, no matter how rare, but truth be told, it’s the blissful feeling I get when we play that matters most.
Whether playing ping pong with Jeff, texting about Fantasy Football with my buddy Chris, or having an impromptu game night, these entertainments have taken on a life of their own recently. I look forward to diversifying my current home “game” collection. While I do miss the days when passing go without collecting $200 was thrilling, or a horror VHS game gave me bad dreams or trying to find out who killed who with what led me to weird assumptions, I am happy that I have finally discovered games that fit me best. Luckily, I have a wonderful collection of friends and family who are as eager as me to throw the dice. On a coffee table or near the fire pit on a beautiful autumn Sunday after a day of apple picking, opportunities abound. I need to remember that, but I wish I owned a VCR for a round of Nightmare!