A week or so ago I was reading an article by a scholar named Bruce Nadel in Children’s Literature that discussed nineteenth-century board games — richly decorated games with names like “Wallis’ Picturesque Round Game of Produce and Manufactures, of the Counties of England and Wales.” With a title like that, the game seems foreign from anything you’d pick up from Toys ‘R’ Us today, but really — not so different. Maybe a little more aggressive in its educational agenda, but the same neatly divided squares, the movement of a gamepiece forward through perils and holdups.
You have encountered a particularly beautiful view and must pause to take it in! Skip a turn.
Encountering Wallis’ Picturesque Round Game made me consider those board games that were popular when I was a kid. And I don’t mean Scrabble or Monopoly or any of the games that I might still break out today. (Danny and I have an ongoing Scrabble WAR!). I mean games specifically geared toward kids — cartoon characters on the box, a designation for ages six and up, usually pieces in primary colors. Hi Ho Cherry-O and Connect Four and Chutes and Ladders.
Like Hungry, Hungry Hippos. Remember Hungry, Hungry Hippos? That is a game of focus. There was that moment before the feeding frenzy began, your hand poised and trembling above your hippo’s black lever, ready to strike. Your eyes were fixated and glassy, your nerves as taut as a sniper’s. You were going to devour those marbles, dammit. Once the action began it was a massacre of marbles, the deafening noise of plastic against plastic and, inevitably, the skidding of marbles on hardwood floor as a few choice morsels escaped under the couch. Apparently there’s an “on-the-run” edition of the game that, as a safety measure, includes a plastic dome over the board to enclose rogue marbles. Wimps.
And then there was Operation, a game designed to give children PTSD and, perhaps, premature heart attacks. I had a love-hate relationship with that game. A neat freak from a young age, I was attracted to the order and organization of the cardboard patient’s innards. Each small, plastic ailment assigned its own place: the Brain Freeze, the Broken Heart, the Funny Bone. But the dynamic of the game was really just terrifying — a group of kids kneeling over the board completely silent, holding their breath, while a young colleague shakily extended the tweezers. Silence… silence… wait for it… BZZZZZZZZZZZ! I probably burst a few young, tender blood vessels. I always prayed that I would have the opportunity to go for the wishbone, a game piece that was mercifully narrow and grab-able.
A friend across the street had Mousetrap, a game with enough small parts to asphyxiate an entire class of kindergartners. It took so long to set up that, by the time we had snapped together the flimsy plastic scaffolding and precariously balanced the small, plastic bathtub at the top of the game’s complicated machinery we were ready to quit. I’m not sure we ever played Mousetrap. We set it up, dropped the marble, and trapped our vermin voluntarily, dreading the chore of figuring out how to fit all of those choking hazards back in the cardboard box.
It’s pretty amazing that so many of these games that I broke out on rainy days in the 80s are still around and selling. Maybe I’ll amass a collection and host a game night. Guess Who might be more fun after a few glasses of vino.
And remember, game pieces do not actually talk.