Are We Having Fun Yet?
My kids love to play games. In fact, one of them is playing a game right now. Every time I pause in my typing to marshal my thoughts, the 5-year-old hijacks the cursor by poking its directional keys. And by the time I can bring it back to where I need it, my thoughts are back in disarray. We could play this game for hours. In fact, we may have to.
Compared to the games her older sisters want me to play, this one is fraught with excitement and meaning. While flirting with a certain amount of real danger, the cursor game tunes up a child's reflexes and teaches those computer-mischief skills that are so necessary for 21st-century success. However, her big sisters adore board games. Digital versions are available, of course, but they prefer moving little pieces of plastic around a board.
Chess is the best of the lot. I taught it to Marie when she was 10, and I don't mind telling you that in our first game I beat the pants off her in just 20 moves. But it took the edge off my triumph when my vanquished foe started parading the chessmen around the board, having the pawns chase the knights for pony rides, etc.
I still play chess with Marie, now 12, and Sally, age 9. None of us are very good, and there's usually a child on the sidelines waiting for captured pieces to play with. Sally is a genius of the sideline game. If a bishop is captured, she makes him a Sunday-school teacher with pawns as his wayward and dopey pupils.
But her best gambit is to get hold of a queen who then tongue-lashes the clumsy and disobedient pawns: "You fools! You idiots!" It's a lively game, and much more interesting than the plodding competition on the board.
My least favorite board game is Monopoly. Endlessly collecting money, paying it out in rent, taxes and incomprehensible fees while going round and round the board – it's too much like Life. And I don't mean Milton Bradley's game of Life. I mean MY life.
But it's my life with all juice, color and meaning sucked out of it, leaving only the fleeting possession of money.
When I finish a nine-hour game of Monopoly, I find myself crabbily wishing I'd spent that time fiddling around with real money – balancing my checkbook, paying bills, or sending e-mails to my health insurance company, whining impotently for reimbursements.
Wendy likes Candy Land. It is played without dice; a player's progress depends on cards drawn from a stack that is like a pile of unopened mail. And when an unlucky card sends her back away from the finish line, she reacts as though to an after-Christmas Platinum-Card bill. "It's only a game," I'll tell my weeping child.
But I'm tempted to tell her: "You win, you lose, it doesn't matter. You'll still be the same well-fed, well-loved little creature you were before you talked me into playing this game with you. You'll still have the same parents, the same bedtime, the same share of the national debt. Nothing hangs in the balance. You want to inject some real meaning into this game? Bet me 50 bucks you'll get to the Candy Cane Forest before I do."
Another household favorite is Clue, a game in which each contestant tries to name the killer, the weapon and the room. But the most interesting element is absent. So our house rule is, in order to win, you have to supply The Motive. For example: "MRS. WHITE was caught over-watering the plants in the CONSERVATORY, a scuffle ensued, she pulled out a WRENCH, and Wham!"
Then the kids play an "after-game" like they do with chess. It consists mostly of disputes over who gets ownership of which rooms. But toward the end there is some relatively peaceful play involving the markers who go hopping from room to room, transacting felonies with the teeny-weeny rope, revolver, knife, etc.
It's a good game, but for suspense, action, and even a whiff of dark Oedipal tension, there's nothing like a special little non-board game that my 5-year-old loves to play with her mom. Like poker, it involves counting and bluffing. It's played for high stakes, and it never fails to quicken the pulse as the players – and sometimes a large number of spectators – wait breathlessly to see who'll win.
Yet somehow Parker Bros. hasn't yet been able to package it and sell it on TV with happy, yelling children and a dunce of a dad slapping his forehead in good-natured stupidity. You know it, you love it, you've probably played it. It's called: ...By The Time I Count To Ten!