Monday, September 10, 2007

Game Boy

A few months ago, I came home from a visit to my mother’s house with a load of ancient sports equipment and board games that she had been asking me to clear out of her basement. I couldn't bring myself to throw the old stuff out, so now it's taking up space in our basement. Few things have made me feel more like an adult than realizing that I now own a basement big enough to hold all the crap I have been collecting since childhood.

A couple of the old games, though, were promoted from the basement to family-room status, and have entered the regular household rotation for A.J. and me. One is an old quiz game called Your America (“An Enjoyable Game for Americans of All Ages!”) that you win by answering the kinds of civics-class questions that might have been a part of school curricula during the Eisenhower administration. (Example: Who invented the vulcanization of rubber?*) I remember loving this game when I was a kid because it gave me the chance to show off my adolescent history geek’s obsessive knowledge of state capitals and American military campaigns. What strikes me now about the game, though, is its hyper-patriotic tone. You get the feeling that the game’s designers believed that training America’s kids to answer certain questions was an essential component of the effort to beat back the Red Scare. (Take question #18 in the United States at War category: In the 1950s, America again found it necessary to defend democracy by fighting on foreign soil. In what country was this war fought?**) The problem, though, is that the game doesn’t even get its facts straight. It asks, for example, which president is pictured on a ten-dollar bill. Alexander Hamilton is on the ten, but he was never president. With mistakes like that, it’s a wonder we managed to win the Cold War.

The game both A.J. and I really like is Stratego. In Stratego, each player commands a Napoleonic-era army of game pieces that have to be maneuvered around a battlefield to capture the opponent’s flag. As the game board says, it is “a wonderful father-son game.” Right. What better way for fathers and sons to bond than by plotting deadly ambushes against each other? A.J. and I played again yesterday, and even though he has a good sense for the game, he was, as usual, undone by his lack of a poker-face. Whenever I get close to his flag he gets a wild-eyed, panicked look and actually starts to repeat under his breath, “Oh, no, no. Please, no. Not there.” His lack of guile is quite touching, really. Not that I don’t take advantage of it to beat him. Yesterday, when I captured his flag, he slapped himself on the forehead and said, “What have I done?”

I’ve seen new editions of Stratego in stores, but I like our old, beat-up version. The box, which is falling apart, features a photograph of a "Leave It To Beaver"-esque family in their paneled game room, gathered around a Stratego game board. The father, in a brown suit and tie, is pointing out some subtlety of military strategy to his admiring children. I love that picture. It makes me wish I owned a brown suit, just so I could wear it the next time A.J. and I played Stratego.

Your America Bonus Answers:
*Charles Goodyear


  1. I love Stratego. Imagine my dismay to find out that Hamilton was never president. Damn!

  2. candy landerSeptember 10, 2007

    Playing board games was a major source of entertainment in my household when I was a kid. Sometimes, being the youngest and only girl felt like a disadvantage..Thanks for making me remember the times I out-smarted my stinky brothers!

  3. Coach Van ProyenSeptember 12, 2007

    I was never into Stratego.It was Battleship. And I have to say, AJ's feelings of anxiety and dread as you come closer and closer to his position -- that's exactly what I felt when I was playing Battleship against my older brother.

  4. Thanks for the comments, Cranky, Candy and Coach. Any Risk fans out there? I was thinking about trying A.J. on that one. I think it's time he learned where Kamchatka was.

  5. i think you should teach him to play bridge, but that's another topic.