Don’t Hate the Game. Or the player.

– by Michael!

So last weekend was fun.

The mad and jubilant Thanksgiving celebration at the cabin was every bit as crazy as expected.

Cousins screamed in excitement every five seconds or so.

Food was consumed in mind-boggling quantities, with nary a moment without some form of new culinary delight flowing forth from the hands that wrought the feast. (The main course this year was a real, honest-to-goodness Turducken. I kid you not. It was a thing of beauty, as was all of the food present, can you say “Hallelujah.”)

Hymns were sung and tunes whistled, as my entire family “suffers” from Musical Tourettes.

And, best of all, games were played.

Both my immediate family and my extended family are very intensely game-oriented, and our Thanksgiving smorgasborganza was no exception. Whenever Clan Berg gets together, the game of choice is Rook – easier than Bridge, more complex than Spades, and more fun than running the bulls in San Fermin. (And marginally less dangerous, when played among this crowd – this year there was no actual blood, but I’m pretty sure there were bruises.)

But we also played several other games, as well, all of which were worth loads of enjoyment. This got me thinking about my love of games in general, and I thought I would pass on thoughts on some of my favorites to you, Dear and Constant Reader! So enjoy!

Rook:

We’ll start here, since I’ve already mentioned it. Rook is a partner-based card game for four people that involves such familiar card-game themes as “trump suits” and “bids.” There are many variations on the rules, so make sure everybody is playing the same game before you start! It’s a fairly simple concept on the surface – make your bids, then either try to win enough hands to meet your bid or keep the other team from reaching theirs.

But the subtleties of leading or supporting your partner can take a while to learn. Of course, if you’re a newcomer to a Berg Thanksgiving, you do not have a while to learn. You are expected to know this game via osmosis within the first hour, and if you misplay that trump card when I’ve taken the bid, may God have mercy on your soul. For I will certainly not.

Bananagrams:

If Scrabble were fun, it would be Bananagrams. Seriously. All of the things that I personally hate about Scrabble – the interminable turn lengths, the fact that one bad draw can derail your entire game, the primacy on jockeying for spots on the board rather than nailing down good words – are eliminated. Gone. It’s a fast-paced word game that gives far fewer opportunities for jerkiness toward your fellow players, so it tends to yield a much lower rate of yelling than other games.

Apples to Apples:

Group-based party game that masquerades as a word game.

THIS IS A LIE.

A2A is as much a word game as poker is a card game.

Don’t play the cards. Play the people.

You get cards. These cards have nouns on them. The “judge” for the round (this duty rotates from player to player) gets a card with an adjective on it. You pick the noun in your hand that you think best matches the adjective in the judge’s hand, and submit it for blind consideration. The judge picks, and the owner of the winning card gets the point for the round – five points wins.

But what does “best match” mean?

Up to the judge.

I, for instance, want you to make me laugh. If my adjective card says “Rational” and you play “Tom Cruise,” you will probably get my vote. Because it’s funny. Others want you to actually match the definition of the card. Still others may decide to pick the best antonym. And yes, there are always judges whose approach seems to be utterly random. The judges do not have to inform you of their criteria for choosing a winner, and their will is *absolute.*

Thus, most rounds tend to devolve into an aggressive lobbying session for your card. But what if you’re about to win and don’t want to give away which card is yours? Then lobby for another so that the judge is misdirected!

It’s a great game, but can be hit-or-miss depending on the group and whether they are playing to have fun or to win. (Helpful Hint: playing A2A in order to “win” is a great way to ruin Christmas.) Best with large groups of people to maximize the crazy that accompanies each new round of politicking.

Othello:

Two-player logic game. Helpful Hint: do NOT play this game with my wife if you enjoy winning. That’s all I have to say here.

Backgammon:

Two-player board game, purported to be the oldest game known to humanity. I enjoy the blend of strategy and luck, but don’t play it often enough to be any good at it. Helpful Hint: do NOT play this game with my father-in-law if you enjoy winning.

Gin:

Two-player card game based on drawing and discarding in order to create “melds” of cards. If Rook is The Game of Clan Berg in all of our extended glory, then Gin is The Game of My Immediate Family. I actually learned how to play this beautiful game of give-and-take from my grandfather, who would not be allowed within 500 feet of any Vegas casino because he knows, every time, without fail, every card you have in your hand by the time you’ve discarded twice.

Apart from the actual fun of playing Gin (which is considerable), I love the personal bonding that I have experienced through this game, especially with my grandfather. Every time I pick up a hand, I remember him teaching me the rules, never insulting me by “letting me win,” sternly perching his glasses on the end of his nose as he reminded me that one always cuts the cards towards the dealer, whistling in appreciation when I managed to eke one out over him.

But the intimate nature of this game, as well as the rapidity with which a hand can be played, has made it an integral part of other family relationships, as well, particularly between my father and … well … anybody who spends more than ten minutes in the house with him. It’s his “default activity” for any period of waiting – is somebody still getting dressed before we leave for a movie? How about a hand of gin?

Home from the movie and everybody else is asleep, but you’re not tired yet? Hand of gin?

We have an entire three and a half minutes before Mom has dinner ready. You know what would go well with that three and a half minutes?

Yup.

Boggle:

Word game, I’m sure you can play with as many as you wish but usually two or three players. The idea of Boggle is simple – you have little cubes with different letters on all sides that you shuffle around and fit randomly into a four-by-four grid. You then try to write down as many words as you can find spelled within the assortment in front of you.

I’m about to go SAT on you:

Boggle:Mom::Gin:Dad.

Mom and I didn’t get in our customary Boggle-binge during this past holiday, which we will have to fix at some point in the near future. My mom is eerily good at this game, and I don’t think I won a game until I was about twenty five years old. But eventually I learned, and now I win more often than I lose, but only because I’ve absorbed her style of play and freakish vocabulary… and because I have spent waaaaaaaaay too much time playing TextTwist over at Yahoo.

Canasta:

Typically played with four players in two teams, but there are versions for either two players (weird and not fun, just play Gin) and for three players (lots of fun, but slower than four).

Canasta is incredibly fun. I absolutely love this game. However, it can be very, very intimidating, as the rules and scoring are dizzyingly complex at first glance. To make this rich and complex game more enjoyable to novices, I have given you a very streamlined method for enjoying the great game of Canasta.

Step 1: Ensure that you are sitting directly to the right of my mother.

Step 2: Discard a four or five at the end of every turn.

Whether you know the rules or not, whether you win or lose, her escalating irritation at your behavior and the resulting lack of opportunity for her to do anything will be entertaining.

Risk:

This game.

Oy, this game.

I have ruined friendships over this game.

World domination. As many people as you can fit around the table, but most games only come with pieces for six. That’s ok, just knock down somebody else and take their pieces.

Risk is a contact sport.

Just remember that it’s not real world domination, and that the opponent who just rolled double sixes against you is a person, too. Meaning that their internal organs are squishy and vulnerable, should you decide to escalate matters.

Settlers of Catan:

My favorite.

Settlers is a board game that can include between two and six people. It’s a territory-dominating game, like Risk, that involves intense resource management, like Monopoly. However, unlike both of these violence-inducing pastimes, Settlers is a game that you can win … by being nice.

Or, at least, by not being overtly unpleasant.

Since you need a wide variety of resource types to accomplish your goals, and since it is rare for any one player to have reliable access to all of these resources on their own, the game has a built-in regulator for player-to-player behavior. Sure, you can rob your neighbor blind, but they’re sitting on the only stash of Ore in the game. When you start trying to build things that require Ore, do you think they’ll trade with you?

Nnnnnnope.

But if you trade with somebody early on, and don’t go out of your way to annoy them, you can actually both make good progress toward victory by making deals with each other. I love that about the game, and recommend it highly to anybody who hasn’t played it!

So yes. I enjoy games. I love many more games than are listed here, games of varying degrees of difficulty, group-friendliness, and overall nerdiness.

However, unlike many people, my enjoyment comes primarily from playing the games rather than winning them.

Winning? Winning is great. Feels good. Would rather win than lose. Obviously.

But I’d much rather lose than not play.

Each round of Boggle is like a puzzle, each hand of Gin is like a poem. I’ve played games of Settlers wherein I knew that I had won or that my opponent had won but was curious to see how the game continued to develop, so I kept my mouth shut and kept playing for turns and turns.

There’s some part of people that you only really get to see when you’re playing with them, and I love to feel it unfurl within me and see it creep forth in my opponents and partners as we lose ourselves within the world that we create together, a world made of silly rules and sillier exceptions, a world in which teachers and students can reverse positions in an instant as new subtleties are uncovered.

Winning is just the icing on the cake.

Which does not, of course, mean that I would ever let you win. Want to beat me? You’re going to earn it.

But win or lose, we’ll have fun…

So… hand of Gin?

One comment

  1. I love many of these games and now wish we would have done game nights in Mobile. Y'all should just move to California so we can have game nights here. Also, please tell me there was a mandatory hugging regime involving Joanie!

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