Thursday, February 6, 2020

Playing with your food

     I've played board games all my life. Starting as a young boy with Mousetrap and Candyland—how I admired that thick slice of Neapolitan ice cream depicted on the board—then Clue and Stratego, moving up to Risk and Othello, playing a game was a way to carve up the endless expanse of time that is childhood, give it boundaries, limits, rules, a purpose, maybe even fun. 
     Certain games came and went— 3M Bookshelf games like Twixt and Feudal were a big deal in the 1970s—and certain games were given a joyous second life with the arrival of my own children. Stratego came roaring back, and how I loved to play it with the boys. Even before the game started, just setting up your side, arraying your forces, planting your bombs, getting ready to play, was challenging and fun.  
     Ebay shepherded home lost games: another 3M Bookshelf game, Breakthru, a great game with each side has a different set of pieces and a different goal, somehow vanished along the way, and it was a joy to play it again. The pieces were polished steel cylinders, marvelous to behold.
     Some games weren't really that fun—the Game of Life, with their insurance policies and college tuition and little cars filled with pink pegs. Maybe the point was to acclimate children to the tedium and responsibility of the adult world. Some games were little more than coin tosses, barely more than luck: Trouble, which we played more than we ever would if it just used dice, just for the joy of their clear plastic hemisphere containing the dice, the "Pop-o-Matic." Battleship was basically the board version of blind man's bluff. You felt around in the dark for ships. The cool little plastic ships made the effort worthwhile, sort of.
     Some games were just beautiful. The boys had one called "Skylark" that wasn't very challenging to play. It just looked great, with these sweet cardboard birds. I grew to view Monopoly more as a game of chance than anything else, played right. But I cherished its graphics—the question mark of "Chance," that cop blowing his whistle. Monopoly sets that departed from the classic set, using cities other than Atlantic City, where the streets were borrowed, were incomprehensible to me. Then the family played a game of Monopoly where the older boy bought one property of each color and perversely refused to trade. "It's a trading game," we argued. "It says so on the box!" The game went on for hours, nobody could win, until we quit in disgust and never played again. "You killed Monopoly," I told him.
     Games were location specific: my grandmother had a Cootie Set. We would assemble the odd primary bugs out of their primary-color parts sprawled in her living room and nowhere else. Our family buying Cootie was an unimaginable as our covering our sofa in clear plastic or or subscribing to Reader's Digest or any other practice that was the exclusive provenance of Cleveland Heights.
     Cootie was an example of the tendency of games to deteriorate. The original, 1950s Cootie was cool. Subsequent versions were idiotic. I took great pride that the armies in my Risk set were little painted wooden cubes. None of the crap plastic armies that came later.  
     Some games I loved as a child then stopped playing at some point—Dogfight, with little plastic biplanes to maneuver over the European countryside. And a few games showed up late, just before we pretty much stopped playing: a wooden Quarto set, bought on vacation in Canada. A shifting Labyrinth game. I was the one urging, "C'mon, play!" as the boys wandered off, into their own lives (where, I'm happy to report, games are still played on game nights at the New York University School of Law. So it isn't just us). 
     A few games never left, continuing into adulthood. Chess and checkers, of course. Scrabble, the godhead of modern games, that can be played throughout the day on my iPhone. A favorite new game, The Settlers of Catan, that our dear friends from Ohio gave us (the same couple that gave us a beautiful wooden game, Cathedral, as a wedding present. It involves walling off a larger part of the board, and has been on our coffee table for 30 years).
     So I was interested to see Cards Against Humanity is opening their Chicago Board Game Cafe in the Margie's Candy Building next week. Block Club Chicago posted a news story about the opening. 
    I would seem to be their intended audience. But I greet the news with more skepticism than excitement. What I'm wondering about is the idea of eating dinner and playing board games, at the same time. How does that work? Yes, in college, drinking and certain board games—particularly backgammon—were a thing. And back in the day I liked to pour myself a dram and play chess with anybody who'd sit across the board from me. 
    But dinner and Monopoly? At a restaurant? Or Risk, which takes forever—I remember waking up, face down on the board, at a sleepover. Or some other game selected by the cafe's "team of professional board game teachers [who] will help you pick the right game for your group and teach you how to play." That sounds kinda strange, right? A board game sommelier. "Might I recommend a 1965 Milton Bradley Mystery Date Game to go with the paella?" (The cuisine will be Spanish and Vietnamese,  a combination I had not heretofore imagined and can hardly imagine now).
      And won't the games quickly get dirty? Greasy? Spotted? Part of the appeal of board games is their clean perfection, these square folding cardboard worlds. Or their gentle wear, the result of your parents' play Not something manhandled by 100 strangers. The games tokens, armies, die, piles of cash, action cards. Sure, games get old, as do we all, and accommodations must be made. But a game of chess with a wooden spool standing in for a missing a rook just isn't the same. It loses a certain dignity.
     Maybe it'll work. Max Temkin, the guy behind Cards Against Humanity, a fun, wildly obscene game my family played exactly once (a dinner guest brought the cards) is a good businessman and obviously thinks this is a good idea. 
     This isn't the first time it has been done. The web site mentions a few other game cafes around town. And I remember places like the Blue Frog, a River North bar that had stacks of games. No one ever seemed to be playing them.  Now that I think of it, games in public establishments are like apartment balconies: you never see anybody using them. Still, best of luck to the Chicago Board Game Cafe. They're shaking the dice, beginning a game where 90 percent of the players lose. Let's see if they can win. 


  1. This gr8 post brings back a world of memories. Unfortunately it also brings back the Stratego jingle which is now my ear-worm (one should be able to find it on YouTube).

  2. Trivial Pursuit was a big rage in the 80's. Operation was fun for kids back in the day. Yes, chess never gets old.

  3. I love Cathedral for the wood, for the mini lesson in architecture, for allowing me daydreams while playing with my son. Thanks for the mental jog to a good place.

  4. Stock Market was good and King Oil had cool wells but wasn’t such a great game. Landslide was good, too. For the obsessed gamer types nothing seemed to beat Titan.

  5. Began playing Monopoly with the neighbor kids at age five or six, got my own set for Hanukkah at age seven, and had all-night games in high school. During a drunken college marathon, I even set fire to a hotel, scorching the board (but it was my own board). But the best board game ever is a newspaper game called Star traveled around this wonderful illustrated map, to towns in a fictional state, and charted your progress with pins, like in a war game. I'd kill to own that game intact set from the late Forties or early Fifties, with a clean board and all the game pieces and cards, now fetches hundreds of dollars.

    There were also numerous Risk marathons (I,too, had those wooden armies, and still do), and Sorry, and a goofy French card game from the JFK era that was called Mille Bornes---still have it, and took it to the beach a few summers ago.

    We have accumulated three shelves of old games down in our basement, including two Risk sets, Ouija boards, Clue, Yahtzee, Jeopardy, Password, that miserable Game of Life, my wife’s childhood chess set, Chinese checkers, backgammon, at least five large puzzles, three different sets of Trivial Pursuit, and three Scrabble original from 1948, one from the early Fifties, and a deluxe set from the Eighties. That board is actually plastic, and it has raised lines dividing the squares, and the playing surface is on a's a Lazy Susan Scrabble Set...

    If we ever get snowed-in, we won't get pun intended. But when it snows heavily, we never touch any of the dust-covered games...we surf the Web or watch TV or play DVD's or watch one of our hundreds of VHS tapes...or read one of the books from our eleven bookcases. When we're dead, some antique dealer is gonna enjoy going through this's a Museum of Twentieth Century Popular Culture. And somebody will either enjoy those games...or at least make a lot of moolah, from selling them.

    I have my doubts about the survival of a board game restaurant, for most of the same reasons that Mr. S has enumerated. But board game cafes have proven to have had far more durability over the long haul, like my 1959 Risk set.

    Cleveland has a few, but they tend to draw a younger and politically-oriented clientele, who seem to prefer the newer games over the classics. Someone in my neighborhood is trying to start a monthly board game group in her own living room, to encourage more sociability in the community. Too soon to tell if that idea will fly. I hope so.

    1. Milles Bornes! I love those roading images! I always felt my brother somehow cheated when we played.


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