Mainstream Games
A Short Walk on the Wild Side

by Mike Siggins

There has been a fair bit of chat in Sumo recently about the social standing of gamers and the view of the non-gaming public. Having had the chance or the requirement to play several 'mainstream' games with non-gamers over Christmas and more recently, I thought it may be interesting to note down my thoughts on some of the non-gamer's games. I was actually rather surprised at what I found as there are a number of good quality games that I wouldn't normally give a second look. Serves me right for having a blinkered attitude.

Trivial Pursuit still seems to be unchallenged leader in mainstream gaming round my way. Even if other games have surges of interest, it is only the old well-worn Triv set that comes out with regularity. It seems to have a life and popularity of its own and always promotes fascinating discussions on whether the bits are cheeses or seggies and whether they go in hollow side up or down. Of course, everyone moans that they can answer all the other questions except the one they get but that is half the fun - whining and smugness abound. The best moment recently was being offered a million pounds by a friend's dad who thought I wouldn't know Fatty Arbuckle's proper name. Being a resident expert on silent filmstars (well, a reader of TTYF's Roscoe P Arbuckle feature) I sorted him out and we are discussing rescheduling on his substantial debt. As I've said before, I like it, because I am a smart alec deep down, although I will not willingly play some of the add-on card sets such as Baby Boomer and RPM, both of which are distinctly ageist and leave me floundering to get a question right all game. I prefer Genus I and II or Sport as a result and am most at home on the yellow history spaces. On exactly this subject, I was given Militaria for Christmas by a thoughtful friend, which is a set of Triv cards on military history - ideal for threatening people who insist I play Baby Boomer. For me, it is a great present given my interests, but predictably I have no-one to play it with. I am not sure if the marketing chaps thought this one through as the chances of three or four military historians (amateur or professional) getting round a table is pretty remote. I suppose they were targetting the figure gaming hobby. Another trivia game that is a perennial favourite is A Question of Sport. The difficulty level of questions is well below that of the Triv sport set and the What Happened Next, picture and one minute rounds make for a fun game. This is also a game, like Triv, that is popular with the women attached in various ways to my mates. No idea why, it just is.

A nice slant on the Trivia theme is provided by MB's Therapy. The theme is light-hearted psychology and the players whizz round the board answering questions on the sort of things you find in Cosmpolitan 'Do you know your man' quizzes. Not that I would know anything about those, oh no. For fans of inkblots, you also get to describe Rorschach prints. The best bit is where you end up in therapy, with another player taking the role of your shrink. You are stuck there until the two of you can come up with a 'cure', which takes the shape of a question such as, 'On a scale of 1 to 10, how would you rate your dress sense'. The shrink notes down a number and you have to get within one to effect a cure. Okay, so you could answer what you think he thinks, but it is more fun to be honest. There are a number of rather probing questions, some of which involve group therapy (all the players) and in the same vein as First Impressions, the possibilities for laughs and falling out are many. This is one of those games that either works superbly or falls flat. It very much depends on who you are playing with and the mood prevalent at the time. Given players who are willing to get into the spirit of it, as we found at Christmas, it works well and is good fun. If not, you may as well put it back into the box.

A common theme for the popular games is to bundle up an old concept in a big plush box and charge the earth for it. The worst offenders used to be Pictionary (which amounts to 25 for pencils, paper and some cards) and Liar's Dice (which is basicially dice and pots), but I think Scattergories runs them close. The game is essentially one that I played a lot at school in those interminable free periods when we weren't playing Bridge or Twizzle for currant bun stakes (no gambling allowed you see, so the winner got to eat the buns on the table - the acne was horrendous). It is the one where a letter is chosen (in this case by rolling a big lettered d20; we stuck a pin in a book) and you have to note down a river, boy's name, pop star, non-fatal illness, breakfast cereal and so on starting with said initial. This is all done against a time limit (they supply an electronic egg timer) and points are scored only for unique words with bonuses for alliteration - my Conan the Conqueror as a fictional character drew much abuse from the literati. Lots of light hearted arguments ensued when dubious claims were made, though there was nothing to rival the laughter when a schoolfriend once announced Oxbridge as a town starting with O. It is all put together nicely with subject cards, writing pads and pencils and presentation is very plush. No, you're right, I am completely failing to make a case for the 20+ price tag but all I will say is four of us set out to play just a couple of subject cards and ended up three hours and two complete rounds of cards later with a finish that came down to the last word. An excellent game that brought back a lot of memories, although I still have major trouble with rivers and politicians.

Both Boggle and Scrabble Dice are a little more cerebral than your average mass market fare. I have always liked Scrabble and those 'Make 173 Words from Anteater' puzzles so these two are right up my street. Boggle is the one where you shake a container full of lettered dice, they land in holes and you make words using a wordsearch pattern, running any adjacent letter onto another, diagonally or orthogonally. Again, this is egg timed but there are two weaknesses in this one. Firstly, the timer is a sandglass so it can run through with no-one spotting it, allowing a round to go on for minutes longer than intended and, worse, the letters fall upside down, side on and right way up with no time to adjust them. If everyone sits round the table it tends to even out, but staring at sixteen letters at varying angles does make you miss words and does little for post-Christmas hangovers. Scrabble Dice is pretty much the same game as the board original except that instead of tile drawing, dice are rolled and you make words from those instead. Both of these were okay, but not exactly a bag of laughs and of course low on interaction. Rather like Scrabble, they're good if you are in the mood.

I am forever in the debt of Geoff Challinger for introducing me to Smuggle, the latest incarnation of Pepys' Contraband and last put out by MB a few years back. It isn't around in shops but can be found quite easily second hand. The game is a classic of its kind and can be played, as we did at Christmas, by anybody who can keep a straight face or indeed those that can't. John Webley reviews a game this issue that seems to have some similarities but if you are stuck you can always play Cheat which needs the same skills.

Finally we come to the dexterity games, usually a hilarious challenge for quivering hands of all ages and infinitely better after a bottle or two of decent port. Whether being 'in the wrist action' qualifies Battling Tops as a dexterity game is a moot point, it remains one of the all time greats. Hungry Hippos and Verflixte Zelle (the stuffing sponge babies into a telephone box game) are acquiring cult status as the years go by and I still yearn for a Crossfire set, preferably one that doesn't take the skin off one's fingers. Can you still buy these? Subbuteo made a comeback, Striker (with the pop-o-matic heads) threatened to but wouldn't emerge from my mate's loft and Carrom made its first appearance. Both of these went down well, though I think the only true converts to Carrom, ready to play at any time, were Mike Clifford and myself. My thoughts on this classic game are elsewhere. Of the true dexterity games I have always thought Jenga the weakest of the big three as both Topple and Bausack are hard to beat. I still haven't worked out how the Bausack bricks stay in place, how the rules seem to change from game to game and how the game seems to be a success whatever you do with it. Perhaps the appeal of building bricks into a tower is one that will last for quite a while.

On to TWEAKS & VARIANTS or back to the review of Axis & Allies.

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