A week in war time games.

Board gaming for me is all about bringing people together and I’ve done that every day this week at The Royal Armouries in Leeds. There’s still Sunday left to come and see us. A whopping 1095 people have visited Cards or Die and stayed for a game or two (or more), I’ve told stories about the games, taught people how to play and more importantly listened to stories about and inspired by the games. I love listening to people’s tales and games are often the perfect jumping off point for a great story. People handle the boxes and the memories come – trickling at first, then flooding the senses giving brief glimpses of the past. I have enjoyed snippets of conversation overheard – ‘I’ve got a copy of that in my parents’ attic”We had that exact one”My Grandad made us one of those’.
Tiddly Winks
Picking up a box of tiddly winks a lady in a wheelchair laughed and told me that years ago she was being patronised by a group of – as she referred to them – hooray Henrys – who were expressing their sorrow that she would never be able to take part in any sport. She informed them that nothing could be further from the truth. In fact she and her friend were the UK underwater tiddlywinks champions. She explained to them, at length, the excitement and danger of this niche sport – ‘if you get a tiddly wink in your snorkel it can be fatal’; how vital it is that you always ‘tiddle before you wink’ – her friend went to the loo at this point unable to conceal her laughter any longer. The Henrys were gripped by these tales of high energy, dare devil tiddlywinking. I like to think that at some point in the thirty years that followed it has dawned on them.
This MB classic has been one of the most played games of the week – at times all four copies were in use. A child announced – “we’ve played this on your phone – but here it is ‘in real life’!” As a child who was not allowed to own battleship because ‘it’s a waste of money – you just need a piece of paper and a pencil’ I can fully understand the excitement of the real thing!
On Tuesday as they left, a group of people who had played Battleship were promising their children that they would get some games out when they got home. It’s lovely to be able to share something of our childhood with our own children.
One group came in and asked about playing Risk. I said they would need a couple of hours or could play for a while and just see who was in the lead. ‘Oh no,’ they said ‘we’re not staying that long.’ Then they sat and played battleship for two hours! I love that about games – you can get thoroughly lost in a game and have no idea how long you have been playing. Often we rush about and feel like there is never enough time for anything so it is a luxury to be able to lose ourselves in an activity, to be consumed by it and escape reality for a while.
Shut The Box
Another favourite from this week. People of all ages have played – from tiny ones adding up on their fingers and studiously counting each dot on the dice as they didn’t yet recognise the patterns to Grandmas and Grandads playing on their own while they waited for the children and grandchildren to finish on the crossbow range next door.
This ridiculous game is as luck based as it is addictive – you are trapped endlessly rolling the dice in an attempt to get the exact number needed to ‘shut the box’. I taught it to some people who had never played it before – while demonstrating it once I shut the box. As newcomers to the game they did not understand my elation and said how easy it seemed. ‘Ha!’ I said – ‘take it, play it… you will see’. I popped over to see how they were getting on. The youngest child (while continually rolling dice) ‘It’s a stupid game really, I mean I’m just rolling dice and putting numbers down. You don’t need any skill. You just need to roll dice and add up. It’s just luck’
Me: ‘You can’t stop, can you?’
Him: ‘No!’
This- this is the intrinsic genius of Shut The Box.
Hearts Vs Minecraft
Hearts is the oldest game in my collection. From 1914, billed as an ‘exciting letter game’ from Parker Brothers, its delicate paper dice shaker contains 6 red dice with gold letters on. You have three turns to try to roll the word HEARTS. Simple but lovely and very much of its time.
It also contains advice on how to learn games which I think is priceless and still relevant:
A family played it for a while and really enjoyed it. I don’t think it was ‘exciting’ by today’s standards, but their five year old adored it and succeeded in spelling out hearts over and over again. On the way out they said they had all spent a while in the minecraft session and while the children had thoroughly enjoyed it, the adults had felt a bit out of their depth – a bit left out. They were delighted to spend this time all playing together, enjoying each others company.
When I tell people what I do, they often make the assumption that it’s ‘for kids’ but it really isn’t. At least not exclusively. Board games are for everyone. They are for coming together across boundaries of age, experience, knowledge… and having fun. For grown ups it’s a much needed opportunity to play and forget about adulting for a while and for families it can be a lovely opportunity to get off your screens and just be together.
Sum It
Sum It finally made it out of its box and on to the table. A very simple game in theory, I have been unable to get my head round playing it as I have no grasp of adding up in old money. One visitor remembered being whacked whenever he got his sums wrong but he still remembers how to add up in pre-decimalisation currency and could convert it too. I’m not great at Maths and I’m pretty sure hitting me every time I got it wrong wouldn’t have helped me – although it probably would have got me out of the education system and into work a lot sooner!
Possibly the oldest game known to mankind. It is certainly an ancient game and came in very handy for helping with homework this week. Two children are going away with photos, stories and hastily googled details about mancala. It is another simple game in so far as there are few rules to grapple with and yet there is plenty of strategy to consider. Being an ancient game there are always variations on the rules to stumble upon. A couple told me that they had seen it on a holiday in Egypt carved into a wall top in an ancient temple. Google helpfully suggests that it was perhaps Karnak, Luxor or Kurna.
Nine Men’s Morris
Another game that is simple to learn with a decent amount of strategy and also popular in Roman times. One visitor explained that he had seen it carved into sandstone in South Africa. Unlike more sophisticated strategy games evenly matched players or those with enough experience of the game can eventually force a draw. People also speculated on the name – one person asking if it was to do with Morris dancing – something that crossed my mind before I played it. This has since prompted me to look it up and it seems that in Morris Dancing and Nine Men’s Morris the word morris has different origins. The popular theory is that Morris Dancing comes from either ‘Morey’s daunce’ or Morisco (often associated with Moorish traditions from the mid 15th Century). The Morris in nine men’s Morris derives from the latin word merellus meaning game piece.
Over the week a whole range of games have been played by all different people. I expected that a lot of people would enjoy looking at Risk and Escape from Colditz, I didn’t think they’d get played but even they made it on to the table. While playing this I heard the story of a polish man, a friend of someone’s Grandma who had escaped Warsaw by strangling a guard and swimming the river.
A lady who picked up Ludo and asked if I remembered Frustration. Yes, I said and handed her the copy – just as she was telling me that the one she had as a child was a popomatic one. She grinned at me, took it and played it with her son. He loved popping it and she loved being able to play a game from her childhood with her son.
I’ve delighted in the post-its that went home with games written on – Abalone, Shut The Box, Mancala, The Grizzled – to look up and buy. As well as the promise of games once relegated to cupboards, caravans and attics which will now be freed.
The modern games have been a joy too. Being in a room full of laughter and animal noises is bizarre but lovely. Charades was originally a French game which actually involved solving riddles. Later, as a Victorian Parlour game it took on the form we recognise now where people act things out while others guess what they are doing. It has always been a popular game and remains so now. I brought along modern variations on the theme and so people have played Charades, Animal Ailments, all three versions of Quirk!, Obama Llama (1 and 2), Soundiculous and Randomise. These are games that bring joy to people and it has been fantastic to watch and hear them played.
My favourites, of course, are the slightly grumpy teens. I taught them for seventeen years and now I live with some – you’ve got to love them. A father and a young child settled down to a game of Mancala while the teenagers sat staring into the distance looking disgruntled. I had run through some of the games with them when they arrived but they were unimpressed. 10 minutes into Mancala, I noticed they had started watching the game. I took the second copy over and sure enough moments later they were engrossed in a game too. Often to win the war what is needed is a series of small victories.
So this blog or random collection of tales comes to a close. I’ve had a fabulous week and I hope to see lots of you at events soon. Subscribe to our monthly newsletter to make sure you don’t miss out.

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