Thursday, December 18, 2008

Rules were made to be broken

Nearly there... nearly there...
The kids are counting down the minutes to the end of term. Mrs D is writing a list of all her lists. Yours truly is watching money flow away from him in a passable impression of the mighty Orinoco.
That’s the river, not the Womble.
But nagging away at the back of the mind is that age-old question: once presents are opened, joints carved, corks popped and crackers cracked, how do we keep ourselves occupied in the festive limbo between the heaven that is Christmas and the credit-crunched hell that stretches away past New Year’s Day?
Traditional games, that’s what. Never mind all these flashy Wiis and XBoxes and PS3s – although truth be told we shall probably be having more than a few goes on the electronic cosh between now and January 1 – but proper, old-fashioned, gather-round-the-table family fun.
Take Monopoly. It’s great for gatherings of kids and adults alike, it doesn’t last too long, it teaches elementary skills such as adding up, taking away and large-scale fraud. It passes the acid test of all good parlour games: it has lots of bits to fiddle with and get lost inside the cat.
The only trouble with Monopoly is the rules. Let’s face it, they’re a bit on the complicated side, and can lead to arguments when players start going broke and try to claim rent on mortgaged properties.
And some people (step forward, Mrs D’s brother) seem to think you can build houses on the water works or King’s Cross Station, stay in jail indefinitely and have more than one hotel whenever you can afford it.
The fights that break out as a result are the main reason why ten times more games of Monopoly are started than are ever brought to an official conclusion.
Last Christmas one of the younger brethren got given a Golden Compass board game. It made Monopoly look as simple as Snap.
The board had colour-coded edges and the rules changed when you moved from one side to the next.
As you went round you had to collect different bits of cardboard associated with the themes of the original book/film (alethiometers, dust, you know the sort of thing...), which you could swap at a later stage for magic stars.
Memory is a hazy thing but some sort of Victorianesque flying machine was involved in the proceedings as well. Unfortunately, though, they left out the polar bear wrestling.
But the most annoying part of the game was the fact that every time we played it, Dixon Junior won by a country mile. After four of five games (each of which lasted a good hour) we parents lost a lot of our original enthusiasm and started to make excuses, which have continued to this very day.
Maybe Scrabble would be a better bet. What could be more enticing on a cold winter’s afternoon than to sit around cracking the nuts, munching the Quality Street and trying to persuade one’s nearest and dearest that there is such a word as ZJEIPAO and all right it may not be in our dictionary but it’s in the one at work and you can’t quite remember what it means but everyone’s heard of it and...
No, you’re better off sticking with simple words like AM, BE and TO, or a lexicographical obscurity like ID, a genuine word that’s guaranteed to annoy the hell out of your opponents. And hope you get the occasional triple word to boost your score out of the 40s.
When it comes down to it, though, Scrabble is just a bit too intellectual at a time when the mind has been turned to mush by festive over-indulgence. What you need at Christmas is a game that rewards steadiness of hand and animal cunning, with rules simple enough for a five-year-old.
The name of the game is Jenga. You build a tower of wooden blocks, then tease out the lower ones and stack them on the top. When the whole lot tumbles down with a loud and satisfying crunch, do as we do: shout "Jenga!" at the top of your voice and start all over again. Sheer heaven in a cardboard box.
This stream of consciousness first appeared as my Bath Chronicle column on 18 December 2008.

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