I’m not saying you’re a back-stabbing s**t but…
I have a hole. In me. It’s a big hole. It’s a hole that is very noticeable, if you speak to me for even a few minutes. People walk away from a conversation with me thinking: “nice enough guy but what about that gigantic hole?”
I wage a constant war against that hole. I try to fill it whenever possible. I look for help in books, TV, friends and family. Wherever I can, I try to corral aid to help me fill this very noticeable hole that I have.
I am, of course, talking about the huge hole in my knowledge. Whether it’s string theory, the cultural impact of early twentieth century Russian literature or the simple act of conducting a conversation without making the other person want to slice their own ears off. Whichever subject I choose babble mindlessly about, it is clear that I know about as much as a well trained cocker spaniel. Except humping tree trunks or other people’s legs, then I beat that sucker hands down… paws down?
Gaming is no exception. What I don’t know about gaming could be crammed into thousands of servers, placed in locations around the world, that would service the informational, commerce and sometimes fetishistic needs of the world’s population. Which would seem to revolve around a super human desire to take pictures of cats. What I don’t know about is Cats. Cats with clothes on. Cats with their heads pushed through slices of bread. Cats conducting the second round of debt ceiling negotiations. What I don’t know about gaming is cats. I need to change this.
I posted a request onto a website a couple of weeks ago, asking people if they could give me a list of classic games that I should play. The ones that have gone some way to defining the hobby and shaped the direction of travel. As always the people were fantastic, giving me a comprehensive list of the classics I need to play. This piece is a response to that.
I’ve decided that I shall embark on a quest to fill the hole in my knowledge. In a gaming sense at least. I want to try and play as many of these classics as possible and when I do I intend to write about it. These pieces won’t be reviews. I’m old fashioned in the sense that I feel if someone takes it upon themselves to pontificate on a subject (at least in a public sphere) that they should be somewhat expert in it. These pieces will simply be a litany of my failures and rare, modest successes. This is the first one. There are no cats.
I bought a game a few months ago. I bought it because it was a classic and the internet seemed to be completely obsessed with it. It arrived, I unwrapped it and slid it onto my shelf and there it stayed emitting some sort of diabolical radiation, because whenever anyone came over to play games one of them would inevitably say,
‘Ooh, what do you think of this?’
To which I would have to sheepishly reply ‘I don’t know. I haven’t played it.’
People do incredulous well. It’s a thing we do. It’s what separates us from the beasts of the field.
“Incredulity: It’s a thing we do.”
Then I would see incredulity sweep across their faces like brown sauce over a filet mignon. Then they always said thing like: ‘Really? but it’s a classic.’
My attention would then be drawn to my slippers (we don’t wear shoes in the house in Europe) and I’d mumble something about time then their expression would change and they would pipe up with: ‘We should definitely play this sometime.’
At which point I would run away screaming and throw myself into a bath full of gin. Why?
It’s a simple story of intimidation. It’s true. A grown man at the peak of his powers intimidated by a cardboard box filled with cardboard pieces. The question is, why did this game intimidate me so?
It shouldn’t have. It’s a classic, it’s been around for over fifty years and doesn’t seem to have lost any of its popularity. It’s a game that so many people say so many good things about. Also, I’d clearly been enthusiastic enough to buy the thing (alcohol can do that to a man) so why was I so reticent to play it?
There were two reasons.
Firstly was time. This game takes a long time to play. The kind of long time where you elongate the vowels in the word ‘long’. The kind of long that requires you to have a shave mid-game. The kind of long that makes the Hobbit movie seem only insanely long. The game takes that long to play. That’s a major commitment. I haven’t committed that long to any relationship in my life so to commit that long to a game was rather intimidating.
The second reason is that I opened the rule book.
I’m not a war gamer. I feel squeamish about turning real battles into games. Especially those that are closer to us in time. I have no issue with people wanting to play war games but it’s not for me. This is why I haven’t played Memoir 44, but I can’t wait for Battlelore Second Edition.
I was told that this wasn’t a war game. It was more of a negotiation game and I love (elongated vowel sound) negotiation games. The rule book didn’t make this clear.
I have subsequently learned that the majority of the rule book is simply examples of play and how to resolve certain situations. But at first glance it looked like high-caste ancient Greek that had been put through the enigma machine.
I closed the rule book and slowly backed out of the room.
Recently though, partly because I wanted something to write about and partly because I’d been asked so many times by so many different people when we were going to play that I girded my loins (you cannot play this game with ungirded loins), winched my waistband up to my chin and arranged a meeetup. What follows it a battle report of sorts about my first ever game of (exaunt, divers):
After the winter comes the thaw. The world awakes and takes stock of how it looks now that the snow has gone. I am summoned to a meeting of the heads of the greatest lands in fair Europa. We sit almost in each others laps. Our forces, bristling for conflict after years of craven peace, sharpen swords and rub unfired rifles in mineral oil. Waiting. Watching. Sinew taught and muscle flexed. Waiting for the utterance of a simple exhortation to ‘fire’,
That simple breathless syllable that will tear fair Europe apart and fertilise its fields with iron and blood.
I travel from Vienna. The most beautiful city in the world. The city where every street echoes with sounds of glory. Of Mozart, Beethoven and our recently departed J.S. Der Walzerkönig whose glittering river snakes through buildings that look that they were created, not built. This is what I have to protect and protect it I shall.
I like Turkey. At our meeting he approached me first. He shook my hand with a steady grip, he looked straight into my eyes. He neither prevaricated nor dithered. He told me exactly what he wished to do and was interested if his plans were in accordance with mine. They were.
We shall crush Russia.
All goes well with fair Turkey. We have divided the Balkans and the Eastern Mediterranean with my friend moving forces into Bulgaria and Greece and us Austrians planting our K and K standard in the fertile fields of the Serbs and the wild Romanians.
I have agreed to leave Bohemia and Tyrolia as a buffer between me and the Germans in the north. He keeps asserting our filial obligation and I smile and placate him. He will be next after myself and brother Turkey have made the bear in the east dance.
Who would have thought that the land of Katherine the Great and Ivan the Terrible would show such little backbone?
It seems that they are resigned to the superiority of this fine Austro-Turk coalition. It seems that the Eagle and the Crescent Moon fly in the same heavens. That the Great Nations of Christ and Allah have found common cause in rending the moth-eaten woolen brocade of the Orthodox East.
What sport it has been!
I have offered my Turkish brother the lands of the frozen east if he will allow me the true heart lands of the Austrian people. The fields and mountains of Bavaria. The flat plains of Prussia and the gentle, rugged Harz. The whole of Germany shall be mine.
Na dann? Prost!
To see the face of the German deceiver as Berlin fell into Austrian hands was truly a sight I shall never forget! It shall warm me in my dotage and I shall regale my grandchildren with the tale again and again as we enjoy wine and sweetmeats in the gardens of Sanssouci.
I now have Bavaria and Prussia and soon all of Germany will be mine.
Those foolish Italians we duped into aiding me and fair Turkey and perforce distracted the Germans, allowing me to take what I wished. Soon, I from the north and Turkey from the south will have Italy too. I wish to sweeten my palate with a taste of Frangelico.
Brother Turkey has requested a part of Germany for himself but I have quieted his lusty Southern spirit with the promise of holding Russia in perpetuity. He is quieted. He is my brother.
Ach! Nein! Mein Bruder, was hast du gemacht! Betrüger! Hässlicher Betrüger!
How stupid was I to believe that I could trust that pig from the south? We had the whole world in the palm of our hands and like a greedy dog he wishes to have it all for himself!
My folly was Germany. That I wanted it all for myself and so spread my forces thin. That is when that traitorous animal attacked me from the rear and took fair Serbia, Rumania and Budapest. He has crippled me! When we could have had so much together he has broken the bond that links man and man, and now my country bleeds!
Unser armes Österreich! Wir leiden so!
This isn’t a review. It’s deliberately not a review but I have to recommend that everyone play this game at least once. It is pure above the table gaming. It is a design of such simplicity and beauty that becomes one of the most ugly, underhand activities I have ever been involved in, (and I’ve worked with advertising people) and it was fantastic.
Play this game.
Trust no one.