Tonka Trucks Commercial from c.1980


(Sorry for the delay! I am still getting used to Jaybird being gone. He usually writes his Saturday! posts in the morning and we were at the airport then. So I’m just squeaking in under the Mountain Time wire.)

Back in the day, my family played a LOT of board and card games.  Pretty much every one you can think of that was around back then.  In fact, my siblings and I played through the entire Hoyle’s Rules of Games one prepubescent summer just because we were *that* bored. I also played a lot of games with my best friend and her younger brother – the harder my family life got, the closer I was to an extra sibling over at their house. As the eldest sibling in both those households, I generally found myself in one of four situations:

  1. My hypercompetitive father was at the table making all of us miserable and attempting to manipulate us and pit us against each other. Ugh. Enough said.
  2. We were playing whatever it was to keep our hands/brains busy, somewhat mindlessly or meditatively, and not even keeping score. (The longest game of War my middle sister and I ever played involved 5 decks and took a couple of days to finish.  Uno could go similarly; when second-family-sister and I played, we’d play to a win and then start over immediately. One summer we did this for an entire week. Her parents were baffled but tolerant.)
  3. I was playing with kids younger and less skilled than me and if they didn’t win a decent amount of the time, they wouldn’t want to keep playing, and would (if they were my own siblings) make me otherwise entertain them in more effortful ways. (Second-family little brother was held to higher standards by his parents than my blood siblings were, so he would generally accept cooperative video game play for hours at a time instead.  I’m still no good at mapping an old school text-adventure game (not even an old-school limited graphics game like King’s Quest!!) … but with me at the keyboard, second-family sister next to me, and him drawing the maps, there were few games we couldn’t destroy.)
  4. I was in some kind of extended family situation, my dad wasn’t around, all the cousins / uncles / aunties were within appropriate age ranges, and while it was safe to be as competitive as I wanted, they were all hypercompetitive, really smart, and really invested in winning.  My odds were not all that good. And winning wasn’t really why I wanted to play with them anyway.

Only one of those situations is actually bad, but all four of them could quickly lead to boredom, frustration, and wishing I could be doing anything other than pretending to try to win.  (Particularly since I valued harmony far above getting to choose what activities would take place.)  I ended up developing a number of strategies for entertaining myself at the table.

Strategy the first: Kinetic pleasure.  Are there bits, bobs, and pieces involved in your game?  Pay attention to them. Then pay more attention to them.  Feel those cards, flip those chips, stack those tiles.  Don’t show off, that’s not the point (though I guess it could be if you like!) – for me it’s all about the textures, weights, shapes, and if I’m lucky, colors.  Meeple-heavy games were a revelation.

Strategy the second: Mini-games. I’d also turn playing with the pieces of the game into games of skill for myself.  1 point for stacking the Scrabble tiles, 5 points for stacking all of my tiles, 20 points for each time I could stack all of them and then put them back on the holder without a blunder or anyone seeming to notice.  Sketching 3-D stories by arranging the pieces of a board game into different shapes; again, style points lost if anyone caught on.

Strategy the third: pattern recognition and counting games.  I think I was slowly inventing a card-counting intuitive process for myself throughout my teens.  I got pretty good at predicting what card would come up next (and I’m more than Ivory Soap sure no actual psychic powers were involved).  I also liked color patterns and counting various events in the game by increasingly larger numbers (3s, 5s, 10s, 12s, etc….).

Strategy the fourth: secretly substituting in the rules of one game for another in my head, and trying to win that one rather than the one I was actually playing.  This worked best with card games… honestly I can’t even imagine trying something that complicated now but I was a lot smarter and less preoccupied as a kid.

Strategy the fifth, the one strategy to rule them all:  Look at the game. Figure out what I might actually want from the game at the moment.  Devise my own goals / win conditions, and then try to achieve them.  I did this all the time back then (strategies 1-4 could all be folded into this one), and I do it just as much, and with far more creative freedom, now.  If you play this one right …. ie you never EVER make it seem like you don’t care about the people you are playing with …. you will never be bored or unhappy at the gaming table again.

My biggest success with this overarching method is actually a borrowed one.  I told a friend that my youngest sister and I were playing scrabble online a lot, but mostly to see what words we could dig out of our brains, because neither of us really wanted to go head to head with each other.  He told me he knew a married couple who’d been playing collaborative Scrabble for twenty years, just trying to beat their previous high score.  And we were off to the races.  My sister and I have made it to 739, so far.  Any game under 600 leads to much grousing and blaming of the online system for giving us crappy tiles, but not to being grumpy at each other.  Any game over 600, we exchange virtual high-fives.  I don’t think we’ve gone a day without a scrabble move in the last three years, unless one of us was traveling.



So… what are you playing?  And what mental tricks do you use to entertain yourself when you’re restless or frustrated?

(Picture is HG Wells playing a war game from Illustrated London News (25 January 1913))

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Maribou is a voracious reader who also likes to watch, stare at, and listen to stuff. Occasionally she makes stuff, too. She works in a small liberal arts college library, and shares a house in Colorado with her husband Jaybird, five cats, and what looms ever closer to ten thousand books. ...more →

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