board games

April 5, 2023–Who else hates board games that take longer to set up than to play?

The only ones worse are games that take longer to play than to set up.

I was thinking of this because we’ve been pulling out all those boxes of games to play with our grands. You know, the ones you haven’t touched in 20 years that are missing half the pieces, but you never throw away.

Hi Ho Cherry-O
What a great way to teach basic counting, we thought stupidly when our first child turned 3. This game lets you remove one to three cherries from your tree according to the spinner. Fine in concept; frustrating in practice. First, the flimsy cardboard “trees” have holes in which you have to place about 150 tri-colored “cherries” the size of kidney stones with stems. If you kick the box, which every kid will, the fruits all fall off the trees and have to be reinstalled.

Worse, the instructions include diabolical ways to make sure the game never ends. Exactly 42.8% of spins land on “Spill the Basket” which requires a player to put all the cherries back on the tree, essentially starting over. Every kid’s game has the same diabolical loophole. Just when you near square 99 at the top of Chutes & Ladders, you fall into a chute that takes you back to square 24. UNO, that never-ending card game, has penalty cards where you have to draw one, two, or three cards. If you can’t match on a regular turn, you might draw 16 before you can play, especially if no one bothered to shuffle the deck from a previous game.

The worst game was Mousetrap. As a kid, I always wanted one. Our cousins had it, so I asked them to play. It took about an hour in kid-time to set up, and then none of the Rube Goldberg plastic devices actually worked. I still resent that wasted afternoon, which I could have spent chucking dirt clods into the creek.

So how did we, as busy parents, handle these time-sucks? Simple. We lied to our children.

“No, kids… ‘+2’ means you get to play two more cards that don’t match… go again!”
“No, that spin means ‘fill the bucket.’ You get to take off three more cherries!”
“Oh, you landed on the extra special long Chute. That sends you on to the next square!”

It doesn’t get any better as the kids get older. I remember excitedly unwrapping our first game of RISK. Unlike Monopoly (the classic waste of an evening), the Parker Brothers weren’t content with controlling a village. No, they conquered the entire planet. There were literally armies of armies, battling across every border. After setting up all those micro-soldiers, the wars began. And went on, and on, and on, longer than all the wars in Afghanistan.

Not only is the game interminable, but way before the apocalypse it becomes obvious that one of the players has built an unstoppable military monolith. As his troops cross Irkutsk and corner the last cowering enemy in Eastern Australia, the end is inevitable, though still a few decades away in RISK-time. The smart play here is for the losing general to grab the board and fling it into the fireplace. That also obviates the need to sort out and re-fenestrate all the tiny fighters into their cellophane prisons.

Moving into adulthood, game options do not improve.

Dominoes: When the dominoes come out, I go away. Before I came to Texas, I didn’t even realize dominoes were a game. I thought they were just for creating long chain reactions.
Poker: Any game that lasts overnight is not a diversion; it’s a sentence.
Chess: If I can’t take your piece off the board after jumping it, the rules need to be updated from the original Sanskrit.
Trivial Pursuit: I actually like this one, with one modification–throw away the board and all the tiny pie slices. Just read out the cards to each other while doing literally anything else.

There are a few games we found we could tolerate as parents. Interestingly, they all dated from our grandparents’ era. Carom, Shuffleboard, and Nok Hockey still get pulled out from time to time. The advantages are they require zero setup, have no complicated instructions, usually require shooting objects into holes, and let players brandish sticks. Plus the games get finished quickly, with no loopholes that make you start over. The only downside is not losing the caroms, pucks, and parts under the couch. But we discovered you could substitute marbles, checkers, and tokens rescued from other games that had been tossed into the fire.

So… who wants to play cards?

Not me.