When I was a child we did not have HBO or video games or a computer, so if I wanted to have fun I had to either set something on fire or play a board game.
Candy Land was where I matched my wits against other members of my family. The object was to advance your piece along the path until you reached the gum drop castle or you got up and quit in a huff because it looked like your little brother was going to get there first. There was a stack of cards, each with the picture of another sweet food like a candy cane, peanut brittle, or an ice cream bar, and whichever card you pulled, that was the space on the board you advanced to. The ice cream bar space was the closest to the end, so one time I fixed the cards so that I would pick the card with the ice cream bar. My plan was foolproof. But it was not momproof. My mother made me go first and I ended up pulling the card for soy chips, automatically losing the game.
When I got a little older my father taught me how to play chess. I had thought he said “chest” and that the felt on the bottom of the pieces would be used to stick the pieces to our chests. I was disappointed when the pieces stayed on the board, but my disappointment turned to glee when I beat my father my very first time playing. I bragged about it for the next twenty years until my father told me in an email that he let me win.
In the late 1980s my family succumbed to a massive TV ad campaign for Mouse Trap. The point of Mouse Trap was to go around a board collecting pieces of cheese and assembling plastic pieces into a complex mechanism where at the end someone would turn a crank and set the little plastic pieces in motion that culminated in a plastic cage that looked like a small overturned laundry basket falling down on the little mouse-pieces, “trapping” them. The game would have been great if the mechanism worked. But it only worked on the commercial. In real life you had prod each component of the game until it did what it was supposed to do. Only a mouse that was already dead or had given up on life would have gotten caught in Mouse Trap.
There was Monopoly, where my strategy was to collect the cheap properties and jack up the rents like a slum lord. And Trivial Pursuit, where I always answered the questions in the form of a question, like Jeopardy, until someone flicked a small plastic wedge at my eye. And the Game of Life, which required so little strategy that it must have been designed by a Calvinist.
Scrabble was a game changer. I would comb the dictionary for obscure words that were short and contained the letter “e” to use on my opponents. The word “en” was my favorite, even though it was a prefix. Nobody called me out on it, and I was reigning champion until someone told the authorities that I was forming words diagonally.
The board games for adults are very different. There is a lot more dependence on TV trivia or awkward topics or devices that make noise. One time I was at a party where I was forced into playing a game that had a digital timer that started beeping loudly if you took too much time to think of movies starring Kevin Bacon. The noise was so irritating that when everyone else got up to look at a YouTube video of a stranger falling down the stairs, I tossed the device out the fifth-story window into the alley below. I played dumb when they asked what happened to it, but I don’t think they believed me.
I was visiting my ancestral home last weekend, and during the time of the visit where my mother sends me to the basement to throw out more of my “junk” I came across Candy Land. I wanted to take out the board, fix the order of the cards, and challenge my brother to a rematch. But I knew it would not be the same as I remembered. I was too mature to play games. So I put the box down, covered it with old issues of Highlights, and told my mother that I’d thrown it out.