Cardboard Children: Heroquest & More..
The House We Played In
Today I am going to write a column purely from memory. It will be riddled with mistakes, and there will be places where you say “He's wrong on that. We got him. We got the sumbitch.” I ask your forgiveness in these places, and ask you to just go with it. I also beg your patience, because I have my reasons for writing this today.
I've been thinking a lot about games lately, and why they matter to us. Why, specifically, they matter to men and women in their thirties and older. I've been thinking that it isn't just about the experience of “play” for us – it's also about making a connection with our past. I'm not suggesting games are a nostalgia trip – it's nothing as simple as that. I'm saying that games open a door to that unique place we all existed in when we were young. That memory palace with the Long Summer Days Wing and the Secret Place Where No-One Can Find Us attic space.
Today I'll remember a few of the board games of our youth inaccurately. Come with me.
There was a time, and this might seem strange to some of you, when you could walk into a high street shop and take a fantasy board game straight off the shelf. The very same shop that sold you He-Man toys, and Star Wars toys, and SuperNaturals figures. The ones with the holograms, remember? I'm sure none of these things were on the same shelves at the same time, but go with it. Just go with it.
Do you remember the advert?
I don't even have to click play. I can remember every second of this advert.
OW YOOZ MA BWOWDSOWD!
FAYA UV ROF!
Do you remember seeing this on TV? Do you remember how it felt to see this advert playing in the ad break after an episode of Knightmare? Do you remember what you were wearing at the time?
I was wearing, almost certainly, my school uniform. Primary 7 of St Catherine's Primary School in Glasgow, Scotland. I had come home from school an hour or so before, and I was--
I am sitting in my living room. My ma is making my dinner. It's my da's favourite – mince and peas, on plain bread. Mince and peas from a tin, and some good gravy, all laid on a thick slice of plain bread. Beautiful. I can smell it.
My da's not home yet. He's a roofer. When he comes home, he'll be black with dirt and dust and work. He'll wash up and sit in front of the TV with his dinner, and then we'll watch Star Trek: The Next Generation together. Me on the arm of the chair, leaning on him, and nudging him to keep him awake if it's a Wesley Crusher episode.
That'll happen. But right now, he's not here.
Knightmare's just finished. Everybody at school is mad about Knightmare. We talk constantly about putting together a team to go on it – but we never will. In truth, the thought of being on telly horrifies and scares every one of us, so we're happy just watching.
And, I mean... Who wants to be these dicks?
And then that HeroQuest advert. FAYA UV ROF! Four heroes. Barbarian, Wizard, Dwarf, Elf. Little doors. Little bookcases. Orcs, Goblins, Chaos Warriors, Skeletons. Little toys. Let's face it. Little toys, and rules to play with them. And you can even play it in a room that looks like a dungeon. With friends who can't speak properly.
I got it for Christmas.
Christmas morning. I've already unwrapped my Oor Wullie book. Or was it a Broons year? Sitting cross-legged on the floor in front of the fire. My ma in her dressing gown, smiling. Noel Edmonds on telly, probably. My da in the kitchen, getting things prepared for Christmas dinner. I can hear him in there, singing some Perry Como song at the top of his voice. A great voice, my da.
And this present – right size, right shape. Hoping it's HeroQuest. Hoping. One tear. Rip! Enough to see this:
IN A WORLD OF M
Smiling at my ma. Tearing the rest of the paper off. Soon it would be Christmas dinner, and my sister would be round with the kids. The kitchen table dragged through to the living room, all of us crammed in around it. And I'd be eating my da's homemade soup and leafing through the HeroQuest adventure book. All of that would happen. But right now he's in the kitchen, singing. And I'm here.
I'm here in my bedroom. I have this weird big thing in my room. It's like a cupboard, but instead of a door it has a big fold down table thing, with legs. Impossible to explain. But that big table/cupboard/shelf thing is where I do my gaming. And I have HeroQuest laid out on it. Everything is assembled. My friends are here. Graham Hannah is here. Matthew Cook is here. Spiel is here. You don't know any of these people, and I barely know them these days, but I loved them and love them and so they're here.
I'm behind the Gamesmaster screen. I'm running the game. It's not the first time I've run a game, and it won't be the last. I don't dare to dream for one second that I would still be running games of swords and sorcery when I'm in my mid-thirties. That'd be crazy talk, right?
I'm following the little adventure layouts in the HeroQuest rulebook. I'm moving Goblins around a corner. I'm surrounding the Barbarian. I'm watching my friends' faces. I'm seeing excitement there. I'm hearing laughter. No-one is thinking about school tomorrow. No-one is wondering about how unpopular they are. No-one is working out the best way to walk home to avoid running into someone who might swing for them.
We're in a dungeon. We're in a battle. We're in my bedroom. We're in our element.
I'm seven years old.
I'm playing I Vant To Bite Your Finger. It's a simple board game with a standing Dracula, and you can stick your finger in his mouth. Not long ago I was cuddling in bed with my ma, and we were watching Love At First Bite on the telly, and I fell in love with a song I would listen to even in my thirties. I Love The Nightlife, it's called. And George Hamilton was Dracula in that film, he was dancing to it. And we were laughing. And in I Vant To Bite Your Finger, Dracula looks nothing like George Hamilton. If you get caught in the game, you stick your finger in Dracula's mouth, and push a little tab down at the back. The game barely gets played, but we all like getting our finger bitten. His teeth are like little red pens, and they leave little red bite-marks on your skin. And the pens are running dry.
The pens are running dry. My da can probably fix them.
I'm playing Jaws: The Game. It's a plastic shark, and its mouth is full of junk. I don't know why. You have to get the junk out of his mouth. I don't even know why you'd want to do that. Sometimes the shark bites you. It was garbage. But I loved that film. I remember my da laughing when I jumped at that bit. You know the bit. You know the bit. My da, shaking his head, laughing.
I'm playing Perfection, from Action GT. My sister Annette is amazing at it. She winds up the timer and pushes down the play board. It's a game where you have to fit all the little pieces into the play board before the time runs out. If time runs out, everything pops into the air and you lose all the bits and stuff. Annette is putting all the bits in as I watch, like a demon. I'm staying at her house tonight, because my ma is on the night-shift at the hospital. She's a geriatric nurse. My da is at home, of course. Sitting at home on his own while I play Perfection and Monopoly with my sister. I could have stayed home with him more nights, really. Let's be honest.
POP! Time up!
I'm playing the Army of Darkness board game. Paul Doonan is playing it too. Hannah is still here. The game is terrible, but we're hooting and laughing. Quoting bits of the film. Talking about how much we fancied Embeth Davidtz, and what we'd do if she made a horse blanket for us. Different chat now in this room, a different perspective. But sitting around a game, as ever. And laughing so loud, dummy fighting, rolling around. “I SLEPT TOO LONG!!!”
My da downstairs, never complaining about the noise. Thump! Bang! Teenagers Jackie Channing each other. Sammo Hunging each other. Screaming “THIS! IS MY BOOMSTICK!”
No complaints. Him downstairs. Me here.
Him there. Me here.
I think games connect us to a time when we had time. In your youth, time is elastic. You have exactly as much of it as you need. You have no responsibilities. No job, no children. Nothing but time, and friends, and shit to play with. When we play games now, as adults with too much stuff going on, we do so because we've made time for them. We've set time aside to indulge in some nonsense with people we love. When you make that time, you HAVE that time. And when you have that time, it's like being back there – back in that place, that living room, that bedroom, that house full of memories. With time to spare, and everything exactly as it was.
When I play a game, It's like peeking through the window into that house, and it delights me.
Tomorrow is the first anniversary of my da's death. It brings me some comfort to know that he lives in that house forever, singing in the kitchen, dozing in the chair.