Othello, Cathedral Wars and the power of a board game

Screen Shot 2014-10-18 at 15.29.22This column first appeared in The Big Issue Magazine: Journalism worth paying for.

As autumn closes in and the clocks go back, I crave vintage board games. I have a whole cupboard, where they spill off shelves – the haul of many charity shop quests.

My latest acquisition is a second copy of Othello (one for the bedroom, one for downstairs). Marketed in my childhood years as if it were a recently uncovered cousin of Ottoman chess, the joy of turning those discs from black to white and back again can create battles like no other. I was horrified to read on Wikipedia a claim that its current incarnation is based on a 70s Japanese version: the green baize board symbolizes the green-eyed monster in Shakespeare’s play, rather than a witty reference to grown up gambling.

Screen Shot 2014-10-18 at 15.34.41Paul Merton in his recent autobiography recalled how his father could never go easy on him in games, even at ping pong; even when asked by his mum to give the child a break. I’ve remained conflicted about when it’s right to let my progeny win. After all Othello is one of the few games I can really thrash them at. And boy, do they still get upset when I snatch victory with that perfectly taken corner. (It’s all about the corners. It’s for their own good that they learn it from me). As it says on the box: “A minute to learn, a lifetime to master” – and I’ve got a thirty year lead on them.

Though it’s breaks with my rules I will confess to buying a brand new KerPlunk! for my husband on our honeymoon when he told me he’d never been allowed one as a child. All that trauma instantly healed with my love and a quick visit to the retail park in Hexham.

The greatest joys are the “new” old discoveries. My son and I often face off over Cathedral. I brought it home a mystery from the charity shop in a big, heavy and solemn-feeling square Papal robe-red box. The blond and dark stained wooden chapels, houses and church shaped pieces had to be placed in turn on a sturdy wooden grid till it crowded in like a medieval city. It turned out to be a delightful power-grab of a game from New Zealand, in which you attempt to annex control of the town. Sort of like Ken Russell’s version of The Devils only without Murray Melvin torturing Oliver Reed. Putting on a fancy dressing gown and wearing a big signet ring as you place your pieces is a good substitute.

There are misfires too. If a game appears in a charity shop in mint condition it’s probably for a reason. A “Save the Hedgehog” wildlife charity board game had a rule manual so complex it had to cross the busy high street back to whence it came. The News Game from The BBC – a crude attempt to jump on the 1980s Trivial Pursuits bandwagon –required the rigging up of a plastic rack to display stories based on a typewriter and newspaper hot-metal idea of scripting and running orders. How could a game make one of the most exciting trades in the world – journalism so unbelievably dull?

But the biggest joy of old boardgames was that they were solidly constructed so you could turn your imagination loose on them. Spear’s Games were once proudly made in England. The dark-coloured boxes had oil paint-rich images of colour and darkness like Magritte’s shadowed street with a blue daytime sky.

Home You Go! – a square-dance version of Ludo – had 20 primary coloured little humanoid plastic counters who formed the crew of my Moonbase Alpha. The dice was the master computer. With the houndstooth-grained board, the box lid and some scraps of paper when I ran out of pieces to ransack, I constructed every favourite place from every SF film I’d ever seen: long empty white lounges with coins and candy coloured rubbers as seats to ape 2001: A Space Odyssey. There was even an Andromeda Strain-inspired decontamination chamber in case the crew encountered a deadly alien virus. I finished it at last one morning before heading to school. When I came rushing back it was all gone. All of it. Not a piece remained on the floor My mother had decided to tidy up. And hoover. I guess that was my own boardgame trauma.

I bought a new Home You Go! in my twenties. I haven’t made the base again. But I could, you know. Anytime I like.

Further reading

Playing Chess with Gadaffi

Spear’s Games Archive

About samiraahmed

Journalist. Writer. Broadcaster.
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