August is National Anti-boredom Month. What better time to ponder the definitely un-boring world of board games, right?
First of all, I have to confess, I am a board-gamer. An avid one. My husband and I have a collection of over 400 board games (more broadly referred to as tabletop games), ranging from 10 Days in Asia to Euphoria to Starfarers of Catan to Le Havre. I have a stash of games at my desk at the library, just in case there’s time for a quick game during lunch. At home we play dice games such as Phase 10 Dice and Can’t Stop at meals (food doesn’t wreak havoc on dice the way it would on cards). I’ve attended the annual GenCon gaming convention in Indianapolis several times (the largest game con in the U.S., celebrating its 50th anniversary this month), which attracts over 60,000 gamers from all over the U.S. and beyond.
So when I encounter books and films that feature, or even mention, tabletop games of one sort or another, I definitely perk up. And there are a lot of them out there! Here are just a few.
Chess is perhaps the most famous tabletop game of all time. It has been featured in many books and films, including that memorable scene in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone when Harry, Hermione, and Ron battle for their lives in a game of Wizard Chess; Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Chessmen of Mars in which the chessmen are live people, each piece taken being a duel to the death; Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass in which the whole book takes place on a county-sized chessboard, and Alice is a pawn who must make her way across the board to become Queen; and many more. If you’d like to find more such books to read, I suggest browsing through this generous annotated listing of some of the best chess-related fiction. Then there are the chess movies, including Searching for Bobby Fischer, Queen to Play, The Luzhin Defence, and Queen of Katwe, among many others. Here’s one of many lists of ten of the best chess-related films.
Go is another enduring classic (it’s around 4,000 years old!), often considered to be the world’s most difficult game to master, and one that frequently appears in literature. Hikaru No Go is a popular 23-volume manga (graphic novel) series centered on the game. The Master of Go by Yasunari Kawabata is an exquisite novelization of an actual Go match which took place over the course of six months in the 1930s. The Girl Who Played Go by Shan Sa revolves around the game. And let’s not forget A Beautiful Mind, in which Go is also featured.
More modern board games have been featured in books and films as well. Scrabble is one example. The children’s novel The Fingertips of Duncan Dorfman is heavily focused on a school Scrabble competition (and also involves some students who would really like to cheat!). In the 1992 film Sneakers, Scrabble tiles are used to help crack a code. The children’s book Games: A Tale of Two Bullies, in which a pair of middle-school bullies are forced to play games together every day in order to learn how to get along with each other, features a plethora of games including Scrabble as well as Battleship, Connect 4, and more.
There are films that bring a game to life. A memorable entry in this group is the 1985 film Clue, which not only features all the characters from the popular board game, but offers three different endings (if you saw it in a movie theater, you had no idea which ending you would get — I remember that well!). A more recent game-to-film effort is Battleship, not the most successful film of 2012, but an opportunity for lovers of the 2-player tabletop game to see it come to life.
Card games certainly come in for their share of attention. Who could forget the cards featured in Alice in Wonderland? Many a scene is played out over a card table in 19th century literature, such as Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice (1813), in which characters flirt and court over whist, loo, vingt-un (an early version of blackjack), and commerce (a forerunner of poker); and Austen’s Sense and Sensibility (1811), which includes cassino and piquet. In Elizabeth Gaskell’s novel Cranford (1851-53), the ladies of the village spend many hours at card tables playing cribbage, preference, ombre, or quadrille. As genteel women, card playing is one acceptable way for them to fill their days.
One of the most popular twentieth-century card games is bridge, which pops up in many novels. Two books that feature bridge particularly prominently are Agatha Christie’s Cards on the Table, in which a bridge game is the key plot element as Poirot analyzes the characters of the players through their bridge-playing styles; and Louis Sachar’s young adult novel The Cardturner, a delightful tale of a teen who is catapulted wholeheartedly into the game of bridge by his ancient (also rich and dying) uncle.
Not all games are real. There are, in fact, a plethora of imaginary games that appear in fiction. A good example is Vaccination, a complicated card game played by the Leary family in Anne Tyler’s The Accidental Tourist (you can catch it in the film version as well). In the Star Wars series, the imaginary holographic board game Dejarik is played; particularly memorable to me is the scene from the ‘first’ Star Wars movie, now called Star Wars IV: A New Hope, in which Chewbacca and R2d2 play the game. M. T. Anderson’s The Game of Sunken Places is a children’s fantasy book in which the protagonists discover a game board (The Game of Sunken Places, of course) which triggers the game to begin in real life. They encounter all sorts of hazards and strange characters as they attempt to survive and thereby win the game.
As if that wasn’t enough, some of those imaginary games in film and literature have inspired the creation of real-world games. For example, the film Jumanji (based on the picture book by Chris van Allsburg) revolves around a mysterious board game some children find in a park. The film spurred the creation of a children’s board game recreating (as much as possible) the fictional game. And William Sleator’s book Interstellar Pig, about a group of teens who become addicted to the imaginary game of that name, spawned the creation of a real Interstellar Pig game.
There are many games that are based on books or movies. Lord of the Rings is a challenging cooperative board game based on the Tolkien books, in which each player is one of the hobbits, and everyone works together to try to destroy the ring before Sauron overcomes the ring-bearer (there are other games with Tolkien themes, but this one is the most true to the original story). Game of Thrones is an epic strategy/war game based on George R. R. Martin’s epic novel, where each player is vying for rule over the kingdom of Westeros. Eldritch Horror (formerly Arkham Horror) is a cooperative fantasy game based on the Cthulhu novels and stories by H.P. Lovecraft. Pillars of the Earth, involving the building of a great cathedral, and World Without End, tackling survival during the 100 Years War and the Black Plague, are board games based on Ken Follett historical fiction works (Pillars of the Earth and World Without End). Two of the Mystery Rummy card game series are based on famous fiction: Jekyll & Hyde, based on Robert Lewis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde, and Murders in the Rue Morgue, based on Edgar Allan Poe’s short story. The card game Bottle Imp is based on the Robert Lewis Stevenson short story. And the list goes on. The gaming website boardgamegeek (the place to go for information of any sort about board games) lists over 1800 games based on novels.
With so many interesting game-related books and movies, and so many great games, the biggest question is which to read, watch, or play first! Queen of Katwe is on my viewing list for this week. How about you?