I was going to title this: "Come Play with Me." But then I realized that many of you have internet filters that would have immediately sent this email to your trash. So I came up with something else.
My latest project is a game I’m designing. But before I describe it to you, allow me to digress and muse on various games I’ve watched…or played … or designed… going all the way back into my childhood.
The earliest game I remember watching on TV was “The Grand Prize Game” on Bozo the Clown. (Click here to see an episode.) A kid stands in front of six buckets and tosses ping pong balls into them, beginning with the closest bucket. Success gets progressively more elusive as the children try to hit the buckets that are farther away. For each success there is a prize for the child. But once a ball fails to land in a bucket, a big “OOPS” is stamped across the TV screen. Bozo then shrugs and consoles the kid and the game is over.
Even at the age of four I was conniving to redesign that game. Too many children lost because of the perky ping pong balls popping out of the bucket after a successful landing. I would have suggested tossing carrot sticks, or celery, or fish sticks… stuff I didn’t like, wasn’t allowed to throw away, and thought might be recycled in a positive way.
My favorite game on TV, however, was baseball. By the time I was in the second grade I was allowed to skip my nap and watch the Chicago Cubs pit their players against the rest of the National League. WGN TV carried all the Cub home games. And as long as I didn’t cheer rambunctiously and disrupt my brothers’ naps I was allowed to stay up and lose myself in those games. (To this day I tend to be a very quiet spectator of sports.)
As a result of watching the Cubs (usually lose) I became a game designer at the age of seven. When each televised game was over I’d head outside and invent a baseball game that had two features: 1) I could play it with just me and 2) I could rig it so the Cubs would win. My equipment consisted of a plastic bat, a whiffle ball, and the north side of our house. I made up the rules in my own head. The idea was to toss the ball up in the air and hit it toward the house. If it hit the house it was a homerun. If it bounced before it hit the house, it was only a single, double, or triple…whichever one I felt like. And since the Cubs were the only ones ever to bat… they always won. Of course, I was also the TV announcer.
As I got older I continued to play baseball by myself, with increasing sophistication, even past my Jr. High years. By the time I was in high school I had developed a whole system of players, teams, leagues, statistics, records, make-shift equipment, etc. But I kept all that game-playing hidden because I didn’t want anyone to think I was still a “kid.”
I also invented variations of baseball that I could play with other kids. Since regular baseball games call for nine players on each side, and since we never had that many kids available to play, and since we often only had my three brothers and myself… I was constantly designing games appropriate to the number of kids we had on hand. And sometimes our only ball got lost in the cornfield and I had to become even more inventive. I was forever designing ways to play my most beloved sport.
But I designed more than just baseball games. Another game I invented for my brothers and me was “Town.” One of us got to the be mayor, one the sheriff, one the dog catcher, and one the town drunk. As the oldest sibling I was inevitably the mayor and the most powerful man in the town. Then one day I got in a big fight with my brother Jim, who I’d let be the sheriff, and he decided to arrest me. It resulted in an even bigger fight and heavy bribes to the dog catcher and town drunk before I could honorably get out of the slammer. Kids! Of course, I immediately had to rewrite the rules of “Town” to make sure that didn’t happen anymore.
We had other games… like Old Maid and checkers… But since they came with rules I couldn’t change, I usually gravitated back to those games I had designed myself.
Over time I did learn to play games according to other people’s rules. My uncle taught me to play chess, more or less. In seminary, Dave and Bill and Beth and I played hours and hours of late night pinocle instead of doing our homework. And I’ve enjoyed years of tennis and church softball leagues, always being diligent to follow the rules.
With my daughters I played the license plate game and the alphabet game while we were on long road trips. At home I invented an “Election Game” and made the kids play it with me so I could teach them how the Electoral College worked.
I can’t seem to quit designing new games. As recently as two years ago I designed a role-playing game for beginning pastors and made them play it in a course I was teaching.
Consequently, here are some things I’ve learned so far about designing games.
1) If you keep changing the rules in the middle of the game your brothers will quit and you’ll be back to banging a whiffle ball against the house all by yourself.
2) If you give the players too much leeway to be creative, they will arrest you, even if you are the mayor.
3) It is important that your game keep the players amused. Almost all our childhood games ended when the other kids stopped being amused and then quit, leaving me without a necessary quorum. If your game isn’t amusing, you can only bribe and threaten your brothers up to a point.
4) A game only works if it makes the players feel lucky, smart, or skillful… or makes them think they can be lucky, smart, or skillful in the near future.
With all that in mind (along with a few other things) I’ve almost completed designing a board game that uses markers and tokens and “strategy cards” to amuse pastors and other people who care about congregations. I give them a scenario which basically consists of a mess going on in a fictional church. They are then given tokens representing time, money, and political capital. And they have to use those tokens to purchase “strategy cards” that might help them move past the mess.
The strategy cards are based on nearly 50 years of my own church experiences and noting patterns between what works and what doesn’t.
It’s no Grand Prize Game, and I’m no Bozo. And my new game isn’t rigged so you always win...or lose. And nobody in this game gets to arrest me. But I think it will amuse folks, even though it mirrors situations that bring real life pain to many. And I think it will help people approach seemingly intractable problems in new and practical ways.
Let me know if you’re game to be a guinea pig for I'm now looking for people to help me test it out.