Quite often when I was little, on the breakfast table I would find intriguing scraps of paper bearing two columns of numbers, which turned out to be scores from the Scrabble games my parents had played while we kids slept. Even more fascinating were all those letter tiles in the game box.
The first “board game” our family of preschoolers played was Bingo, with its gridded cards and master number list, plus a metal can of corn kernels we used as markers – probably my father’s practical contribution. Mother ran the game, but it must have been exhausting: calling the next letter-number combination, answering questions, pointing out rows and numbers, settling squabbles. No wonder she played Scrabble at night!
I also remember the board with checkers on one side and Chinese checkers on the other. I liked regular checkers, but I loved Chinese checkers with the star pattern and the six colors of marbles marching across the board. By the way, there was a better than even chance that at least one marble was missing at any given time.
Santa often left a game or two under the tree as family gifts. One year there was chess. Thinking four moves ahead has never been my talent; I still can never remember how to move the various pieces. Santa also brought the Monopoly game we often played. We were probably more interested in the play money and the shoe and thimble tokens; we usually ran out of steam long before it was time to purchase hotels. And we had a Battleship game, with boats containing holes for pegs indicating strikes, although I found very little entertainment in such games of strategy.
No, sir, give me a good word game. My favorite, next to Scrabble, was Dig. Materials included a bag of small cardboard squares imprinted with letters of the alphabet and “mallets,” whose cork-shaped heads were covered with a sticky substance. The object of the game was to “dig” in the pile and pull out letters to form words. We played this game on Sunday afternoons at the card table we set up in the living room – until the mallets finally lost their sticky factor.
Another Sunday pastime was Pit, a card game based on commodities trading. There were wheat, barley, corn, and rye cards, among others – each with a number value – along with a bull card and a bear card. We engaged in blind trading by calling out the number of commodities we wanted to sell. My poor father, on his one day of rest, had to listen to us yell “three, three, three” as we insistently shoved cards at each other. Great game – probably because I excelled at pushiness, at least according to my sisters.
I will expand my definition of board games to include some involving cards. We were no different from most kid-populated families in playing Go Fish and Old Maid. But we also learned rum from my father. He was an amazing game player: Dominoes – none better; Checkers – a master; Rum – he remembered every card everybody played, while I often forgot what I had in my own hand; Scrabble – the man could put down two letters in the tightest of spots to earn a triple letter score in one direction and a triple word score in the other. The most important game rule I learned from him: “A card laid is a card played.”
Adulthood brought a return to children’s games as I played some old favorites as well as some new offerings with my nieces and nephews. I do not mean to offend, but Hi Ho Cherry-O! was just plain boring, as was Candy Land – which I played on two different continents – one of those games that can drag on forever.
I loved, however, playing Sorry with my munchkin relatives; it was great for colors, numbers, counting – and learning to deal with disappointment. And children of all ages, including my mother and I, loved Scattergories. Adults and kids could participate on a relatively level playing field by listing as many words as possible starting with a designated letter and belonging to a certain category: “fruits starting with B” or “toys starting with M.” One nephew, sharing certain game-playing talents with Grandpa, had a penchant for unique answers such as: small red bird in the “animals in nature starting with S” category.
Of course we had lots of fun playing the games of childhood, but we also learned social skills that are equally important for today’s kids: taking turns, following rules, learning how to take winning and losing in graceful stride. I only wish that the educational powers that be would realize that a game, well-planned and well-executed, is a valuable classroom learning tool rather than an unnecessary distraction.
I am not sure that families play as many board games as we did. I see lots of children – and their parents – playing animated games on individual tablets. But there is something special, if not essential, about focusing on a common task with actual human interaction – even if it is a rousing round of Boggle.
There are two distinct aspects of games and playing. Quite obviously: Life is more fun if we play games. Also true: The way we play games shows some of our character. The way we lose shows all of it. I find both offer compelling reasons to gather round for fun and games.
Shirley Scott, a 1966 graduate of Graham High School, is a native of Champaign County. After receiving degrees in English and German from Otterbein College, she returned to GHS in 1970 where she taught until retiring in 2010. From 1976-2001 she coordinated the German Exchange Program with the Otto-Hahn-Gymnasium in Springe.