How our love of games is surviving lockdown

By Nathaniel Tapley

In late 1968, as snow fell on Hartford, Connecticut, Tim cheated. We don’t know exactly how; we can’t begin to imagine why; we only know that he did. Because we have a piece of paper that says so.

Stuffed into the bottom of a Yahtzee box, beneath a sheaf of scoresheets, is one dated 27 December 1968. On it is scrawled: “TIM CHEATED!!!” Before history records man walking on the moon, or Richard Nixon becoming president, it records my uncle Tim cheating – set down in the un-disguisable scrawl of a younger brother driven almost illiterate with frustrated rage.

I hoard pieces of paper. Notes, lists, receipts. I keep them all hoping that I’ll find them in the future, emit a JR Hartley-esque sigh, and drift into a reverie, remembering that amazing time I drearily munched a panini on the concourse of Waterloo Station on a rainy, Wednesday afternoon. Left unattended, I’d be found after a couple of weeks, snuggled like a dormouse into a nest made entirely of flyers, train tickets, and old copies of Melody Maker I’m keeping in case I ever need to know about Kula Shaker in a hurry.

Scoresheets, however, have a special place in my heart. Just look at the game ruined by Tim’s failure to adhere to the rules: we know who was there, we can find out the weather by checking the internet, and we’ve got pictures of the room where the game happened, taken that Christmas. The bits left over from board games are magical in the way they can conjure up a lost world.

With a piece of paper, that world isn’t lost any more. Tim died in 2015. His father died in the 1990s. But here they are, on this score pad: smoking pipes and cheating.

Leftover scoresheets let us track the comings and goings of a family. Someone’s old girlfriend will pop up for a game or two and do badly, because no one’s explained the rules very well (you don’t want to risk them winning) before disappearing forever into deserved, dicey oblivion. Children emerge, drawing big numbers in for low scores at first, until they become teenagers and sullenly write in half a game before getting bored and doing something else.

It’s not just Yahtzee, of course. To my wife’s horror, I can produce Pictionary pads from the 1980s and scraps of Balderdash paper from the Millennium. Her horror stems from knowing I’m probably only a half a step away from being the kind of old man who roots through bins pausing to look up, brandishes a half-tin of sardines and gives you a not-fully-toothed smile; she doesn’t have a phobia of tiny pencils.

Games, however silly, however ephemeral, however brief, let us make our mark. They are moments of undiluted pleasure in being with the people we’re playing with. They are moments of concentrated life, snatched from death, stamping our memories onto the soft wax of time.

Board games loom large in my family. As deeply conflict-averse people, who dodge discussing anything of importance with the calm deftness of Shelley Long avoiding Jack Nicholson’s axe, board games have always provided a valuable space for us. They’re a way for us to talk about things that are nominally trivial, all the while ensuring every phrase is loaded with as much subtext as it can bear.

There’s little as menacing as a parent gently saying “Are you sure you want to go there?” The error you’re currently making becomes a metaphor for your life-long litany of stupid mistakes, ongoing disappointments, and the clutch of substandard grandchildren with which you’ve provided them.

Games that don’t come with tear-off pads are missing something, and the thing that they are missing is priceless pieces of the historical record. Yes, I can remember great victories at Trivial Pursuit, but without a piece of paper how can we commemorate our pie triumphs? How can we wave it in our families’ faces for years to come unless we have it in writing?

I was very excited this year when my sister-in-law gave me a game for Christmas that came with score pads you each draw on. I couldn’t be happier that there will be a new generation of slips of paper to clutter up our cupboards.

However, this year we didn’t really get to sit around and play games. Long afternoons of grazing at the Quality Street and pawing at dice were replaced with the best we could do: charades played over the internet. There were no slips of paper, although we could have recorded the Zoom call if we’d thought of it.

I wish we had thought of it. One of the people playing charades over the internet after Christmas lunch won’t be on our score sheets any more. She was killed by a virus she didn’t know she had that afternoon. The last time we saw her was playing a game, throwing out guesses as children dressed up to mime Beauty and the Beast at their cousins around the country.

Games, however silly, however ephemeral, however brief, let us make our mark. They are moments of undiluted pleasure in being with the people we’re playing with. They are moments of concentrated life, snatched from death, stamping our memories onto the soft wax of time.

So keep playing, keep keeping score, keep washing your hands, and keep some of your little bits of paper.

In memory of Nathaniel’s sister-in-law Martha Battley and the other 118,000 people in the UK who have died of Covid-19 at the time of publishing this article.

Nathaniel Tapley is a comedy writer and performer on the TV shows you hate.



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