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Saturday, February 14, 2015

A. A. Milne on playing games

If you've ever hosted or attend a board games party, you might enjoy this essay by A. A. Milne about playing parlor games on a rainy day:
For a Wet Afternoon

Let us consider something seasonable; let us consider indoor games for a moment.

And by indoor games I do not mean anything so serious as bridge and billiards, nor anything so commercial as vingt-et-un with fish counters, nor anything so strenuous as "bumps." The games I mean are those jolly, sociable ones in which everybody in the house can join with an equal chance of distinction, those friendly games which are played with laughter round a fire what time the blizzards rattle against the window-pane.

These games may be divided broadly into two classes; namely, paper games and guessing games. The initial disadvantage of the paper game is that pencils have to be found for everybody; generally a difficult business. Once they are found, there is no further trouble until the game is over, when the pencils have to be collected from everybody; generally an impossible business. If you are a guest in the house, insist upon a paper game, for it gives you a chance of acquiring a pencil; if you are the host, consider carefully whether you would not rather play a guessing game.

But the guessing game has one great disadvantage too. It demands periodically that a member of the company should go out by himself into the hall and wait there patiently until his companions have "thought of something." (It may be supposed that he, too, is thinking of something in the cold hall, but perhaps not liking to say it.) However careful the players are, unpleasantness is bound to arise sometimes over this preliminary stage of the game. I knew of one case where the people in the room forgot all about the lady waiting in the hall and began to tell each other ghost stories. The lights were turned out, and sitting round the flickering fire the most imaginative members of the household thrilled their hearers with ghostly tales of the dead. Suddenly, in the middle of the story of Torfrida of the Towers—a lady who had strangled her children, and ever afterwards haunted the battlements, headless, and in a night- gown—the door opened softly, and Miss Robinson entered to ask how much longer they would be. Miss Robinson was wearing a white frock, and the effect of her entry was tremendous. I remember, too, another evening when we were playing "proverbs." William, who had gone outside, was noted for his skill at the game, and we were determined to give him something difficult; something which hadn't a camel or a glass house or a stable door in it. After some discussion a member of the company suggested a proverb from the Persian, as he alleged. It went something like this: "A wise man is kind to his dog, but a poor man riseth early in the morning." We took his word for it, and, feeling certain that William would never guess, called him to come in.

Unfortunately William, who is a trifle absentminded, had gone to bed.

To avoid accidents of this nature it is better to play "clumps," a guessing game in which the procedure is slightly varied. In "clumps" two people go into the hall and think of something, while the rest remain before the fire. Thus, however long the interval of waiting, all are happy; for the people inside can tell each other stories (or, as a last resort, play some other game) and the two outside are presumably amusing themselves in arranging something very difficult. Personally I adore clumps; not only for this reason, but because of its revelation of hidden talent. There may be a dozen persons in each clump, and in theory every one of the dozen is supposed to take a hand in the cross- examination, but in practice it is always one person who extracts the information required by a cataract of searching questions. Always one person and generally a girl. I love to see her coming out of her shell. She has excelled at none of the outdoor games perhaps; she has spoken hardly a word at meals. In our little company she has scarcely seemed to count. But suddenly she awakes into life. Clumps is the family game at home; she has been brought up on it. In a moment she discovers herself as our natural leader, a leader whom we follow humbly. And however we may spend the rest of our time together, the effect of her short hour's triumph will not wholly wear away. She is now established.

But the paper games will always be most popular, and once you are over the difficulty of the pencils you may play them for hours without wearying. But of course you must play the amusing ones and not the dull ones. The most common paper game of all, that of making small words out of a big one, has nothing to recommend it; for there can be no possible amusement in hearing somebody else read out "but," "bat," "bet," "bin," "ben," and so forth, riot even if you spend half an hour discussing whether "ben" is really a word. On the other hand your game, however amusing, ought to have some finality about it; a game is not really a game unless somebody can win it. For this reason I cannot wholly approve "telegrams." To concoct a telegram whose words begin with certain selected letters of the alphabet, say the first ten, is to amuse yourself anyhow and possibly your friends; whether you say, "Am bringing camel down early Friday. Got hump. Inform Jamrach"; or, "Afraid better cancel dinner engagement. Fred got horrid indigestion.—JANE." But it is impossible to declare yourself certainly the winner. Fortunately, however, there are games which combine amusement with a definite result; games in which the others can be funny while you can get the prize—or, if you prefer it, the other way about.

When I began to write this, the rain was streaming against the window-panes. It is now quite fine. This, you will notice, often happens when you decide to play indoor games on a wet afternoon. Just as you have found the pencils, the sun comes out.