Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Bored Game Theory

In the incomparable Preston Sturges screwball comedy The Palm Beach Story Claudette Colbert wants a divorce, so she hops in a cab and asks the cab driver where he’d get a divorce. (They don’t call ‘em “screwball comedies” for nothing.) The cabbie looks at her and says, “Well, most people go to Reno, Nevada, but for my money, it's Palm Beach. This time of the year you've got the track, you've got the ocean, you've got the palm trees. Three months. You leave from Penn Station.”

I was thinking of that this morning as I was framing the lede to this column. Most people who want to seriously lose their shirt go to Vegas, but for my money, you invent a game. You got copyright costs, printing costs, marketing costs, shady middlemen, the evil Wal-Mart megalith, Third World knocker-offers, Toy Fair booths, licensing fees, legal fees, sales tax, cease-and-desist orders, and in the end nobody buys games anymore anyway. Three months. You leave from Penn Station.

Throughout the Handful O’Landfill era I was connected in some way with the creation of half a dozen games, some better than others. The collectible card game I created in a morning in a construction office in San Clemente, Calif., was not so good. The APBA sports-simulation games, particularly an incredible hockey sim Baron Bedesky and I cranked out over two days in a Buffalo hotel room preparatory to eating fried-baloney sandwiches at a Bisons game, were much better. The APBA board games were okay, the game-like things we did for SkyBox and Pinnacle were game-like, and today’s subjects are right in there.

And this doesn’t even cover all the other games that made it onto the garbage truck without my help, including Marvel Overpower and DC Whatever, countless reboots of the Cadaco All-Star Baseball game, MLB playing cards, Donruss’ ill-fated Top of the Order game which wasn’t really ill-fated because it got what it deserved, and the Topps MLB collectible-figurine game that I still claim was the greatest waste of a can’t-miss license this side of Comic Ball.

The facts were that APBA and Strat-O-Matic players didn’t want the purity of their cards sullied by non-necessities like pictures, nothing was more fun than a 1968 Topps baseball card game, virtually all game play came down to rolling dice and/or walking a pawn around a board, and how can that compete with a virtually realified first-person-shooter game where you steal zombies’ cars and kill pirates with nuclear missiles you fire out of your ... uh, nostrils?

It is into that environment that we chuck today’s game contestants, Spellcast and the Jim Thome Baseball Game.

We got to know the creators of Spellcast at the New York International Toy Fair. We were booth neighbors, back in the part of the exhibit hall otherwise inhabited by goldbricking janitors, union stewards, intravenous drug users, and our client’s accountant, who liked to hit on women. The exhibitionists didn’t even go back there because, hey, they’re not doing this just for their own gratification, you know.

Two Manitoban sisters, Nicole Rondeau and Karen Laboissoie, created the game as an alternative to knitting curling stones. (The nights get long and boring in Winnipeg, and yarn is cheap.) Spellcast deals with magic and witches and spells, obviously, it’s ostensibly for girls without being hopelessly girly, it’s designed beautifully but totally unprofessionally, in a way that torches as much money as possible, and it plays in a delightfully roundabout way. It also includes stones, which makes it pretty much unusable for anyone under the age of four, and all boys.

Its few flaws aside – nothing that couldn’t have been corrected by a major manufacturer with a little want-to – Spellcast is a fine game totally deserving of a larger audience, yet the game’s chances of going big were about as great as the accountant’s chances of getting to first base with the sisters. Dice and stones and want-to can only take you so far.

It was quite a trip to New York for Karen and Nicole nonetheless. They came to the city with a gross of sellsheets and a handful of clips from the Winnipeg Free Press and the Vicki Gabareau Show. They came away with a gross of sellsheets minus 17, a couple of presumptive wholesalers who were extremely excited but obviously worthless, and the memories of a mugging at the World Trade Center. (Pre-9/11, obviously.) I tried to help on all fronts but there wasn’t much to be done.

I lost track of Nicole several years ago, and Karen long before that. The printers were not being kind to Nicole, the sisters had split, and she was trying to go it alone. She was slowly, reluctantly coming around to the realization that despite all her best efforts, it wasn’t going to happen.

The part of the business that sucks the most is when good people with big dreams get whacked. It happened to Nicole and Karen, and it also happened to the people behind the Jim Thome Baseball Game.

“Nice” doesn’t begin to describe the JTBG people. They’re the people who would stop their car on a screaming freeway to free a butterfly from their windshield wipers, and they wouldn’t care if it wasn’t a butterfly anymore but a collection of butterfly parts. If they were soup they’d be homemade chicken dumpling, if they were power tools they would be an electric chainsaw with no chain, and if they were a TV show they would be Teletubbies.

And Jim Thome! Name a nicer 600-home-run hitter not named Henry Aaron. Name a nicer nearly active 500-home-run hitter who doesn’t walk around with a chemical cloud over his head. Name a nicer 400-home-run hitter who actually hit 600 home runs.

Naturally the JTBG people were from Wisconsin, some quaintly named southern-Wisconsin hamlet like Roche-A-Cri or Montello. They were led by a retired businessman named Bob Montminy, who had assembled an army of local investors around a concept that was going to revolutionize tabletop baseball games. There are these dice, you see, and these pawns that you move around the board, and this part of the box stands up so it looks like a stadium wall, and when you roll snake eyes it’s actually a “big double,” and that means everyone on base scores, and –

Listen: I’m not trying to mock these guys because they’re so doggone nice, and I know Bob Montminy dumped all his financial and personal capital into the project, but the Jim Thome Baseball Game is just another baseball game, no more or less playable than a score of similar games.[1] It is, however, the best baseball-simulation game with the picture of a really nice 600-home-run hitter on its box.

Not content with one unnecessary cash outlay, the JTBG folks quickly reskinned the game as “Ebbets Field Baseball,” and switched the JTBG’s generic wall for the legendary ballpark’s legendary wall, with similar results. The resale shops and five-and-dimes of south-central Wisconsin teem with these games the way Buzzfeed teems with literary Pixy Stix. It’s not an accident.

I wish I could write about how games were the Yellow Brick Road for Karen and Nicole and Bob Montminy, how they were better than a Palm Beach divorce for a screwball heroine. They weren’t, and we’re all a little worse off for that.

Now, if you don’t mind, I’m going to dry my tears and fire a few more rounds out of my … nostrils. I love the smell of cordite in the morning.

[1] The rule of thumb with baseball board games is: The more realistic the game the more painful it is to play. The extreme example of this is Pursue the Pennant, which has been linked to more than 7,400 cases of OxyContin abuse.

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