Giving Thanks With Gaming

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A week from now, Americans will be sitting down at Thanksgiving and joining with friends and family around tables in shared gratitude. Actually, Thanksgiving put this way sounds like what I do every week with dice, cards and game pieces instead of turkey and side dishes.

The time after Thanksgiving dinner was traditionally a time for games at my grandparents house when I was a kid. After the dishes were cleared, some of my uncles would sack out on the couch in front of a football game on TV but I always lingered at the table where the real games were happening. My grandmother, great aunts, aunts and mom would hold court at one end of the room-length table with a few rounds of Bridge and family gossip. At the far end, some other aunts and uncles hauled out a well worn Scrabble board and played a steady game of vocabulary one-upmanship. Some of my cousins would spread around on the hallway floor for games of War, Parcheesi and Hi Ho! Cherry-O. As the eldest of my many cousins, I always sat at the big table for dinner and there I mostly remained watching the adults play their games.

This year I’m particularly grateful to be hosting my brother and his family for our holiday shared meal. My brother is my oldest gaming partner dating back to the 70s and 80s when we first discovered oddly-shaped dice and little metal miniatures to paint. We are both fortunate to have wonderfully understanding wives who who have partnered with us in raising a second generation of tabletop gamers, and all of us will be present in Brooklyn for Thanksgiving this year.

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After dinner games

Our tastes in games range wider than the traditional board and card games favored by the older generations in my family. Even so, getting four adults and five kids (boys and girls ranging in ages 10 to 16) all engaged in the same game today remains a challenge. Our interests and commitments vary, but here are few which have worked for our family’s diverse audience over holidays past.

  • Dixit makes for a light but engaging game right after dinner with the various family members pairing off into story-telling and story-deciphering teams. This is a great multi-generational game to play since the kids can just as easily out-baffle the adults by using the key game component they always carry — their imaginations.
  • Guillotine switches the tone and ratchets up the humor for the Francophiles and budding historians with a twisted sense of humor. Nothing says family time at our dinner table like the beheading of aristocratic one-percenters during the French Revolution, all played with goofy cards. It might be a bit too off-color for some families, but all our kids dig this one.
  • For the classically-romantic, multiple hands of Love Letter makes for a royal crowd pleaser as cards are quickly played in a quest to win the heart of the fair princess. Lest that sound overly mushy, there’s a ton of game wrapped up in just a few cards which easily play anywhere. The Batman version will also make a first appearance this year, switching up courtiers with DC Comics heroes and super villains.
  • One Night: Ultimate Werewolf seems to fit the natural progression from dinner into evening. My extended family can be a bit on the boisterous side, so squaring off as villagers versus a werewolf threat in tense 10-minute games. I’ve heard from a lot of people who love playing this one with family around the holidays, since it inevitably brings out the liars and agendas in the crowd.
  • As the evening rolls on well past dessert, a couple pots of coffee and a few drinks, some of the kids and adults will inevitably drift away from the table. For those of us who remain, a rowdy round of our favorite Letters From Whitechapel makes for a grand late night hunt for Jack The Ripper. Set on the dark streets of Victorian London prowled by cops, prostitutes and a famed serial killer, a group of players team up to hunt for Jack as he secretly makes his way home. If the theme doesn’t seem to fit the holiday spirit for you, think of it as a way for you and your family and friends to work together in one of the better cat-and-mouse games I’ve ever played.

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Black Friday games

The Friday after Thanksgiving is a day off for many, and hoards of Americans are up early, out the door and racking-up credit card debt with overly-publicized Black Friday shopping. Since I do everything I can to avoid the masses over the holiday weekend, the Friday after our family feast presents a rare full day to be filled with gaming. This year it’s also my visiting brother’s birthday, and celebrating the day is a great opportunity to pull a few a few of the larger board games off my shelf. I usually max out at about 2-3 players in these games, so having up to five players around the table will be a treat.

  • Civilization: The Boardgame is one of the granddaddys of civilization-building games. The game built on the innovations of the original Civilization games with a progressive “tech-tree” mechanic where technologies build within a historical timeline over thousands of years. Players march toward victory through different paths of warfare, culture and technology, allowing each player to work to their strengths and interact with human history along the way. With the Fame and Fortune and Wisdom and Warfare expansions, more possibilities and a fifth player are added into a game which stretches across the eons and a few hours of play.
  • Slaughtering the undead through an apocalyptic wasteland again doesn’t sound very holiday-like, Zombicide is a great collaborative game of survivors versus mobs of zombies. Like my formative dungeon-crawling adventures with Dungeons & Dragons in the 1970s, Zombicide follows a party as they collect weapons and other survival items, level up in ability and accomplish missions. The game quickly goes from bad to worse over a couple hours, and working together as a group is the only way of surviving.
  • One of my favorite multi-hour games is Arkham Horror, based on the Cthulhu Mythos of H.P. Lovecraft. This is a big, beautiful game set in a sleepy New England Town inexplicably invaded by netherworld beasts. Adventurers team up, acquire weapons and magical items and seek to destroy the beasts who threaten the world with dominating insanity and destruction. Events, monsters and player characters all come with a deep narrative that unfolds throughout the game, taking this game off the board into a terrifically eerie role-playing experience.
  • While not a long time commitment, the card-driven Marvel Superheroes Legendary is best played in a big group of superhero players teaming up to foil the evil plans of an arch nemesis. Another collaborative game, Legendary really “feels” like a comic book to me with various hero characters growing in power and skills which play off the other characters on their team, whether it be the X-Men, Avengers or Fantastic Four. My brother and I have been huge Marvel Comics fans for decades, so getting into a game which has characters leaping from the page to the table is still as much of a thrill for us in our late 40s as it is for our kids.

Every family has their holiday traditions, and each generation builds on these and creates their own new traditions. Games remain a constant thread for my extended family through the holiday run from Thanksgiving through Christmas. The themes, mechanics and mechanics may have changed over the years, but at the root of our gaming is the chance to spend a few hours playing with those closest to us. This Thanksgiving, step away from the screens, clear the table and find your own gaming tradition with your family and friends.

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New Game Weekend: Letters From Whitechapel

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This fall will be the 125th anniversary of one of the most famed unsolved crime cases in history and a story that continues to fascinate to this day. The Jack the Ripper case, also known as the Whitechapel Murders for the section of London where the killings occured in 1888, involved the gruesome homicides of (at least) five prostitutes by a still-unknown perpetrator. Much like today’s high-profile crimes, the case held Victorian London in a state of rapturous horror as an anxious police force, press and citizenry obsessed over the murders and hunt for the suspect. Graphic crime-scene photos, mysteriously cryptic letters and speculation on potential suspects – from butchers to surgeons to members of the British royal family – combine to make to make the lore of “Ripperology” a thing of modern legend.

Jack The Ripper in Pop Culture

From a pretty early age, I had a macabre interest in Jack The Ripper. Aside from the countless true-crime books on the case, Jack The Ripper has made it to the big and small screen dozens of times over the years. I love the moody 1928 silent picture Pandora’s Box starring Louise Brooks as a wayward innocent who falls into a life of prostitution before becoming a victim of Jack. The 1979 movie Time After Time adds a sci-fi spin on the case with Malcolm McDowell as H.G. Wells chasing Jack The Ripper through time to modern day San Francisco. My favorite by far has to be the 1988 Golden Globe-winning TV miniseries Jack The Ripper with Michael Caine chewing the scenery as the real-life Scotland Yard chief investigator of the Whitechapel Murders Inspector Frederick Aberline. Made on the centennial of the case, the series focused on the theorized link of the murders to the British royal family and re-introduced the case to a new generation of Ripper-obsessives like myself.

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fromhellcoverOf all the movies and books I’ve encountered about Jack the Ripper nothing can hold an oil lamp to Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell‘s 1999 graphic novel masterpiece, From Hell. Orginally released in a 10-issue serial and now available as a bound edition, From Hell is one of the most dizzyingly complex stories I’ve ever read. This is also Moore at his most obsessive with nearly 600 pages of slowly-building detail ultimately pointing to a grand and ancient conspiracy. The muddy black-and-white ink drawings of Campbell perfectly capture the grime of the streets of 19th-century London and the unhinged mind of a serial killer. The depth of research and detail in the characters and places surrounding the case really can’t be described, and it’s this complexity in the book that has driven me back to re-read it a number of times over the years. Johnny Depp starred in a 2011 film adaptaion of the story, but honestly I’ve never been able to bring myself to watch it given how much I love Moore and Campbell’s original series. A new book, The From Hell Companion, goes behind the scenes to the story and visual development of the book, and I’m certain I’ll be picking up a copy very soon.

Letters From Whitechapel

With a long-time interest with Jack The Ripper, I was thrilled to get a chance to play Fantasy Flight Game’s Letters From Whitechapel recently at Metropolitan Wargamers. The game presents a historically-accurate map of Whitechapel with its intricate cobblestoned streets and alleys on which a group of police officers attempt to track down and apprehend Jack The Ripper before his murderous spree comes to a bloody end.

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In the game, one player is elected to play as Jack while the other players take on the roles of patrolling London policemen. Behind a special screen, Jack denotes his hidden home base on a special sheet before placing tokens on the board at the location of possible victims. The police players then secretly place the starting locations of their patrolling officers. Then, all starting places for the police and prostitutes are revealed and markers are placed on the board. Going first, Jack then decides whether to kill his first victim or delay for time. Once the victim is murdered, a red token is placed to denote the scene of the crime and the police pawns are moved up to two black squares at a time.

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Jack the Ripper then moves each turn in secret between numbered spaces, marking the locations on his sheet away from view from the police players. A carriage token allows Jack to move two spaces and slip by police potentially blocking his path. An alley token lets jack slip through a dark back passage within any given city block. After each move by Jack, the police move and choose to investigate nearby areas or speculate on and adjacent location of Jack and make an arrest. If a player investigates a space where Jack has been, a clue is revealed and marked on the board. Turns alternate with Jack moving and the officers attempting to string together his movements through discovering more clues. Jack attempts to get back to his secret hideout before being found out by the inspectors within the set time of the round. If Jack is successful, the next round begins with a reset of the board and a new potential victim being placed.

Letters from Whitechapel is basically a cat-and-mouse game with the police players attempting to decode Jack’s possible routes of movement in order to close in and capture him. In my first game, it took us two rounds to track down a very elusive Jack who ran devious circuitous routes back toward his hideout. After the first round, we felt fairly confident we had narrowed his home base to one of three areas of the board, and we finally caught him in the second round by focusing on those areas. The game involves a lot of discussion among the police players with various theories of Jack’s whereabouts bandied across the table throughout the game.

For gamers with more than a little Jack The Ripper interest coupled with a desire to play out a game of hidden movement of the opponent, Letters From White Chapel is incredibly satisfying. With 125 years of the unsolved Whitechapel Murders behind us and probably many more to come, having a go at bringing Jack The Ripper to justice makes for an intriguing couple hours of play.