Robin Williams (1951-2014) – Comedian, Actor, Gamer

williamstoysAmerican comedian and actor Robin Williams died yesterday from an apparent suicide after battling years of depression and addiction. While his award-winning acting, frenetic comedy performances and activism are what he will no doubt be best remembered for, to a certain set of fans like myself, his lifetime interest in gaming and toy soldiers likewise leaves a mark.

As a lonely, oddball child of wealthy parents, Williams developed an early escape valve through play with toy soldiers. In a 1993 New York Magazine profile, Williams’s mother recounted his boyhood obsession with toy soldiers:

“Robin had the entire third floor,” his mother, Laurie Williams, says. “He put his toy soldiers — he had thousands of them — in those rooms, carefully divided according to period.” Williams not only staged intricate battles between soldiers of different eras, he created dialogue for them in what was, essentially, a childhood version of his performance style.”

Not only was Williams a toy soldier fan from an early age, but gaming was a lifelong passion. He was an avowed Warhammer 40K player (apparently favoring Eldar forces), even posing for photos with staff and other players during stops at local gaming stores. He is also listed among celebrity players of Dungeons & Dragons, going so far as to participate in major gaming events up until a few years ago. His passion for gaming also extended to online and video gaming, and his daughter Zelda is rumored to have been named for the popular adventure fantasy video game series from Nintendo.

morkboardgame1979’s Mork & Mindy board game from Parker Brothers

Like a lot of kids growing up in the 1970s and 1980s, Williams’s starring role in Mork & Mindy from 1978 to 1982 was a fixture in my weekly TV viewing. Starring as Mork, a zany alien from the planet Ork, Williams’s catchphrases, mannerisms and signature look became firmly imbedded in my young mind. There was definitely Mork madness in my life and in the culture for a bit, extending to toys, games and even rainbow suspenders (yes, I had a pair).

Williams certainly went on to much bigger and often more serious professional work, but that period in my youth where I was becoming an impassioned gamer myself definitely informed some of my own willingness to stretch into characters outside the bounds of reality. Williams’s life of playing characters, switching roles and acting out wild fantasies brought so much joy to audiences around the world, but for me, I like to imagine him as that little boy crouching over his little soldiers and creating a universe that was just his for a moment.

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Games Take A Vacation

I’m currently midway through my family’s annual summer vacation week on Cape Cod, Massachusetts, and as always, games are on my mind. Renting a vacation house often gives an odd insiderish view to other people’s lives. The weird assortment of kitchen gadgets (who needs three waffle makers?), the hodgepodge of furniture, the collection of beachy knickknacks and bookshelves of worn bestsellers all seem to exist in various forms in the homes we’ve rented over the years. I always wonder how much this conglomeration of stuff reveals about the unseen owners who cash our rental checks each year and how much it tells me about my fellow vacationers.

Piles of games also usually inhabit vacation rental homes. Cottage owners probably provide a few games to start. Over the years families may pick up a game at a local gift shop and then leave it at the house for the next renter. For rainy days away from the beach or late nights after the sand has been rinsed off sunburned bodies, games hold a pretty consistent presence in the vacation home experience. I would hazard to guess that families who hardly ever find themselves playing board or card games together at home do so as part of their sacred vacation ritual.

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Games found in vacation rentals usually fall into a few broad categories. First, there are standard playing cards. Adults and kids alike can find many games for cards, from a calm game of Go Fish with a toddler to a game of Poker on the screened porch for the grown-ups after the children are tucked into bed. The house this summer has no less than ten decks of cards, including two unopened packs and a sailboat-decorated double set like the ones my grandmother and aunts used to use to play Bridge. Cribbage boards are also pretty commonly found along with cards, although I personally know few people who know how to play the game these days. Poking around in drawers and shelves this year revealed five cribbage boards, including two folding portable ones and a folksy handmade version with holes drilled into a slab of age-darkened wood cut into the shape of a whale (pic below). Tucked in a desk drawer I also found a set of five standard six-sided dice still sealed in their dusty package. Like so many items in a vacation home, I wondered at the story behind these dice. Why were they purchased? Why have they been left abandoned for so many years without use?

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The second class of vacation games fall into what I call “American Classics.” These are family-friendly board games like Life, Monopoly, Chutes and Ladders, Checkers and Clue. To these I’d also add word games like Boggle and Scrabble, the dice game Yahtzee and Dominoes, all  of which were with us in this year’s house. Nostalgia and tradition resonate with these games, each offering a familiarity to vacationers year after year. These classics also give the flexibility for  games to be played among family members of all ages and the chance to introduce a new generation to an old favorite.

This year we also found a copy of Mastermind at the house, a classic board game outlier I’d never encountered in a rental cottage before. I hadn’t played in probably 30 years but was glad to find my eight-year-old son was an old hand at the game from playing a school. While not very challenging for me at this point, I was more than happy to pass an hour with this classic deductive code-solving game as part of a rainy day of indoor activity.

Finally, there’s the modern adult party games like Trivial Pursuit, Pictionary, Scattergories, Balderdash and Outburst which grew out of the boom in adult board games in the 80s and 90s.  These games are light on rules and big on group participation, making them the perfect thing to fill rowdy late nights for adults well into their gin and tonics or local summer brews. A copy of 1967’s trivia game Facts In Five was in the pile at the house this year, perhaps the result of a local yard sale find in the past.

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Along with packing the car with luggage, beach gear and bikes, we usually stow some games for our annual week away. This year, we hauled along several games from home, including Small World, Civilization (pic above), Settlers of Catan and the horse racing game Winner’s Circle. My kids and wife have developed a liking toward well-designed strategy games and can even be found delivering sneers and eye-rolls at the mere mention of a game like Monopoly. A simple deck of cards or a heap of Parker Brothers classics just don’t make the grade when there are grand civilization-building strategies to be played, even while on vacation.

Like many vacation home renters, I often fantasize about owning my own funky little cottage on the Cape. Part of this fantasy is how I’d decorate it with only the most thoughtful and interesting collection of furniture, useful yet surprising books and top-of-the-line kitchenware. Added to this list would be a set of well-curated games, short on too many classics and filled out with the best Eurogames there are to offer. Maybe a couple basic Dungeons & Dragons books and a bag of polyhedral dice sitting on a shelf would inspire some vacation role-playing. I’d be sure to throw in the occasional retro game for irony, but my hope would be be that my renters would be pleasantly surprised by having their minds expanded while on vacation.

But then, I wake up from my real estate dream and realize most people probably don’t want a challenge on vacation. A deck of cards or a familiar board game is what most folks will ever want on those few precious days away from home each year. For me though, gaming never takes a holiday.

Retro Gaming The 70s & 80s: Survive!

surviveboxBy the early 1980s, I had a shelf full of games from Parker Brothers. Like millions of other kids, I was brought up on Parker Brothers classics like Monopoly, Clue, Risk and Sorry! Most of these games were already a couple generations old by the time I first played them, and, despite their updates, they were showing their age a bit. But then in 1982 Parker Brothers introduced Survive! which has gone on to be a new modern classic for gamers of all ages.

The story of the game involved each player trying to get their tribespeople off an island which is quickly sinking into the sea. At the beginning of the game, the hex land tiles – beach, forest and mountains – were shuffled and then placed randomly on the board to create the island. Then, in turn, each player placed their ten tribespeople tokens with up to three per hex except for beach spaces which held only one. Each player piece had a number value etched into the bottom, and saving the higher-valued tribespeople was key to scoring and winning the game. Cardboard lifeboats were then placed floating at the edges of the island and a sea monster figure went in the lagoon at the center of the island.

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Each turn, players moved their tribespeople and then removed a tile, beginning with beach hexes and then forests and mountains. Player’s pieces which fell into the water drowned, but you could also move your a piece to a water space as a swimming would-be survivor. Boats carried up to three survivors at once and could carry tokens from multiple tribes at once. Removed tiles had special events on the back and might indicate the appearance of a whale, dolphin or shark in that hex. Finally, a die was rolled to move a sea creature dipicted on the special die.

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Strategy for the game involved getting as many of your tribespeople to the coral islands at the corners of the board before a mountain hex piece was turned over to reveal a volcanic eruption killing all survivors not safely away. Moving a whale to a space with a boat capsized the boat, tossing any passengers into the water. A dophin could carry one tribesperson swiftly through the water. Sharks ate swimming survivors and the sea monster destroyed a boat and all its passengers. Other tiles revelaed different special actions, including whirlpools which destroyed anything in that and immediately adjoining spaces. The combination of all the possible outcomes and actions of the other players made for a mix of competitive and collaborative play, always balancing what was best for your tribespeople against what the other player’s actions were.

At the time, there were a number of things that set Survive! apart from most other conventional board games. The board featured hex-shaped spaces like many of the fantasy and RPG games I was playing then. The board was also different each time you played, adding a randomness factor not found in most board games featuring a traditional static set up every time you played. The game components were a bit less abstract and more like the “meeples” now a common part of just about any Eurogame.

A European version of the game appeared a few years after the original with a few variations. In 2010, Survive: Escape from Atlantis! was released by Stronghold Games with an updated game using elements of both versions in one. Since then, Strongehold Games has also released a number of expansions including a 5-6 player variant and others containing extra sea creatures. The game remains widely available, and the 30th anniversary base game released in 2012 can now be picked up for $40 with expansions running for $10 (all cheaper online).

More than three decades on, Survive: Escape From Atlantis! has entered the modern canon of board games. Whether your tribe includes kids or a group of friends looking to pick-up a quick new game, heading back to the island of Survive! is well worth the ride.

Collector’s Note: While Survive: Escape From Atlantis is now widely available, original copies of the 1982 first edition of Survive! can be found on eBay for $25-50. Individual game components are also available for a few bucks apiece, just in case any of yours were swallowed-up by a sea monster over the years.