In the first of our new series, John will be exploring what happens when you take popular culture and throw dice at it.
I grew up in a house full of board games. I also grew up with both my older brothers roughly 200 kilometres away at a Boarding School, so I didn’t get a chance to play those games very often. School holidays, mostly. Since I was quite a bit younger, I always lost. An eight-year-old will usually not beat a 16-year-old when playing Poleconomy.
So to this day I see board games as the ultimate representation of loneliness and defeat. Only kidding! I love ’em. The sight of a large rectangular box can still bring on nostalgic flashbacks, as can the smell of certain chipboards and solvents. We had a cupboard full of games, mostly strategic, grown-up games – things like Battleship, Mastermind, Risk… Intelligent, adult, worthy games.
As a child, however, I sometimes yearned for those other games – the ones based on trashy, mindless American entertainment, with lurid artwork and novelty playing pieces – I wanted to play Six Million Dollar Man – Bionic Crisis, or The Love Boat World Cruise Game. I dreamt that one day the Murder She Wrote Game would be mine.
But when I became a man, I put away childish things. No longer did I dream of moving a small cardboard picture of Lee Majors around a piece of reinforced cardboard. And by that time, the board game was on the way out, man – everyone knew grunge-based CGI virtual-reality porn was the entertainment of the future. There was no room for poorly-designed games based on Are You Being Served?
Pop-culture-based board games were something I never thought of again.
As you know, The Outland Institute has been around for hundreds of years, and it’s always been at the forefront of unpopular thought.
Buckminster Fuller’s geodesic domes, the Sinclair C5 electric car, Alaskan secession, the Daddo brothers – we instigated all of them, and watched as each crashed and burned. Just like the Hindenberg! Which was also one of ours. If it’s unpopular, ill-timed, poorly-thought-through or just downright morally reprehensible, it’s likely the Institute has championed it. “Give me your tired, your poor… your huddled masses”, we have said, “As we have an unused area in the basement we would like to turn into a piece-work sweatshop”. It’s a big building.
So today marks a new initiative of the Institute – the renaissance of the board game. But not those intelligent, “mainstream” games with their gotcha “strategy” and their elitist “rules” – no, we come to resurrect the quickly-produced board games that cash-in on a passing fad. To celebrate the companies that created unplayable games simply so they could put Michael J Fox‘s face on the box.
We’ll be looking at board games based on television shows, movies, even books and celebrities, in the hope of kicking of a new cultural zeitgeist that will lead to toy companies releasing roll-and-move games based on Dexter, Six Feet Under, The Wire and The 7.30 Report. Pop-culture board games will be the new black, the new rock-n-roll, the new order. Picture-houses will close, discotheques will crumble, as people stay home in droves, hoping to roll a double 6 and finally return Bert Newton to his mothership.
To start our 700-part survey:
The James Bond Secret Agent Game
The source material: Bond. James Bond. Regenerating super-spy, ladies man, “sexist, misogynist dinosaur – a relic of the Cold War”. Shaken, not stirred. 14 literary works by Ian Fleming, 22 feature films in the “official” series, plus countless other novels, teleplays, unofficial films (including parodies, homages, pastiches and rip-offs), cartoon series, records, video games, comics and waxwork dummies.
The game: Copyrighted in 1964, this game was released to a world in which only three James Bond films existed. Can you imagine? It’s a world in which Sir Hoity McStuffy could adjust his monocle and say “James Bond? Oh, it’s just a fad. Come the year 2000 no-one will remember James Bond. He’ll be a flash-in-the-pan, just like The Beatles, Doctor Whoand all those other Johnny-Come-Latelies. No, people will look back on this year and remember the really big-hitters – The Carpetbaggers, Hoppity Hooper and the music of Peter & Gordon. You mark my words. Now I’m off to kick the servants.”
While the board game presumably exists because of the movies, there are no film images on the game or packaging. Illustrations of Bond look much more like the novels than they do Sean Connery. Sean Connery looks like this:
The board is quite fun, with pulp-ish illustrations of various locations like a casino, a factory, a mountain cabin and a subway station, and surprisingly detailed plastic agents serve as counters. The premise of the game is sheer genius in its simplicity – actually, that’s not true. At first glance the game seems astonishingly complicated. The player moves his spy into an area which changes according to how many spaces the player has moved his spy to enter the area corresponding to the card he has, moving onto the yellow “gun” spot to score points as marked by the clock… and so on.
In practice, however, you catch on quite quickly and the game is fun to play. There’s an element of strategy – you want to complete your mission while the clock hands are on the big numbers, so sometimes it might be worth waiting a turn to let the hours add up. It’s also possibly the only game we’ll be looking at that doesn’t use a spinner or dice – the player can simply choose to go one, two or three spaces in any turn. For a board game, this is surprisingly close to anarchy.
Does it match the source material? Yes and no… There’s some familiar Bond-esque locations, but there’s no villains, no M, and no sexy violence. You can dispatch your opponent, which is fun, but only to another part of the board. You don’t get to – say – kill them with a mallet and then quip “looks like it’s hammer time”.
He really is just a psychopath, isn’t he?
There’s also no ladies in the game, naked or otherwise. Actually, the lack of women – combined with the odd use of quotation marks in the rules – makes the whole game look rather suspicious.
“James Bond’s Secret Agents, in groups of three, spying in the mysterious night hours, face dangers lurking in back alleys, ghostly cemeteries and dank cavernous sewers. They try do their “SPYING” before midnight… this most intriguing spy game lets you have thrilling adventures… racing the clock while planning secret rendezvous!”
So, it’s the mid-1960s. A number of suspicious men are hanging around back alleys, abandoned warehouses, graveyards and garages in the middle of the night, planning secret rendezvous and “SPYING”. Could the James Bond Secret Agent game be the first game about gay beats? (It even gives you bonus points for forming a threesome). “Honestly officer, I was spying – I thought he had the microfilm down his pants. IT’S FOR THE GOVERNMENT!” If only Dirk Bogarde had thought of that in Victim.
Verdict: This game was more enjoyable than expected, and certainly one I would play again. It had enough generic-spy elements to link it to the source material, although it would be improved by a Shirley Bassey theme tune. But wouldn’t everything?