The games club

Magic: The Gathering card back

Magic: The Gathering card back (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The room was full of people, but eerily quiet. Feet were shuffled and looks were exchanged between everyone in the room.

Eventually… “Why don’t you do it?”

Despite waiting for someone to break the silence, I inadvertently jumped as the question came in my direction. The guy asking currently ran the games club and the pregnant pause came about because he announced that he wasn’t going to do it any more and we needed to find a successor.

“You like games. You’re down here every week. I think you’d do a good job.”

People around the room started nodding their heads, either agreeing or glad that it was me not them. I mentally tried the idea on for size and thought why not. So began my decade long tenure. There wasn’t much to do if I’m honest. Making sure we had a venue, collecting the subs and organising the Christmas raffle was hardly taxing, but technically, it was my first position of responsibility.

We played all sorts of games over the years. I enjoyed a collectible card game called Magic the Gathering for a little while. I used to get some strange looks from my colleagues when I used the free help line to clarify the rules. Well, the conversations must have sounded a bit weird;

“Say I lightning bolt his Hypnotic Spectre, and then he casts Giant growth on it, then I counter spell his Giant Growth and then…”

We got through some roleplaying campaigns too. I remember playing pirates in Freeport, battling drow in Dungeons & Dragons and fencing atop a zeppelin in Castle Falkenstein.

For a while, we played a lot of Formule De. A racing game that simulates Formula One motor races by using different sized dice for each gear. One of the guys bought every single track so we played out a full season timing the races to match the real races that played out on the TV. We played a Subutteo World Cup one year whilst the real one was on. I was amazed at how it brought out the worst in people. I’ve never seen so much cheating!

The really good thing about the club was that members brought down different games every week, so we got to play a huge variety of stuff. The sheer breadth and quality of board games on offer is astonishing, particularly from the Germans. I could never go back to Monopoly and Cluedo.

Often I would get phone calls from people wanting to find out more about the club. One day, a woman phoned. She was about to make a TV program celebrating the anniversary of Dungeons & Dragons and wanted to know whether we would be willing to take part. I said I’d put it to the members. They agreed and I phoned her back.

“Can you describe where you play?” she asked.

“A cellar under the Old Town Hall. It’s fairly dark & dingy.”

“Do you dress up to play?”

“No!”

“Will you? We’ll provide the costumes and everything.”

“We might be sad, but we’re not that sad.”

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Why I’ll never need a trophy cabinet

Triangle of the 15 reds in snooker. Note: This...

Triangle of the 15 reds in snooker. Note: This is not a full depiction of the setup of a game of snooker, as the colour balls are not shown. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Like many people, I find myself glued to the Paralympics just like the Olympics a few weeks ago. There is something mesmerising about true athletes competing at such a level. I feel proud of Team GB and even when there is a race with no Team GB competitors, I still like to watch in case an athlete sets a new World Record. Unfortunately, I was never blessed in the sports department. I’m sure I could have improved if I’d persisted and practised, but I simply didn’t enjoy taking part in sport.

I don’t think my school years helped. For bizarre reasons known only to the PE teachers, we made sure that all the outdoor activities happened when it was absolutely freezing, raining cats and dogs or both. It also didn’t help that I was required to remove my glasses when taking part in sports. You would be amazed how much of a disincentive that is when trying to catch a rock hard cricket ball that you can barely see.

I always used to enter the 100m during sports day, not because I was any good at it, but more because it was the shortest race possible. In the pool, I just about managed to struggle to 25 yards for my red ribbon, but I was lucky it wasn’t 30 yards – I think I’d have drowned. Some might argue that snooker is not a sport and I suppose it’s not in the physical sense, but it’s the only thing I ever won a trophy at so it counts as a sport in my book.

A charismatic man I used to work with called Dick Wittington (I kid you not) once cornered me and told me that he had taken on two teams to manage in the local snooker league. He went on to tell me that it was all a bit of a strain and that he was struggling to find the time. By the end of the conversation, somehow he’d persuaded me take on and run the worst of the two teams. It must have been a jedi mind trick.

I set about organising the team. My bequest from Mr Wittington consisted of a rag-tag collection of unskilled, unreliable snooker players, but somehow we managed to get a team together most weeks. The first few weeks, we were soundly beaten. After a while though, the most amazing thing happened. We started to improve. We started winning every so often. Then we won every other game. Soon we won more often than we lost. As the league continued, we climbed inexorably up the table.

In the final game of the season, we beat the league leaders and won the league. The snooker club awarded us medals. Because my squad was so unreliable, we had 10 players and there were only 6 medals. Put on the spot, I distributed the medals to the guys that turned up for that crucial last game.

In the office the following day, I displayed my medal proudly on my desk. Just then a fiercely competitive colleague came over for a chat. He was the kind of guy who had two big trophy cabinets and trophies to spare. He had been a member of our squad but he’d been unable to make the last match (and hence had no medal). “Where’s my medal?” he demanded. I mumbled something about there not being enough to go around. He instantly rattled off a bunch of statistics that showed that he was the best member of the team.

I sighed, and handed over the only thing I’d ever won. But for one short moment at least, I was a winner.

My brief career in the games industry

The player-controlled laser cannon shoots the ...

The player-controlled laser cannon shoots the aliens as they descend to the bottom of the screen. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Every so often, the fair came to town. Some kids liked the scary rides. Some liked the games of skill and the bunco booths. For me, it was the amusement arcades that made my visit to the fair. I loved the synthesised music the arcade machines played. The stylised graphics (called sprites) on the phosphor screens that depicted both your character and the enemies intent on his destruction.

When home computers became affordable in the 80s, bedrooms all over the world were transformed into mini amusement arcades. Most successful games from the arcades were rewritten for the home computer format. The hardware in your home couldn’t hope to match the commercial machines, but they were recognisable imitations all the same. Somehow, the original games written for home computers were more far impressive than the arcade imitations.

I enjoyed playing those games on my trusty Sinclair Spectrum but after a while, my insatiable curiosity took over and I wanted to understand how to construct those games. Spurred on by TV programs of the time like Me and my Micro, I read the manuals that came with my computer. Before too long I had written a dozen or so programs.

Computer magazines in that time used to print listings of programs that you could type in. After several hours of laborious typing, you ended up with a lacklustre computer game. I spent time understanding how those programs worked. I tried changing things to see what happened. Sometimes I would end up with a broken program, but I always learned something.

Some women bloom when pregnant. My mum didn’t. I used to come in from school and ask dad what mum was like today. More often than not, the answer was “same as yesterday”, and I would go and shut myself in my bedroom with my computer. I spent hours programming. I spent even more time reading about programming. When I went to school, I used to talk to other kids about programming.

Eventually, I ended up with a half decent game. It was called “Political World. It was all about being Prime Minister. To win the game, you had to avoid riots, war breaking out and economic ruin, all at the same time as trying to keep your popularity high enough that you stood a chance of re-election. I showed it to all my friends, listened to their feedback and made small improvements.

I don’t think I was ever truly happy with it, but when the feedback turned from negative to positive, I decided to send it to one of the many games companies that had sprung up to ride the home computer wave. For a long time, I didn’t hear anything. Then, a letter landed on the doormat. I could see who it was from instantly by the logo on the envelope.

I eagerly ripped open the letter and scanned the contents. They had agreed to publish the game and wanted to talk to me about more work. Unfortunately, I had exams to pass, so I couldn’t take up their offer of further employment, but I was chuffed to bits.

Estimates vary about the value of the interactive entertainment industry today, with some saying that games have eclipsed the film industry. Whichever figure you look at, it is a huge industry. Today the games are much more sophisticated with a  cast of actors providing voices, artists providing gorgeous graphics and musicians providing more input than programmers.

In simpler times, for one tiny moment – I was part of that industry.