A childhood in the UK – like everywhere else – comes loaded with number of specific cultural tropes, and it shouldn’t surprise you to hear that many of these are conditional to the famous British rain.
Remember groaning every time the teacher announced another ‘wet day’ at school? Remember sitting on cars, buses, trains, dolefully doodling on window condensation? Wellies were a fixture, caked in mud. Mackintoshes forever drying on the backs of doors, sodden and streaked. We stomped in puddles, skidded in fields. And before the invention of the iPad as cure-all for parental woes, know what else we did? Played board games.
Snakes and Ladders: both easy and aggravating. Cluedo: for the Nancy Drew fans. Scrabble for the sophisticated. Operation for the sadistic. Monopoly was officially ‘family time’, entered into with oceans of optimism, only to be overturned by the stormy tears of a sorry loser.
Although it still rains with grim regularity in the UK, I’m delighted to note there have been several pleasant changes in our social landscape. For one, remarkable inventors such as William Sorrell, founder of Clarendon Games, are ensuring a redoubled interest in board games amongst adults. As a hobby, board games have enjoyed something of an unexpected revival. You’ll find at least a few boxes in most pubs these days, while nostalgic, or perhaps ironic, venues like Draughts in Hackney, which describes itself as a “brick-lined hangout in a railway arch offering beer, a huge library of board games & café bites” have built an entire business around them.
Will, who left a job in marketing to pursue his own fascination with games, understands the appeal better than anyone. “Obviously tech is great and it’s improved everybody’s life,” he tells us, “but games are about bringing people together, away from computer screens. People spend all day at the screen and they want a real experience. Statistics show that fewer people are drinking too, so it’s quite a good way to have fun without sinking a dozen pints.” Board games also bring people together without bankrupting them. “It’s about having authentic experiences,” he continues, “learning the social ritual of being together again. And it’s cheap as an entertainment. It’s friendly, interactive and a convenient way of having fun.”
A formidable chess-player, and clearly a man who has both imagination and ingenuity in spades, Will Sorrell is nonetheless charming in his modesty, “There’s no real formula,” he tells me of his process, “Every time I think there’s a formula when I try and come up with an idea it tends to be quite tired and a bit rubbish. Each game works differently, and I think what makes a good board game is what makes a good story or a good film, it’s the narrative. You want an interesting premise, some sort of struggle and then a satisfying resolution.”
So far, Clarendon Games has 9 games out, including 2 that have just been released. Although they’ve launched 12 in total, they found some games had a shorter shelf-life. For instance, in the financial crisis of 2008, Will created Market Meltdown, a game in which players assumed the role of wily traders, attempting to stay afloat. The theme of his games, however, is not always wry social commentary. My own favourite, Wordsmithery, is a side-splitting card game in which participants try and guess the meaning of commonplace but curiously tricky words (for example, is Rictus: 1. The act of sniffing cheese 2. A medieval instrument of torture that was a long-handled vice used for compressing body parts 3. A gaping grin). Poppycock! is the crafty man’s trivia, partly an opportunity for poker-faced bluffing, partly an opportunity for egghead smugness, and Imposter! calls itself ‘The After-Dinner Mystery Game’.
Applying his chess-honed mind to create the twisty-turvy stratagems necessary to lift a mere idea into a coherent game, Will admits the process is a long one, sometimes taking up to three years to develop one game. “Besides,” he says, “You can plan all sorts of things, but its only when you sit down and give it a go that it becomes clear the game is perhaps too easy, in which case maybe the person that starts always wins, or it’s so difficult it’s a complete lottery.” The perfect game, he counters, is tactical, but with some element of luck. “It can’t just be the cleverest person who wins, “that’s what makes it different from a test or exam.” Aside from development, there are other barriers in the board game industry. Managing stock is tricky, distribution can present problems and, Will notes, it’s a somewhat conservative world, in which customers often gravitate unthinkingly to age-old favourites like Monopoly and Scrabble.
Yet there’s something to be said for bringing play back into our lives. Our London reality can seem more than a little damp and difficult sometimes. We’re constantly asked to work longer for less, we’re often shadowed by the worry of never becoming house-owners, or by falling out of line with competitive and career-driven friends. We do most of our communicating online, either because we frequently move countries or because we’re so time-constrained. We are separated from one another by screens. Board games, in the words of writer Jakob Tanner, “are at the centre of a new humanist renaissance”. Or, in my own words, “who wouldn’t want to have this much fun?!”
To browse through Clarendon’s Games visit their website