By: Devin Carney
“Uh, I don’t know, let’s check the manual…”
In my roughly 26 years of video gaming, I don’t think I ever uttered these words. Instruction manuals were decoration; something you would peruse while in the back seat of your parent’s van while you were on the way home from the store. Pictures of enemies, descriptions of the various icons, and seizure warnings were all par for the course. Very rarely, if ever did an instruction manual tell you how to play the game. The closest you might get would be the “Nintendo Tips and Tricks” number on the back (only $0.89 per minute to talk to a game expert, a steal!). A manual is redundant when you can just figure out what the A button does by playing.
As I approached 30, I realized that I had missed a chunk of nerd experience that I felt slightly guilty for missing: Tabletop Gaming. Sure, I’d known the joys of “Trouble”, “Sorry!” and setting up “Mouse Trap” just to sadistically make that old man dive into a shallow, empty tub. But these weren’t nerdy endeavors, just things that happened along the way, purely incidental for a child growing up in the late 80s and 90s. I imagined that it would be as simple as picking a game, reading the rules, and slaying a bazillion dragons with friends.
My first choice was based purely on “cool” factor, a game called “Arkham Horror” (experienced tabletop fans are probably screaming internally at this point). I mean, what could be more amazing than teaming up with 1 to 7 of your closest friends to stop Elder Gods from another dimension from unleashing horror upon our world? I was certain this would be the hook to get me down a long road of enjoyable social hours spent crowded around the table, drinking beer and throwing dice. Nothing could stop this train!
This is what’s in the box:
Oh god, what the hell is any of this?
The train left the tracks, exploded into flames, smashed into the water, and sank down to the very bottom of the ocean, never to be found. All lives on-board were lost. No services will be held.
I spent 3 hours reading the manual. That’s more time than I’ve spent staring at game manuals in the past 26 years combined. The sad thing was that I didn’t understand a word; as soon as it introduced a new rule, the previous rules were gone. When can I enter a portal? How do I investigate? Hoping to make some sense of it all, I punched out all the little tokens from their cardboard carriers (very cathartic, actually), browsed through the cards, and felt hopelessly lost. I began to believe the true game of madness was trying to figure out what the hell you were supposed to be accomplishing. It all seemed very meta; perhaps the madness was inside me all along. Perhaps the game was already played.
I spent hours upon hours scouring the internet for clarifications on the rules. When one question was answered, another would takes its place. Every discussion inevitably had the same comment:
“Seriously, the rules in this game suck. Buy <Insert Other Game Here> instead.”
I started to feel slightly better about my inability to grasp anything about the game. I slowly placed all the pieces back into the box, gently placed the manual on top, and closed the lid. It was my secret shame that I never figured out how to play. I kept it around for the artwork, and thought that someday I’ll win the Nobel Prize and have the intellectual confidence to pull it out again.
It’s hard not to feel defeated. If a 7 year old can figure out the rules to Uno, shouldn’t a 30 year old be able to figure out a game that prominently displays an age range of 12+? What does a 12 year old with a firm grasp of “Arkham Horror” look like? What scholarship to an Ivy League school does he already have?
“Easiest tabletop game for stupid people”
Google had my back. The one consistent answer was always a game called “Love Letter”. A game so simple, that it has only 18 cards and the rules are written on the cards. I’d gone completely the other direction. Half of the pages for the rulebook were a story ripped out of a Harlequin romance novel written for elementary school kids. It involves a Princess, her suitor, and a guard. The word “Milady” is used unironically.
Who could possibly feel intimidated by a game like this?
Ahhhhhhhh, that’s better!
Everyone gets a card. On their turn they draw a card, use the ability of one of the cards in their hand (written on the card) and then discard that card. The objective is to either have the highest-numbered card by the end of the round, or to eliminate your opponents. This stupid game became a hit. It was easy to play in 5 minutes, and everyone could grasp the rules, even me.
I’d found my gateway drug, and enlisted my friend Jerry to sit around and take hits with me. “Love Letter” led to “Munchkin”. “Munchkin” led to “Rat a Tat Cat”. “Rat a Tat Cat” led to “Star Realms”. “Star Realms” led to “Legend of Drizzt”, which turned to “Catan”, and so on.
Whatever game, whatever night, no matter how many times we played, we’d always utter “Uh, I don’t know, let’s check the manual…”. It’s a constant. I went from viewing the manual as an unsurmountable obstacle to viewing it as a way to verify I was playing correctly. I didn’t need to know it inside and out! It’s like a good friend that you hang out all the time, but you aren’t sure when it’s their birthday.
Finally, not so long ago, and feeling much more experienced, I decided to pull out my Everest, “Arkham Horror”. The familiar pieces with gibberish I never understood, gently placed in baggies, untouched for years. I cracked open the manual and began reading.
Seriously, how the hell do you play this damned game?!
If you’re interested in starting board gaming in the Corridor and are not sure where to start, here are several local stores that hold regular events and carry a selection of games:
212 Edgewood Rd NW, Cedar Rapids, IA 52405