For Gary Almeter, selling his childhood board games was like looking at a movie of his life.
Grandpa rode his three-wheeler down to our house to let us know that Grandma was planning another garage sale. This, he said that she said, was her last one. Grandma, a survivor of the depression who was recycling before Al Gore had even invented the word, knew how to rock a garage sale. And these had always been great ways for us, my siblings and I, to make money. One year I made bookmarks to sell at one of her garage sales. She sold them for 25 cents apiece and at the end of the three day sale, handed me four George Washingtons.
So we, as we had done so many times before but with some extra gumption in light of the fact it was to be our last opportunity to do so, set about assembling our wares. My brothers and sister and I, all on the cusp of adulthood, decided that selling our vast array of board games was the best chance we had at fast, easy money. We had neither played nor thought about these games for nearly a decade. It seems odd now that we never thought of saving the games for our children. Or selling them on eBay. But this was before eBay even existed, and even before Al Gore invented the internet, so we had no idea that the games we were selling would soon be worth over a million dollars. Or almost a million dollars. Just about a million dollars. Practically a million dollars. And I think it’s developmentally appropriate to eschew notions of posterity when you’re a teenager.
We retrieved the games from the basement, the attic, the play room, the shelves in the hall, and the general recesses of our old farmhouse and began putting price tags on them. When deciding how to price a game, we employed an analysis of several factors: the game’s appearance, its completeness, its ubiquity, and general appealingness.
We sold the very first board games we ever played: Candy Land, Chutes and Ladders (and good fucking riddance to you square #87 upon which I landed about 14 million times whereupon that fucking kid tries to grab the fucking cookie jar and the player goes backward 60 or so fucking spaces), Guess Who, Connect 4, Trouble (with that ecstatic pop-up bubble dice shaking mechanism) and Cootie. Because we thought we would never use them again we sold classic board games like Monopoly (we had two of those and we sold both of them), Scrabble, Sorry, Clue, Mastermind, Mousetrap, Battleship, Twister (with a warped spinner that always seemed to land on left foot green), Life (with the incomparably cacophonous spinner) and Pegchesi (with real wooden pegs).
We sold board games that were really television game shows like the $25,000 Pyramid Game, Sale of the Century, The Price is Right, Family Feud (though I wonder how people playing the game in the 90s could know how the 100 people surveyed in the 70s would answer subjective questions) and Match Game (we rarely played that game – disappointed as we were when we opened it to discover the home edition contained neither Gene Rayburn’s skinny microphone nor Charles Nelson Reilly’s sailor’s cap nor any of Brett Somers’s saltiness). We sold games that were really regular TV shows like Family Ties, Knight Rider, Charlie’s Angels, Happy Days, Mork and Mindy, The Six Million Dollar Man, the Dukes of Hazzard and Little House on the Prairie. And we sold games that were movies first like Ghostbusters and E.T. I am not certain that this phenomenon even happens anymore. At its apex, E.T. galvanized a nation. Now, what is popular is so evanescent and celebrity so accessible and heroes so temporary, that designing and marketing a board game devoted to what is au courant could never be a financially sound marketing move.
We sold board games which evoked a particular time; games like Breaker 19, a game about interstate truckers and their lingo which sought to capitalize on the CB craze of the 1970s; I got this game for my 11th birthday from my friend Craig who apparently didn’t know me very well. My sister, sold her Strawberry Shortcake game. I sold Pac-Man, the board game that wanted to be a video game. We sold the Blizzard of ’77 game, one of my favorites which celebrated Buffalo’s most famous and most fun Blizzard!
We sold Operation and Outwit and Probe and Password. We sold Boggle. We sold Pathfinder. We sold Touche. We sold games that required architectural acumen like Don’t Break the Ice, Kerplunk, Blockhead! and Don’t Spill the Beans. These were the pre-cursors to Jenga, which kids these days think they invented. Playing Blockhead! with Grandpa – whose hands shook from Parkinson’s Disease – was one of my favorite things. The object of this game was to stack the brightly colored wooden blocks of varying shapes into a tower as high as it could go without the tower collapsing on your turn. A grandpa with Parkinson’s willingly playing game after game of Blockhead! With his emotionally needy grandson is just about one of the most beautiful things that could happen. I didn’t know that he knew that I knew he shook. But now I do.
We sold a game called Silly Sandwich that we played constantly and ferociously for the better part of a decade. It was stained and warped from when I took the game to bed with me and peed on it. Players moved their pieces around the board trying to land on spots to fill up your sandwich. I like to blame some of my food issues on Silly Sandwich.
The 50 or so board games we had for sale fit rather squarely and securely in three stacks on the table that Grandpa fashioned from laying a piece of plywood over two sawhorses. The games stacked so symmetrically created a beautiful image. They were colorful, old enough to be considered vintage, tattered enough to be interesting and familiar enough to be appealing.
The games looked out of place in the garage, with the leaf rakes and jumper cables and general garage accoutrements as a backdrop. But the story was apparent nonetheless. How the tattered corners belied the years of use and misuse and overuse at family game nights and chicken pox convalescences and birthday parties and lazy snow day afternoons. How the worn and taped boxes belied years of filling bored afternoons and sibling rivalries. How their fonts told the story of the evolution of fonts, from the staid Depression-era Scrabble and Monopoly typographies to the buoyant colorful flashy fonts of Nixon-era Bonkers to the understated classical script of Reagan-era Trivial Pursuit. How if we had taken one of those CSI: Miami blue lights that shows where the human bodily fluids are, the luminescence of our spit, vomit, diarrhea residue and pee-pee would have made Grandma’s garage shine with the intensity of a thousand burning suns.
It wasn’t until I stepped back and saw the games stacked on that table that I realized what we were really selling the story of us. And what an archetypal and archetypally perfect and perfectly fucked up family we were. Seeing all the games stacked on the table is when it hit me that we were selling a childhood of Christmases, birthdays, convalescences, family fun nights, Grandparent visits, lazy afternoons and sleepovers. (Or is abandoned a better word?) And how all those birthdays, Christmas, family fun nights, visits, and sleepovers were filled with mirth, drama, excess, shouting, tears, chaos, bodily fluids of some kind and more mirth. But of course these games fostered chaos. We were trying to vanquish one another, render the other bankrupt, send them back to home base so that we could get to the finish line first. We reveled in the others’ misfortunes.
It struck me, looking at all the games on the table, how fortunate we were to have so many games. The games were affirmations. We were loved. We would never be hungry. We were fortunate. We almost always received these games are almost always received as gifts. I thought of our panoply of aunts strolling through K-Mart with their shopping lists with the archetypal K-Mart shopping list things on it: light bulbs, paper towels, coffee filters. And something like “birthday gift for Gary.”
Our collection was unique. It’s like the pride you have in your cd collection. Everyone has U2’s “The Joshua Tree” and Billy Joel’s “Greatest Hits” and Counting Crows’s “August and Everything After” but it’s the assemblage of the staples along with the outliers (be it Celine Dion or Primus or Kylie Minogue or DMX or NAS or all of the above) that make your collection unique; that fosters pride. No one’s Grandpa’s hands shook quite the way mine did when he tried to play Blockhead. No one’s Candy Land cards had quite the same Popsicle stains or muddy fingerprints on them. No one identified with the kid who rescued the kitten on Chutes and Ladders quite like I did. Or recalls that the Christmas we got Bonkers was the same Christmas we all wore the red velour shirts Grandma made for us.
I have no idea who bought the games we sold at that garage sale and whether they intended to play the game or if they intended to cannibalize them into incomplete games they already had or if they were to be used for scrapbooking or to balance a table leg. It is more likely than not that whoever bought them contracted SARS from the bacteria in the box.
My kids are now assembling their own collection of board games and have many of these on their game shelf in the basement. They have Candy Land, Monopoly, Trouble, Cootie, Chutes N Ladders and Battleship. My son loves Monopoly and it is refreshing to know that a two-dimensional rectangular board game at which one must sit, unplugged, and just play still has some appeal in the era of Wii and Xbox. My daughter loves Spirograph. Which isn’t a game but it’s in a Monopoly-shaped box. It’s comforting to know that Monopoly has remained exactly the same, same monetary denominations, same Pantone colors on the property cards, same Community Chest and Chance cards. And is still fun.
The Life spinner still sounds the same as it did when I was a boy.
Most games have changed though. They employ a whole new color palette. They have become sleeker, less rectangular, cheaper and inexplicably sexier. Whereas the money spaces on our Candy Land were simple and safe and comforting, the money spaces on Candy Land today are unrecognizably sexy and sinister. Candy Land now has, among other characters representing its cool spaces, a wicked dominatrix Ice Frosting Princess and some sort of Peppermint demon pimp. These two definitely fornicate when the box is closed.
Grandma, survivor of the Great Depression that she was, did not share my nostalgia. She sold the games with impunity and we donated what games didn’t sell to Good Will. I don’t recall how much money we got back or if or how we divided it. I wish we would have taken Grandpa and Grandma out for ice cream when she closed up shop for the last time.
Photo: John Liu/Flickr