August 07, 2008

“Do you think you could turn the volume down on that war game you’re playing so I can least pretend that you’re listening to me?” So my beloved asked, very sweetly, in her slight Dallas twang. What could I say?

“Why sure, Sweetie. Just a second…. Okay, what were you saying?” Of course, she was saying something amazingly feminine, about the intricacies of a philanderer’s second marriage, how crass the new bride’s wedding dress was…

“I swear, you could almost see butt-crack—I don’t know why the priest didn’t send her home. Well, she was an Episcopal priest…”

Playing “Medieval: Total War” as the Duke of Milan, I managed to drive the Papal armies out of Florence, but that didn’t lift my excommunication —which was sure to tempt the Holy Roman Emperor to declare war and take back the fortress of Metz.

“My cousins heard about the wedding from their waiter at the country club and he said…”

Damn it. The Emperor did lay siege to Metz, and his trebuchets broke right through the walls I’d forgotten to upgrade… no matter how many archers I had pouring flaming arrows onto his siege equipment.

“And for some reason those people registered at Barney’s instead of Neiman’s. I think they were embarrassed.…”

There are dangers to long-distance relationships. When you live in different cities, and your only common experiences take place during visits, your time together is mostly consumed by discussions of… the things you don’t have in common. On the positive side, when your beloved is on a topic where you don’t have the ovaries even to feign convincing interest, you can always try to gain hegemony over Europe. Or drive out Saruman’s Uruk-Hai from Edoras. Or establish a crushing commercial dominance over the Spice Trade… all depending on which strategy game you’ve popped into the PC. This is harder to pull off in person.

I’m not sure that strategy nerds really were meant to mate. Certainly, my first 25 years of obsession with such games seemed to suggest that real love was incompatible with imaginary war. My teenaged visits to The Compleat Strategist in Manhattan bore this out. The floor-to-ceiling stacks of boxed games offering chances to reenact military campaigns of every era—from the Sumerians to the cyborgs—did not reek of romance. They suggested, instead, pale skin, late nights fueled with Diet Coke, and long bouts of celibacy. But these games were nothing compared to the glass cases full of military miniatures—Swiss pikemen facing Austrian knights, Napoleonic grenadiers confronting Spanish guerrillas, freakish chess sets made out of figures from Dr. Who—each lovingly painted with a tiny brush by the kind of guy who…doesn’t get out much. The kind of red-eyed fifty-something guy who I’d see hanging around the store, in the middle of a weekday, arguing with the manager that the World War I game he’d bought was weighted against the Serbians, and he deserved a refund. I should have taken this as a warning.

It was already too late. At age 9, I’d decided that I was meant to be a chess genius—having watched Bobby Fischer play Boris Spassky on TV, and wolfed down some romantic histories of chess my father brought home, gamely trying to cater to his nattering, weirdo son. (“We brought the wrong kid home from the hospital,” he used to say, shaking his head, whenever he’d hear from the teacher that I’d spent my recess reading a science encyclopedia. In Queens Catholic schools, you get in trouble for pulling stunts like that.) I could think of no figure more dashing than Emmanuel Lasker hunched over a chessboard in some dusky European café, wreathed in cigar smoke like Jove in the clouds, demolishing all comers. For a skinny kid who insisted on wearing striped overalls and a Choo-Choo Charlie hat right up to the brink of puberty, this was heady stuff.

Unsatisfied with simply playing chess—I dreamed of greatness—I decided to reenact the kind of spectacle that marked other chess geniuses: A simultaneous tournament. Somehow I convinced the children’s librarian to let me use the place, and lured five other kids from Immaculate Conception to play against me, with the promise of snacks. I set up boards with each of them, and walked from one to another, sniffing thoughtfully and doing my best impression of a late-19th century genius. Of course, I mostly lost.

The thing is, I was good at every aspect of chess—except at playing it. Like a modern day neocon military analyst, I could never think more than two moves ahead. Instead, I’d get so excited about the chance to move a powerful piece and make a devastating attack, I never had the patience to predict how my opponent might react. I guess I expected him just to fall over dead. As years went on, I learned that getting good at chess meant losing. A lot. To other guys. This was more than I could stand, and so I stopped playing—except against the primitive chess computer which my parents, after much pleading, bought me. I unwrapped it on Christmas Eve, eager to hone my skills without humiliation… only to figure out by New Year’s that my computer was cheating. Whenever I started to win, it would make my pieces vanish from the board. This taught me certain life lessons which I prefer not to think about.

So I stocked up on board games—scorning the painted miniature Swiss and Dalleks as “nerdy”—and lovingly laid out the enormous battle maps on my bedroom floor. It started with “Rise and Decline of the Third Reich,” an Avalon Hill classic whose advanced game let you play six different protagonists of World War II, and conduct advanced diplomacy… in my case, against myself. That game, like most of the others, had a rules book some 36 pages long—and I could never find another soul willing to learn those rules, much less to waste his early teen years sliding little cardboard chits around hexagons. Playing alone encouraged me to cultivate a mild version of multiple personality disorder, as I tried to “fool” myself about when and where Operation Barbarossa would begin, and “negotiated” between Petain and Mussolini in my underwear. Had the Internet existed back then, I certainly could have found other near-sighted brainiacs, played them online, and been propositioned by Belgian pedophiles. But all that awaited the march of Progress.

Why couldn’t I find anyone to play against? I didn’t live in that kind of neighborhood. Indeed, the guy who has been my best friend since I was seven had to take me aside in 7th grade and inform me that it just wasn’t cool to listen exclusively to classical music…. And certainly not to run around admitting it.

“Why not?” I demanded. “It’s superior.” (My first 18 years could be summed up in terms of TV sitcoms—as a young Niles Crane trapped on the set of “That 70s Show.”)

He stared at with that blank incomprehension with which I now view modern dance. “They’re going to think you’re a… fag!”

I parried back that I failed to see the connection between complex melodic structures and… whatever it was that “fags” did, apart from dressing like Indian chiefs and bikers.

“People are going to kick your ass!” he said at last. “I almost want to kick your ass.”

I caved. I started buying Kiss records and “hanging out,” drinking domestic beer from the can while he practiced with his garage band. Of course, the bass player and the drummer still wanted to kick my ass.

But I didn’t kick the habit. Instead, I upped my dosage. I moved from “Third Reich” to “Guns of August,” a game as futile and funless, I think, as the actual war. (At least that meant it was accurate.) I fed my Cold War paranoia by playing “Invasion America,” which posited hordes of invaders landing at every port and pouring north across the border. (Good thing that scenario never came to pass, now isn’t it?) I went back to the root of our current problems, and tried to reverse the Reformation by playing “A Mighty Fortress”—the only board game in history with a “theological debate” table where a roll of the dice might get your Jesuit burned at the stake.

In search of something more intense (like an opponent) I made my first solo trips into Manhattan. As Queens kids, we viewed “The City” with all the anxiety of home-schooled Midwestern Mormons; it seemed to us like a foreign country full of tattooed cannibals. Of course, since this was the 1970s, we weren’t wholly wrong. But I shook off my mother’s agora-xeno-phobic pleas, bought a bag of tokens, and started traveling once a week to “play test” at SPI—the Xanadu of wargames. For over a year, I played against a group of older opponents, testing what was for me the perfect game: Called “Empires of the Middle Ages,” it included excommunications, rule by feudal lords, and Crusades—all the things which fired my youthful Catholic imagination, after 13 years of gently-strummed “Kumbaya.” And I had plenty of opponents: smart older teenagers who went to Hunter College High, divorced guys who’d studied Medieval history and had nothing to do on a Tuesday night, and bespectacled game developers who would take my frenzied suggestions seriously. (To this day, I am proud to have pointed out that Venice was never controlled by the Holy Roman Emperor; they changed that part of the game. Behold my legacy.)

Of course, when it came to playing, I still really sucked—indeed, my strategy nearly sucked the air out of the room, as I made bold and futile attacks against much stronger opponents, counting on triumphing through “surprise.” By the second week, no one was surprised, though most of them were exasperated—especially by my incessant verbal defense of the worst aspects (my favorites) of medieval Catholic practice: witch-burnings, Templars, abbots who wielded maces (since Canon law forbade them to carry a sword). I may even at some point (memory fails me) have stuck up for the Plague….

The company, sadly, closed before they could expel me from their ranks. But the game appeared, and I’m still proud that if you buy it (used, on Ebay), my name appears in the credits, on one of those many pages my friends would never read. Now I play my games on a high-powered computer that doesn’t cheat. And I still mostly lose. But I do so quietly, with the volume turned way down low….


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