Ever since I gave up watching TV over Christmas and New Year I have become much, much happier. The reason Yuletide TV is so depressing is that — as with those tantalising presents under the tree — it’s fraught with a level of expectation it can never possibly fulfil. You think, ‘At last: I’m free. Free to slob; free to watch without having to worry about going to bed and getting a good night’s sleep so I can be fresh for work tomorrow. So, go on, TV: entertain me!’
I’m not even sure that it’s TV’s fault. I think it’s the problem with Christmas generally. The whole season reminds me of a slightly dodgy Ecstasy pill. ‘Am I up yet?’ you keep asking yourself. ‘When’s it going to happen? When do I peak?’ But you never do. Christmas lunch is quite nice. Singing the carols in church is quite nice. Then it goes on a bit. And a bit more. Then it’s over. I blame global warming. The only thing guaranteed to make Christmas feel like Christmas is snow and you don’t really get that in England any more except at the wrong time.
But look, I’m quite serious about this not-watching-TV-at-Christmas thing. If you really must stare at a screen, I’d just rent a bunch of movies you haven’t seen and watch those. (My mate Justin Hardy tells me it’s a crime that I haven’t seen John Carpenter’s The Thing — so I will.) What I’d recommend much more, though, is that you do what we’ll be doing this year and play board games, especially Carcassonne and Settlers of Catan.
Both of these games were invented by Germans. Does the Hun have a particularly ludic disposition? Or is it just that, even in leisure, his thoughts are never far away from territorial domination and Lebensraum? In Carcassonne, the players take turns to pick up a tile and add it, jigsaw-style, to make up an expanding map. On this map — the board, if you will — are rivers, cities, roads, cathedrals and monasteries. By strategically placing your men you get to control different types of territory, winning yourself points. The one with the most points wins.
It’s an evil game — or potentially so, especially if you’re playing Boy. Boy’s strategy is to screw you up at every opportunity. So, for example, if you’ve built yourself a particularly splendid and valuable city, Boy will either ruthlessly place one of his tiles in such a way as to make the city impossible to complete (thus rendering it worthless) or he will find a way of stealing it. He likes winning; but not nearly as much as he likes watching others destroyed.
This puzzles me, rather. Where games are concerned I’ve always been a peace and love kind of guy. Obviously, I like to win, always. (Even if I’ve won five times in a row, I feel empty and disappointed over the fact that my victories haven’t been sufficiently crushing.) But I’m a great believer in karma: if possible, you should always treat your rival players as you’d wish them to treat you. Be nice; never cheat; and the fates will reward you with the dice/tiles you deserve.
Settlers of Catan offers possibly even greater opportunities for unutterable vileness — perhaps because it was invented by a dentist. (‘Is it safe?’) This game is huge. Since it was launched in 1995 by the now very rich Klaus Teuber it has sold over 15 million. And quite rightly so, for I’d rather be playing Settlers of Catan than almost any other activity in the world.
Again it’s about territorial conquest. The board is made up of hexagonal resource tiles (brick, wood, sheep, wheat, ore), which, in varying combinations, enable you to build your empire using roads, settlements and cities. Because it involves dice there’s a pleasingly random element to the game play. One minute you can be doing appallingly badly, the next on the verge of winning — purely because your numbers happen to have come good.
But there’s a great deal of strategy involved — especially at the beginning when you take the make-or-break decision of exactly where on the board to place your counters. Get your decision wrong and you can spend the whole game wringing your hands in despair as the competition cleans up. It’s awful. And you’re not allowed to give up — as I’ve sometimes wanted to do in this situation — because the other players tell you you’re a bad sport.
I can’t understand people who don’t like playing games. In fact, I’m not sure I even like them that much. When we have friends round to dinner — rarer and rarer these days; and we go out even less — I can’t bear it when you get ones who insist on sitting round talking. All I want to do is get the main course over as quickly as poss so we can bring out the dice for a game of Perudo or Zilch.
Zilch is another great one, but I’ve run out of space so I’ll have to tell you the rules another time.