“We should have a board game of some kind in the flat”, my flatmate said to me the other day.
“Mmm.” I seem to remember replying.
“I mean, something to play when we have guests. You know, a quiet evening in.”
“Uh-huh”, said I, extemporizing; “I saw a game of Anti-Monopoly in a shop window round the corner – ‘the game for the 21st Century’, it said.”
“Shouldn’t that be Financial Risk?”
“Yeuch” I smiled appreciatively. I turned to the next page in my textbook.
“How about a good game of Rummikub?” he suggested.
“Why the hell not,” I said. “You’re only young once.”
Later on in the week, I walked through the door of our apartment to see a large white bag marked ‘Hamley’s’ hanging off the back of a chair.
“What’s in the bag?” I asked, the familiar sounds of Mario getting his denim overalls handed to him on a platter floated through from the Wii station.
“Bag. What is?” I raise my voice as I hang up my coat.
“This,” it was revealed to me with a dramatic flourish, “is the finest game of Rummikub available at Hamley’s.” The comforting blue box was pulled out on to the table, the multicoloured numbers grinning at us from the sides of the container.
“Awesome,” I think I said. It may have been “brilliant”. I somehow doubt I went for either ‘cool’ or ‘nifty’ but the excitement of the moment may have gotten to me.
“We should play a game at some point,” the beep-beep-beep-bip-bip-beep resumed from down the hall.
“Well”, said I, producing my girlfriend from beneath the mountain of clothes December saw fit to lay on our shoulders. “We could play a game now”.
A range of distinct sounds of approval came from both prospective Rummikubists. Mario excused himself and retired with dignity.
“Have you played Rummikub before?” asked my flatmate.
“I love it. I used to play it all the time with my family.” My flatmate and I exchange a barely perceptible nod of approval.
We sit down at the table and within the half hour have managed to remove the cellophane wrapping.
“You know,” I remark, putting the Stanley knife away, “not since the Tardis has a blue box proved that difficult to open.”
“Are you comparing a multiplayer, tile-based board game to intergalactic travel by the side of the Doctor?” asked my flatmate.
He snorts involuntarily. “I like your style.” Our third wheel was starting to look bemused and not a little embarrassed.
“Right,” said the f.m, opening the box. “Let’s get started.” He threw himself among the small brown flaps that are somehow meant to support the number stands. “You try,” he says petulantly after a while, throwing a tangled skein of brown plastic in my direction. Snap.
No, I didn’t say it. No-one said it. It falls in the same classification as the Mario theme tune above (yes, that’s what it was supposed to be). You see the absence of quotation marks? That’s a stage direction. Important ambient noise intended to lend artistic verisimilitude to an otherwise bald and unconvincing narrative. All right?
Snap. Snap. “There you go.” Snap. Snap. Snap.
“We’re only three”, remarks my significant other.
“I got a little carried away.”
My flatmate had by this point sunk his teeth into the bag containing the numbered pieces and sprayed them across the table in a random act of savagery. “Sorry”, he chuckled, his mouth still full of erstwhile airtight plastic.
The three of us turn the pieces over on the tabletop and move them round in broad, sweeping movements so as to shuffle them properly. In case you haven’t tried it before, it’s difficult to have three people make broad, sweeping movements over one small tabletop.
“Sorry” I say again, after having fetched the antiseptic cream and the elastaplast.
“It’s all right,” she assures me with her remaining good eye. “Let’s start playing already”.
As I ease back into the twenty centimetres of space left for me between the table and the wall, my flatmate is finishing what seems to me to be a miniature replica of the Taj Mahal made out of tiles.
“Very attractive, I’m sure, but is this really the time for scale modelling?”
He raises his eye from the plane of the table and gets up off one knee. “It is time.” He pauses to let the theme music swell in his imagination: “Time you learned how my family plays Rummikub.” My girlfriend and I exchange glances.
“In the tile bank”, he says, pointing at his diminutive model of the White House, “are 105 of the 106 tiles, divided into fifteen piles of seven. We each take fourteen tiles, which is to say two piles of seven, and leave the one tile left over on top as the joker. This tile cannot be used in normal play but can be added to your hand if you need it in order to complete your final move. A move consists either of tiles of different colours with the same face value or three or more same-coloured tiles arranged sequentially from one to thirteen. Your first move must total more than thirty, in whatever combination or set of combinations you have on your stand. You may interfere with the tiles on the field of play only after having made the first move. A blank tile, once played, is locked in place and can only be substituted for the numbered tile it corresponds to. The other joker…Gili, where’s the other joker?”
I hand him the two halves of the tile in question, having unintentionally snapped it halfway through the monologue.
“All right, well, never mind. We’ll just have to do without it.”
“Who goes first?” As the baby in the room, I and my two piles of seven have the honour of beginning the game. I fiddle around for a few minutes on my highly unstable tile-stand. “Well?”
“Hold on, hold on,” I say with my tongue sticking out in concentration. On closer reflection, it probably sounded more like “Harnghd arghth”. I triumphantly seize a handful of tiles and decisively lay them out on the glass surface. “There. 11, 12, 13, 1 and 2. All blue.” I raise my head for the praise and adulation I feel I deserve. The two look at me disgustedly, as though I was something that had just climbed out of the primordial ooze and onto the soles of their shoes. “What?” I ask. A hand descends and firmly hands me back the 1 and the 2.
“No. That’s not how it works” says my flatmate, who looks pityingly at my girlfriend. She edges her seat a few centimetres further away. I bite through a green eight in frustration.
“Take three more tiles,” she says to me, prompting me to reach for the pristine model village.
“What do you think you’re doing?” my flatmate loudly enquires as he slaps my hand.
“I was just filling up my stand.”
“Oh no. No reloading. This isn’t Scrabble. You play, you get through your tiles, you win. Simple.” My girlfriend breaks a nail squeezing the armrest of her chair as white smoke starts rising from my ears.
“Sure” she says through clenched teeth. “Makes more sense. You get a more interesting game that way.” She flashes a smile in my direction that sets my hair on fire.
“That’s the way we always play it” says my flatmate. “But if you want, I could look through the rulebook…” He makes a polite lunge in the direction of the rulebook that almost sends him flying out of his chair.
“Oh no, it’s no bother,” we mumble in unison. “That sounds good.”
Three silent rounds later, my girlfriend performs a brilliant tactical manoeuvre, getting rid of most of her tiles and using the remaining blank tile in the process.
“Ahem” My flatmate pulls his family doctor eyes. “I’m so sorry.” He regretfully informs her of the illegality of moving a blank tile without performing an appropriate substitution first.
Three unprintable lines later, he too has learned to compromise.
The game continues in silence, each of us filled with resentment over playing a game none of us recognizes anymore. The overly formal ‘your turn’s and ‘I’m done, thanks’s cut the silence like icicles.
A temptation to send the whole game flying onto the carpet overwhelms me, but is diminished when I suddenly realize I can clear my entire board in one move.
As congratulations fly in my direction, my flatmate asks:
“So? Isn’t this a better way to play Rummikub?”
I adjust my position on the newly-won laurels.
“Yeah,” I say. “It’s not that bad.”
“Welcome to the family.” For some reason, I feel dirty.