A Night of Musical Board Games by your host, Vern Stoltz

A Night of Musical Board Games by your host, Vern Stoltz

There are many sad things one notices about the world as it moves further along the path of technical progress. Sure, CDs may sound clearer and be less vulnerable to scratches, but one loses the pleasure of holding a beautifully designed record cover in one’s hands. Likewise, the evolution of computer gaming has allowed for incredibly realistic scenes to appear on a video screen, but at the expense of the visually appealing board game box. Many people have forgotten or never experienced the joy that comes with opening a box to discover a world of plastic pieces, dice, spinners, cards, multicolored play money, and best of all, the board that opens to display an exciting design.

Recently I gathered six friends to re-create that era where music and board games met in pop culture heaven. The goal: to play four long-deleted music-themed board games to see if they were still enjoyable today. This was not a scientific experiment, as the increased level of alcohol infusion through the evening may have resulted in biased results.

The Players:
1. Abigail: a collector of old advice books, and the personality behind the Miss Abigail advice column for the London Times. Miss Abigail’s Time Warp Advice website can be found at http://www.missabigail.com/
2. Ani: a painter, artist, and dedicated thrifter, newly relocated to Buffalo, NY
3. Jeff: the writer behind the often funny Wit Memo website http://www.geocities.com/~witmemo/
4. Jen: a school teacher in the Washington, D.C. area
5. Ray: a magician in his spare time, residing in Washington, D.C.
6. Suzanne: wife of Jeff (they met at a screening of the documentary I Created Lancelot Link)
7. Vern: collects old vinyl LPs and board games, and sometimes even plays with them

The Games:

1957—Name That Tune

This game was a form of musical bingo. Each player received a card with columns headed with the letters M-U-S-I-C, and a small pile of red wooden markers. These looked suspiciously like those red tablets they used to hand out in grade school—the ones you chewed, after which everyone laughed at the kid who had the reddest teeth (and the worst brushing habits)

The Name That Tune game came with a record album, containing the voice of George DeWitt, host of the television show. Mr. DeWitt would announce a certain letter/number combination (eg. S/42), and then an organist played a five-second segment of an unnamed musical selection. If the title of the song was on your MUSIC card, you placed one of the red markers on the appropriate square. Should you achieve five in a row, you’ve won and must yell out “Stop the Music!”

This 1957 edition of the game included no rock and roll songs. Instead the game centered around selections like “National Emblem March,” “American Patrol,” “The Merry Widow Waltz,” and the “Triumphal March (from Aïda).” Soon after placing the needle on the record, I became concerned that the disk would play out to the finish without anyone being able to identify five songs in a row.

Fortunately, two things prevented this. The first was the large number of standards that are still well known today—“Row, Row, Row Your Boat,” “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” “Yes We have No Bananas,” and “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” (aka the alphabet song). The other element speeding play was the irresistible urge of my guests to yell out song titles once they recognized them. You might never have heard “Sweet Rose O Grady” before in your life, but having the player next to you yell out its name permitted you to mark it on your own MUSIC card.

The game was much more enjoyable than I had envisioned. And the record, though comprised of cheesy organ music, was actually quite fast paced.

Name That Tune Player Comments:

Jeff: B+ A great game—if you were born in 1930. A lot of fun… great to “break the ice” at a party.

Suzanne: We’re gonna party like its 1949!!

Abigail: I won!! I won!!! And I didn’t even cheat too much!!

Jen: ‘A’ grade. I was inspired to shout out the names of the tunes and sing along with the rapid tempos. We are concerned about the red dye on our hands from the tokens

1967—The Monkees Game

This was a more traditional game, the type where one spins an arrow, then moves that number of spaces forward. The winner is the first person who advances through a path of musical notes to reach the Monkees car. Although the cover of the box is quite impressive, with its images of the Monkees in their souped-up wagon, the game-board is a bit disappointing. The four Monkee markers looked too much alike, and they were out of proportion with the tiny musical notes on the gameboard.

Recognizing that just spinning and moving ahead would be boring, the game designers introduced a little plastic guitar with a rubber band for strings. When a player landed on a whole note, he had to pick up the guitar and start strumming and singing the “Hey Hey, We’re the Monkees” theme song. Each time the verse was completed, that team could advance eight additional music notes, until either it was their turn again or some other team landed on a whole note, snatched the toy guitar, and started singing.

As an observer, it was quite amusing to see the players singing, and I enjoyed the fast action as the guitar was rapidly passed from one set of hands to another. For the participating players though, the experience was less satisfying.

The Monkees Comments

Ani: Monkees suck. Gameboard lacks aesthetic qualities. The notes are too close together.. This is like school. I was no good in music class

Abigail: C-, too humiliating and confusing. Thank God it sped up at the end and was over faster.

Jen: D. Evil!!! It was stressful and panicky when singing.

Jeff :C+. Just move by spinning with some awkward, embarrassing, and pointless FORCED SINGING! Big disagreement, over whether having to sing, or getting to sing, is good or bad. I think this game was rushed to market without sufficient R & D, to take advantage of the Monkee craze.

Suzanne: B, exciting, but utterly trivial.

Ray: I was told there wouldn’t be any singing.

1971—The Partridge Family Game

This was another “racetrack” game, where one shook the dice and moved ahead, with the winner being the first to reach the Partridge Family bus. For added excitement, one could land on a Partridge square and draw a card. These cards were quite amazing, with each having a bit of Partridge trivia that appeared to have no relevance to the instructions it gave. Some examples:

Laurie has a great curiosity about everything—Move back 2 spaces
Chris has a great appetite for pancakes—Move ahead 3 spaces
Laurie belongs to the “Now” generation—Lose one turn
Danny has gone off zipping on his bike—Move ahead 4 spaces
‘Danny enjoys eerie horror movies—Lose one turn

There were four markers in this game, representing Keith, Laurie, Danny, and “Mom.” Chris and Tracy were not represented, nor was Rueben, the group’s manager. There was a brief pre-start skirmish, as most players wanted to be Danny.

The game itself went relatively quickly, as one only had to travel a path of 61 squares while using two dice. Mom started this game with a huge lead, but Keith, with an exact role of 11, ended up reaching the bus ahead of everyone else. Overall, this game was the one geared to the youngest target audience, with several players noting the similarity to Candyland. It was very simple, yet oddly enjoyable, perhaps because of the cheerful, early ‘70s graphic design.

The Partridge Family Comments

Ani: Better than the Monkees

Jen: I like making fun of the characters—each has led such a colorful post-Partridge life

Abigail: B+. Cards were entertaining, even though they made no sense. Helps to listen to “I Think I Love You” and dream of Keith. So cheap that they only used one photo for box, board, and pieces

1973—K-Tel Super Star Game

Yes, K-Tel actually produced a board game in addition to all those budget compilation records that were heavily advertised on television. This game was unique among the four played, as it was the only one to address the role of business in the music world. The goal of Name That Tune was to identify five songs in a row. The Monkees and Partridge Family games required you to race along the path and become the first to reach your vehicle. The goal of the K-Tel Super Star Game was to amass a fortune by game’s end.

This was the only game to come with play money, unfortunately of an inferior quality, without any fake famous people on the bills. The game was very similar to the popular Game of Life. Players progress along the track, and follow the directions of whatever square they landed on. One has the option of buying insurance (for protection from stolen musical equipment), and instead of collecting money via regular paydays, one earns increasing dollar amounts by passing special concert squares.

By purchasing a record company, player have the option of releasing singles and LPs into the marketplace. When this happened, one went to the stereo and placed the needle onto a special multi-tracked 45 RPM record. The record would then announce either “It’s a Hit,” “It’s a Flop,” or “Break Even.” If the result was a hit record, the player would collect a special miniature plastic record token—perhaps the coolest thing about this game—which was redeemable for more play money when you reached the end of the track.

But even with the introduction of cool golden records, this K-Tel game bored everyone stiff. The game track, although very brightly colored, was 153 squares long, and took forever to traverse—especially since the game came with only a single dice. The instructions on each square were boring, simply instructing the player to collect or pay money. Even playing the hit-predicting 45, which should have been entertaining, ended up feeling quite anti-climatic.

Sample instructions on the board game and the various “Fortune” cards:

Pay motel bill $100
Bootleg album, lose $10,000 in sales
Swindled by phony guru, pay $10,000
Sell life story to teen magazine, get $1,000
That’s a no-no, pay $30,000

Near the end of the game is a square that says “You’re chosen musician of the year—Congratulations,” and oddly enough, there’s no mention of monetary reward at all. Perhaps that was what was wrong with this game. With the constant focus on money, it felt like you should have a calculator nearby to keep track of your financial status. You’d think a game based on rock ‘n roll would have been interesting, but the lack of famous rock celebrities, or even fictitious characters, meant that the emphasis was on money, money, and money.

In an ill-fated attempt to increase the excitement level, I went down to the basement and brought up an old color organ project made in junior high electronics class. But even those swirling colors from the ‘70s were unable to excite the players. This game was so boring that everyone decided to quit before even making it through the outermost ring of the track.

K-Tel Super Star Comments

Ani: Records are cool; K-Tel game drools

Jeff: This game promises to go on as long as Monopoly, or Risk. Much too ambitious for its own good, or ours. Cries out for two dice, instead of the one it comes with, to PICK UP THE PACE.

Suzanne: B+, a bit long, but engaging, like Life for deadheads.

Jen: Too many rules for a simple concept. Too long and tedious. Much like Monopoly. Yawn. The accompanying record sucks and is pointless. Just wanted it to end

Summary:

Oddly enough, everyone agreed that the oldest game, Name That Tune, was the most enjoyable. A bit of research showed that this was a very popular game in the late ‘50s, and a second edition was created with a new record.

The Partridge Family and Monkees games were fun, but this seemed partly due to the joy of having people sitting around a brightly colored board-game, conversing and interacting. Half the attraction of these games is the pop culture fascination with musical celebrities. The K-Tel game, lacking the celebrity aspect, was much less interesting.

Overall though, everyone agreed that board games are still entertaining, especially when played with a bunch of fun people. Most importantly, almost all boardgames can be played late at night, under candle light, during the next power outage. Your computer might be dead, but as long as at least two members of the Partridge Family are able to travel around the board, there will be hope in the world.