As you read this, I will have just arrived back from nearly two weeks in Michigan and Ohio visiting my extended family. This trek to see relatives is one that happens annually, and it’s one of my favorite times of the year. I’m sure a big part of that is because I don’t have to work, but it’s also because there is joy in renewing and re- forging relationships that used to be daily part of my life. I’m different now than I used to be when I was in college or living with my parents, and it’s good to reflect on just how different things are for me and for everyone else.
And yet a lot of things stay the same. They may involve new people, but family traditions come from continuing to do things when contexts have changed. And both my family and my wife’s play games. I’m the only true hobbyist in either side, but it hardly matters. There is something so natural about gathering around a table to play something that isn’t new. Usually the games you play are ones that you have played for many years, where you were a small child being welcomed at the table with adults. Every family has games that are a part of their family heritage, and my family is no different. It felt appropriate to reflect on the games that have formed me and to tip my hat to some of my roots. I’m a little late to the party, as Matt Thrower already wrote a similar article several weeks ago, but it’s where my heart is right now. They aren’t necessarily great games, but these are the ones that have stuck with me even as the fancier hobby games have wooed me.
One particular game that I have ONLY seen in my family is called Tudorville Rook. Played with four Rook decks, it’s essentially Phase 10 where the players aren’t forced to replay hands. Over 11 hands, the players try to fulfill different formations. One hand may require you to come up with a set (three or more of the same card) and a run (four cards of the same color in sequence), or you may need to get multiple sets. There are a couple of key aspects that separate it from the more well-known Phase 10. First of all, as stated earlier failure to get a particular meld doesn’t mean you need to stick with it for another hand. Secondly, there is a way to nab a discard out of turn, by grabbing another card as a penalty. This “buy” alleviates a lot of the frustration of these types of games, and the result is a very casual game that I can play equally well with my wife and with my 80-year-old grandfather. I have many fond memories of taking the fat Tudorville deck on family vacations, even when we lived overseas. The fact that I’ve never seen it outside of the immediate realm of my family makes it feel like an inner circle of knowledge, like a recipe that only we make every Thanksgiving.
When I got married, my wife re-introduced me to Mexican Train Dominoes. I had once learned Mexican Train with my mom’s family, since her dad always had a taste for playing other games with dominoes. It didn’t take there, but I discovered that my wife’s family was already playing it. It’s not a very complex domino game. Each player has their own “train” that they can play on, while there is also a common “Mexican” train that every player can use. If you can’t play to your own train, it becomes open for other players to use. There are a couple other vagaries, but that’s the bulk of it. Full disclosure: I’ve never loved Mexican Train as a game. I find it pretty basic and tedious. But my wife’s family has taught me that games with a family aren’t always about playing what we love. It can be about the company we keep, and I married into a wonderful family. It’s a joy to use such a simple game as an excuse to get to know my new family. It’s the game I most strongly associate with them, and to have a holiday with them when we don’t play feels almost incomplete.
When I was in high school, my family began in earnest to play Scrabble, and we took it pretty seriously. There’s no need to explain how to play. I still maintain that Scrabble is the best word game ever, and very likely the best “mainstream” game out there. Its big weakness is a tendency to not compensate for a difference in skill between the players. If one player is way better than the others, he’ll win almost without fail, and no one will have any fun. Fortunately, my immediate family are all about even, and we have had some great Scrabble games. When we lived in a French-speaking country, certain words in what we called “franglais” snuck into our Scrabble games. And even though we were a fairly conservative Christian household, you would likely be forgiven for spelling a curse word on the Scrabble board. The letters fall how they will, and they know no morality. Of all of the games mentioned here, this is the one I’m most likely to play outside of my own family. Still one of the greats, and still a family favorite for us.
But for me nothing has ever compared to the one, the only, Euchre. As far as I know, Euchre is generally just played in the Great Lakes region of the USA, although I hear it is sometimes played in the UK as well. My upbringing in Ohio and Michigan all but ensured I would become a Euchre player. It’s a simple trick-taking game played with a 24-card deck. There is a quick process to determine trump, and then you just play a five-trick hand. Based on who called trump, points are scored and the first to 10 points wins. It’s short and familiar, but it’s not universal in its appeal. My grandmother, mom, and wife have no use for it. And since it’s a partnership game, it doesn’t always work that we’re able to get the four experienced players that will guarantee it will be a fun session. As a result, there is something really special about getting to play Euchre. I almost never get to play in Kansas City, and getting together with family is no guarantee either. In my family, it’s also a game that you are not taught. You learn it. I remember feeling so adult when I got to sit with my dad, aunt, and grandpa to play a couple games of Euchre. I made my mistakes, but it was an opportunity to learn little Euchre-isms like “crossing the river” and “leading next.” It has a specialness that only comes from spanning generations, and I really hope that I can pass on Euchre to my boys someday. That is if my wife ever tries to play it again.
There are a lot of other games that I could add to this list, and a lot of other ones that will add themselves in years to come. That’s the best thing about games as a family. The really special ones happen naturally, without any pretense or artificiality. It’s a connection with people that I don’t see as often as I’d like. And if I’m a hobbyist, a big reason is because games have always been a part of who we are as a family. It shows how the point of games is not to prove how smart we are. It’s a way to learn something about ourselves and the people around us, and that’s why families need them.
Nate Owens is a weekly columnist for Fortress: Ameritrash. He drinks too much coffee and likes the Star Wars prequels. You can read more of his mental illness at The Rumpus Room.