Author Interview

Jim Gladstone on Gladstone's Games To Go

How did Gladstone's Games To Go come about?

I actually came up with the idea for this book while traveling. I was lucky enough to be in Venice, Italy a few Christmases ago. I'm not much of a night owl, but there was no way I was going to miss the opportunity to experience Midnight Mass at Saint Mark's cathedral.

We had dinner at a pizzeria at around eight o'clock and, to pass the time between the end of our meal and the church ceremony, we started to play pen and paper games, which is something I often do on vacation.

I think we started out playing Hangman, and then we decided to try to invent a new game. We wondered whether it was possible to play Scrabble® without the equipment. The answer turned out to be 'No', but as I played around with the idea in my head, I came up with a new word game, which I eventually named Saint Marks, in honor of the place it was invented.

The invention of that one game also made me realize how useful games can be as a social activity. There was a fellow sitting across the restaurant, a solo traveler, also American. I guess he was feeling a bit melancholy, being alone at Christmas, and seeing my friend and I engrossed in scribbling and puzzling over this new game, he came over to our table and asked what we were up to. We invited him to join us. It was really gratifying to share the new game, and that made me start to think about sharing it on a much grander scale. So, that's how Gladstone's Games To Go got underway.

Did you make up all of the games in the book?

I came up with St. Marks, Gravilex, Bongo, Chain Reaction, Golden Rule, Ex Post Facto, License to Spell, and Target Tracer. Alot of the others are new variations on old-fashioned games that people have been playing for decades or—in a few cases—centuries. Once I had the idea for the book, I started writing down the games I'd played for years with my friends and family, and I also started asking people about games they played that I might not yet be familiar with. There were lots of surprises: When I was growing up, the game Ghost was a staple of long car trips and I just assumed that everyone knew the game by heart. As it turned out, there were lots of people who had never heard of it, and there were others who remembered the game, but played it by different rules. The interesting thing is that the rules weren't necessarily written down anywhere! And now they are...with a few variations provided to reflect some of the different ways people can play.

So in a sense, a lot of these games are old and new at once.

That's exactly it. It reminds me of folk songs, the way games are passed along among families and friends. There are all of these variations moving through the culture at the same time. I've tried to offer a few variations of many of the games in the book, but it shouldn't stop there! I think readers are going to come up with their own additional rules and twists, which is great! In fact, readers can share their new ideas on this site!

In our high-tech age, do you think of playing games like these as an old-fashioned activity?

Well, there is some nostalgic charm to them if you remember playing any of these games as a kid, but the games aren't really old-fashioned...they're timeless. These games are featured all over the media. Just think of all the TV shows: Hollywood Squares is based on tic-tac-toe, Wheel of Fortune is hangman, Password is based on an old parlor game, too. And then there are the video games: Minesweeper is a digital version of Battleship, which most of us remember as a plastic tabletop game, but which actually began as a pen-and-paper game, invented by Russian soldiers during World War I. Hopefully, some of the brand new games I invented for the book will be licensed for interactive online games and maybe even board games. Its all very fluid, but I'm really fond of the fact that there are completely satisfying versions of these games that can be played without all the bells and whistles of media and technology. There's room for all of it, but its nice to realize that at the core of each game is simply a cool idea, a product not of the media, or of a toy factory, but of the human imagination.

Your last book was an award-winning novel, The Big Book of Misunderstanding. Why the leap from fiction to games?

It's funny, I don't think of it as a leap at all. They're very complimentary to each other. In fact, I've been working away at a new novel all through the writing of Gladstone's Games To Go. One of the biggest challenges of fiction writing is that your imagination has free reign and your mind can really go wild; that's rewarding, but it can also feel a little out of control. So when I'm working on fiction, I often play games as a break, they provide a sense of structure and orderliness that I sometimes crave when I've been spending hours out in the unruly wilderness of my imagination. For me, fiction writing is a very slow, long-range activity, and the games also provide a nice counterpoint to that. You can play a game in 20 minutes, knowing exactly what happened and how it worked...Writing a novel is pretty much the opposite of that! And writing the rules for games is a very precise activity; you can formally test whether you've done it well or not, whereas judging one's success at fiction is a very fuzzy realm. So it's a very happy balance for me.

What are your favorite games in the book?

The last game in the book, Bongo, is one of my favorites, partly because its radically different depending on how many people play. Your strategy is completely different if you're playing with two players or if you're playing with five players. It's amazingly addictive; I taught it to an old college friend who started teaching his friends in Seattle, so we've got the beginnings of a bi-coastal craze underway!

I'm also fond of a couple games that are very challenging but also lend themselves to incredibly silly wordplay. One is called Chain Reaction and the other is Hinky Pinky, in which players invent riddles with rhyming answers. Neither of these games requires any equipment at all...not even pen and paper, so they are perfectly portable, totally "Games To Go!"

It'd be a kick to see exactly where Gladstone's Games to Go really does go, so I encourage readers to e-mail me digital photos of themselves from wherever they end up playing games from the book. I'll put some of the cooler shots up on the website!

Click here for a further interview with Jim Gladstone.

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