The shops are putting on their Christmas dress. The cotton-wool, that time-hallowed substitute for snow, is creeping into the plate-glass windows; the pink lace collars are encircling again the cakes; and the “charming wedding or birthday present” of a week ago renews its youth as a “suitable Yuletide gift.” Everything calls to us to get our Christmas shopping done early this year, but, as usual, we shall put it off until the latest possible day, and in that last mad rush we shall get Aunt Emily the wrong pair of mittens and overlook poor Uncle John altogether.
Before I begin my own shopping I am waiting for an announcement in the papers. All that my paper has told me is that the Christmas toy bazaars of the big stores are now open. I have not yet seen that list and description of the new games of the season for which I wait so eagerly. It is possible that this year will produce the masterpiece–the game which possesses in the highest degree all the qualities of the ideal Christmas game. The unfortunate thing is that, even if such a game were to appear in this year’s catalogue, we should have lost it by next year; for the National Sporting Club (or whoever arranges these things) has always been convinced that “novelty” is the one quality required at Christmas, the hall-mark of excellence which no Christmas shopper can resist. If a game is novel, it is enough. To the manager of a toy department the continued vogue of cricket must be very bewildering.
Let us consider the ideal Christmas game. In the first place, it must be a round game; that is to say, at least six people must be able to play it simultaneously. No game for two only is permissible at Christmas–unless, of course, it be under the mistletoe. Secondly, it must be a game into which skill does not enter, or, if it does, it must be a skill which is as likely to be shown by a child of eight or an old gentleman of eighty as by a ‘Varsity blue. Such skill, for instance, as manifests itself at Tiddleywinks, that noble game. Yet, even so, Tiddleywinks is too skilful a pursuit. One cannot say what it is that makes a good Tiddleywinker, whether eye or wrist or supple finger-work, but it is obvious that one who is “winking” badly must be depressed by the thought that he is appearing stupid and clumsy to his neighbours, and that this feeling is not conducive to that happiness which his many Christmas cards have called down upon him.
It is better, therefore, that the element of skill should be absent. Let it be a game of luck only; and, since it is impossible to play a Christmas game for money, you will not be depressed if you lose.
The third and last essential of the ideal game is that it must provoke laughter. You cannot laugh at Tiddleywinks, nor at Ludo (as I hear, but I have never yet discovered what Ludo is), nor at Happy Families. But the ideal game is provocative of that best kind of laughter– laughter at the undeserved misfortunes of others, seasoned by the knowledge that at any moment a similar misfortune may happen to oneself.
Just before the war I came across the ideal game. I forget what it was called, unless it was some such name as “The Prince’s Quest.” Six princes, suitably coloured, set out to win the hand of the beautiful princess. They started at one end of a long and winding road, and she waited for the first arrival at the other end. The road, which passed through the most enthralling scenery, was numbered by milestones–“1” to “200”. Suppose you were the Red Prince, you shook a die (I mean the half of two dice), and if a four turned up, you advanced to the fourth milestone. And so on, in succession. So far it doesn’t sound very exciting. Rut you are forgetting the scenery. Perhaps at the twelfth milestone there awaited you the shoes of swiftness, which carried you in one bound to the twentieth milestone; thus by throwing a three at the ninth, you advanced eleven miles, whereas if you had thrown a four you would only have advanced four miles. On arriving at other lucky milestones you received a cloak of darkness, which took you past various obstacles which were holding the others up, or perhaps were introduced to a potent dwarf, who showed you a short cut forbidden to your rivals. One way and another you pushed ahead of the other princes.
And then the inevitable happened. You arrived at the eighty-fourth milestone (or whatever it was) and you found a wicked enchanter waiting for you, who cast upon you a backward spell, as a result of which you had to travel backwards for the next three turns. Undaunted by this reverse, you returned bravely to it, and perhaps came upon the eighty-fourth milestone again. But even so you did not despair, for there was always hope. The Blue Prince, who is now leading, approaches the ninety-sixth milestone. He is, indeed, at the ninety-fifth. A breathless moment as he shakes the die. Will he? He does. He throws a one, reaches the ninety-sixth milestone, topples headlong into the underground river, and is swept back to the starting-point again.
A great game. But our edition of it went to some hospital during the war, and I fear now that I shall never play it again. Yet I scan the papers eagerly, hoping for some announcement of it. Not this actual game, of course, but some version of it; some “Christmas novelty,” in which, perhaps, the princes are called knights, but the laughter remains the same.