Washington gang's all here -- a lobbyist, a lawyer, a speechwriter and a couple of reporters -- and the issue this August eve is strife in Latin America. But there are no earnest chats over crackers and Boursin, no polite spats between sips of Cabernet.
Instead, each is trying to dispose of everyone else while secreting public funds in a Swiss bank account. From emplacements around the table, with a map of the capital city, they're playing JUNTA, otherwise known as The Game of Power, Intrigue, Money and Revolution. "You could call it a comic opera of Third World countries," says JUNTA's inventor, Vincent Tsao. "Of course, I've watched some people play, and it's not comic at all. They become cold-blooded barracuda." JUNTA's part and parcel of a batch of new amusements bent on reducing the real world to a board game. They're not for everyone -- Tsao, a computer consultant by day, has had his share of nasty letters -- and they flout conventional wisdom in the bargain. Sid Sackson, who's created scores of games for the likes of Parker Brothers and Milton Bradley, says his best don't mirror reality, but offer instead "a pleasant excursion away from the imperfect world." But with games, turnabout's fair play.
As for coming to grips with the imperfect world, there's INTERN, about budding doctors in a big teaching hospital, CONDOMANIA 2000, surmounting the pitfalls of condo life, and even one called BUREAUCRACY, a favorite of Ray Saunders. Saunders, 30, of Prince George's County, an erstwhile travel-voucher examiner for the Department of Defense, gets perverse pleasure from the play: "I love it. It's a perfect model of the way large organizations function."
And there's a small cult of JUNTA fans in parlors from Dallas to the District.
The game begins with a reading of the Constitution of the Republic, in this case at the table by a beer-swigging reporter. It calls for one player to be President, who appoints his cabinet from the players' ranks and disburses the money; one to be Minister of the Interior, who controls the civil and secret police, and can try assassinations; and the rest Generals, each controlling a brigade of infantry and tank units from headquarters around the city. With a rhetorical flourish, the speechwriter declares for president.
"You're not president just because you so," the reporter blurts out, waving the constitution. "It says here that there has to be an election."
It's time to master politics. Dealt four to a player, political cards let each control a certain number of votes in the Chamber of Deputies. Their votes combined, the speechwriter and reporter hold a majority, so they agree to cut a deal: If elected, the speechwriter vows in stentorian tones, he will name the reporter minister of the interior; the others -- the lobbyist, lawyer and other reporter -- will become lowly generals. It's a fait accompli.
"I am well pleased with my minister of interior," the president declares in his inaugural address. "His secret police will work to the benefit this great nation and, of course, myself." The minister blushes as the generals smirk. That done -- a slight Latin accent having crept into the byplay -- matters proceed to the budget.
But first more political cards get dealt, this time one to a customer. Some of them have no effect -- "The annual street festival occurs. There is much gaiety and celebration" or "Crusading local newspaper editor disappears. The secret police are suspected" -- but the general of the first brigade has dealt himself the Church Influence card, good for 10 votes in the chamber of deputies. The president and minister eye the general warily, wondering what this power-shift portends.
Then it's on to the money cards. Minted in one billion and two billion peso denominations, these have been supplied, the constitution reveals, by "a generous super power that asks no questions." The president draws the requisite six, but for only six billion pesos. "Ai, caramba!" he cries, slamming the wad on the table.
There's much whispering back and forth between the president and the minister -- "You've got to make sure he gets his share," the minister counsels, pointing to the vote-rich general across the table -- and at length the budget's announced.
"To my valued and esteemed friend, the general of the first brigade, I propose giving three billion pesos," the president declares. The general grins broadly, the grin of the just-co-opted, and pours himself three fingers of Jose Cuervo. "Because the generous support of the secret police is essential to our national security, I propose two billion pesos for my trusted minister." The minister nods. "As you are well aware," the president goes on, addressing the other two generals, "these are lean times. Lean times. It is with regret." And there he ends.
"What? What?" gasps the general of the third brigade, on learning there's none for him. "This is an outrage!" "Not fair," agrees the general of the impoverished second brigade. But the budget gets railroaded anyway through the chamber of deputies, and the president keeps a billion for himself.
"I will pay you back for this in spades, sir," the general of the third brigade warns the minister, an evil glint in his eye.
The minister regards the threat as serious, so he tries to terminate the general of the third brigade. The constitution lets him attempt an assassination by surmising the general's location, marked by a piece of cardboard that's been placed face-down on the map. The minister guesses the general's at the bank, but when the marker's overturned, he's hiding at the nightclub instead. The minister curses as the general chuckles. "You'll get yours," the general predicts.
At this point, the central bank opens. Players with money -- the president, the minister and the general of the first brigade -- deposit their wealth into a Swiss account. All smiles, the president and minister warmly congratulate each other on their brilliant strategic planning.
Then the general of the first brigade does the unexpected.
From his stack of political cards, he plays his Student Riot and Student Influence cards, slapping them onto the map. The president and minister react in horror. "Traitor!" they wail. The general of the first brigade, so recently rewarded by the president, merely shrugs. "Somebody had to do it."
A coup d'etat has begun.
The coup procedes in seven phases, with the rebels -- in this case the three generals -- gunning for three of five spaces on the map: the central bank, the chamber of deputies, the railroad station, the radio station and the presidential palace. The minister deploys his civil police from any of three precincts near downtown, the president's guards start from the palace, and the generals launch attacks from barracks on the outskirts of town. Players write down their moves in advance of each phase. When forces meet, they fight with dice, and a roll of six is lethal.
"This doesn't look good," the minister informs the beleaguered president, who snaps, "I can see that."
But as the first phase starts, the minister moves to assassinate the general of the second brigade. He correctly guesses the general's location, his mistress's house, so the attempt succeeds. "You've cheated!" the general cries as the second brigade gets wiped from the map. The minister keeps his counsel.
The remaining players declare their moves, and combat starts in earnest at the second phase. In a northwest slum of the city, the battle's fought between the minister and his old foe from the third brigade. They roll and the general throws a six. As the minister suffers the president's scorn -- "Idiot!" cries the chief -- the general removes one of the minister's police units from play.
With the president's guards holed up in the palace for the next three phases, the minister loses badly. By the sixth phase, with the police force routed, the military looks ready to wrest control. "Some minister of the interior you've turned out to be," the president grouses, as the generals prepare to storm the central bank, the radio station and the railroad station. Phase Seven, and it's all over -- the old regime falls.
"Ah, Minister, my old friend," the general of the third brigade says sweetly. "I suppose it's time we had you shot."
Writer Tom Wolfe dubbed the Seventies the Me Decade, but judging from the games gracing toy-store shelves, the Eighties could be a golden age for Us vs. Them. The reality game dares players to grapple together with a nettlesome fact of life, usually some spectacular foolishness from the powers that be, and holds out the promise of victory -- maybe a healhy exorcism, too.
"It's wonderful," says JUNTA fan Rusty Wolfolk, a 24-year-old surveyor from suburban Maryland, "to be able to vent your aggressions on a piece of plastic."
There's been such before -- like Parker Brothers' classic real-estate game "Monopoly," on which many new games are modeled -- but Rick Ludwig, editor of Game Merchandising magazine in Clifton, Virginia, says he's seen a surge of late.
"This is six-pack philosophy," he warns, "but I think that games can always tell us a bit about ourselves. . . In Victorian England, there was a game called 'Cottage of Content.' The board had Smugglers Lane, Probity Pass, Ruination Road and Prudence Passage. The Victorians tended to have a cohesive point of view about morality and ethics." But these days, Ludwig says, "everything's gotten fragmented, with a lot of clashing opinions being expressed."
It's a long, long way from the "Cottage of Content" to "UP AGAINST THE WALL, MOTHER------!" This game of campus unrest was the 1969 brainchild of Jim Dunnigan, then a 25-year-old history major at New York's Columbia University. The year before, when some of his classmates occupied President Grayson Kirk's office, he was earning pin money as a campus night watchman. "We've taken over," a close friend, a member of the Students for a Democratic Society, exulted at the time. "Lenny," Dunnigan replied, "I think it's spring." For him, it was a moment of inspiration.
Enjoyed then by Columbia students and administrators alike, and still available from Dunnigan, the game features a map of the Morningside Heights campus, over which players -- either radicals or establishment types -- skirmish for the better part of an hour. At the start of each turn, radical players can shout the name of the game at their opponents. "You should call a UAW,MF! with feeling," the rules advise, "as it is usually the high point of the game."
Dice and contingency cards push things along, with the cards helping either the establishment ("Mayor Lindsay sends urban task force to campus to cool things") or the radicals ("Norman Mailer appears at strike fund party"). But the odds favor the establishment, which always wins in the long run. "Basically," says Dunnigan, who now designs games for a living, "the students were fighting a lost cause. . . A game's power resides in how closely it hits home for people, and in that sense, this was rather a nice one."
Then again, he adds, a good game also serves to loosen people up -- "like booze or dope," he suggests, and with occasionally similar results: "I've seen people go wacko playing games." James Houlihan, in charge of preliminary game development at Milton Bradley, might agree, though he's more delicate about it. "What makes a game," he says, "is not just the subject matter, but the interplay of the players. . . Me, I'm afraid I don't play socially."
These days, as befits currenttworries, there's CHANGING SOCIETY, in which players try to buck their destinies like Thomas Hardy characters; CREDIT ABILITY and THE MIDDLE CLASS GAME, both for the era of limits; CONTAINMENT, about reactors and meltdowns, RICH FARMER gua, POOR FARMER, CAPITAL PUNISHMENT and, in a burst of inspired mundanity, SWAT, SWAT THE MOSQUITO. (This last, from Coleco Industries of Hartford, Connecticut, is a battery-powered number wherein players wield swatters on the image of an insect flitting across a screen. Maybe that sounds simple-minded, but it was enough to grab a grown-up who swatted it silly around the office the other day. "This is kinda fun," he allowed.)
Closer to home, there's also WASHINGTON SCENE, which moves a lot like "Monopoly" spiced by local color. Pass Congress and collect a hundred grand. Or else go straight to the FBI and get detained for investigation.
But the true joy of the game rests with the "Washington Scene" cards, to wit: "You Speak Out in Favor of Open Membership at Cosmos Club. Retract and Pay $50,000 to Public Fund." Or: "Take the Eastern Shuttle to New York. Lose Two Turns Waiting for Equipment Repair." Or: "You Enjoy Bagels and Coffee with Art Buchwald and Doc Dalinsky on Sunday Morning at the Georgetown Pharmacy. Pay $80,000 to Public Fund Now That Your (sic) 'In.'" Or, for willing suspension of disbelief: "You Desire Unlimited Power. Advance to Washington Post for a Job Interview."(The game's produced by Groovy Games Inc., of Lafayette, California, but if you call the phone number printed in the rules, you'll get a real estate firm instead.)
Now here's a sampling of some real-life games, ranging in price from $10 to$20; CONDOMANIA 2000: From Games Galore Ltd. of Toronto, Canada, it bills itself as a futuristic look at the vexations of condo ownership.
The object of the game, which works a lot like "Monopoly," is to strike it rich through rents. You receive a cool million to start, plus income based on your occupation each time you circumnavigate the board. Players collect job cards, making them anything from plumbers to lawyers, at the Employment Office.
Other cards concern either Board Business ("You violated condominium by-laws by painting your balcony blue. Return to Management Office and pay $800 for removing paint") or Mail ("Your neighbors hate music. Pay $500 fine for creating a disturbance by playing rock'n'roll after eleven p.m."). It takes two hours to play. CAPITAL PUNISHMENT: From Hammerhead Enterprises of Severna Park, Maryland -- the folks who brought out "Public Assistance" -- this one figures to raise an equal number of danders. ("Public Assistance," a satire of the welfare system, sparked the ire of Health and Human Services Secretary Patricia Harris, among others, when it appeared last year.) Hammerhead bills this latest as "an offensive/defensive strategy game" concerning criminals, liberals and innocent citizens.
Each player starts with four criminals, two liberals and 15 innocent citizens, and tries to maneuver all his criminals to The Chair or Life Imprisonment, use his liberals to spring his opponent's criminals, and preserve as many of his innocent citizens as possible. In a pinch, a player can sacrifice a liberal for one his innocent citizens.
Amusing? "I guess that depends on your point of view," says John Lorenzo of the Game Boutique in Mazza Gallerie, one of the places selling it. CREDIT ABILITY: From the Ungame Company of Anaheim, California, this is "the game that gives credit -- but only when it's due!"
Players move markers along two tracks of the board -- the first letting them apply for such as "ThankAmericard" and "Faster Charge," the second giving them a chance to charge for sailboats and the like. The first player to fulfill the buying requirements listed on his "Secret Winner's Card," plus erase his debts, is victorious. You'd think, with all its emphasis on paying bills, that the game was invented by a credit manager. It was. BARGAIN HUNTER: From Milton Bradley, this one's much like "Credit Ability," but boasts a ''credit approval" machine with a do-it-yourself assembly. Aside from snapping together the plastic pieces, one of the game's highlights is slipping in a "Plasticard" and giving thER guae contraption a whirl. The spinner, once stopped, says "Credit Approved" or "Credit Not Approved." It's a whole lot cheaper, anyhow, than getting your kid a charge account. BUREAUCRACY: From Avalon Hill Game Company of Baltimore, this one can be rough going -- and that's the point. The original version, says the rulebook, "required a 15-story parlor, a six-acre gameboard, 200,000 pieces and a 15,000-page rulebook." As it is, the rules run seven pages and take quite a while to master -- and that's also the point.
Designed by an ex-bureaucrat from Michigan, it boasts a board replete with flow-chart, fake money, dice, "Buck" slips which can be passed to your opponents during play, a "Power File" envelope to be used in grabbing a higher-up's job, memo cards, and an unwieldy array of itsy-bitsy cardboard pieces that, likely as not, will come tumbling out of the box once opened. The object of the game is to become Director of the Bureaucracy.
Players select any of four "lifestyles" -- Lifer, Over Achiever, Hustler and Empire Builder -- and brave spaces such as "Stared out window all day. Add 2 staff," "Review of performance surprisingly thorough. Receive unsatisfactory rating. Go to grievance committee" and "New director will not admit that your tasks are incomprehensible and non-substantive. Add 5 staff." (If you're an Empire Builder, adding staff is fine, but it could slow you down if you're a Hustler.) Memo cards, meanwhile, include the likes of "Critical mass / situational vortex," "Spent hours gossiping. Irrelevant, wasteful but titillating" and "Zero-based intellect. Add 5 staff."
Don't plan to do anything else on the day you play. THE PETER PRINCIPLE GAME: Also from Avalon Hill Game Company, and invented by Laurence J. Peter of "Principle" fame, this one plays as a streamlined "Bureacracy." The Peter Principle, remember, holds that everyone's bound to rise to his level of incompetence -- which is what you want to avoid here. The winner is often the player who can escape promotions longest. CONTAINMENT: From Shamus Gamus of Stockton, California, this one -- conceived, it happens, before Three Mile Island -- invites you to "explore the excitement of the nuclear energy controversy, crisis and confrontation!" This game's for sober reflection, not for yuks.
Players decide at the outset whether they're pro-or anti-nuke, and their goal, accordingly, is either to crank up the reactor in the center of the board, or shut it down. Moving plastic containment towers around the board, they grapple with arguments for and against nuclear energy, with each assigned certain point-values. If an argument runs against them, they can counter it with a card.
For instance, a pro-nuke player rolls the dice and lands on a space reading, "Technical malfunctions due to unreliable technology cause most accidents in nuclear reactors in the U.S. and no reactor has been found to be totally free of problems" -- an anti-nuke argument good for three points. From his stack of "counter" cards, he produces one reading, "In 20 years of commercial nuclear plant operation not one death has resulted from a nuclear operation" -- which, he learns on turning it over, is worth five points.
The victor by two, he moves one of four boron control rods inside the reactor two spaces toward "On Line." Had he lost, he'd have jumped to the "Criticality Track," there to brave a score of dangers as well as the chance of meltdown.
Depending on the breaks, this game can last forever, and you can add your own arguments to liven things up. INTERN: Another from Avalon Hill Game Company, among the most prolific when it comes to reality games, this one's not for the faint of heart. "Now YOU are the physician!" goes the blurb on the box -- which is enough to give most folks pause.
Designed by doctors who've paid their dues, it's rife with disease ("Syringomyelia: degenerative disorder of the central portion of the spinal cord. . ."), patients ("Ascites: 55 y.o. female with increasing abdomhER guainal girth and fluid wave"), beds and examining rooms. Players can specialize in Medicine, Surgery, Gynecology or Neurology, and the winner is the one who grabs the most free time -- either by successfully treating patients or shunting them off to opponents.
This game seems just what the doctor ordered for those hours spent in a waiting room. TRUST ME: From Parker Brothers, here's the "game of hot tips and cold cash," wherein players try to persuade their opponents to invest in worthless properties, saving the lucrative ones for themselves.
Starting at the "Trust Me Investment Company," players roll dice and move plastic dollar signs to such properties as the Albuquerque Turkeys football team, Fritters Away fast food, and "Lint-o-matic, a battery-operated lint detector (Battery not included)." Once there, they inspect the property by peering under a brown plastic briefcase, where there'll either be stacks of money pictured or the motto, "You've been had!"
Especially in the latter case, it's time for a hard sell. Beware excessive blinking and nervous smiles. ASSASSIN, THE FINAL GAME: The makers, Southold Game Corporation of New York, thought the title might be a bit off-putting, so they slapped a couple of disclaimers on the box: "a non-political game. . .may not be suitable for children under 12."
This is a fast-moving game, with players chasing each other around the board through the world's capital cities as they buy and sell illegal commodities -- drugs, secrets, plutonium, etc. -- the better to raise the cash necessary to knock one another off.
Assassin cards, ranging in price from ten to a hundred grand, feature racy texts and appropriately daffy photos. There's "Kwao Lung / Chinese / Age 45 / Magician / Travels with a midget / Lives in Bangkok / Once performed at the White House for President Eisenhower." And "Lawton Dupree / American / Age 25 / Machine pistol expert / Color blind / Extreme racist / Lives in Louisiana bayous / Wrestles alligators." And "Felawa Mufti / Algerian / Age 29 / Daughter of ex-Defense Minister / Attended Princeton University / Thought to be Living in Kuala Lumpur / Expert in Algerian sand torture."
The winner's the last player left alive.
The other day at Ray Saunder's house -- his table laden with pastries, Ginger Snaps, Doritos, Tostitos and other delicacies, washed down with Japanese plum wine -- it took about half an hour to play. That was at the end of a game-playing marathon, with the air-conditioner blasting and the shades drawn shut against the summer.
"Exercise?" gasped Saunders, the consummate gamer, when one his guests dared broach the subject. "Please, no cursing in my house!"