Tuesday, February 1, 2011


Sid Sackson is one of my wannabe uncles. (Martin Gardner is another, but that will have to wait.) Growing up reading GAMES magazine, it seemed like every other issue there was either a review of a new Sid Sackson game or (even better) an actual game in the magazine designed by Sid which you could learn, set up, and play in minutes and spend days (or weeks, or months) trying to master. (An example is Mini-Golf.)

I spent many hours with coloured pencils marking up his books Calculate, Beyond Solitaire and Beyond Competition (each of which had half a dozen original designs)—rendering these now heavily-sought out-of-print books totally unsellable but what did my ten-year-old self know? And since I wouldn’t sell them now for any price anyway, who cares?

He designed so many games, including so many classics, that his ubiquity is easy to take for granted, and the fact that he is no longer around is so hard to believe.

If I remember correctly, I bought my copy A Gamut of Games (AGoG hereinafter) in Seattle on our honeymoon. We ended up having one entire suitcase filled with books by the time we came home from our three-week trip, but this is one of the two “finds” I remember from that trip (the other was The Stanley Cup: A Complete Pictorial History, by Jim Devaney, which reflected that other obsession of my childhood).

Sackson’s obsessive nature comes through in the book. He describes buying games while on trips with his wife, translating the rules of obscure 19th-century French and German card games, and the last part of a book is a list of more than 300 games available at the time (1969), including capsule reviews.

There are rules for 38(!) games in AGoG,  of which about two dozen are Sackson’s; the rest are either historical curios or else designs of Sackson’s extensive circle of acquaintances. One game from this latter that (to me) is significant is Jim Dunnigan’s Origins of World War One, notable for being an early entry by one of modern wargaming’s design masters.

The beauty of the book is that most of the games require little more than a pack or two of cards, some dice, or pencil and paper.

I would have loved to play through all 38 games in the book—perhaps that will be my next project if I ever finish this one—but unfortunately this past week I have only had time to play two of them, both solitaire games: Bowling and Solitaire Dice. Ironically—and perhaps this could be interpreted as cheating—I played both on the computer. There is a great Java implementation of Bowling here and a decent implementation of Solitaire dice here.

The fact is, I was all ready to play Origins of WWI last Thursday night but forgot I’d already committed to a different game. Mea culpa.

This is the world we live in—a world which was unknowable to Sid in 1969. I could have simply sat down with some dice and cards and kept score by hand, but it felt easier to play online and let the computer take care of the housekeeping. I console myself with the thought that since these were solitaire games anyway, it’s not as if I was losing the human element. If you think that’s too easy an out, you are welcome to judge me.

Anyway, as for the games, both are typical Sackson designs in that they involve making Interesting Decisions every turn. In Solitaire Dice, (as in his related classic Can’t Stop) the choice is how to pair up a group of rolled dice. In the Solitaire version, however, you roll five, so one will be left out. You have to keep track of both your paired sums and your choice of “loner” each time. Once you commit to three different “loners” you are stuck with them for the rest of the game, which further limits your choices. In an elegant twist, the game is over when you have used a “loner” eight times. Your score depends on how many times you hit your pair-sums—with more extreme values like 2 or 11 scoring higher but obviously being harder to hit. I have yet to find a good strategy to this game—so it’s fun.

Bowling Solitaire is a good example of game where Sackson feels impelled to make the theme as authentic as possible (Card Baseball is an even better example)—which I personally applaud. So you get three balls per frame, you can get strikes and spares, you can only hit “pins” (cards) which are accessible, and so on. The game uses 20 cards, two each of 0 through 9, and at the beginning of each frame you can see 13 of them, so you can do a certain amount of planning, but there is just enough unpredictability to be fun (or frustrating, depending on your temperament). It would actually be very easy (with a tiny change in layout) to have perfect information, which would turn the game into a totally strategic exercise, and you’re welcome to do this if you want—but you can’t do it in the Java version.

2011 Edition
Over the past ten years I have tried various other games in AGoG and find that them all similarly easy to learn and worth repeated plays. There are rumours of a new edition, but there are plenty of copies available second-hand and I highly recommend it to anyone with an interest in boardgames.

I note with some pleasure that my edition, pictured at the top of this article, is selling for over $50 in very good condition—again, not that I would ever sell my copy, but in some perverse way it feels good knowing that I got a good bargain in that used book store in Seattle.


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