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Board With Life
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It is time for The Orphan Scrivener again. The August issue is now online. Mary writes about a 19th century forger, there's a lot of news, and as for me, well.....

Board With Life

Since the mystery board game Clue (Cluedo outside North America) was invented in the UK in the late 1940s there have been endless variations. Card games, DVDs, a junior edition, a movie, a computer game....

I played Clue when it was relatively new (long before the Simpsons version) and before I ever read a mystery. My friends and I were crazed on board games back in our grade school days. I was still reading Tom Swift Jr and science fiction juveniles by Lester del Rey, Andre Norton, and Robert Heinlein. The Hardy Boys never interested me. They were stuck on the surface of the planet and all the suspects they encountered were carbon-based life forms, or so I gathered. How boring!

My first mysteries were the Sherlock Holmes stories. Holmes had something of the mad scientist about him. If he hadn't been solving mysteries he might very well have been inventing time machines or invisibility potions, and maybe he did. His breathtaking, if often incomprehensible, intellectual leaps reminded me of those spaceship engineers who would figure out, at the last moment, how to rig the Aldebarean Framistan Device to take advantage of the rotational velocity of the doomed asteroid to escape the gravitational beams of the pursuing raiders from Ophiuchi.

Miss Marple, on the other hand, didn't remind me of any science fictional character. But I didn't get around to her until years after I'd discovered Sherlock. So when I first played Clue I knew nothing of mysteries, let alone the body-in-the-library genre on which the game was based.

What I liked about the game was how you could roam around the mansion in any direction you wanted, visiting whichever room took your fancy. The board games I first came in contact with, from Candy Land to Chutes and Ladders and Uncle Wiggly, all involved racing along a path to a finish line. Even The Game of Life, which had plastic mountains jutting up from the board, or the game about the conquest of Mount Everest, where the board was a triangular mountain (magnetized so the playing pieces could climb it) involved moving along a path to the end. The same was true of Monopoly where you went around and around tediously, one Pay Day following another until it all ended in happiness for the winner, and tears for all the bankrupts. Alas, I rarely ended up being the rich man.

When I played Clue I was vaguely aware that I was supposed to figure out that Colonel Mustard did it in the Conservatory with the Wrench. (And why is it, Colonel Mustard always seems to be the first suspect who springs to mind? Why does no one ever finger Mrs. White?) But I could barely handle the deduction even when there were only two of us playing. I just enjoyed wandering the halls and gawking, which is pretty much the way I read mystery novels, that is, with no hope of figuring out the killer and not much effort put into it.

Although one player wins Clue the ending isn't quite so simple as that of most board games. With 6 different characters, 6 possible murder weapons, and nine different rooms there are 324 possible solutions. That's a lot of possibilities, and maybe too many since I was never quite sure why, if the body had been discovered, there would be a question as to whether the crime had been committed with the rope, for example, as opposed to the gun. I would have thought it would be obvious.

One of the attractions of the mystery novel may be that there is more to the ending than winning or losing. At the conclusion of most books the protagonists either succeed or fail in reaching their goals, overcoming the obstacles they face, or resolving the conflicts that beset them. And for the most part we have to fool ourselves into believing the protagonist might lose because few books -- at least of the genre variety -- end in such a totally unsatisfactory fashion. We keep reading in large part to find out exactly how the successful outcome will be achieved and perhaps what it all means. Classic mysteries offer a bit more suspense as to the outcome. Of course, the detective will find the murderer, no surprise there. But as in the game of Clue, we don't know who the murderer will turn out to be from amongst the cast of characters. That part of the end of a mystery novel is also satisfyingly concrete. We might not like the way an author wraps up a book, or how the author has the protagonist reach the end, or what the author makes of it all. But with a mystery, at the very least, we are left with a solution to a puzzle.

I have to confess, aside from my predilection for exploring mansions, I also liked Clue because of the lead pipe. Not to mention the candlestick, the dagger, the gun, the rope, and the wrench. I found those miniature accessories beguiling although I would have preferred that the rope wasn't plastic. Those objects are not actually required for game play. They could have been pictured on cards, or the players might have been instructed to simply allude to them verbally rather than placing them in the room where the crime was suspected to have occurred. But it was a stroke of genius to include them. Perhaps they served as an example of "show, don't tell.."

Then again, maybe I don't have a clue.

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