Our hobby has been going more mainstream. Designer games are available at national department stores. Game manufacturers have considerable clout in the financial sector. But when pop culture begins to use board games, you know our hobby isn’t just about how and where we spend our money. Here’s a look at some examples of how board games have permeated into pop culture.
Tabletop Games in Pop Culture
The Handmaid’s Tale (Scrabble)
Scrabble has been around forever. It was first published in 1938 as a multi-player crossword game. It would later be sold to the Long Island distributor Selchow-Righter who made the game a household name. Due to its near ubiquity, it seems obvious that Scrabble would break into the mainstream pop culture. Recently, the game made for a tense scene in the miniseries The Handmaid’s Tale.
Hulu’s original show The Handmaid’s Tale has been a critical success. It’s garnered a rating of 8.7 on IMDB and a 100% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Not too shabby for the upstart competitor of cable TV and Netflix. The show is a gripping, dystopian tale with excellent performances–especially by the talented Elisabeth Moss. While I recommend the show, what we are more interested here is tabletop games.
The Commander, played by Joseph Fiennes, decides to break the ice with his handmaid Offred, played by Moss. The Commander breaks out a copy of Scrabble. The two play a game where Offred lets the Commander win, unbeknownst to him. Their game comes off as polite but also white-knuckled–a great feat for such a dry game.
But It seems that Scrabble connoisseurs were not too keen on how the rules for Scrabble were not followed. Although they played Scrabble, it felt more like Words with Friends. The final score was a whopping 386 to 383. The Commander’s challenge fail but he did not lose a turn. And the two players spelled words like zygote and larynx.
Monopoly (Carol Burnett and The Sopranos)
Monopoly has been a part of pop culture for a couple of generations now. Classic television viewers will remember the Carol Burnett and Friends skits dealing with Mama’s Family. (It spawned a lengthy spinoff by the same name). Burnett played the tragic white trash Eunice, daughter of Mama (Vicki Lawrence) and Daddy (Harvey Korman). In one skit, Eunice’s exuberance in finally getting Boardwalk and Park Place is quickly and hysterically dashed when she lands on her mama’s hotel on St. Charles Place and her dad’s hotel on Kentucky Avenue on her next two moves.
The best pop culture reference of Monopoly is probably the Sopranos, however. Tony, Carmela, Bobby and Janice play a family game of the Parker Brothers’ classic. But the “family” in question is the Soprano clan. And any game with this family is liable to end in bloodshed.
What is interesting about The Sopranos’ Monopoly scene is the discussion about the rules. Bobby asks why Tony is putting cash in the center of the board instead of the bank. Carmela explains they play with the Free Parking rule: whoever lands on Free Parking gets all that money. Carmela offers the explanation, “It adds a whole level of excitement to the game”. Bobby is a rules purist. He grabs the rules and demands to be shown where this rule is located. Carmela says it’s not an official rule but is a widely accepted variant.
When Tony lands on Free Parking, Bobby laments that the Parker Brothers spent a lot of time making a strategy game only to have the Sopranos devolve it into a game of chance.
And then the bloodshed.
Tony quips at Janice’s expense. Tony makes cracks about her bouts with mental illness and her past promiscuity. Bobby suffers enough indignation about these comments at his wife’s expense and a brawl ensues. When the brawl is over, Tony is dripping with blood. Carmela has to pluck a Monopoly house out of his cheek. And you know the old adage: the only way to win Monopoly is to not play.
Given the chops that Risk has offered to wargamers over the years, one should expect Risk to be represented in pop culture. 90’s radio staple R.E.M. had a pop song called, “Man on the Moon” featuring the lyrics “let’s play Twister, let’s play Risk”.
One of the most memorable pop references of the Parker Brothers classic would have to be Seinfeld. The Show about Nothing had an episode where Kramer and Newman played a days long game of Risk. To keep the game safe from each other, Kramer and Newman had to move the board to neutral territory–which means Jerry Seinfeld’s apartment.
Kramer and Newman later can be seen playing their game on the subway. Kramer goads Newman as Kramer’s grasp on world domination is at hand. “I have a stronghold in Greenland. I’ve driven you out of Western Europe”.
Newman retorts that he has a good hold of the Ukraine. Kramer dismisses this and says the Ukraine is weak. A Ukrainian man is riding on the subway next to them and overhears this part of their conversation. The Ukrainian stranger transforms into a charging Cossack and ransacks Kramer’s game, pieces flying all over the subway.
Strange Things (D&D)
Netflix’s original series, “Stranger Things” was written with me in mind:
1. Its protagonists are kids from the 80’s
2. It’s science fiction/fantasy
3. The protagonists play Dungeons & Dragons.
Needless to say, I highly recommend the show. I’m waiting with bated breath for season two, slated for an October release.
What we will be looking at here is Dungeons & Dragons angle. In the opening scene of the show, four kids are seen in a basement playing D&D. Mike is the DM. He has a screen up. He is flinging troglodytes at the wizard, knight and dwarf. The players (PC’s) are deftly cutting through the trogs,
The PC’s suspect Demogorgon is near. For the uninitiated, Demogorgon is a two-headed demon prince. He has impressive stats. The episode doesn’t explain why the players would know this. But their intuition proves correct when the Prince of Demons sprouts from the darkness.
The scene works as foreshadowing for the series as a whole. But game purists will quibble over a few flaws. Mike has a copy of Dungeons & Dragons the Expert edition. But Demogorgon is only found in Advanced Dungeons & Dragon’s Monster Manual. Indeed, all the demons and devils are in AD&D and AD&D only. The basic edition was the more suitable for those sticking their toes into RPG’s. The reason for this discrepancy? I would guess this inconsistency was caused by someone in the show’s production team who was a non-gamer; someone who easily conflated “D&D Expert edition” with “Advanced Dungeons & Dragons”.
A convocation of board games and pop culture…