Games Fans Play

Theoretically, this SFX should reach you in time for Christmas and New Year parties. So here are some pointless and annoying party games played by sf readers – mostly of the pencil-and-paper variety.

Anagrams are always popular, the theory of "anagramancy" being that sf authors' names can be rearranged to expose their inner nature. Thus Brian Aldiss is secretly pleased that he contains Rabid Snails, Ian Watson is Now A Saint, macho Colin Greenland belongs to a Non-Lilac Gender, Michael Crichton writes for Rich Catholic Men, and Brian Stableford is inclined to Narrate Bold Fibs. The rot sets in with Piers Anthony, who successively yields Noisy Panther, Horny Sapient and A Thorny Penis. Let's hastily move on ...

One traditional sf book format was the Ace Double, two short books published back-to-back with one printed upside down so you could start from either end. The game is to find perfect pairs of Ace Double titles, like Robert Heinlein's Farmer in the Sky doubled with John Brunner's The Sheep Look Up.

This leads inexorably to Jack Dann-isms, unexpected phrases formed when a book's title and author meet without any intervening comma. These are named for that early discovery, The Man Who Melted Jack Dann. Likewise we learn that The Puppet Masters Robert Heinlein, while Moving Mars Greg Bear, and there's always the nasty experience of Dying Inside Robert Silverberg. And what exactly is The Power That Preserves Stephen R. Donaldson?

Dannisms can get dubious: And The Devil Will Drag You Under Jack Chalker, or Where Time Winds Blow Robert P. Holdstock. The rules forbid mucking around with apostrophes, disallowing ugly scenes of violence like Harry Potter And The Philosophers Stone J.K. Rowling. (Beware! This gets addictive. Please don't send your own efforts to SFX, or the editor will whimper at me.)

As long ago as 1969, Philip K. Dick based a game on computerized translation in Galactic Pot-Healer, the idea being that you run titles through a few automatic translations and challenge people to guess the original. One Pot-Healer example was The Cliche is Inexperienced, a transmogrification of The Corn is Green by Serious Constricting-Path ... that is, Ernest Hemingway. Dick also inflicted headaches on his fans with the one whose answer he never gave: "The arithmetical total ejaculated in a leaky flow".

Dick played this game with his own name in another book after realizing that his forename Philip comes from Greek, "lover of horses", while his surname Dick is German for "fat". Which is why, in his very weird and largely autobiographical novel Valis, the hero is improbably called Horselover Fat.

More games: John Brunner's prophetic novel The Shockwave Rider contains detailed rules for an entire playable boardgame called "fencing", protected by copyright, which he hoped to market one day. Unfortunately, or so he told me, some rotten game-theory expert came up with a perfect strategy that made it pointless.

Perhaps, as the party gets more riotous, you'd prefer games with some physical action. One of these is Clench-Racing, whose inventor Nick Lowe recommends it as a great way to get thrown out of bookshops. Up to six can play. The rules are simple: each player takes a different volume of Stephen Donaldson's blockbuster Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, opens it at random, and leafs feverishly through the text. You win by being first to find the word "clench" (or "clenched", "clenching", etc). It's a fast, furious sport, and a round rarely lasts a full minute.

The original point of Clench-Racing was to highlight Donaldson's peculiar fondness for this gritty word. If players get too good at locating "clench", Lowe slyly suggests switching to "other favourite Donaldson words like wince, flinch, gag, rasp, exigency, mendacity, articulate, macerate, mien, limn, vertigo, cynosure ..."

Even more violent and involving many more people, the games played at sf conventions include the terrifying Live Space Invaders. It's obvious once you've thought of it. A square formation of human invaders moves sideways and occasionally forwards to the steady tick of a metronome, while Earth's hapless defender flings beanbags at the oncoming horde and tries to dodge the ones that come back. Every so often, of course, someone runs across the top of the screen – I mean the back of the room – holding up a UFO to be shot for extra points. Only sf fans would be so crazed.

Don't try this one at home, readers.

David Langford made an excuse and left before the game of Live Quake II.