I’m terribly, terribly occupied with this doodle I’m doing on the paper tablecloth. My lines are a little too aggressive. The biro tears the paper and I have to lean forward, casually placing my elbow over the scribble on the wood underneath. Shit. The achingly familiar face opposite says hello and tells me he works in local planning and grins. He could have been my best friend for two years, I still don’t have any idea of his name.
‘Ha, ah,’ I say, and prep the disarming smile that I’ve acquired in the decade since school and practised in the hotel before I left to come here. I’m saved having to wheel it out by the speeches. To hell with it, I’m kidding myself with this smile. It just looks like I’ve got some kind of rictus.
I absently reach for my hymn book when the old headmaster is invited to the stage and the lack of it in my inner pocket I feel as a hole in my stomach. A sick feel of being trapped in ageing.
Over dinner, ‘What do you do?’ ‘Where do you live?’ ‘You haven’t changed!’ I bloody have changed but the nodal points in social networks are like black holes and you could have sent a mass murderer in with my nametag and they’d have been shouldered into my adolescent personality before the first course.
‘I’m not a mass murderer,’ I say to my neighbour, drawn by my train of thought, which gets a glance then a smile. Somehow knowing me a decade ago gives them the right not to make it a nervous smile. But the conversation dies anyhow.
Too much occupation with my mobile phone has run down the battery and I no longer have it as a social shield. Similarly others have run out of cigarettes. I have to do something. I know the lists of honours on the walls by heart.
My notebook barely needs updating but at least it’s something to fiddle with. I run down a folded printout of approved planning applications and mark them on my map of Southampton to see if they make a difference, cross-checking against the pages of hand-written notes.
‘Council or Friends?’ says L—, from behind me. He gives me a start.
‘I play Friends,’ I say. L—says he’s got a board and returns with it from his bag. It’s a used-to-be-glossy A0 poster with holes where the fold corners are. He clears the table and pulls a bag of tiddlywinks from his jacket. When he taught us that’s where the Marlboro were.
A small crowd has gathered. The Council have the central train station, but L—says that we (we both play Friends) could take the tracks at Redbridge and St Mary’s. I defer; that’s how I open my games too.
A few years ago I’d have started by raising troops in the northern suburbs, pushing the Council down towards the marina. But since I left the town there’s a big new shopping centre built on the precinct, at the base of the main north-south road, and that means the Council hold the approach pretty firmly. A northern attack won’t work. Today I decide to experiment: I build up Redbridge and gather my strength on the west, around Millbrook. My Friends are a cert to keep Totton and the Council have never had much strength in Nursling, so that means my western front could be strong.
L—appreciates the move, and as my gaming partner plays the obvious Council counterfactuals, crossing Hill Lane with the red counters and massing in Shirley, only slightly east of Millbrook, my stronghold. He’s broadening the western front, but coming to face it—he knows that I’d have the advantage on the open Common so, on behalf of the Council, chooses to engage the Friends in cul-de-sacs and terraces instead.
My old school, the one we’re playing in now, is on Hill Lane, directly under one of the tiddlywinks. L—says the Council would camp there. He’s right, it’s a good choice. The clocktower is tall and easily defended; it has good views over the Common too. There are tunnels underneath, cool for food.
We continue moving and placing. Green builds out from the Totton in the south-west, across the bridge into Millbrook. It rises out of Nursling in the north-west. In the north-east, the green Friends push in along the railway from St Mary’s right into the Council heartland.
Council, red, dominate the centre of the map, from Ocean Village to the shopping precinct and civic centre. They push up past the Common, dividing the greens, and push west all the way from Nursling to Millbrook. We move counters by increments, gaining this street, levelling that block of flats.
‘Huh,’ I say, green counter between my fingers. The new tactics have taken me to the limit of my game—and, I’d guess, L—doesn’t know what further confrontations will bring. If we play much further then we’ll need to pay for Arbitration.
I wrote this game, eight years ago. You play over a map of Southampton, the people versus the authorities. The objective is to wipe out the other, of course, but that can include negotiated surrender with an established ghetto, or persuasive propaganda to turn the opponents. Whatever works.
The Council start at the town hall, in the Civic Centre slightly north-west of the big new shopping centre. In most games you usually castle with the Mayor and move him directly to John Lewis, to the offices on the top floor of the centre. From there you’ve got a direct run to the precinct, if needed, and a view of the station and much of the vulnerable west. Building that mall was a very strong move.
The Friends don’t really act in unison. There’s just you, the player, and the troops you can muster with advertising, money, forced enlisting and so on. Generally you start on the Flower estates and raise a rabble around the stadium and the docks. This covers the northern approach and the pincer movement a half mile either side of the central train station, the opening game I played earlier. You generally try not to fight in the east.
You play either side. There are no rules. And officially they’re called “counterfactuals,” not moves.
It’s a pretty popular game now. I don’t even know the steering committee anymore.
What’s happening now is that L—are I disagree over the outcome of a troop movement. It’s a subtle point based on the strength of the Council down Winchester Road. If the Council takes that route, my forces in Nursling are cut off from supporting Millbrook, which makes holding Shirley more likely. I content that the tower blocks at the west end of Winchester Road make the Council a sitting duck for artillery from the Friends.
Most moves in the game are easy to predict the consequences of. You make a move for the Friends, and the Council player says “yeah, that’s okay” or “no, you could never do that,” and in the latter case you argue the point. Often you come to a negotiation and it never takes too long because you don’t want to be a pain about it. If you do make a fuss, your opponent will always make a fuss next turn.
But sometimes there really are disagreements – or rather, ambiguities in consequences – and what happens then is you end the game and use points to figure out who has the advantage, or, if you’re both experienced, you make a call to Arbitration.
Arbitration is a group of high-level players who assess the board, the players, the sequences of counterfactuals, and come to a judgement between themselves. It’s all done by phone in real-time.
Sometimes Arbitration say ‘We don’t know,’ and the game ends then too. I don’t know of games ending any other way.
Advantage is given to the Friends. Over the remainder of dessert, the green tiddlywinks cover the west of the town, stretching north from the M3 down to the southern docks. They push down the Avenue, the main approach into the town centre, and threaten the shopping malls. This is the closest for years I’ve seen the Council come to losing the game.
Sometime during the second drink after dinner, the Friends make an assault on John Lewis. L—calls Arbitration again; they say they’ll call back. I’ve never heard of that happening either.
I look around and notice that I’m feeling alive for the first time that night. I identify my nervousness earlier not with any trappedness or inability to cope with age, but a genuine regression to the rollcoasters of adolescence. The fact it feels so unfamiliar is proof enough that I’ve grown up.
My excitement gives me shivers, and this definitely isn’t a throwback to being young. Out of this tedious night, a most important step. A way to break the deadlock, a way to win the game.
L—is alternately drumming his fingers and tapping his phone on the table. ‘Maybe we’ve cracked it. Maybe the Friends really can win.’
L—looks at me abruptly. ‘We call him Our Lord the Olive King,’ he says, ‘You know. Do you know him? The Olive King.’
‘No,’ I say, ‘What?’
‘In Lords Wood, and the marshes,’ says L—, ‘I should phone him. Let him know what we’ve found.’
I really don’t know who he is or why he’d care.
‘The Friends haven’t come this close to having certainty since before the new shopping centre was built. The Council stole a march on us then, really changed the board. A great move.’
I’ve never thought of the actual building in Southampton as moves in the game before.
‘I suppose Arbitration only know the recent game direction, not the precise counterfactuals you made?’ The familiar face from earlier appears between L—and me. He’s holding a notepad and a mobile.
‘Of course?’ says L—, ‘Sorry, I don’t know you?’
‘And have you told the Olive King?’ I notice he’s no longer grinning and there’s a hard look in his eyes.
‘Uh, no,’ says L—, ‘I was about to—’
‘Look, who is this Olive King?’ I say.
The face produces a fist that comes out of nowhere and catches L—on the jaw. There’s a crunch and the fist snatches L—‘s phone before there’s even any blood.
‘Council!’ L—says and attempts to rebalance himself. He turns to me, drool and blood on his chin.
‘Run, tell the Olive King!’
‘Tell me who he is!’ I shout, but then I’m running because I hear the helicopters overhead and I know the Council can’t afford the Olive King knowing how the Friends can win, and it’s making its move.
By Matt, 23 August, 2006; direct link.