Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Battling Tops

I grew up in a family that enjoyed board games. To this day, Mom's birthday request is always that the family get together for a few rounds of Yahtzee or some other game that everyone can play, from grandkids to grandfathers. For her, it's largely about the social aspect of sitting around a table together over something other than food, but as a former teacher I'm sure the educational aspects of game play aren't lost on her: taking turns, sequencing, counting, strategizing, calculating, estimating, reading. Depending on the games, I suppose one could cobble together a pretty passable education from board games alone.

I enjoyed them all, from Battle Ship to Monopoly, but the ones the childhood games that hold a special place in my heart are those that involved real-world physics like Mouse Trap, Rebound, or Skittle Bowl. The king among these games was one called Battling Tops. This game could absorb me alone, or my brother and me together, for hours on end. 

The basic idea is to send your top into the concave arena to do battle with up to 3 other spinning dervishes with names like Hurricane Hank, Tricky Nicky, Twirling Tim, Super Sam, Smarty Smity, and Dizzy Dan in a last-man-standing competition. If that was all it was, I suppose, it would have lost its play value quickly, but the real gamesmanship came in the preparation. The tops were operated by a kind of "rip cord" made from a loop of plastic attached to a string that had to be wound around the top's stem just so. That simple act, and the subsequent energetic-but-not-too-energetic pulling motion required to get the top spinning, was where the open-endedness came in. 

The battle itself was mere gravy. We spent those hours, not merely cheering for our tops, but rather carefully winding them, trying out new techniques, making it loose, then tight, then upside down, keeping track of how this method worked versus that. We spent those hours perfecting the right amount of umph to apply to the pull, figuring out whether or not and when to twist our wrists, working on our follow-through, wondering if maybe one top had some sort of ever-so-subtle advantage over another. That's what made this such a great game: the constant refining and fiddling.

I've had my old battered and beaten Battling Tops set in the storage room at school for a number of years. We've used the arena for finger tops, but the actual battling tops, the preparation and the sudden pulling of the rip cords, was just enough beyond the capability of the kids that it just lead to frustration. So there it sat, taking up space until last week when I came across it and realized that it might make just the right challenge for our 5's class. And it did.

Not all of them were able to perfect the winding, although by the end of the game's three-day run several of them had, but most, after a few failed attempts, were at least able to get their champion into the ring with a quick pull of the rip cord. This was one of those rare games that the kids begged for day-after-day. We would likely still be playing it had the weekend not intervened. Rarely have I heard, "I did it!" or "Look what I figured out!" more often, and expressed more enthusiastically, than I did last week. Several of the kids, and remember these are kids growing up in the digital age, told me it was the "best game ever." Take that Minecraft Survivor!

Best of all was the game play dynamics around the table: kids taking turns, chatting, describing, sharing tips, giving compliments, laughing. Mom would have found it a happy birthday indeed.

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