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Cottage Chronicle #11: Gameology

By Mary Lowengard

A RIGOROUS scientific study I undertook confirms definitively that Bucknollers are game for games. Not the kind played on a groomed expanse of bentgrass with a Callaway 3 Wood, or on a rectangle of Har-Tru where everyone takes turns whacking a ball with a racquet strung with animal intestines. Rather, the Games People Play with greatest glee are those that call for a board, a deck of cards, 100 19-by-19mm lettered wood (or plastic) squares, or 144 bone, bamboo or Bakelite tiles embellished with dots, bamboo or characters. BAM!

The central question of my investigation was “What games are played in Bucknoll?” As to why Bucknollers love their games so much, I can only hypothesize it is a syzygy of long winters, prohibitively expensive cable service and the AARP directive that playing games keeps aging and youthful brains alike sharp.

My research methodology was based on having been the second registrant for the first annual Bucknoll Trivia Night. This took place at the Bucknoll Grille one frigid February evening. Following the heated competition (plus two Bourbon Sours and a glass of Sauvignon Blanc), I conducted in-depth interviews with Trivia attendees, both winners and sore losers, to find out exactly what’s the deal in Bucknoll.

I am pleased to release the preliminary results of my study, which will be published next fall following peer review in The Eastern Pennsylvania Journal of Gaming in Mountainous Regions. My study concludes that there are four fundamental types of gaming in the Bucknoll community. This is exclusive of the “friendly” wagering on Friday afternoons at the golf course and what is available up the road at the Mount Airy casino.

I. The Mah-Jonggers

Mah-Jongg was invented by Confucius in 500 BC, or sometime during the Qing Dynasty, or maybe in 1870 by a Shanghai nobleman. In the US, it is a favorite pastime of many, predominantly women. However, Erica Jong had nothing to do with it.

Mah-Jongg rules card from 50 years before the game arrived in Bucknoll. / Photo by Mary Lowengard.

Had Mah-Jongg come to Bucknoll when it first emigrated from China in the 1920s, now that would be cool. But it didn’t. It started six or seven years ago, when the Bucknoll Art Association offered lessons. The connection between Mah-Jongg and art has yet to be explored. But Bucknoller women do love both. Perhaps not enough to give the current Guinness World Record for a Mah-Jongg game of 33 hours, 3 minutes and 48.58 seconds a run, but close.

Mah-Jongg (also variously spelled Mah Jong, and mahjong and mahjongg) requires annual purchase of an Official Standard Hands and Rules card. This is a small trifold cardboard pamphlet that will set you back $9 this year, the 84th in which it has been published. It delineates the year’s official hands and rules. You need four to play. Everyone playing needs their own $9 card, no sharing.

 “I’m not a big game person,” remarked one Mah-Jongg maven, presumably not in the Hemingwayian sense. Its appeal is its “mind-challenging” nature. Indeed, there have been (real) studies demonstrating that Mah-Jongg is a viable treatment option for dementia. Conversely, all that thinking-memory-intuition and decision-making have been known to cause reflex-induced epilepsy. Pick your poison.

II. The Normal Gamers

In the privacy of their own cottages, Bucknollers can be found gaming away at Backgammon, Chess, Monopoly, Jenga, Battleship and Connect 4. These are classics, otherwise known as the ho-hums. In the course of researching the thrill of these games, I came across an article in the Washington Post purporting to give away “the secret” to winning 14 of the most popular games on the market. I eagerly dived in, bracing myself for arcane references to game theory. Game theory, of course, is the study of mathematical models of strategic interaction among rational decision makers. It has been of little use to me in the past, as I am rational only on rare occasions. But I was, well, game to learn about it now.

Ken was once da bomb, but these days the Poindexters are getting all the girls.

This had a disappointing outcome. Foremost, the basic games that I might want to win are not included. I mean, what about Candyland, Chutes and Ladders and The Barbie Game? I suppose that the last may have been left out as the strategy for winning the prize—Ken, a dashing metrosexual type who had his day six decades ago—was to avoid at all costs picking up the Poindexter card, because that’s who you had to marry. And these days, old Poindexter is the functional equivalent of pre-divorce Bill Gates.

Hope: Isn’t That the Thing With Feathers?

Continuing my research, I found the “winning strategy” for several games was neither guaranteed nor particularly strategic. Would you bet the farm that if you win with rock in one round of Rock, Paper, Scissors, you’d go for rock again the next time? Or if you lose with rock you wouldn’t go for rock? Everyone knows the real way to win is the Joey Tribbiani Strategy.

This sentence was the final straw—“To win a game of Battleship, you need to do two things: maximize your probability of getting a hit at every turn, and hope your opponent doesn’t do the same.” Huh?

III. The Never-Heard-of-These-Games Gamers

Then there are the many off-the-beaten-track gamers. Family X enjoys the deterministic medieval abstract strategy board game Hounds and Hares (sometimes presented as Hares and Hounds). When not absorbed in French military strategy of the Hundred Years War, the X family relaxes by playing a few rounds of Heads Up, a downloadable app “invented,” played and promoted by talk show impresario Ellen DeGeneres. It’s more entertaining than daytime TV, they insist.

The Y clan cited their family favorites as Chicken Feet and Dutch Blitz. Chicken Feet is actually the “intriguing and exciting” Chicken Foot, a variation on dominoes. Dutch Blitz is a “vonderful goot” card game (according to the package) that tests smarts, skills and speed. Native to Eastern and Central Pennsylvania, it is now played worldwide. Apparently, it is the polar opposite of Cards Against Humanity, which explains its popularity in the Amish and Mennonite communities. Having never heard of it, I offered my thanks for the scoop to Mrs. Y.

“You’re velcome,” she replied.

The Official Game of the Skull and Bones Crowd

I’d also never heard of Bolkys, the merits of which the matron of family Z extolled. With no reference to it online, I postulated it was a game played by one of those secret societies like Skull and Bones or the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. But more secretive: It does boggle the mind that a secret society can be readily found on Wikipedia. 

On further investigation, it turned out it’s actually called Blokus, part of the Mattel game repertoire and available with free one-day delivery from Amazon Prime. Perhaps the bourbon impaired my spelling. Even stone sober, the concept of monominos, trominos and terominos is challenging to grasp, which explains why Blokus won a coveted Mensa Select award in 2003. It also leads me to wonder, if one succeeds at a Mensa Select game, might one bypass the tedious Mensa Admission Test and gain entry into this club to which you might or might not want to be a member?

IV. Puzzled People

The fourth category fervently advocated as a favorite cottage sport by several Bucknollers is jigsaw puzzles. Are puzzles really a “game”? Yes, when they have rules that are followed slavishly. Here is the set I pried out of one Bucknoll couple, but I had to promise that it would not be for attribution.

  1. Strictly 500 pieces or fewer. Must be completed in under five hours.
  2. Fully interlocking pieces only, in order to offset animal interference.
  3. Box-viewing protocols to be established before opening the box.
  4. Exacto knives and mallets strictly prohibited.
  5. Outer edge always to be constructed first.
  6. Once completed, the puzzle is carefully flipped and a Sharpie’d message left on the back.

Turned out my neighbor Buzz and his family are enthusiastic jigsaw puzzle people too. Buzz, by way of contrast, is a fan of 5,000-piece puzzles, laid out and worked on over the course of several weeks (if not years). He adds his own special brand of fun by surreptitiously palming and then hiding a single piece that might someday be the last. I didn’t ask where. I didn’t want to know.

Scrambling Back to Scrabble

In my Bucknoll world, Scrabble was in a category of its own, being the best way to while away the hours after dinner since “Law & Order” went off prime time in 2010. At my cottage, Scrabble was both a proper dinner course and a blood sport. The board appeared after salad and before dessert, though dessert was often served with Scrabble. And, variously, Courvoisier, Amaretto or any fine bourbon that happened to be on sale at the Pennsylvania State Liquor Store up in Mount Pocono.

The tedium of the Scrabble tile check. / Photo by Mary Lowengard.

Gene and Danielle, my weed-pulling dinner guests, were also my most frequent and ferocious Scrabble competition. We played  religiously, and saved all our scores in a notebook for our biographers. What made this game all the more challenging was when one of us dropped a tile on my Scrabble-tile-colored rug. This happened with enough frequency over the years to mandate periodic tile checks. (Not to be confused with Czechs.) Counting Scrabble tiles is a game itself.

And, I’m sorry, Dani, I don’t care what the Official Scrabble Dictionary says, Qi is not a word.


Mary Lowengard really did own a country cottage once upon a time somewhere in Pennsylvania. She changed names to protect the innocent, and thanks KW, JM, JAR and Woody, who made these stories possible. For the full story, click here


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