Only a game: ballbearings and pucks

19 April 2012

Beyond Subbuteo, my brother and I waded through a number of action sports games through the 70s.

Beyond Subbuteo, it was American sports that dominated. However, I do remember picking up an all action cricket game on a trip back to Blighty (probably 1976).

All action…

Bowling consisted of rolling a ball bearing down a plastic ramp. The ramp was adjustable to vary the speed of delivery. In practice: slow, slower and not reaching the batting crease. Theoretically, you could bowl spin by flicking the ramp sideways as the ball hurtled down. Well. In theory.

At the other end of the wicket, your batting opponent was in control of a spring loaded bat device. Nine times out of ten, you would hit the ground, your fingers or the wickets instead of the ball.

The stumps and bails were so fiddly that any slight vibration shattered the wickets. Fielder sat on cardboard bases. If you were fortunate enough to hit the ball and unfortunate to hit the ball toward the fielder, the ball bearing would send him flying.

All action, little game play, not a triumph. It went quickly back in the box and remained at the back of the cupboard until a clear our many years later.

The Carl Yastrzemski baseball game was not only all action, but my brother and I must have played a hundred or so games over a couple of summer weeks in stifling Long Island heat. “Yaz” was star of the Boston Red Sox, perennial bridesmaids in the late 60s and 70s. He was from Long Island, but I bought the game at a toy warehouse because it was cheap and promised a lifelike recreation of baseball.

Well, if lifelike baseball consisted of an endless stream of home runs (this was before the steroid fed home fest of the late 90s), then it was lifelike.

The field was metal with a wooden surround, about the size of an old kids’ bagatelle. There was a wire loop on the “pitching mound” that you used to flick to pitch. You could actually curve the ball, but it had little effect as batting was ridiculously easy. The bat, like the cricket game, was spring loaded. Unlike the white flannel facsimile, it was on one plane. Hit the ball and 90% of the time it would leave the field: home run.

We wound up building a wall made of Lego around the field to keep the ball in play. If it stayed in play the ball would eventually roll into indentations which resulted in something other than a homer: hit or out.

Like real baseball you could strike out: three swings and misses (almost impossible) or leaving a pitch and it hitting a bell that served as the “umpire”.

Great fun, awesome game play, nothing like the real thing.

Table Hockey

In contrast, table hockey was like having front row seats at Madison Square Garden, which you might have heard of, home the New York Rangers. I’d prefer the Nassau Coliseum, which you haven’t heard of, but was home of our beloved New York Islanders, hapless, hopeless and loveable.

This was table hockey, not air hockey which is an abomination.

There were several brands of table hockey, but they all had the same principles. The “ice” was a treated bit of board with a shiny side or metal. Most versions came with proper “dasher boards” and “glass” that enclosed the ice.

Players moved up and down the ice in grooves routed out of the board. You used metal rods to control the players, pushing or pulling to move forward or back. Spinning the rods allowed you to shoot, pass or “check” (the hockey equivalent of tackling).

In the table version, there were no complicated rules like penalties or offside. You just dropped the puck and played until one team scored 10 or you got bored.

By the time I got my game, my brother was probably off at uni so I played against my friend Fred, now an eminent seiemologist. Fred had the traditional game with two dimensional players. Mine had 3-D men, Subbuteo figures bulked up to the extreme.

Fred always easily beat me, but he hated my version of the game especially as my players had a habit of falling off their spindles at crucial moments. I loved my game as it had an overhead scoreboard unit which doubled as the face-off device. Drop the puck in the top and it would bounce through grooves, giving you that lifelike delayed action faceoff.

Like most of the action games, hockey had a brief but intense appeal before something piqued my interest.

Games base on dice, cards, spinners; odds, simulation. these games had a more enduring appeal. They still do. But, occasionally, I’d love to hear the noise of the puck dropping or feel the pain of thumping my fingers with Yaz’s springloaded bat.



Photo by K-Free, used under a Creative Commons Licence


Only a game: “Flick to kick”

12 April 2012

I’ve spent untold hours in a fantasy world where I was Jimmy Greaves, Brian Clough, Casey Stengel, Branch Rickey, Geoff Boycott and Bobby Hull all rolled into one.

Sports gaming. A bit of a nerdy anorak wearing hobby, I’m happy to admit. Sometimes compulsive, but I didn’t quite get to this bad.

The other day I happened to be wandering through one of Barnstaple’s great little shops – Youings. It’s sweet shop, tobacconist, model shop and toy shop all under one venerable roof on what I imagine was once a prestigious spot at the entrance to the High Street.

Youings often throws up an odd little treat whether it be itching powder, Lindt chocolate bunnies, bizarre nicotine based novelties or cheap train sets. It’s not that I’m there to buy, but it’s a nice antidote to the bland chain stores taking over the centre of town.

There, tucked away in the corner I saw them. It’s getting on for 50 years since my first set, but the bright green oblong boxes were a dead give away. Inside, eleven painted figures, ten of which in all red, one of contrast. Liverpool FC. Reduced to less than three inches per player.

Scanned Photo - subbuteo Lad - Ken?

I thought Subbuteo had disappeared several years ago under the combined weight of video games, other high tech gadgets and purchase by an unfeeling, uncaring, bottom-line driven multinational toy conglomerate. I also vaguely remember an awful attempt to recreate the game in digital format which wasted loads of money. No “flick to kick”? Then, no Subbuteo. And. Subbuteo was no toy. It was a hobby. It was life.

It seems, also, that it’s back.

For the uninitiated, Subbuteo was the premier table football game that dominated in the late 60s and through the 70s. Its origins involved a pitch drawn in chalk on surplus army blankets with cardboard men mounted on buttons. That was in immediate post war Britain. Its inventor, PA Adolph, brought out the familiar moulded plastic players with weighted bases in the early 60s. Revolutionising the game and bringing mass appeal for boys up and down the country and across Europe.

For my seventh birthday I was expecting something other than Subbuteo. In fact, I can’t even remember what I desired so much. Seeing the figures laid out on green baize with floodlights and plastic fencing that birthday morning had the opposite effect my poor dad thought it would. I was disappointed. I’m sure, however, after a few games that evening I was hooked.

Already a football nut, dad assumed I’d love to recreate the game on the living room carpet. I’m sure he was eventually pleased as he’d stumped up for the top of the range floodlit set. Over successive birthdays and Christmases, I acquired a dozen or so different teams, multi coloured balls, a chute for taking corners, new fangled goals, TV tower with miniature Kenneth Wolstenholme and all sorts of other wallet relieving accessories.

(Subbuteo balls came in different sizes, but almost always were the scale equivalent of 4 or 5 feet in diameter!)

Matches in my house were big events, especially under the lights driven by 9 volt batteries that had a nasty habit of leaking probably poisonous goo. Dad, my brother and I (only once my sister, who had the temerity to beat me 1-0) played regularly, formed a league and had cup matches.

Sometimes (a lot of times) my temper got the better of me and players were sent into the scaled down version of orbit. Players were inadvertently crushed or lost arms. Hospital treatment involved that lovely smelling model aeroplane glue. In later years, as I mellowed, I even painted players hair and faces to give them more character.

Of course, I grew out of Subbuteo probably for the lack of playing partners as my brother got older and spare time with dad disappeared. We did have a brief fling with Subbuteo cricket. Each ball was either 4, 6 or out. It passed a couple of months one summer only to be consigned to the loft along with West Brom, Wolves (in old gold) and the Spurs.

Subbuteo, of course, now has professional players, leagues and world championships.

I moved on to other sports games. From flick to kick to roll the dice; from the beautiful game to the nation’s pastime. That’s another story.


Photo by TempusVolat, used under a Creative Commons Licence.