Are you game?
I bet you are.
Board games have been gaining time in the spotlight in this first slice of the 21st century—independent game stores opening, board games popping up in pop culture and mainstream media, department and home stores showcasing classic games. In fact, just as I was putting finishing touches on this book, Fortune magazine reported online that board game sales had seen a nearly 25 percent jump the previous year, with more growth expected for the coming year. That makes it likely that you, dear reader, have found yourself around a table playing a game with some friends not too long ago.
And because most game playing—if you’re doing it right—is a leisurely activity that lasts a few hours, food will come into play at some point. All that dice tossing, brain teasing, and creative energy spent bluffing your friends . . . a person needs sustenance to get through it.
This is where the logistical challenge comes in: when game play meets good food. Sticky, greasy fingers can mess up game pieces (not to mention mark cards!). Table space needed for the board, cards, chips, and other game accoutrements makes large dinner plates unreasonable. And the manual element of play makes knife-and-fork eating inconvenient and distracting. Game-friendly treats come to the rescue.
Casual game playing is one thing. A rainy Saturday afternoon spent playing Scrabble, with a plate of chocolate chip cookies and a pot of tea nearby? No problem there. Or an after-dinner game of Pictionary, when all is cleared but the wine glasses, and guests play for an hour before meandering home—that’s a scenario that doesn’t necessarily need the help this book offers, though recipes here will certainly make those afternoon snacks or after-dinner sweets more interesting.
This book focuses instead on occasions when game playing is the core of the evening. You’ll find eighty recipes that make eating well a neat and tidy prospect, keeping hands clean and unencumbered. Guests can easily flip dominoes, handle their Monopoly riches, shuffle cards, and sculpt a masterpiece out of brilliantly purple Cranium clay while eating just as well as they would at any dinner party.
Many factors are bringing tabletop games back into our lives, but I see two key motivators behind the trend. One is a general backlash against the realities of contemporary life. The more our daily existence requires us to be plugged in and electrified—from the first check of email in the morning to the last tweet of the day—the more appealing it is that our downtime come “no batteries required” (excepting perhaps the AA battery needed to light the patient’s nose in Operation). And with the economy taking so many dramatic twists and turns in recent years, sticking close to the hearth for homespun entertaining becomes an increasingly attractive prospect.
Having grown up in an avid game-playing family, I took particular note a few years ago when I began reading in national press about the new wave of interest in board games. A December 2003 New York Times holiday shopping piece pointed out that “Board games are much in evidence this holiday season . . . pleasingly corrective, it seems, to high-tech gadgets and video games.” A month later, I read in the Wall Street Journal of the “Canasta Comeback,” the article saying that “from San Francisco to Tampa, the hip crowd is embracing the pastimes of a quieter era—starting dominoes clubs, pulling out the backgammon board after dinner parties and installing backyard shuffleboard courts.” And one national magazine even became part of the trend with the release of the New Yorker Cartoon Caption Game in 2006.
One of my favorite bedtime reads, Vanity Fair magazine, has also touched on the rediscovery of games, beyond even the whole celebrities-playing-poker phenomenon earlier in the 2000s. In one 2007 item, the magazine touted “the game everyone’s playing” as dominoes, citing Mexican train as the favored version. (At my house we prefer chicken foot; the same set of double-12 dominoes with a different method of play.)
In a 2008 issue, Vanity Fair featured a one-page celebration of the “Return of the Dinner Party,” saying that “entertaining at home is back in fashion. . . . Good food, generous cocktails, a little night music and after-dinner games all make for a deliciously delightful evening.” On the subject of game night, the magazine explains the MO as such: “Game night at someone’s home starts with drinks and dinner . . . and then straight to the dominoes.”
This is where I respectfully disagree. When it’s game night at my house, the games, dinner, and drinks intermingle completely.
The evening begins with the catch-up time, visiting with friends as they arrive and unwind while the first round of drinks gets poured. A self-serve spread of game-friendly fare is already in place on the kitchen counter. Before long, we choose one of the games from the closet (games are so big at my house that we converted the hall linen closet into the game closet), opening the box of dominoes, spreading out the Balderdash board, or gearing up for a hot game of 2500 (an addictive card game).
If it’s a small crowd, six or eight, we’ll all play together around the dining room table. When in the mood for a little variety, we may play a few different games in one evening. By setting a one-hour limit for each game, I guarantee no one winner gets to have all the fun, and those games that tend to linger longer—Trivial Pursuit, chicken foot dominoes—don’t get a chance to feel tedious. It can become a sort of mini tournament: players earn points based on their rank when time runs out, with prizes at the end of the night for the guests with the most points.
For larger game-night parties, we set out a dozen games on the coffee table, and set up extra tables both in the living/dining area and in the basement (our “Lava Lounge” party room). Then guests pick and choose what they’d like to play, and bounce around from one game to the next. There may be a pair playing cribbage at a card table, a game of dominoes on the dining room table, Apples to Apples and Blokus on tables downstairs, while a couple of folks play a game of pool. And everyone has a small plate laden with delectable food that won’t in any way interfere with the game at hand.
It’s all about unplugging, reconnecting, finding pleasure and diversion in our own homes, with our friends and family. When the economy pinches, entertaining at home beats an expensive (and frankly often less fun) dinner out. When our daily lives are so plugged in, retreating from the din to relax matters even more.
Games of all sorts have woven in and out of my life for many years. When I was a kid, my family played a lot of cribbage and gin rummy, not only at home but on the road as well. Our vacations were often camping and backpacking trips, with a pack of mini cards and a little folding cribbage board easily slipped into the side pocket of a bag. One particularly rainy backpacking trip kept us holed up in one camp spot for a couple of days. We’d forgotten the playing cards, but I cut up some paper from a small notepad I’d taken along, crafting handmade cards to help make the drippy hours pass.
Another favorite game in our family was Tripoley, a betting game with cards and chips that combines poker with Michigan rummy. I inherited the plastic Tripoley mat we unfurled on the dining room table so many times over the decades. It’s a game that I had let slip from my repertoire as newer games took center stage. Not long ago, though, we had my sister and her husband over and played Tripoley for the first time in ages (the first time ever for my brother-in-law). My sister glanced at the newer modular Tripoley board someone gave us recently, then looked up at me, quiet for a moment. “Don’t you have the old plastic thing?” she asked, hopefully. Away went the new-fangled board and out came the old, well-loved piece of plastic that my family’s hands had touched countless times.
Perhaps it’s little surprise that, as a writer, I’m now particularly fond of word-related games. We play a lot of Scrabble and Boggle around here, and Quiddler is a recent addition that’s lots of fun. I love doing crossword puzzles and Jumbles. In fact, in college—back when I still thought I was going to be an engineer—I was part of a Boggle team in the registrar’s office where I worked.
One event that helped fuel my enthusiasm for sharing my love of games was the opening of Blue Highway Games in Seattle in 2007. Their shelves hold nothing electronic, a fact made a bit more meaningful given that the two founders are former computer game developers. They were confident about the future of low-tech tabletop games despite the unending stream of new electronic games being released. Their confidence in turn made me believe that there must be plenty of folks like me who relish the fun of playing games as much as the joys of great food. (I came to find there are a number of stores like Blue Highway in the country, enough to warrant a brief selection of them in the Appendix, page 144.)
Proving that there’s something to this food-meets-games crossover is the growing category of food-themed games coming on the market. So much so that the national cookware chain Sur La Table added games to their inventory in 2007, with Foodie Fight a consistent top-seller. You’ll see a brief profile of that game on page 23, and profiles of a few other “gastro games” throughout the book.
In the following pages, you’ll get the score on planning the food side of a delicious game night, but it’s good to give some thought to the game selection as well, choosing the right game for the right group. As enthusiastic as some guests may be about playing Scrabble or Bananagrams, it can be as much a turn-off for those who can’t fathom spelling as “fun.” Word and trivia games can have pro/con camps, though the latter often allow for team play, which at least doesn’t put individuals on the spot. Some good middle-of-the-road options for a mixed crowd, or folks you may not know quite as well, include dominoes, Yahtzee, Apples to Apples, Say Anything, and many card games.
You and your guests might well be surprised at the creativity that lurks in the unexpected crannies of our game-playing selves. Imaginative games like Wise and Otherwise, Balderdash, and New Yorker Cartoon Caption Game can bring out some distinct right-brain revelations in the most left-brained of your friends. Turns out my husband, the software-architect-computer type, is a crack whiz at clever cartoon captions—who knew?
One serious recommendation: Don’t sit down to a new still-cellophane-wrapped game on a game night, cracking it open for the first time with guests waiting expectantly for the fun to begin. Unless you (a) know for certain that it’s a 5-minutes-or-less-to-learn game or (b) it’s one that you’ve played a few times at someone else’s house, opening it just before your first round of play is a bad idea. Nothing takes the air out of good game-night momentum more than stumbling through rules, figuring out the board, and assembling the game pieces. When you buy a new game, open it up, read through the rules, and familiarize yourself with all the ins and outs before having your friends over to join in the fun. Play it a couple of times to get the hang of it, so you can more easily explain the game to others, even if it’s a mock game for which you and a friend pretend to be the four needed for play.
I think it’s fun to mix things up a bit with the guest list for a game night. Consider various circles of people in your life: school friends, current and former colleagues, family, neighbors. As with any good dinner party, it’s nice to have some crossover. I’ve noticed many occasions when friends and family who have spent plenty of time chatting at our larger parties over the years connect at a whole new level when just six of us are sitting around the dinner table playing games.
CHAPTER 1: DIPS AND SPREADS
Dips and spreads kick off this collection of game-friendly dishes with recipes that offer full flavor in small packages. And they just scratch the surface as examples of how well you can eat by topping a toasted slice of baguette with something savory or by taking a fresh look at fondue and onion dip. Dunking is a supremely satisfying act of eating. My guess is it’s because of some primal connection to our ancestors melded with the fact that eating with our fingers flies in the face of table etiquette. I bet you’ll have a lot more fun eating the Caesar rendition that follows than you will the next time you dig into one with a knife and fork.
Crostini with Wild Mushroom Tapenade
This recipe replaces the traditional olives in a tapenade with mushrooms—preferably wild—for a slightly earthier variation. When wild mushrooms aren’t in season, you can use regular button mushrooms. If so, I recommend adding dried wild mushrooms (porcini would be ideal) to the mix for a boost of flavor.
3⁄4 pound wild mushrooms or button mushrooms, trimmed and coarsely chopped
½ ounce dried wild mushrooms (optional)
4 tablespoons olive oil
1 ⁄4 cup chopped capers
3 tablespoons finely chopped onion
2 teaspoons minced or pressed garlic
1 ⁄4 cup finely chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
24 baguette slices, lightly toasted
Fried capers, for garnish (optional; see box)
Pulse the fresh mushrooms in a food processor until finely chopped (but not puréed), scraping down the sides once or twice. Soak dried mushrooms in about 1 cup warm water for 30 minutes. Lift out the softened mushrooms and squeeze gently over the bowl; finely chop the mushrooms, reserving the soaking liquid.
Heat 2 tablespoons of the olive oil in a medium skillet over medium heat. Add the fresh mushrooms and cook, stirring occasionally, until they are tender and any liquid they give off has evaporated, about 5 minutes. Pour the mushroom soaking liquid into the skillet, leaving any grit behind in the bowl. Continue cooking until the liquid has evaporated, 7 to 10 minutes. Add the reconstituted mushrooms, capers, onion, and garlic and cook, stirring, until aromatic, 1 to 2 minutes. Remove the skillet from the heat and stir in the parsley and lemon juice. Add salt and pepper to taste. Let cool.
To serve, lightly brush the toasts with the remaining 2 tablespoons of the olive oil. Spread the mushroom mixture onto the toasts and arrange on a platter for serving, topping the toasts with fried capers.
Makes 24 crostini