One night during my visit in Maine we played the Board Game from Hell.
It didn’t look like much: just a variant of ‘Chutes and Ladders’, done in an appealingly cartoony style of firemen and citizens. The fun visuals lure you in, like the bright colors of a Venus fly-trap, making you think that the game will be enjoyable.
The first few turns pass easily enough. You’re having fun, watching for who is going to hit a trap that’ll send him back a bit, or perhaps a bonus square that will push him forward.
Someone hits a trap and the table gives an amusedly commiserating groan. Someone hits a bonus; an excited murmur. Then the same player hits another bonus! Is the game almost over already?
No. No it isn’t. Because that player hits one of the five or six traps in the final row and gets sent all the way back to the second row.
Then, one after another, the players who have been working their way up begin to hit a particular trap, sending them back two rows. One player bypasses the trap…only to hit the much worse trap one square beyond it and go back to the beginning.
It is about now that the players – or inmates we should say – begin to realize just what they are up against. Not only is the game board littered with traps, one after another, but each trap means you have to run that same gauntlet again…and again…and again. If you get past one set of traps, it is only to find yourself confronted with another set of them, even the mildest of which will force you to run through them again. Each trap, therefore, compounds upon the others, because each one you hit forces you to re-try the two or three you just passed, thereby increasing the odds you’ll hit those and so go back again to run yet more traps again.
The bonuses do little to compensate. They may move you forward, past one set of obstacles, but it is only to leave you facing yet more, any one of which may easily undo the bonus entirely.
One particularly evil trap sits about three spaces from the end and drops the player about five rows back, close to the beginning. And this forces him to run another trap that will send him to the beginning. And the rules require an exact role to win. Meaning that one can easily get within sight of the finish line and then have to role again and again, with a roughly even chance of either winning or starting this a Sisyphean nightmare of cartoon firemen over again from the beginning.
Another example; at one point there is a trap that sends you back two rows. One space past this is another trap that sends you back to the beginning. Therefore, once you are in range of the two traps (a bonus square helpfully positions you so), you have a one-in-three chance of losing either half or all of your current progress…which means you will then have to face this same trap again and again and again.
See, in ordinary Chutes and Ladders, the traps and bonuses are more spread out and roughly even, so that they more or less balance one another. In this one the traps pile onto each other, coming in sequences of three or four of five at a time, interspersed with bonuses that mostly just serve to place you in position to run into them. The game never ends and no one ever wins. We simply loop back in endless circles over and over and over. It doesn’t matter how far you get; the game will catch you in the end. Abandon all hope, ye who enter here!
One of the cartoon gags shows a citizen chasing a fireman with a hatchet. Before long, we realized that this was an image of the average player; that sooner or later they would go mad and turn on each other.
Finally, we resorted to desperate measures and imposed a mid-game rule change: everyone gets one ‘pass’ to ignore whatever trap they land on. Yet even this was futile against the sea of madness, because lading on traps was inevitable, and sooner or later you were going to hit one that you had to use the pass on or else effectively start over. And by then we just wanted the game to end.
At last, when everyone had used up their passes to no avail, we made another change: each trap only works once on each player and we each got another one-time pass to ignore a select trap. Only then, at long last, did the nightmare come to an end and light and hope returned to our lives.
The game came out of a book of board games, and of what we played, the others were all really fun. There was just that one…that one field of madness lurking, waiting to ensnare its next victims.
I can only presume that it was discovered in the office of the publishing house charged with making the book, having been left there sometime in the night, with a note saying “sluos rouy ruoved lliw i.”