Critical Intel

Critical Intel
The Game That Turned Little Kids Into Cannibalistic Hyenas

Robert Rath | 17 Jul 2014 16:00
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Fireball Island felt great on a number of levels. The art design on the board, pieces, and card art was evocative enough that it enhanced play. When you knocked your friend's piece off a bridge, sure, you just caused a plastic man to drop an inch, but in your imagination it was different. There, you could see the bridge upending, the little explorer clawing at air as his eyes go wide and he drops through endless space toward the cold river. It leant drama to the proceedings.

But that wasn't the best moment in Fireball Island, the best moment came when you played a FIREBALL card but hadn't decided which friend to destroy. In that glorious eternity all eyes snapped to you as your hand roamed the board, hovering over each fireball. Then you'd rotate Kul-Var's head, seeing your friends squirm in their seats as the fiery maw passed each of them in turn until it settled on the unlucky one.

Then he'd start to beg, and plead, and tell you he'd be your best friend forever and give you a Snickers bar from his Halloween stash if only you please wouldn't fry him with the fireball.

And you'd nod and say, "Okay."

Then you'd hit the lever and engulf his little plastic man in flame. Because like all humans in the seven-to-nine age bracket, you are a horrible person, and know that ultimate power is more delicious than any Snickers bar.

And then the friend you betrayed would fireball you, even though it's not the strategic decision. And you'd fireball him back. Then you'd both notice your other friend had grabbed the jewel in the meantime, and you'd form an alliance to destroy him and take his jewel, though that deal would last all of two turns until you fell to backstabbing again.

Fireball Island wasn't about winning, it was about reenacting Lord of the Flies in miniature. The game was bullying with dice, where everyone got to take turns being the bully or forming a mob against the bully. Fireball Island distilled childhood triumph, competition and pathos into a forty-minute drama. When I played it among friends, we rarely finished the game, instead opting to reshuffle the deck and continue destroying each other. Fireball Island wasn't a board game, it was a bewitched chest that, when opened, turned little boys into cannibalistic hyenas.

Thankfully whatever enchantment it cast over us broke once we closed the box. There was an unspoken agreement amongst us that no matter what happened on Fireball Island, the bad feelings would stay there with the game. We poured feelings into the game, not the other way around.

In other words, Fireball Island captured the multiplayer spirit that keeps us playing Call of Duty, Madden, and Risk -- the acknowledgement that we can shoot, stab, tackle, defenestrate and run each other off the road a thousand times during play but still remain friends. It's a remnant buried deep in our subconscious from the time when humans (and before us, animals) would play-fight to learn how to defend themselves. We collectively understand that as aggressive as these actions are, they're ultimately metaphorical and done for a purpose, whether that's learning how to navigate social alliances or to burn off tension between friends.

Even a game as moronically simple as Fireball Island can create a playspace where players work out their issues. It taught us to hate. It taught us to persevere. It taught us to bury the hatchet on a grudge before it destroyed us. Vul-Kar wasn't a lava god so much as a group psychologist.

And when I have kids, I'll search eBay for an old set, so that my own kids will to their game closet and find the smoldering maw of Vul-Kar waiting for them.

Robert Rath is a freelance writer, novelist, and researcher based in Hong Kong. His articles have appeared in the Escapist and Slate. You can follow his exploits at RobWritesPulp.com or on Twitter at @RobWritesPulp.

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