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Codebreaking pegathon
It was always a slow Sunday at Grandma's if the Mastermind had to come out. Invented in 1970 by an Israeli postmaster (aren't they all?), the 1973 Game of the Year was more famous for its box than the contents. Sporting the mantra "Easy to learn. Easy to play. But not so easy to win", the cover photo of later editions featured a wise old sage and his white-dressed assistant. Little did we know the sage in question was a Leicester hairdresser called Bill Woodward. You all know the game - black pegs for right piece, wrong place and white pegs for right piece, right place (or was it the other way around?); advancing up the wood-effect board/box trying to work out the combination hidden behind your opponent's shield; calculating the finite statistical probabilities of a four-colour code sequence (gosh, it even SOUNDS fun!). Far too many spin off versions abounded - Mini Mastermind, Travel Mastermind, Number Mastermind, Word Mastermind (with yellow letter-shaped pegs) and a bastard-hard version with extra sets of colours. Confusion reigns to this day between the board game and the no-relation TV show, so when an (actually rather good) board game of the BBC quiz was released it had to be called MasterQuiz and likewise for the lamer, unofficial Spears Games effort Magnus Magnusson's The QuizMaster. Later ZX Spectrum games introduced booklets of Mastermind-recalling colour-coded blocks as a method of "security" - i.e. a player was occasionally called to type in random combinations (254: red, blue, blue, green) at various levels of play - which doesn't relate much to this toy, but is an evocative reminiscence, nevertheless.
Wireless communication
A hundred and one outdoor hobby books showed us kids how to make plastic cup telephones, stretching a dozen feet of fraying string (or washing line) across the back garden into the den or treehouse. Like pre-infrared remote controls, though, they were deeply unsatisfying and could similarly cause one or more members of the family to trip up and drop a tray of Sunday tea and Jaffa Cakes. Some kids were blessed with a slightly more sophisticated intercom system, being able to "buzz" a close friend or neighbour if the wire could stretch between two open bedroom windows (or maybe that was only the sort of thing that happened in American TV movies). What we really wanted was a set of walkie-talkies. Sadly, the only type that fell in the range of a child's purchasing power were the kind that had a transmitting range of about six feet and, frankly, we'd have been better off investing in a long cardboard tube to carry out covert conversations. Or just moving closer together. Lucky girls could get pink walkie-talkies, with packaging that depicted their usefulness for gossiping. Boys could get camouflaged varieties, or something badged up NYPD style (plus, of course, every TV cop show from CHiPS to Columbo produced a tie-in version). The holy grail, however, was the heavy duty long range walkie-talkie that came inside a full "spy kit" attache case set, nestling in styrofoam alongside a mini camera and Luger complete with twist-on silencer, and plastic handcuffs. Especially desirable were the kinds that could transmit Morse code and had different channels, frequencies and so on. The 'Eighties, however, brought the C.B. radio revolution, with talk of "smokeys", "rubber ducks" and "10-4 good buddy", and the bulky blue Ever Ready guzzling walkie-talkie fell out of fashion. Kids nowadays are far more likely to have Internet-ready mobile phones and Bluetooth broadband hotspot GPS locators than some crackly plastic crap. Thankfully the walkie-talkie lives on, the preserve of the lowly TV studio runner - probably the only person left in the world who gets a thrill from saying "over".
Wade Whimsies
Miniature porcelain menagerie
Not strictly the sort of present any right-thinking kid would write off to Santa for, Whimsies were cheap (only a few pence in Cream era halcyon days), twee (glazed pottery hedgehogs and corgis - puh-lease!) and ubiquitous (hands up who didn't own one - not so fast at the back there, Collins!). However, they maintained a stable and moderate popularity because they were, above all else, collectable. And there are two unassailable truths about anything kids start to collect (Panini stickers, comics, Star Wars figures); one, it's almost impossible to complete a collection; two, kids will spend all their pocket money trying to prove otherwise. A fact not taken too lightly by George Wade Pottery which, following a huge drop in the demand for industrial ceramics after the war, decided to reintroduce their retail line of pre-War animal figurines in 1953 (and again in 1971). The newly-boxed fauna proved to be a far larger success than even Wade could have imagined. "Whimsies", as they were called, were a damned good way for parents to bribe their offspring to stop fighting/be quiet on a long car journey/visit to the dentist. They could also be presented in their own display case (the germ of a thousand commemorative plate collections). However, we find it especially ironic that whilst investing one's entire pre-pubescent income in such hollow (literally) property, it was Wade who attracted us to the delights of banking as we approached adolescence. For, when Griffin offered dictionaries and sports bags over at the Midland, Nat West responded with a set of collectable porcelain pigs which themselves were simply overgrown Whimsies with a splash or two more of personality.
Guess Who?
What's My Line? without Jilly Cooper
The reason nobody can ever take a police photofit seriously, MB's Guess Who? attempted to test children's powers of observation via some of the strangest-looking people you will ever see. Two players sat at either end of the board, facing a rogues' gallery of forty faces attached via bits of plastic. Each would pick a card at random featuring one of the faces and place it in the slot in front of them. You'd then take it in turns ask yes or no questions to deduce which person your opposite number had picked. With each answer, you pushed those not applicable down, so eventually you would be left with just one person still staring at you, and say "Is this person David?" or whoever, which would win you the game. Er, if you were right, of course. Obviously, each of them had to have an easily definable aspect of their appearance, hence a huge number of hats, glasses and, on numerous people, very ruddy cheeks, clearly having been captured on a cold day. We suspect the current incarnation includes a rather larger ethnic mix than was the case in the original version, which was more or less entirely white. As with all games, you would always find a new way to play it that wasn't in the rules and, as such, occasionally you wouldn't bother with the cards and just pick your favourite drawing on the board. This was sadly flawed by the fact that absolutely everyone would always pick Philip, thanks to his uncanny resemblance to Kenny Everett. After each game you could turn the board upside down, so every face would stand up again and you'd be ready for another round straight away, but after a few plays this would lead to a bit of a gap while you picked all the bits of plastic off the floor where they'd fallen out. The TV advert ("Guess who! His eyes are blue, now that's a clue!") was notable for the fact that the boy playing the game was clearly cheating by asking all his questions in one go. Of course he was going to win by doing that.
Ludo for bastards
The Lumsdenesque politeness of the title is only a front, as this otherwise unremarkable plastic pawns 'n' Ludo-style board game holds an appeal to the nastier side of childhood nature. It's gloriously mean-spirited, in fact. Kind of Lotto meets Russian Roulette. The idea is to move your pawns round the board to "home" (q.v. the "Pop-o-matic" Frustration, Coppit and a long line of family-friendly versions of the ancient game, Parcheesi). So far, so Likely-Lads-humdrum. Fortunately a series of randomly drawn instruction cards added variety to the game play, as did the magic ingredient - the ability of players to directly, deliberately and with malice aforethought, bugger up the game for their opponents by - in the words and typography of the instruction leaflet - BUMPING their pawns all the way down SLIDES back to the START - a hugely satisfying aspect which, short of kicking the table over and sodding off home, is sorely lacking from most other board games. Point of packaging order - early editions featured a cartoon Japanese couple on the box, for no readily explainable reason. A distant cousin of the Mastermind lady, perhaps? Most iconic features: mid-Imperial phase version featuring split-screen action photographs on the box (very "24") and circular cards that were supposed to make shuffling much easier.
Bluebird Big Yellow Teapot
It's big and it's yellow, but there's no tea in it"
Bluebird was founded on two very solid principles. Small girls like doll's houses. Small girls also like plastic tea sets for serving cups of invisible tea to their dollies. Then someone fell into a filing cabinet at the office Christmas party and came up with the bizarre idea of crossbreeding the two. Yes, this was a doll's house, but made of yellow plastic and shaped like a huge teapot. Why was this? No reason was ever given. The house was inhabited by small plastic peg-like people (somewhere between stunted Playmobil folk and Weebles without the wobble) with welded-together legs, all the better to slide them down the chimney or make them ride round and round in the roundabout-cum-teapot lid (the latter twenty seconds of entertainment - "lots of fun for everyone" - also forming the most memorable moment of the accompanying ad). The whole shebang was topped off with a small quantity of playground-themed furniture, with the rest drawn on cardboard walls where it floated slightly above the floor in an unconvincing fashion. A rival effort came courtesy of Palitoy, whose Family Treehouse obeyed the same basic design principles, yet had the added bonus of a trunk-based elevator (which presumably attracted a better class of tenant than the average council estate Teapot). Basically, Big Yellow was a doll's house for the Duplo generation, those who required everything to be large, unbreakable and safe to chew, yet were still innocent enough to refrain from shoving the little plastic people down (or up) the cat for a change (or indeed, trying to create a teapot tropical monsoon by actually pouring boiling water on them).
Saddle-stacking balancing game with spring-loaded plastic mule
Does it not now seem that, in the 70s, the marketing people were trying to sell to parents, not to the kids? Mums and dads had most likely been children themselves in the post-WWII era and wouldve been brought up on Saturday Matinees, John Wayne flicks and Wild West adventure serials. Somebody, somewhere decided that these were the folk who had the disposable incomes (nobody having yet invented the concept of pester power). What else can explain the prevalence on TV ads throughout the decade saturated with cowboy imagery - the likes of Golden Nuggets, Texan Bars, the Milky Bar Kid and Buckaroo!? Here we have the epitome of that obsession with everything whip-crackin, rootin tootin and animal abusin, pardner. Easily-snapped plastic mouldings (ten-gallon hat, pitchfork, grappling hook, billy can and all that) are gently lowered in turn by players onto a 2D bucking bronco. Too much weight causes the hair-trigger to release, sending the aforementioned implements flying across the living room, under the settee, into the dogs mouth, and so on. Later variations cashed in on Spielbergs Jaws (the eponymous game was a neat reversal of the same conceit; remove skulls, anchors, bits of boat, etc, from mouth of shark before it snaps shut) and, we presume, Cleeses Fawlty Towers (Dont Tip The Waiter employed a cardboard waiter onto whose carefully-balanced tray players were required to add counters depicting pizza, cakes and sandwiches). Note the use of the exclamation mark in this toys name to imply excitement and/or surprise.
Bouncy castle for ball bearings
Many board games - Kensington springs to mind - usually bear a trite slogan on the side of the box along the lines of "A minute to learn, a lifetime to master". Surely, then, the motto for Cascade was "A lifetime to set up, a minute to play". But what a minute it was! Made by mini-car kings Matchbox, Cascade was one of those games where eventually no one really played by the rules, a bit like just reading out the questions from Trivial Pursuit without the board. So the set up, then: an acid yellow plastic mat has spaces marked out for the five pieces of Cascade furniture. At one end there is an Archimedes Screw that sucks up ball bearings and launches them off a short ski-ramp. Then comes the bam-bam-bam bounce across three taut red timpani thingies, before the balls hit a mini pinball table and fall into several scoring slots. Certain balls would be returned to the screw via a three-foot track for another go around the system. That's what's supposed to happen. Of course, lest the gradient tolerance of your bedroom carpet be sub-optimal, the little metal buggers would scatter to either side and roll under your bunk bed (we imagine Barnes Wallis felt similarly disheartened in that bit from The Dam Busters). Best improvement via improper game play: put the launch tower on top of your wardrobe and let the balls REALLY bounce. A Mars-Staedtler rubber under the edge of each trampoline thingy helped angle them perfectly for extra distance too. No one had any idea what the scoring system was but in the same way that someone can win ten grand on Better Homes without wielding so much as a staple gun, you could "win" Cascade without any involvement from yourself whatsoever. And it was fun, so who cares?
Magic Robot
Educational quiz game with mystifying artificial intelligence
"Ask the robot questions," said the box. "He always knows the answers." We must say, we were intrigued from the start. The robot in question was under two inches high, made of solid metal, and stood in a strange "knees bent" posture that made him look to be in desperate need of a toilet. He held in his hands a long metal pole, and could be fitted into one of two holes inside his box, while around these holes, sheets with one circle of printed questions and one circle of printed answers could be placed. The first stage was to place the robot in the "questions" hole, and point his pointy stick at the challenge of your choice, such as "what is the capital of France?" Then you could in theory try to "beat the robot" by answering the question yourself but, let's face it, most of us skipped straight to stage three: watching the robot Do His Thing. You simply placed him in the "answers" hole, and - whoa! - he spun around of his own accord, and - bingo! - his stick would be pointing at the correct response. Bloody hell. He's only a piece of metal - how could he KNOW?!?! Socks were well and truly knocked off. The only downside was that there weren't all that many questions per box, so after a couple of rainy afternoons, you would be reduced to seeking amusement from illegally swapping around the question and answer disks. "What is the capital of France?" "The banana." Ho ho. But for a while at least, this was a toy with a genuine wow factor, at least when you're seven or under. Retrospect may tell us that it was all done with magnets, but hey, get Derren Brown to go one-on-one with this geezer live on Channel 4 and we'll be there.
Play-against handheld six-in-one electronic games machine
The forerunner of every mobile phones basic game package, Palitoys Merlin was slightly late into the market to be a serious competitor for the more-colourful Simon but did have the distinct advantage of having more than one game in its arsenal. Looking not unlike those early brick-style cellphones, aside from its distinctive indestructible red bakelite-like casing, and boasting lights (LED-backlit touch-sensitive buttons), a powerful computer brain (a basic ROM chip, were betting), and a vocabulary of 20 different sounds (twelve of which were wasted from the get-go on an ascending chromatic scale for the music composer), Merlin could challenge you to beat him at six fascinating games of strategy, memory and skill (and, yes, were just regurgitating the blurb on the box here). The six games? Tic Tac Toe, as the Americans would have us refer to it; Music Machine (an incipient rendering of the Nokia Composer); Echo or Follow Me (thats yer Simon game, right there); Blackjack (the best one, though really just a version of 21 based on a top score of, erm, 13); Magic Square (pressing an LED inverts the on/off status of all the adjoining buttons, until the pattern is found to leave all eight outside LEDs in on mode, like a sort of binary Rubiks Cube); and Secret Number (an electronic version of Mastermind, with a combination or number sequence to crack). Where Merlin also scores above Simon is in its personality - for a start it didn't keep telling you what to do. In the aftermath of Star Wars its not so surprising that a combination of 20 different farts and bleeps could convey an impression that this really was an electronic buddy. The downside? The required six AA batteries wouldnt last you more than a week. And it didnt send text messages.