Play the Game

Well, since nothing much has been going on around here lately, this is a good time to write about something that crops up fairly regularly in conversation, but I've avoided mentioning because it requires quite a bit of explanation. I needed to have a place to describe a rather complex and frivolous topic, something I could point to whenever referencing it, without creating undue confusion. This seems to be a good place for it, and it's even the right season.
It's time to talk about The Game.

There is no such animal as Halloween in Italy. Well, that's no longer entirely true, since the US marketing machine and the ubiquitous American movies have made Italians aware of this annual "holiday", and "Halloween Parties" have been cropping up with increasing frequency over recent years. So, shall we say, it has no basis in Italian tradition; the human instinct to dress up and go carousing is more or less satisfied by Carnevale (in February), and the kiddies get their treats on the Epiphany.*
When I first moved here, back in 1988, this trend was much less widespread, and I thought it would be fun to have a Halloween party of some sort. I mentioned my idea to Dario, suggesting that we come up with some kind of "murder game" to celebrate. He was enthusiastic, and we quickly threw together what was to be the first of many such annual events.

Since this is a fully home-grown tradition, it is rather unique. I know that there are many types of murder games on the market, both do-it-yourself kits and organized weekends at country mansions. However, I've never heard of anything quite like The Game (or Il Gioco, as it's known to aficionados).

Each year's Game taught us a few lessons, and we gradually developed a sort of formula that included a few basic rules:

  1. There cannot be more than 10 people, or 11 at the very most. The one time we tried to include more guests, it became unbearably complicated.
  2. The game must take place in a historical period, rather than the present. Participants get more involved if they have to dress up, even though a corollary to this rule is that no one must rent costumes or spend large amounts of money on dress.
  3. The first few editions of the game took place in a single evening, but we have determined that a weekend (preferably a long weekend) is a much better format. Thus, on several occasions, the game has not been held on or even near Halloween, depending on the calendar.


So, what exactly is the Game, and how does it work?

Well, first we come up with a time period and location. We tend to alternate between periods heavy on atmosphere (like Medieval Italy, or Scotland under Mary Stuart), and ones that are just a lot of fun (such as the Wild West or Chicago gangsters).

We then put together our guest list. The only people who've taken part in every Game so far are Fabio and Cristina, but we nonetheless have a core group of folks that we know are suitable and enjoy the experience.
We also try to include at least one or two new people each time, since it's always fun to see how nervous they are and inject a little excitement into the weekend.
Picking guests is no easy task; not everyone is right for the Game. Since, as you'll see, it requires a lot of work on our part to put these things together, the players have to be people who will take it seriously and learn their material properly beforehand. They must be people who can commit to the dates a month or so beforehand, and guarantee their presence and active participation. They also have to be pretty imaginative types, with at least a minimal aptitude for theatrics.
Unfortunately, we know a number of couples in which one partner would be just perfect, while the other is obviously unsuited. This makes it even harder to put together a "cast", since you really can't invite one half of a couple to go away for the weekend, and spectators have no place in the Game.Once we've got the basics and confirmed our guest list, it's time to get to work. We have to come up with a "character" for each person, a general outline of their identity and their past. We need to decide who is going to die (generally Dario and/or myself, since the murder victim doesn't really get to play). And we have to decide who will be the murderer.
And, last but not least, we have to do tons of research on the historical period in question.

It takes us one whole month, working every weeknight and all day on weekends, to put all of this together. Everyone must have a motive to murder the victim(s), and everyone must know at least one fact about at least one other character that helps bring out said motives. This is why we have to limit the number of players, since all these incroci become exponentially more complicated as the number of people increases.
This is the hardest part of the planning, and leads to many an argument between the creators. Believe me, it's no easy task to come up with credible motives for eight or nine people, and link them in just such a way as to make sure everything comes out, but not too quickly.

A week or so before the scheduled dates, each person receives a packet containing their character profile (a narrative of their life story, in a few pages, also indicating which of the other characters they "know" and in what capacity), general notes on the historical period (sometimes including a bit of editorial license to suit our purposes), and any other notes and information they may need. We deliver these personally, and it's one of the best parts for us: it's great fun to see people's reactions to their characters. We're not above including and/or twisting real-life facts about the person into their character profile; it adds a bit of fun to the whole process.

Meanwhile, as the players learn their parts and study their history lesson, we get busy putting the finishing touches on the "period decorations" and other gimmicks we've come up with to liven up the party. For instance, during the Wild West game we put together song books, changing the lyrics to traditional American folk songs (in Italian, of course), which everyone had to sing to the Indian god Kara-Oke, the recorded voice of a friend with a strong Neapolitan accent who spoke to us through speakers carefully hidden on the second floor of our game site.
I admit it, sometimes we can get pretty silly.


The traditional venue for the Game is Fabio's house up in the nearby Appennines, which offers advantages such as enough beds for everyone, very thick walls and a deaf next-door neighbor. It also is quaint yet generic enough to lend itself to a wide variety of historical periods and places.
We drive up with Fabio and Cristina, and they leave us alone for a few hours so that we can hide things like speakers, and wires, and put up decorations. The guests typically meet for dinner at a pizza place halfway up the mountain, then come up and go straight to their rooms to get dressed. The party begins at around 9 or 9:30, and we're all in for a long night.

One "rule" of the game is that the murder must "actually take place", meaning that the murderer must find a way to be alone with his or her victim and pretend to carry out the dirty deed itself. In theory, there is always the risk of being caught in the act, but so far it's never happened.
We're pretty good at picking murderers, I guess.

As with any production, all kinds of things tend to go wrong: equipment that doesn't work, dry ice that fails to create the necessary steam, toy guns that jam at just the wrong moment. Part of the thrill of the Game lies in that bit of unknown, and that feeling of being onstage, even though the audience consists solely of other players themselves, and there are no specific "lines" to be learned.
The first phase of the Game generally consists of people chatting, getting to know the other characters and trying to discover the various relationships, as well as entering into the feel of their own character and the period. This is where new players prove their mettle: on more than one occasion, inexperienced guests have gone around proclaiming their motives long before any murder has even taken place!

Eventually, it does take place, and after the requisite expressions of shock, everyond gets down to business: talking among themselves, trying to determine who was the murderer.
Sometimes, there are multiple victims, and even multiple assassins, just to keep people on their toes.

At some point people go to bed, although they never fully relax, and rightly so: we always have a little surprise or two planned for the wee hours of the night.


Dario and I have our own characters, and our own motives unless we are the victims. Since we obviously know whodunit, we don't actively try to discover anything, but we do sometimes help guide people along. Or, purposely guide them down the wrong path. The fun part for us is seeing how people interpret their roles, the personal touches they add to each character, and finding out whether it all plays out the way we imagined it in our heads.
If you write a play, you can be (reasonably) sure that the plot will follow its intended path. Not having such a firm framework leaves quite a lot of suspense for the creators; it's just not the same kind of suspense that the actual players experience.

The murderer's role in the game is also unique, since he or she has to pretend to investigate along with everyone else, while deflecting suspicion. There's the fear of getting caught that adds a nice jot of adrenalin, and keeps things interesting.

All in all, it's great fun. Everyone who's ever played has had a wonderful time, and we generally start getting barraged with questions about the next Game a couple of months later.


Unfortunately, we haven't done the Game for a few years, now. The first year's hiatus was a combination of scheduling difficulties and a touch of burnout on our part, since it's so taxing to prepare this event and we always felt a bit let down afterwards. No amount of compliments or excitement by participants was ever quite enough to compensate for our post-partum depression after the Game was over.

A year or two of rest, though, and we were all set to start writing again. The problem is finding the time, and as time goes on, even finding people unconstrained by small children at home and able to get away for a long weekend.

Mainly, though, it's the time and mental energy required. Life has become increasingly complicated, and the thought of dedicating a month of our "free" time to this creative effort is daunting. How could we ever manage it? When would we manage it?

But we're getting more and more excited at the idea of doing a Game, and have even sketched out a few ideas. Maybe, just maybe, we'll ring in the Next Millenium (or, if you prefer to get technical, the year 2000) with a revival of our little tradition.
It's as good a way as any, and much more interesting than some of the ideas I've heard.


A Brief History of the Game

Halloween 1988: the first, rather rough version. An evening at the Ambassador's mansion (this was a take-off on a popular commercial at the time).
New Year's Eve 1989/1990: Chicago gangsters in the 30s. Our first attempt at a "period piece."
Halloween 1990: a weekend at a wealthy man's villa near Paris. This was the last one done in modern times, and with far too many people. Generally remembered as the "Antonio Grafton" Game.
Halloween 1991: our first weekend game, and by most accounts the most successful ever. Medieval Italy, amid the Black Plague.
Halloween 1992: Victorian London, with private undercover detective Ryan O'Bryan (Dario). Our last attempt at holding the Game in a single evening.
December 1993: The Wild West, set at The Horny Bull saloon. My personal favorite, and not because I was a "saloon girl." It was just a lot of fun.
December 1994: 16th-century Scotland, with Mary Stuart (Queen of Scots), complete with a werewolf and references to the Loch Ness Monster.
New Year's Eve 1995/96: the Templars returning from a crusade. Alas, the last Game so far.



*Actually, males (adults & children) also go house-to-house around these parts on New Year's Day; the womenfolk stay home, because it's considered bad luck to see women on the first day of the year.
Don't even get me started on this.
This is just a local tradition, since I've talked to women from other parts of Italy who are just as shocked as I am that this tradition exists/persists in the otherwise very liberal, progressive Emilia region. I have no idea how or why it began. It pisses me off.
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