William Hartston visits a games convention in Brighton and learns how to make up the rules as you go along
Faded T-shirts, the relics of ancient tours of long-ago disbanded pop groups, strained to cover some impressive paunches at the Old Ship Hotel in Brighton. It could have been a swilling of real ale drinkers, a jangle of Morris dancers, or an enterprise of science fiction enthusiasts. But it wasn't. For this was Furricon '97, one of the biggest annual conventions of players of board games.

They came from all corners of the land (especially the south-east corner), almost 200 of them, filling the ballroom and adjoining function rooms to play race games, war games, railway games, games of strategy, games of luck, games of physical dexterity - indeed any games that have not crossed the barrier (as chess, bridge and backgammon have done) into near- respectability.

They also played Furdonia, a game (an organiser explained to me) which is loosely modelled on the game of Junta, which is itself loosely modelled on the structure of a military dictatorship. Only, in the game of Furdonia, you make up the rules as you go along.

It was the silly hats that led to our talking about Furdonia. I had naively asked why there was a pile of them on the organisers' table. Then, just as I asked, one of the players came up and asked to borrow a silly hat. "It's for Furdonia," they explained. Apparently one of the few rules of the game is that new rules can be made, or old rules modified, by a unanimous vote among the players. Only they usually get bored with that after a while and vote unanimously to allow rule-changing with a majority vote. Another of the things they usually do is to add a rule to the effect that you can win only if you are wearing a silly hat. And that's why the pile of silly hats was there.

When I arrived on the final day of the three-day gamesfest, they had just assassinated the president, which was why one of the players was lying supine on the table. They had had to change the rules to allow presidential assassination, but once that had been done, they gathered around the games library, shouted a lot, then rushed off and shot him. And all without even bothering to don a silly hat.

While all this was going on, other players - or they may have been the same ones, it was difficult to tell with so many people wandering around - were shuffling cards, moving pieces, rolling dice or flicking plastic tokens on a variety of boards, with, as far as I could tell, no two groups playing the same game.

It had been different on the second day, when the relatively serious business of "Intergame UK" took place. This is the official UK Board and Card Games championship for teams of four, who compete against each other at a variety of specially selected games. This year's battlefield included SiSiMiZi (from Editrice Giochi), a curious game in which the players have to help ants find their anthills, and Detroit/Cleveland Grand Prix, (from Mayfair Games), a race game in which the players must bid for cars, then move them forwards according to the cards held in their hands. There was also RoboRally (from Wizards of the Coast) and Turf Horse Racing (from Gibsons), which went too fast for me to discover what they were about.

When all the pieces had been gathered up, the winners were "The Three Chandeliers" (a name various explained as: "because there are four of them" or "I think it was a pub we once met in"), repeating their triumph of 1996.

1997 Ludography, a loose-leaf catalogue of games currently in print, including reviews of the most recent, is available (price pounds 17.95 including postage) from SFC Press, 42 Wynndale Road, London E18 1DX, which also publishes Games Games Games magazine. (0171-491-7784 for details).