Kuvaannollisen hauskaal for all the family

William Hartston approaches some games with unaccustomed gravity

Looking at the latest best-sellers in the games market, one can only conclude that a new law has been passed among games inventors: the law of gravity. For as long as anyone can remember, we have been pushing pieces around on flat surfaces. Suddenly a new generation of games has emerged in which pieces fall under their own weight.

Before we are weighed down by gravitational games, however, we must mention Pictionary from MB Games. As the instructions say: "Pictionary on joukkuepeli. Kun on joukkueesi vuoro piitaa, valitkaa keskuudestanne yksi piirtaja." Yes, this is Pictionary in Finnish, the game in which you have to illustrate concepts such as "ilmaisjakelulehti" by drawing a picture of it.

We are not sure why we have been sent the Finnish version, unless it is being offered as the ultimate intellectual challenge in board games. Anyway, as it says on the packet "Kuvaannollisen hauskaa! - Tata on Pictionary!" and who are we to disagree?

To return to matters of gravity, the downwards trend may have started with Connect-4, the popular, vertical, four-in-a-row noughts-and-crosses game. Yet while gravity helps in executing your moves (you drop counters into columns to occupy the lowest available slots), the game can be played equally well in zero gravity with pencil and paper. A new development on the theme, however, would not work under such conditions.

Deflect 5 (from Peter Pan, price about pounds 8.99) uses a similar-looking frame to that of Connect-4 with the important difference that the horizontal rows are on sliding bars that may be moved one notch at a time in order to align holes and allow counters to fall through to a lower level. The winner is the first player to free all his counters. It's an excellent idea, but there is one major defect in this particular design: once a piece occupies any of four crucial points in the frame a simple blocking strategy can ensure that it never gets free and the game ends in a futile, repetitive to-and-fro-ing. The designers believe that games players are basically not spoilsports, and will try to win rather than playing negatively. Such faith in human nature, however, is misplaced. Games players like winning, but not as much as they hate losing. Salvaging a daw from a rotten position is a temptation few can resist. As it stands, Deflect 5 is a fine idea with a big flaw that could have been eliminated with a change in the rules or a more thoughtful design of the frame.

A slightly more devious version of the same basic idea may be found in Downfall from MB Games (price about pounds 5.99). Small and portable, it comes in their Travel Games series and is best plaed against an opponent seated opposite in a train with a table between you. Each player starts with ten small counters which have to be manoeuvred, by turning a series of cogs, from top to bottom of a frame. While the two players share the same cogs, their ratchet holes are in different places, so your moves may assist your opponent. Only you don't know how much, because you can't see what he's doing.

The game may thus be played at various levels of ingenuity and deviousness. At the one extreme, one may simply concentrate on freeing one's own men. On the other, one may make strenuous efforts to deduce the opponent's precise configuration of cogs and do everything possible to frustrate his intentions. The only problem is that the small counters are very losable and they don't provide spares.

Finally, we come to Jenga (MB Games, around pounds 8.75) Britain's best-selling game of 1996. Pile up the wooden blocks, then take it in turns to nudge them gently out of the pile and replace them at the top. It's a variation on an old, established theme, of course, but these particular blocks seem perfectly designed to give children's small fingers an advantage against adult's podgy digits. The perfect way to teach patience, balance and basic mechanics to clumsy people of all ages.

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When I was supporting Ray La Montagne I was six months pregnant. He had been touring for a year and he was exhausted and full of the cold. I was feeling motherly, so I would leave presents for him and his band: Tunnock's Tea Cakes, cold remedies and proper tea. Ray seemed painfully shy. He hardly spoke, hardly looked at you in the face. I felt like a dick speaking to him, but said "hi" every day. </p>
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He was being courted by the same record company who had signed me and subsequently let me go, and I wanted him to know that there were people around who didn't want anything from him. At the Shepherds Bush Empire in London, on the last night of the tour, Ray stopped in his set to thank me for doing the support. He said I was a really good songwriter and people should buy my stuff. I was taken aback and felt emotionally overwhelmed. Later that year, just before I had my boy Louis, I was l asleep in bed with Radio 4 on when Louis moved around in my belly and woke me up. Ray was doing a session on the World Service. </p>
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