#63: East Side Story (Squeeze, 1981)
His clothes and magazines make up such a mess.
Sitting up in bed, transistor on his chest,
The genre-jumping marvel called East Side Story — Chris Difford and Glenn Tilbrook’s White Album, really — begins with the bouncy, amusing “In Quintessence,” painting the picture of a 15-year-old loser sitting amid his vices, fantasizing about a girlfriend who may or may not actually exist.
My main vice at 15 was probably self-righteousness. It certainly wasn’t my deep strain of geekiness, which, even then, I recognized as a feature, not a bug.
Case in point: the countless hours spent playing Ambush!, a solitaire, squad-level, World War II simulator published — along with a series of add-on modules — by Victory Games back in the 1980s.
You’ve probably never heard of Ambush! But as a sprawling, solitaire, go-at-your-own-pace experience, it appeals to my contemplative, loner side, and has been my favorite tabletop game since I first read about it in Games magazine during my high-school years. Its creators have talked about the rigors of designing and then testing each mission, which is why, after sales flagged in the late ’80s, they just stopped making more.
That’s too bad; its ingenious system — based on a complex mesh of charts, tables, and paragraphs which hide enemy positions from view until you’re attacked — makes it very difficult to create your own scenarios (and, if you manage to do so, they’re virtually unplayable to you, the designer, since you built in all the secrets yourself). Hardy souls have managed to produce a handful of new missions (and I’ve bought their work on eBay), but for the most part, you’re left with the 36 original scenarios that Victory Games released in six separate modules between 1983 and 1988.
Still, replayability is good, especially if you wait a few years between dusting off the boxes. I retrieved my boxes from the basement in 2011, shortly after I turned 40, and played every single mission over the next few months — the first time I had played since the mid-1990s. As midlife crises go, I suppose it could have been worse. I’m sure I’ll dive in again someday.
Back in the ’80s, I used to spend many a weekend at my Nana and Pop Pop’s huge, multi-family house in Bridgeport, which will always be the special house of my soul. I’d set up a couple rickety TV trays in the living room, spread out my maps and charts and counters, and play into the night, long after they went to bed. Eventually I’d grow tired, creep down the loudly creaking hallway, and crawl into the spare-room bed with its heavy layers of comforting blankets. In the morning, Nana would let me sleep in and then make fried eggs and bacon when I did decide to emerge. After breakfast, it was back to the couch to fend off German machine guns and tanks.
We rarely make bacon at home these days, but I always order it when we eat breakfast out, mainly at a local diner housed in a converted train car. I don’t mean to be gross here, but it’s an amazing thing: later those mornings, inevitably, I’ll burp and taste bacon, and, for a second, my mind palpably shifts, and I’m 15 years old again, sitting on Nana’s couch, creeping through a battle-torn French field, semi-automatic rifle — well, a pair of dice, anyway — raised and ready.