Come play!

I was walking through Bryant Park, behind the New York Public Library at 42d and Fifth, on a glorious September afternoon when I saw a table piled high with board games, and a man and woman playing one I’d never seen before — Bananagrams, a word game that requires players to think really fast and make words with their letters. First one done, wins.

English: The game Bananagrams, showing pieces ...
English: The game Bananagrams, showing pieces and banana-shaped carrying container. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

“Can I play, too?” I asked. I hadn’t asked anyone that question in decades. The woman’s job was to wait for people to come along — and play, with her or with others, part of the park’s new initiative to make it even more welcoming.

“Sure. Have you ever played before?”

I hadn’t, but am a fairly decent/quick Scrabble player. Within minutes, we were laughing and hooting and shouting “Dump!” (turning in your letters for new ones) or “Peel!” forcing us to pick up another one.

The winner gets to shout “Bananas!”

I couldn’t remember the last time I’d had such free, spontaneous, joyful and social fun. In New York City, where status and power and owning costly real estate are the usual measures of human value, laughing my ass off with two smart strangers was the best.

It felt so good to be five again!

I love to play. Raised as an only child, trolls and Legos and stuffed animals were usually my companions. In boarding school (from the age of eight), every day and every hour was structured, lived by a schedule.

I love my work as a writer, but every word, literally, is worth money. I’ve bought groceries and gas and rent and clothes and acquired savings for decades — thanks to my ability to conjure up enough words, in the right order for the right people.

To simply play with words is a great luxury!

In my teens, I spent many evenings in front of the fire with my Dad, drinking tea and eating chocolate cookies, whipping one another at Scrabble — unless Jack, the big fat tabby cat, prowled right through the board, scattering our hard-won triumphs.

Scrabble game
Scrabble game (Photo credit: jcolman)

My weathered Scrabble board still bears the hand-written notations of my highest score, and my Mom’s — we played for hours while visiting Costa Rica and Fiji. On one of my trips west, to Victoria, B.C., where she now lives in a nursing home, she taught me to play gin rummy.

Before my left hip was destroyed by arthritis-plus-steroids in May 2009 — and has since been replaced — I played co-ed softball most Saturdays in a field near my home; here’s an essay I wrote about it for The New York Times. I plan to be back at it this year.

Our players are people who spend their worklives practicing law and medicine, singing at a synagogue, teaching high school, representing authors. Heavy responsibilities. There is something so deeply restorative in just playing, for its own sweet sake, where all we really need is a triple or a great catch from the outfield.

Jose and I don’t have children, nor any nieces or nephews, so we (sadly) have no chances to play with kids. I really miss that! We often play gin rummy, Scrabble and now, Bananagrams. He plays Tetris on the Iphone while I play Scrabble on the Ipad — cursing the bloody, stubborn algorithm for using words I have never heard of.

Do you play games — with your sweetie or friends or kids or grandkids?

Which ones do you enjoy most and why?

77 thoughts on “Come play!

  1. Love that the “dusty diamond” was your favorite! We were introduced to Bananagrams one cutthroat Christmas by my gap-toothed and giggling niece – life over the holidays has never been the same πŸ˜‰ Looking forward to hearing about your exploits on the baseball diamond with your new hip – and a very happy New Year!

  2. Lynn Daue

    We love games! Scrabble is my favorite, while Monopoly is my oldest daughter’s. The little ones like Uno and we picked up Trouble recently. My husband and I usually stick to cards, although there’s a good chance we’re going to purchase and love Cards Against Humanity … we’re apparently horrible people. (

  3. We play a lot of games, but my favorite times are watching my daughter play Jenga with her 83 year old grandma. They always end up laughing. For Christmas, we got Book Lovers Memory and enjoy feeling stupid on multiple levels while our 8 year old and her shiny new brain beats us. Games are a great ice breaker. Love the park idea.

  4. I love board games and often play with my family. We recently got the game, Sequence for Christmas. While I am away at school, my study group and I try to get together at least once a week for game night. Scrabble, Monopoly, Apples to Apples, and Bananagrams are a few of our favorites.

  5. Settlers of Catan – it’s a full contact sport with my family, and we are BORGIAS! J.’s family likes it and plays a lot, mostly with a bunch of good natured ribbing and joking. Not so the Small Dogs! We are quiet, deadly, and cutthroat!

  6. I have fond childhood memories of bilingual scrabble night with my parents, brother and sister. I’m a word game junkie…words with friends and scramble with friends are my recent addictions. I have yet to try Bananagrams, but will check it out! I have continued family game night with my husband and my children and hope to create fond memories while creating some word junkies as well! πŸ˜‰

  7. Bananagrams! What an awesome name for a good, fun game (look at me, I’m rhyming). I’ve always been one for word games, with Scrabble being the old favourite and Boggle coming close behind. I went through a Trivial Pursuit obsession for a few years – not so much for the game, although it is fun, but because of the random, rambling conversations that it always gave rise to, no matter who I played it with.

    Haven’t played a board game in quite a few years. Tried very hard to like Words With Friends, which is essentially Scrabble on Facebook, but couldn’t get into it. So much of the goodness of board games rests in the physical presence of playmates and also the tactile facets of the activity. One day, virtual reality will get good enough to replicate this seamlessly, but until then, I’ll go a battered board and scratched up tiles and a bunch of good friends around the table, anyday.

  8. We regularly play Authors, Pit, Scrabble, Pictionary, and Five Crowns. Still looking for someone to help me learn Mah-Jong (with real tiles, not the online version). I have 5 grown kids and we get together on birthdays and holidays to play one thing or another! This year on New Year’s Eve it was Authors, then “Inventors” (same style game).

  9. Scrabble with my 34 year old son whenever I can get to Ottawa to see him, Hearts with my daughter and her husband whenever they get out here to the lake, Animal Rummy with every kid who has ever come here, and my latest favorite – Candyland with my four-year old granddaughter, Emma. Life is good when there are games to play.

  10. So funny — this was in my Christmas stocking and my husband and I played it for the first time a few nights ago — I loved it. I thought about doing a blog post about it because it was so fun, but I think yours is just perfect. Peel!

  11. I’ve been a fan of Uno since I was a kid, and we play that and a similar game called Hit The Deck with our kids. One-on-one games of Uno can go really quick and I found that it’s great for teaching kids that playing games can be fun even if you lose. “You lost? Oh, that’s ok. deal the cards and let’s go again!” A bunch of games won or lost in quick succession helps them get over that sore loser feeling.

    My wife likes to play Rummy and she kicks my ass every time. It’s still a fun game, though.

  12. As a Mum I’ve had to play the last yerars…mostly not my favourite ones.
    But now, I enjoy to play with technic stuff….rearly great. Let me forget all my duties. To play with teenies is not always a funπŸ˜‰even it is an interesting game. Maybe “Babanas” could be nice. But probably I ‘ m not cool enough to play it with my teenie-daughter😎
    What a pity!

  13. How fantastic that the woman’s job is to sit in the park and wait for people to come along to play! Unfortunately the only frequent playing I do is Scrabble. Recently, though, I spent an hour making up dances with my two year old niece and it was possibly the best hour I remember having in a long time! Initially I was self-conscious about how bizarre we were being and then I entered what can only be described as a zone where nothing else mattered.

  14. I love Bananagrams. It’s Scrabble’s nerdier, cooler ADD cousin, and so much more my speed.
    What you say here is precisely the reason I don’t want to give up working with children even though it’s tiring me out. Getting to play tag and hide and seek and make up silly skits and build rockets at work is sort of awesome.

    1. I’ve found it conceptually really helpful — with Scrabble I focus too much on high scoring letters and words..with B’grams I really like how you have to keep re-arranging your letters and not necessarily clinging to what you initially made.

      I envy you this. I think our imaginations are so stifled and crushed by “adult” life.

  15. I played Risk last weekend, but I got my butt whipped. My territories were scattered all over the place, so it was hard to defend myself. My dad and I also like to play a card game called Kings in the Corner occasionally, when we have the time (much less now since I’m usually at college and our schedules are so different).

      1. try contacting the fischer business school at OSU if you want to talk about Malled. Or talk to the sociology or political science departments if you want to talk about your women and guns book. maybe also contact the WGSST department for that one. don’t try contacting the journalism dept though; it got absorbed into communications a few years back.

  16. Love the story Caitlin, and what an amazing idea to have someone just sitting playing games in a park. Excellent marketing.

    I started playing waterpolo this year with my 16 and two 14 year olds. I am a good swimmer, but firmly in my middle years now and not especially fit, so this was a huge effort but SO MUCH FUN!! Turns out I am quite competitive…we also play board games – Settlers as mentioned above, Ticket to Ride, Hearts and Up and Down the River (we’re big card game fans). With the smaller boys (6 years old) we play Memory, Zooreka, The Hobbit game (a Christmas purchase which turned out to be awesome when we were camping). We also have a jigsaw puzzle going at the moment. The sacrifice of floor space is worth it to watch everyone poring over it trying to find ‘that’ piece. I tend to be very task focussed, and we’re busy so I have to remind myself to play more, but luckily, the husband and kids are good for helping with that!

    Think we may have to investigate the purchase of Bananagrams!

  17. I love word games, Scrabble etc, my son got Bananagrams for me Christmas 2011, I’m addicted, as now are my Grandchildren, because of the speed as well as being able to constantly change everything anytime. Unrestricted word finding. Brilliant.


      1. Ah yes, new timezone, a zone to end war called banana-time. Everyone meets at one Banana, two banana, three banana, four…

        I think I heard this before somewhere

  18. Love the Bryant Park initiative. Also a great idea to bring people together. I love board games as well, not so much the ones with words involved though, strangely. I always have to force myself to start playing, but once I’m in the game, I usually wonder why I don’t play more often. My faves are Rumikub, Chess (although I often lose), and any game where the players have to guess something.

  19. We had a few friends who lived nearby, and seeing as our neighbourhood is quite dry in terms of variety in entertainment they’d come over to our place and we’d put back a few bottles of wine and play scrabble, listen to music, and talk. We were playing scrabble for a while and then they brought over bananagrams one evening. Incredibly addictive, in the kind of “ah this will be the last game” six times in a row variety, and fun! Everyone won a few games, including the few non-native English speakers among us. Unfortunately these friends have now moved out of this neighbourhood all the way to the other side of Seoul – we’re about forty minutes south of Seoul – so we can only meet sporadically in town, far from kitchen tables, moderately priced wine, and bananagrams!

    Maybe I should put an ad up on Craigslist to try and find new boardgame buddies…

  20. CRGardenJoe

    Bananagrams! It’s the current game craze in my family, one that my wife and I and our children enjoy a lot. To be honest, I’m not that good at it, although I enjoy it–one quirk is that I sometimes forget which fruit to state when I win–and my family members claim that “apples” disqualifies me. I love Scrabble, too, although again am not usually the winner. My one claim to game competency is that I have two sons, who are both much brighter than I am–but the one thing I can usually do is give them a run for their money in chess–I don’t always win, but win more often than I lose! We also love card games, hearts and spades and an odd little game called “scum” which is easy to play with between 6 and 10 people, which makes it a good party game–you just add a second deck when you get more than six players. Anyway, you struck a nerdy game nerve with this post! And I win by a year in posting about this game πŸ™‚

    1. I had no idea this post would be so popular! I’ve played chess but am not that good at it…I think it takes a lot of practice. I also really enjoy backgammon, which I haven’t played in ages and recently rediscovered our board.

      I think it’s funny you forget to say Bananas! Keep the case in front of you…?

  21. This post is popular with me too…I read lots of your posts and they often ring true but I gasped at this one as our Christmas was themed by Bananagrams!! Sounds fun playing it with strangers! It seems normal in some cultures to play board games in the street. I would like to write or read a blog one day on ways of getting strangers to interact- like the Montreal musical swings in bus stops… Thanks for this one!

    1. It was such a perfect NY experience — where sitting down with quick-witted strangers proved a lot of fun. People have an idea that New Yorkers are unfriendly, but under the right circumstances, I’ve found that not to be true.

      In several NYC parks, people play chess pretty much all the time.

      Glad you enjoyed this post so much.

  22. Had a wonderful Xmas playing Scrabble and Articulate with family and you are right, free spontaneous and such fun. Mind you the vino collapso helped to….Happy 2013. Enjoy your blog no end.

  23. How fun! I love to play games–we host a monthly game night for our friends–we play Cranium, Pictionary, Cards Against Humanity, Celebrity, Apples to Apples,Twister–anything that requires creativity and gets people out of their shells (a good dose of wine helps there). I adore it, and I love observing who’s competitive, who’s great with words, pictures, acting, etc. You learn a lot about people and connect on an entirely different level through play.

    1. This sounds like so much fun! What is Cranium? Cards Against Humanity? Apples to Apples? Which do you like best?

      I have learned more about all my friends through play (and vice versa!) than a zillion chats-over-coffee. I only discovered I had a stress fracture in my left foot, in Nov. 09., as I limped from first to second base during our softball game. Competitive, moi? πŸ™‚

      1. Cranium is a board game that utilizes a variety of creative skills: sculpting play-doh, answering trivia questions, drawing, humming, acting, etc. I like it because it allows everyone to shine in their own capacity. I have a friend who can’t play word games to save his life, but give him a visual challenge and he’s amazing. Apples to Apples and Cards Against Humanity are parlour/word games. Each player is given a set of cards (with nouns or statements, depending) which they use to provide the funniest, cleverest answer to the question posed. Apples to Apples is pretty tame but Cards Against Humanity is not for the easily offended!

  24. my ex-wife used to kick my ass at scrabble, not because she had a better vocabulary but because she could manipulate the double/triple/word/letter tiles way better than i could. however, i have a close friend with whom i used to play scrabble and other games, but i would win too lop-sidedly and now she won’t play anymore.

  25. KM

    I mostly play with my family and some of my friends – my fiance doesn’t really enjoy games like this. Because my family mostly played Skip-Bo at reunions when I was a kid, that’s probably my favorite. I can never really forget the rules and it’s as familiar as chicken soup. I love word games like Scrabble and Boggle (do they even still make that?), but I don’t get to play them often. I haven’t tried Bananagrams, but I got one for my mom for Christmas called Quiddler that was pretty fun. That one has a letter or two-letter combination on each card and you win each hand by using all of the cards in your hand to make one or more words of two letters or more. If you get a chance, you might try that one too!

  26. thebrokegirl

    Bananagrams! I LOVE Bananagrams! Although my best friend/college roommate always won when we played. Another one you could try, since you mentioned the iPhone and iPad, is Words With Friends. It’s basically e-Scrabble.

  27. My 9 year old is a ruthless scrabble player! We play family game nights that include Monopoly, Fluxx, The Game of Life, and more. I remember my grandfather teaching me to play chess and my father playing Monopoly against me til I was in tears (I was not a gracious loser). Some of my fondest moments are playing board games. Great grandma just bought Words with Friends (the board game which is basically Scrabble) and my children love going over there to play it with her. I enjoyed reading your post. It brought back wonderful memories and makes me want to pull out a board game. πŸ™‚

    1. Perfect!

      Jose and I were playing Bananagrams last night and (!!) he beat me twice. I am not a happy loser and usually beat him at Scrabble, so I am now on notice. We’re looking forward to playing it with my Dad and his partner in a few weeks, and she is going to introduce us to Apples to Apples. I love that people are still playing and enjoying such games. I feared everyone was just playing video games alone…

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