The headline news is that bowling is back. And all weekend, to be fair, my house has rung out with the expectant rumble of a bowling ball moving over polished wood, and then the glorious hollow thwock of impact. 51 Worldwide Games, which is out for Switch on the fifth of June, offers very unfussy multiplayer bowling – you aim, you use the Joy-Con held side on to pull back and let go. Strike! Or gutter. It’s a reliable thrill that keeps people playing for hours.
But there is so much more to this beautiful package of games. Yes, I appreciate there are fifty more things. But the riches! People talk about Animal Crossing being the perfect lockdown game, and I get that. But does Animal Crossing know the rules to Mancala?
51 Worldwide Games has bowling and golfing and spins on boxing and curling and all that jazz. It has fishing and slot cars and two kinds of games with little tanks. But what’s won me over completely are the board games from around the globe – Mancala, Ludo, a speedy Chess set that allows me to work backwards through my defeats once they’re all over. Mahjong! Hanafuda, with a beautiful slap to those stiff little cards. It doesn’t just have these games, it knows the rules! This is obvious, of course, but it didn’t feel obvious when I loaded the game up. Each new game, playable to a newbie like me from the off, through a mixture of excellent tutorials and simple, no-frills UI, felt like a gift. The game but also the knowledge of how to play it. Here’s Hanafuda! I think I will spend a lifetime learning this, but I can play it right now.
I am still digging into this set of games, inevitably. Single-player, multiplayer on one console or through local and online. Touchscreen or Joy-Con, something called Mosaic which I think means laying Switches next to each other – basically witchcraft. Rather than be exhaustive, I have put the machine in another room and for now I’m just going to tell you about what I remember.
So first I lost most of a day to the simplest game on there. You can play with a piece of paper and two coloured pencils. A grid of dots, and you take turns drawing connecting lines. If you finish a box you get to own it, and you get another go. Who gets the most boxes?
This game barely works as a game, frankly. It is zugzwang in miniature. But I have played it for hours with my daughter who doesn’t know that yet. And it’s a little marvel in terms of the sound effects of coloured pencil on paper, in terms of the grain of the table showing through the zig-zags that are used to own a square.
Then there are card games – President, which makes me feel like I’m on a riverboat somewhere. A game called War which is essentially complete dumb luck – some kind of commentary – but which is still zippy and delightful. Two kinds of Solitaire, obscurities that play at different speeds and have different learning curves. Hanafuda is the stand-out for me, but I could play these card games forever. There’s a non-brand Uno that ate an afternoon without me looking. There’s Poker and Sevens and another one I loved but which I can’t remember just now.
Board games! Carom, which took me back to a dear friend many years ago who had one of those huge polished boards. Connect Four, which is such a ditzy game and which has been paired here with a kind of inane Arrested Development soundtrack that fits it perfectly. Mancala – honestly I have fallen for Mancala very hard. The hand moves around, the gems click and sparkle. It’s a game about change, about gardening? It’s the kind of thing I have always wanted to play but feared I would be too stupid to get.
All of these are delivered with that unfussy, warm-hearted presentation that Nintendo has mastered, a kind of clarity of speech that shines through in the UI, the way that rules are presented, the way that hints and little bits of trivia are unlocked along with new card backs and what-have-you. It takes a lot of work, I suspect, to make a game where everything between you and the act of playing feels invisible.
There is a globe thing that brings all of this together, and I’m still getting my head around all of that. 51 Worldwide Games barely needs it, though. I grew up in one of those houses where there was a big wooden box in the living room that had tatty Monopolies and Cluedos, stray Happy Families and Uno and Go Fish decks scattered in it. This collection is the modern equivalent, I think, and I don’t need a big brother to take pity on me and teach me the rules anymore. Oh yes, and there’s bowling.