GAME ON! - Time – and age – are no boundaries for the ultimate board game champion.

Off the Eaten Path
Game On!
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I spent the majority of my childhood summers playing board games or Canasta at our family's old log cabin that teetered alongside a meandering creek in the Ozarks. We played games mostly because there was little else to do besides eat, swim or fish. We didn't have a television in our cabin, and our old radio, which was the size of a Buick, only received faint, scratchy voices that sounded like mice were trying to claw their way to freedom.

Add in the fact that we were not a gene pool blessed with speed of foot, great coordination or even passable singing voices, and we were forced to entertain ourselves. Which is why, I guess, game nights at the Rouse House often seemed to be held on as high a level as births and major surgeries.

When my family sat down at that old Formica dining room table, overlooking the creek in the distance, and unfolded a board game, or shuffled a deck of cards, we needed no other entertainment. We suddenly became invincible gladiators. We monopolized Monopoly, were operators of Operation, champs of Chinese checkers. We beat any guests who dared toss a pair of dice or place a thimble on "Go."

But it wasn't just winning, it was the way we won. We tended to crush our victims, like today's New England Patriots, and we did it with glee.

When I was little, I remember playing Operation with my wonderful but competitive father as my teammate. Though I was still too young to be much good, he single-handedly whooped family and friends, badly, using those little tweezers like a scalpel, plucking organs willy-nilly from that clownish body like a skilled surgeon.

"Life is like a board game," my dad would tell the vanquished nearly every time, holding the tweezers over his head in a victory dance. "There are always winners and losers."

From that moment on, I knew I always had to be a winner. At least in anything game-related.

You would think that childish desire to win would have diminished over time, but, still today, I hunger for victory, even over the most innocent and powerless.

Nowadays, a cottage in the woods near Lake Michigan has replaced a log cabin along a creek, but playing board games continues to serve as prime entertainment in the new Rouse House.

Summers at Turkey Run, our cottage outside Saugatuck, Mich., are still game-central, and when the youngest generation in our families, or the kids of our good friends, come to visit, my partner Gary and I love to unleash old-fashioned games, and introduce kids to Pick-Up Sticks and Battleship, or even badminton and washers.

The unspoken rule: I will win. No matter the age. No matter the game.

I will beat a 5-year-old at Candyland, or a 16-year-old at Scrabble. Which is exactly what I did last summer, when a friend's daughter showed up and I whipped her this side of Tuesday with board games she'd never played in her life.

"My turn," she said to me good naturedly, after I had won a game of Clue, clubbing her over the head with a candlestick in the conservatory.

She went to her room and returned with DDR (Dance Dance Revolution), a high-tech dancing game – which my cousin's daughter had only recently introduced me to. It's played as sort of a "Dancing with the Stars" duel. Two players face off by standing on opposing dance pads, which are placed on the floor. The sole goal is to keep up with the arrows that appear on your TV screen – arrows that are synchronized to the beat or rhythm of a particular song. Success – and your overall score – is based on how well you follow the choreographed dance steps.

Now, considering I'm neither Gregory Hines nor Bill Gates – and considering I find the box step highly complicated and changing a light bulb to be akin to defusing a nuclear reactor – dance and technology was a lethal combo, along the lines of blow dryer and bathwater.

We started our dance-off at the beginner level, moving to a relatively slow song, a la "On Top of Old Smokey," which I lost because it seemed my feet had to move independently of one another. We kept progressing until I found myself dancing to an όber-fast club mix of a Spice Girls song playing at warp speed. When I fell, dramatically, and onto my competitor's pad, she actually danced over me without missing a beat.

"Cheater!" I said after losing 20 times in a row. "Who are you? One of the Cheetah Girls?"

"You're a bad sport!" she yelled after me.

"You need a hobby!" I said, making me sound, well, old. "I'm done! Good night!"

The next day brought a miraculous Michigan morning, and I woke up faux- perky.

I had a plan. The shallow and demented always have a plan.

"Let's hit the beach for the day!" I suggested.

Usually, beach days are sacrosanct to me: I drop some towels, pull out a book and lie prone for the day, angling my body to soak up as much sun as humanly possible, sitting up only long enough to drop a few potato chip crumbs on my tanning belly.

Today, however, I had an ulterior motive: "Wanna have a sand castle competition?" I asked my friend's daughter.

"You're on!" she said.

We picked separate parts of the beach – a fair distance apart – and synchronized our watches. The rules of competition? We had one hour to build; the best design – to be judged by a stranger on the beach – wins.

As I worked, I felt light-headed and moved as though I'd eaten ephedrine-laced Kashi for breakfast. I was a sand Michelangelo. When our hour was up, I immediately ran down the beach to check out the work of my friend's daughter. She had built a very nice sand castle indeed, featuring your standard moat and turrets, shell motif and twigs as flags.

"That's not fair!" she screamed, as we ventured down to check out my work, which had already attracted a crowd. There, in front of her, was a school of dolphins and manatees, frolicking on the shore, their kind eyes, made of colorful, polished beach stones, generating "oohs" and "aahs" from the beachcombers. "You said sand castle competition! And there aren't dolphins in Lake Michigan!"

I looked at this fragile girl. She was pretty, with big eyes that conveyed every emotion. Right now, it was like looking directly into a once-clear sky that was quickly filling with storm clouds.

Of course, she was right. Not only were there no dolphins in Lake Michigan, but I seemed to have no beating heart. I should have admitted that she was right, and I was wrong. I should have said that I was sorry. I should have let her win. I even should have told her that I'd gotten assistance when she wasn't looking.

"Life is like a board game, sweetie," I said instead, passing on sage advice I had been given decades ago. "There are always winners and losers."

"You really need to grow up," she said to me, walking away in a huff, her hair a twirl in the lake wind.

And she was right.