by Amanda Higgin
Xanda and I sit at a coffee-shop table, making towers out of sugar cubes. I’ve lost two rounds, Xanda’s lost one and we’re currently drawing with four-high towers. Then, as she carefully places the fifth piece on her stack, it wobbles and scatters across the table.
‘A-ha!’ I laugh maniacally. ‘Things fall apart, the centre cannot hold, mere anarchy is loosed upon the world!’ (I did Yeats for A-level; you can’t blame me for quoting the Second Coming whenever it’s tangentially relevant.)
‘All right, all right,’ Xanda sighs dramatically, sweeping up the sugar. ‘I was just going to go with Jenga.‘
‘It’s not Jenga though,’ I reply. ‘Jenga happens when the tower falls because you’re taking things out of it, not building it up. Yeats is far more appropriate for a calamitous collapse.’
‘But you also have to build the tower for Jenga.’
‘Technicalities,’ I wave my hand dismissively. ‘You know, ‘Jenga’ always makes me think of Crit now.’
A digression at this point becomes necessary, because Xanda and I are both fans of the online show Critical Role and I expect that most of you haven’t heard of it. If you have, come and fangirl with me. On Thursdays, a group of (in their own words) ‘nerdy-ass voice actors’ led by Matthew Mercer play Dungeons and Dragons livestreamed on Twitch. In times of crisis, a cry of ‘Jenga’ is the signal that the plan has failed and it’s time to draw swords, wands and (unusually for D&D) guns. A cry of ‘Jenga’ is almost inevitable when the sneaky rogue goes off to do something quietly because he will roll badly and be found out and need backup before he dies (see ep. 24-5).
Xanda laughs, ‘You’re obsessed.’
‘Maybe. But Jenga is a good metaphor for when everything goes to pot: one small block out of place and the whole edifice comes crashing down.’
‘In Jenga, though, that’s game over. In Crit it really means that the game’s just starting.’
‘Which do you think is more like life?’ I suggest the question.
Xanda raises an eyebrow, ‘Crit, of course; D&D simulates life. When the plan dies and everything turns to chaos is when you suit up to fight, although I’m sure the general application is more metaphorical. The game isn’t over until zero hit points.’
‘Jenga doesn’t have to be over when the tower falls. You just rebuild it and try again.’
‘Yes, but that’s then a new game. You’ve failed the first one entirely. On Crit, your plan may have failed but as long as you can keep on fighting all is not yet lost. Maybe you haven’t stealthily assassinated the boss, but you can call in your allies and take him down the ugly, old-fashioned way. Sometimes you can fix the mistake, sometimes you just succeed by surviving. You don’t get that nuance in Jenga. You’re still only at four cubes, by the way,’ Xanda points to my sugar tower.
‘Not for long,’ I carefully select the next one and delicately place it on the skewed surface of the fourth. As soon as I take my fingers away, the tower starts to list and suddenly crashes onto the table top.
‘Who’s laughing now?’ Xanda laughs.
‘Ah, but now the real fight begins,’ I declare. Seizing one of my fallen sugar cubes, I throw it at her.