Sometimes, homemade games are the most fun of all

Fans of Calvin and Hobbes, the comic strip which Bill Watterson discontinued in 1995 (alas), will remember that six-year-old Calvin and his six-foot tiger played a game called “Calvinball.” Calvinball was an amalgam of football, baseball, dodgeball, tag, checkers, and almost anything else Calvin’s fertile mind could think of. The rules were, to say the least, variable.

I’ll play almost any game (except maybe Uno), but some of the most fun I’ve had was playing games not sold in toy and sporting goods stores, with rules not found in Hoyle or the Spaulding Guides. Tree Ball is an excellent example.

My college roommate was Tony Lake, a bright guy who went on to do great things. In his college days, Tony was a good athlete, a varsity squash player, and a pretty fair house football quarterback. We invented dozens of games. I say “we,” but Tony was the chief inventor. I contributed a rule or two when Tony’s rules tended to favor him too much.

To play Tree Ball, all you need are a good-sized tree and a tennis ball. In an interior corner of the Leverett House complex was a tree about as tall as the three-story building where we lived in our sophomore year. It was a deciduous tree (I think a beech or a maple), and Tree Ball was easier to play when the leaves were off it, but we could play all year. The first player (let’s call him the thrower) threw the ball into the top of the tree, where it would begin to fall, bouncing from branch to branch like a marble in a three-dimensional bagatelle game. The other player would attempt to catch the ball before it hit the ground. The catcher would watch the progress of the ball down through the branches and try to judge on which side of the tree the final bounce would take it. If the catcher caught the ball, it was his turn to throw. If the ball hit the ground, the thrower got a point and threw again.

One of the better ways to throw was to bounce the ball off the roof and into the treetop, though there was the risk that the ball would miss the tree entirely, which was a foul and cost the thrower his turn. Getting the ball stuck in the tree was also a foul, and the thrower had to climb the tree to shake it down. Tree Ball could also be played with a baseball (no gloves), which got stuck less often, but bouncing it off the slate roof was prohibited.

In our senior year, Tony and I lived on the top floor of the then brand-new Leverett Towers. There was no convenient tree, but the corridor on which we lived was long and narrow. We played a game we called Cricket, though it had very little in common with the British game. It was played with a squash ball (a black hard rubber ball the size of a pingpong ball), a canoe paddle (or a squash racket or a baseball bat), and a vertical stack of small metal objects — usually an empty beer can or two topped with a metal bandaid box. This pile, which we called the “wicket,” was at one end of the corridor, where one player defended it with his “bat.” The “bowler” stood at the other end and tried to knock down the wicket with the squash ball. The bowler was allowed to bounce the ball off the floor, ceiling, or walls of the corridor. Metal objects were used for the wicket because they made such a satisfying clatter to signify an out. The ball usually came back faster than it had been bowled, and the bowler could also score an out by catching the ball in the air off the bat. There were few injuries, but there was occasionally collateral damage. There were no runs; the game consisted entirely of outs.

Many years later, my oldest son and I invented Screw Ball. I’m sure most families have similar made-up games. The younger two boys also took up Screw Ball as they got old enough. All three were good athletes who played competitive outdoor and gymnasium sports: soccer, baseball, lacrosse, hockey, basketball. They also played the kinds of games one plays in a living room: board games and card games. Screw Ball combined both. It was a competitive, sometimes violent, ball game played in a living room.

Almost any number can play. You need as many balls as there are players. Any kind of ball will do, but soft balls (Nerf balls, Koosh balls, or even rolled-up socks) are easier on lamps, pictures, and other breakable objects commonly found in a living room. It’s better if the balls are different sizes and weights, but that’s not required. Players are seated. Each player starts with one ball. On the starting signal, players simultaneously toss their balls to other players, who immediately relay them to others or throw them back. A player loses a round if he/she is at any moment in possession of two (or more) balls. Balls need not be caught cleanly and are sometimes simply volleyed out of the air. A player is not expected to field a throw (or a volley) not clearly to him/her. Bad throws are self-refereed. A bad throw ends the round. Screw Ball is a highly competitive game, but I don’t remember that we ever kept score. I was always impressed with how gentle older boys always were, making sure the younger boy’s challenge was not impossible for his lesser skill. Even my wife would sometimes join a round or two, but she tended to call the game when the lamps began rocking alarmingly.

Anything can be a game. If I should be marooned on a desert island (with Taylor Swift, say), I’ll think of Tony Lake, and we’ll make up a game using driftwood, rocks, seaweed, shells, and whatever is at hand.