Playing out an old brotherly rivalry on the game board

Published 12:00 am Sunday, August 18, 2002

This was the game.

As I handled the big box covered in Christmas wrapping paper, I knew it was the board game I had asked my parents for. That package would be the first one I opened that Christmas Eve.

It was a board game called Axis & Allies, based on World War II. The game is simple enough: It’s set in 1941, when the war was already engulfing most of the world. One side gets to be the Allies &045; the U.S.A., Great Britain and Russia &045; and the other side is the Axis powers of Germany and Japan. Using game pieces that represent bombers, infantry divisions, submarines, aircraft carriers, and the like, you fight it out until the finish.

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The problem is that it takes a long time &045; especially if you’re not very good at it.

My brother Derek, three years my junior, was interested in trying the game, and I was eager to play, too, so we immediately opened it and started the battle. We hardly noticed when everybody else went to bed.

I forget the details, but by the time one of us claimed victory that Christmas &045; I don’t even remember who won anymore &045; a lot of blue was draining into the black December sky outside. The hours had flown by, and it was almost time for everyone else to wake up.

We played the game many more times after that. But after I went off to college, it was more rare. Sometime in the last few years, I lost track of where my copy of the game is, and I hadn’t played it for a long time &045; until last weekend.

My brother now has his own apartment in Chaska, our hometown, and I went to visit him last Friday night. We watched the Lord of the Rings on DVD, played PlayStation golf, and then, at about 1 a.m. &045; when I should have been going to sleep &045; I thought I had a better idea. I remembered Derek mentioning that he ought his own copy of Axis & Allies.

I shouldn’t have said anything. Starting a game at 1 a.m. was foolish; even a short contest would last a couple hours.

But, perhaps for old-times’ sake, we decided to play.

He wanted to be the Axis Powers, which meant as the Allies, my strategy was clear as I settled in to play. My first priority was to keep the Germans from taking Russia &045; if Russia falls early, the Allies are in trouble. The longer Russia could hold out against Germany’s superior forces, the more time the U.S.A. would have to build up its military might and the more chance I’d have to establish the British navy. By the time the U.S. would be ready to make a move against Japan, the momentum would probably shift to the good guys and the game would be in hand.

I was pleased with the first few rounds; my opponent was making what I though were mistakes. Instead of pushing toward Moscow with all Germany had, he was being hesitant. And in a strange departure from the standard, the Japanese didn’t attack the U.S. fleet in Hawaii, giving me time to strengthen the American navy.

But it all went to pieces. Britain couldn’t harm Germany much from the west, and my brother kept gaining power in Europe and Africa. Japan, rather than focusing on America, headed inward through Asia and &045; for the first time I’ve seen &045; managed to steamroll Russia and take Moscow.

And I was running into bad luck. My attempts to destroy the Japanese navy were not working, with the enemy holding out stubbornly. The Japanese, thanks the the resources gained by taking Russia, snuck into Alaska and invaded western Canada before I could repel them.

I looked at the clock every once in a while and saw the hours slipping past. By the time the night turned into morning, we were still battling it out.

I eventually turned the tables and recovered most of Asia and Africa, but we were still looking at a long battle to the finish when Derek, mostly out of exhaustion, surrendered around 9 a.m.

My brother and I were always close as kids; we had to be. We shared a room until I moved out and often ended up relying on each other for something to do &045; getting a baseball game going, playing video games, riding our bikes.

But when you grow up, you don’t get to be as close to your siblings. So it was nice to revisit the old days last weekend, especially when we followed the same script we did that Christmas when we first took up arms against each other on the game board.

At the same time, the experience reminded me that I’m not a kid anymore. I still don’t think I’ve caught up on that missed night of sleep.

Dylan Belden is the Tribune’s managing editor. His column appears Sundays.