Michael was my nephew. He was 15 when he died last year after six years of illness, treatment, and isolation. So when it comes to coping strategies for medical incarceration, he was a pro. Even before he was ill, we always enjoyed playing games together.

I wish he was here to see the events unfolding around the world at the moment. I’m sure he’d respond with an amused shrug and a dismissive comment before going back to whatever he was doing. He might even offer some advice for us isolation rookies. Although, as a fan of the zombie genre, I’d imagine he’d soon be making plans for a secret underground base where he could stockpile his toilet roll.

Sadly, whatever wisdom he accrued in his various extended hospital stays is lost to us. The best I can do is list some of the most enjoyable non-digital games that we played together. I cannot overstate how valuable all these games were in whiling away many hours and giving him some time away from the videogame screen that kept him company for much of his waking day.

Here are some of the best unplugged gaming experiences we shared, and a couple I wish we’d had.

Collectible Card Games like Magic: The Gathering

The collectible card game that inspired thousands of variants when it first sprang forth from the mind of Richard Garfield in 1993 somehow passed me by in my youth. Fortunately, it thrives to this day.

So when Michael was diagnosed with leukaemia at the age of nine in 2013, I bought a starter pack on my way to see him at one of his first hospital stays and we never looked back. 

The stunning fantasy artwork and ingenious game design made a young boy (and his somewhat less young uncle) feel like mystical ‘planeswalkers’ summoning beasts and magicks in a battle of wits and strategy.

The intricacies of the rules took us a while to master – each player has their own deck and each card has its own unique rules – but when you’re stuck in a room with nothing but time, you can’t beat the infinite variety of M:TG. Each game tells a story and no two are ever alike.

I have many fond memories playing against Michael and his younger brother Nathan during hospital visits and family gatherings alike. I can definitely recommend it for any older children (it’s rated 13+), but some of the artwork is a bit harrowing for younger eyes (which I discovered too late – and in hindsight, this may be where Michael’s fascination with zombies came from).

It’s worth noting that there are many similar collectible card games more suitable for a younger audience, Pokemon being the most popular, I believe, but I can’t offer any further insight. It probably doesn’t have zombies though.

Judging by my expression, I think I was losing.

Roleplaying Games Like Dungeons & Dragons

A brand that needs little introduction but is impossible to do justice to in an ‘elevator pitch’, Dungeons & Dragons was a road that regrettably Michael and I did not travel far along.

Part drama rehearsal, part writer’s workshop, part tactical combat game, Dungeons & Dragons (D&D) is a roleplaying game (RPG) in which players participate in epic stories played out in ‘the theatre of the mind’. Each player takes the role of a principal character of their own vision while the world, its events and incidental characters are described by the narrating Dungeonmaster. Commonly, a game session comprises between four and six players, one Dungeonmaster and several hours, but the format is very flexible and the content and concepts can be tailored for almost any age group.

As seen in Stranger Things

Michael and I enjoyed a ‘session zero’ where we browsed the rich source material for ideas to build his first character. He created Jebeddo the Beholder, a gnome necromancer who had aspirations to industrialise a zombie workforce to give them purpose. I created a zombie sidekick for Jebeddo and we had plans to play some solo sessions, but alas it never came to pass. 

Like Magic: the Gathering, D&D was the first of its kind but has since seen countless variant RPGs, each bringing a different style and flavour. During my youth I also enjoyed Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay (grimdark fantasy), Cyberpunk 2020 (near future dystopia – a bit redundant now), Call of the Cthulhu (19th century psychological horror) and various other systems.

You can download the basic rules for D&D for free here.

Board Games Like Carcassone

An odd little game I was recommended by the lovely folks at Excelsior! Comics during Michael’s extended stay in isolation at Bristol Royal Infirmary in 2018. By that time, we had built up extensive collections of M:TG cards, but due to the strict isolation rules, they were deemed an infection risk and were not permitted, so I popped into this impressive games emporium for some factory fresh MTG boxes and other entertainment options.

Carcassone, named for the French fort town of the same name, is essentially an interactive jigsaw puzzle, where the players take turns laying pieces of a map and attempting to claim territory (farms, towns, roads and abbeys) to accrue points. 

It is simple, gentle, and quite addictive. There are a number of expansions which presumably add more depth and complexity, but sadly we never got to try them out.

Carcassone is definitely more family friendly and accessible than M:TG. I plan to try it out with my own children (5 & 6 y/o) in the near future. There are definitely no zombies in this one, or even any real conflict.

Happiness despite events.

Tabletop Games Like Warmaster

I’m exercising a little creative licence with this particular entry, as Michael only played this once, but it qualifies for reasons I’ll explain as I go.

Warmaster is a tabletop wargame which involves collecting and painting hundreds of fantasy genre miniatures then following a set of rules to play out intricate and involved military engagements on a table. There is no board, but plenty of dice, and a dizzying amount of miniatures.

A small battle can take a couple of hours, but a larger one can take a day or more. Perfect for a rainy day with a fellow collector or a couple of like-minded people in isolation. I’ve yet to convince my wife to take part in a battle and my kids are too young, but at least I can paint.

Warmaster in particular is another holdover from my youth, but one which gave me a lot of succour in the months after Michael died when I locked myself away from the world and painted many, many miniatures.

Bretonnians vs. Wood Elves, 2019.

I reckon Warmaster would have been the next big thing for Michael, he enjoyed his one experience; a battle of Bretonnian Knights versus Dwarves with his younger brother, Nathan, a few Summers ago.

Michael loved strategy games on his PC and among the many fantastical armies available, there are a number of zombie options. Failing that, his love of tanks would have been well catered for with one of the rules systems aimed at more modern warfare, like Bolt Action or Flames of War.

Wrapping Up

All over the world families and neighbours are finding themselves in challenging domestic circumstances, but there is opportunity to find new hobbies, to discover interesting new ways to spend time together and open doors into worlds you may never had thought to visit before. Despite the abundance of technology, not everything has to be on a screen. These are just a few examples of the plethora of stunning games and hobbies out there.

I’d like to think Michael’s experiences might somehow help to make other peoples lives a little better while we await the zombie apocalypse.

Let me know what you discover.

P.S. I’m sure that Michael would have liked me to remind you that, should you encounter a zombie, don’t let it bite you, and aim for the head.

Since you’re still here:

As a relevant but shameless punt for a friend who was very kind and supportive during Michael’s final weeks, Dan Grubb of Fantastic Books Gaming has launched a Kickstarter for a board game that I dearly hope to have the opportunity to play one day. If the kind of games I’ve described above sound intriguing, but perhaps you need to ease yourself into something a little less elaborate, Gorgon’s Loch sits very much in that sweet spot. Please go back it on Kickstarter.