The Troll Game

I agreed to play 30 consecutive games of Castle Mania with Hazel, or “The Troll Game” as we call it. (She had advocated for 50 games but I talked her down.)

Castle Mania is a simple but surprisingly suspenseful card game where you team up with each other to prevent a pack of trolls from knocking down your cardboard castle.

For each turn, there are 4 things you have to do in a specific order:

Flip a card
Play a card
Move the trolls
Pick another troll and put it on the board

Hazel could not remember this.

I reminded her for the first 2 games. Then I gave her the handy reference card, which, or course, she never referenced.

She’d forget it was her turn, forget one of the steps, or forget the order of things

After 3 hours, we’d reached 10 games and she was still messing up.

I needed to go for a walk.

It bothered me that she wasn’t getting it. But I wasn’t even 5 minutes into my walk when I realized something:

Not more than a few weeks ago, I went to a poker night with some friends. The poor fella to my right needed to remind me it was my turn nearly ever single time. I’d get the small and big blinds mixed up, and even have to ask him what the chips were worth. After a while, he just started prompting me at every turn, before I could mess up. We joked that he was my classroom aide, there to help me do what everyone else can do on their own.

So, I didn’t have to very look far to understand what was happening with Hazel. I could look inside for this one…

I like poker, but I like hanging out much much more.

When I’m at the table, I’m usually paying attention to what’s going on between hands: the conversation, the dynamics, the quips, and above all else, the beautiful comradery that just sort of happens, that falls on everyone like a blanket of sunshine. Without realizing it, we all start to get warm and glowy.

That night, I placed fourth and lost all my chips, but I didn’t care. I got what I came for.

I suppose I’ll always be a mediocre card player because I’m too busy paying attention to everything else.

And I guess Hazel’s the same.

You learn a lot playing 30 games of Castle Mania in a row.

I thought it’d be a waste of time: playing a kids game, going around and around, staying in the same place for the entire afternoon.

But with time and repetition, things come to the surface, or rather, you just start seeing things in a different light, like staring in a mirror and watching yourself become a stranger.

I watched her on game 11 and noticed how goddamn happy she was and how much she didn’t care about being reminded how to play each and every hand. She spoke in a funny voice, laughed when I flung the cards and missed the box. She put her hands to her mouth in faux fright as I drew my next card.

I didn’t have to worry.

She was glowing. She was getting what she came for.

And then a miracle happened.

At the end of game 12, Hazel got it right. Flip, Play, Move, Pick…

Just like that. She did it super fast, no hesitation. She totally nailed it. And then she paused afterward.

I noticed. She noticed. I could tell she noticed I noticed.

And then she broke the silence in a way that was too perfect for her to understand, as if she had been in my head this whole time, alongside me for my walk, sitting next to me at the poker table, and even somehow there beside me, when I was her age, in a first-grade classroom, messing up the order of things.

“It’s YOUR turn,” she shouted.

“Oh,” I said. “Whoops.”

And we both laughed.