Board Games and Broomsticks: Which Witch?

October 6, 2015 — The box art got me. It was just a board game from 1970, but I wanted to be in that moment represented on its box. Hanging out with friends around a miniature haunted house while three witches gathered behind us brandishing skulls and wands. The second I learned about this old board game last season, I stopped whatever I was doing and went right to eBay and bought it. But then never got around to playing it. I can’t remember why. I never even set it up once. Just kind of gazed longingly at the box art. After October 31st, it went in the storage bins with the Halloween decorations.

I’m not a board game guy in general, so buying this was a weird move for me. In fact, at some point, I lost all of my competitive spirit. Probably right around the time when I realized that all of my abilities in everything were firmly in the suck-to-mediocre range. But still, I had this game thanks to that random impulse, so I thought we’d resurrect it this season and give it a go.

Called Which Witch?, the Milton Bradley game is of the 3D variety, meaning the board has vertical walls and plastic pieces connected to the board and isn’t completely played on just the flat surface. The premise is that you’re trying to escape a witch house. It has four rooms—Broom Room, Witchin Kitchen, Spell Cell, and Bat’s Ballroom. You roll a dice, advance that many steps, and then draw a card. Here’s where the title comes in. You’re going to get one of three cards, each one representing a different witch. And which witch you get, determines what happens next.

If you get Wanda the Wicked, you’re enchanted by a spell and are turned into a mouse. You take your plastic child piece and replace it with a plastic mouse of the same color. From that point on you can’t roll the dice to move until you a draw a Glenda the Good card. She breaks the spell.

The real fun starts, though, with the third witch, Ghoulish Gerty. Her card merely states, “Drops it down the chimney.” In her hand, she holds a skull. This one takes a bit of explanation. It’ll be fun, though, so stick with me.

See, the four rooms are arranged around a chimney. When you pull Gerty, you pick up a metal ball the size of a marble, the “whammy ball,” and drop it down the chimney. The ball ricochets at random through one of four chutes into one of the rooms, setting off a booby trap and knocking over any player standing on a danger spot. Those booby traps include a plastic broom that falls over, a section of wobbly floor, a bucket that lifts a section of wall, and a plastic staircase. If you’re on a danger spot when the whammy ball sets off the trap in your room, your piece gets sent back to the beginning of the room. Basically, Ghoulish Gerty is the snake in Snakes and Ladders.

The box I got was pretty beat up. That’s usually a beautiful thing when it comes to old board games, as you can just sense the kids in their pre-cable, pre-Internet world laying around on a shag carpet dropping metal balls down chimneys while listening to vinyl records of Simon and Garfunkel because their parents won’t let them listen to The Doors.

However, when it comes to 3D board games, it can be troubling because it means that the environment, being mostly cardboard, is probably ripped or warped or bent in a way that makes the game unplayable.

But as I sat there putting the pieces together with the nervousness of somebody trying to set a world record for a house of cards, it soon became evident that not only was the game fully intact pieces-wise, but they all fit together fine. This thing is a survivor. And I was suddenly sitting in front of a miniature haunted house. All I needed were friends and witches to surround me. If only both of those groups weren’t mythical.

But I do have a family. So my five-year-old and my wife and I sat around our kitchen booth to play. We don’t have shag carpeting, unfortunately.

Per the instructions, we set the board in the bottom half of the box to keep the whammy ball from rolling away every time it dropped from the chimney. Most of the cards were Ghoulish Gerty cards, so that meant a lot of ball-dropping. In the course of that, we realized that the 45-year-old board was warped, because the ball kept landing in the same room.

We fixed this problem by holding down the corners of the board while the ball dropped. Even better, it turned into a ritual. When we heard someone say “I got Gerty,” we all took our positions with the solemnity of witches standing at the points of a pentagram to spellcast.

The other issue is that two of the four booby traps rarely worked to the point where thy knocked over pieces. The wobbly floor worked every time, as did the staircase. But it took a special alignment of dust motes and microscopic organisms and carbon dioxide exhalations for the broom or the wall section to actually hit a piece. This didn’t have to do with the age of the board. The brains at Milton Bradley foresaw that (probably right around the time they visited the production floor) and included the caveat in the rules that if the booby trap doesn’t actually knock your piece over, it stills counts.

Versions of this game were sold all over the world, with names like Ghost Castle or Spookslot or Kummituslinna. The art varies widely with each version, as do the game elements themselves. For instance, sometimes a spinner was used instead of cards and sometimes the entire chimney was plastic. None of it made me wish I had those versions instead. Except for one thing. Later versions of the game came with glow-in-the-dark skulls instead of metal balls. That’s exactly what the original needed.

Also interesting (to me and, I guess, everyone else who’s been warped by decades of corporate marketers to salivate at product tie-ins), Milton Bradley released a version of the game in 1986 themed after The Real Ghostbusters.

Honestly, I thought playing this game would be more of a gimmick than an experience. I thought we’d throw on I Put a Spell on You, pretend to play a game that was too old to take the wear and tear, set up a few photos, and call it a Halloween Season post. But to date, we’ve played this game five times on three different nights. Also to date, I’ve lost this game five times. And that’s exactly why I’m not competitive.