Chapter 3-Meet Kird Ape


Meet Kird Ape  

INLATE 1994, I had just uprooted to New Zealand from rural England after a traumatic time in my family’s life. My dad, a fantasy illustrator and suitably corrupting influence, had started a business designing and selling war games, along with a partner from his days working at fantasy powerhouse Games Workshop. Sadly, the partnership failed, the Conservative government shepherded the UK economy down the toilet with a series of violent flushes and the Chalks, like numerous other families the country over, lost everything.  

In practical terms, that meant our house, almost everything my parents had in the bank and a cosy middle-class existence in a neat Northamptonshire village. I left my posh fee-paying school mid-way through the year, ashamed, confused and unable to describe to friends, who never wanted for anything, what was happening. Why my parents could no longer afford the fees, let alone pocket money for music, tuck, clothes or whatever my peer group thought the measure of a man-cub back then. We were in dire straits and, of the few possible escape routes open to us, my parents hit upon the idea of emigrating to New Zealand (English- speaking and home to a few friends at least) as the best of a bad bunch. As a 13-year-old boy finding my feet in school, it was not a move I relished. All 1 wanted was to cement my first lasting friendships and to listen to Pearl Jam, Juliana Hatfield and the Wonder Stuff, occasionally with girls. New Zealand was, so I heard, all sheep.  

If only it had been. Instead, it was also a terrifying new school, distinctly agricultural in appearance, all tin roofs, huts on stilts and concrete walkways. A fine educational institution Mahurangi College may have been, but compared to my private all- boys school in Warwick, founded by Edward the Confessor, it felt like the back-end of beyond. Helpfully, regular racist taunts (ethnically, I am half-Chinese) from white co-pupils made me feel especially welcome. “They told us we were getting a new kid from England,” they informed me on my first day. “Imagine our surprise when a nip walked in!” As if that was not bad enough, I was also one of the sinful few in my new environment not to revel in participatory team sport. A passing interest in football was derided as “gay” and quite clearly I had never done PE outside in my bare feet before. All in all, I was ill-equipped to embrace the pillars of New Zealand culture.  

In such circumstances, I couldn’t help but hover from group to group at break-time, trying to find one with whom I felt I belonged. Slowly but surely, I gravitated away from the idiots to whom I was first assigned and had a crack at a more popular bunch. There I failed miserably. A lack of self-confidence and overriding cultural incompatibility (I wore trousers instead of shorts) scuppered me. That left me chatting to some kids from maths, who seemed to gravitate towards the library on cold days.  

Already au fait with fantasy gaming through my dad, I had more luck infiltrating this last clique. Perhaps that is too granda word for three or four awkward teenagers with bad skin and bookish tendencies. But from them, I discovered that painting metal figurines for kitchen-table skirmishes was in fact a gateway drug to far harder substances. The new stuff on the street was called Magic: The Gathering and, as 1994 rolled into 1995, I would duly take my first hit.  

Into the library I went with the Mahuranghi Magic gang, comprising Simon, Jamie, Brad and James and a few kids younger than ourselves. The latter would flit around, join in occasionally, trade us the odd card, but were never part of the Magic inner sanctum. We didn’t have much – no cars, girlfriends, the right trainers or parties to go to — but we did have standards. A requisite disdain for anyone younger than ourselves. Turf even. Reeking of wet wool and adolescent odour, the library was that turf- our preferred table, a couple of chairs, the same cheap carpet that finds its way into educational institutions everywhere. It wasn’t much. But despite regular set-tos with the fussy old librarian Mrs Hughes, it was ours.  

I had tried to grasp the concept of this unknown game from fragments of back-of-the-class chatter. But until someone pressed a slightly battered wad of cards into my hands, I didn’t really get it. Was Magic tactical like a war game, the cards replacing toy soldiers on a mocked-up battlefield? Was it as banal and random as Top Trumps? Where did this game even come from? “No”, “No”, and “America” came the rapid-fire answers as the Magic players huddled around me and tried to explain the game’s rules.  

Clumsily, I shuffled the deck I had been lent and prepared for my first-ever game. Brown, book-like card backs tumbled through my hands as I mixed them. Then I drew a starting hand of seven, as instructed, and stared blankly at my opponent. I was, to put it mildly, lost. But then I fanned open my first grip of cards and came face-to-face with a startling fellow called Kird Ape. The card’s illustration, a hulking silverback gorilla lurking in the undergrowth, stared out at me with piercing red eyes. Instantly, I knew that for all my confusion, for all the meaningless jabbering in my ear, for all my questions about what I was doing in a library 11,600 miles from home, I got it. Magic was special. And it was something for me.  

Magic is perhaps best described as a singularly rich gaming environment. Its genius lies in the premise outlined by Richard Garfield to Peter Adkison in that Seattle car park, back in 1991: where other games had one set of rules, Garfield told Adkison, his game would have almost endless rules. Where other games came neatly sorted in one communal box or deck, his would be sold in incomplete chunks and every player would be free to assemble their own set. Whereas other games were finite in scope, his would be endlessly expandable. The math whiz’s ‘two-million-dollar’ idea was not simply for a card game, but for what he dubbed. a “collectible card game”, something that had hitherto never existed. ‘Collectible’, like sports stickers or cards. And playable, like a strategy game. It would be, just as Dungeons & Dragons had been to tabletop wargaming, a paradigm shift. A new gaming form entirely. One set of rules would govern the game as a whole. But each card printed would also have its own rules written on it, too. Interacting with the universal rules in a unique way, a card could then be collected by a player, sized up for its strengths and weaknesses and slotted into his or her personalised deck. Both the design of the game and the decks of cards used to play it would be completely modular. It was a deceptively simple idea but absolutely revolutionary at the same time. Adkison, who knew a good. game when he found one, was right to jump up and down with glee.  

Still, as I fumbled Magic cards for the first time, it took me a while to understand what any of this meant. The backs of the cards provided the first clue to understanding the game. Each was textured to look like a leather-bound tome and featured a ring of five coloured dots in its middle; red, black, green, blue and white. These were, said my friends, the game’s different colours of ‘mana’. Manais the main resource each player must marshal in the game, using it to deploy the other cards in his or her hand. In the game’s parlance, players use mana, to ‘cast’ a mixture of ‘spells’. Those spells are broken down into different types, cost different amounts of mana to use and have different effects on the game. Sorceries, instants, creatures, artifacts, enchantments, planeswalkers and tribal spells —all of them can be used in one way or another to reduce the opponent’s life total from 20 to zero points, the main path to victory in the game.  

Kird Ape represented one of those card types, a creature as its name suggests, and a red creature at that, as I could tell from the card’s coloured frame. Each appropriately coloured card has a slot for a picture, a main text box detailing what the card does, plus other textual tit-bits dotted around the card’s surface. In the top left is the card’s name — ‘Kird Ape’. I read it several times, as I tried to beat my puzzlement and make my first-ever play. To do that, I then had to look in the opposite, top right-hand corner. There, symbols would show me what I needed to do if I wanted to play the card – to take it from my hand, introduce it to the game and have it do what it says it does in its text box. In Kird Ape’s case, there was a single symbol in the corner, a little red swirling flame, showing me that to cast him, I had to spend one red mana. Mana functions like a currency — once generated by a ‘land’, it can be spent to pay the casting cost of the spells in a player’s hand. Each colour of mana has its strengths and weaknesses, each is represented by its own symbol and each colour of mana is produced by a corresponding basic land that produces one specific type of mana. Each turn, players alternate and can put one more land into play, giving them progressively more mana to play the cards in their hand. Each player gets to draw a card each turn and as their resources grow, each can play a wider range of the new options being drawn from their ‘library’ (the more flavourful name for their deck used during the game). With each turn, come new decisions about how to overcome one’s opponent or to stop them from charging to victory first.  

With that goal in mind, I scratched my head and tried to figure out how best to smash the grinning and impatient rival sat across the library table from me. Reducing your opponent’s life total from 20 to zero is the key and here, Kird Ape and his fellow creatures are vitally important. Each creature has two numbers down in the bottom right-hand corner, separated by a ‘/’. In the case of Kird Ape those numbers read ‘1/1’ – the mighty beast’s ‘power’ (before the ‘/’) and ‘toughness’ (after the ‘/’). These stats dictate how much damage a creature can deal (to an opponent or to another creature, should your opponent throw one of their own into its path to block its attack) and how much they can soak up before dying themselves. Kird Ape can deal one damage (its power) and survive being dealt one damage, too (its toughness). Unlike a toy soldier in a war game though, once Kird Ape is in play, he is not manoeuvred with a tape measure or advanced following a die role. Magic’s battlefield is metaphorical and pieces are laid out according to convention rather than tactically arranged or physically moved into contact with one another for combat.  

Instead, cards in play have an effect on the game specified by the individual rules text printed on the card. Kird Ape, for example, is no ordinary monkey. The words in his text box read, While controller has Forests in play, Kird Ape gains +1/+2. What does that mean? Simply, that if you build your deck to include red-mana-making Mountains with which to cast him and Forests with which to fuel him, you can make Kird Ape a bigger threat to your opponent – a 2/3 creature instead of a 1/1 creature, something not to be sniffed at. Lastly, Kird Ape, like every other card in the game, includes an artist credit. Ken Meyer Jr was responsible for Kird Ape’s look and feel: a brooding beast waiting to leap out from his verdant habitat, all the while fixing his prey with fiery red eyes. Those single dots of crimson paint lit up a grey New Zealand day and compelled me to become a Magic player. So thank you Ken. The bill is in the post.  

More importantly though, Kird Ape’s gaze sparked joy in me, which I realised I hadn’t felt since departing Heathrow airport in tears. That card was more than a playing piece. It was a handhold for my teenage self, flailing above a gaping void of my own ill- defined identity. Slapping down Kird Ape on a chipped Formica tabletop in the library at Mahurangi College was liberating. The newness of the experience hinted at a world that had not yet been defined, as grand in scope perhaps as Garfield had intended. To me, that signalled hope. That, having lost the world I thought I knew, I could find another place for myself within this game. These cards then, these simple cards, would be the key to anew community. A home away from home. Solace during a miserable exile. I smiled as I held them. They have proved almost impossible to put down since.