“Sorry.” The word is bloated with cultural significance in Britain. /sor’i/ adj (sorrier, sorriest) regretful; apologetic (The Chambers Dictionary). It is implicit in all we do. Even if we don’t actually say it aloud or mean it, it’s stitched into our awkward, self-deprecating manner. We’re sorry for things we need and things that are not our fault; sorry for taking up space on a train, for asking for something in a restaurant, for having an opinion, for having to send something back. It’s our national word – and, I was reminded recently, our national game.
The classic board game Sorry dates back to 1920s London, patented, as far as anyone can confirm, by one William Henry Storey, sold to Waddingtons in England and then quickly onto the North American games giant Parker Brothers, who added a gratuitous ‘!’ to the name. In my family we used to have a set but managed to lose it along the way, and last month my brother Alex tracked down an original British 1933 edition, marked with the publisher’s charming Bloomsbury address, ‘BCM/Sorry-11, London, W.C.1’.
“Play it and be glad,” instructs the front cover of a miniscule booklet entitled Rules and Hints for Playing the National Game. And this curt and officious tone pervades the entire rulebook, which contains a surprising number of words given its size – no more than 7cm by 4cm. Alex, his partner Luisa and I, settling down for an evening of London gin and London Sorry, needed reminding of the strategies and objectives of the game, as we hadn’t played it in over a decade, so we inspected the pages of the tiny booklet. “IMPORTANT NOTICE,” it shouts. “These Rules will be found sufficient to answer your EVERY query if read SLOWLY and CAREFULLY, laying GREAT emphasis on the words in CAPITALS and Italics.”
Completely wonderful already, just for its introduction, the instruction booklet was worth reading in full for entertainment value before commencing play. “Although you may enjoy your first game of ‘SORRY’, it is only after playing FOUR games that you will BEGIN to appreciate there is MUCH more skill in the game than at first appears,” we were told. Crikey, we didn’t remember it being a very skilled game; we were only kids and used to play several rounds on a Sunday evening, after crumpets and before The Borrowers on BBC1. Wasn’t it quite simple? That said, we couldn’t remember the rules, and the booklet still hadn’t given us any, so keen was it to put us in our place. “If after playing FOUR games the AVERAGE time taken per game is over twenty-five minutes, the rules should be CAREFULLY read again.”
“Oh, for goodness’ sake, come on, just play!” said Luisa, so Alex skipped through a few more pages of preliminary telling-off and found the rules, and it all came flooding back to us. Sorry is simple: you start with four ‘men’ each in a chosen colour; you take turns drawing a card from the pack and move around the board as the cards dictate, and the idea is that you hinder other players’ progress by knocking their men out of play and back to their ‘start’, which you can do by drawing a card with ‘Sorry’ written on it. The first player to get all his men round the board and safely to their ‘home’ wins. And why is it called Sorry? Well, when you boot a player’s man off the board and send him back to the beginning, you say ‘sorry’, with all the irony you can muster. In this game, as in British society, you’re never actually sorry; you’re just saying you are and secretly thinking ‘ha! I win!’ Cleverly, and entirely in keeping with the Britishness of it all, the apologising part of the rules is not explained or even mentioned in the booklet; it is implicit.
So, off we went, and our first game took much longer than twenty-five minutes – shame on us – because we came a cropper a few times, forgetting when to move forward and back and by how many, and needing to consult the booklet to check the rules for each card drawn or square landed upon. For example: the player who draws a ‘10’ “MUST EITHER move ONE of his men FORWARD ten squares OR BACKWARD one square”; and “in NO CIRCUMSTANCES WHATSOEVER do two men occupy one square”. We managed to learn the etiquette and our play got quicker. In the first game, Alex got all his blue men ‘home’ first, gleefully booting Luisa’s yellow and my green men back to ‘start’ with a devilish ‘sorry’ and a gulp of his drink each time, and we appropriately hammed up our victim status and ‘offence’ taken from his bad manners.
We raced through our second, third and fourth games – certainly finishing well within twenty-five minutes by the fourth – and sipped our fifth and sixth gin and tonics; heady from hours of juniper and competition, we came to the revelation that this really is the perfect game of catharsis for the uptight British. Sorry allows you to play out the tense, absurd little dance of insincere apologising and to make fun of it; it lets you win and crow about it; it lets you say ‘ha!’ to your fellow players in a way that you would IN NO CIRCUMSTANCES WHATSOEVER do in everyday life, whether in 1933 or 2011. And one really does feel rather better afterwards. It’s game and therapy all at once. Play it and be glad.
Sorry! is available to buy in all sorts of modern variants, including, for some reason, a Spongebob Squarepants edition. You’ll have to work harder to find a classic London Sorry.