Transcript of our podcast from 27 August 2008

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Gaming in Popular Culture PART II: Quintet - the mysterious killer game

by Moritz Eggert

In continuing my quest for the depiction of boardgames in popular media I will now talk about one of the weirdest films ever made about a boardgame, which is the super obscure Robert Altman film "Quintet" starring none other than Paul Newman and a bunch of other freezing actors (the film was made on the area of the former Montreal World Expo during particularly cold weather), among them the great Fernando Rey. Robert Altman is best known for films like M.A.S.H. and Short Cuts, but in this film from 1979 - one year after Star Wars - he literally dropped the ball so to speak, as it is considered one of the most boring Science Fiction Films ever made in the history of mankind. But some elements of the film are actually still quite interesting, especially the mysterious game of the title, "Quintet", the centre piece of the film about which the whole action revolves quite literally.

In a post-apocalyptic world that has left its course to enter a new ice age Paul Newman, a struggling survivor, reaches a kind of final outpost accompanied by his pregnant wife. This outpost is peopled by a bunch of decadent weirdoes of dwindling numbers who are absolutely into a strange boardgame that seems to involve killing people to win. Newman is quickly drawn into this game against his will - which immediately costs the life of his wife. He must understand and master it to survive.

This all sounds interesting, but it isn't sadly. In the end, after endless long scenes in which nothing much happens except seeing freezing actors standing in large empty rooms looking depressed and not saying much, he learns that his quest was futile - the game was about suicide of everybody involved anyway, and he did nothing but speed up this process. But lots of intellectual mumbo-jumbo has already long put any viewer to sleep most probably before that. Paul Newman's otherwise considerable acting skills seem to have been frozen in this film as well, as he walks around the place with one single expression regardless of what's happening around him.

If there is any saving grace for this film it is the basic concept and of course the game itself, which is actually more interesting than the run of the mill - Jumanji-type Snake-and-Ladder games that usually feature in films. It is a known fact that Altman actually was obsessed with the idea of creating a real working game for the film, to make the story more gripping.

Sadly he forgot to tell the audience the rules. Apparently the game was even played obsessively during the filming; I guess the actors got bored with the proceedings a little. The board of the game is shown several times in the film, even though there never is a real exploration of its strategy.

"Quintet" is in essence a roll and move killer game - each player has to work off a secret your eyes only list of opponents that he has to kill. It is never really explained in the film how the turns are played on the board and then the killings are done in real life, it all seems to happen in a kind of dream state. An interesting aspect of the game is that each player also has allies that protect him, but once his first hit on the list is killed, his former ally can suddenly become his target or vice versa.

Another interesting aspect is the true boardgame feel of it - players move around some kind of track using dice, and the limited movement possibilities each turn tell them who they can attack and who not.

I have searched the internet for a rules set or pictures of this game, but there is little mention of it anywhere. After looking for hours I finally searched the geek in desperation, only to notice that I should have done exactly that in the first place, because lo and behold, there is a real entry together with a picture of its unusual backgammon-like heptagonal board taken from the film. Look it up under "Quintet". Apparently the game was indeed published with a licence by Altman, but only in Brazil of all places. There is no indication if the game was a success, but it seems to have been playable. No geek has ever rated it, so I guess not many people own a copy.

I also remember once owning a film program for the film - this came from a time when you could still buy little brochures with program notes when you went to the cinema - and this program had a detailed description of the rules, which actually sounded quite interesting if I remember correctly.

Perhaps somebody owns this program and can make a scan of it, it was only 2 pages or so.

If I remember the rules correctly there is indeed one other game which has some similarities, and that is the game "Medici", and I don't mean the Knizia game but the Italian game made by International team way back in the 70's. Here there is also a roll, move and kill mechanic on an abstract board that looks a bit similar.

Anyway, on one hand "Quintet" is the most playable and innovative boardgame ever used in a film, but on the other hand the film around it doesn't make much sense. Still, for any film fans it might be worth checking out this very hard-to-find film, as even in the general boredom it has it's moments of brilliance. Perhaps some time another director will take the idea and make a fantastic film out of it, who knows? I'm sure the rights are pretty cheap...

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