Grapes of Frath

Written by Michael Badnarik

In 1985 I fled the cold and snow of the Midwest and moved to the sunny beaches of California to work on the Stealth Bomber. I lived in a gated community with so much plant life it was like living in a jungle. Unfortunately, this made my apartment too dark to host a party, so my girlfriend and I came up with an alternative solution. I was a new member of a sailing club in Newport Beach, and I was eventually allowed to rent one of the larger sailboats for the evening. Needless to say, the club was suspicious that I had no intention of untying the boat from the dock and sailing it into the harbor. I merely needed a venue where we could solve the murder.

I had discovered a series of board games called HOW TO HOST A MURDER, and one version of the game takes place aboard a very large boat. It was called “Grapes of Frath”, wherein the millionaire champagne tycoon is found dead in the wine cellar aboard his ship, with the door locked from the inside. Four couples are invited to assume the character of one of the people on the ship, unable to leave until the murder is solved. I was working with a brilliant collection of computer programmers who, much to my surprise, were very excited about acting out one of the parts in this mellodrama. “The stage was set”, so to speak.

I don’t remember the names of all the characters in the game. Modern versions of the game have changed them from what I remember. Based on my personal recollections, the mystery began by introducing the characters to each other.

My character was “Captain Mal de Mer”, which is French for seasickness. I walk with a limp that I claim resulted from an old Navy war wound, however the truth is that I accidentally ran a previous ship aground, and was stuck there for several months. The limp is actually the result of walking back and forth across the listing deck for so long. Every character has his or her own skeleton in the closet they would rather keep a secret if possible.

My girlfriend’s character was some kind of dance hall girl, however there was no romance between the two characters. In anticipation of the mystery turning “deadly”, my girlfriend and I purchased two toy revolvers. They looked realistic and were very loud as far as toys go. We each concealed one the night of the “murder”.

The evening was a huge success because each of the friends I invited “became” their characters, and never once called each other by their real names all evening. They also spent considerable time finding a costume and dressing the part. The woman who played a Russian Countess came down the stairs in a red, form fitting evening dress with matching gloves that continued past her elbows. She wore a diamond tiara in her coiffed hair, sparkling diamonds around her neck, and a diamond ring the size of a sugar cube on one hand. As she decended to the deck she delicately extended her arm allowing me the opportunity to kiss her hand. For a moment I was mezmerized by her beauty and her royalty. She vaguely reminded me of someone I knew.

The next guest down the stairs was a man named “Jules Theef”. He wore a black beret, a red and white horizontally striped shirt, black bell bottom trousers, and gold pendent hanging around his neck at least four inches in diameter. As I introduced my Russian Countess to Jules, she again held out her hand to be kissed. As Jules did so, he immediately pulled a jeweler’s loup from his pocket and “secretly” inspected the sugar cube diamond on the Countess’s finger. I laughed so hard I almost choked! I’m not clever enough to have scripted any of this.

“Jules” real-life girlfriend came dressed as a Hollywood ingenue, wearing a semi-sheer white blouse and a gray skirt that was cut to the top of her femur. At this point, I didn’t care if we solve the murder or not.

The guy I worked in the computer lab with was born for his character as a reckless race car driver. He came in a pastel T-shirt covered by an open sport jacket, and a white silk scarf wrapped around his neck like a World War II fighter pilot. His “devil-may-care” attitude at work made it easy for him to portray the playboy in our group.

Two more characters completed our cast as another friend stepped into the boat wearing British tails, white spats on his shoes, and a brushed gray top hat right out of a Dicken’s novel. His real-life girlfriend came as a 20’s “flapper” with a very short dress covered in little strings. I was in awe. My friends had obviously invested lots of time and a fair amount of money to prepare for the evening. With dedication like that, the night was sure to be a success.

The game is played by each character opening an envelope that describes their character is some detail. Each person reads this card aloud so everyone knows the starting premise of the game. This card also includes one of the “secrets” that another character is eager to deny. This means that every character knows dirt about at least one other character. The game proceeds as a cocktail party, with guests chatting normally. Somewhere during the conversation, each character is obligated to spill the beans about the character they have information about. The problem at this point is, you don’t know if this is really a clue, or if someone is just ad libbing during the conversation. What is “mystery-real” and what is “mystery-imaginary”?

My girlfriend, the dance hall girl, had watched me hide my pistol in the small of my back. During the game I became distrustful of her character, so I relocated the pistol to my pocket. (“Yes, I’m glad to see you.”) During the evening she came up to give me a hug which was actually an excuse to feel for the gun in my belt. Her expression when she didn’t find it there was priceless. Who is betraying who?

According to the instructions, each phase of the game should take about 30 minutes. We abandoned that guideline because we were having way too much fun. For each phase of the game, characters are given new cards with even more incriminating “evidence” about the other characters. These cards are all read privately, and again there is a responsibility to share this new evidence with the others during conversation. As each character becomes more vindictive towards the others, the tension builds, and excuses are conjured on the spot to explain or excuse the information being revealed. At the end of the fourth phase of the game, the “real” murderer is revealed as characters read their final cards.

We started our game at 6:00pm and continued until 2:00am the next morning. We were totally consumed by the energy required to solve the murder. What great fun! That is perhaps the best party I’ve ever attended. Certainly the most fun I’ve ever hosted. We had so much fun I was immediately tasked with finding another game we could play. I decided that “The Last Train from Paris”, a clone of “Murder on the Orient Express” was to be our next distraction. I called Amtrak and asked how long the train ride was from Los Angeles to San Diego. Too short. How long was the ride from Los Angeles to San Francisco? Too long. Confused by a customer who doesn’t know his destination, she asked me what I was attempting to do. I sheepishly explained that my friends and I wanted to Host a Murder with a train theme. She said, “Oh! You want the train to Phoenix. Everybody does that.” In fact, Amtrak had a special rate which allowed you to rent an entire train car for your party. You start your evening with your car on a siding. Just before the train leaves the station, it backs into your car and drags you along. You have probably solved the murder by the time you stop in Arizona. You can sleep on your train, do some shopping in the morning, and then the train brings you back to Los Angeles the following day. It was PERFECT! Unfortunately, the Stealth Bomber project began to require overtime from each department, so we never had a chance to discover the next “Who done it?”

“Imagination will often carry us to worlds that never were, but without it we go nowhere.”
– Carl Sagan

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  1. Celeste

    LOVE this story! You have such terrific stories and such an amazing way of recounting stories and events!

  2. E K

    Brilliant! What a creative and fun way to share time with friends.

    Captivating story. Thank you for sharing it with us.

  3. James Yost

    Thank you for remembering this, I had such a wonderful weekend.

    [mjb: Thank you for helping make it such a success, “Jules”. Perhaps my next newsletter will tell the story about how our girlfriends insisted on joining us on one of our paintball warrior weekends.]


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