I was thinking about bagatelle the other day while picking up some yew hedging. There is a yew, I was told by the nursery owner, which is an intersex tree, not transgender – the Fortingall Yew – and right now it is in the leisurely process of changing sex. That was when the bane of Identity Politics cropped up in conversation. And for many reasons, whenever anyone mentions Identity Politics, bagatelle pops up in my head.

I do enjoy a game of bagatelle. I recommend it to new parents. It’s one of the few games you can get beaten at by a toddler. Most pinball by comparison is even more a roulette. The basic bagatelle variant using fixed metal nails or pins entails at least some touch and finesse. It is fair to say that this simple board game metamorphosed into pachinko and pinball merely to entertain heathens.

The heavy wooden board that made its way into my playroom as a child started out with hefty, metal ball bearings as the balls. One used to prod them with a stick up a ball-wide channel and they would hug the curved edge of the board before dropping satisfyingly into cupped holes carved into the smooth board surface, sometimes getting caught in circles of nails, or disappointingly dropping scoreless to the bottom of the board. Each nail trap and hole was associated with a points tally.


As is the case with all ball games, over time some balls got lost, perhaps swallowed. So, my sisters and I would come to replace the ball bearings with marbles. And we had a good collection of marbles hidden away in a tin in the playroom– of oilies, puries, chinas, toothpaste and a few pearl marbles too – some more chipped than others.

We’d use so many marbles on our bagatelle board that the traps ring-fenced with nails would fill up and overflow, the holes would all be covered, and marbles would cluster at the bottom of the board until they started penetrating traps at the bottom and dislodging marbles which had already achieved a score.

Younger sisters – who had no idea of bagatelle rules and saw the board as fun pin terrain – would come along and deposit Fisher Price figures on the board, creating all kinds of obstructions. Over the years, the nail fences began to give way to tiny oilies and soon the game was wrecked as marbles behaved disruptively, becoming rule-breakers; not fitting the system. In the defective way we later played it with a myriad collection of spheres and an increasingly wonky board, bagatelle became a useful illustration of game-time flaws and endgame destructiveness.

The boundless diversity of marbles we picked from the tin may as well have been the markers of identity politics – age, religion, social class, profession, culture, language, disability, education, race or ethnicity, language, sex, gender identity, occupation, sexual orientation, urban or rural habitation, or veteran status. Although, mercifully, they were not self-identifying ad infinitum, when we used a particular genre of marble to build an identifiable team, I suppose we could always find a way to cleave that genre by locating a different version of it in the tin. Some marbles were more chipped than others, some so light they flew straight off the board, while others unjustly bullied occupants of positions from their merited holes just because they were carrying more or less momentum or counterbalance.

For those first dozen or so shots you were fooled into thinking the game would function successfully. Sure, the possibly unfair advantages of certain marbles – and their ability to get past strategically-placed obstacles – became pronounced. Chipped marbles veered off around obstacles in peculiar, straight lines into high scoring holes others could never reach. However, when clusters of a particular genre formed then penetrated scoring traps illegally through the pins, it was as if they were purposefully breaking bagatelle rules to ruin the sport.

The board when it first appeared in the playroom was as perfect a market as possible, a fair playing field. The most deftly hit ball bearings scored highest, but all had a relatively equal chance. By instilling difference into the balls and not limiting the number of their genres, a chaos occurred and eventually the system – the board – was broken as nails fell off and others buckled. Efficiencies were lost. Macro was reduced to unmanageable micro. Confusion reigned as to whose marble was whose. Profit maximisation became impossible – profit scoring so much more challenging. If one had wanted to design a system whereby the player destroyed the board because the designer hated the board, while players were still attracted to the game and the board, then this would have been the preferred medium-term grinding down strategy.

Sadly, bagatelle became used less and less in our playroom. Then one day along came my Grandfather, the Major, with his hammer, a new set of ball bearings and a box of pins. What had become a chaos – a Gordian knot of complexity – only needed a simple thwack and a return to common sense.

Forcing diversity onto boards holds no guarantee of optimisation.