The Church Mouse

Edited by Dave Thomas

an Appreciation by Stephen Agar

The Church Mouse first saw the light of day in April 1982, carrying the game reports and results of StanCon II, which was a small local Con held in Stanley, Co.Durham. Actually, The Church Mouse wasn’t Dave Thomas’ first zine, which was in fact a local zine called The Diplomatic News, put together for Dave’s work colleagues. Throughout the life of The Church Mouse Dave used the crude “cut and paste” technique which is evident in issue one, though Dave became far more imaginative as time went on. basically this technique was to scour old magazines for pictures that could be cut out and stuck in the zine c of context. Issue two may have seen the first Diplomacy gamestart, but all the players worked with Dave. Therefore, having co-opted most of his usual crowd to play, Dave invited some players he knew from Puppet Theatre News to help fill the second game – TCM was taking its first tentative step towards going national. The first non-locals appeared with issue four, as did postal scrabble and the second Dip game (still 5 locals though).

“I bought my first set in Fenwicks (Newcastle upon Tyne) in 1972 (or was it ‘71?). In those days Risk was the main game for us, and after a quick glance at the rules of this new game “Diplomacy” I had decided that it was a cheap copy (Christ). Anyway, one night we tried it, quite liked it, but were a bit unsure of the rules. Nevertheless, we persevered and after a few games (not on the same night) we decided Diplomacy was a damned good game.

The “lads” would come and borrow the game, and nine times out of ten I had to collect it. It got passed from friend to friend and then friend to friend again. It came as no surprise that one day it was returned with the rules missing. Well, that didn’t matter too much, did it? I mean, we all knew how to play, didn’t we?

A few years on, and I soon realised that gaming was more than just a pastime for me, it was in fact a hobby and consequently became more involved with serious” gaming. I soon became aware that Diplomacy was more widespread then I had realised (mainly due to Games & Puzzles). The first fanzine I ever read was Perspiring Dreams by John Dodds. After reading this fine publication and realising that it wasn’t a knitting pattern, I came to the conclusion that there was something different about the way we played Diplomacy as opposed to the rest of the world.

The time came when I thought I’d buy a new Diplomacy set. After revelling over the fact that the fleets now had little funnels and things on them, I got down to the business of re-reading the rules. Lo and behold I soon came to the astonishing realisation that we had been playing the game wrong for years.

How wrong? Well, for a start we had been starting the game with a Russian fleet on the north coast of St.Petersburg instead of the south and the fleet that should have been in Naples started in Rome. We had also got the support rule wrong and had mutual support illegal because we thought that a unit receiving support could not give support due to the rule that says a unit can only do one thing at a time. A convoy cut be cut by one fleet without having to dislodge it, we thought. And the victory criteria was 15. Hell’s bells!!!!, we hadn’t been playing Diplomacy at all.

What’s interesting about these mistakes is the fact that it made so much difference to the result. I can remember quite clearly which countries had the best record, and I can tell you now, they were the reverse of what’s generally considered today. Austria and Germany were by far the most successful countries. Then came France, Russia and Italy and at the bottom, England and Turkey. As soon as we corrected things this all changed, though it took us a time to realise it. I think this old version that we had played day-in day-out should be recorded as a variant, maybe I should name it The Stanley Cock-up.”

Issue 5 saw Dave change from A4 to reduced A5 booklet format and although the quality of the photocopying sometime left a lot to be desired, Dave used the booklet format to good effect. From here on in TCM became very Viz before Viz. In the editorial Dave said he’d sent off a copy of TCM to Paul Simpkins (ex-editor of Bruce and Novice Package Editor) asking for advice on how to go mainstream. Issue 6 (September 1982) was the first issue to be seen by the hobby mainstream, as copies were sent out as potential trades to several editors. One feature of TCM was a long line of short games reviews and it has to be said that Dave’s judgement was usually quite sound. This time it was Warlock (not bad) and Kensington (crap) which got the Thomas treatment. Dave was still waiting for his third game to fill.

In issue 7 Dave revealed he had another hobby when he confessed to having been elected Chairman of the Forum Theatre Group – somehow the fact that Dave was into amateur dramatics was a bit of a surprise given TCM’s macho image. That issue Dave got his third game started, still four locals including Ed Harwood a local radio DJ and John Etherington.

Issue 8 was more or less game-only as Dave was on a training course, but issue 9 was a return to form but late due to Dave’s participation in the local panto and an appearance on local radio.

“Did anyone hear me on the radio the other night? No? I was on twice actually; once on the Ed Harwood show and an edited down version on the Paddy McDee show. I was being interviewed about “games”. We talked about Diplomacy , about zines and I managed to get a plug in for The Mouse. The main part of the chat was taken up by me giving a kind of review of the kids games available this Christmas – I’d spent the previous Saturday wandering around Newcastle pestering toy shop managers. The interview went okay, I suppose, but I mucked the end up a bit by answering Ed’s question “tell me Dave, what game do you think is going to be this year’s biggy?” I had meant to say Continuo and was going to tell how the shops couldn’t get enough of them and how it was going to be this years new Rubik’s Cube etc. etc., however, I didn’t, he caught me by surprise with the question, I panicked and just picked the first game that my eyes fell on to. Spotty Herbert I said. Oh shit! I know have this nightmare where thousands of parents queue up outside of toy shops all dying to get their hands on a copy of Spotty Herbert and when they get them home they find out that it’s a load of crap and they come hunting after this Dave Thomas who told them all it was such a marvellous game. Oh hell, I’ll never be able to hold my head up in a toy shop again. The other thing about the interview which had me up the wall was my incessant repetition of the word “absolutely”. Every answer I gave started with the sodding word – absolutely, absolutely this, absolutely that, absolutely everything – in the space of 15 minutes I must have said it ten times. I cringe everytime I hear myself say it now.”

By issue 10 Dave got his first variant started (Excalibur) and was trying to drum interest in Range War (c it took six months to get a gamestart). Issue 12 which appeared in April 1983 celebrated TCM’s first birthday and saw Dave’s seventh gamestart. With the circulation pushing 100, TCM was that’s quite a success. Included with that issue was a flyer for LinerCon which was basically 1,150 mile round trip from Newcastle to Gothenburg ten out of ten for originality (and 30+ people enjoyed the trip). Dave was the moving light behind StanCon III, which was attended by over 30, including “mega-stars” such as Pete Birks and Pete Tamlyn – though Dave was a little disappointed to discover that mega-stars don’t play games at cons, they just stand around getting noticed. Plus ca change? By mid-83 TCM was getting into its stride, issue 14 saw the first spoof Diplomacy related adverts (parodied from adverts for “personal” services) which set the tone for issues to come. It was also the latest TCM yet, due to Dave c dramatics intruding even more. By this time the TCM letter column had grown rather large, though the subjects, such as board games vs. RPG, games content vs. non-games content, and how do you pronounce “zine”, seem a bit old hat now. Dave’s editorials continued to be, er… entertaining.

“Some friends of ours were having a drink in a bar in Newcastle the other day, there were about five of them, all fellas, going to the match I think. Anyway, there they were, sitting around this little table with all their pints standing on it when in walks this tramp. Well, that’s what he looked like anyway. They would have ignored him if they hadn’t overheard what he was saying to each group of people as he wound his way through the maze of tables. “Five p’s, pennies, ha’pennies? Gis ‘em un I’ll eat ‘em. Five p’s, peenies, ha’pennies…” The five chaps thought this a trifle strange, well you would wouldn’t you, however, the table next to theirs did actually offer him a penny and the bloke did actually eat it A nutta? Probably, but what made it stranger was that he was youngish – about 25 and seemed quite genuine. It was only a matter of minutes before this strange fellow arrived at their table “Five p’s, pennies, ha’pennies? Gis ‘em un I’ll eat ‘em.” The chaps hadn’t had enough beer to tell him to piss off, so they just tried to ignore him. One of the chaps decides that he’s had enough and tried to explain to him that they weren’t interested and thought that swallowing coins in that fashion could be dangerous. The bloke pauses, thinks to himself and says “Oh, alright then – gis 50p un I’ll piss me-self.” Just to get him off their backs one of them gave him 50p. The bloke stands back, asks which leg, and proceeds to empty his bladder down his right leg without batting an eyelid. The 50p goes in his pocket and out he goes. I laughed my socks off when I first heard about it, but, in retrospect it’s quite a sad tale really, almost distressing.”

When issue 16 of TCM announced the results of the 1983 Zine Poll, The Church Mouse came in at a respectable 19th (out of 47) which delighted Dave. That year the poll was won by Greatest Hits from Mad Policy and Acolyte. Throughout 1983, although TCM was a pretty good zine for game reviews, the only Dip material tended to be reprints from The Gamer’s Guide. Come Christmas 1983 and TCM was again delayed due to AmDram – as Dave was playing the title role in Ali-Baba and the 40 thrives. However, it was worth the wait to read another of Dave’s MidCon reviews, complete with photographs that I would reproduce only they wouldn’t. Some things have changed – in those days Tony Wheatley would willingly play five games of Diplomacy in a weekend, but it’s frightening how many of those names from 13 years ago will still be there later this year. The highlight of issue 19 had to be the FeMouse sub-zine, printed on pink paper it claimed to be a “subzine for girls” written by Dave’s sister-in-law – this included a Dip variant called Foundations (different types of make-up fight it out over a map of a woman’s face) and straight pornography masquerading as a Dip tactics article for the fairer sex. Great stuff. Dave’s promise in issue 19 to spend more time on Diplomacy and less on amateur dramatics didn’t quite work out that way.

“There I was, clad in navy-blue track-suit with striking white flashes down the sides, matching “Inta” running shoes with special “road-grip” soles and the very latest in fashionable sweat bands, gasping for breath at the side of the road about 200 yards from the house – I jest, of course. I had c about six miles and was having 30 secs before I turned to go back, when, this Morris Minor pulled up. It was a deserted road and I assumed the driver was going to ask the way to Beamish Museum (I wish I’d had a bin-lid for every time I had been asked – Beamish Museum isn’t an easy place to find), anyway, as it happened I was wrong. The two occupants of the car were two youngish females wearing clown outfits with cardboard notices hanging ‘round their necks on string – the notices said “sponsored moon”. Now I’d never heard of this expression before so I didn’t really know what to expect. In my innocence I enquired. They explained that this was for charity and that they had to moon to a vicar, a dustman, a postman, a butcher, a newsreader, a professor, a MP and a jogger – there were others but I forget. Fair enough, I think, but what is mooning? All I can say is, the girls did it very well and the whole experience was quite a pleasurable one. I was a little peeved to hear that I was only worth £1 while the vicar was worth £5! Anyway, I signed their little form to prove to the organisers that they did indeed moon to a jogger and off they went in their Morris minor. Have any of you lot come c this sponsored mooning lark? I think it’s a jolly idea.”

In issue 21 Dave admitted that his favourite LP was Brain Salad Surgery by ELP, but that can almost be forgiven by the knowledge that he was a fan of Harry Harrison, Kurt Vonnegut, George Orwelll and liked cats to boot. I found Jeff Smith’s article on how to win alliances sufficiently perceptive that it is reprinted below. No.22 was late, such that Dave had to deny he was folding in the editorial. The problem was amateur dramatics again – this time Dave had the lead role in Half a Sixpence. This issue was notable for the appearance of Lionel and Samantha and a review of Pass the Pigs. Although the zine hadn’t been that reliable of late, issue 22 revealed that TCM had still managed 8th place in the 1984 Zine Poll (out of a field of 49) which seemed to please Dave. No.22 also saw the start of postal Take the Brain (remember that one?). Issue 23 was a classic, the cover spoofed The Acolyte and all the way through the zine there were various parodies of FRP games zines (not a good time to do it as, unknown to Dave, The Acolyte was about to fold). That issue saw the beginning of game 14 and the abandonment of Game 11 after S02 (with three dropouts).

Although issue 24 was up to form, there were signs that it was all getting a bit much. 32 pages long, packed with things to read, but almost a month late. Issue 25 took 3 months to appear and was the last. Dave admitted defeat. Although it contained a very entertaining MidCon report (Dave ran the 1984 International Pass the Pigs Tournament) Dave decided that he couldn’t deliver the games service he wanted to; he was still heavily committed to AmDram and his new job was proving demanding. Issue 25 was in many ways the logical conclusion to the bold TCM sense of humour as the zine parodied porn mags on the cover and inside. As I said earlier, definitely pre-Viz Viz.

From April 1982 to February 1985 Dave had produced 25 issues in 34 months – not that bad really. But what monument would it leave behind? Dave considered this question in the last issue.

“So, what have I achieved by bringing this little scruffy publication to the world? has it all been worthwhile? Have I added anything to the hobby? Will I be missed? What has The Church Mouse actually said?

1. Postal Scrabble: though I certainly didn’t invent it, I did invent the version that is becoming very popular in the hobby.

2. Pass the pigs. Yes kids, it was me to blame for bringing this game to you all – don’t forget it!

3. Gaming Maps. Though I wasn’t the first, I certainly made it the “in” thing to have.

4. I proved that you don’t have to be a middle class university graduate to be a zine editor and that being extremely stupid can be a big help.

5. I showed Paul McGivern and Pete Birks a thing or two.

6. I was voted the best zine in Britain that wasn’t called Hopscotch by non-publishers and was also voted the best A5 booklet zine in Britain by non-publishers as well as well as being the best zine in Britain that didn’t run any footbally type games by non-publishers.

7. I’ve never been to The lamb, I’m not a member of the Guildford Mob, the Bristol Mafia and I’m not a teacher, an accountant or a computer buff. I don’t go on and on and on and on about real ale and I’ve managed to piss Pete Doubleday off.

All in all… not a great deal, but who cares?”

But it WAS a great deal and those who were along for the ride enjoyed it. It’s a shame that his early death stopped Dave from starting a new zine in the 90’s – it would undoubtedly have been a success.