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An eventful life

Alexander Randolph at boarding school in Champéry, Switzerland.

Alexander Randolph was born on May 4, 1922, in Dobrohost, Czechoslovakia. His parents, Sacha Finkelstein and Mary Randolph, were intellectuals and members of the artists' community. Together with Alexander and his half-brother Christopher, they lived in Venice from 1924 on. The Randolphs were not very affectionate parents, and the family's time together was limited – Alexander spent most of his school years at boarding schools in Switzerland, and later in Venice.

In 1938, as war began to loom, the Randolphs moved to a ranch in the state of Arizona in the USA. Alexander, who still had no birth certificate or official nationality, had to stay behind at first, but was eventually able to embark on the S.S. Excalibur and join his family as an American.

A thirst for knowledge brought Randolph to the University of Chicago, home to an impressive academic community. By now the polyglot student spoke fluent English, Italian, German and French.

In 1942, Randolph was drafted. Because of his knowledge of German, he was sent to the Intelligence Training Center at Camp Ritchie in Maryland. As a "Ritchie Boy," he traveled to North Africa and Italy, where his mission was to infiltrate German troops when possible. After the war, he worked for the American military investigative police unit, the C.I.D., in Austria. He spoke little of those days, preferring to let a myth grow up around him, winking at it and never clearing up the facts.

He was a multi-talented man – including the gift of language. He wrote "A Portrait of Nellie," an illustrated story for his niece about a family of mice whose lives are thrown into chaos by distinctly un-mouselike behavior. "The Mailboat" followed in 1954, a novella in letter form about a young couple whose experiences bear a noticeable resemblance to his own background.

Randolph's writing talent earned him a living as an advertising copywriter in Boston, but then he discovered another passion: inventing games. In 1958 he showed his friend Herbert Feuerstein a paper-and-pencil game at Vienna's Café Hawelka. The first 23 rounds of the game, which was eventually published four years later under the name TwixT, are on record. His first game, Pan-Kai, reached the market in 1961.

Alexander Randolph in his chosen home, Venice.

Randolph was a citizen of the world. He and his wife Gertrude first moved to Rome. In 1966 they left Rome to spend six years in Japan, where he took a deep interest in shogi and became a first-level master. Japanese culture and its aesthetic woodworking would influence the design of his games.

Nevertheless, Venice, the city of his childhood, with its morbid charm and labyrinth of streets and canals, always retained a special appeal. In 1972 he settled there for good, and set up a studio. When a terrible fire destroyed all his work and notes six years later, it amounted to the end of his past as a writer, and a new beginning as a game designer.

Randolph had now made designing games his profession, and was willing to defend that choice to the public. After he had to buy back the rights to TwixT, he began campaigning for game designers' right to have their name on their creations, just like the authors of books. A beer coaster from 1988 bears the proclamation: "None of us will release a game to a publisher if his name won't appear at the top on the box." Thirteen major-name game authors signed, at the encouragement of Reinhold Wittig.

Since 1991, SAZ (Spiele-Autoren-Zunft e. V.), the game authors' "guild," has served as an advocate for game authors' concerns. Randolph, a co-founder, was awarded the title of Honorary Guild Master in 2001 for his dedicated service. The SAZ has awarded the Alex Media Prize in his honor since 2004; Italy's Studiogiochi publishing house has awarded its Archimedes Prize in his honor since 1993. The J. P. Halvah Foundation to support young game designers is another of his own achievements, and is now headed by Herbert Feuerstein.

The evolution of Randolph's last published game, The Piggyback Brigade, gives a sense of how important it was to him to work at playing. Hospitalized, weakened by cardiac bypass surgery, he showed his friend Johann Rüttinger a prototype game, called Ferkel, hopp!, based in turn on two predecessors, Auto-Hop and Top Dog. The friends quickly worked out the game's details while he was still in the hospital. The last game Randolph developed was Elfmeterschiessen ("Eleven Meter Shot"), a bluffing game for two players. Like many of his myriad ideas, the game never saw publication.

Alexander Randolph died on April 27, 2004, and was buried in Venice's San Michele Cemetery. His epitaph, "Ci-gît Alexander Randolph Inventeur du TwixT" (English: Here lies Alexander Randolph, the inventor of TwixT), is a reminder of where his career as a game inventor began. Friends painstakingly protected the valuable materials he left behind at his studio in Venice, and donated them to the German Games Archive, which thus is able to preserve an important piece of game history.

Continue reading: "Prototyping and inventing games"

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