Drop That Dreidel! A Grotesque Game That Reinvented Itself With Cute Hanukkah Candles

Candle Quest is fun, rewarding and a lot more family-friendly than the quest for body parts of the original.

Ilene Prusher

Hanukkah is supposed to be a holiday for playing games, but any smart-aleck kid past the age of seven will tell you that spinning a dreidel doesn’t turn many heads. It’s all luck and no strategy, and the goal of winning coins – be they real or chocolate – doesn’t exactly spark excitement among the adults.

Enter Candle Quest, being marketed as the first-ever Hanukkah-themed strategy board. The recently-released family game actually has a very not-family-friendly, ghoulish past. In 2007 an almost identical game called “It’s Alive” was released. In it, players race to collect eight monster body parts – with the goal of putting together one’s own hideous creation, a la Frankenstein. The playing cards look like a cartoon version of “Texas Chain Saw Massacre,” and depending on one’s appetite for gore, are probably not what most parents would consider appropriate for a fun round of holiday play.

Ilene Prusher

But a few Israelis who are avid enthusiasts of “Eurogames,” as they’re called – “Settlers of Catan” is one of the most famous and is considered a gateway game for newbies – knew “It’s Alive” had a forgotten prototype: a menorah. Together, they decided they would redevelop the game geared for the Hanukkah season, turning severed hands and heads into friendly-faced candles.

Nadine Wildmann, a Jerusalemite who moved to Israel from Los Angeles 20 years ago, is one of the people who convinced Yehuda Berlinger, the game’s Ra’anana-based designer, to return to the original “Menorah Game” concept he’d developed in 2004. When it didn’t get picked up by a game publisher as is, he’d taken it to Reiver Games in the U.K. and converted it into a macabre game of dismembered monster parts. “It’s Alive” does have a following – and now, iOS and Android versions – but some of his long-time gaming friends in Israel said they wanted to see the good old menorah back.

“Ever since it got switched to the body parts theme, people in Israel said, ‘What happened to the candle version?’” explains Wildmann, a website development specialist and marketing expert. Berlinger’s rights to the game reverted back to him after three years, it turned out, so he was free to redevelop it.

So Wildmann in Jerusalem, Berlinger in Ra’anana, and their friends Bill and Shirley Burdick in Kansas City carved out a new future for the game. Last year, they formed Gilead Games – focusing on Biblical themes – and brought the Menorah Game concept to the annual gathering of gaming followers called “BGG Con,” the conference of boardgamegeek.com, in Dallas, Texas.

“The people at the conference couldn’t pronounce ‘menorah,’ nor did they know what it was for or how it was used,” Wildmann says. A few experts suggested they find a catchier name – one without any foreign words in it. Wildmann came up with “Candle Quest,” and people started to take them seriously.

It helped that Wildmann had already found a good illustrator – Darrell Mordechai, an immigrant from South Africa who now lives in Beit Shemesh. “He sent a little sketch that I really liked and made candles that were friendly, so I decided to work with him,” Wildmann explains. For example, whereas in the old version, the set-back card was a gaggle of angry villagers with pitchforks, now it’s a burnt-out, bummed candle.

“People in the gaming community who couldn’t play the body parts version with kids, will play with this because it’s for great kids,” says Wildmann, lining up the two games, whose cards couldn’t look more different. “It’s a real strategy game, it’s not just luck. The Hanukkah theme is very light – it’s just collecting candles for a menorah, but nothing more – so it’s not necessarily just for Jews.” A game description pamphlet at the front of the book explains very briefly what Hanukkah is about and why the focus of the holiday is lighting the eight-branched candelabrum – nine if you count the shamash that lights the others.

Victory Point Games, based in California, contributed to the development of the game and brought it to the market this fall, calling it the first-ever Hanukkah-themed strategy board game. Reviewing the game on boardgamegeek.com, U.S.-born Jerusalemite Cliff Churgin tested it out on his family and said it “really hit the sweet spot of a fun, easy to understand game which nonetheless rewarded careful planning.”

So along with stuffing yourself with latkes and sufganiot and spinning dreidels until you're dizzy, Hanukkah revelers now have another option for a wholesome family activity. Just try not to think about the dismembered monster parts.