Man's Best Fiend

Credit: Giles Turnbull

Games Kittens Play

How to play, how to win, and how to act like you won whether you did or not.

We got two kittens a few months ago. We never even thought we were pet people. But in recent years we made friends with some of our neighbors’ pets, and found ourselves missing sarcastic cat Jeeves after he and his family moved away.

Just before Christmas, we gave in to our son’s pleading voice and our own nagging inner voices. We picked up two kittens from a nearby rescue center, took them home, and wondered what might happen next. Once more, the house was filled with cat smells, cat humor, cat sarcasm. And cat games.

Our two look like siblings, but they’re not. Frankie is a big guy, confident and stocky and affectionate. Lottie is small to the point of scrawniness, scatterbrained, food-obsessed, and slightly crazy. Despite her size disadvantage, she can hold her own in play fights with Frankie. After a healthy session of playful feline ultraviolence, the two of them will snuggle down together for a cuddly nap.

The paw punching and ear chewing all looks chaotic to a casual observer, but I’ve been watching these guys carefully, notebook in hand. These games aren’t random. There are rules.

Smack You in the Face

The rules of Smack You in the Face are simple. One cat sits on top of the small wooden stool at the end of the kitchen. This cat is the “smacker.”

The other cat is on the floor beneath the stool. This cat is also the “smacker.” The aim of the game is to smack the opponent cat around the face with your paw as many times as possible, without (a) falling off the stool or (b) being struck by your falling opponent.

It is also possible to win by giving up and simply walking away with one’s tail in the air.

The uppermost cat has the advantage of height and an excellent view of the playing arena. The lowermost cat can use stealth to hide under the stool, confusing the uppermost cat before launching a sudden attack from an unexpected direction. This may result in the uppermost cat being smacked around the flanks or hindquarters; this may be frowned upon but only if you are the uppermost cat. It isn’t actually against the rules.

The winner is the cat that smacks the other cat around the face the most times without getting smacked as many times in return.

It is also possible to win by giving up and simply walking away with one’s tail in the air.

Stair Wars

They play a game called Stair Wars. For this game, you need a flight of stairs and complete confidence in your ability to fall down them at speed without injury.

The game can start at the top or the bottom of the stairs, or at any point between. It is not necessary to get permission, or even acknowledgement, from the other player before starting a game. Simply launch yourself at them, claws outstretched. There: A game has begun.

The objective isn’t always clear. Sometimes it’s to reach the bottom of the stairs in one piece, or at least in a manner that suggests you intended to be there. Other times, it’s to be the cat that arrives there the most correctly oriented (paws down, back up, tail and face pointing in different directions). Points are deducted for ungainly landings, or for limbs that fail to meet these criteria.

During play, any participant may attempt to disrupt another player’s route to the designated endpoint target by liberal use of slashing claws, head butting, pushing, pulling, or body rolling.

(Body rolling is a specialist kitten attack technique, whereby one leaps upon one’s opponent at high speed, wraps one’s legs and paws around the other’s midriff, and ferociously bites at their neck and face while rolling them bodily around of the floor until they submit to one’s whim. Of course, body rolling brings considerable additional dangers when performed on the stairs, for roller and rollee alike.)

The more stairs available, the more interesting the game. In the event that your location has no stairs, a single step or even a small grassy slope will suffice.

Small Things

Lottie plays a game called Small Things. Frank watches this game and occasionally plays it with certain objects, but Lottie is the unchallenged authority.

To play, you must first locate a small, light object.

Suggested objects include:

  • a piece of string
  • some ribbon
  • a pencil
  • a piece of moss from the garden
  • a leaf
  • a spider
  • half a spider

If your object originates outdoors, first ensure you spend a good 30 minutes exploring the garden. There may be scents you haven’t noticed before, or visiting cats from next door to be sent packing.

This means jumping on it repeatedly and rapidly, sometimes so rapidly that you haven’t actually finished the last jump before you commence the next.

Your territory marked and secured, locate a small object. There’s no need to be overly fussy at this point: Anything you can grasp with your teeth and your claws will do. Bring it indoors to commence play.

Like all the best games, the rules of Small Things are easy to learn, but take a long time to master. You must toy with your small thing as if it were half-dead prey (which in the case of the spider or half-spider, it is). This means jumping on it repeatedly and rapidly, sometimes so rapidly that you haven’t actually finished the last jump before you commence the next. This is a thing that only cats really understand.

To gain maximum points, you must disassemble your small object and spread it over as wide an area as possible. Extra points are awarded for getting tiny bits of it in different rooms. For example, once your spider has become a half-spider in the kitchen, you may wish to take the other half to the dining room, and remove the legs there (being sure to place them on different surfaces).

Kick the Living Daylights out of Each Other

This is a game where you grasp your opponent with your front paws and wrestle them into a horizontal position on the carpet. Once both of you are lying on your sides and grasping, the hind legs are brought into play, firmly and repeatedly kicking extremely hard into your opponent’s belly, or face if you can reach it.

Lottie rarely wins this game, because Frankie has the size advantage that lets him grip her body tighter and kick her harder.

She doesn’t let that bother her, however, as she has invented a new rule entirely of her own: Smaller players may bite the noses of larger players.

Thus, Frankie will Kick the Living Daylights out of her, and she will get sweet revenge by playing her own independent game of Bite Your Fucking Nose Off. She almost always wins this part of the game.

Sometimes, positions will be reversed so that the cats are playing in a top-to-tail formation, and each one is capable of kicking the other in the face. Frankie still usually wins these.

Holy Shit, I Have a Tail

A popular choice either as solo entertainment or two-player deathmatch, Holy Shit I Have a Tail is an age-old favorite for all feline games players.

Needless to say, the game is best played when you have totally forgotten that you have a tail. Or even that you are a cat.

It is also one of the few games that can be played at any time, in any location, and for any reason whatsoever. Including reasons related to hunting and catching prey, rather than simply playing a game for the sake of playing a game.

The game begins with what’s known as the Discovery, when the player discovers that they (a) have a tail, (b) that it appears to be attached to their body, and (c) that they are in fact a cat (this last discovery is optional).

After the Discovery comes the Chase, during which the player attempts to catch the tail and destroy it. There are few rules surrounding the chase—use of claws and teeth is permissible. The ultimate aim is, of course, total destruction of the tail but in practice it is very rare for the game to progress this far. If the tail has been sufficiently Chased and Captured without the player making Discovery (c) as outlined above, that discovery will usually be made at this point and the game will come to a sudden halt.

It will often be followed up by a brief episode of What the Fuck Is That Thing Over There?

In the two-player alternative, forgetfulness of tail ownership and feline identity is less important than speed, agility, and the ability to chew your opponent’s tail before they Smack You In the Face.

What the Fuck Is That Thing Over There?

The quickest of all the games, What the Fuck Is That Thing Over There is often played as a displacement activity, to distract the observer (or feline game opponent during many other two-player games) and thereby end the other game you were just playing.

In fact, it’s more of a move than an actual game.

To play effectively, it is critically important that you alter your entire position. Your posture, body direction, and gaze must all change rapidly and in unison. Even if your opponent is still Smacking You in the Face, you must maintain this rigid distracted stance and concentrate your full attention on the chosen object, which ideally should be located several feet away.

The object can be anything. A speck of dust, perhaps. An abandoned spider leg. It doesn’t matter.

The point is that your attention is grabbed by this object, and your posture is so dramatically altered that your game opponent simply cannot help joining in by crouching down, gazing in the same direction, and wondering What the Fuck That Thing Actually Is.

The first cat to pounce on the chosen thing is the winner.

Winners get to snooze on the cozy blanket.