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Allow Us To Explain
You know what we're talking about. It's either a fantasy setting with a new and deliberately exotic game that's basically chess, or a science fiction setting in the far future where the writers desperately need a new team sport so as not to seem reverse anachronistic. Chess has only lasted
about a thousand years. It's not like anyone will still be playing it in space.
But just because writers understand proper tropes, doesn't mean they're good game designers, or that they have any interest in designing games at all. So you get the game that is referenced, but never actually explained. That is, until the fans get their hands on every haphazardly dropped hint.
The games on this Power Grid all share one to two characteristics:
If you'd only read or watched the basic canon of the book or show, you would have no idea how to actually play any of them.
If you've followed the fan community or extended universe works, you probably do.
Of course, wherever possible, we've tried to include links to the full fan made rules to all of the games.
This week's runners up include about a billion games from Star Trek, and Dejarik, otherwise known as Holochess, otherwise known as the game where you should let the wookie win. We decided to feature only one game per fandom, but nevertheless, the rules of Dejarik can be found here.
Cripple Mister Onion
Terry Pratchett's Discworld books have covered quite a number of fictional games including Stealth Chess, Thud, and Aargrooha (troll football, played with a human head). But while Stealth Chess is actually fairly easy to explain (if you know how to play chess), Thud was actually a game
based on the books that Pratchett endorsed and then used as a major plot device in the books, and Aargrooha is fairly self-explanatory if you know how to play what Americans call soccer, Cripple Mister Onion had to be completely made up by fans.
Cripple Mister Onion comes up a lot in the books, as a sort of terrifyingly confusing Discworld equivalent of poker, but it is featured most prominently in a scene from Witches Abroad in which we learn two things:
Granny Weatherwax's tell is that she starts sticking her littlest finger into her ear and wiggles it about furiously.
If Granny Weatherwax ever sticks her littlest finger in her ear during your game, you should immediately fold, take your winnings (or pay up) and quietly repair to somewhere in the next county.
Cripple Mister Onion is played with a deck of eight suits: Staves, Octagrams, Swords, Crowns, Cups, Coins, Elephants, and Turtles. There are twelve cards in each suit, and like poker, the object is to construct specific groupings of cards from your hand. Such groupings range from the lowly Bagel ("Any two card combination which totals exactly 20.") to the nigh impervious Great Onion, made of five picture cards and five aces, which can only be bested by a nine-card running flush. This unlikely maneuver is called Crippling Mister Onion. Other optional rules include, but are not limited to:
Null Eights: Null Eights: in a normal hand, eights may be played as if their value were zero (but can be still be played with value eight if the player wishes). Thus they can be included in an existing Onion in order to improve its size by one card. Whenever this is done, eights become wild cards in the following hand, and this modifier cannot be used in that hand. After one hand with eights as wild cards, they revert to normal, and this modifier becomes available again.
The Lady: a player may reveal the Queen of Spades for one of two effects: if eights are not wild in the hand, the player may draw two cards from the deck, then choose one of these cards to replace the queen in their hand. If eights are wild, the player can force every opponent to devalue one ace in their hand to value 1 (rather than 11). The opponent chooses which ace is devalued.
Fate: if the Lady has been played and replaced with another card from the deck as above, the King of Cups may be revealed and replaced in the same way, also rendering all Aces held by the player who played the Lady unplayable. If eights are wild, the King of Cups may be played to immediately cause them to cease being wild; but if played this way, any other (not the same!) player who holds the Queen of Spades may reveal it to cause their eights to remain wild.
For the complete rules of Cripple Mister Onion (posted on, where else, USENET in 1993) see the Wikipedia article.
On the one hand, Calvinball doesn't really fit our definition as it's rules are very simple:
The rules of Calvinball are whatever the players declare them to be, at any point in the game. The primary and only permanent rule of Calvinball is that once you've played a certain way, you can never play that way again.
But on the other hand, this means that it is also
impossible to fully understand the rules of a current game of Calvinball; and by definition, if we presume that any players of Calvinball are themselves fans of Calvin & Hobbes then they must necessarily explain how to play the game to each other.
(Generally, your typical bank-robber-style black eye masks.) While there are no official rules other than the ones mentioned above, there is a history of how the game has been played, probably to serve as a guide for how not to play the game again. Also, masks must always be worn, and they must never be questioned.
In addition, there is the official theme song, which is to be backed up by "Rumma Tum Tums":
Other kids' games are all such a bore!
They've gotta have rules and they gotta keep score!
Calvinball is better by far!
It's never the same! It's always bizarre!
You don't need a team or a referee!
You know that it's great, 'cause it's named after me!
Pai Sho is a mysterious board game played by pretty much anybody who knows any kind of mystical knowledge in
Avatar: The Last Airbender, seeming to take liberally from Go, where the overall spacial placement of pieces on a board has gameplay significance; Checkers, where tiles may be captured and taken out of play; and Chess, where some pieces function quite differently than others. Pai Sho is one of the few cultural attributes that each Nation enjoyed in common, and during the period where the Fire Nation's militaristic actions drove rifts between Nations it was seen primarily as a pastime for the geriatric or frivolous.
This suited the Order of the White Lotus (a necessarily secretive group dedicated to bringing peace between all four nations) just fine, as they used the game to communicate coded messages and could identify other members of the far-flung group by play style.
Anyway, there is a reason I spent this much time explaining the significance of Pai Sho in the world of Avatar: the fan made rules are ridiculously complicated. Just look at this:
Each player may take one of four moves during their turn:
Play one piece on an intersection.
Move one of the pieces up, down, left, or right to an adjoining intersection, as long as they don't interfere with tile rules.
Use the wheel to rotate the pieces around the wheel clock-wise.
Pass their turn.
- A tile may not end its turn on a point occupied by another tile that it cannot capture.
- A player may move a tile any number of spaces shorter than its maximum movement value.
- Flowers may end their turn on an intersection composed of both red and white spaces regardless of their color.
- Flower tiles laced onto an opposing color intersection by a tile capable of moving other tiles are returned to the players reserve pile.
Zuko rarely had patience for anything at the beginning of the series, but I can't really blame him for putting Pai Sho on that list.
Gobstones is almost the only wizarding game mentioned in
Harry Potter that doesn't get much of an explanation. Wizard chess: just like chess, but with moving pieces. Exploding Snap: self explanatory. Quiddich: incredibly, laboriously, repeatedly explained in its entirety.
Most of what we know about the actual gameplay of Gobstones comes from the videogame adaptation of Harry Potter and the Order of the Pheonix, where the player may compete in three different styles of play. Classic Gobstones, however, is most similar to a muggle game of marbles. The main objective is to be the player -- or shooter -- with the most gobstones left in the circle of play. And you'd want your gobstones to stay in the circle, because when they don't they squirt a gross-smelling fluid at the shooter who failed to score.
It was a very competitive pastime at the Hogwarts school, each house having its own league, with the official Hogwarts team competing against those of other wizarding schools. The office of the International Gobstones League can be found, as the Harry Potter Wiki would have us know, on the seventh level of the Ministry of Magic in the Official Gobstones Club Offices.
There are a lot of things about
Battlestar Galactica (the Sci-Fi Channel one) that viewers felt required explanation during the course of the show. Who are the Final Five? What's up with Starbuck? Where the frak is Earth? But the one that me and my BSG buddy were most indignant about was the show's continuing streak of not explaining how the heck one plays Pyramid.
I mean, one of the main characters is a former Pyramid star, like the David Beckham of Pyramid, and yet all we managed to figure out was that it was a contact sport that involved getting a small ball into one of six goals and was played on a triangular court that doubles as a good place to hide the weapons for your insurrectionist group.
Turns out, even the fandom is still not exactly sure how to play Pyramid.
Pyramid is a close quarters ball game played on a pyramid-shaped court, hence the name of the game. The objective is apparently to score points by getting the ball into a goal at the top of the pyramid… Full contact is allowed (when the ball is not in a neutral zone), and once a player has been tackled, they must pass the ball. How this is handled in one-on-one games is left unspecified. The game is won by the team with the most points at the end. However, under what circumstances the games ends is also left unspecified… Apparently each team starts out in one of the corners besides the head and then vie for control of the ball. The initial ball placement is not defined, but a face-off is mentioned tangentially later in the article with no details.
I'd ask for a better explanation, but it would probably turn out that one of the players was an angel all along, or something.
A high-stakes card game for only the smoothest gamblers, Sabacc is most famously known as the way Han Solo won the Millennium Falcon from Lando Calrissian. (Though Calrissian was the kind of guy who could win Cloud City itself as well as the title of Baron Administrator in a game of sabacc… and did.)
Like many of the coolest parts of the
Star Wars universe, Sabacc was detailed, determined, and described by someone other than George Lucas.
In a nutshell, Sabaac is like poker, if the cards in your hand could change their value at any and all times.
The game of sabacc used a deck of seventy-six cards featuring sixty numbered cards divided into four suits, and two copies of eight special cards… The cards themselves are small, electronic devices with a display panel covering the surface of one side; this panel is capable of shifting the displayed suit and value of each card when told to do so by the computer running the game, or when a player has the option to manually shuffle the card's value. In this fashion, a player can receive new cards of any possible suit or rank without actually having to take new cards from the deck itself.
Sabacc might be more difficult to replicate in real life than other fictional games because of this, but we can't rule out the possibility of some industrious Star Wars fan eventually (or already!) having created a playable version of the game.
Hopefully, a computerized one. We'd hate to think how much those cards would cost.
"Hey guys, we need to keep the cast looking occupied. What should we do?"
"Ummmm ... chess? Space chess?"
Tri-dimensional chess, also known as Tri-D chess, has shown up in several
Star Trek series and films, but has never once been explained on the show. In its original form, it was standard chess, 64 pieces, except on shelves to symbolize a hierarchy of events. But it had permeated Star Trek culture so much that it was eventually added to one of its first fan guides, the Star Trek Star Fleet Technical Manual by Franz Joseph Schnaubelt. His rules were then expounded upon by another fan, Andrew Bartmess.
Simon: Tall card ... plum. Plums are tall.
Book: I'll take ... two.
Simon: Two. No tall card claim.
These sparing lines of diaglue, and some footage of Shepherd Book, Jayne, and Simon passing and dropping round fruit-labeled cards are all fans of Jayne takes three.
Simon: Three. Dealer forced to claim the tall.
A moment later he folds
Simon: Tall card's around my neck like a weight. Firefly have to go on for the rules of the game Tall Card. It's never explained in the series, but the writer of the episode, Jane Espenson claimed that the rules had been posted on the official Fox site for the show. That turned out to be false. But that didn't stop the fans from explaining it! From that meagre grist, the following has been proposed:
Long Pai: Played like draw poker with Dragon cards in six suits named after fruits (Peach, Plum, Banana, etc.) Among the 72 rectangular cards, there are 6 round cards, and these are the "tall cards." They are shuffled separately by the dealer and another player, respectively. There are also "face cards" (named after the "heavenly beasts" of Chinese mythology). More rules and hypothetical variants can be found on the Firefly Wiki.
Cyvasse is a game of strategy from George R. R. Martin's
A Song of Ice and Fire, based, according to the author, on chess, Stratego, and Blitzkrieg (a war-game published by Avalon Hill). There is, as yet, no complete set of rules explaining Cyvasse. In fact, the closest thing to an explanation this blog could find was a three page discussion on the Song of Ice and Fire forums that began in 2008 and petered out about a year ago.
Confirmed attributes of the game include, but are not limited to:
There are ten different pieces, each with their own "powers and attributes".
At least in some cases, players get multiples of certain pieces, and others may be restricted to just one (Tristane uses multiple elephants, while Myrcella says she has a single dragon).
Dragons are one piece, and are capable of "eating" elephants.
Elephants are another piece.
Heavy horse is another piece.
The board is made up of squares of three different colors.
The rules of the game do not allow a complete chain of mountains -- there must be openings ("passes"). Either the rules specifically require this, or they achieve this by not giving players sufficient mountains to create a complete line.
Martin still has two books to publish before the series is completed, so perhaps either more evidence of the game's nature will surface there, or, once he is done crafting the conclusion to his seven book epic, he'll have the time to lay out an explanation. Or, the game will be featured more opaquely in HBO's upcoming Game of Thrones series based on the novels.
The picture in this entry is from the Game of Thrones CCG, and it, too, fails to explain anything about Cyvasse.
Full Contact Low-Gravity Jai Alai
The last game on our list is one that we have been able to find no explanation for. It hails from the minds behind the DC Animated Universe, and specifically appears in
Batman Beyond as, of all things, a sanctioned high school sport. What does it appear to be?
A low-gravity, full contact, fusion of jai alai and lacrosse played by kids in skin-tight spandex suits (to be fair, the Batsuit of the series is also pretty skin tight and Terry gets thrown around quite a bit. Technology might have progressed to the point of very lightweight and paradoxically thin athletic padding). Players zip around a "field" that is bounded by curved, clear walls (the better for spectators to see in), appearing to skate with no blades or ice involved. The goal is to get a red puck into a horizontal goal half way up the wall at the opposing team's side of the field, carrying and throwing it using a curved glove attached to the end of every uniform's right arm. The opposing team's defense and goalie will try to stop you. The goalie gets two jai alai gloves.
And a lot of trouble scratching his face.
Needless to say, though we get to see two "plays" of the sport, nobody explains the overall arc of the game, nor are we given any hints as to how such a crazy mashup of different sports and future technology became A) cheap and B) universal enough to be the kind of sport that high schools would regularly field a team for and that high school students could refer to as "the game," as in, "Are you going to the game tonight?"
Have a tip we should know? firstname.lastname@example.org