Introduction

So, what will our intrepid space patrolmen do to stave off boredom during those long tedious space flights (I mean, other than the old stand-bys)? Yeah, I know: playing video games and surfing the interplanetary internet for naughty pictures.

But what if you were limited to 1950's-era retro science fiction? Well, you'd play games, of course. Intellectual games similar to chess for intellectual crew, and gambling games for those less intellectual. For "intellectual", read "Abstract Strategy Game". Though some of the classic games will still exist, I'm sure there will be some more futuristic entertainment.

Futuristic Games

Icehouse/Homeworlds

Back in the late 1980's, award winning game designer Andrew Looney wrote a science fiction novel called The Empty City. In it, people have become obsessed with playing a game called "Icehouse" using pyramid shaped playing pieces. John Cooper invented rules so one could actually play the game. Andrew founded Looney Labs which manufactures and sells icehouse ("treehouse") playing pieces. They can be used to play many different games.

The pieces have an admirable Euclidean futuristic feel to them. They would not look out of place in any SF setting. And the original Icehouse game rules are equally futuristic.

But my personal favorite Icehouse game is "Homeworlds." It is a quick playing game of interstellar conquest. The rules are here. Strategy notes are here. Mr. Looney's analysis is here, where he notes that Homeworlds is the true "space chess."

It requires four sets, each a different color. For a two player game, each set contains nine pyramids: three small, three medium, three large (i.e., a total of three Treehouse sets will give you what you need). For a three or four player game, each set will contain fifteen pyramids: five small, five medium, five large (i.e., a total of five Treehouse sets).

Science Fiction shows have often attempted to depict the "Chess of the Future." Consider Mr. Spock's 3-D chess set, or the Next Generation's use of Terrace as a futuristic-looking chess-style game. Even that holographic battle- chess game seen in the first Star Wars movie (the game which C-3PO was advised to "let the Wookie win") was played with soldier-like pieces on a grid-style board.

Meanwhile, in the world of real board games, the idea of a "space chess" set has previously been realized only by replacing the kings, queens, pawns, bishops, knights, and rooks on a traditional chessboard with spaceships of various kinds. Other space themed games I've played have relied on complex gameboards and even more complex sets of cards, tokens, and components. While some such games (most notably Cosmic Encounter) are wonderful and entertaining, they don't fill the niche of a true space chess game.

Homeworlds does. Where Chess is an abstract pure strategy game representing medieval warfare between kings, Homeworlds is an abstract pure strategy game representing interstellar warfare between planets. In both games, complicated forces have been reduced to elegant icons, but where Chess is played on a restrictive, 64-square grid, Homeworlds creates a free-form, dynamic space-map out of any plain surface.

Whereas Chess was a game played by Renaissance Kings, Homeworlds is a game for Starship Captains.

Andrew Looney

Stars and Comets

A fictional board and counter game called 'Stars and Comets' appears in many Andre Norton books. However, only fleeting hints of the rules are revealed. Counters styled as either 'stars' or 'comets' move across the board taking opponents' pieces. The rules of movement and capture seem to be very complex allowing hidden strategies and sudden reversals of fortune. It may be that there are both elements of skill and chance. Often, it is not the game being played itself which features, but references to it as an analogy of some plot situation. Its use helps to reinforce the alien culture being portrayed, and also gives the reader a sense of continuity between books portraying differing people and places.

Recreate The Heavens And The Earth

The name of the game is Infinity: Recreate The Heavens And The Earth. This is a rather trippy game with great graphic design. I love the playing board, with a galaxy outlined in logarithmic spirals. Each player takes the part of a deity creating a universe. They race to create solar system and planets, develop life, and strive to evolve the life forms to intelligence. Meanwhile they do their best to sabotage their opponent's universes. Sadly the game went out of print in the late 1970's, though you can occasionally find copies on eBay or at the Boardgame Geek website.

Paradice

Paradice is an ecological goodness-and-light game that tries to teach non-zero-sum game principles. It has a gorgeous game board and playing pieces, but is rather expensive.

Terrace

Terrace is an award winning futuristic looking game that was featured in a few episodes of Star Trek the Next Generation. It is played on a board with "L" shaped segments at different heights. There are four different sized playing pieces, the smallest is marked with a "T" symbol. You win by either moving your "T" piece from its starting corner to the far corner, or by capturing your opponent's "T" piece. The movement and capture rules are a bit complicated, and depend upon the piece's altitude and size.

Ploy

Ploy is one of 3M's bookshelf games, published in 1970. The playing pieces have one, two, three, or four vanes or "indicators". A given piece can only move in the direction its indicators are currently pointing. The number of spaces a piece can move is usually the same as the number of indicators it has (the exception is the "commander" or "king", as in chess it can only move one space). In a turn a player can either move one of their pieces from space to space according to the rule, or alternatively they can rotate on of their pieces to change where the indicators point. Enemy pieces are captured by moving one of your pieces into their space. Winning is by either capturing the enemy's commander piece or by elimination all their non-commander pieces.

Sprouts

Sprouts is a mathematical game featured strongly in Piers Anthony's MACROSCOPE. It is played with paper and pencil (or crayon on tabletop). You basically take turns drawing lines connecting two dots, and adding a dot to the new line. You cannot draw a line crossing an existing line, and a given dot can only have a maximum of three lines attached to it. Eventually there will be no legal moves left. The last player who makes a move wins. As a variant, the game can be played in misère fashion, where the last player who make a move loses.

For a low number of initial dots, the results are a little preordained. The first player can always win in normal-play games starting with n = 3, 4, or 5 spots. The second player wins when n = 0, 1, 2, or 6. To play an interesting game, one has to start with a large number of dots.

Pentominoes

Pentominoes are polyominoes composed of five congruent squares, connected orthogonally. Sir Arthur C. Clarke was fascinated by them. They came close to being featured in the movie 2001 A Space Odyssey, but were replaced at the last minute by chess. Clarke made them a central feature in his novel Imperial Earth.

If you'd like a hardwood set of pentominoes, Kadon Enterprises, Inc. makes nice ones.

"You're old enough now, Duncan, to understand this game.., though it's very much more than a game."

Whatever it is, thought Duncan, it doesn't look very exciting. What can you do with five identical squares of white plastic, a couple of centimeters on a side?

"Now the first problem," continued Grandma, "is to see how many different patterns you can make, by putting all these squares together."

"While they lie flat on the table?'"

"Yes, with the edges matching exactly—overlapping isn't allowed."

Duncan started to shuffle the squares.

"Well," he began, "I can put them all in a straight line like this ... then I can switch the end one to make an L... and the one at the other end to make a U .... " He quickly produced half a dozen different assemblies of the five squares, then found that he was repeating himself.

"I think that's all—oh, stupid of me." He had missed the most obvious figure of all—the cross, or X, formed by putting one square in the middle and the other four surrounding it.

"Most people," said Grandma, "find that one first. I don't know what this proves about your mental processes. Do you think you've found them all?"

Duncan continued to slide the squares around, and eventually discovered three More figures. Then he gave up. "That's the lot," he announced confidently.

"Then what about this one?" said Grandma, moving the squares swiftly to make a figure that looked like a humpbacked F.

"Oh!"

"And this..." Duncan began to feel very foolish, and was much relieved when Grandma continued: "You did fairly well—you only missed these two. Altogether, there are exactly twelve of these patterns—no more and no less. Here they are. You could hunt forever—you won't find another one." She brushed aside the five little squares, and laid on the table a dozen brightly colored pieces of plastic.

Each was different in shape, and together they formed the complete set of twelve figures that, Duncan was now quite prepared to admit, were all that could be made from five equal squares. But surely there must be More to it than this. The game couldn't have finished already. No, Grandma still had something up her sleeve.

"Now listen carefully, Duncan. Each of these figures—they're called pentominoes, by the way—is obviously the same size, since they're all made from five identical squares. And there are twelve of them, so the total area is sixty squares. Right?"

"Um... yes."

"Now sixty is a nice round number, which you can split up in lots of ways. Let's start with ten multiplied by six, the easiest one. That's the area of this little box—ten units by six units. So the twelve pieces should fit exactly into it, like a simple jigsaw puzzle." Duncan looked for traps—Grandma had a fondness for verbal and mathematical paradoxes, not all of them comprehensible to a ten-year-old victim—but he could find none. If the box was indeed the size Grandma said, then the twelve pieces should just fit into it. After all, both were sixty units in area.

Wait a minute ... the area might be the same, but the shape could be wrong. There might be no way of making the twelve pieces fit this rectangular box, even though it was the right size.

"I'll leave you to it," said Grandma, after he had shuffled pieces around for a few minutes. "But I promise you this—it can be done."

Ten minutes later, Duncan was beginning to doubt it. It was easy enough to fit ten of the pieces into the frame—and once he had managed eleven. Unfortunately, the hole then left in the jigsaw was not the same shape as the piece that remained in his hand—even though, of course, it was of exactly the same area. The hole was an X, the piece was a Z ....

Thirty minutes later, he was fairly bursting with frustration. Grandma had left him completely alone, while she conducted an earnest dialogue with her computer; but from time to time she gave him an amused glance, as if to say "See—it isn't as easy as you thought." Duncan was stubborn for his age. Most boys of ten would have given up long ago. (It never occurred to him, until years later, that Grandma was also doing a neat job of psychological testing.) He did not appeal for help for almost forty minutes ...

Grandma's fingers flickered over the mosaic. The U and X and L slid around inside their restraining frame—and suddenly the little box was exactly full. The twelve pieces had been perfectly fitted into the jigsaw.

"Well, you knew the answer!" said Duncan, rather lamely.

"The answer?" retorted Grandma. "Would you care to guess how many different ways those pieces can be fitted into their box?" There was a catch here—Duncan was sure of it. He hadn't found a single solution in almost an hour of effort—and he must have tried at least a hundred arrangements. But it was possible that there might be—oh—a dozen different answers.

"I'd guess there might be twenty ways of putting those pieces into the box," he replied, determined to be on the safe side.

"Try again."

That was a danger signal. Obviously, there was much more to this business than met the eye, and it would be safer not to commit himself. Duncan shook his head. "I can't imagine."

"Sensible boy. Intuition is a dangerous guide—though sometimes it's the only one we have. Nobody could ever guess the right answer. There are more than one thousand distinct ways of putting these twelve pieces back into their box. To be precise, 2,339! What do you think of that?"

It was not likely that Grandma was lying to him, yet Duncan felt so humiliated by his total failure to find even one solution that he blurted out: "I don't believe it!"

Grandma seldom showed annoyance, though she could become cold and withdrawn when he had offended her. This time, however, she merely laughed and punched out some instructions to the computer. "Look at that," she said.

A pattern of bright lines had appeared on the screen, showing the set of all twelve pentominoes fitted into the six-by-ten frame. It held for a few seconds, then was replaced by another obviously different, though Duncan could not possibly remember the arrangement briefly presented to him. Then came another ... and another, until Grandma canceled the program.

"Even at this fast rate," she said, "it takes five hours to run through them all. And take my word for it—though no human being has ever checked each one, or ever could—they're all different."

For a long time, Duncan stared at the collection of twelve deceptively simple figures. As he slowly assimilated what Grandma had told him, he had the first genuine mathematical revelation of his life. What had at first seemed merely a childish game had opened endless vistas and horizons—though even the brightest of ten-year-olds could not begin to guess the full extent of the universe now opening up before him.

This moment of dawning wonder and awe was purely passive; a far more intense explosion of intellectual delight occurred when he found his first very own solution to the problem. For weeks he carried around with him the set of twelve pentominoes in their plastic box, playing with them at every odd moment.

He got to know each of the dozen shapes as personal friends, calling them by the letters which they most resembled, though in some cases with a good deal of imaginative distortion: the odd group, F, I, L, N, P and the ultimate alphabetical sequence T, U, V, W, X, Y, Z.

And once in a sort of geometrical trance or ecstasy which he was never able to repeat, he discovered five solutions in less than an hour. Newton and Einstein and Chen-tsu could have felt no greater kinship with the gods of mathematics in their own moments of truth ....

From Imperial Earth by Sir Arthur C. Clarke (1976)

Eleusis

Eleusis is a card game that simulates the scientific method and teaches inductive logic. One player ("God" or "Nature") secretly formulates a rule (a "law of nature") that specifies what card can be played next. The rest of the players ("Scientists") take turns playing a card ("performing an experiment"), and trying to deduce the rule ("create a hypothesis") before the other scientists.

The game can be played with a standard deck of cards, or a special deck can be created.

Eleusis was invented in 1956 by Robert Abbott and appeared in Martin Gardner's Mathematical Recreations column in the June 1959 issue of Scientific American. In 1973 Mr. Abbott updated the game into New Eleusis, adding an improved card layout and adding the role of "prophet". In 2006, John Golden created a streamlined version called Eleusis Express suitable for use in the classroom.

If an SF novel features a future society with an emphasis on scientific training, schoolchildren will probably be playing a game similar to Eleusis.

Fencing

In his novel The Shockwave Rider author John Brunner invented a game called "Fencing", sort of a futuristic version of Dots and Boxes. Mr. Brunner copywrited the game and was planning to market it. Unfortunately some wise-guy game theorist analyzed the game and broke it, devising a perfect strategy that automatically ensured a win for the first player. I'm sure Mr. Brunner was most annoyed as his marketing plans went swirling down the toilet.

Thanks to Bill Christensen of Technovelgy for bringing this game to my attention.

Inter alia the Handbook of the National Association of Players at the Game of Fencing states:

The game may be played manually or electronically.

The field shall consist of 101 parallel equidistant lines coded AA,AB, AC... BA, BB, BC... to EA (omitting the letter I), crossed at 90° by 71 parallel equidistant lines 01 to 71.

The object is to enclose with triangles a greater number of coordinate points than the opponent.

The players shall toss or draw for red or blue; red begins.

At each turn each player shall claim two points, one by visibly marking it in the field, the other by entering its coordinates in a list concealed from the opponent (but subject to scrutiny by a referee in match play).

After at least 10 points (5 red, 5 blue) have been visibly claimed, having claimed his visible point for that turn either player may forego the option of claiming a concealed point and attempt to enclose a triangle by connecting three of his visibly claimed points. Prior to doing so he must require the opponent to enter his concealed points in the field. He may then enclose any triangle that does not include a point claimed by the opponent. A point claimed in a concealed list, which proves on inspection to have been claimed visibly by the opponent, shall be deleted from the concealed list. A triangle may enclose a point claimed by the same color. A point once enclosed may not be claimed. If a player claims such a point in error he shall forfeit both the visible and the concealed point due on that turn.

If a player finds, when the opponent's concealed points are entered in the field, he can enclose no valid triangle, he shall at once enter all his own concealed points, after which play shall proceed normally.

All triangles must have sides at least 2 units long, i.e. two adjacent coordinates cannot serve as apices of the same triangle, though they may serve as apices of two triangles of the same or different colors. No coordinate may serve as the apex of more than one triangle. No triangle may enclose a point enclosed by another triangle. A coordinate claimed by the opponent which lies on a horizontal or vertical line between apices of a proposed triangle shall be deemed included and renders the triangle invalid. A coordinate claimed by the opponent which lies on a true diagonal (45°) between apices of a proposed triangle shall be deemed excluded.

Scores shall be calculated in terms of coordinate points enclosed by valid triangles. An approved device shall be employed such that as each triangle is validly enclosed its apices may be entered into the memory store of the device and upon entry of the third apex the device shall unambiguously display the number of points enclosed. It shall be the responsibility of the player to keep accurate record of his cumulative score, which he shall not conceal from the opponent, except in matches played for stake money or on which there has been wagering or by mutual agreement of the players, when the cumulative score may be kept by a referee or electronically or mechanically, but in such cases there shall be no grounds for appeal by either player against the score shown at the conclusion or at any stage of the game.

It is customary but not obligatory for any game in which one player's score exceeds that of the other by 100 points to be regarded as lost and won.

From The Shockwave Rider by John Brunner (1975)

Abstract Strategy Games

Go

The Chinese culture is known for making do with very little. The classic game of Go is a case in point. The rules are few and simple, the equipment consists of black stones, white stones, and a board with a grid drawn on it. But the strategic complexity makes chess look like tick-tack-toe. There exists computer programs that can beat a grand master at chess, but the best Go computer programs are strictly at amateur levels (1-3 kyu). People have been playing Go for over 2,500 years, they are not going to stop anytime soon. The game does have an elegant simplicity that is quite futuristic.

Tower of Hanoi

In Eric Frank Russell's short story "Now Inhale" (1959), a human scout is captured on an alien planet and condemned as a spy. The sentence is death. Under alien law, all those sentenced to death are granted a "last game." They get to play the game of their choice with a state champion. When the game is over, the sentence is carried out.

Such games are great spectator sports. The alien government has the TV rights. The prisoner naturally is desperately trying to drag the game out as long as possible. The champion, if they find that they cannot win, will suddenly start playing to lose. The prisoner has to walk a fine line, they cannot win, they cannot lose, they cannot allow their opponent to win, and they cannot allow their opponent to lose.

But the human scout pulls a fast one. He specifies a "game" who's heart is the Tower of Hanoi puzzle. The version with 64 discs.

It can be proven that the minimum number of turns needed to solve a Tower of Hanoi puzzle with n discs is 2n - 1. So for a 64 disc puzzle, it needs a minimum of 18,446,744,073,709,551,615 turns. At one turn a second, this will take about 600 billion years. The scout is safe, he just has to hold out long enough for a human task force to show up and rescue him.

The puzzle was invented by the French mathematician Édouard Lucas in 1883. There is a legend of a Vietnamese or Indian temple where the priests of Brahma have been working on a 64 disc game for a couple of thousand years, with the expectation that the universe will end with the completion of the puzzle. Chances are the legend was invented by Lucas. In any event, Russell mentions the legend in his story, when the aliens complain that nobody could have possibly finished a game of this.

Fortress Ship

Back in the March 1962 issue of Scientific American (reprinted and updated in The Colossal Book of Mathematics), Martin Gardner unveiled a simplistic game called Hexapawn. But the amazing part is that in the same article Mr. Gardner shows how to make a computer that will gradually learn how to play the game with ever increasing skill -- out of a bunch of matchboxes and colored beads. What is astounding is that the computer actually learns from experience.

A few years later, SF author Fred Saberhagen was writing his first story in his famous Beserker series. The story was "Fortress Ship" aka "Without A Thought", and after reading it one can see where Mr. Saberhagen found the key ingredient for the plot.

Spoilers for the story follow:

Berserkers are starship-sized alien robots (about the size of New Jersey) programmed to destroy all life, perhaps a Doomsday weapon that got out of hand. As science fictional personifications of Death, they became instant SF icons, but I digress. Anyway, in the story, a lone human pilot has to delay a Beserker long enough for reenforcement to arrive. His job is complicated by the fact that the Beserker has a weapon that will temporarily interfere with a human brain and with the ship's computers.

The Beserker is not sure what setting on the weapon is most effective, so it wants to experiment. As a ruse, it tell the man that it wants to play a checkers-like game, and it won't kill him as long as they play. In reality, it wants to use the evidence of the man's game-moves to see when the settings are at their best. Then it will kill the man.

The man has a pet which has hands and is slightly more intelligent than a dog. More to the point, the pet is conveniently immune to the Beserker's anti-brain ray. If the man becomes incapacitated and fails to send his moves, the Beserker will blast his ship. So the man has to some how give his pet the ability to play, as stupid as it is. The problem is, if the man gives his pet a list of the best moves at each stage of the game, the pet will always play identically (i.e., it won't "learn"), the Bezerker will realize it isn't the man who is playing, and the Bezerker will blast his ship.

Lucky for the man, he had read that Martin Gardner article, and has a supply of boxes and colored beads. While the man is incapacitated, the boxes allow the pet to play with increasing skill, the Beserker is fooled, and eventually reenforcement arrive.

But the Commander was watching Del. "You got Newt to play by following diagrams, I see that. But how could he learn the game?"

Del grinned. "He couldn't, but his toys could. Now wait before you slug me." He called the aiyan to him and took a small box from the animal's hand. The box rattled faintly as he held it up. On the cover was pasted a diagram of one possible position in the simplified checker game, with a different-colored arrow indicating each possible move of Del's pieces.

"It took a couple of hundred of these boxes," said Del. "This one was in the group that Newt examined for the fourth move. When he found a box with a diagram matching the position on the board, he picked the box up, pulled out one of these beads from inside, without looking—that was the hardest part to teach him in a hurry, by the way," said Del, demonstrating. "Ah, this one's blue. That means, make the move indicated on the cover by a blue arrow. Now the orange arrow leads to a poor position, see?" Del shook all the beads out of the box into his hand. "No orange beads left; there were six of each color when we started. But every time Newton drew a bead, he had orders to leave it out of the box until the game was over. Then, if the scoreboard indicated a loss for our side, he went back and threw away all the beads he had used. All the bad moves were gradually eliminated. In a few hours, Newt and his boxes learned to play the game perfectly."

From "Without A Thought" by Fred Saberhagen

Chess

Chess is the so-called "game of kings." By this I mean "Western chess" or "international chess." There are various cultural versions of chess-like games, my personal favorite is Shogi or Japanese chess (the rule for "drops" changes the entire game). Shogi is played on a 9 x 9 board with forty pieces, Chu shogi on a 12 x 12 board with ninety-two pieces, Maka dai dai shogi on a 19 x 19 board with one hundred and ninety-two pieces, and the absolutely monstrous Taikyoku shogi on a 36 x 36 board with eight hundred and four pieces.

Of particular interest to SF authors trying to jazz up their future histories is the various species of Chess Variants and Fairy chess. This is where one takes Western chess and alters it in interesting ways. You can add new rules, add weird new pieces, change the checkmate conditions, and/or change the game board. All of which will make something an SF author can plausibly pawn off as a future evolution of the game of chess. You can find such chess variants at the list of links here.

On the other hand, some SF authors will just re-name the chess pieces with names of various types of space warship and leave it at that.

Nifty Boards

At three, V-101, sitting quietly and calmly with his golden haired head propped up by his tiny hands, beat him in tri-d sphere chess despite all Bronson's sputtering and spitting and pipe puffing.

Tri-d sphere chess is an offshoot of cylindrical chess which is, in turn, an offshoot of regular chess.

In regular chess all pieces are hemmed in by the four sides of the board and the four rook pawns (two per player) are only half as powerful as the inner pawns. These two facts are not so in cylindrical chess; the pieces are hemmed in by only two sides of the board and the rook pawns are just as powerful as the others. In addition, a rook can attack a piece on an open rank from two directions at the same time and once if the rank is blocked once. The bishops and queens can attack the opposing player's castled position twice each from opposite directions. The castled king finds himself flanked by two rooks and two knights (providing the queen knight is developed at queen rook three—in ordinary chess, a very unpromising and bad move in the vast majority of positions).

Sphere chess is cylindrical chess with the open ends of the board or cylinder joined. The squares are of varying sizes, but that is of little importance as far as the game is concerned. In sphere chess the king and queen become of paramount importance since in two moves either can be at any point in their circular camp that is under direct attack. No piece is restricted in its movements except by other pieces. It is possible for the queen, via ranks—files and diagonals—to attack a piece six times from six directions, and in special circumstances, eight different directions at the same time.

(ed note: actually, if you connect the opposite sides of a chess board to each other, the result is a torus (donut), not a sphere)

Bronson had been playing tri-d sphere chess against the ship's computer for over thirty years, winning occasionally- after programming it to lose. So he had not expected to lose the first game he played with V-1Ol. The little golden haired prodigy also won consistently at all card games.

From Crown of Infinity by John Faucette (1968)

Nifty Venues

US astronaut Greg Chamitoff aboard the International Space Station in a chess tourney with the Ground Stations. (August 13 2008)

Compound Chess

"Compound chess" was a semi-scientific game Curt had devised. There was a board of a thousand squares, and each player had ninety-odd pieces representing the different elements. The idea was to move the element-pieces onto squares occupied by the opponent's elements, so as to form known scientific compounds. Whoever formed the most compounds won the game.

Otho was fidgeting restlessly, glowering at big Grag who sat like a metal statue, studying the board with his gleaming photoelectric eyes, while Eek gnawed playfully at his impervious metal arm.

"Well, go ahead and move!" Otho finally exploded. "You know you're beaten -- my next move will win the last compound."

"I'll move when I'm ready," Grag boomed calmly.

Finally Grag reached his metal hand and moved his "radium" piece far across the board to the square of Otho's "chlorine!"

"Radium Chloride -- that's the last compound and it's mine," the robot boomed triumphantly. "I win the game."

From Captain Future's Challenge by Edmond Hamilton (1940)

Men, Martians, and Machines

Three days out, Jay made a major hit with the Martians. As everyone knows, those goggle-eyed, ten-tentacled, half-breathing kibitzers have stuck harder than glue to the Solar System Chess Championship for more than two centuries. Nobody outside of Mars will ever pry them loose. They are nuts about the game and many's the time I've seen a bunch of them go through all the colours of the spectrum in sheer excitement when at last somebody has moved a pawn after thirty minutes of profound cogitation.

One rest-time Jay spent his entire eight hours under three pounds pressure in the starboard airlock. Through the lock's phones came long silences punctuated by wild and shrill twitterings as if he and the Martians were turning the place into a madhouse. At the end of the time we found our tentacled outside-crew exhausted. It turned out that Jay had consented to play Kli Yang and had forced him to a stalemate. Kli had been sixth runner-up in the last solar melee, had been beaten only ten times—each time by a brother Martian, of course...


...Two Martians came back through the lock, grabbed some more sealing-plates and crawled out again. One of them thought it might be a bright idea to take his pocket chess set as well, but I didn't let him. There are times and places for that sort of thing and knight to king's fourth on the skin of a busted boat isn't one of them...


..."You!" snapped Kli Yang, breaking my train of thought. His goggle eyes bulged irefully at the big, laconic figure on the dais. "You would! I am ready to mate in four moves, as you are miserably aware, and promptly you scheme to lock yourself away."

"Six moves," contradicted Jay, airily. "You cannot do it in less than six."

"Four!" Kli Yang fairly howled. "And right at this point you—"

It was too much for the listening McNulty. He looked as if on the verge of a stroke. His purple face turned to the semaphoring Kli.

"Forget your blasted chess!" he roared. "Return to your stations, all of you. Make ready for maximum boost..."


...They pointed claws toward the roof and went on, "But up there are other minds far stranger than yours, far different from ours. They are unique. We would not have thought them possible. Unbelievable as it may be, they can concentrate upon two subjects at one and the same time."

"Eh?" said McNulty, scratching his head. He could make nothing of this information.

"Two subjects at once! Most remarkable! They are high up in the air but descending toward the roof. One of them is thinking of an array of little gods on a square composed of coloured squares and is also thinking of — you"...


...Somebody went solemnly down the gangway bearing Earthward an enormous vase of violently clashing colours and exceedingly repulsive shape. The Martian chorus of protest arose crescendo. There were shrill chirrups and much snaking of angry tentacles. I gathered that the porcelain monstrosity was Kli Morg's chess trophy, the Martian notion of a championship cup. It was in vile taste from the Terrestrial viewpoint...


...It takes a Martian to be bored by adventure yet sweat with excitement over a slow-motion game like chess. They always did have an inverted sense of values...

From Men, Martians, and Machines by Eric Frank Russell (1941)

Gentlemen, Be Seated

From "Gentlemen, Be Seated" by Robert Heinlein (1948). Our heroes are trapped in a section of Lunar tunnel under construction. Knowles leaves to find help, wearing the only available space suit. Jack and Konski are left to wait for rescue in the dark tunnel.

During the construction of the Hudson bridge, workers labored in pressurized caissons underwater. When they left the caisson, they had to spend long periods of time in decompression chambers or they would suffer from decompression sickness, aka "caisson disease" or "the bends."

It is interesting to note the feats of memory that are taken for granted in this story. In the dark, they cannot make notes. So they have to memorize the list of moves and visualize the game board.

Knowles hurried into the suit and left, taking the light with him. We were in darkness again.

After a while, I heard Konski's voice. "There a game we can play in the dark, Jack. You play chess?"

"Why, yes—play at it, that is."

"A good game. Used to play it in the decompression chamber when I was working under the Hudson. What do you say to twenty on a side, just to make it fun?"

"Uh? Well, all right." He could have made it a thousand; I didn't care.

"Fine. King's pawn to king three."

"Uh—king's pawn to king's four."

"Conventional, aren't you? Puts me in mind of a girl I knew in Hoboken — " What he told about her bad nothing to do with chess, although it did prove she was conventional, in a manner of speaking. "King's bishop to queen's bishop four. Remind me to tell you about her sister, too. Seems she hadn't always been a redhead, but she wanted people to think so. So she—sorry. Go ahead with your move."

I tried to think but my head was spinning. "Queen's pawn to queen three."

"Queen to king's bishop three. Anyhow, she — " He went on in great detail. It wasn't new and I doubt if it ever happened to him, but it cheered me up. I actually smiled, there in the dark. "It's your move," he added.

"Oh." I couldn't remember the board. I decided to get ready to castle, always fairly safe in the early game. "Queen's knight to queen's bishop three."

"Queen advances to capture your king's bishop's pawn—checkmate. You owe me twenty, Jack."

"Huh? Why that can't be!"

"Want to run over the moves?" He checked them off.

I managed to visualize them, then said, "Why, I'll be a dirty name! You hooked me with a fool's mate!"

He chuckled. "You should have kept your eye on my queen instead of on the redhead."

From "Gentlemen, Be Seated" by Robert Heinlein (1948)

Three Dimensional Chess

Probably the most commonly encountered chess variant is three dimensional chess. Most younger SF fans were introduced to tridimensional chess in the original Star Trek TV series. More mature SF fans read about it in Isaac Asimov's 1950 novel Pebble In The Sky. Most commercial 3D chess sets only have three levels, while logically it should have eight (so you have eight rows, eight columns, and eight levels). However, as you can see from picture above, such a board will have to be quite tall. This is because the space between has to be tall enough allow one to reach their hand inside.

An interesting variant of three-level chess is Dragonchess, invented by the legendary Gary Gygax.

Pebble in the Sky

Chess, somehow, hadn't changed, except for the names of the pieces. It was as he remembered it, and therefore it was always a comfort to him. At least, in this one respect, his poor memory did not play him false.

Grew told him of variations of chess. There was four-handed chess, in which each player had a board, touching each other at the corners, with a fifth board filling the hollow in the centre as a common No Man's Land. There were three- dimensional chess games in which eight transparent boards were placed one over the other and in which each piece moved in three dimensions as they formerly moved in two, and in which the number of pieces and pawns were doubled, the win coming only when a simultaneous check of both enemy kings occurred. There were even the popular varieties, in which the original positions of the chessmen were decided by throws of the dice, or where certain squares conferred advantages or disadvantages to the pieces upon them, or where new pieces with strange properties were introduced.

They used a 'night-board,' one that glowed in the darkness in a checkered blue-and-orange glimmer. The pieces, ordinary lumpish figures of a reddish clay in the sunlight, were metamorphosed at night. Half were bathed in a creamy whiteness that lent them the look of cold and shining porcelain, and the others sparked in tiny glitters of red.

The first moves were rapid. Schwartz's own King's Pawn met the enemy advance head on. Grew brought out his King's Knight to Bishop 3; Schwartz countered with Queen's Knight to Bishop 3. Then the White Bishop leaped to Queen's Knight 5, and Schwartz's Queen's Rook's Pawn slid ahead a square to drive it back to Rook 4. He then advanced his other Knight to Bishop 3.

The shining pieces slid across the board with an eerie volition of their own as the grasping fingers lost themselves in the night.

(ed note: for purposes of the novel Asimov found a record of a chess match between two grand masters: a victory by Löwenfisch over Werlinski in Moscow in 1924. Asimov has the characters in the novel play that game.)

From Pebble in the Sky by Isaac Asimov (1950)

Starman Jones

"That's nice. What have you got there?"

It was a three-dimensional chess set. Max had played the game with his uncle, it being one that all astrogators played. Finding that some of the chartsmen and computermen played it, he had invested his tips in a set from the ship's slop chest. It was a cheap set, having no attention lights and no arrangements for remote-control moving, being merely stacked transparent trays and pieces molded instead of carved, but it sufficed.

"It's solid chess. Ever seen it?"

"Yes. But I didn't know you played it."

"Why not? Ever play flat chess?"

"Some."

"The principles are the same, but there are more pieces and one more direction to move. Here, I'll show you.

She sat tailor-fashion opposite him and he ran over the moves. "These are robot freighters ... pawns. They can be commissioned anything else if they reach the far rim. These four are starships; they are the only ones with funny moves, they correspond with knights. They have to make interspace transitions, always off the level they're on to some other level and the transition has to be related a certain way, like this—or this. And this is the Imperial flagship; it's the one that has to be checkmated. Then there is ..." They ran through a practice game, with the help of Mr. Chips, who liked to move the pieces and did not care whose move it was.

Presently he said, "You catch on pretty fast."

"Thanks."

"Of course, the real players play four-dimensional chess."

"Do you?"

"Well, no. But I hope to learn some day. It's just a matter of holding in your mind one more spatial relationship. My uncle used to play it. He was going to teach me, but he died." He found himself explaining about his uncle. He trailed off without mentioning his own disappointment.

From Starman Jones by Robert Heinlein (1953)

My Enemy, My Ally

With some difficulty Jim restrained himself from groaning out loud, for the whole thing was his own fault. He had mentioned to Harb some time back that 3D chess. much as he loved it. had been getting a little boring. Harb had gone quietly away to talk to Moira, the master Games computer, and shortly thereafter had presented the ship's company with something new 4D chess. Spock had objected mildly to the name, for hyperspace, not time, was the true fourth dimension. But the Vulcan's objections were swiftly lost in fascination with the new variant.

Harb had completely done away with the form of the old triple-level chessboard, replacing it with a hologram-style stack of force-field cubes, eight on a side, in which the pieces were "embedded" during play. The cubic was fully rotatable in yaw, pitch and roll; if desired, parts of it could be enlarged for closer examination, or for tournament play. The pieces themselves (the only physical element of the set) were handled by an exquisitely precise transporter system, with a set of controls on each player's side of the gametable. This innovation effectively eliminated "you-touched-it, you-have-to-move-it" arguments, illegal "behind-the-back" moving, and other such minor excitements. Not that either of the Enterprise's premier chess players would ever have had recourse to cheating. But the new design opened up possibilities as well as removing them: and it was one of these newer variations that Spock was presently inflicting on the Captain.

Harb had programmed the table's games computer so that a player could vanish desired pieces from the cubic, for a period of his own determination, and have them reappear later if desired, in any other spot made possible by a legal move. Pieces "timed out" in this fashion could appear behind the other player's lines and wreak havoc there. But this innovation had not merely expanded the usual course of play. It had also completely changed the paradigm in which chess was usually played. Suddenly the game was no longer about anticipating the opponent's moves and thwarting them or not merely about that. It was now also a matter of anticipating a whole strategy from the very start: a matter of estimating with great accuracy where an opponent would be in fifteen or twenty moves, and getting one's pieces there to ambush him while also fooling the opponent as to where one's own weak and strong areas would be at that time.

...Regretfully, Jim had to agree with him. He had tried one of his favorite offenses from 3D chess an all-out, "scream-and-leap" offensive opening that in the past had occasionally succeeded in rattling Spock slightly with its sheer bloody-minded enthusiasm. Unfortunately, mere howling aggressiveness was of no use in this game, not even briefly. Spock had merely sat in calm interest, watching Jim's game unfold, responding calmly to Jim's screams and leaps. Spock had moved rather conservatively, moving first one queen and then his second into mildly threatening mid-level positions, counterbalancing Jim's double-queen pin on the king's level (four. at the time) from levels three and eight. Jim had run merrily amok for a while, inexorably pushing Spock into what looked like a wholly defensive position in the center-cubic upper levels, then timing out both his rooks, one of his knights, and several pawns in rapid succession, in what was meant to be a nettling display of security.

That was when Spock had lifted his head from a long scowl at the board, and very, very slowly put that one eyebrow up. Jim had stared back at Spock, entirely cheerful, not saying anything but mentally daring him to do his worst.

He had. Jim's half of the cubic now looked like the Klingon half of the Battle of Organia at the end of the fourth quarter... not that his pieces even held as much as half the cubic anymore. Spock had not even needed to wait for his own timed-out. pieces to return. Not that there were many of them; Jim now suspected that Spock had purposely restrained himself there, to keep Jim from feeling too bad or perhaps to keep the win from looking too much like mindreading. Jim, looking in great annoyance at his poor king penned up in the upper levels with queens above and below him in Spock's silent demonstration of his own brand of poetic justice considered that he would have preferred mindreading to the implication that Spock could anticipate him this completely without it. The situation elsewhere was no better. Spock's king was redoubtably fenced around by knights and rooks; his bishops were so perfectly positioned in the center cubic that they controlled it practically by themselves. And Jim had nothing available with which to attack them even if they had been more poorly positioned. Both his queens were gone now, and almost everything else was timed out in preparation for what was supposed to have been the closing of a cunning and totally unpredictable trap.

From My Enemy, My Ally by Diane Duane (1984). A Star Trek novel

Chess Variants

Jetan

One of the earlier examples of a chess variant turned into science fiction is the game of Jetan, or Martian chess (1922). This is from the fifth novel of Edgar Rice Burroughs famous John Carter of Barsoom series, The Chessmen of Mars. In the evil Barsoomian city-state of Manator, the decadent inhabitants enjoy playing chess using human gladiators as playing pieces. Every chess move initiates a duel to the death!

But Burroughs stroke of genius was the invention of the rules for Martian chess, which is given in an appendix in the novel. The rules were altered to be more like the standard plot of the Barsoom novels (the main piece was the "princess" not the "king", etc). Many later authors of planetary romances were inspired by Burroughs to invent their own chess variants. Lin Carter invented the game of Darza for his Callisto series, Kenneth Bulmer invented Jikaida for his Dray Prescot series, and John Norman invented Kaissa for his Gor series.

You can find the rules for Jetan (including commentary on resolving some ambiguities in Burroughs original rules) here, here, and here. You can play online here. There are some sample playing pieces here.

Klin Zha

John M. Ford, in his Star Trek novel The Final Reflection, invented Klin Zha or Klingon Chess. The game becomes the focus of the entire novel, and provides a frame work for understanding Klingon culture.

Taasen

Taasen is a game invented by Jennifer Diane Reitz for her online manga Unicorn Jelly. The types pieces correspond to the three castes of Tryslmaistan society. One player uses the red pieces, the other the green pieces. The white pieces are neutral, and can be moved by either player.

The manga Unicorn Jelly is philosophically deep and quite grim in parts, don't be fooled by the lighthearted tone of the initial chapters. I highly recommend it, it will repay careful study.

Enochian Chess

Enochian chess is basically a form of divination, that is, an attempt to foretell the future by magical means. Yes, this is more the realm of fantasy than science fiction, but is included for completeness. A magician (aka "Adept" ) poses a question. The category and nature of the question determines which of the four chessboards is used (Fire, Water, Air, or Earth), and which square on the board contains the question (that square is marked with a special chess piece called the "Ptath").

The game is then played to its conclusion. For each player's turn, the piece that is to be moved is determined by a throw of dice, but the piece selected is moved according to the will of the player (constrained by the movement rules for that piece of course). All pieces moved and the squares they land on are carefully recorded, as this reveals the future. The question is answered yes/no depending upon which kings get checkmated.

The boards use elemental magic theory, which maintains that instead of the universe being composed of the 117-odd chemical elements known to science, it is actually made of the occult elements Fire, Water, Air, and Earth. Hey, it's magic, OK? (Technically there is a fifth occult element "Spirit" or "Aethyr", but that can be ignored in Enochian chess. The fifth element is the origin of the word "quintessence" or "fifth essence").

Therefore, there are four chessboards, one for each element. Each board is divided into four quarters. So the upper left quadrant of the elemental Water chessboard is for the "Airy part of Water."

You see, according to elemental magic theory, everything is composed of the four elements. But "everything" includes the elements themselves. So the element of Fire is itself composed of Fire, Water, Air, and Earth. That is the Fiery part of Fire, the Watery part of Fire, and so on.

The quadrants are subdivided a couple of more times to get to the level of individual game squares. So a given square may be the watery part of the airy part of the earthy part of Air. This is why each square has four different colors, coding the elements. Each of the four elements of a square are tagged with a Tarot card, a Geomantic glyph, a Hebrew letter, and an astrological sign of the Zodiac. The profusion of mystical symbols paired with the identity of the chess piece landing on it somehow gives the magician knowledge of future events. Well, it certainly seems more precise than reading tea-leaves.

You will notice that the symbols are printed in the complementary color to the triangle color. This is called "counter-charging", a board colored in such a fashion is called a "flashing colors tablet." Former hippies who lived during the 1960's will recognize this as the same technique used in the neon-colored glow-in-the-dark op-art psychedelic posters common during that era. In both cases the motive was the same: to have a "mind-expanding" effect/look really, really cool while tripping on LSD.

The Enochian chess pieces are representations of various Egyptian gods and goddesses.

Enochian Chess comes from Enochian Magic (surprise, surprise), invented in the 16th-century by Dr. John Dee and developed further by the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn The underlying game appears to be a variant on Chaturaji, which some say is the ancestor of modern chess.

Cosmic Checkmate

In the novel, the alien planet Velda has been discovered by the human empire of Ten Thousand Worlds. Velda says it wants no contact, but Earth sends a fleet anyway. Velda destroys the fleet.

So Earth becomes crafty, and sends a spy. Velda has a chess-like game, played on a 13 x 13 board, with 26 playing pieces ("pukts") on a side. The human spy has a brain implant that gives him an edge in playing the game. The spy is inserted into Velda, where he puts up a sign saying "I'll beat you the second game."

In the first game, the spy plays an opponent in a fashion that probes their weakness. This knowledge allows the spy to defeat the opponent on the second game.

Starmaster's Gambit

In Gerald Klein's Starmaster's Gambit, our hero discovers that on many planets the inhabitants have games that bear resemblances to chess. And on other planets, there are plants that produce the recreational drug Xotl. But the two are never found native to the same planet. As it turns out, this is due to some great eldar race, who seeded the galaxy with life millions of years ago. Once a race develops starships, they will eventually put Xotl and chess together. The eldar wanted a race to be advanced enough for starships before finding the secret.

Due to latent psionic abilities implanted in the younger races by the eldar, the younger races (including human beings) can teleport themselves from planet to planet. All you have to do is drink a shot of Xotl, then solve a specific chess problem. The form of the chess problem gives the coordinates of your destination.

Once a person stumbles onto the secret, they will tend to land at on of the eldar's hidden way-stations. These stations are equipped with stores of Xotl, and have emblazoned on the walls the chess problems required to teleport to adjacent way-stations. Follow the links, and you will eventually be led to the eldar.

A Day For Damnation

When I was fifteen, I discovered chess.

We had at least thirty different chess-playing programs in the house, including a copy of Grandmaster Plus, the one that finally won the title and held onto it until they changed the rules to exclude artificial intelligence. Most of the programs were public domain, or review copies that had been sent to my dad.

One of the programs, Harlie, allowed you to redefine the pieces and the board, so that you could play "fairy" or nonstandard chess. I remembered, I’d never wanted to get involved with chess before, because it had seemed so rigid; but with Harlie, I could redefine the game the way I thought it should be played. In my own image.

I spent my fifteenth summer inventing new chess pieces and new playing fields.

One piece was the Time Traveler. It leapt forward in time, any number of moves— but they had to be specified at the beginning.

If there was a piece on the square when the Time Traveler materialized, both were destroyed. That was how you destroyed a Time Traveler. You parked a pawn on his arrival point.

Another piece was the Gulliver. Gulliver was a giant. He stood on two squares at once, but they had to be the same color, so there was always another square between them. Because the Gulliver straddled, he could only move one leg at a time. You could only kill him by moving an enemy piece between his legs. Preferably the Time Bomb.

Two other pieces were the Magician and the Troll. The Magician moved like a Bishop, but couldn't capture. It moved into position so that another piece was attacking it. If a piece attacked the Magician, even inadvertently, it died. The Troll was the only piece that was safe from the Magician because it couldn't attack anything. It was just a big inert block that could only move one square at a time. It couldn't attack and it couldn't be attacked. It was useful for getting in the way.

I also invented Ghouls and Vampires and Zombies. Ghouls moved through tunnels under the board. Vampires attacked enemy pieces and turned them into Vampires too. Once you started a Zombie moving, you couldn't stop it. It just went on forever.

In order to play a game with all these new pieces, I had to redesign the chessboard. I invented a gigantic spherical playing field with the opposing armies starting the game at opposite poles. I found I had to put in oceans then, blank areas that no piece could move through to allow for edge strategies. Very quickly, I reached the point that the game could only be played on multiple high-resolution terminals. It was the only way to keep track of what was happening on all sides of the globe at once.

Then I added civilians, pieces whose loyalties were unknown until they enlisted on either one side or the other— or were drafted. Civilians always started out as pawns.

I also randomized the initial setups and board layouts to confuse opening-book strategies. It made the opening hundred moves far more tentative.

By the end of the summer, I'd written my own version. It was so big and complex that the strategy part of tile program was taking almost five minutes to compute its options and report back its move. And I was running the program on Dad's desktop Cray-9000 with the 2-gigaherz, multiple-gate, 256-channel optical chip, with pseudo-infinite parallel processing. I was more proud than annoyed. I was the only person I'd ever heard of who'd produced a noticeable delay out of a Cray logic processor. But when I showed it to my dad, he pointed out that most of the delay was due to unnecessary branching. I was letting the program test every possible move, sometimes as many as ten moves ahead to see if there was an advantage, before it made its choice. That was when my dad taught me about orchards— in other words, how do you grow a self-pruning matrix of logic trees? He showed me how to implement the search for live and dead branches.

The rewritten version of my fairy-chess program was reporting back its moves even before I'd lifted my fingers from the keyboard. I was very annoyed at my dad for that. Sure, he was only trying to help, and yes, I appreciated the increased speed— but the total absoluteness of the machine's response was ultimately just too intimidating. It made me feel ... stupid. As if the answer was so obvious, the machine didn't even have to consider it. I finally had to put in a random delay, but it wasn't the same. I still knew.

When I finally sat down to actually play the game, I realized that something very interesting had happened.

My perception of chess had shifted.

I no longer saw the game as a board with a set of pieces moving around on it. Rather, I saw it as a set of arrays and values and overlapping matrices of shifting dimensions— and the pieces merely represented the areas of influence and control. The game was not about tactics and strategy any more; it was about options and relationships.

I had a bizarre. experience of looking at a chessboard and realizing that it and the pieces were actually unnecessary. They didn't need to exist at all. They were only place-holders in the physical universe, something with which to annotate the actual relationships which the game was truly about.

The pieces weren't the pieces any more— they were their move patterns. A King was a square block, three squares by three. A Queen was a star shaped radius of power. A Rook was a sliding cross. A Bishop was an X-shape. And I didn't play chess by just studying the pieces any more. I looked instead at the overlapping relationships.

I rewrote my program one more time.

I added an option to display the relative strength of the opposing sides. The pieces were black and white, the areas they controlled were colored red and green. The more a square was under the black control, the redder the square was shown. The more a square was under white's influence, the greener it was displayed. Squares that were equally contested showed up yellow. It became possible to look at the sphere and see all the strong and weak points all at once.

The game was no longer chess. It had become something else. You didn't move your pieces to move pieces, but to change the coloring of the board— to control space. Controlling space was more important than capturing it. Capturing a piece tended to decrease the amount of area controlled. The game was won by juggling threats, not actions.

That realization transformed chess for me. The game took on a whole new dimension.

It became a game of balance more than one of action. There were very few actual battles in this game. Mostly it was minor skirmishes. When the end did come, it often came as capitulation before the inevitable. Or sometimes not. Sometimes, there was a flurry of battles that decimated both sides. That was usually quick and violent.

I remember, my dad was impressed. He spent more time play-testing the game than I did. Then he sent it out to a play-testing company for their evaluation. I'd almost forgotten about the game when he got their report back. I had already gone back to school, so Dad made a few minor modifications according to PlayCo's recommendations, named it Globall, and put it on the network. I made eighty thousand caseys the first year. Not too shabby. After that, it tapered off to less than a thousand caseys a month, which Dad insisted I put in a college trust.

The point is that there was a moment when chess stopped being chess for me and turned into something else: a perception of the relationships that chess was actually about. The pieces disappeared and all that was left were the patterns.

From A Day For Damnation by David Gerrold (1985)

Gambling

Gambling games have an appeal for those who find pure intellectual games insipid. The stereotypical classics are dice (craps) and poker. Sometimes the crew will organize a betting pool, based on some event (date and time of combat, number of enemy ships, how many cryogenically frozen "low berth" passengers survive the revival process, etc).

Note that the point is that these are "zero-sum" games. Poker is pointless if you are playing for toothpicks or matchsticks. You have to play it with real money, so that a given player gets very upset if they lose or very happy if they win. This is why all the Colonial Warriors in the picture above are so disgusted at playing for jelly beans.

This raises a question about the stakes in the poker games in all those Star Trek episodes, since Federation society has evolved beyond money. I suppose the poker chips represented services. That appeared in the Firefly episode "Shindig", where the chips represented a free pass to avoid certain odious on-ship chores: garbage detail, washing dishes, septic vat cleaning, etc.

Unlike abstract strategy games such as chess, gambling games typically do not have perfect information. In other words, getting a peek at your opponent's hand of cards is considered cheating. Gambling games also tend to have an element of chance (rolling dice, randomly dealt cards), which is not found in abstract strategy games. And of course, wagering money is the sine qua non of gambling, an element absent from abstract strategy games.

And always remember that if you can't spot the sucker at a poker game, you had better get up and leave because you're the sucker.

Firefly

SIMON, BOOK and JAYNE play Chore poker. It looks like five card draw, only instead of chips, they're playing for pieces of paper. Each man has a collection of scraps in front of him -- Simon has the least and Book the most. Simon shuffles.

SIMON: "Ante up, gentlemen." (antes piece of paper) "Dishes."

BOOK: (anteing) "Dishes. Could do with less of them."

JAYNE: (anteing) "Garbage."

Simon completes the deal. The three men study their cards.

BOOK: "I'll take two."

JAYNE: (re: his hand) "Speakin' of garbage..." (then) "Gimme three."

SIMON: "And one for the dealer."

Simon gives out the cards.

BOOK: "What do you s'pose the Captain and Kaylee are doing now?" (betting) "Septic flush."

JAYNE: "Eatin' steaks off plates made a' solid money, like as anything. I fold."

SIMON: "Me too."

JAYNE: "Take it, Shepherd."

BOOK: "Thank you, gents. That's a nice pile of things I don't have to do."

Jayne shuffles.

SIMON: "The party is probably a buffet. And there'll be dancing. And beautiful women. Dozens of them."

JAYNE: "And you can dance with any of 'em?"

SIMON: Well, there are social conventions, ways of asking, ways of declining..."

BOOK: "It sounds very complicated. I'll never understand why it's considered a sacrifice to live a simple life."

JAYNE: "Yeah. I wouldn't trade this for nothing, playing cards for a night off from septic flush duty."

From FIREFLY episode "Shindig" (2002)

Time Enough For Love

There is no such thing as "social gambling." Either you are there to cut the other bloke's heart out and eat it - or you're a sucker. If you don't like this choice - don't gamble.

From Time Enough For Love by Robert Heinlein (1973)

World of Ptavvs

"Matchsticks!" Kzanol's voice dripped with thrintun contempt. "We might just as well be playing Patience." It was a strange thing to say, considering that he was losing.

"Tell you what," Kzanol/Greenberg suggested. "We could divide the Earth up now and play for people. We'd get about eight billion each to play with, with a few left over. In fact, we could agree right now that the Earth should be divided by two north-south great circle lines, leave it at that 'til we get back with the amplifier, and play with eight billion apiece."

"Sounds all right. Why north-south?"

"So we each get all the choices of climate there are. Why not?"

"Agreed." Kzanol dealt two cards face down and one up.

"Seven stud," announced the pilot.

"Fold," said Kzanol/Greenberg, and watched Kzanol snarl and rake in the antes.

"Five stud," said the pilot. He sat where he could see neither hand, ready to wrap his human tongue around human, untranslatable poker slang when Kzanol wished.

"Nine people."

"Raise five."

"Up ten."

"Call. Greenberg, why is it that you win more than I do, even though you fold more often?"

From World of Ptavvs by Larry Niven (1965)

Star Trek

Delilah and the Space-Rigger

Since we were falling free in a 24-hour circular orbit, with everything weightless and floating, you'd think that shooting craps was impossible. But a radioman named Peters figured a dodge to substitute steel dice and a magnetic field. He also eliminated the element of chance, so we fired him.

From Delilah and the Space-Rigger by Robert Heinlein (1949)

Star Guard

Feenhalt's flight of imagination turned out to be a gambling device which enthralled a large selection of Combatants. A pool sunk in the floor of a room was partitioned into sections around a central arena. In each of the small water-filled pens sported a fish about five inches long, two-thirds of that length was mouth lined with needle teeth. Each fish bore a small colored tag imbedded in its tail fin and swam about its prison in ferocious fury. The players gathered about the pool studying the captives. When two or more had chosen their champions, credit chips were inserted in the slots on the rim and the pen doors opened, freeing the fish to move into the arena. What followed was a wild orgy of battle until only one warrior remained alive. Whereupon the bettor who had selected that fish collected from those who had sponsored the dead.

No more attractive game could have been devised to snare credits from the Combatants. Kana measured the twisting finny fighters carefully, at last choosing a duelist with an excellent jaw spread and a green tail disc. He bought a credit chip from the house banker and knelt to insert the releasing coin in the lock of the pen.

From Star Guard by Andre Norton (1955)

Simulation Games

Simulation games or wargames try to model a given situation (generally a war) with enough detail that it can be used to predict real-world outcomes, and give strategic and tactical training to military officers. But there are plenty of science fiction and fantasy games as well.

Those scientifically accurate wargames which are concerned with spacecraft combat are useful training tools for SF authors. Such games include Attack Vector: Tactical boardgame, Squadron Strike boardgame, Voidstriker boardgame, Triplanetary boardgame (out of print), Star Fist boardgame (out of print), Vector 3 boardgame, Kerbal Space Program computer game, Orbiter computer game, Independence War computer game (out of print). An author can use such a game for inspiration, to plot out a battle sequence, and to discover unintended consequences of their initial assumptions.

High Frontier along with the first expansion pack allows one to model the industrialization of space, and also gives one a way to plot orbital transfers between various locations in the solar system.

Almost all of the military wargames are played on a map which is divided into hexagons, instead of squares as is chess. This is because moving a piece from one square to another square orthogonally is not the same distance as moving a piece diagonally (moving diagonally is a distance of the square root of two or about 1.4 times the orthogonal distance). But moving from one hex to an adjacent hex is always the same distance.

The exception is miniatures wargaming. Instead of being played on a paper map, miniature gaming uses a table sculpted with terrain with no square or hexagons at all. Little figures representing military units are moved not with a limit expressed in hexes, but instead in inches or centimeters.

But both board wargames and miniatures wargames lend themselves to being computerized. The playing surface and pieces can be displayed virtually on a computer monitor. This avoids problems like the pieces floating off the playing surface when the spaceship goes into free fall.

Stand By For Mars

"You have a chance to take part in three sports. Free-fall wrestling, mercuryball and space chess." Dixon glanced at Houseman and Withrop. "From the looks of Cadet Astro, free-fall wrestling should be child's play for him!"

Astro merely grinned.

"Mercuryball is pretty much like the old game of soccer," explained Houseman. "But inside the ball is a smaller ball filled with mercury, making it take crazy dips and turns. You have to be pretty fast even to touch it."

"Sounds like you have to be a little Mercurian yourself," smiled Tom.

"You do," replied Dixon. "Oh, yes, you three play as a unit. Competition starts in a few days. So if you've never played before, you might go down to the gym and start practicing."

"You mentioned space chess," asked Roger. "What's that?"

"It's really nothing more than maneuvers. Space maneuvers," said Dixon. "A glass case, a seven-foot cube, is divided by light shafts into smaller cubes of equal shape and size. Each man has a complete space squadron. Three model rocket cruisers, six destroyers and ten scouts. The ships are filled with gas to make them float, and your power is derived from magnetic force. The problem is to get a combination of cruisers and destroyers and scouts into a space section where it could knock out your opponent's ships."

From Stand By For Mars by Cary Rockwell (1952), a Tom Corbett Space Cadet book

The Time Traders

So Ross had no chance to speak to Kurt. Instead, he was drawn into the knot of men who, having finished their meal, entered a small arena with a half circle of spectator seats at one side and a space for contestants at the other. What followed absorbed Ross as completely as the earlier scene of the wolf killing. This too was a fight, but not a physical struggle. All three contenders were not only unlike in body, but as Ross speedily came to understand, they were also unlike in their mental approach to any problem.

They seated themselves crosslegged at the three points of a triangle. Then Ashe looked from the tall blond to the small Oriental. "Territory?" he asked crisply.

"Inland plains!" That came almost in chorus, and each man, looking at his opponent, began to laugh.

Ashe himself chuckled. "Trying to be smart tonight, boys?" he inquired. "All right, plains it is."

He brought his hand down on the floor before him, and to Ross's astonishment the area around the players darkened and the floor became a stretch of miniature countryside. Grassy plains rippled under the wind of a fair day.

"Red!"

"Blue!"

"Yellow!"

The choices came quickly from the dusk masking the players. And upon those orders points of the designated color came into being as small lights.

"Red—caravan!" Ross recognized Jansen's boom.

"Blue—raiders!" Hodaki's choice was only an instant behind.

"Yellow—unknown factor."

Ross was sure that sigh came from Jansen. "Is the unknown factor a natural phenomenon?"

"No—tribe on the march."

"Ah!" Hodaki was considering that. Ross could picture his shrug.

The game began. Ross knew of computer games and had heard of chess, of war games played with miniature armies or ships, and of board games which demanded a quick wit and a trained memory. This game, however, was all those combined, and more. As his imagination came to life, the moving points of light were transformed into perfect simulations of the raiders, the merchants' caravan, the tribe on the march. There was ingenious deployment, a battle, a retreat, a small victory here, to be followed by a bigger defeat there. The game might have gone on for hours. The men about him muttered, taking sides and arguing heatedly in voices low enough not to drown out the moves called by the players. Ross was thrilled when the red traders avoided a very cleverly laid ambush, and indignant when the tribe was forced to withdraw or the caravan lost points. It was the most fascinating game he had ever seen, and he realized that the three men ordering these moves were all masters of strategy. Their respective skills checkmated each other so equally that an outright win was far away.

Then Jansen laughed, and the red line of the caravan gathered in a tight knot. "Camped at a spring," he announced, "but with plenty of sentries out." Red sparks showed briefly beyond that center core. "And they'll have to stay there for all of me. We could keep this up till doomsday, and nobody would crack."

"No"—Hodaki contradicted him—"someday one of you will make a little mistake and then—"

"And then whatever bully boys you're running will clobber us?" asked Jansen. "That'll be the day! Anyway, truce for now."

"Granted!"

The lights of the arena went on and the plains vanished into a dark, tiled floor. "Any time you want a return engagement it'll be fine with me," said Ashe, getting up.

From The Time Traders by Andre Norton (1958)

Triton

Vlet is apparently an insane combination of Risk, Dungeons and Dragons, Chess, and Contract Bridge. Looks like fun!

Bronze clasps, cast as clawing beasts, snapped back un der Lawrence's wrinkled thumb. Lawrence opened out the meter-wide case.

"What I mean," Bron said, as the case's wooden back, inlaid with ivory and walnut, clacked to the common-room's baize table, "is, how are you even supposed to know if you like something like that... - ?" He gazed over the board: within the teak rim, in three dimensions, the landscape spread, mountains to the left, ocean to the right The jungle between was cut here by a narrow, double-rutted road, there by a mazy river. A tongue of desert wound from behind the steeper crags, alongside the ragged quarry. Drifting in from the border, small waves inched the glassy sea till, near shore, they broke, foaming. Along the beach, wrinkling spume slid up and out, up and out. "Do you see?" Bron insisted. "I mean, you understand my point?" The river's silver, leaving the mountains, poured over a little waterfall, bright as failing mica. A darker green blush crossed the jungle: a micro-breeze, disturbing the tops of micro-trees...

...Lawrence assembled the astral cube: the six six-by-six plastic squares; stacked on brass stilts, made a three dimensional, transparent playing space to the right of the main board, on which all demonic, mythical, magical, and astral battles were enacted.

"Would you- get the cards out of the side drawer, please?"

Bron looked around the side of the viet case, pulled out the long, narrow drawer He picked up the tooled leather dice-cup; the five dice clicked hollowly. Thrown, three would be black with white pips, one transparent with diamond pips, and the fifth, not cubic, but a scarlet and dodecahedral, had seven faces blank (Usually benign in play, occasionally they could prove, if you threw one at the wrong time, disastrous); the others showed thirteen alien constellations, picked out in black and gold.

Bron set the cup down and fingered up the thick pack. He unwrapped the blue silk cloth from around it. Along the napkin's edge, gold threads embroidered:

-the rather difficult modulus by which the even more difficult scoring system (Lawrence had not taught him that yet; he knew only that theta was a measurement of strategic angles of attack [over different sorts of terrain N, M, and A] and that small ones netted more points than large ones) proceeded. As he pulled back the blue corner, two cards slid to the table. He picked them up - the Wizard of Rocks and the Child Empress - and squared them with the deck.

Lawrence opened the drawer on the other side of the case and took out a handful of the small, mirrored and transparent screens (some etched with the same, alien constellations, some with different), set them up right beside the board, then reached back in for the playing pieces: carved foot soldiers, mounted men, model army encampments; and, from this same drawer, two miniature cities, with their tiny streets, squares, and markets: one of these he put in its place in the mountains, the second he set by the shore. "I don't see why you're so busy dissecting all this-" Lawrence took up one red foot soldier, one green one, sat back in his chair, put the pieces behind his back. Lawrence brought his fists together above the mountains "Choose-"

Bron tapped Lawrence's left fist. The fist opened: a scarlet foot soldier.

"That's you," Lawrence said.

Bron took the piece, looked around at the other side of the case, and began to pick the scarlet pieces from their green velvet drawer. He stopped with the piece called the Beast between his thumb and forefinger, regarded it: the miniature, hulking figure, with its metal claws and plastic eyes, was not particularly dumb: during certain gambits, the speaker grill beside the dice cup drawer would yield up the creature's roar, as well as the terrified shouts of its attackers.

Sam said: "Can you play this one with the grid-" and lowered an eyebrow at Bron "or are you beyond that now?"

Bron said: "Well, I don't know if-"

But Lawrence reached for one of the toggles in the card drawer. Across the landscape, pin-points of light picked out a squared pattern, thirty-three by thirty three. "Bron could do with a few more gridded games I expect-" For advanced players. (Lawrence had explained two weeks ago when Sam was last in) the grid was only used for the final scoring, to decide who bad taken exactly what territory. In the actual play, however, elementary players found it helpful in judging those all-important thetas. Bron had been contemplating suggesting that they omit it this game. But there it was; and the cities had been placed, the encampments had been deployed. The plastic Sea Serpent had been put, bobbing, into the sea. The Beast leered from its lair; Lawrence's soldiers were set up along the river bank, his peasants in their fields, his royalty gathered behind the lines, his magicians in their caves.

The hand Bron dealt himself was good. Carefully, he arranged the cards.

Lawrence rolled the dice out over the desert to begin play, bid five-royal, melded the Juggler with the Poet, discarded the three of Jewels and moved two of his cargo vessels out of the harbor into open waters.

Bron's own throw yielded him a double six, a diamond three, with the three-eyed visage of Ylidrith showing on the dodecahedron. He covered Lawrence's meld with the seven, eight, and nine of Storms, set the tiny mirrored screen, with the grinning face of Yildrith etched on it, four spaces ahead of Lawrence's lead cargo ship, bid seven-common to cover Lawrence's six-royal, discarded the Page of Dawn and took Lawrence's three of Jewels with the Ace of Flames; his own caravan began the trek up-river toward the mountain pass at the Vale of. K'hiri, where, due to the presence of a green Witch, all points scored there would be doubled.

Twenty minutes into the play, the red Courier was trapped between two mirrored screens (with the horned head of Zamtyl, and the many-tongued Arkrol, reflected back and forth to infinity); the scarlet Hero offered some help but was basically blocked with a transparent screen. On the dice a diamond two glittered amidst black ones and fives, and Lawrence was a point away from his bid; which meant an astral battle.

As they turned their attention to the three-dimensional board which dominated higher decisions (and each of the seven markers which they played there bore the frowning face of a god), Bron decided it was silly to sit there fuming at Sam's standing behind him.

He lost the astral battle seven to one.

Bron reached out and removed his own, overturned, scarlet Assassin and slid Lawrence's green Duchess into the square by the waterfall's bank, to threaten the caravan preparing to cross the river less than three. squares to the East. With the piece still in his fist (he could feel its nubs and corners), he picked up his cards and surveyed his depleted points. Only one meld was possible and he was three away from his most recent bid.

Between them micro-waves lapped, micro-breezes blew, micro-trees bent, and micro-torrents plashed and whispered down micro-rocks.

...So as not to face the answer, Bron opened the case's side drawer, removed the transparent plates of the astral cube and began to assemble them on their brass stilts. When he did glance up, Sam was regarding him seriously, the cards in his dark fingers halted in midshuffle. A corner of the White Novice showed, curved against Sam's darkly pinkish palm.

"Yes." The White Novice fell. "I doubt." Fifty cards fell, riffling, after it.

Bron pulled out the other side drawer of velvet cradled ships, warriors, horsemen, herdsmen, and hunters. He picked up the screen showing the horned head of Aolyon (cheeks puffed with hurricane winds) and set it, on its tiny base, upon the waters - which immediately darkened about it; green troughs and frothing crowns rolled about the little stretch of sea.

Sam put down the pack, reached into the control drawer and turned a survey knob. From the side-speaker came a crack and crackle over rushing wind, followed by a mumbling as of crumbled boulders. "That's quite a storm... were there any sea-monsters in there? I don't remember-"

Bron picked up his own scarlet Beast and set it on the rocky ledge, where it lowered over at the narrow trail winding the chasm below.

Sam came forward again, to set scarlet's caravan, one piece after the other, on the jungle trail.

Bron fished out the last cargo ship from the drawer and positioned it at the, edge of the storm - immediately it began to doff and roll.

Bron reached over and pulled out the four-card meld in the high Flames Sam had over looked; which, for the first half hour of play, at any rate, gave them a decided advantage - before Lawrence, by adroit manipulation of all the gods and astral powers, regained his customary edge...

...By the poolside, at one of the wall tables, sat the bony, little redhead; across from him sat an equally diminutive oriental woman with irregularly clipped, black hair. Between them was a viet board. It was only a quarter the size of Lawrence's (A small traveling version?) The landscape was simply a laminated 3-D photograph, not Lawrence's animated holographic surface. The pieces were not carefully carved and painted but merely raised symbols on red and green plastic markers. The astral cube did not have its own stand. But Bron could see, in the deployment of the gods, the detritus of a vicious astral battle, that green (the red head's side) had evidently won.

Five melds were already down.

The woman threw the dice and, in a rather surprising way (a rather clever one too, Bron thought as soon as the move was completed-), managed to bring her Guards in from the right, just as green's caravan crossed the forge, to pull it out of the influence of the scarlet Magician, substantially multiplied by three reflecting screens.

The redhead tossed the dice, discarded a low Flame, dispersed the screens to the corners of the board in one move (which left Bron, among the game's half- dozen spectators, frowning) and turned to rearrange a matrix on the astral board. That's clever! Bron thought. The woman would have to answer it, pulling some of her powers from the Real World, which would leave some of her strongest pieces unprotected.

From Triton by Samuel R. Delany (1976)

The Colour of Magic

Or perhaps, again, the most magnificent sight is the Hub. There, a spire of green ice ten miles high rises through the clouds and supports at its peak the realm of Dunmanifestin, the abode of the disc gods. The disc gods themselves, despite the splendour of the world below them, are seldom satisfied. It is embarrassing to know that one is a god of a world that only exists because every improbability curve must have its far end; especially when one can peer into other dimensions at worlds whose Creators had more mechanical aptitude than imagination. No wonder, then, that the disc gods spend more time in bickering than in omnicognizance.

On this particular day Blind Io, by dint of constant vigilance the chief of the gods, sat with his chin on his hand and looked at the gaming board on the red marble table in front of him. Blind Io had got his name because, where his eye sockets should have been, there were nothing but two areas of blank skin. His eyes, of which he had an impressively large number, led a semi-independent life of their own. Several were currently hovering above the table.

The gaming board was a carefully-carved map of the disc world, overprinted with squares. A number of beautifully modelled playing pieces were now occupying some of the squares. A human onlooker would, for example, have recognized in two of them the likenesses of Bravd and the Weasel. Others represented yet more heroes and champions, of which the disc had a more than adequate supply. Still in the game were Io, Offler the Crocodile God, Zephyrus the god of slight breezes, Fate, and the Lady. There was an air of concentration around the board now that the lesser players had been removed from the Game. Chance had been an early casualty, running her hero into a full house of armed gnolls (the result of a lucky throw by Offler) and shortly afterwards Night had cashed his chips, pleading an appointment with Destiny. Several minor deities had drifted up and were kibitzing over the shoulders of the players.

Side bets were made that the Lady would be the next to leave the board. Her last champion of any standing was now a pinch of potash in the ruins of still-smoking Ankh-Morpork, and there were hardly any pieces that she could promote to first rank.

Blind Io took up the dice-box, which was a skull -- various orifices had been stoppered with rubies, and with several of his eyes on the lady he rolled three fives. She smiled. This was the nature of the Lady's eyes: they were bright green, lacking iris or pupil, and they glowed from within.

The room was silent as she scrabbled in her box of pieces and, from the very bottom, produced a couple that she set down on the board with two decisive clicks. The rest of the players, as one God, craned forward to peer at them.

"A wenegad wiffard and tome fort of clerk," said Offler the Crocodile God, hindered as usual by his tusks. "Well, weally! " With one claw he pushed a pile of bone-white tokens into the centre of the table.

The Lady nodded slightly. She picked up the dicecup and held it as steady as a rock, yet all the Gods could hear the three cubes rattling about inside.

And then She sent them bouncing across the table.

A six. A three. A five.

Something was happening to the five, however.

Battered by the chance collision of several billion molecules, the die flipped onto a point, spun gently and came down a seven.

Blind Io picked up the cube and counted the sides. "Come on," he said wearily, "play fair."

From The Colour of Magic by Terry Pratchett

Masterplay

In this future world, the courts are backed up with thousands of cases. While this is the best of all possible worlds for lawyers, plaintiffs are irritated that their cases can take decades to make it to trial.

As an alternative, "trial by combat" has become popular. If both plaintiff and defendant agree, both sides hire a "gladiator". The two gladiators engage in combat, and the owner of the winning gladiator wins their case. It sure beats waiting for decades.

The twist is: the gladiators do not physically fight each other. Instead, they play a simulation game head-to-head, winner take all. The historical period the wargame will be set in and the battle scenario is randomly chosen at game start. The gladiators have no idea what they will be facing.

A new breed of professional simulation gamer/gladiators arises. They all have to be certified by the game guild. Naturally, the more skilled the player, the better the chance of a win, and the higher the player's fee.

Of course this means that the person with the deepest pockets will probably win their case, but that is true right now with lawyers.

Exiles to Glory

There would also be minor course-correction maneuvers during the trip, but except for those the ship's nuclear-pile engine wouldn't be started up until they arrived at Ceres's orbit. Then the ship would accelerate to catch up with the asteroid. That wouldn't happen for nine months...

...Jacob Norsedal was madly teaching his personal computer to play Star Trek, Galactic Empire, Waterloo, Alexander the Great, Diplomacy, and any other game people wanted to indulge in. He had also invented a three-dimensional interstellar war game with a dozen mutually opposing sides, and that seemed destined to be interminable—the players needed a computer just to tell them their options. Norsedal didn't play games himself, but he loved being referee, and his quarters tended to be a meeting place for those with nothing to do.

Kevin, to his sorrow, wasn't included in that category. On his second day after boost a large man came to the stateroom. "Kevin Senecal?" he demanded.

"Me," Kevin admitted.

"George Lange. Senior Daedalus employee aboard. I guess I'm your boss." Lange held out a stack of cassettes. "You're supposed to study these."

Kevin opened them warily. "That's a lot of reading—"

"It's just a start," Lange said. "I've got a lot more for you. You're expected to learn something on this trip." He glared at Norsedal's computer, which was marching armies across the reader screen. "There's work waiting out in the Belt."

From Exiles to Glory by Jerry Pournelle (1977)

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