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.
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."
Players build their interstellar empires using green ship-builder starships, blue ship-converter starships, yellow transport/explorer starships, and red combat starships. The rules are simple but elegant.
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).
"Yes, luck! Listen, boy. I'm on a winning streak now. The comets are all hitting stars on my table!"
"Yes, I thought you were a gift from Lady Luck; now I know that's the truth! We have the boy-so all our comets slid over their stars on the table. You ever play star and comet, Nik?
"Well, it's a game of chance they tell you-sure, it is. But there's skill to it-real skill-and most of that lies in selecting the right opponents and knowing just how far they're ready to plunge in answer to any bet you're reckless enough to make."
"And it's always well to nurse a star in reserve while you're moving your comet on the broad swoop"
"Got to play this nice and easy- no pushing a star till you're sure you got a line on the comet's tail- no fast movin'.
If the pilot did not want to wait-he had the Wendwind, he had the Zacathan, and he had an excellent excuse for our disappearance. He might return to the nearest port with the rescued archaeologist, the coordinates of Waystar to deliver to the Patrol, a ship he could claim for back wages. All in all, the master stars lay in his hand in this game and we had no comets to cut across the playing board to bring him down-except the zero stone.
"No co-ordinates for hyper," I pointed out. "It would be the most reckless kind of guesswork. And even a scout trained for exploring jumps would take chances of two comets to a star of coming out safe."
There had already been two fatal duels that evening. A tubeman from a rim ship had challenged a space miner to settle a difference with those vicious whips made from the tail casings of Flangoid flying lizards, an encounter which left both men in ribbons, one dead, one dying. And a scarred, ex-space marine had blaster-flamed one of the Star-and-Comet dealers into charred human ash.
"Maybe," Charis chose to use his gambling symbols, "they may believe that they have every comet on the board blocked, but there are a few wild stars left."
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.
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 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 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 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.
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.
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.
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) (How soon information becomes obsolete. In 2015 the AlphaGo program beat a Go professional. But the point remains that Go is much more difficult than mere chess).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The corridor is a sensitive receptor lined with billions of scanning elements. It picks up the conscious and subconsious thoughts of the two duelists, and feeds back a series of mutal illusions. These illusion can kill.
One of the illusions features an unusual (and deadly) chess game.
It wouldn't be hard to make a tame safe play-pretend version of the game. Give each piece a probability of killing the player proportional to the relative power of the chess piece and roll dice when the player touches one of their chessmen. A player loses by either being checkmated or death by touching their own chessman and failing the die roll, slicing off their finger on the razor edge and bleeding out.
Which gives two ways of defeating your opponent, checkmate or forcing them to move the deadlier pieces.
1d10 roll is
So if a player moved one of their rooks they would be "killed" if they rolled 4, 3, 2, 1 or 0 with a ten-sided die (1d10 roll of < 5). Note that commonly available d10 dice for role playing games have faces numbered from zero to nine.
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.
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.
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 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 and/or 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Vlet is apparently an insane combination of Risk, Dungeons and Dragons, Chess, Tarot Cards and Contract Bridge. Looks like fun!
More relevant to our interests, the story is also collected in Pawn to Infinity, an anthology of science fiction short stories featuring the game of chess.
In this future world of Masterplay (short story version) by William Wu, the courts are backed up with thousands of cases. While this is the best of all possible worlds for lawyers, the plaintiffs are irritated that their cases can take decades to make it to trial.
As an alternative to resolve cases more swiftly, "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 in the real world with lawyers.