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 games", read "Abstract Strategy Game". Though some of the classic games will still exist, I'm sure there will be some more futuristic entertainment.


ed note: The left column is in the bizzare creole spoken by the beatniks of Naked Purple Habitat space colony. The right column is the creole translated into English)

“By the time you understand the rules of a complex game, you will no longer be able to explain those rules to anyone who does not already understand the game.”

Hoyle’s Law (apocryphal attribution)

“What Hoyle sez to a sim gamester izzat inna a chinwag re a ‘game’ all hands need 2b playing with same deck. They need to be kneeding the same words for same things, need to capiche what they wanna do, have a handle on what secret rules say no 2 if you know, and a troo digging of the ground game stands on, air game breathes. Gag is, only after an outside geek can speak all that weird backdoor info and whispertalk, will he-she comprende a peek at the rool book—but by then, won’t half/have to look, and outgeek nomore. Everywhere thisiz troo, from groupmind-warp to nookspooking, from howto cheat at cards polite or ballbashing to who presumes to whom at a HiPurp All-Hands-Haftawanta Handsoff Gangbang.

    “What Hoyle’s Law says to a game theorist working in simulation is that a discussion of a complex system or situation—a ‘game’ in the parlance—requires a shared vocabulary of terms, a mutual comprehension of goals not clear from the outside, a concept of the limits on action set by assumed and thus normally unstated rules, and an understanding of the system’s environment. Only after a person absorbs all that data will an explanation of the game itself be comprehensible—but the background data is so complex, and contains so much contextual and implied information about the game, that by the time one absorbs it, the explanation is no longer needed. This phenomenon holds true in everything from political theory to nuclear engineering, from the etiquette of poker or the rules of baseball, to the pecking order at a High Purple Compulsory Volunteers’ Celibate Orgy.

”Run through the numbercrunch and you’ll nail down that the big prize of runaroundbusy gigs is mosttimes toughest to spot from outside. An outgeek will not spot the hiddenholes the player knows their cans can fall in. Outgeek might no-know lettle sidethangs on the game-plan, or be able to tell dodging from going ahead—and might not even able to scope what the big goal iz.

    ”It can be demonstrated mathematically that the ultimate goal of complex action is generally the most difficult thing to ascertain. An outsider will not be aware of obstacles or of subsidiary goals, and will not at first be able to discern between action taken to avoid or resolve problems, and action taken to move toward the goal. The observer will not, perhaps, even be able to comprehend what the goal is.

“Flipside, itza regular run for outgeek to peep game without digging rules and not make nohow knowing noway of what the players doing at all.

    “To state the converse, it is possible—indeed quite normal— for an outsider to watch actions guided by an unstated rule set and not be able to make heads or tails of what seem to be utterly inexplicable actions.

”Boildown, shows why we geeks to Charos, and show they would noway nohow capiche humyn beans,—if Charo rools let em notice wewas here to hear.“

    ”This is why we don’t understand the Charonians, and why it is doubtful they would understand us—if their rule set even allowed them to be aware of us.“

—Eyeballer Maximus Lock-on NaPurno/Knowway (The Naked Purple Way of Knowing), Datastreem-dream Prezz, NaPurHab (Naked Purple Habitat), published 100101111110 (a.d. 2430) (translation by the author)

(ed note: in other words, if you do not know how to play Magic the Gathering or Dungeons & Dragons, ask a small child to explain and see how few sentences it takes for you to become totally lost and confused.)

From THE SHATTERED SPHERE by Roger MacBride Allen (1994)

Nevertheless, liberty, even at Camp Currie, was no mean privilege; sometimes it can be very important indeed to be able to go so far away that you can't see a tent, a sergeant, nor even the ugly faces of your best friends among the boots … not have to be on the bounce about anything, have time to take out your soul and look at it. You could lose that privilege in several degrees; you could be restricted to camp … or you could be restricted to your own company street, which meant that you couldn't go to the library nor to what was misleadingly called the "recreation" tent (mostly some Parcheesi sets and similar wild excitements) … or you could be under close restriction, required to stay in your tent when your presence was not required elsewhere.

(ed note: For all you young whipper-snappers, the boardgame Parcheesi has a reputation for being a dull boring game generally found covered in dust and cobwebs in the closet of your elderly aunt. It is a westernized version of Pachisi, the national game of India. Other westernized versions include Sorry! and Ludo )

STARSHIP TROOPERS by Robert Heinlein (1959)

Futuristic Games


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 pyramid 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. FAQ is here. Reveiws here and 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.

The game is for 2 to 6 players. Mr. Looney's favorite is the two-player version. Others favor the four-player version.

A number of Looney Labs pyramid playing pieces will be required. Looney Labs sells a packaged set for the two player version.

For a two player game, you will need:

Number of Pyramids for Two-Player Game
3 small Green3 medium Green3 large Green
3 small Blue3 medium Blue3 large Blue
3 small Yellow3 medium Yellow3 large Yellow
3 small Red3 medium Red3 large Red

For a total of 36 pyramids. Nine various sized pyramids for each color.

If there are more than two players (3, 4, 5, 6 players), for every extra player over two add:

For each additional player (over 2) add
1 small Green1 medium Green1 large Green
1 small Blue1 medium Blue1 large Blue
1 small Yellow1 medium Yellow1 large Yellow
1 small Red1 medium Red1 large Red

Basically you'll need 3 Rainbow Stashes for a two-player game, and one additional rainbow stash for each player over two players.

Or you can make your own playing pieces. Or 3D print them. Even out of paper.

I made some "counter" style playing pieces because I like this game and because I have a certain dexterity. Countersheet Front, Countersheet Back, Accessories. Print the counter front and back on two sides of the same sheet of card stock with an inkjet printer. If you are real lucky they will align. Otherwise you'll have to cut and glue them manually on one-inch square pieces of cardboard. In the accessories: the grid is for the The Bank, the homeworld tiles is for marking a player's homeworld, and the counter labeled "MY TURN" is the turn indicator.

There are 60 playing counters, enough for a four player game. If you want a five or six player game you'll have to print more counters.

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.

From the Wikipedia entry for Andre Norton
     "So—by the thrice-damned rules you force yourselves on board—knowing that I must be accountable for your arrival on Lochan. Very well, you have set up the stars in this game, but perhaps the comets lie in other hands. You will pay—"
     "You don't have to. But I believe in luck, Bouvay, and it may be that Lady Luck is pushing comets across the board to us right now!"
     "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"
     Naill pushed open the door. He felt like coughing; the smoke of a hebel stick was thick and cloying. There were four men sitting on cushions about a bros table playing star-and-comet, the click of their counters broken now and then by a grunt of dissatisfaction as some player failed to complete his star.
     "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'.
     We reached the end of the straggling collection of amusement places and found a rather pretentious tent of raw scarlet splashed with eye-torturing green, from which came the calls of gambling games. The clamor sounded as if such games depended less upon mental skill than upon uproar, though I caught a glimpse of one table near the open door where they were playing the galaxy-wide Star and Comet. And seated there was my acquaintance of the afternoon, Gauk Slafid. Apparently his ship did not keep the strict discipline of the Free Traders, for he had a pile of counters before him that towered higher than those of his neighbors who, by their dress, were at least the close kinsmen of lords, though they appeared too young to be feudal rulers in their own right.
     And my own state of ignorance at times depressed me dismally, leaving me to wonder if Eet had somehow moved me into this action as one moves a star against a comet in that most widely spread galactic game of chance, named for its pieces — Stars and Comets.
     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."
     "Tried to wipe off the pavement of a street, using the aeropilot of the Valodian minister for a mop. The minister was rather upset about it—his protests got Havers twenty days or forty credits. He'd lost his last credit at Star and Comet, so he was sweating out the twenty days. Had served three of them when I paid his fine. He seems to know his business, though."
     The Starfall was a long way down scale from the pleasure houses of the upper town. Here strange vices were also merchandise, but not such exotics as Wass provided. This was strictly for crewmen of the star freighters who could be speedily and expertly separated from a voyage's pay in an evening. The tantalizing scents of Wass' terraces were reduced here to simply smells, the majority of which were not fragrant.
     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.
     "You're beginning to see? Jacks on their own are one thing; a Company pulling a grab is something else." Lantee's tone was bleak. "They will have resources to draw on to back their every move. Right now I wouldn't wager star against comet that they're not in complete control here."
     "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."
At length he appeared to make up his mind and returned along the wall installation, pausing only a second now and then to flip up a switch. When he reached the opposite end, he stopped and glanced over his shoulder at them.
"This is the test," he said. "I will switch on to an alternate power source. That may or may not work. I hope I have turned off the guard robots—perhaps I haven't. It's stars across the board, risking all comets." He reduced their chances to that of the galaxy-wide gambling game. (i.e., All or Nothing)


Travel-Up is a game featured in Brian Aldiss' novel Non-Stop.

This early in the waking period, several men were about; later, they would be dispersed about their business, A group of them sat on the deck, playing Travel-Up; Complain walked over to them, hands in pockets, and stared moodily down between their ragged heads. The board, painted on the deck, stretched twice as far as the span of a man’s outstretched arms (about 3.5 meters). It was scattered with counters and symbols. One of the players leaned forward and moved a pair of his blocks. “An outflank on Five,” he said, with grim triumph, looking up and winking at Complain conspiratorially.

Complain turned away indifferently. For long periods of his life, this game had exerted an almost uncanny attraction on him. He had played it till his adolescent limbs cracked from squatting and his eyes could hardly focus on the silver tokens. On others too, on nearly all the Greene tribe, Travel-Up cast its spell; it gave them a sense of spaciousness and power lacking in their lives. Now Complain was free of the spell, and missed its touch. To be absorbed in anything again would be good.

From NON-STOP by Brian Aldiss (1958)

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 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 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.

"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.


"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 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.

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


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.


Until as late as the mid-twenty-first century, a game invented by the ancient Japanese was still played by millions in the eastern hemisphere of Terra. The game was called go. Although its rules were almost childishly simple, its strategy included more permutations and was more difficult to master than that of chess.

Go was played, at the height of its development—just before the geological catastrophe that wiped out most of its devotees—on a board with nine hundred shallow holes (30x30 array), using small pill-shaped counters. At each turn, one of the two players placed a counter on the board, wherever he chose, the object being to capture as much territory as possible by surrounding it completely.

There were no other rules; and yet it had taken the Japanese almost a thousand years to work up to that thirty-by-thirty board, adding perhaps one rank and file per century. A hundred years was not too long to explore all the possibilities of that additional rank and file.

At the time George Meister fell into the gelatinous green-and-brown monster, toward the end of the twenty-third century A.D., a kind of go was being played in a three-dimensional field which contained more than ten billion positions. The galaxy was the board, the positions were star systems, men were the counters. The loser’s penalty was annihilation.

The galaxy was in the process of being colonized by two opposing federations. In the early stages of this conflict, planets had been raided, bombs dropped, and a few battles had even been fought by fleets of spaceships. Later that haphazard sort of warfare became impossible. Robot fighters, carrying enough armament to blow each other into dust, were produced in trillions. In the space around the outer stars of a cluster belonging to one side or the other, they swarmed like minnows.

Within such a screen, planets were utterly safe from attack and from any interference with their commerce — unless the enemy succeeded in colonizing enough of the circumambient star systems to set up and maintain a second screen outside the first. It was go, played for desperate stakes and under impossible conditions.

Everyone was in a hurry; everyone’s ancestors for seven generations (~175 years) had been in a hurry. You got your education in a speeded-up, capsulized form. You mated early and bred frantically. And if you were assigned to an advance ecological team, as George was, you had to work without any decent preparation.

The sensible, the obvious thing to do in opening up a new planet with unknown life forms would have been to begin with at least ten years of immunological study conducted from the inside of a sealed station. After the worst bacteria and viruses had been licked, you might proceed to a little cautious field work and exploration. Finally—total elapsed time fifty years, say—the colonists would be shipped in.

There simply wasn’t that much time.

From FOUR IN ONE by Damon Knight (1953)

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. Since the weapon disables computers as well, no computer software can be used.

The man has a alien 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.

The bead-and-matchbox system was also mentioned in the science fiction novel The Adolescence of P-1 by Thomas Ryan.

This system can be adapted to other games. However, the number of boxes increases exponentially. Tic-Tac-Toe (with the system always making the first move) requires 304 matchboxes. Draughts/Checkers would require about 5×1020 (sphere with radius 151km), and chess would need about 1043 (sphere with raidus of 4×1012 meters, approximately 26.7 AU). The system was invented before programmable computers were ready for prime time, but researchers welcomed them. They allowed replacing an array of matchboxes the size of the solar system with a personal computer that can sit on your desk.

As a side note, this was computerized in the BASIC language and featured in the book BASIC Computer Games in 1978. It was exhibited as a game, but it was very educational. It allowed zillions of young enthusiasts to experiment with the computer-learning algorithm on their primitive home computers. BASIC is a teaching language, so it is fairly easy for children to see how the beads and matchboxes were translated into code. It certainly got me interested in the possibilities of a personal computer, back when I was a teenager.

More recently, versions in higher sophistication computer languages have appeared in Rossetta Code dot Org. There is an online version here.

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 (1963)

Teaching a bunch of matchboxes how to play tic-tac-toe

The use of machine learning to teach computers to play board games has had a lot of interest lately. Big companies such as Facebook and Google have both made recent breakthroughs in teaching AI the complex board game, Go. However, people have been using machine learning to teach computers board games since the mid-twentieth century. In the early 1960s Donald Michie, a British computer scientist who helped break the German Tunny cipher during the Second World War, came up with Menace (the Machine Educable Noughts And Crosses Engine). Menace uses 304 matchboxes all filled with coloured beads in order to learn to play noughts and crosses.

How Menace works

Menace “learns” to play noughts and crosses by playing the game repeatedly against another player, each time refining its strategy until after having played a certain number of games it becomes almost perfect and its opponent is only able to draw or lose against it. The learning process involves being “punished” for losing and “rewarded” for drawing or winning, in much the same way that a child learns. This type of machine learning is called reinforcement learning.

The 304 matchboxes that make up Menace represent all the possible layouts of a noughts and crosses board it might come across while playing. This is reduced from a much larger number by removing winning layouts, only allowing Menace to play first and treating rotations and reflections as the same board.

Each of these matchboxes contains a number of coloured beads, each colour representing a valid move Menace could play for the corresponding board layout. The starting number of beads in each matchbox varies depending on the number of turns that have already been played. In Donald Michie’s original version of Menace, the box representing Menace’s first turn had four beads for each different move. The boxes representing the layouts of the board for Menace’s second turn contained three beads for each different move; there were two beads each for Menace’s third; and one of each in the boxes representing Menace’s fourth go. There are no boxes representing Menace’s fifth move as there is only one space remaining and Menace is forced to take it.

To speed up the learning process even more, only beads representing unique possible moves are used. So even though all the spaces are free on an empty board, only three need to be represented: centre, side and corner. All other positions are equivalent to one of these three.

When Menace makes its move one must find the box representing the current board layout and take a bead at random from that box. The bead represents the space in which Menace wishes to place its counter. This process is repeated every time it is Menace’s go until either somebody wins or the board is filled.

After having completed a game, Menace is punished or rewarded depending on the outcome. If Menace lost, the beads representing the moves Menace played are removed. If it was a draw, an extra bead of the colour played is added to each relevant matchbox; while if Menace won, three extra beads are added. This means that if Menace played badly, it will have asmaller chance of playing the same game next time. However, if Menace played well, it is more likely to follow the same route the next time and win again.

An example game

When playing against Menace, Menace always starts, otherwise the number of matchboxes needed would be greatly increased.

1st move, Menace’s turn: The operator finds the matchbox that displays the empty board, opens it and takes out a random bead. In this case the random bead is red, which means that Menace wants to place its counter in the centre-top space.

2nd move, player’s turn: The human player places the counter in the desired spot, which is in the centre.

3rd move, Menace’s turn: The operator finds the matchbox that displays the current board layout, opens it and takes out a random bead. The random bead is now blue, which means that Menace wants to place its counter in the top-left corner.

4th move, player’s turn: The human player places the counter in the desired spot, here blocking Menace from getting three in a row.

5th move, Menace’s turn: The operator finds the matchbox that displays the current board layout, opens it and takes out a random bead. The random bead is green, which means that Menace wants to place its counter in the middle row and left-most column.

6th move, player’s turn: The human player places the counter in the bottom-left corner and obtains three in a row. The human player wins!

With the game over, Menace, since it lost, must be punished. Hence every bead that represented a move played is removed from its corresponding box, as shown below.

Building Menace

I built a physical implementation of Menace so that I could play against the real thing myself. I wanted to create an experience similar to that which Michie must have had when he came up with the idea. What is most striking is the time it takes to play one game: finding the right box, taking a bead out and then placing Menace’s piece in the corresponding space on the board is very time-consuming.

To make things faster I therefore decided to write a Python script to work in the same way that Menace does, with the computer doing all the work for me. Using the script, I could also save the state of the boxes and try out new reward systems and bead arrangements without losing the results from a previous set of data.

On top of this, I could now train Menace by playing it against already existing programmed strategies for noughts and crosses. I first had it play hundreds of games against a program that placed its counters randomly. You could see that after having played a certain number of games Menace had evolved. But when I played against Menace afterwards, it would sometimes make irrational moves. When Menace played against the random strategy, the random strategy would often place its counter somewhere other than where it could easily block Menace, letting Menace win and therefore reinforcing the sequence of moves that had been played. These moves, however, might not necessarily have been good ones Menace might just have got lucky.

I also wrote a program for a perfect strategy for noughts and crosses to train Menace against. This strategy only lets another player draw or lose against it. What struck me when training Menace against this program was the number of times it ran out of beads in certain boxes, having lost so many times that all of the beads from a particular box were removed. If there are no beads left in the box representing the current scenario, Menace is said to “resign” as it doesn’t “think” it can win in its current situation. This is OK if it’s a box representing a move that you rarely come across, but when it’s the box representing the empty board, the box that Menace always starts off with, there’s a problem! To fix this, all I needed to do was to add more beads to this box, although this had the consequence that it takes Menace longer to learn.

Machine learning is being used in many fields today including in the work of technology giants such as Facebook and Google, whom we have already mentioned have made breakthroughs in the more complex game of Go. The AI programs learning to play Go are not saving all the possible layouts of the game as we have done with noughts and crosses, as there are more of these than there are atoms in the universe. Instead, these programs detect similar patterns and use them as a starting point for their learning. However, the programs are then taught in a similar way to the way we taught Menace to play against different strategies, although the programs learning Go play against themselves repeatedly. So ideas that emerged from simple machines in the past are still being used today for much more complicated tasks.



Oware is an Ashanti abstract strategy game among the Mancala family of board games (pit and pebble games) played worldwide with slight variations as to the layout of the game, number of players and strategy of play. Its origin is uncertain but it is widely believed to be of Ashanti origin.

Played in the Ashanti Region and throughout the Caribbean, Oware and its variants have many names - Ayò, Ayoayo (Yoruba), Awalé (Ivory Coast), Wari (Mali), Ouri, Ouril or Uril (Cape Verde), Warri (Caribbean), Wali (Dagbani), Adji (Ewe), Nchọ/Ókwè (Igbo), ise (Edo) and Awélé (Ga). A common name in English is Awari but one of the earliest Western scholars to study the game, Robert Sutherland Rattray, used the name Wari.


Following are the rules for the abapa variation, considered to be the most appropriate for serious, adult play.


The game requires an oware board and 48 seeds. A typical oware board has two straight rows of six pits, called "houses", and optionally one large "score" house at either end. Each player controls the six houses on their side of the board, and the score house on their end. The game begins with four seeds in each of the twelve smaller houses.

Boards may be elaborately carved or simple and functional; they may include a pedestal, or be hinged to fold lengthwise or crosswise and latch for portability and storage with the seeds inside. While most commonly located at either end, scoring houses may be placed elsewhere, and the rows need not be straight. When a board has a hinged cover like a diptych, the scoring houses may be carved into the two halves of the cover, and so be in front of the players during play. The ground may also be used as a board; players simply scoop two rows of pits out of the earth.

In the Caribbean, the seeds are typically nickernuts, which are smooth and shiny. Beads and pebbles are also sometimes used. In the West, some cheaper sets use oval shaped marbles. Some tourist sets use cowrie shells.


The game starts with four seeds in each house. The object of the game is to capture more seeds than one's opponent. Since the game has only 48 seeds, capturing 25 is sufficient to win the game. Since there is an even number of seeds, it is possible for the game to end in a draw, where each player has captured 24.


Players take turns moving the seeds. On a turn, a player chooses one of the six houses under their control. The player removes all seeds from that house, and distributes them, dropping one in each house counter-clockwise from this house, in a process called sowing. Seeds are not distributed into the end scoring houses, nor into the house drawn from. The starting house is always left empty; if it contained 12 (or more) seeds, it is skipped, and the twelfth seed is placed in the next house. The diagram shows the result of sowing from house E.

Knowing the number of seeds in each house is, of course, important to game play. When there are many seeds in a house, sometimes enough to make a full lap of the board or more, they cannot easily be counted by eye, and their number is often guarded by the player who controls that house. This may be done by repeatedly moving the seeds in the house. A player may count the seeds when contemplating a move; in such cases the last few are usually counted in the hand to avoid revealing their number.


In Oware Abapa, capturing occurs only when a player brings the count of an opponent's house to exactly two or three with the final seed he sowed in that turn. This always captures the seeds in the corresponding house, and possibly more: If the previous-to-last seed also brought an opponent's house to two or three, these are captured as well, and so on until a house is reached which does not contain two or three seeds or does not belong to the opponent. The captured seeds are placed in the player's scoring house (or set aside if the board has no scoring houses). However, if a move would capture all of an opponent's seeds, the capture is forfeited since this would prevent the opponent from continuing the game, and the seeds are instead left on the board. (However, see discussion on Grand Slam variations below). In the adjacent diagram, the lower player would capture all the seeds in houses e, d, and c but not b (as it has four seeds) or a (since it is not contiguous to the other captured houses). If the last bead you play ends in your "house", you get an extra turn.

Let the opponent play

The proscription against capturing all an opponent's seeds is related to a more general idea, that one ought to make a move that allows the opponent to continue playing. If an opponent's houses are all empty, the current player must make a move that gives the opponent seeds. If no such move is possible, the current player captures all seeds in his/her own territory, ending the game.


The game is over when one player has captured 25 or more seeds, or each player has taken 24 seeds (draw). If both players agree that the game has been reduced to an endless cycle, the game ends when each player has seeds in his holes and then each player captures the seeds on their side of the board.

From the Wikipedia entry for OWARE

(ed note: The scene is a restaurant/bar on Mars, in the "old system", that is Solar System. The human-settled Centaurus sector is to the celestial south, the human-settled Ursa Major sector (bears) is to the celestial north.)

It so happened that, despite my eating quickly, the Centaurs concluded their meal a minute before I did, paid their bill and started to gather their gear with loud comments on the standard of Martian food. I thought it best to let them get clear of the place before I left myself, for fear I might be tempted to dispute their views, and that was how I came to see the two Bears arrive: not to eat, but to call for beer and an oware set. The Negro had one, of course. I saw him pick it up from behind the counter, and the pebbles to go with it.

I snapped my fingers to attract his attention. He glanced at the waiting Bears, decided a mornent’s delay wouldn’t harm anyone, and came to me.

     “And dice,” I said.
     “What?” He blinked at me. “They asked for oware, and—”
     “So you don’t get many Bears in here? Not as many as Centaurs?”
     “Why, no. But—”
     “Bears gamble. They play oware with the order of moves determined by a round of dice, not in sequence as most people do.”
     “Ah—thanks for informing me.” He gave a sudden weary smile. “I’ve had enough complaints about the quality of my place’s service for one evening.”
     “You’re pro-Bear?”
     ‘Well …” He stifiened, warily making sure that the Centaurs were out of earshot. They were; they’d already left the restaurant before the Bears entered, which was as well, or there might have been an exchange of words. “I find them easier customers, to be frank.”
     “So do I,” I admitted.

I waited till he had delivered oware and dice to them, thinking how, until my recent experience in Centaur space, I'd clung dogmatically to the principle that no Martian should take sides between Centaur and Bear, especially not to copy the standard Earthside prejudice; how I'd assigned my own preponderant preference for working in Bear space to the Bears’ own greater willingness to hire Old System crewmen. It was doubtless true that all human beings were human, but how they behaved made a hell of a lot of difference. Bears tended to be happy-go-lucky, individualistic, great improvisers, and keen gamblers. Centaurs were formal, disciplined, great organisers, and used even their leisure time to improve themselves, studying or engaging in elaborate well-analysed games designed to encourage intellection.

From BORN UNDER MARS by John Brunner (1966)

THEY say you've got a fifty-fifty chance every time you go out. That makes it one chance in eight that you'll live to see your third furlough—the one I'm on now.

Somehow the odds don't keep people from trying to join. Even though not one in a thousand gefs through the years of training and examination there's no shortage of cannon fodder. And that's what we are. The most expensive, best trained cannon fodder in the history of warfare. Human history, anyhow—who can speak for the enemy?

I once had an African partner, named N'gai. He taught me how to play O'wari, a game older than monoply or even chess. We sat in this very bar—or the identical one that was in its place two hundred years ago—and he tried to impress on my non-Zen oriented mind just how. significant this game was to men in our position.

You start out with forty-eight smooth little pebbles, four in each one of the twelve depressions that make up the game board. Then you take turns, scooping the pebbles out of one hole and distributing them one-at-a-time in holes to the left. If you dropped your last pebble in a hole where your opponent had only one or two, why, you got to take those pebbles off the board. Sounds exciting, doesn't it?

But N'gai sat there in a cloud of bhang-smoke and mumbled about the game and how it was just like the big game we were playing, and every time he took a pebble off the board he called it by name. And some of the names I didn't know but a lot of them were on my long list.

And he talked about how we were like the pieces in this simple game—how some went off the board after the first couple of moves, and some hopped from place to place all through the game and came out unscathed and some just sat in one place all the time until they got zapped from out of nowhere.

After a while I started hitting the bhang myself and we abandoned the metaphor in a spirit of mutual intoxication.

And I've been thinking about that night for, six years, or two hundred, and I think that N'gai—his soul find Buddha—was wrong. The game isn't all that complex.

Because in O'wari, either person can win.

The snails populate ten planets for everyone we destroy.

Solitaire, anyone?

From TIME PIECE by Joe Haldeman (1970)

Moksha Patam

The original game dates back to ancient India. Actually, it isn't really a game so much as it is an educational device. Technically a game has input from the players, in Moksha the counters are move according to the roll of a die (or by throwing six cowrie shells, or spinning a spinner, or otherwise generating a random number from 1 to 6). The players are superfluous.

The lack of player input teaches acceptance of one's fate in life. The snakes each represent a progress neutralizing vice and the ladders each represent a progress accelerating virtue. They teach the players the names of the vices and virtues. They also give the game its western name "Snakes and Ladders."

The players start their tokens at the square marked "1" and race them. The first player to get their token to square 100 quote "wins" unquote (reaches Nirvana or something like that). If your token lands on the lower-number end of a virtue ladder it leap-frogs forward to the higher-number square at the other end. If the token lands on the higher-number end of a dreaded snake vice, it has to go backward to the lower-number square at the snake's tail.

In the original game the squares of virtue are: Faith (12), Reliability (51), Generosity (57), Knowledge (76), and Asceticism (78). The squares of vice or evil are: Disobedience (41), Vanity (44), Vulgarity (49), Theft (52), Lying (58), Drunkenness (62), Debt (69), Murder (73), Rage (84), Greed (92), Pride (95), and Lust (99)

But the interesting part happened when the British Empire conquered India, and some British game players took the concept of Moksha Patam back to England. The game was an admirable teaching aid for Indian morality. Since the British wanted to teach their schoolchildren British morality, they had to alter the names of the vices and virtues to British versions. Penitence, Thrift and Industry elevated a player up a ladder to squares labelled Grace, Fulfilment and Success while Indolence, Indulgence and Disobedience slid a player down a snake to Poverty, Illness and Disgrace.

This is where the science-fiction author worldbuilding aspect comes in. Tau Cetians wanting to teach Tau Ceti morals to their offspring would have to alter the game once again. See below for an example of altering the game to teach other lessons.

The British did another alteration to the game. In the original version there were 5 virtues and 14 vices. This taught how hard it was to reach Nirvana, since every other time you moved there was one of those pesky vices sending you back. The British changed it to 14 virtues and 14 vices. This made it easier to get to the end, teaching children a somewhat less depressing lesson. Also Victorian morality wanted to emphasise that every vice has opportunity for redemption.


Lieserl returned to her snakes and ladders board. She found herself looking on her creation with affection, but also nostalgic sadness; she felt distant from this elaborate, slightly obsessive concoction.

Already she'd outgrown it.

She walked into the middle of the sparkling board and bade a Sun, a foot wide, rise out from the center of her body. Light swamped the board, shattering it.

She wasn't the only adolescent who had constructed fantasy worlds like this. She read about the Brontes, in their lonely parsonage in the north of England, and their elaborate shared world of kings and princes and empires. And she read about the history of the humble game of snakes and ladders. The game had come from India, where it was a morality teaching aid called Moksha-Patamu. There were twelve vices and four virtues, and the objective was to get to Nirvana. It was easier to fail than to succeed... The British in the nineteenth century had adopted the game as an instructional guide for children called Kismet; Lieserl stared at images of claustrophobic boards, forbidding snakes. Thirteen snakes and eight ladders showed children that if they were good and obedient their life would be rewarded.

But by a few decades later the game had lost its moral subtexts. Lieserl found images from the early twentieth century of a sad-looking little clown who clambered heroically up ladders and slithered haplessly down snakes.

The game, with its charm and simplicity, had survived through the twenty centuries which had worn away since the death of that forgotten clown. Lieserl stared at him, trying to understand the appeal of his baggy trousers, walking cane and little moustache (Charlie Chaplin).

She grew interested in the numbers embedded in the various versions of the game. The twelve-to-four ratio of Moksha-Patamu clearly made it a harder game to win than Kismet's thirteen-to-eight—but how much harder?

She began to draw new boards in the air. But these boards were abstractions clean, colorless, little more than sketches. She ran through high-speed simulated games, studying their outcomes. She experimented with ratios of snakes to ladders, with their placement. Phillida sat with her and introduced her to combinatorial mathematics, the theory of games—to different forms of wonder.

From RING by Stephen Baxter (1994)


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, Fairy chess, and other peculiar and eccentric chess-inspired games. 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.

In the real world it is popular to make themed chess sets where the pieces are allegorical. In the last century you'll find such propaganda chess sets as the war between the Tzar and the Communist Revolution, where the Capitalist pawns are depicted as chained workers enslaved by Death, opposed by happy and virtuous Marxist workers. Nowadays it is more common to find things like Star Wars themed chess sets (the same goes for Monopoly and Risk). The only science fiction I've seen that used this idea was Edgar Rice Burrough's Llana of Gathol. John Carter has a pocket Martian chess set where the pieces are carved in the likeness of various Martian royalty.

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

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)

(ed note: 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)

Human Chess

A classic variation is to replace the chess pieces with human gladiators. Instead of the moving piece automatically capturing a non-moving piece, moving a piece initiates gladiatorial combat to the death! The losing piece is counted as "captured", although in reality it is more like "dead body dragged off the field while the crowd boos." The players commanding the pieces are commonly autocratic kings or super villains. The earliest mention of this idea was in Edgar Rice Burrough's The Chessmen of Mars. And you already knew that TV Tropes has a page on the topic.

This is featured in Edgar Rice Burrough's The Chessmen of Mars, Lexx episode The Game, the video game Archon: The Light and the Dark, John Brunner's The Squares of the City, John Ford's Star Trek: The Final Reflection, Poul Anderson's A Circus of Hells, and Land of the Giants episode "Deadly Pawn"

In fantasy novels one often finds variants such as a dying person playing chess with the anthropomorphic personification of Death. Another variant is Goddesses and Gods of Olympus playing chess with the world as the game board and human heroes as the chess pieces. The deities play on a symbolic board with carved pieces, but events that happen during game play are mirrored by events that occur in the real world.


(ed note: Our Hero Dominic Flandry is investigating rumors of a planet with a mining complex controlled by an computer with artificial intelligence. Apparently it has been forgotten for a couple of centuries, and is worth millions to any minining corporation. Flandry has a rude surprise when his scout boat is attacked by large robotic pterodactyls. He and his lady companion have to march overland to the mining site. Note that in the quote below the lady Djana acts like a helpless damsel in distress, but later in the story she becomes a formidable opponent.)

      Once more Wayland took Flandry by surprise. He had expected the mists to lift slowly, as they'd done near dawn, giving him and Djana time to make out something of what was around them before they were likely to be noticed. His observations in orbit had indicated as much. For minutes the whiteness did veil them. Two meters away, wet ice and rock, tumbling rivulets, steaming puddles, faded into smoky nothing.
     It broke apart. Through the rifts he saw the plain and the machines. The holes widened with tearing rapidity. The fog turned into cloudlets which puffed aloft and vanished.
     Djana screamed.
     Knowledge struck through Flandry: Damn me for a witling! Why didn't I think? It takes a long while to heat things up again after half a month of night. But not after two hours. And evaporation goes fast at low pressures. What I saw from space, and assumed were lingering ground hazes, were clouds higher up, like those I see steaming away above us—
     That was at the back of his brain. Most of him saw what surrounded him. The blaster sprang into his hand.
     Though the mountain was not far behind, soaring from a knife-edge boundary, he and Djana had passed by the nearest radio mast and were down on the plain. Like other Waylander maria, it was not perfectly level; it rolled, reared in scattered needles and minor craters, seamed itself with narrow cracks, was bestrewn with rocks and overlaid in places by ice banks. The travelers had entered the section that was marked into squares. More than a kilometer apart, the lines ran arrow straight, east and west, north and south, further than he could see before curvature shut off vision. He happened to be near one and could identify it as a wide streak of black granules driven permanently into the stone.
     What he truly saw in that moment was the robots.
     A hundred meters to his right went three of the six-legged lopers. Somewhat further off on his left rolled a horned and treaded giant. Still further ahead, but not too far to catch him, straggled half a dozen different monstrosities. Bugs by the score leaped and crawled across the ground. Flyers were slanting down the sky. He threw a look to rear and saw retreat cut off by a set of legs upbearing a circular saw.
     Djana cast herself on her knees. Flandry crouched above, teeth skinned, and waited in the racket of his heart for the first assailant.
     There was none.
     The killers ignored them.
     Nor did they pay attention to each other.
     While not totally unexpected, the relief sent Flandry's mind whirling. When he had recovered, he saw that the machines were converging on a point. Nothing appeared above the horizon; their goal was too distant. He knew what it was, though—the central complex of buildings.
     Djana began to laugh, wilder and wilder. Flandry didn't think they could afford hysteria. He hauled her to her feet. "Turn off that braying before I shake it out of you!" When words didn't work, he took her by her ankles, held her upside down, and made his threat good.
     While she sobbed and gulped and wrestled her way back to control, he held her in a more gentle embrace and studied the robots across her shoulder. Most were in poor shape, holes torn in their skins, limbs missing. No wonder he'd heard them rattle and clank in the fog. Some looked unhurt aside from minor scratches and dents. Probably their accumulators were about drained.
     In the end, he could explain to her: "I always figured those which survived the battles would get recharge and repair in this area. Um-m-m . . . it can't well serve all Wayland . . . I daresay the critters never wander extremely far from it . . . and we did spot construction work, the setup's being steadily expanded, probably new centers are planned . . . . Anyhow, this place is crucial. Elsewhere, they're programed to attack anything that moves and isn't like their own particular breed. Here, they're perfect lambs. Or so goes my current guess."
     "W-we're safe, then?"
     "I wouldn't swear to that. What's caused this whole insanity? But I do think we can proceed."
     "Where to?"
     "The centrum, of course. Giving those fellows a respectful berth. They seem to be headed offside. I imagine their R & R stations lie some ways from the main computer's old location."
     "We don't know if it exists any longer," Flandry reminded her.
     Nonetheless he walked with ebullience. He was still alive. How marvelous that his arms swung, his heels smote ground, his lungs inhaled, his unwashed scalp itched! Regin had begun to wax, the thinnest of bows, drawing back from Mimir's incandescent arrowpoint. Elsewhere glittered stars. Djana walked silent, exhausted by emotion. She'd recover, and when he got her back inside the seal-tent . . .
     He was actually whistling as they crossed the next line. A moment later he took her arm and pointed. "Look," he said.
     A new kind of robot was approaching from within the square. It was about the size of a man. The skin gleamed golden. Iridescence was lovely over the great batlike wings that helped the springing of its two long hoofed and spurred legs. The body was a horizontal barrel, a balancing tail behind, a neck and head rearing in front. With its goggling optical and erect audio sensors, its muzzle that perhaps held the computer, its mane of erect antennae, that head looked eerily equine. From its forepart, swivel-mounted, thrust a lance.
     "We could almost call it a rocking horsefly, couldn't we?" Flandry said. "As for the bread-and-butterfly—" His classical reference was lost on the girl.
     She screamed afresh when the robot wheeled and came toward them in huge leaps. The lance was aimed to kill.
     Djana was the target. She stood paralyzed. "Run!" Flandry bawled. He sped to intercept. The gun flamed in his grasp. Sparks showered where the beam struck.
     Djana bolted. The robot swerved and bounded after her. It paid no attention to Flandry. And his shooting had no effect he could see.
     Must be armored against energy beams—unlike the things we've met hitherto—He thumbed the power stud to full intensity. Fire cascaded blinding off the metal shape. Heedless, it bore down on his unarmed companion.
     "Dodge toward me!" Flandry cried.
     She heard and obeyed. The lance struck her from behind. It did not penetrate the air tank, as it would have the thinner cuirass of the spacesuit. The blow knocked her sprawling. She rolled over, scrambled up and fled on. Wings beat. The machine was hopping around to get at her from the front.
     It passed by Flandry. He leaped. His arms locked around the neck of the horsehead. He threw a leg over the body. The wings boomed behind him where he rode.
     And still the thing did not fight him, still it chased Djana. But Flandry's mass slowed it, made it stumble. Twisting about, he fired into the right wing. Sheet metal and a rib gave way. Crippled, the robot went to the ground. It threshed and bucked. Somehow Flandry hung on. Battered, half stunned, he kept his blaster snout within centimeters of the head and the trigger held back. His faceplate darkened itself against furious radiance. Heat struck at him like teeth.
     Abruptly came quiet. He had pierced through to an essential part and slain the killer.
     He sprawled across it, gasping the oven-hot air into his mouth, aware of undergarments sodden with sweat and muscles athrob with bruises, dimly aware that he had better arise. Not until Djana returned to him did he feel able to.
     A draught of water and a stimpill shoved through his chowlock restored a measure of strength. He looked at the machine he had destroyed and thought vaguely that it was quite handsome. Like a dreamworld knight . . . Almost of themselves his arm lifted in salute and his voice murmured, "Ahoy, ahoy, check."
     "What?" Djana asked, equally faintly.
     A machine appeared. At first it was a glint on the horizon, metal reflecting Mimirlight. Traveling fast across the plain, it gained shape within minutes. Headed straight this way. And big! Flandry cursed. Half dragging Djana, he made for a house-sized piece of meteoritic stone. From its top, defense might be possible.
     The robot went past.
     Djana sobbed her thanks. After a second, Flandry recovered from the shock of his latest deliverance. He stood where he was, holding the girl against him, and watched. The machine wasn't meant for combat. It was not much more than a self-operating flatbed truck with a pair of lifting arms.
     It loaded the fallen lancer aboard and returned whence it came.
     "For repairs," Flandry breathed. "No wonder we don't find stray parts in this neighborhood."
     Djana shuddered in his arms.
     His words went slowly on, shaping the thoughts they uttered: "Two classes of killer robot, then. One is free-ranging, fights indiscriminately, comes here to get fixed if it can make the trip, and doubtless returns to the wilderness for more hunting. While it's here, it keeps the peace.
     "The other kind stays here, does fight here—though it doesn't interfere with the first kind or the maintenance machines—and is carefully salvaged when it comes to grief."
     The next two squares they crossed were empty. One to their left was occupied. The humans kept a taut watch on that robot as they went past, but it did not stir. It was a tread-mounted cylinder, taller and broader than a man, its two arms ending in giant mauls, its head—the top of it, anyway, where there were what must be sensors—crowned with merlons like the battlements of some ancient tower. The sight jogged at Flandry's memory. An idea stirred in him but vanished before he could seize it. It could wait; readiness for another assault could not.
     Djana startled him: "Nicky, does each of them stay inside its own square?"
     "And defend that particular bit of territory against intruders?" Flandry's mind sprang. He smacked fist into palm. "By Jumbo, I think you're right! It could be a scheme for guarding the centrum . . . against really dangerous gizmos that don't behave themselves on this plain . . . a weird scheme, but then, everything on Wayland is weird.—Yes. The types of, uh, wild robot we've seen, and the ambulance and such, they're recognized as harmless and left alone. We don't fit into that program, so we're fair game."
     "Not all the squares are occupied," she said dubiously.
     He shrugged. "Maybe a lot of sentries are under repair at present." Excitement waxed in him. "The important point is, we can get across. Either directly across the lines, or over to a boundary and then around the whole layout. We simply avoid sections where any machine is. Making sure none are lurking behind a rock or whatever, of course." He hugged her. "Sweetheart, I do believe we're going to make it!"
     The same eagerness kindled in her. They stepped briskly forth.
     A figure that came into view, two kilometers ahead, as they passed the hillock which had concealed it, drew a cry from her. "Nicky, a man!" He jolted to a stop and raised his binoculars in unsteady hands. The object was indeed creepily similar to a large spacesuited human. But there were differences of detail, and it stood as death-still as the tower thing, and it was armed with sword and shield. Rather, its arms terminated in those pieces of war gear. Flandry lowered the glasses.
     "No such luck," he said. "Not that it'd be luck. Anybody who's come here and taken charge like this would probably scupper us. It's yet another brand of guard robot." He tried to joke. "That means a further detour. I'm getting more exercise than I really want, aren't you?"
     "You could destroy it."
     "Maybe. Maybe not. If our friend the knight was typical, as I suspect, the lot of them are fairly well armored against energy beams. Besides, I don't care to waste charge. Used too bloody much in that last encounter. Another fracas, and we could be weaponless." Flandry started off on a slant across the square. "We'll avoid him and go catercorner past the domain of that comparatively mild-looking chap there."
     Djana's gaze followed his finger. Remotely gleamed other immobile forms, including a duplicate of the hippoid and three of the anthropoid. Doubtless more were hidden by irregularities of terrain or its steep fall to the horizon. The machine which Flandry had in mind was closer, just left of his intended path. It was another cylinder, more tall and slim than the robot with the hammers. The smooth bright surface was unbroken by limbs. The conical head was partly split down the middle, above an array of instruments.
     "He may simply be a watcher," Flandry theorized.
     They had passed by, the gaunt abstract statue was falling behind, when Djana yelled.
     Flandry spun about. The thing had left its square and was entering the one they were now in.
     Dust and sparkling ice crystals whirled in the meter of space between its base and the ground. Air cushion drive, beat through Flandry. He looked frantically around for shelter. Nothing. This square held only basalt and frozen water.
     "Run!" he cried. He retreated backward himself, blaster out. The heart slugged in him, the breath rasped, still hot from his prior battle.
     A pencil of white fire struck at him from the cleft head. It missed at its range, but barely. He felt heat gust where the energy splashed and steam exploded. A sharp small thunderclap followed.
     This kind does pack a gun!
     Reflexively, he returned a shot. Less powerful, his beam bounced off the alloy hide. The robot moved on in. He could hear the roar of its motor. A direct hit at closer quarters would pierce his suit and body. He fired again and prepared to flee.
     If I can divert that tin bastard—It did not occur to Flandry that his action might get him accused of gallantry. He started off in a different direction from the girl's. Longer-legged, he had a feebly better chance than she of keeping ahead of death, reaching a natural barricade and making a stand . . . .
     Tensed with the expectation of lightning, the hope that his air unit would give protection and not be ruined, he had almost reached the next line when he realized there had been no fire. He braked and turned to stare behind.
     The robot must have halted right after the exchange. Its top swung back and forth, as if in search. Surely it must sense him.
     It started off after Djana.
     Flandry spat an oath and pounded back to help. She had a good head start, but the machine was faster, and if it had crossed one line, wouldn't it cross another? Flandry's boots slammed upon stone. Oxygen-starved, his brain cast forth giddiness and patches of black. His intercepting course brought him nearer. He shot. The bolt went wild. He bounded yet more swiftly. Again he shot. This time he hit.
     The robot slowed, veered as if to meet this antagonist who could be dangerous, faced away once more and resumed its pursuit of Djana. Flandry held down his trigger and hosed it with flame. The girl crossed the boundary. The robot stopped dead.
     But—but—gibbered in Flandry's skull.
     The robot stirred, lifted, and swung toward him. It moved hesitantly, wobbling a trifle, not as if damaged—it couldn't have been—but as if . . . puzzled?
     I shouldn't be toting a blaster, Flandry thought in the turmoil. With my shape, I'm supposed to carry sword and shield.
     The truth crashed into him.
     He took no time to examine it. He knew simply that he must get into the same square as Djana. An anthropoid with blade and scute in place of hands could not crawl very well. Flandry went on all fours. He scuttled backward. The lean tall figure rocked after him, but no faster. Its limited computer—an artificial brain moronic and monomaniacal—could reach no decision as to what he was and what to do about him.
     He crossed the line. The robot settled to the ground.
     Flandry rose and tottered toward Djana. She had collapsed several meters away. He joined her. Murk spun down upon him.
     It lifted in minutes, after his air unit purified the atmosphere in his suit and his stimulated cells drank the oxygen. He sat up. The machine that had chased them was retreating to the middle of the adjacent square, another gleam against the dark plain, under the dark sky. He looked at his blaster's charge indicator. It stood near zero. He could reload it from the powerpack he carried, but his life-support units needed the energy worse. Maybe.
     Djana was rousing too. She half raised herself, fell across his lap, and wept. "It's no use, Nicky. We can't make it. We'll be murdered. And if we do get by, what'll we find? A thing that builds killing engines. Let's go back. We can go back the way we came. Can't we? And have a little, little while alive together—"
     He consoled her until the chill and hardness of the rock on which he sat got through to him. Then, stiffly, he rose and assisted her to her feet. His voice sounded remote and strange in his ears. "Ordinarily I'd agree with you, dear. But I think I see what the arrangement is. The way the bishop behaved. Didn't you notice?"
     "Consider. Like the knight, I'm sure, the bishop attacks when the square he's on is invaded. I daresay the result of a move on this board depends on the outcome of the battle that follows it. Now a bishop can only proceed offensively along a diagonal. And the pieces are only programed to fight one other piece at a time: of certain kinds, at that." Flandry stared toward his hidden destination. "I imagine the anthropoids are the pawns. I wonder why. Maybe because they're the most numerous pieces, and the computer was lonely for mankind?"
     "Computer?" She huddled against him.
     "Has to be. Nothing else could have made this. It used the engineering facilities it had, possibly built some additional manufacturing plant. It didn't bother coloring the squares or the pieces, knowing quite well which was which. That's why I didn't see at once we're actually on a giant chessboard." Flandry grimaced. "If I hadn't . . . we'd've quit, returned, and died. Come on." He urged her forward.
     "We can't go further," she pleaded. "We'll be set on."
     "Not if we study the positions of the pieces," he said, "and travel on the squares that nobody can currently enter."
     After some trudging: "My guess is, the computer split its attention into a number of parts. One or more to keep track of the wild robots. Two, with no intercommunication, to be rival chessmasters. That could be why it hasn't noticed something strange is going on today. I wonder if it can notice anything new any longer, without being nudged."
     He zigzagged off the board with Djana, onto the blessed safe unmarked part of the land, and walked around the boundary. En route he saw a robot that had to be a king. It loomed four meters tall in the form of a man who wore the indoor dress of centuries ago, goldplated and crowned with clustered diamonds. It bore no weapons. He learned later that it captured by divine right.

From A CIRCUS OF HELLS by Poul Anderson (1970)

Archon: The Light and the Dark is a 1983 video game developed by Free Fall Associates and one of the first five games published by Electronic Arts. It is superficially similar to chess, in that it takes place on a board with alternating black and white squares; however, instead of fixed rules when landing on another player's piece, an arcade-style fight takes place to determine the victor, and each piece has different combat abilities. These abilities are enhanced when landing on a square of one's own color.


The goal of the game is either to occupy five power points located on the board, to eliminate all the opposing pieces, or to eliminate all but one remaining imprisoned piece of the opponent's. Accomplishing any one of these goals results in a win.

While the board is visually similar to a chessboard, when one piece lands on the same space as an opposing piece, the removal of the targeted piece is not automatic. Instead, the two pieces are placed into a full-screen 'combat arena' and must battle (action-style, with the players operating the combatants) to determine who takes the square. A stronger piece will generally defeat a weaker piece, but not always, and a fight can result in both pieces being eliminated. This uncertainty adds a level of complexity to the game. Different pieces have different abilities in the combat phase. These include movement, lifespan, and weapon. The weapons vary by range, speed, rate of firing, and power. For example, the pawn (represented by knights on the 'light' side and goblins on the 'dark' side) attacks quickly, but has very little strength; its weapon, a sword or club, has limited reach and power. A dragon is stronger and can attack from a distance, while a golem moves slowly and fires a slow but powerful boulder.

A piece's powers are affected by the square on which the battle takes place, with each player having an advantage on squares of their own color. Many squares on the board oscillate between light and dark, making them dangerous to hold over time. Some of the power points are on oscillating squares.

Some pieces have special abilities. The phoenix can turn into a ball of fire, both damaging the enemy and shielding itself from enemy attacks. The shapeshifter assumes the shape and abilities of whatever piece it is up against. MikroBitti magazine once wrote that the phoenix and the shapeshifter facing each other usually end up as the most boring battle in the entire game; both combatants' capabilities are simultaneously offensive and defensive, and they tend to use it whenever they meet each other, and thus both rarely get damaged.

Each side also has a spellcaster piece, who are the leaders: the sorceress for the dark side and the wizard for the light side. The sorceress and the wizard can cast seven different spells. Each spell may be used only once per game by each spellcaster.

The computer opponent slowly adapts over time to help players defeat it. The game is usually won when either one side destroys all the opposing pieces or one of the sides is able to occupy all of the five power points. More rarely, a side may also win by imprisoning its opponent's last remaining piece. If each side has but a single piece, and the two pieces destroy each other in combat, then the game ends in a tie.


Archon was very well received. Softline praised the game's originality, stating, "If there is any computer game that even slightly resembles Archon, we haven't seen it". The magazine concluded that "it's an announcement that Free Fall does games. And it does them well". Video magazine reviewed the game in its "Arcade Alley" column where reviewers described it as "truly a landmark in the development of computerized strategy games" and suggested that "no review could possibly do more than hint at [Archon's] manifold excellence". Computer Gaming World called Archon "a very good game, with lots of care put into its development. I recommend it highly." The magazine said of the Amiga versions, "if you are interested in a challenging strategy game, I recommend both Archon and Adept."

Allen Doum reviewed the game for Computer Gaming World, and stated that "Archon is a good first step towards what will be an exciting new class of game. Its play, despite the lack of depth or variation that will be possible, is fast moving."

Leo LaPorte of Hi-Res—a tournament chess player—unfavorably compared the complexity of its rules to that of chess and Go, but concluded that Archon was "a very good game" that "struck a fine balance between a strategy game and an arcade shoot-'em-up". BYTE's reviewer called Archon one of the best computer games he has ever played, stating it was "rewarding and varied enough to be played again and again." The Addison-Wesley Book of Atari Software 1984 gave the game an overall A+ rating, describing it as "one of the most creative and original games that has come along in several years ... It has great graphics, and will give a lifetime of pleasure."

In 1984 Softline readers named Archon the most popular Atari program of 1983. It was awarded "1984 Most Innovative Video Game/Computer Game" at the 5th annual Arkie Awards, where judges noted that "few games make better use of a computer's special abilities than Archon". In 1996, Computer Gaming World ranked Archon as the 20th best game of all time. It was also ranked as the 50th top game by IGN in 2003, who called it a "perfect marriage of strategy and action". The reviewer commented, "Whether on the computer or NES, Archon is an intense, engaging match of wits and reflexes, and boasts some of the coolest battles in gaming history." In 2004, Archon was inducted into GameSpot's list of the greatest games of all time. They also highlighted it among their ten games that should be remade. In 2005, IGN ranked it again as their 77th greatest game.


Free Fall developed a sequel for the same platforms, Archon II: Adept, released by Electronic Arts in 1984. Ten years later an enhanced version of the original was published by Strategic Simulations as Archon Ultra.

The original game was rewritten for Palm OS in 2000 by Carsten Magerkurth, who contacted members Free Fall Associates for feedback on creating an improved version released in 2003.

Archon: Evolution used code from the original 8-bit version with the blessing of Jon Freeman.

In 2008, React Games acquired the license from Free Fall to develop the Archon title across multiple platforms. It released an iPhone version in June 2009. A follow-up title Archon: Conquest was released in September 2009 for the iPhone. Archon: Classic for Windows was released in May 2010 with gameplay elements not in the original game.

Archon is a notable influence on Reiche's game Star Control, with a similar combination of turn based strategy and real-time combat.

An updated version of the game has been announced for release exclusively for the Intellivision Amico.

From the Wikipedia entry for ARCHON: THE LIGHT AND THE DARK

Death Chess

This is sort of the opposite of Human Chess. In that, the pieces are humans that die. In Death Chess, one of the players may die. In the simple form the loser automatically is killed. In the complex form a player may perform chess moves that force their opponent to touch a potentially lethal chess piece.

Examples include Harlan Ellison's The Silver Corridor, the Doctor Who episode "The Wedding of River Song" featuring Live Chess


Marmorth and Krane hate each other's guts, and have decided to settle their differences with a duel to the death. They decide to spend lots of money on trial by The Silver Corridor.

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.

     "Check!” he finished, opening his eyes and looking back down at the chessboard. The pieces had, happily, not moved. He still had Krane blocked off.

     "I say check,” he repeated, smiling, steepling his fingers.

     Krane’s black-bearded face broke into a wry grimace.

     "Most clever, my dear Marmorth,’' he congratulated the other with sarcasm. "You have forced me to touch a bishop.”

     Marmorth watched as Krane, with trembling fingers, reached down to the jet bishop. It was carved from stone, carved with such care and intricacy that its edges were precisely as they had been desired by the master craftsman. They were razor sharp.

     The pieces were all cut the same. Both the blanched alabaster pieces before Marmorth, and the ebony-stone players under Krane’s hand. The game had been constructed for men who played more than a "gentleman’s game.” There was death in each move.

     Marmorth knew he was in the ascendant. Each of them had had two illusions—that remembrance was sharp—and this was Marmorth’s. How did he know? The older man looked down at the intricately-carved chess pieces. He was white, Krane was black. As clear as it could be.

     "Uh, have you moved?” Marmorth inquired, his voice adrip with casualness. He knew the other had not yet touched his players. "I believe you still lie in check,” he reminded.

     He thought he heard a muted, "Damn you!” under Krane’s breath, but could not be certain.

     Slowly Krane touched the player, carefully sliding the fingers of his hand across the razor-thin, razor-sharp facets. The piece almost slid from his grasp, so loosely was he holding it, but the move was made in an instant.

     Marmorth cursed mentally. Krane had calculated beautifully! Not only was his king blocked out from Marmorth’s rook—Marmorth’s check-piece—but in another two moves (so clearly obvious, as Krane had desired it) his own queen would be in danger. In his mind he could hear Krane savoring the words: "Garde! I say garde, my dear Marmorth!”

     He had to move the queen out of position.
     He had to touch the queen!
     The most deadly piece on the board!
     "No!” he gasped.
     "I beg your pardon?” said Krane, the slash-mouth opening in a twisted grin.
     "N-nothing, nothing!” snapped Marmorth. He concentrated.

     There was little chance he could maneuver that thousand-edged queen without bleeding to death for his trouble. Lord! It was an insoluble, a double-edged, dilemma. If he did not move, Krane would win. If he won, it was obvious that Marmouth would die. He had seen the deadly dirk’s hilt protruding slightly from Krane’s cummerbund when the other had sat down. If he did move, he would bleed to death before Krane’s taunting eyes.

     You shall never have that pleasure! he thought, the bitter determination of a man who will not be defeated rising in him.

     He approached the queen, with hand, with eye.

     The base was faceted, like a diamond. Each facet ended in a cutting edge so sensitive he knew it would sever the finger that touched it. The shape of the upper segments was involved, gorgeously-made. A woman, arms raised above her head, stretching in tension. Beautiful—and untouchable.

     Then the thought struck him: Is this the only move?

     Deep within his mind he calculated. He could not possibly recognize the levels on which his intellect was working. In with his chess theory, in with his mental agility, in with his desire to win, his Theorem re-arranged itself, fitting its logic to this situation. How could the Theorem be applied to the game? What other paths, through the infallible truth of the Theorem—in which he believed, now, more strongly than ever before—could he take?

     Then the alternative move became clear. He could escape a rout, escape the garde, escape the taunting smile of Krane by moving a relatively safe knight. It was not a completely foolproof action, since the knight, too, was a razored piece of death, but he had found a way to avoid certain defeat by Krane’s maneuverings.

     "Ha!” the terrible smile burst upon his face. His eyes bored across to the other’s. Krane turned white as Marmorth reached out, touched the one piece he had been desperately hoping the older man would not consider.

     Marmorth felt an uncontrollable tightening in his throat as he realized the game would go on, and on, and on and …

It wouldn't be hard for interested readers to make a tame safe play-pretend version of the game, i.e., one where the players didn't actually die.

Give each piece a probability of killing the player proportional to the relative power of the chess piece and roll dice each time a player touches one of their chessmen. If a player fails the die roll, they metaphorically slice off their finger on the razor edge and bleed out while their opponent cackles evilly.

Which gives two ways of defeating your opponent: checkmate or forcing them to move the deadlier pieces and hope they get unlucky.

Death Chess
Death if
1d10 roll is
Kingalways safe
Pawn< 10
Knight< 30,1,2
Bishop< 30,1,2
Rook< 50,1,2,3,4
Queen< 90,1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8

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). Moving the Queen will "kill" if the player rolls anything but a 9. Note that commonly available d10 dice for role playing games have faces numbered from zero to nine, not one to ten.

Note that a game between players of dissimilar skill can be handicapped by mandating a player has to either add or subtract 1 from their die roll.

From THE SILVER CORRIDOR by Harlan Ellison (1956)

Nifty Boards

There are quite a few chess variants where the geometric arrangement of the board is different. Some use hexagons instead of squares, some have different connectivity, some can accommodate three or more players.

More rare are boards that have different "terrain". Xiangqi or Chinese chess has a "river" crossing the middle of the board, and two "castles."


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)

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)

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.

Some science fiction authors decided three dimensional chess was not weird enough, and made up rules for four dimensional chess. They sometimes use "time" as the fourth dimension, with pieces being able to "move through time" and reappear at a future moment.

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


      "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?"
     "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."
     "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)

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)

Nifty Pieces

For some inspiration, look over this list of various pieces created for various species of Fairy 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."

(ed note: When Marie Curie discovered radium, she and her husband spent four years 1898-1902 reducing one ton of ore into 0.1 grams of radium chloride. Which is probably what inspired Edmond Hamilton to use that compound for Grag's winning chess move)

From CAPTAIN FUTURE'S CHALLENGE by Edmond Hamilton (1940)

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)

Chess Variants


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). Chess has a weird once-only move called castling. For Jetan Burroughs replaced that by a once-only move called "The Escape" which can only be performed by the Princess chess piece. The Princess can jump to any unoccupied square on the board, much like the outlandish escapes featured in all the Barsoom novels.

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 (NSFW!).


      "Well," I said, "we don't have to kill each other at once. Let's enjoy each other's company for a while longer."
     Pan Dan Chee smiled. "That will suit me perfectly," he said.
     "How about a game of Jetan?" I asked. "It will help to pass the time pleasantly."
     "How can we play Jetan without a board or the pieces?" he asked.

     I opened the leather pocket pouch such as all Martians carry, and took out a tiny, folding Jetan board with all the pieces — a present from Dejah Thoris, my incomparable mate. Pan Dan Chee was intrigued by it, and it is a marvelously beautiful piece of work. The greatest artist of Helium had designed the pieces, which had been carved under his guidance by two of our greatest sculptors. Each of the pieces, such as Warriors, Padwars, Dwars, Panthans, and Chiefs, were carved in the likeness of well-known Martian fighting men; and one of the Princesses was a beautifully executed miniature carving of Tara of Helium, and the other Princess, Llana of Gathol.
     I am inordinately proud of this Jetan set; and because the figures are so tiny, I always carry a small but powerful reading glass, not alone that I may enjoy them but that others may. I offered it now to Pan Dan Chee, who examined the figures minutely.

     "Extraordinary," he said. "I have never seen anything more beautiful." He had examined one figure much longer than he had the others, and he held it in his hand now as though loath to relinquish it. "What an exquisite imagination the artist must have had who created this figure, for he could have had no model for such gorgeous beauty; since nothing like it exists on Barsoom."
     "Every one of those figures was carved from life," I told him.
     "Perhaps the others," he said, "but not this one. No such beautiful woman ever lived."
     "Which one is it?" I asked, and he handed it to me. "This," I said, "is Llana of Gathol, the daughter of Tara of Helium, who is my daughter. She really lives, and this is a most excellent likeness of her. Of course it cannot do her justice since it cannot reflect her animation nor the charm of her personality."

     He took the little figurine back and held it for a long time under the glass; then he replaced it in the box. "Shall we play?" I asked.
     He shook his head. "It would be sacrilege," he said, "to play at a game with the figure of a goddess."
     I packed the pieces back in the tiny box, which was also the playing board, and returned it to my pouch. Pan Dan Chee sat silent. The light of the single torch cast our shadows deep and dark upon the floor.

From LLANA OF GATHOL by Edgar Rice Burrougs (1948)

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.

Because these are Klingons, of course they have a Gladiator version: Klin Zha Kinta, the game with live pieces.

Loroi Cross-Fire

Loroi Cross-Fire is from the webcomic Outsider, created and drawn by Jim Francis

On the surface it appears to be just chess with starships for playing pieces. But there is much more there. The terrain on the board is nice, the objectives in the center are new.

But the rules about logistics are very interesting. I haven't seen a game where logistics affected movement outside of a full fledged wargame.

      I wedged myself into a convenient corner and silently watched them play. The game looked similar to chess, with a variety of different piece types moving on a hexagonal board, except each side had a variable number of moves per turn, and there was some kind of objective in the center of the board.

     I hadn't quite grasped it by the time Talon won the match, but she started a new game with me and did a perfectly respectable job of explaining the rest of what I needed. It was indeed like chess, with differentiated pieces, but the board had terrain of a sort, and there was a logistical element in that the number of pieces you can move each turn depends upon the survival and placement of friendly support units.

The goal of the game is to capturea neutral objective in the center of the playfield, which had defenses that acted automatically according to rule, and to prevent the opponent from doing the same. As an avid chess player, I was very keen to try it out.

As I noted, the playing pieces are various types of Loroi combat starships. Destroyers are pawns, and the Imperial Command Ship is the king. I am guessing that the freighters are the "friendly support units" whose placement determines the number of pieces you can move in a given turn.

The "terrain" on the map is gravity, specifically the solar system gravity well. During one player's turn several pieces can be moved (the exact number depends upon logistics from placement of friendly support units). But any and all pieces being moved this turn must halt their movement the instant they cross a blue line (as shown in the diagram immediately above).

In a conventional ground-based army wargame, the halting when crossing a blue contour line simulates soldiers assaulting a city on a hill. Soldiers have to slow down when moving up or down hill. In this game, it simulates a similar situation of a fleet assaulting a planet inside a solar system's gravity well.

Jim Francis is still working out the bugs in the rules for the game.


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 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.

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.


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.


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)

The Trouble Twisters

      Poker is not a very good three-handed game, so the crew of the trade pioneer ship Muddlin' Through had programmed her computer to play with them. It bought chips with IOUs. Being adjusted to an exactly average level of competence, it just about balanced winnings and losses in the course of a mission. This freed the crew to go after each other's blood.
     "Two cards," said its mechanical voice. David Falkayn dealt them onto a scanner plate that he had rigged at one end of the saloon table. An arm projecting from a modified waldo box shoved the discards aside. Down in their armored tank, at the middle of the ship, think cells assessed the new odds.
     "One," said Chee Lan.
     "None for me, thank you," rumbled Adzel.
     Falkayn gave himself three and picked up his hand. He'd improved: a pair of treys to match his kings. Adzel might well stand pat on nothing better, and Chee had probably tried to complete a flush; the first round of betting, opened by the machine, had been unenthusiastic. But Muddlehead itself, now—
     The steel arm dropped a blue chip into the pot.
     "Damn!" shrieked Chee. Her tail bottled out to twice its normal size, the silky-white fur stood erect over her whole small body, and she threw her cards down so hard that the tabletop ought to have rung. "Pestilence upon you! I hate your cryogenic guts!"
     Imperturbably, Adzel doubled the bet. Falkayn sighed and folded. Chee's fury ebbed as fast as it had come. She settled down on her elevated stool and began washing, cat-fashion. Falkayn reached for a cigarette.
     Muddlehead raised back. Adzel's dragon countenance wasn't able to change expression, except for the rubbery lips, but his huge scaly form, sprawled across the cabin, grew tense. He studied his cards again.

     His paralysis broke. He whirled and ran back aft. At a mere sixty-five percent of Terrestrial gravity, he moved like a scared comet. He burst into the saloon, skidded to a halt, and roared, "Emergency!"
     Chee Lan hopped across the table and switched the computer back to normal function. Adzel thrust a final chip into the pot and turned over his cards. He had a straight. "What is the matter?" Chee asked, glacially self-possessed as always when trouble showed.
     "A . . . a woman," Falkayn panted. "Being chased."
     "By whom?"
     "Not me, dammit. But listen, it's so! Bunch of native cavalry after a human female. Her zandara looks tired. They'll catch her before she gets here, and Lord knows what they'll do."
     While Falkayn was blurting, Adzel looked at Muddlehead's hand. Full house. He sighed philosophically and shoved the pot over. Rising, he said, "Best we go remonstrate with them. Chee, stand by."

(ed note: Chee is watching one of the ruling minister natives, Gujgengi, playing a gambling game)

     She popped in the door of the large cabin where Gujgengi had quartered himself. The envoy was seated at a table with his host, garrison commandant Lalnakh. They were playing some game that involved dropping colored sticks onto a board divided in squares.
     Chee soared to the tabletop, nearly upsetting the frail wicker structure. "What's that?" she asked.
     Lalnakh scowled. Gujgengi, more used to her unceremonious ways, said, "It is called akritel," and explained. The rules were rather complicated, but in essence the game amounted to betting on how the sticks would fall. "Quite popular," Gujgengi added.
     "Do you want to make your play or do you not?" Lalnakh snapped.
     "Indeed, indeed. Give me time." Gujgengi adjusted his spectacles and pondered the distribution of rods that had already been dropped. The less likely a configuration he made, the more he would win; but if he failed to get a score within the range he declared, he would lose correspondingly. "I do believe my luck is normal today," he said, nodding at the stack of coins already before him. A galactic would have spoken of a run of good luck. "I will try to—" He chose his sticks and made his declaration.
     "You shouldn't guess," Chee said. "You should know."
     Lalnakh glared. "What do you mean?"
     "Not the actual outcome," Chee said. "But what the chances are. Whether the chance of winning is good enough to justify the bet you make."
     "How in Destruction can that be calculated?" Gujgengi asked.
     "Play, curse you!" Lalnakh said.
     Gujgengi rattled his sheaf of sticks and let them drop. He made his point.
"Arrr-k!" Lalnakh growled. "That does for me." He shoved his last coins across the table.

(ed note: The crew is off-ship, captured by the natives. The ship Muddlin' Through, controlled by on board computer Muddlehead, is sitting at the landing site. Muddlehead is programed not to initiate actions, only obey orders from the crew. So Muddlehead will not fly off to the crew's rescue, since the crew is being held out of speaking distance and their radios have been broken. The crew cannot order Muddlehead, so it just sits there. One of the ruling minister natives, Gujgengi, approaches the ship and tries to talk to it. )

     Gujgengi swallowed hard. "Most noble," he called. His voice sounded strange in his ears.
     "Are you addressing me?" asked the flat tones from overhead.
     "Ak-krrr, yes." Gujgengi had already had demonstrated to him, before the present wretched contretemps, that the flying house (no, the word was shi', with some unpronounceable consonant at the end, was it not?) ("ship") could speak and think.
     Gujgengi let out a hard-held breath. He'd hoped for something like this. Greatly daring, he asked: "Suppose you observed one of your crew in difficulties. What would you do?"
     "What I was ordered to do, within the limits of capability."
     "Nothing else? I mean, krrr-ek, would you take no action on your own initiative?"
     "None, without verbal or code orders. Otherwise there are too many possibilities for error."
     Still more relieved, Gujgengi felt a sudden eagerness to explore. One had one's intellectual curiosity. And, of course, whatever was learned might conceivably find practical application. If the newly come Ershokh and his two eldritch companions were killed, well, the shi' would still be here. Gujgengi turned to the nearest officer. "Withdraw all personnel a distance," he said. "I have secrets to discuss."
     The Tirut gave him a suspicious glance but obeyed. Gujgengi turned back to the shi'. "You are not totally passive," he pointed out. "You answer me in some detail."
     "I am so constructed. A faculty of logical judgment is needed."
     "Ak-krrr, do you not get, shall we say, bored sitting here?"
     "I am not constructed to feel tedium. The rational faculty of me remains automatically active, analyzing data. When no fresh data are on hand, I rehearse the logical implications of the rules of poker."
     "Poker is a game played aboard my hull."
     "I see. Uk-k-k, your responsiveness to me is most pleasing."
     "I have been instructed to be nonhostile to your people. 'Instructed' is the closest word I can find in my Katandaran vocabulary. I have not been instructed not to reply to questions and statements. The corollary is that I should reply."
     Excitement coursed high in Gujgengi. "Do you mean—do I understand you rightly, most noble—you will answer any question I ask?"
     "No. Since I am instructed to serve the interests of my crew, and since the armed force around me implies that this may have come into conflict with your interests, I will release no information which might enhance your strength."
     The calmness was chilling. And Gujgengi felt disappointed that the shi' was not going to tell him how to make blasters. Still, a shrewd interrogator might learn something. "Would you advise me about harmless matters, then?"
     The wind blew shrill, casting whirls of grit and tossing the bushes, while the hidden one considered. Finally: "This is a problem at the very limits of my faculty of judgment. I can see no reason not to do so. At the same time, this expedition is for the purpose of gaining wealth. The best conclusion I can draw is that I should charge you for advice."
     "But, but how?"
     "You may bring furs, drugs, and other valuables, and lay them in that open doorway you presumably see. What do you wish me to compute?"
     Taken aback, Gujgengi stuttered. He had a potential fortune to make, he knew, if only he could think… Wait. He remembered a remark Chee Lan had made in Lalnakh's house before her arrest. "We play a game called akritel," he said slowly. "Can you tell me how to win at it?"
     "Explain the rules."
     Gujgengi did so. "Yes," the shi' said, "this is simple. There is no way to win every time without cheating. But by knowing the odds on various configurations that may be achieved, you can bet according to those odds and therefore be ahead in the long run, assuming your opponents do not. Evidently they do not, since you ask, and since Drunkard's Walk computations involve comparatively sophisticated mathematics. Bring writing materials and I will dictate a table of odds."
     Gujgengi restrained himself from too much eagerness. "What do you want for this, most noble?"
     "I cannot be entirely certain. Let me weigh what information I have, in order to estimate what the traffic will bear." The shi' pondered awhile, then named what it said was a fair amount of trade goods. Gujgengi screamed that this would impoverish him. The shi' pointed out that in that case he need not buy the information. It did not wish to haggle. Doubtless there were others who would not find the fee excessive.
     Gujgengi yielded. He'd have to borrow a sum to pay for that much stuff; still, with the market depressed by the quarantine, the cost wouldn't be unmanageable. Once he left this miserable hamlet and returned to Katandara, where they gambled for real stakes—
     "Did you learn anything, most noble?" asked the officer as Gujgengi started uphill again.
     "Yes," he said. "Most potent information. I will have to pay a substantial bribe, but this I will do out of my own pocket, in the interests of the Emperor. Ak-krrr . . . see to it that no one else discourses with the shi'. The magic involved could so easily get out of hand."
     "Indeed, most noble!" shuddered the officer.

(ed note: Gujgengi makes a killing at the gambling tables, and Muddlehead aquires a load of valuable furs, jewels, and spices)

     Falkayn accompanied her to the saloon. Adzel was already there, arranging chips in neat stacks. "You know," Falkayn remarked as he sat down, "we're a new breed. Not troubleshooters. Trouble twisters. I suspect our whole career is going to be a sequence of ghastly situations that somehow we twist around to our advantage."
     "Shut up and shuffle," Chee said. "First jack deals."
     A pair of uninteresting hands went by, and then Falkayn got a flush. He bet. Adzel folded. Chee saw him. The computer raised. Falkayn raised back. Chee quit and the computer raised again. This went on for some time before the draw. Muddlehead must have a good hand, Falkayn knew, but considering its style of play, a flush was worth staying on. He stood pat. The computer asked for one card.
     Judas in a nova burst! The damned machine must have gotten four of a kind! Falkayn tossed down his own. "Never mind," he said. "Take it."
     Somewhat later, Chee had a similar experience, still more expensive. She made remarks that ionized the air.
     Adzel's turn came when the other two beings dropped out. Back and forth the raises went, between dragon and computer, until he finally got nervous and called.
     "You win," said the mechanical voice. Adzel dropped his full house, along with his jaw.
     "What?" Chee screamed. Her tail stood vertical and bottled. "You were bluffing?"
     "Yes," said Muddlehead.
     "But, no, wait, you play on IOUs and we limit you," Falkayn rattled. "You can't bluff!"
     "If you will inspect the No. 4 hold," said Muddlehead, "you will find a considerable amount of furs, jewels, and spices. While the value cannot be set exactly until the market involved has stabilized, it is obviously large. I got them in exchange for calculating probability tables for the native Gujgengi, and am now prepared to purchase chips in the normal manner."
     "But, but, but you're a machine!"
     "I am not programmed to predict how a court would adjudicate title to those articles," said Muddlehead. "However, my understanding is that in a commercially and individualistically oriented civilization, any legitimate earnings belong to the earner."
     "Good Lord," said Falkayn weakly, "I think you're right."
     "You're not a person!" Chee shouted. "Not even in fact, let alone the law!"
     "I acquired those goods in pursuit of the objective you have programmed into me," Muddlehead replied, "namely, to play poker. Logic indicates that I can play better poker when properly staked."
     Adzel sighed. "That's right, too," he conceded. "If we want the ship to give us an honest game, we have to take the syllogistic consequences. Otherwise the programming would become impossibly complicated. Besides . . . sportsmanship, you know."
     Chee riffled the deck. "All right," she said grimly. "I'll win your stake the hard way."
     Of course she didn't. Nobody did. With that much wealth at its disposal, Muddlehead could afford to play big. It didn't rake in their entire commissions for Operation Ikrananka in the course of the Earthward voyage, but it made a substantial dent in them.

From THE TROUBLE TWISTERS by Poul Anderson (1965)

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)

Diagnostic Games

In some science fiction novels, games are used for more than recreation. A skilled player can use gameplay to obtain insight into their opponent. Poker players get a pretty good idea of the basic psychology of a person after they've played a few hands. In Diane Duane's MY ENEMY, MY ALLY Dr. McCoy and Nurse Lia plays 3D chess for the same purpose.

In Piers Anthony's CHAINING THE LADY Melody of Mintakaa uses Tarot Card readings. By asking for the person's interpretation of the complicated artwork on each card, she uses a Rorschach-test-like interpretation to discover which of the starship crew are actually covert enemy agents.


(ed note: One of Captain Kirk's arch-enemies is Romulan captain Ael i-Mhiessan t'Rllaillieu. She and Kirk are pretty evenly matched, but they have always been gallant to each other despite the fact that their star-nations are enemies. Due to a major plot complication, they find themselves uneasy allies in a desperate covert plan to save both the Federation and the Romulan Empire. But Kirk is still uneasy about the possibility of being double-crossed by Ael.)

     Jim snorted. It was a lot harder to be paranoid when he wasn't in pain. "That explains where he gets his chess strategies, anyway. . . .Bones, there's a question I wanted to ask you. Where'd you learn to play like that?"
     "Watching Spock, mostly. And watching you."
     "With a talent like that, you should be in tournament play."
     McCoy started to laugh quietly as the two of them left his office, heading down the hall to the lift for Recreation. "Jim, you haven't looked at my record since I was assigned, have you? … My F.I.D.E. rating is in the 700's somewhere."
     Jim stared at McCoy as they got into the lift. 'The F.I.D.E.' was the Federation Intergalactique des Échecs; its members got their ratings only through Federation-sanctioned tournament play, and the 700's, while hardly a master's level, were a respectable neighborhood. "No kidding. Why don't you play more often?"
     "I'm a voyeur.—Oh, stop that. A chess voyeur. I use it mostly as a diagnostic tool."
     "Come again?"
     "Jim, chess isn't just good for the brain. It's a wonderful way to get a feeling for someone's attitude toward life and games and other people. Their response to stress, their ability to plan, what they do when plans are foiled. Their attack on life—sneaky, bold, straightforward, subtle, careless, what have you. Humor or the lack of it, compassion, enthusiasm, the 'poker face,' all the different things that go toward 'psyching' an opponent out … A sting or five or six chess games can make a marvelous précis of a personality and the ways it reacts in its different moods."
     "An intelligence test?"
The lift stopped and they got out. "Lord, no," McCoy said. "On this ship intelligence is a foregone conclusion … and in any case, it's hardly everything. It's hardly even anything, from some psychiatrists' point of view. You want to get a feeling for where someone's personal style lies, their 'flair.' Spock, for example. Why do you think he gets so many requests for standard 3D tournament play when we're close to home space? It's not because he's brilliant. There are enough brilliant chess masters floating around the Federation to carpet a small planet with. But Spock's games have elegance. My guess would be that it comes partly of his expertise in the sciences—the delight in the perfect solution, the most logical and economical one. But if you look at his games, you also see elegance—exquisitely laid traps that close with such precision, it looks like he micrometered them. There's a great love of the precision itself: not just of its logic and economy, but of its beauty. Though Spock'd sooner die than admit it. Our cool, 'unemotional' Vulcan, Captain, is a closet aesthete. But you knew that."     "I did? Of course I did."
     "I should make you figure this out yourself," Bones said. "Still, none of this is anything you haven't already noticed from long observation of him in other areas. That aestheticism is a virtue; it shows up in his other work too. But it's also a hint at where one of his weak spots might be. He will scorn blunter or more brutal moves or setups that might produce a faster win. Why do you think he has that sword on his wall? But this is where you get lucky sometimes, because you tend to go straight for me throat. Spock gets busy doing movesculpture—and enjoying himself; he loves watching people's minds work too, yours especially—and he gets lost in the fun. And then you come in with an ax and hack his artwork to pieces with good old human-brand unsubtle craziness. Note, of course, that he keeps coming back. The win is obviously not the purpose of the game for him."
     "Obviously. Bones, is this something I can take a correspondence course in?"
     McCoy grinned. "Psychology by mail, huh? You might have trouble. Not that many med schools teach diagnostic chess, and they wouldn't be able to help you with 4D anyway. In fact, Lia is one of the few people I know who's managed to find a course in even 3D diagnostic. She routinely plays at least a game or two with her patients whenever she can. She's not much of a tactician, but she says she doesn't mind losing … she's more interested in finding out about other people."
     Bones chuckled as they stepped into Recreation together. "You should have seen her playing with Jerry Freeman the other week … poor Lia found out a little more about him than she wanted to. Jerry wasn't paying attention to the game at the beginning, and Lia put him in a bad position pretty quickly. So he bided his time and fought a holding action until she got up to answer a page, and while she was gone, he quietly programmed the cubic for 'catastrophic dump.' When she got back, she tried to move a piece, and the cubic blew up. Pieces flying everywhere … I wish you could have seen her face."
     Jim wished he could have too. "And what did she deduce from that?"
     "If she's smart, the same thing I did after I played with him a couple of times; that Mr. Freeman is quite bright, and knows it, and occasionally gets incautious. What is not occasional about him, though, is his extreme dislike of looking dumb in front of people—and he will sometimes resort to very unorthodox solutions to save his game."
     "You call that a save?"
     "It was for him. The next game he played with Lia—"
     "There was a next game? I would have killed him."
     "They used to call them 'the gentler sex,' didn't they once? Let's wait and see if Freeman can still walk after his yearly injections next week. Anyway, next game, he wiped the Rec deck up with her. Then he fetched her a drink and was the picture of gallantry. He's a very good winner."

     Jim chuckled. "Bones, do me a favor, will you?"
     "Play 4D with Ael." (the Romulan Commander, who Kirk is afraid is outmaneuvering them into a double-cross)
     At that Bones looked somber, and pulled Jim a bit off to one side, well away from the freestyle demonstration of Romulan hand-to-hand combat that seemed to have resumed over in the far left corner of the room. McCoy eased himself down into one of a pair of chairs in a conversation niche, and said, "I already did, a few hours ago."
     Jim had a sudden sinking feeling that that line of Ael's about learning the game in "a few minutes" had not been mere casual braggadocio. Damn the woman! "And?"
     "She blew me to plasma."
     "She beat you!"
     "Don't look so shocked. Don't go all sorry for me, either! I learned lots more from the loss than I would have from the win. But it wasn't a pretty picture."
     "What did she do?"
     "Oh, no, Jim. I leave that as an exercise for the student. You'll find a recording of the game in my office running files under the password 'Trojan Horse.' She knew I was recording it, by the way."
     "She didn't care. She knew what I was up to and just didn't care. Chew on that one, Jim."

     On Jim's desk screen, the ship's computer had obligingly translated the chesscubic's holographic display of McCoy's game with Ael into a 2D graphic, and displayed it for him. It made a fascinating study—the first moves sure on McCoy's part, tentative on Ael's; then roles reversing—McCoy moving with more of an outward show of caution, apparently seeing what Ael would do if offered the run of the cubic. There was a point at which the computer recorded a long interval between moves; she had hesitated. Jim could almost see those cool eyes of hers across the cubic, suddenly lifted to assess not only the tactical situation but the man who sat across from her—who was, at the moment, himself a tactic. And then came a series of moves that were, to put it mildly, insulting. She became "polite" to McCoy. She moved out into the cubic, but genteelly, almost as if not wanting to beat him, almost as if they were playing on the same side. McCoy put up with it for about ten minutes, then timed about half his pieces out, preparing to dump them on her like a ton of neutronium in six very visible moves. He could seem insulting too, when it suited his purposes.
     And she derailed Bones as totally as Bones had derailed Spock. Three of her pieces timed out, not even critical ones. Three moves later, McCoy's pieces all came back—into cubes that were suddenly no longer vacant. Annihilation, all over the board. McCoy had one stronghold left for his king and both of his queens.
     Ael sacrificed both her queens to his—and checkmated his king with three pawns and a knight fork.
     Her first game.
     She didn't even care, Jim. Chew on that.
     He did. It tasted awful.

From MY ENEMY, MY ALLY by Diane Duane (1984)

(ed note: In the Cluster series, there are only three ways to travel from star to star: [1] sublight ships that travel at 50% c, [2] Mattermitting teleportation which is instantaneous but costs astronomical amounts of energy, and [3] Aura Transfer, which is instantaneous and energy-cheap, but has serious limitations.

Aura transfer just sends one's immaterial mental energy pattern. Your body at home goes into a coma, and you transfer into a host body at the destination. The host body can be of any species. You can access any of the host's memories so you know the language, common knowledge, host's personality, etc. The host personality is present as well, you and the host share the body.

But if you have a more powerful aura, you can enslave the host personality and totally control the body. This is called "hostaging."

The trouble is: the various species of the Andromeda galaxy are running low on energy, so they want to convert the Milky Way galaxy and all the inhabitants into fuel. The inhabitats of the Milky Way strongly object to this so the two galaxies are currently at war.

Recently the Andromedans have been using high-aura people to take hostage Milky Way citizens who are in key positions. These become Andromedan secret agents, who are sabotaging the Milky Way war effort. There is no easy way to tell if someone has been taken hostage: physically the are the same person, and the agent has access to all the knowledge and personaly memories of the hostage. There is a large clunky device called an "aura-meter" that can detect hostaging, but if an Andromedan agent saw the authorities approaching with one the agent would know they were suspected and would immediately do something drastic.

The Milky Way leaders are trying to covertly discover which of their number are hostages. They have recruited the high-aura Melody of Mintakaa to help. She is an elderly member of the Mintakaan species, but is very good at using tarot cards. She has been aura transferred into a young woman human host named Yael and sent to find enemy agents. Her first attempt is with a person named Tiala, who is already known to be an enemy agent.)

"Oh, there is more to Tarot than divination," Melody assured her brightly. "The cards can be used for serious study, or for games. Look, let me show you. I fool with these all the time when I have nothing to do." Absolutely true, yet in this context it might as well have been a lie. For it implied that Tarot was not a serious matter with her. Melody sifted through the cards a bit clumsily with her human fingers and brought out the classical face of one of the Trumps (Atu IX The Hermit). "For instance, what do you see?"

There was no hesitation. (Tiala said) "Communication."

Melody concealed her startlement. She had never before encountered this particular interpretation. "Now I see a lamp."

Tiala's brow wrinkled. "Are you sure?"

"This is the game. Each person sees a different thing. Then we try to reconcile them, and discover which has more validity. It's an intellectual exercise."

"I don't see either one," Yael remarked.

"It is something of a challenge," Tiala said, becoming intrigued. "To me, communications beams are quite obvious."

Communications beams. Of course! On one of the major spheres of Galaxy Andromeda, / (aka "Slash"), lived a species who communicated by organically generated laser beams. Melody's own Kirlian ancestor had been an Andromedan transferee of that Sphere who had budded with the revered Flint of Outworld, both in Mintakan hosts, a thousand Solarian years before.

There were half a dozen light beams crisscrossing the face of this card. Because Melody thought and communicated in terms of music, not light, she had never interpreted the picture this way, but obviously there had been / influence in its design, regardless of its supposed origin on pre-Sphere Earth. Here was a direct confirmation of the status of the hostage!

"I see that now," Melody said even as these thoughts phased through her human brain. "But look at my lamp: It is at the convergence of the beams, an enclosure with a star inside. In fact, it is from where the beams emanate. So is it not a more fundamental image?"

"But the beams do not emanate from it," Tiala protested. "They are emitted from other eyes; see, they diffuse right past your lamp."

Other eyes. The light-emitting lenses: eyes of the slash entity. Yes. "So they do. I must concede this round to you, then. But let's look again. I see... a three-headed dog." The image did not come naturally to her as it was a Solarian canine, nonexistent in Sphere Mintaka. But she was long familiar with the roots of these cards; even in this restricted vision-style, she was not playing fair. She could draw a hundred images from this single face of this one card, while the hostage had never seen it before.

Tiala concentrated. "Dog. Yes... there in the corner." She had evidently made a quick delve into her host's memory to acquaint herself with the image. "And I see... rolling disks."

Again Melody was surprised. But spurred by necessity she searched... and spotted the figure in the opposite corner. And knew that it was another example of the Andromedan's special perceptual bias. The figure was actually of a coiled snake—but the / entities moved on great sharp rolling disks. "Ah... I see them now. But they have nowhere to roll except out of the picture, while my dog is coming in toward the center."

"That's right," Tiala agreed. "Yours is the more central image." She studied the face of the card again. Now Melody was really curious. Would the Andromedan mind see the Solarian sperm cell? /s reproduced by exchanging mating-beams, eye-to-eye as it were. Melody was not clear on the details, but certainly no sperm cell was part of the process. Human entities might lock gazes as a preliminary to the physical interpenetration of copulation; /s might interpenetrate physically as a preliminary to visual copulation. Similar motive, different application.

"A man!" Tiala exclaimed. "It is the figure of a human male man, carrying his light. See, there is his hand! And the dog is beside him."

"You found it!" Melody said. "You win! That is the figure of the Hermit. The one who walks alone. This is the card of the Hermit, in the ancient Thoth face of Solarian Tarot, said to date from a century pre-Sphere. A picture hidden behind a picture."

"How clever. This is fun, though you evidently know more about it than I do. Perhaps you should handicap yourself. May we examine another card?"

(Melody said) "There are hostages among us."

(Llume said) "Hostages?"

"Involuntary hosts, controlled by Andromedan auras. I am here to nullify them."

Now Llume's aura veered wildly. "Andromedans! Aboard this ship?"

"Yes. Tiala of Oceana is one; it has been verified. She is a / entity of Andromeda. There may be others. I suspect that is the source of this present commotion. Will you work with me?"

"I must ask the Captain first," Llume said uncertainly. "I never guessed—hostages!"

"By all means ask the Captain. But not over the ship's phone system."

Llume laughed again at Melody's throat. "Of course not! I am not quite that ignorant." She looked down the hall at the magnet. Melody could tell she was looking by her attitude; her skin changed color and brightness slightly. Large objects were visible to Polarians, and of course this Spican intellect had Polarian-host talents. "But assuming the Captain approved, how could I help? I don't know how to identify a hostage."

"I would like to tell some fortunes," Melody said.

Again the aura flexed. "I do not comprehend Mintakan humor."

"Of course not. No Spican would. Or Solarian. Or Polarian or Canopian or Nathian. But especially, no Andromedan."

"No Andromedan," Llume said, catching on. "You can identify an Andromedan through the Tarot?"

"I believe so. With your cooperation. If you can tell a transferee by his home-Sphere mannerisms, you should have a good notion who our suspects are. If you can bring them to me without suspicion—"

"Now I understand! This is how you verified that Tiala was a hostage?"

"She was already known to be a hostage. I used the Tarot merely to distract her, but found it to be a better tool than I had imagined. As long as I'm confined to this ship, this is a worthwhile application of my skill." For Melody now doubted she would get off this ship as rapidly as had been promised. Not if it was infiltrated by a number of hostages.

"I agree. If there are many more hostages aboard, we must neutralize them promptly."

"No. We must identify them—without their knowing it. Otherwise we place ourselves in peril."

"But if we let them go—"

"An enemy known is an enemy neutralized—when the appropriate time comes."

"I was always a sucker for fortunes," the Chief of Coordinations said.

"You must understand, I make no claims for the supernatural," Melody informed him, tapping the Cluster deck lightly. She had combed out her hair so that it was long and loose, parted in the center and coursing down in brown streams just outside her eyes, in the fashion of the ancient human witches. Yael had been delighted, and had offered pointers on details.

He returned the deck. Melody dealt the first card of the reading. It was the Five of Serpents of the New Tarot, with the five snakes radiating out from the points of a five-pointed star. Too bad; these Minor Arcana were not complex enough to evoke the reactions she needed. What would she do if the whole layout turned out to be like this?

But she tried. "What does this suggest to you, Hath?"

He hardly glanced at it. "The patina of reproduction, of course."

Melody forced her mouth to work. "Of course." Was he teasing her or was this a completely alien reaction?

She dealt another card: Unity, equivalent to The Lovers in the more conventional decks. It could be considered as representing the commencement of a new way, though of course it was far more complex than that.

"There is the first shoot entering the nutrient globe," Hath said. "Ready to fission in that egg into the five sexes that will consume the body of the female entity laid out as food, before emerging as shown in the prior card," he said. He looked up. "I'm surprised they are permitted to print such graphic material."

"Sometimes they do have trouble with local censors," Melody said somewhat feebly. For she had abruptly identified the applicable culture, the only one she knew of that had five sexes. Sphere * of Andromeda. (aka "Ast")

By the time she completed the reading, she was certain. Hath was another hostage. She gave him a nice "fortune" and let him go. But her human heart was pounding.

Her first Tarot testing had been a success. But she was not precisely satisfied with its verdict. If a random sampling of personnel had so easily turned up another agent of Andromeda, how many more were aboard this ship?

From CHAINING THE LADY by Piers Anthony (1978)

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.

Drawing Straws

"Drawing straws" or "Casting lots" is a selection method, or a form of sortition. In other words, it is a way of randomly choosing a loser or winner (depending upon whether the "prize" is a penalty or a bonus). Drawing straws for a penalty is usually when there is a nasty or suicidal task to be done and nobody in the group volunteers (and there is no leader with authority to simply order somebody to do it). Drawing straws for a bonus is usually when a group obtains a single non-dividable valuable item, and everybody wants it.

Casting lots generally means rolling dice, cutting a deck of cards, or flipping a coin. High roller "wins." If there is a tie for the win, the people who tied have a roll-off.

Sometimes a bowl or jar is used. Each person is assigned a slip of paper or tile with their name written on it. These are put into the bowl and mixed up. One person reaches into the bowl blindly and randomly selects a slip to determine the lucky winner.

Drawing straws is common in old war movies, where a team (with no one in authority) has to choose a member (or several members) for a suicide mission.

Drawing Straws Procedure

The group "leader" gathers up a number of visually identical cylindrical objects that can be held mostly concealed in a fist (matchsticks, toothpicks, etc.). The number of straws is equal to the number of people in the group, including the leader. Some of the straws have their bottoms cut to become "short straws". The number of short straws equals the number of "winners". If this is a bonus type selection there will be one short straw for the lucky winner. If this is a penalty type selection there will be a number of short straws equal to how many people are needed for the suicide mission.

The group leader then "shuffles" the group of straws while keeping their lengths hidden, so nobody knows which is the short straw(s). The straws are held in the fist with just the tops showing, and the lengths hidden.

Each person in the group randomly draws a straw out of the leader's fist. The leader gets the straw that is left over, because they can feel in their fist which is the short straw.

Everybody compares their selected straw to the others to discover who were lucky/unlucky enough to pick the short straw(s).

Naturally it is possible to cheat at this process, using slight-of-hand or whatever.

Acting-Constable Cuddy (a dwarf) climbed laboriously up the steps inside the Tower of Art, grumbling to himself He knew he couldn't complain. They'd drawn lots because, (Commander) Carrot said, you shouldn't ask the men to do anything you wouldn't do yourself. And he'd drawn the short straw, harhar, which meant the tallest building. That meant if there was any trouble, he'd miss it.

From MEN AT ARMS by Terry Pratchett (1993)

Using an Encrypted Microsoft Word Document

  1. Determine your participant pool. The number of participants will directly correlate with the number of "straws" you need. For example, a pool of 6 participants mandates a total of 6 straws.

  2. Assign a letter for each participant. For the aforementioned example of 6 participants, you would use letters A, B, C, D, E, and F. These letters represent your straws.

  3. Select your short straw. Create a new document in Microsoft Word, pick a letter from your list at random, and enter it into your document. This letter will be your short straw.
    • You can also assign a number to each “straw” for the purpose of creating a random ordered list--for example, you might type in "A3, B6, C2, D1, E4, F5", wherein the participant who chooses “D” will be listed first, “C” will be listed second, and so on.
    • Similarly, you can randomly assign tasks to letters, such as “A - Powerpoint, B - Timekeeping, C - Coffee and Doughnuts...”. Thus, the participant who draws “A” will be in charge of the powerpoint, “B” will be in charge of timekeeping, and so on. This is a fair way to distribute undesirable tasks.
    • In both of these cases, you would type the full list into Word, rather than just one letter.

  4. Encrypt your document. This step ensures that other participants won’t be able to accuse you of skewing the results. For Word 2010 and up, you will need to click "File" in the upper left-hand corner, then select the "Info" tab. In the ensuing menu, click "Protect Document", select "Encrypt with Password", and enter a password of your choice. Click OK to confirm; some versions will ask you to re-enter your password before accepting it. Click "Save As" and save the file as a Rich Text File (.rtf) to complete the process.
    • For earlier versions of Word, click the Microsoft Office Button in the upper left-hand corner, click "Prepare", and then click "Encrypt Document". Enter your password into the Password box that appears and click OK to confirm. Click "Save As" and save the file as a Rich Text File (.rtf) to complete the process.

  5. Email the encrypted document to all participants. Attach the file to an email in which you ask participants to respond with their choice of letter from the given range--for example, A through F.
    • Make sure participants know to select "Reply All" when answering.
    • Emphasize that letters may only be chosen once.
    • If you are in the participant pool, let your recipients know that you have to choose your letter last so you don't have an unfair advantage.

  6. Send the password to your participant pool. Once everyone has chosen a "straw", send out the password so your participants can open the Word documents to see which one of them wins (or loses).

From HOW TO DRAW STRAWS OVER EMAIL by wikiHow Staff (2020)

      Many years ago a farmer had the misfortune of owing a large sum of money to a village moneylender. The moneylender, who was old and ugly, fancied the farmer’s beautiful daughter. So he proposed a bargain.
     He said he would forgo the farmer’s debt if he could marry his daughter. Both the farmer and his daughter were horrified by the proposal. So the cunning money-lender suggested that they let providence decide the matter. He told them that he would put a black pebble and a white pebble into an empty money bag. Then the girl would have to pick one pebble from the bag.
  1. If she picked the black pebble, she would become his wife and her father’s debt would be forgiven.
  2. If she picked the white pebble she need not marry him and her father’s debt would still be forgiven.
  3. If she refused to pick a pebble, her father would be thrown into jail.
     They were standing on a pebble strewn path in the farmer’s field. As they talked, the moneylender bent over to pick up two pebbles. As he picked them up, the sharp-eyed girl noticed that the rat-bastard had picked up two black pebbles and put them into the bag. He then asked the girl to pick a pebble from the bag.
     What would you have done if you were the daughter? If you are the father, how would you advise your daughter? Logically there are only three possibilities:
  1. The girl should refuse to take a pebble (result: father is thrown into jail).
  2. The girl should know that there were two black pebbles in the bag and expose the money-lender as a cheat (result: moneylender gets really angry, and throws father into jail).
  3. The girl should pick a black pebble and sacrifice herself in order to save her father from his debt and imprisonment (result: girl is forced to marry old, ugly, cheating moneylender).
     So, by logical thinking, there are no good outcomes. It is a no-win scenario.

     The key to finding a good outcome is to use Lateral Thinking. Stop focusing upon the pebble that is drawn out of the bag. Instead focus on the pebble that is left behind.

     The girl put her hand into the moneybag and drew out a pebble. Without looking at it, she fumbled and let it fall onto the pebble-strewn path where it immediately became lost among all the other pebbles. “Oh, how clumsy of me!” she said. “But never mind, if you look into the bag for the one that is left, you will be able to tell which pebble I picked.”
     Since the remaining pebble is black, it must be assumed that she had picked the white one. Unless the moneylender had cheated by putting two black pebbles into the bag, but he isn't about to admit he's a cheat, is he?


(ed note: Starships in the darkness between stars are subject to attack by mysterious creatures called "dragons". They scramble the brains of all humans in the ship, driving them permanently insane. To defend against dragon attack, ships use pinlighter teams. Each team consists of one human telepath paired with a domestic cat. The humans have the telepathic vision, the cats have the microsecond reflexes.)

The Shuffle

     Father Moontree and the little girl named West entered the room. They were the other two pinlighters. The human complement of the Fighting Room was now complete.
     Father Moontree was a red-faced man of forty-five who had lived the peaceful life of a farmer until he reached his fortieth year. Only then, belatedly, did the authorities find he was telepathic and agree to let him late in life enter upon the career of pinlighter. He did well at it, but he was fantastically old for this kind of business.
     Father Moontree looked at the glum Woodley and the musing Underhill. "How're the youngsters today? Ready for a good fight?"
     "Father always wants a fight," giggled the little girl named West. She was such a little little girl. Her giggle was high and childish. She looked like the last person in the world one would expect to find in the rough, sharp dueling of pinlighting.
     Underhill had been amused one time when he found one of the most sluggish of the Partners coming away happy from contact with the mind of the girl named West.
     Usually the Partners didn't care much about the human minds with which they were paired for the journey. The Partners seemed to take the attitude that human minds were complex and fouled up beyond belief, anyhow. No Partner ever questioned the superiority of the human mind, though very few of the Partners were much impressed by that superiority.
     The Partners liked people. They were willing to fight with them. They were even willing to die for them. But when a Partner liked an individual the way, for example, that Captain Wow or the Lady May liked Underhill, the liking had nothing to do with intellect. It was a matter of temperament, of feel.
     Underhill knew perfectly well that Captain Wow regarded his, Underhill's, brains as silly. What Captain Wow liked was Underhill's friendly emotional structure, the cheerfulness and glint of wicked amusement that shot through Underhill's unconscious thought patterns, and the gaiety with which Underhill faced danger. The words, the history books, the ideas, the science—Underhill could sense all that in his own mind, reflected back from Captain Wow's mind, as so much rubbish.

     Miss West looked at Underhill. "I bet you've put stickum on the stones."
     "I did not!"
     Underhill felt his ears grow red with embarrassment. During his novitiate, he had tried to cheat in the lottery because he got particularly fond of a special Partner, a lovely young mother named Murr. It was so much easier to operate with Murr and she was so affectionate toward him that he forgot pinlighting was hard work and that he was not instructed to have a good time with his Partner. They were both designed and prepared to go into deadly battle together.
     One cheating had been enough. They had found him out and he had been laughed at for years.
     Father Moontree picked up the imitation-leather cup and shook the stone dice which assigned them their Partners for the trip. By senior rights, he took first draw.

     He grimaced. He had drawn a greedy old character, a tough old male whose mind was full of slobbering thoughts of food, veritable oceans full of half-spoiled fish. Father Moontree had once said that he burped cod liver oil for weeks after drawing that particular glutton, so strongly had the telepathic image of fish impressed itself upon his mind. Yet the glutton was a glutton for danger as well as for fish. He had killed sixty-three Dragons, more than any other Partner in the service, and was quite literally worth his weight in gold.
     The little girl West came next. She drew Captain Wow. When she saw who it was, she smiled.
     "I like him," she said. "He's such fun to fight with. He feels so nice and cuddly in my mind."
     "Cuddly, hell," said Woodley. "I've been in his mind, too. It's the most leering mind in this ship, bar none."
     "Nasty man," said the little girl. She said it declaratively, without reproach.
     Underhill, looking at her, shivered.
     He didn't see how she could take Captain Wow so calmly. Captain Wow's mind did leer. When Captain Wow got excited in the middle of a battle, confused images of Dragons, deadly Rats, luscious beds, the smell of fish, and the shock of space all scrambled together in his mind as he and Captain Wow, their consciousnesses linked together through the pin-set, became a fantastic composite of human being and Persian cat.
     That's the trouble with working with cats, thought Underhill. It's a pity that nothing else anywhere will serve as Partner. Cats were all right once you got in touch with them telepathically. They were smart enough to meet the needs of the fight, but their motives and desires were certainly different from those of humans.
     They were companionable enough as long as you thought tangible images at them, but their minds just closed up and went to sleep when you recited Shakespeare or Colegrove, or if you tried to tell them what space was.
     It was sort of funny realizing that the Partners who were so grim and mature out here in space were the same cute little animals that people had used as pets for thousands of years back on Earth. He had embarrassed himself more than once while on the ground saluting perfectly ordinary non-telepathic cats because he had forgotten for the moment that they were not Partners.

     He picked up the cup and shook out his stone dice.
     He was lucky—he drew the Lady May.

From THE GAME OF RAT AND DRAGON by Cordwainer Smith (1954)

(ed note: Six people suddenly wake up in a automated base on a desolate planet. All six are leaders of their respective planets, kidnapped and replaced by androids. They all want to return to their home planets immediately. Unfortunately there is only one starship, and autopilot programmed journey tapes for two destinations. How to choose?)

      "Naul, of course," Tsiwon said as if there could be no possible question. "We have excellent transshipping from our ports, and you will have no difficulty in reaching your homes. Also we have a Patrol Sector office. This offence must be reported at once. To discover how deeply this conspiracy has taken root needs expert investigation."
     "Inyanga's ports are also Sector centers," Andas stuck in, determined to hold his ground. "I see no reason for choosing Naul."
     "The two of you," Elys said wearily, "can doubtless continue to argue for days. I, for one, have no wish to waste time sitting here listening to you. To my mind, Naul has no advantage over this Inyanga as far as I am concerned, and perhaps that is also true for Chief Councilor Grasty and Lord Yolyos, as well as Veep Turpyn. After all, on my own world I had never heard of either, which means I may have half the galaxy to cover before I reach home. Since we cannot guess where we are at present or in what relation we lie to either of your two worlds, it will be largely a matter of chance as it is."
     Almost in one voice Andas and Tsiwon answered.
     Yolyos made a sound not far from a growl. "The lady is right. We have two tapes and six of us who may be bound in directly opposite directions. Neither of the ports you urge upon us has any great appeal as far as we are concerned. Therefore, let us let chance decide. Here—" He picked up one of the lidded basins in which their last meal had been delivered. Taking up the cloth that had served as a napkin, he wiped the basin out thoroughly.
     "Now"—he offered it to Tsiwon, who held to the Naul tape as tightly as Andas did his—"drop it in, Arch Chief. You, too, Prince. We shall have a drawing—"
     "And who shall do the drawing?" Tsiwon demanded before Andas could. "The lady has been with you, and you—you have been his constant companion." He stabbed a finger at the Salariki and then at Andas.
     "True enough." Yolyos put the lid back on the basin. "Turpyn, can that robot doing the repairs be activated enough to pick up one of these? We cannot accuse it of any favoritism."
     "Yes, it can." The Veep sounded almost eager, as if he had despaired of their ever coming to a decision. "Come—"
     With all of them watching, Yolyos placed the basin, uncovered once more, where the robot stood. Andas and Tsiwon dropped in the tapes. One of the tentacle arms that had been so long raised in the air dropped the small tool it held and descended to the basin after Turpyn had made the adjustments he thought necessary. It raised jerkily again, one of the tapes gripped fast. The Veep hastened to kill the power, and Yolyos pried the selection loose.
     "Inyanga," he informed them.
     Tsiwon could not say that the choice had not been fair. But his expression was sour, and he took the rejected tape, holding it as if with it in his possession he might still have a chance to use it.

(ed note: They use the tape, but arrive at neither Naul or Inyanga. Turns out they had been betrayed by Turpyn.)

     "A Veep of the Guild! (Very Important Person of the galactic Thieve's Guild)" Again Yolyos's thoughts matched his. "Turpyn" growled the Salariki.
     "Then he knew—about the tapes!"
     They could handle Turpyn among them. Why, Andas could take him alone probably. Somehow they must choke some information out of him. Andas got to his feet, ready to seek out the Veep and begin the job at once. His furious disappointment was chilling to that cold rage notorious in the House of Kastor.
     "The tapes—" As if unconsciously, the Salariki moved between Andas and the ladder that would lead to his prey. "I am wondering about those tapes, Prince. A Veep of the Guild is a master at his craft. And I have seen Guild men who could lift a jeweled ring from a man's thumb without his knowing it. It could be that your Inyanga tape landed somewhere else than in the autopilot—that Turpyn was able to substitute another."
     "He couldn't have! I was watching while he did it."
     "As was I," Yolyos agreed, "but I do not say that I can better any master in his own trade. And how many encounters with Guild experts have you had in the past, Prince?"
     "None. But if he could do that—" Andas drew a deep breath. If Turpyn could so cheat while they watched him!

From ANDROID AT ARMS by Andre Norton (1971)

(ed note: in this fantasy novel there are wizards. Who are all conniving sociopathic cheaters, using magic spells to swindle their opponents. A group of them recently obtained the magical stash of the archveult Xexamedes, and are bickering among themselves over how to divide the spoils. Of course everybody wants the parcel of astronomically valuable IOUN stones.)

      Ildefonse distributed sheets of paper; each magician listed the articles he desired; Ildefonse examined each list in turn. “It appears,” he said, “that all present declare their first choice to be the IOUN stones.”
     Everyone glanced towards the stones; they winked and twinkled with pale white fire.
     “Such being the case,” said Ildefonse, “determination must be made by chance.” He set forth a crockery pot and sixteen ivory disks. “Each will indite his sign upon one of the chips and place it into the pot, in this fashion.” Ildefonse marked one of the chips, dropped it into the pot. “When all have done so, I will call in a servant, who will bring forth a single chip.”
     Ildefonse summoned one of his maidens. “Do not be alarmed. You must reach into the pot, thoroughly stir the chips, and bring forth one, which you will then lay upon the table. Do you understand?”
     “Yes, Lord Magician.”
     “Do as I bid.”
     The girl went to the pot. She reached forth her hand. At this precise instant Rhialto activated a spell of Temporal Stasis, with which, in anticipation of some such emergency, he had come prepared.
     Time stood still for all but Rhialto. He glanced around the chamber, at the magicians in their frozen attitudes, at the servant girl with one hand over the pot, at Ildefonse staring at the girl’s elbow.
     Rhialto leisurely sauntered over to the IOUN stones. He could now take possession, but such an act would arouse a tremendous outcry and all would league themselves against him. A less provocative system was in order.
     Rhialto shrugged and turned to the urn. He brought out the chips. To his wonder each was indited ‘Ildefonse’.
     “Aha!” exclaimed Rhialto. “Some crafty rascal selected a previous instant for his mischief! Is it not always the case? At the end of this, he and I will know each other the better!” Rhialto rubbed out Ildefonse’s signs and substituted his own. Then he replaced all in the pot.
     Resuming his former position, he revoked the spell.
     Noise softly filled the room. The girl reached into the pot. She stirred the chips, brought forth one of them which she placed upon the table. Rhialto leaned over the chip, as did Ildefonse. It gave a small jerk. The sign quivered and changed before their eyes.
     Ildefonse lifted it and in a puzzled voice read, “Gilgad!”
     Rhialto glanced furiously at Gilgad, who gave back a bland stare. Gilgad had also halted time, but Gilgad had waited until the chip was actually upon the table.
     Ildefonse said in a muffled voice, “That is all. You may go.” The girl departed. Ildefonse poured the chips on the table. They were correctly indited; each bore the sign or the signature of one of the magicians present. Ildefonse pulled at his white beard. He said, “It seems that Gilgad has availed himself of the IOUN stones.”
     Gilgad strode to the table. He emitted a terrible cry. “The stones! What has been done to them?” He held up the net, which now sagged under the weight of its contents. The brooding translucence was gone; the objects in the net shone with a vulgar vitreous glitter. Gilgad took one and dashed it to the floor, where it shattered into splinters. “These are not the IOUN stones! Knavery is afoot!” (the archveult Xexamedes used a temporal statis spell to reclaim his stolen property)
     Gilgad cried, “So then, what of my stones, my wonderful stones? How will I regain my property? Must I always be stripped of my valued possessions?”
     “Cease your keening!” snapped the diabolist Shrue. “The remaining items must be distributed. Ildefonse, be so good as to consult the lists.”
     Ildefonse took up the papers. “Since Gilgad won the first draw, his list will now be withdrawn. For second choice —”
     He was interrupted by Gilgad’s furious complaint. “I protest this intolerable injustice! I won nothing but a handful of glass gewgaws!”
     Ildefonse shrugged. “It is the robber-archveult to whom you must complain, especially when the drawing was attended by certain temporal irregularities, to which I need make no further reference.”
     Gilgad raised his arms in the air; his saturnine face knotted to the surge and counter-surge of his passions. His colleagues watched with dispassionate faces. “Proceed, Ildefonse,” said Vermoulian the Dream-walker.
     Ildefonse spread out the papers. “It appears that among the group only Rhialto has selected, for second choice, this curiously shaped device, which appears to be one of Houlart’s Preterite Recordiums. I therefore make this award and place Rhialto’s list with Gilgad’s. Perdustin, Barbanikos, Ao of the Opals, and I myself have evinced a desire for this Casque of Sixty Directions, and we must therefore undertake a trial by lot. The jar, four chips —
     “On this occasion,” said Perdustin, “let the maid be brought here now. She will put her hand over the mouth of the pot; we will insert the chips between her fingers; thus we ensure against a disruption of the laws of chance.
     Ildefonse pulled at his white whiskers, but Perdustin had his way. In this fashion all succeeding lots were drawn.

From MORREION by Jack Vance (1973)

Rock Paper Scissors Spock Lizard

This is a traditional hand game sometimes used to decide who has to perform an unpleasant choir or settle a dispute. Unlike flipping a coin, rolling dice, or drawing straws; Rock-Paper-Scissors is not random. Humans chose the object, and humans are not anywhere near random. A cunning player can exploit the psychological weakness of a naive opponent.

This has been used in TV and movies enough that there is a TV Tropes page.

Laser Mirror Starweb

A Babylon 5 comic book features a futuristic rock–paper–scissors called "Laser, Mirror, Starweb", where laser (a single finger extended) cuts starweb (a hand with all fingers spread out), starweb covers mirror (a hand with all fingers together), and mirror reflects laser.

In Doctor Who, it shows up a few times, most notably when the Doctor and Romana teach the Movellan robots the game to show them the flaw in being completely logical beings. The Doctor can beat a Movellan every single time, while two Movellans always chose the exact same gesture as each other.

From TV Tropes Rock-Paper-Scissors

Rock paper scissors (also known as scissors rock paper, paper rock scissors and scissors paper stone) is a hand game usually played between two people, in which each player simultaneously forms one of three shapes with an outstretched hand. These shapes are "rock" (a closed fist), "paper" (a flat hand), and "scissors" (a fist with the index finger and middle finger extended, forming a V). "Scissors" is identical to the two-fingered V sign (also indicating "victory" or "peace") except that it is pointed horizontally instead of being held upright in the air. A simultaneous, zero-sum game, it has only two possible outcomes: a draw, or a win for one player and a loss for the other.

A player who decides to play rock will beat another player who has chosen scissors ("rock crushes scissors" or sometimes "blunts scissors"[1]), but will lose to one who has played paper ("paper covers rock"); a play of paper will lose to a play of scissors ("scissors cuts paper"). If both players choose the same shape, the game is tied and is usually immediately replayed to break the tie. The type of game originated in China and spread with increased contact with East Asia, while developing different variants in signs over time. Other names for the game in the English-speaking world include roshambo and other orderings of the three items, with "rock" sometimes being called "stone".

Rock paper scissors is often used as a fair choosing method between two people, similar to coin flipping, drawing straws, or throwing dice in order to settle a dispute or make an unbiased group decision. Unlike truly random selection methods, however, rock paper scissors can be played with a degree of skill by recognizing and exploiting non-random behavior in opponents.

Game play

The players may count aloud to three, or speak the name of the game (e.g. "Rock! Paper! Scissors!" or "Ro Sham Bo!"). People will say "Go!" or "Shoot!" after "Scissors!". Each time either raising one hand in a fist and swinging it down on the count or holding it behind. They then "throw" by extending it towards their opponent. Variations include a version where players throw immediately on the third count (thus throwing on the count of "Scissors!" or "Bo!"), or a version where they shake their hands three times before "throwing".



The first known mention of the game was in the book Wuzazu by the Chinese Ming-dynasty writer Xie Zhaozhi, who wrote that the game dated back to the time of the Chinese Han dynasty (206 BC – 220 AD). In the book, the game was called shoushiling. Li Rihua's book Note of Liuyanzhai also mentions this game, calling it shoushiling (t. 手勢令; s. 手势令), huozhitou (t. 豁指頭; s. 豁指头), or huaquan (划拳).

Throughout Japanese history there are frequent references to sansukumi-ken, meaning ken (fist) games where "the three who are afraid of one another" (i.e. A beats B, B beats C, and C beats A). This type of game originated in China before being imported to Japan and subsequently also becoming popular among the Japanese.

The earliest Japanese sansukumi-ken game was known as mushi-ken (虫拳), which was imported directly from China. In mushi-ken the "frog" (represented by the thumb) is superseded by the "slug" (represented by the little finger), which, in turn is superseded by the "snake" (represented by the index finger), which is superseded by the "frog". Although this game was imported from China the Japanese version differs in the animals represented. In adopting the game, the original Chinese characters for the poisonous centipede (蜈蜙) were apparently confused with the characters for the slug (蛞蝓).

The most popular sansukumi-ken game in Japan was kitsune-ken (狐拳). In the game, a supernatural fox called a kitsune (狐) defeats the village head, the village head (庄屋) defeats the hunter, and the hunter (猟師) defeats the fox. Kitsune-ken, unlike mushi-ken or rock–paper–scissors, is played by making gestures with both hands.

Today, the best-known sansukumi-ken is called jan-ken (じゃんけん), which is a variation of the Chinese games introduced in the 17th century. Jan-ken uses the rock, paper, and scissors signs and is the game that the modern version of rock paper scissors derives from directly. Hand-games using gestures to represent the three conflicting elements of rock, paper, and scissors have been most common since the modern version of the game was created in the late 19th century, between the Edo and Meiji periods.

Spread beyond Asia

By the early 20th century, rock paper scissors had spread beyond Asia, especially through increased Japanese contact with the west. Its English-language name is therefore taken from a translation of the names of the three Japanese hand-gestures for rock, paper and scissors: elsewhere in Asia the open-palm gesture represents "cloth" rather than "paper". The shape of the scissors is also adopted from the Japanese style.

A 1921 article about cricket in the Sydney Morning Herald described "stone, scissors, and paper" as a "Teutonic method of drawing lots", which the writer "came across when travelling on the Continent once". Another article, from the same year, in the Washington Herald described it as a method of "Chinese gambling". In Britain in 1924 it was described in a letter to The Times as a hand game, possibly of Mediterranean origin, called "zhot". A reader then wrote in to say that the game "zhot" referred to was evidently Jan-ken-pon, which she had often seen played throughout Japan. Although at this date the game appears to have been new enough to British readers to need explaining, the appearance by 1927 of a popular thriller with the title Scissors Cut Paper, followed by Stone Blunts Scissors (1929), suggests it quickly became popular.

In 1927 La Vie au patronage, a children's magazine in France, described it in detail, referring to it as a "jeu japonais" ("Japanese game"). Its French name, "Chi-fou-mi", is based on the Old Japanese words for "one, two, three" ("hi, fu, mi").

A 1932 New York Times article on the Tokyo rush hour describes the rules of the game for the benefit of American readers, suggesting it was not at that time widely known in the U.S. The 1933 edition of the Compton's Pictured Encyclopedia described it as a common method of settling disputes between children in its article on Japan; the name was given as "John Kem Po" and the article pointedly asserted, "This is such a good way of deciding an argument that American boys and girls might like to practice it too."


It is impossible to gain an advantage over a truly random opponent. However, by exploiting the psychological weaknesses of inherently non-random opponents, it is possible to gain a significant advantage. Indeed, human players tend to be non-random. As a result, there have been programming competitions for algorithms that play rock paper scissors.

During tournaments, players often prepare their sequence of three gestures prior to the tournament's commencement. Some tournament players employ tactics to confuse or trick the other player into making an illegal move, resulting in a loss. One such tactic is to shout the name of one move before throwing another, in order to misdirect and confuse their opponent.

The "rock" move, in particular, is notable in that it is typically represented by a closed fist—often identical to the fist made by players during the initial countdown. If a player is attempting to beat their opponent based on quickly reading their hand gesture as the players are making their moves, it is possible to determine if the opponent is about to throw "rock" based on their lack of hand movement, as both "scissors" and "paper" require the player to reposition their hand. This can likewise be used to deceive an anticipating opponent by keeping one's fist closed until the last possible moment, leading them to believe that you are about to throw "rock".


As a consequence of rock paper scissors programming contests, many strong algorithms have emerged. For example, Iocaine Powder, which won the First International RoShamBo Programming Competition in 1999, uses a heuristically designed compilation of strategies. For each strategy it employs, it also has six metastrategies which defeat second-guessing, triple-guessing, as well as second-guessing the opponent, and so on. The optimal strategy or metastrategy is chosen based on past performance. The main strategies it employs are history matching, frequency analysis, and random guessing. Its strongest strategy, history matching, searches for a sequence in the past that matches the last few moves in order to predict the next move of the algorithm. In frequency analysis, the program simply identifies the most frequently played move. The random guess is a fallback method that is used to prevent a devastating loss in the event that the other strategies fail. More than ten years later, the top performing strategies on an ongoing rock–paper–scissors programming competition similarly use metastrategies. However, there have been some innovations, such as using multiple history matching schemes that each match a different aspect of the history – for example, the opponent's moves, the program's own moves, or a combination of both. There have also been other algorithms based on Markov chains.

In 2012, researchers from the Ishikawa Watanabe Laboratory at the University of Tokyo created a robot hand that can play rock paper scissors with a 100% win rate against a human opponent. Using a high-speed camera the robot recognizes within one millisecond which shape the human hand is making, then produces the corresponding winning shape.

Instances of use in real-life scenarios

American court case

In 2006, American federal judge Gregory Presnell from the Middle District of Florida ordered opposing sides in a lengthy court case to settle a trivial (but lengthily debated) point over the appropriate place for a deposition using the game of rock paper scissors. The ruling in Avista Management v. Wausau Underwriters stated:

Upon consideration of the Motion – the latest in a series of Gordian knots that the parties have been unable to untangle without enlisting the assistance of the federal courts – it is ORDERED that said Motion is DENIED. Instead, the Court will fashion a new form of alternative dispute resolution, to wit: at 4:00 P.M. on Friday, June 30, 2006, counsel shall convene at a neutral site agreeable to both parties. If counsel cannot agree on a neutral site, they shall meet on the front steps of the Sam M. Gibbons U.S. Courthouse, 801 North Florida Ave., Tampa, Florida 33602. Each lawyer shall be entitled to be accompanied by one paralegal who shall act as an attendant and witness. At that time and location, counsel shall engage in one (1) game of "rock, paper, scissors." The winner of this engagement shall be entitled to select the location for the 30(b)(6) deposition to be held somewhere in Hillsborough County during the period 11–12 July 2006.

Auction house selection

In 2005, when Takashi Hashiyama, CEO of Japanese television equipment manufacturer Maspro Denkoh, decided to auction off the collection of Impressionist paintings owned by his corporation, including works by Paul Cézanne, Pablo Picasso, and Vincent van Gogh, he contacted two leading auction houses, Christie's International and Sotheby's Holdings, seeking their proposals on how they would bring the collection to the market as well as how they would maximize the profits from the sale. Both firms made elaborate proposals, but neither was persuasive enough to earn Hashiyama's approval. Unwilling to split up the collection into separate auctions, Hashiyama asked the firms to decide between themselves who would hold the auction, which included Cézanne's Large Trees Under the Jas de Bouffan, worth $12–16 million.

The houses were unable to reach a decision. Hashiyama told the two firms to play rock paper scissors to decide who would get the rights to the auction, explaining that "it probably looks strange to others, but I believe this is the best way to decide between two things which are equally good".

The auction houses had a weekend to come up with a choice of move. Christie's went to the 11-year-old twin daughters of the international director of Christie's Impressionist and Modern Art Department Nicholas Maclean, who suggested "scissors" because "Everybody expects you to choose 'rock'." Sotheby's said that they treated it as a game of chance and had no particular strategy for the game, but went with "paper". Christie's won the match and sold the $20 million collection, earning millions of dollars of commission for the auction house.

FA Women's Super League match

Prior to a 26 October 2018 match in the FA Women's Super League, the referee, upon being without a coin for the pregame coin toss, had the team captains play rock paper scissors to determine which team would kick-off. The referee was subsequently suspended for three weeks by The Football Association.

Play by chimpanzees

In Japan, researchers have taught chimpanzees the rules of rock paper scissors.


Players have developed numerous cultural and personal variations on the game, from simply playing the same game with different objects, to expanding into more weapons and rules, to giving their own name to the game in their national language.

Adapted rules

In Korea, a two-player upgraded version exists by the name muk-jji-ppa.

In Japan, a "strip-poker" variant of rock paper scissors is known as 野球拳 (Yakyuken). The loser of each round removes an article of clothing. The game is a minor part of porn culture in Japan and other Asian countries after the influence of TV variety shows and Soft On Demand.

In the Philippines, the game is called jak-en-poy, from one of the Japanese names of the game, transliterated as jan-ken-pon. In a longer version of the game, a four-line song is sung, with hand gestures displayed at the end of each (or the final) line: "Jack-en-poy! / Hali-hali-hoy! / Sino'ng matalo, / siya'ng unggoy!" ("Jack-en-poy! / Hali-hali-hoy! / Whoever loses is the monkey!") In the former case, the person with the most wins at the end of the song, wins the game. A shorter version of the game uses the chant "Bato-bato-pick" ("Rock-rock-pick [i.e. choose]") instead.

A multiple player variation can be played: Players stand in a circle and all throw at once. If rock, paper, and scissors are all thrown, it is a stalemate, and they rethrow. If only two throws are present, all players with the losing throw are eliminated. Play continues until only the winner remains.

Different weapons

In the Malaysian version of the game, "scissors" is replaced by "bird," represented with the finger tips of five fingers brought together to form a beak. The open palm represents water. Bird beats water (by drinking it); stone beats bird (by hitting it); and stone loses to water (because it sinks in it).

Singapore also has a related hand-game called "ji gu pa," where "ji" refers to the bird gesture, "gu" refers to the stone gesture, and "pa" refers to the water gesture. The game is played by two players using both hands. At the same time, they both say, ji gu pa!" At "pa!" they both show two open-palmed hands. One player then changes his hand gestures while calling his new combination out (e.g., "pa gu!"). At the same time, the other player changes his hand gestures as well. If one of his hand gestures is the same as the other one, that hand is "out" and he puts it behind his back; he is no longer able to play that hand for the rest of the round. The players take turns in this fashion, until one player loses by having both hands sent "out." "Ji gu pa" is most likely a transcription of the Japanese names for the different hand gestures in the original jan-ken game, "choki" (scissors), "guu" (rock) and "paa" (paper).

Using the same tripartite division, there is a full-body variation in lieu of the hand signs called "Bear, Hunter, Ninja". In this iteration the participants stand back-to-back and at the count of three (or ro-sham-bo as is traditional) turn around facing each other using their arms evoking one of the totems. The players' choices break down as: Hunter shoots bear; Bear eats ninja; Ninja kills hunter. The game was popularized with a FedEx commercial where warehouse employees had too much free time on their hands.

Additional weapons

As long as the number of moves is an odd number and each move defeats exactly half of the other moves while being defeated by the other half, any combination of moves will function as a game. For example, 5-, 7-, 9-, 11-, 15-, 25-, and 101-weapon versions exist. Adding new gestures has the effect of reducing the odds of a tie, while increasing the complexity of the game. The probability of a tie in an odd-number-of-weapons game can be calculated based on the number of weapons n as 1/n, so the probability of a tie is 1/3 in standard rock paper scissors, but 1/5 in a version that offered five moves instead of three.

Similarly, the French game "pierre, papier, ciseaux, puits" (stone, paper, scissors, well) is unbalanced; both the stone and scissors fall in the well and lose to it, while paper covers both stone and well. This means two "weapons", well and paper, can defeat two moves, while the other two weapons each defeat only one of the other three choices. The rock has no advantage to well, so optimal strategy is to play each of the other objects (paper, scissors and well) one third of the time.

One popular five-weapon expansion is "rock paper scissors Spock lizard", invented by Sam Kass and Karen Bryla, which adds "Spock" and "lizard" to the standard three choices. "Spock" is signified with the Star Trek Vulcan salute, while "lizard" is shown by forming the hand into a sock-puppet-like mouth. Spock smashes scissors and vaporizes rock; he is poisoned by lizard and disproved by paper. Lizard poisons Spock and eats paper; it is crushed by rock and decapitated by scissors. This variant was mentioned in a 2005 article in The Times of London and was later the subject of an episode of the American sitcom The Big Bang Theory in 2008 (as rock-paper-scissors-lizard-Spock).

The majority of such proposed generalizations are isomorphic to a simple game of modular arithmetic, where half the differences are wins for player one. For instance, rock paper scissors Spock lizard (note the different order of the last two moves) may be modeled as a game in which each player picks a number from one to five. Subtract the number chosen by player two from the number chosen by player one, and then take the remainder modulo 5 of the result. Player one is the victor if the difference is one or three, and player two is the victor if the difference is two or four. If the difference is zero, the game is a tie.

Alternatively, the rankings in rock paper scissors Spock lizard may be modeled by a comparison of the parity of the two choices. If it is the same (two odd-numbered moves or two even-numbered ones) then the lower number wins, while if they are different (one odd and one even) the higher wins. Using this algorithm, additional moves can easily be added two at a time while keeping the game balanced:

  1. Declare a move N+1 (where N is the original total of moves) that beats all existing odd-numbered moves and loses to the others (for example, the rock (#1), scissors (#3), and lizard (#5) could fall into the German well (#6), while the paper (#2) covers it and Spock (#4) manipulates it).
  2. Declare another move N+2 with the reverse property (such as a plant (#7) that grows through the paper (#2), poisons Spock (#4), and grows through the well (#6), while being damaged by the rock (#1), scissors (#3), and lizard (#5)).
From the Wikipedia entry for ROCK PAPER SCISSORS

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.

The Starmen of Llyrdis

      He found Kerrel in the lounge, engaged with Shairn and several other people in the complicated game that seemed to serve the Vardda in the place of bridge. Inside a gigantic crystal globe were suspended a number of little solar systems. Activated by magnetic currents, the tiny suns wheeled along and their planets spun in orbits around them, and it was a dizzying thing to look at. Within this microcosm were a dozen or so tiny ships, operated by the players by remote control, and for hazards there were miniature nebulae, dark clouds, and tiny comets. The object was to move the ships about without losing any, one team racing the opposing team's fleet to a selected destination. Trehearne had played a few times, but with no success whatever.

     “I want to talk to you,” he said, and Kerrel motioned him to wait. Very rapidly and skillfully he pressed a series of buttons on the control board in front of him. Inside the globe a ship depressed its arc, allowing a sparkling comet to pass safely above it, skirted the edge of a dark nebula, shifted course thirty-five degrees and made a perfect landing on a flying worldlet no larger than a pebble. At the top of Kerrel's panel a signal light glowed green.

     Beside him Shairn lost two ships in collision and got two red lights for her pains, the “wrecks” being automatically retired out of play. Shairn wasn't watching the globe. She was watching Trehearne, and her eyes were very bright.

     Kerrel turned over his place to another man and stood up. “The Library's quiet,” he said. “We can talk there.” He went away with Trehearne. Behind them, Shairn gave up her board and followed.

From THE STARMEN by Leigh Brackett (1952)

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.
     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."

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)


Vlet is apparently an insane combination of Risk, Dungeons and Dragons, Chess, Tarot Cards and Contract Bridge. Looks like fun! It doesn't really exist, it was made up by Samuel Delany for his novel TRITON. I'm not sure it would be possible to turn it into a real game, it is incredibly complicated.

Wikipedia says: The complex game vlet, which Bron observes the play of, is inspired by the Joanna Russ short story "A Game of Vlet", found in her collection The Zanzibar Cat.

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.


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.

(ed note: actually the scarlet die would have to be icosahedral with 20 faces, since 7+13=20. Dodecahedral dice only have 12 faces)

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 (in equation as Θ) 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


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.

Things take a nasty turn with the passage of the Guild Act. Under certain circumstances, the courts can mandate a trial-by-game to settle a court case, whether or not the defendant wants it or not.


      Ken Li leaned toward the window of the luxurious shuttle-copter and squinted into the bright sunlight. Below him, the World Headquarters of the Gaming Masters’ Guild was growing larger, no longer a dot lost in the sprawling city, but now resembling an architectural model like those displayed in hospital lobbies. He continued to watch as the shuttlecopter descended toward the rooftop heliport, so he could enjoy his excitement and anticipation to the fullest.
     This was it. At age twenty-nine, after years of first apprenticeship and then later gaming in the Master class, he had finally made his way to the center of his profession. A rare opening had occurred here at WHQ and over two hundred Master Gamers had competed for it in a tournament stretching across fifteen months.
     Ken Li was the only survivor.

     Ken nodded, watching his childhood friend take another long draught of his beer. Richard had been a young phenom when he had attained Master status at age 19. He had always been extremely competitive, with his anxiety and insecurity about winning always near the surface. Yet his knowledge of military history and tactics was unmatched by any other Master, past or present.
     On the other hand, Ken was not exactly in the habit of discussing failure—or even considering it—himself.
     “Ironically,” said Richard, “I won’t be under the gun quite as much any more. Now it’s your turn.”
     “What? How so? If anything, people have been falling all over themselves to welcome me.”
     Richard laughed with a sarcastic twist to his smile. “Oh, yeah. They’ll always be like that on the surface. Do you realize why you’re here—in depth, I mean?”
     Ken was in no mood to guess. “Suppose you tell me.”
     “All right.” Richard shrugged. “Before the Guild Act was passed, we had a fairly stable number of games contracted. One slob gets mad at some other jerk; their lawyers can’t work it out, and so they mutually hire Masters to play for their dispute. The old trial by combat, right? You with me so far?”
     “Get on with it.” Ken raised an eyebrow in annoyance. “I don’t need lectures. What’s the point?”
     “Now, under the old rules, we were only contracted by mutually agreeable private parties—the government had nothing to do with it. With the Guild Act passed, the very same slob can now sue the very same jerk for a game, and under certain provisions, a judge may grant it, whether or not the defendant agrees to trial by combat.
     “You haven’t told me one single item yet that’s new to me. Every Master who reads the trades knows all this.”
     Richard eyed him tightly. “And you still don’t get it? What it means to you?”
     “The Guild expects more games to be contracted than before, and has opened new slots in Guild Halls all over the country. I got the one here. That’s all.”
     Richard laughed derisively. “Not hardly. You are the new gunslinger in town. Every Master here will be gunning gunning for you. And the members of the public who hate us for the Guild Act will center on you as the most visible representative of the new order.
     Ken looked down at his glass. “Hmm. I hadn’t thought of that. I remember reading that some people are against the Guild Act. I don’t see why, really. Nobody likes being sued. Why should getting sued for a game be any worse than getting sued for anything else?”
     Richard waved his free hand in dismissal and finished his beer with the other. “You got me. I don’t care, anyway. Plenty of people love watching our games and betting on them and making us celebrities. That’s good enough for me.”

     The practice room was a large rectangle, just a bit bigger than the ten-meter square playing field outlined in black on the floor. The playing field itself was a plain white synthetic substance that took holograms particularly well; Ken could never remember what they called the stuff, nor did he really care. Outside the square, the room was luxuriously carpeted and furnished with a multiple beverage dispenser and private restroom.
     Ken sat down in the padded chair centered along one side of the playing field. It had a console that allowed him to adjust the softness or firmness of the seat, back, and arms, and to shift all their angles to the minutest degree. Ken liked a hard seat and back, with the back straight up behind him. Years ago, in high school, his Latin teacher—a silver-haired woman who had corrected students’ mistakes without the need to consult her text—had decreed that no one could “cerebrate” if he was comfortable. As near as Ken’s own cerebrum could tell, she had been right.
     Across the field from Ken, Richard was adjusting his own seat. Above the center of the field, Ken could see the opening in the ceiling that housed the projectors. He reached down to his left and brought up the keyboard on a swiveling steel arm. It held twelve horizontal rows of keys, twelve keys to a row, plus larger buttons and dials running vertically down each side. Across the top, a small video screen completed the board.
     Across the way, Richard glanced up at him with an intense scowl. Trying not to laugh nervously—he was too knotted up inside to be truly amused—Ken waved a hand. Richard hit a button and the game opened.
     The field was suddenly lit up from above with three-dimensional miniatures. A city from ancient times sat on the coast of a large sea or ocean; the surrounding region held two sizeable armies, still some distance from each other. The terrain was generally flat and rolling slightly, covered by the green of plowed fields and patches of forest separated by open country.
     Since this was a practice game, both gamers had sixty seconds before the game would come alive in a computerized simulation of tactical warfare. Ken read on his video screen: “Tunis. 255 B.C. Carthaginians. Xanthippes.” Officers’ names, Victory Conditions, and odds for the battle followed. That was all the system would tell him.
     Ken was taking the place of the Spartan mercenary, Xanthippes, who had come to Carthage and taken command of the Carthaginian army. As Master Gamers, both Ken and Richard were expected to know all the details of the battle, including the personalities of individual officers who were on record historically and the abilities and cultural tendencies of the troops. These were all programmed into the game.
     Tunis, Ken thought. His heart was pounding. This battle had been fought in the Punic Wars, well before the time of Hannibal. Xanthippes had defeated a Roman army led by its consul Atilius Regulus, whose decisions would now be made by Richard.
     Ken flexed his fingers nervously. He, as Xanthippes, had units representing four thousand cavalry, twelve thousand foot soldiers, and one hundred elephants. The battlefield would be on level ground. He sat quivering with intensity, not certain that he could defeat Richard even now, but anxious to play him close, at the very least. As the seconds passed, he could feel his confidence ebb, to be replaced by an old familiar feeling of intimidation.

     The game activated.

     Ken’s Carthaginian army was on the near side of the screen, represented by tiny figures. They were too small to discern clearly with the naked eye as individuals, but they functioned most of the time in military units that were fairly easy to identify.
     Ken picked up the metal sensory band from its hook on the arm of the chair. He fitted it around his head, turning it so that the transparent eye pieces and small audio speakers were properly placed. The sensory band was controlled by the keyboard; unless he activated it, he would see and hear normally.
     The Carthaginian armies were usually comprised of foreign mercenaries led by Carthaginian officers. Ken remembered that this army was an exception. The Romans had landed outside Carthage, isolating the city from its recruiting field and part of its food supply. So two-thirds of Ken’s army were Carthaginian citizens with training but limited experience, led this time by a mercenary.
     Ken began tapping the keys to arrange his units. On the far side of the field, Richard was setting up his Roman legionaries. He had a slight numerical advantage, with fifteen thousand infantry and five thousand horse. However, the Carthaginian cavalry had possessed more fighting quality, and the figures had greater combat power to reflect this.
     Since Carthage had won the real battle, Ken did not tamper with the Spartan’s plan. Like Xanthippes, he put his elephants in the front line as shock troops, followed by his infantry, with his cavalry on the wings. It was a fairly standard arrangement: the elephants, charging across the level plain, should trample the front lines of legionaries and throw the rest into confusion, to be finished off by the Carthaginian infantry. The mobility of the cavalry would prevent any flanking movement by the more numerous Romans. Richard’s numerical superiority could be nullified by the elephants.
     Ken activated his sensory band and moved into the battle scene as Xanthippes. The great gray elephants lumbered forward, raising their trunks and trumpeting. He could choose between an on-scene viewpoint, from the spot where his game persona was at any given time, or he could use the larger perspective of the gaming seat, with a near-total loss of detail.
     Ken hesitated, then pulled out of the sensory band again. It was most useful at crisis points, but had little to offer when the large pattern of the battle was still developing. He happened to enjoy it a great deal, but that was a matter of pleasure, not business.
     Behind the elephants, the lines of infantry began to move forward. Both wings of cavalry fanned out slightly to prepare for action. Ken would meet any flanking motion by the Roman cavalry with his own, but he doubted Richard would try it. The two sides were too closely matched for such a move to work on level ground.
     The Romans marched forward. Even with his naked eye, Ken could see the red hairline that was the great red plumes of dyed horsehair worn by the Roman legionaries. The formation looked a little odd to him, but on close examination he found the different units to be in conventional order. He selected the combination of keys he wanted and directed his elephants, through the tiny figure of Xanthippes on the field, to charge.
     The front line of Carthaginians began to move out ahead of the others. The Roman infantry halted its forward progress. Ken held his breath, watching.
     The gray line of Carthaginian elephants advanced up the field, meshed with the lines of Roman infantry, and continued to charge forward, between the files of legionaries. Ken’s stomach tightened. The elephants, now rampaging out of control of their drivers, were stampeding harmlessly through gaps in the formation. The Romans closed files behind them and resumed marching.
     Ken swallowed. The Roman formation had looked odd because Richard had spread the files apart, while keeping the positions of his troops otherwise conventional. Ken remembered that the Romans had used this technique on other occasions, though not at this battle. Gamers had the option of such authentic tactics and Richard, of course, knew better than anyone when to use them.
     The two front lines of infantry clashed and Ken concentrated on the screen and his keyboard. The computer considered morale factors, and the Romans gained an advantage from surviving the elephant charge intact, while the Carthaginians lost morale for the same reason. Ken’s infantry held but did not move forward. The wings of cavalry met on each side and spread out farther as they fought for position against each other.
     Ken hit the keyboard as quickly as he dared, holding back a little speed for fear of making a mistake. His confidence had been rattled. He watched his front line carefully. Through Xanthippes, he encouraged the mercenaries to hold their ground. The Carthaginian left, in particular, was hard-pressed by the Romans. Ken’s right was advancing slightly, but he was not sure what to do next. In the real battle, the Carthaginian elephants had thrown the Romans right into chaos and the Carthaginian infantry had crushed them. Here, the balance was still undetermined.
     On the wings, the Carthaginian cavalry was commanded by two separate officers programmed by the computer. As Xanthippes, Ken could issue them new orders, but if he did not, those officers and their men would perform as they had historically. Ken’s cavalry, with a fighting superiority that more than offset their fewer numbers, threatened to drive their Roman counterparts from the field. He figured he should not interfere.
     All at once, then, he realized that the Romans were trying to disengage themselves. It was a complicated maneuver; if the Romans retreated too quickly, their formation would break and become a rout. In these circumstances, with the Carthaginians still strong and aggressive, that was nearly inevitable. Richard, however, was pulling his legionaries back in good order, despite the pressure from Ken’s lines. The Carthaginians began to score even better, destroying their retreating enemy at a faster rate than before. Still, the Roman infantry, anticipating help, maintained their fighting order. The game computer allowed this because of the renowned discipline of the Roman legions and Richard’s delicate handling, Ken surmised, of the necessary orders.
     Both wings of Roman cavalry, fleeing the Carthaginians, fought their way between the two bodies of infantry and slowed the Carthaginian advance. The retreat of the Roman infantry gave their cavalry room to maneuver. Then, as the Carthaginian cavalry closed on the Roman cavalry from each side, the mounted Romans fought a holding action to allow their infantry time to escape.
     Ken ground his teeth as he punched the keyboard. He was seriously damaging the Roman cavalry, but his own infantry could no longer close with the retreating legions. Ken hated losing and his stomach felt cold as he watched the Roman infantry pull away.
     It was a risky and costly maneuver on Richard’s part, and not one he was likely to try in a real game. He had tried it just to find out if he could sacrifice his cavalry to save his infantry. In a way, he was just playing around—experimenting. Ken realized that the insult to him was unintentional, but he was still disturbed by the fact that Richard could succeed even though he had not taken Ken very seriously.
     Resigned, Ken halted the advance of his units. His refusal to pursue the fleeing Romans activated an assessment by the computer. After a wait of thirty seconds, during which the two gamers could resume new maneuvers, the field froze. The game results appeared on the video screen above Ken’s board.
     Ken read them with disgust for himself.

     Victory Conditions: None.
     Tactical position: Stalemate, advantage Carthage.
     Strategic position: Stalemate, advantage Rome.

     The list went on, giving statistics and elapsed time, but Ken ignored the rest. He was angry with himself and embarrassed.
     Richard punched a button and erased the game, leaving only the blank playing field again. He visibly relaxed and lounged back in his chair. Then he remembered his sensory band and leaned forward a moment to pull it off. “You lost,” he called out, grinning. His bushy blond hair was sweaty. “Welcome to World Headquarters.”
     Ken swung his own keyboard out of the way and took off his sensory band. “Stalemate, actually.” He adjusted his seat to lean back and fell onto it, aware that he was hot and soaked in sweat.
     “Technically true.” Richard turned to one side and hung a long leg over the arm of the chair. “Actually, though, the strategic position favors Rome, Atilius Regulus still has enough of an army to keep Carthage isolated, and the Romans can get new horses from the surrounding country. Carthage is still threatened, and would have to fight again under these circumstances. If the Romans wait for the return of their reinforcements in the spring, Carthage could be finished.”
     Ken shrugged and shook his head in concession. At this point, he just wanted to forget it.

     Another thought occurred to Ken about their practice game. “That maneuver you were trying with me earlier. Are you, uh, working on a masterplay?”
     Richard looked up in surprise, hesitated, and then grinned self-consciously. He reddened as he finished a mouthful of food. “No, not exactly. To be honest, it’s hard to plan a masterplay. If people could figure them out in practice games, at their leisure, they’d do it all the time.
     “And then they wouldn’t be masterplays.” Ken nodded. “You have, what, three of them?”
     “Two more than anyone else. That’s a major contribution to the field.” Ken was not being generous; this was the plain truth.
     “Actually, masterplays will become a problem if they’re ever common. Think of it—a masterplay is a maneuver that always works in the game it’s developed for. So–”
     “Given that the opportunity develops. It may not–”
     “Yeah, yeah, of course,” Richard snapped. “But, like I was saying, if the situation for a masterplay develops in a game, and the maneuver is already in our professional repertoire, then the game is essentially over. We’ll have standard solutions for every game, and I guess they’d have to be reprogrammed or something.”
     Ken nodded. “Right now, though, there aren’t very many masterplays in the books, are there?”
     Richard grinned again and shook his head. “Well, no. It’s a long way off.” He returned to his plate.
     A masterplay, thought Ken. It was a special mark of prestige, a pure artistic accomplishment that went beyond winning games and charging fees and drawing clients and crowds. A Master with a mediocre career would always be known for creating a masterplay; a Master with an otherwise stellar career might never feel completely fulfilled without one. Richard’s place in Guild history was already assured. Only the extent of his prestige had yet to be established.

From MASTERPLAY by William Wu (1986)

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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