Made-up Games

I love games. I love board games (except Monopoly – even Candyland has a point), and card games, and computer games, and of course roleplaying games. I love the challenge and the social aspect, the physical artifacts and the mechanics.

There is an aspect of games which I find particularly edifying, however: games that appear in – or which are themselves a form of – fiction.

I’m not really talking here about artifices such as The Running Man or The Hunger Games – those are competitions, intended to entertain while they reinforce the status quo within their settings. They are not games which could be played by a fan, at least not more than once.

Probably the most famous game invented for a story is Quidditch, the wizarding world’s spectator sport in the Harry Potter books. It is a constant motif throughout all of the school-set books, and is played by fans in the real world also.

Unfortunately it is a ridiculous game, with an unbalanced mechanic devised to confer an unjustified special status on a single player – consider that the Seeker’s capture of the Golden Snitch is likely to invalidate all of the goal scoring and defensive work of every single player on (or rather above) the field. This inadequacy in the structure of Quidditch is examined in some detail in the fanfic Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality (which I would recommend reading anyway).

A more satisfying example is Thud, the board game of trolls and dwarves in Terry Pratchett’s epnoymous novel. It is a playable and interesting game. Sets are available – indeed, I have one myself – and you can play it online as well. The most pleasing aspect of it for me is that the game is both used as a plot element, and as a metaphor for dwarf/troll relations over the many centuries since the original Battle of Koom Valley.

In the same vein is ochmir, a board game described in two books by Mary Gentle, Golden Witchbreed and Ancient Light. The game is a metaphor for the political system of the Orthean Southlands in those novels. It is almost, but not quite, described to a playable degree in an appendix to those books and it has been a long term project for me to make a set. The basic mechanic is interesting and diverting to play, but I still haven’t made an entirely satisfactory set of pieces.

The game Azad from Iain M Banks’ The Player of Games is both satisfying and frustrating: satisfying because of its place in the narrative, but frustrating because there is nowhere near enough information to actually play it. The whole novel is littered with examples of games alluded to but not fully disclosed, but Azad is the main event – a game which underpins the social structure of an entire interstellar empire, where your ability in play is used to determine your status within that empire. It is described impressionistically rather than mechanically, and I suppose game boards which entirely fill a room would be difficult to make anyway.

In The Game-Players of Titan by Philip K Dick, the game Bluff plays a central role in both social organisation of human and alien society, but also in the plot as the final turn of the story is centred around a crucial round of the game. It’s a dense piece of writing that still rattles around in my head more than thirty years since reading it.

A game I have heard about from friends but whose source work I have never read is The Glass Bead Game, from the last novel by Hermann Hesse. From the Wikipedia entry the game itself is apparently barely described, but there are still efforts to play the game.

Which brings me, I suppose inevitably, to Mornington Crescent.

This game has been played for many years on the Radio 4 panel game I’m Sorry I Haven’t A Clue, but it also has a rich history on the Internet. I have been operating an MC server or three since May 2000, and mine was the fifth server that I know of. The game is concerned with moving around the London Underground map (usually, anyway) in an attempt to reach the station Mornington Crescent (again, usually) making use of such manouevres as straddles, shunts, striles, knip, and blocks. The joke at the time was that Mornington Crescent was permanently closed for repairs, although it finally reopened for passenger traffic again in 1998.

The final rung on this ladder of gamic reality is Nomic. This is a game, or more generally a class of games, where changing the rules is a move. It was conceived by an academic called Peter Suber as a model for legislative democracies, and was popularised by Douglas Hofstadter in his Scientific American column Metamagical Themas.

Its form on the Internet is less austere than the original academic model, with different games taking their own themes as the basis for play – winning the game is often at least as much about winning the sub-games as it is about contorting the rules in a way to make yourself the winner.

For myself, I have observed several Nomics but only played in one: Mornington Nomic, an effort to construct a playable Mornington Crescent ruleset. Although now moribund, its terminal state is still interesting and instructive.

One day I will make a computer board for one or more of those ruleset variants. One day.

One Reply to “Made-up Games”

  1. Ian Rose says:

    Cyvasse, the chess-like game from the Song of Ice and Fire books, is similar to Azad, except that there’s almost enough information to play it for real. A few people have tried, and there are still some gaps in Martin’s description that create argument about how to set up some elements. I love when a fictional culture has well-thought-out games, because playing is a part of every culture we know and quite likely to be a part, in one shape or another, of nearly any intelligent culture anywhere. I do think that details like this can get a little bulky if they don’t serve the central plot, though. I like the use of cyvasse in ASOIAF, because the games provide good character moments and move the plot along. If it’s just a game being played for the sole purpose of showing us that the world has depth, that’s a pretty big turn-off for me as a reader.

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