Pure Sabacc wins again: 22-plus fictitious pop-culture games with convoluted rules
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1. Whackbat, Fantastic Mr. Fox
Games reflect the culture that created them, and in fiction, they can serve as an easy way to distinguish a fictional world from our own, while often commenting on ours. Well, “easy” in theory, because these alternate-world games often have complicated or confusingly vague rules, though they’re often easily understood by the characters in that world. Owen Wilson’s Coach Skip rattles off the rule set for Whackbat in Wes Anderson’s Fantastic Mr. Fox as if its convoluted mixture of baseball, cricket, and track and field is so familiar, it hardly warrants explanation. (He’s surprised to hear from new student Kristofferson that the game doesn’t exist on the other side of the river, where they run grass sprints or play acorns.) It’s “real simple,” says Coach Skip during a dazzling sequence: The batter at Whackbat tries to hit a cedar stick off a “cross rock” with a flaming pinecone that’s pitched at him by the center tagger. The five twig-runners dash back and forth until the pinecone burns out and the umpire calls “Hotbox!” At the end, you count up how many “scoredowns” that adds up to and divide it by nine. “Got it!” says Kristofferson. Wait, what?
2. Brockian Ultra-Cricket, The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy
An apparent analogue to earthly cricket played by some of the higher dimensions’ more frivolous inhabitants, Brockian Ultra-Cricket is a game so complex as to evade explanation. As Douglas Adams’ first Hitchhiker’s Guide book puts it, “A full set of the rules is so massively complicated that the only time they were all bound together to form a single volume, they underwent gravitational collapse and became a black hole.” What few rules have emerged seem to involve taking sticks and hitting people, though the inconveniently large walls built between players and spectators render that a matter of mere speculation. At least one thing is clear: “The winning team shall be the first team that wins.”
3. Sabacc, Star Wars
It began with an offhanded exchange between Lando Calrissian and Han Solo in The Empire Strikes Back, when Calrissian referred to the Millennium Falcon as “my ship,” and Solo snapped back, “Hey, remember, you lost her to me fair and square.” Although the story of Calrissian’s loss and Solo’s gain is never told during the course of the Star Wars films, it was revealed in later short stories and novels to have taken place in the final hand of the Cloud City Sabacc Tournament. Sabacc serves as an approximation of poker in the Star Wars universe, but it’s a far more complicated cousin, using a deck of 76 electronic cards that have a nasty tendency to shift their suit and/or value. The two most sought-after hands in the game are the Idiot’s Array and Pure Sabacc; although Calrissian was only one card away from achieving the former, Solo beat him to the punch by pulling the latter, his cards consisting of The Queen Of Air And Darkness, The Five Of Coins, The Six Of Staves, and The Master Of Coins… or at least, that’s what it says on Wookieepedia.
4. Fizzbin, Star Trek
From Kal-toh to Kadis-kot to Strategema, fictional games abound in Star Trek. But the original and best is Fizzbin. Introduced in the original-series episode “A Piece Of The Action,” Fizzbin is an ad hoc, intentionally confounding card game devised by Captain Kirk to craftily distract a group of gangster-impersonating aliens who hold him and Spock hostage—just long enough for Spock to give them the old Vulcan nerve-pinch. From there, Fizzbin took on a life of its own in the Star Trek mythos, to the point where it was referenced again three decades later in Deep Space Nine. And in the same way Klingon has become a language people use in the real world, Fizzbin is now an actual, playable game—minus the nerve-pinch, of course.
5. Azad, The Player Of Games
In 1988, fans of science-fiction author Iain M. Banks got a major clue as to just how complex his Culture series (which is now up to nine books) was going to become. That year saw the release of the second book in the series, The Player Of Games, which revolves around Azad, a convoluted game of cards, dice, and Risk-like strategy that’s so epic in scale, it shares its name with the galactic empire that plays it. But Azad is more than a pastime for its billions of citizens; as the main character of the story—a renowned gamer and resident of the rival Culture empire—finds out, playing Azad against its native citizens reveals fundamental philosophical differences between the opponents, which eventually leads to a showdown against Azad’s emperor.
6. Blernsball, Futurama
Before Futurama gets to the heart of its season-one episode “Fear Of A Bot Planet,” it takes a few easy swings at the segregated past and lulling pace of America’s (former) favorite pastime, baseball. Now “evolved” into Blernsball—a simultaneous send-up of extreme sports and baseball’s tediousness—it bears a slight resemblance to the original game, save for the tethered Blernsball, indecipherable score-keeping, the seventh-inning grope, and a pinball-esque multi-ball round involving motorcycles and exploding bases. Robots can’t play, though, which Bender takes as an affront, setting up the episode’s satirical plot.
7. Rollerball, Rollerball
This science-fiction movie is set in a dystopian future in which corporations have replaced governments, and nationalistic passions are now projected onto an international full-contact arena sport called Rollerball. The game is played on a circular track between two competing teams composed of men wearing helmets, spiked gloves, and body armor. Most of them wear roller skates, but a few ride motorcycles. The offensive team scores by hurling a heavy steel ball into a magnetic goal embedded in the wall; the defensive team has full leave to maim, mutilate, and kill as many players as possible in order to prevent this. The corporate overlords who sponsor the games believe that it teaches their drone populations that individual effort is doomed—so when James Caan, the world’s biggest Rollerball star, becomes too idolized for their comfort, they start arbitrarily changing the rules in the hopes that he’ll be killed. But because both the game and the movie are specifically designed to provide as many opportunities for bloody mayhem as possible, it’s hard to tell any difference even after they start messing with it.
8. Dragon Poker, the Myth Adventures books
Dragon Poker isn’t, in and of itself, a terribly complicated game, beyond the fact that it revolves around six-card hands, thereby increasing the usual terminology into a realm that involves newly invented hands like the Full Belly (two sets of three of a kind) and the Full Dragon (four of a kind plus a pair). It’s only when the game’s dreaded conditional modifiers come into play that things start to get difficult to follow. Once per night, a player can change the suit of one of his cards; every five games, lower cards become higher cards and vice versa; and depending on where the game is played, how many people are playing, or even what day of the week or in which dimension the game is taking place, different cards might be wild. These are just a few examples, but the list goes on and on, changing from book to book. The late Robert Asprin, author of the Myth Adventures series, never fully defined the rules of Dragon Poker—probably because even he didn’t know what they all were.
9. Cyvasse, A Song Of Ice And Fire
A Game Of Thrones is the title of the first book of George R. R. Martin’s epic fantasy series, A Song Of Ice And Fire—and the book title reveals that the story is going to resemble a vast competition played out on a board composed of whole nations. Martin uses cyvasse—which hasn’t yet appeared in HBO’s TV adaptation, Game Of Thrones—as a symbol-in-microcosm for that sprawling game. Described by Martin in an interview as “a bit of chess, a bit of Blitzkrieg, a bit of Stratego—mix well and add imagination,” cyvasse is popular among nobles, merchants, and orphans. In fact, in spite of its complexity, it’s one of the few levelers in Ice And Fire’s rigidly striated societies. In A Dance With Dragons, the fifth volume of the series, cyvasse takes on a new prominence and importance, as Tyrion Lannister’s mastery of the convoluted game grants him certain advantages beyond the board—especially when pulling his punches causes his opponent to let his down guard regarding matters that concern the far larger game being played.
10. Quintet, Quintet
One of Robert Altman’s least-loved films, Quintet is set in a post-apocalyptic tundra. For diversion, survivors compete in a tournament of Quintet, which involves six players, “three game pieces, usually fashioned to his or her personality,” dice, and killing. Specifically, each gamer is assigned a person to (potentially) kill. Whoever rolls the highest number at the beginning attains the status of Sixth Man, who sits out the first half of the game (“Frontgame”) and determines the killing order for the other five participants. The Sixth Man tries to sabotage the other players at the beginning, hopefully manipulating the weakest player to win, because the Sixth Man has to face him/her in Quintet’s second half, a duel called Endgame. Because the rules are almost as confusing as the story points, there’s a sort of Quintet referee, but in the movie, his decisions mostly serve to knock off the supporting cast that much quicker.
11-12. Quidditch, Harry Potter series/Welters, The Magicians
The game of Quidditch seems complicated when J.K. Rowling first explains it in the first Harry Potter book, but that’s because she tosses in a bunch of extraneous rules where one would have done the job: Grab the Snitch, win the game. Sure, that isn’t technically not the case, but grabbing the quickly moving winged ball grants a team 150 points and ends the game, so it usually results in a win. Rowling teases out numerous other complicated rules and fouls and so on in the course of her seven-book series, but every match played directly in the books (as opposed to referred to in historical texts within the books) ends with someone (usually Harry Potter) catching the Snitch. Not to be outdone, Lev Grossman’s The Magicians, popularly billed as “Harry Potter for adults,” offers up its own magical game, a kind of magicians’ chess called Welters, played on large outdoor courts. But there’s a simple reason readers don’t leave The Magicians wishing they could play Welters (or starting their own leagues, as with Quidditch): Grossman barely bothers to explain how it works or how to play it, and the characters themselves only get into it when they have nothing better to do.
13. Three-person chess, TheBig Bang Theory
The socially awkward brainiacs of The Big Bang Theory use rock-paper-scissors-lizard-Spock to settle differences, but there aren’t really that many moving parts in their mutation of the game. But on the episode “The Wildebeest Implementation,” the insufferably brilliant theoretical physicist Sheldon devises a three-person chess game—one that overcomplicates the notion to an absurd degree. “Do you know how I solved the balance center area combat problem?” he asks his hapless roommate, Leonard. “Five words: transitional quadrilateral to triangular tessellation.” When the game is finally played, however, it devolves into a brain-bending bedlam of catapult-flung bishops, jetpack-wearing popes, and golf-cart-riding pawns.
14. CharDee MacDennis, It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia
CharDee MacDennis, unveiled It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia’s seventh season’s seventh episode, “Chardee MacDennis: The Game Of Games,” seems simple enough from the outset, but quickly devolves into a convoluted mess. The object is to progress through three circles, each one representing a type of booze (wine, beer, hard liquor) and type of challenge (mind, body, spirit). There’s trivia, charades, emotional berating, a dog cage for a jail, and a point where Mac throws darts at Dennis’ hand to get him to flinch. Sure, it doesn’t make any sense, but the depths to which it doesn’t make sense speaks to the obsessive nature of Sunny’s characters. In fact, the gang had to craft a massive rulebook in order to keep the game moving forward. As the episode goes on, it becomes clear that winning the game isn’t a matter of actually playing by those rules, but instead playing against the individual members of the opposing team—and conflict is the engine that keeps Sunny running.
15. Marshgammon, How I Met Your Mother
The characters on How I Met Your Mother are a protective, inquisitive bunch, prone to enthusiastically vetting their friends’ new love interests. To provide cover for their nosiness, they have Marshgammon, which combines elements of Candy Land, Taboo, Pictionary, Twister, and drinking. The game makes no sense to anyone except Marshall—who created it and serves as the non-competing game master—but the game itself isn’t really all that important. In season one, it’s a means to learning about Ted’s new love interest, Victoria, and it leads to the discovery of an embarrassing video of Barney.
16. Double cranko, M*A*S*H
When B.J. Hunnicut became a regular character on M*A*S*H, he was a lot more straitlaced than his predecessor, Trapper John McIntyre. That didn’t last long, though—and by the sixth-season episode “Your Hit Parade,” B.J. was long accustomed to joining his Swamp-mate Hawkeye Pierce in all manner of illicit pastimes. One of those is double cranko, an elaborate mash-up of chess, checkers, gin rummy, and drinking—the last aspect invariably involving shots from Pierce’s bedside still. Not to mention the fleecing of his commanding officer, Colonel Potter.
17. Calvinball, Calvin And Hobbes
At heart, Bill Watterson’s celebrated newspaper comic was always about the power of imagination, which frequently took 6-year-old kid Calvin (and occasionally his sometimes-stuffed, sometimes-real tiger companion Hobbes) into other eras, other bodies, or other worlds. But one of the most rambunctious expressions of the duo’s imagination—and one of the few that not only didn’t get him into trouble, but actually allowed him to enjoy an evening with his babysitter Roslyn—was the one sport Calvin actually liked: Calvinball, where the rules are “anything we make up”—generally on the fly, with plenty of arguing and contradicting. This means everything from spontaneously declared vortex spots and boomerang zones to song penalties and “pernicious poem places.” And the victory conditions were never established, what with scores like “oogy to boogy” and “Q to 12.” It even had a theme song: “Other kids’ games are all such a bore! / They’ve gotta have rules, and they gotta keep score! / Calvinball is better by far! / It’s never the same! It’s always bizarre! / You don’t need a team or a referee! You know that it’s great, ’cause it’s named after me!”
18. Jumanji, Jumanji
The subject of both a 1981 Chris Van Allsburg book and a 1995 movie starring Robin Williams, Jumanji is a board game with big-time consequences. Two children, Peter and Judy, find the game and decide to play, only to discover that each move could unleash some sort of new, dangerous, and totally real animal into their house, from a starving lion to a bunch of mischievous monkeys. To make it all go away, the kids have to finish the game, but not before inflicting severe structural damage on their house and presumably their developing brains. Even for a children’s book, there are a lot of unanswered questions and inconsistencies beyond “How did a bunch of rhinos get in the house?” For instance, why can’t the kids just speed-roll their way through the game and get it all over with in minutes? Or why, after it’s all over, do they not just burn the board, rather than jettisoning it for two other dumb kids to find? Jumanji is a different kind of game, not just because it’s so damn terrifying, but because the rules are so unclear. Calvinball exists in Calvin’s mind, whereas Jumanji sprang from the twisted thoughts of some unknown—presumably one with a fight-or-flight fetish and an unnatural love for monsoons.
19. BASEketball, BASEketball
South Park’s Matt Stone and Trey Parker play two goofballs who create the game of BASEketball on the fly when challenged to a game of horse by two preppies at a party. It’s kind of like horse, except shots from designated distances count as singles, doubles, triples, or home runs. Misses result in an out, and if you hit a shot, you can’t shoot in the same spot again. Opposing players can use any and all methods to psyche out the shooter. Simple, right? No? Well, in the movie, the game becomes so popular, Parker and Stone’s characters create a professional league that becomes a target for takeover. After the movie’s release, fans created their own BASEketball leagues, though few if any probably remain 13 years later.
20. NumberWang, That Mitchell And Webb Look
A recurring sketch on the BBC’s That Mitchell And Webb Look, NumberWang was a game show where the rules, structure, and point of the game were cheerfully unclear. In it, contestants throw out random numbers until the host declares one of them “NumberWang,” though it’s never clear why—ditto the “WangerNumb” portion of the show. The game then goes to the “maths board” where the contestants pick numbers (but others are highlighted), before the contestant panel rotates for no particular reason. Often, the player with the higher number of points trails the other contestant, so the winner seems arbitrarily chosen. (Losers wear paper bags over their heads.) Other episodes of the show explore the nonsensical spin-offs of the nonsensical game show, like the take-home version, which includes 400-sided dice that are invisible to the human eye, plus all 37 volumes of the game’s rules.
21. Eschaton, Infinite Jest
David Foster Wallace once described the structure of his landmark experimental novel Infinite Jest as resembling a “lopsided Sierpinski Gasket,” a wonky variation on proto-fractal patterning that allowed the book’s ideas to expand and multiply while at the same time containing one another. In short: Everything in Infinite Jest is a microcosm of the book’s grander, overarching preoccupations, which are encompassed by the book itself. Nowhere is this more apparent than in a scene where members of the Enfield Tennis Academy (where much of the novel unfolds) engage in their favorite overly complicated extracurricular: Eschaton. A CD-ROM-assisted real-time war game employing four contiguous tennis courts, up to 400 tennis balls, and “at least 40 megabytes of available RAM and a wide array of tennis paraphernalia,” Eschaton is so nerdy and complex that Wallace spends 20 pages and half a dozen footnotes explaining it. The game is Infinite Jest in a nutshell: intricate, funny, and deeply rewarding, provided you’re willing to put in a little work.
22-plus. Crockett, Thud, Cripple Mr. Onion, and more, Discworld series
British fantasy author Terry Pratchett satirizes just about every aspect of society he can reach in his Discworld novels, but he seems to have a particular love for mocking games in their various aspects. The Discworld card game Cripple Mr. Onion (mentioned in a handful of books, including Wyrd Sisters and Witches Abroad) may have just been introduced as a passing joke, to chaff some of the sillier names for popular old card games—though two Pratchett fans did create a rule set to make it a playable game. (Or at least playable for those who can remember rules like “If the Jack of Clubs is declared by any player before the first player has played their first group of cards, Bagels and Onions switch places in score value. Thus, Double Bagels, Triple Bagels, etc. become the most valuable hands, with the exception that a Great Onion will still beat a Great Bagel. It also, of course, becomes possible for a player to Cripple Mr. Bagel.”) Crockett, which gets a few jokey pages to itself in Pratchett’s latest novel, Snuff, is clearly mocking the esoteric rules of cricket: As recurring protagonist Samuel Vimes gamely listens to an enthusiast describe the rules, Pratchett describes his subjective experience in a lengthy paragraph in which Vimes dies, the sun goes out, the world ends, and then an entire new world is born, and life evolves anew and slowly climbs the evolutionary ladder for millions of years in order to produce a new Vimes, still listening to the details of how tumps, hampers, hawks, and handsaws fit into the game. On the other hand, the board game Thud, which pits a few powerful troll pieces against many weaker dwarf pieces, provides a central metaphor and framework for Pratchett’s novel Thud. And then there’s Stealth Chess, which adds an assassin piece and an assassin-only board area to conventional chess. Pratchett games, like Pratchett novels, tend to be about adding an extra twist on the outside of a real-world creation, in order to better access and examine its inside.