by Wanderer Werewolf
©2009 Wanderer Werewolf
Games: The word covers a wide range of concepts, from the simple pastimes of Checkers—called Draughts in the UK—to the complicated strategies of Shogi (a Japanese strategy game of higher complexity than Chess). Yet each game, each set of rules and pieces, is a snapshot of a moment in time and a specific place. Whether its the long-vanished Illinois Avenue of Monopoly or the forgotten rules of Egypts Mehen game, these constructs tell us something about the people that created them.
Nowhere is this more evident than in Monopoly: A territory-capture game with an economic framework, the territories on the classic board are remnants of a bygone age in Atlantic City. Illinois Avenue is now Martin Luther King Boulevard, while the B&O Railroad is no more than a museum. Originally an economics-lesson game called The Landlords Game, the final form of Monopoly was influenced by the areas layout and prices in 1930. Even the pieces, including a thimble and an era-appropriate race car, were shaped by the age.
Shogi, already mentioned, is an even better example. Rather than the figural pieces of Chess, Shogi pieces are nothing more than small plaques with their values written on them. Shogi is distinctly a war game; pieces include Generals, and can be turned when captured, fighting on the side of the capturing player. Thus, with names in kanji and pieces kept simple by the games age (they were originally cut from a writing tablet), it is very much a product of Eleventh-Century Japan.
Finally, even common items such as dice or playing cards are culture shots: Ancient Rome had carved dice made from bones (typically animal knuckle; thus, astralagus, the Latin name for dice, literally knucklebone), while fancier dice were made from ivory with ebony pips; playing cards were hand-painted until the birth of the printing press.
This gives us a few guidelines to use in creating games for our fantasy races; The games themselves must grow out of the culture, and the pieces must come from the concepts and materials of the game.
To use a pair of fantasy tropes: Elves, being a long-lived and nature-loving race, would likely enjoy long-term strategy games. The pieces would be made of wood or paper for common use, although (since elves are generally assumed to love art) more elaborate sets would be possible, typically either made from natural materials (such as amber) or enspelled (possibly with illusions).
Dwarves, on the other hand, are typically regarded as dour, hard-working sorts that live underground: Their games would be played with pieces made of stone, and would have simple, straightforward rules. For example, Kiplings Jewel Game, from his novel Kim, is rather appropriate to dwarves; the player must memorize a group of objects shown to him, and repeat it back to the leader. Identifying gems is, after all, an appropriate pastime for dwarves, and the darkness available underground would only help in creating the game to say nothing of its use in training the powers of observation needed to live in a mine complex.
Some of you may have noticed that the game pieces above bear a suspicious resemblance to treasure, and youre right: Game pieces have often been treasure. Gilded playing cards, gemstone chess pieces, and even the platinum Monopoly board make good game-themed treasure items, no matter what genre youre in. Admittedly, theyre harder to work into modern-era games, but thats true for most treasure.
Dice arise naturally, but vary depending on material. Carnivorous species would naturally develop cube dice (based on the above-mentioned knucklebone, and thus a questionable gift for herbivores), while herbivorous species would likely make dice out of wood (such as the set of four half-cylinder dice of Egypts Senet game) or even stone, resulting in other shapes.
Likewise, herbivores would likely produce games such as Kalah, a sowing game which requires moving your stones or seeds along your row and into your bin or store at the end of your row. (In America, its better known as Mancala, which is more properly sowing; technically, the word refers to the type of game, rather than any specific game of the type.) Yet both sides are likely to produce the Fox and Geese game, in which one player must kill all the pieces of the other player thats trying to avoid them theyd just be rooting for different sides. After all, it still teaches tactics. (The original game, Halatafl, or tail board, teaches even more tactics; unless the two foxes can kill/capture at least 11 of the 20 sheep, the sheep can still win.)
How does chess change in various settings? In a metal- and stone-poor setting (such as the World Tree RPG by Bard and Victoria Bloom), the castle will likely look more like a wooden tower than stone; in a setting in which all animals are intelligent, horses may well represent a different piece than the knight. And having a rhino or bison for a rook just seems somehow fitting
Finally, keep the senses in mind; a wolfs chess pieces may be marked with different scents, while a chickens chess board could be marked in ultraviolet. And since ferrets see only red, reading their checkerboards can be interesting
Next time, we move from games to sport, and how central it is to most societies. Remember the Aztecs: For them, it was really a matter of life or death. Until then!