Games People Play

If you look at it from a certain angle, everything in life is a game. Ultimately you lose, but along the way you can have quite a lot of fun. For many people, the first rule of the game is, “This is not a game!” Playing seriously — playing for keeps, as we used to say — is always an option, but if you want to enjoy the game, a more light-hearted process may be right for you.

Writing a novel, composing music, or carving a sculpture in wood — these are all games. To some extent you can make up your own rules, and that’s part of the fun. If you’re writing a novel, I would recommend not making up your own rules about spelling and grammar, but you’re free to do so if you like.

Gardening is a game. One of the rules of gardening is, “It’s not nice if things wilt or die.” Our entire framework of laws is a very large and elaborate game. Breaking the rules of this game may have consequences, at least if you’re not rich enough to hire a good lawyer — but my point is, laws are simply arbitrary rules that are supposed to govern how other games are played.

Some people like to follow the rules. Other people like to cheat. Cheating is just another game.

In 1972, Chick Corea wrote and recorded a tune called “What Game Shall We Play Today?” By today’s standards it’s a pretty awful tune; Chick’s wah-wah pedal should mercifully have been drowned in a bucket of water, his solo is deadly boring, and Flora Purim’s intonation on certain vocal notes is wince-inducing. (This was decades before Auto-Tune.) But his question is a good one.

I may be about to take a break from writing about fiction technique in this blog. Writing fiction is a complex game, and if it’s not fun, why do it? If you find it fun, the fact that you have failed to grasp some of the rules to which other people attach importance doesn’t really matter. You’ll get whatever results you get. I’ve seen some novels published by big New York publishers that run roughshod over the fundamentals of good writing. Apparently those fundamentals are just my way of playing the game. So foo on all that.

Games, though…. I wish I had someone to play tabletop games with, but we’re in the middle of this pandemic. Last week I bought a brilliant new two-player game called Hive. It’s fascinating, and not an easy game! There are six or eight types of pieces (okay, I bought the expansions), each with its own movement rule, and there is no board. The pieces create a constantly changing playing area as you add them to the hive.

I’ve written before in this blog about chess variants. (If you’re curious, use the Search field up there in the corner to search for “chess.”) The rules of Hive led me to propose an entirely new (as far as I’m aware) and radical chess variant that I’ll call Placement Chess. No special equipment is needed; Placement is played on an ordinary chess board, with the usual chess pieces, and all of them move and capture exactly as in standard chess.

What’s different about Placement is that at the start of the game, the only pieces on the board are the opposing kings. They start in their usual places. In each turn, a player may either place one of his or her pieces on the board (a piece that has not yet been put in play) or move a piece that is already on the board.

The rules for placing pieces are simple: (1) Each new piece must be placed orthogonally adjacent to one of the player’s already active pieces. (2) Pawns cannot be placed in the first or eighth rank. (3) If one of the player’s bishops is currently on the board, when the other bishop is placed it must be placed on a square of the opposite color.

Also, there’s no castling. But that’s it. It’s simple, but dangerous. If you hold your queen or a knight in reserve, it’s entirely legal to drop it onto the board in such a way as to checkmate your opponent unexpectedly. If you’ve maneuvered a piece across to your opponent’s side of the board, it’s legal to drop a pawn onto the seventh rank, one step away from promotion.

I suspect this is a very viable variant — but I have no one to try it out with. Anyway, I’m a lousy chess player.

One of the things that fascinates me is inventing games. That’s a game in itself. I’m in awe of some of the great board games I’ve bought this year — Istanbul, Castles of Burgundy, Azul, Stone Age, Century Spice Road, Five Tribes. Not only are they colorful and tactile, the game play is interesting. I don’t even care whether I win or lose (though of course I’m highly competitive — I play to win). What’s interesting is finding a good action and watching how it intersects with other actions, my own or my opponent’s.

I have, at this point, eight or ten really good two-player games, including classics like mancala and new games you’ve never heard of. All I need is one other healthy and isolation-conscious gaming-type person to invite over for a regular game night.

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