Man, I’m sure Arthur is someone’s favorite cartoon, but it’s about as tedious as watching a sloth play Galaxy Trucker. So Arthur loses to his sister(?) at a board game, and gets all melancholy about how society is obsessed with numbers and winning.
Yeah, real deep thinking there Arthur, lose a game and blame society. Listen, you brain-dead little aardvark, it’s called the magic-circle, we engage in the social contract of “caring” because it staves off the specter of nihilism. If you don’t care about achieving goals, why care about anything. We’re just all free falling into the abyss, is that what you want, Arthur? IS THAT WHAT YOU WANT?!?
The opening intro to Age of Empires II makes the ultimate chess metaphor. Two medieval kings play chess, and we’re treated to shot for shot transitions as each move in the chess game corresponds to the actual movements of real units.
Age of Empires touted itself as a heavily strategic game, so they relied heavily on the game was like chess come to life.
Firewatch – Wizards and Wyverns
Firewatch is a deeply narrative game that evokes some truly emotional reactions. From the start, we’re immersed in the isolation of wilderness as a fire lookout in Wyoming. Our only contact is Deliah, another lookout, on the radio. We learn little stories from her, like about Brian, the son of the previous lookout at your post.
D: “Well, if forced I can make conversation with anyone. Plus it was sorta fun to hear about all of his nerdy hobbies. . . Like, comics. Model rockets. Wizards & Wyverns. You know.” H: “Oof.” D: “Hey, thanks to Brian, I can almost recall, by memory, the armor classes of most dragons.” H: “The what? No you can’t.” D: “Hey! Planar Dragons armor class, let’s see—”
Brian and Ned disappeared mysteriously, but this piece of dialogue really helps characterize the relationship of the characters.Delilah isn’t just the type of person who’ll hear you, she’s the type who will really listen. Brian isn’t just the type of nerd who knows about W&W, he’s the type who will talk about it at length. Makes you wonder what would convince a nerd like that to come out to the wilderness with his dad.
Witcher 3 – Gwent
Witcher 3 takes to the tradition of Final Fantasy VIII (which we discussed in our last Board Games in Video Games article) by integrating a sprawling card game into it’s fantasy setting. The denizens of The Continent are so obsessed with Gwent that it’s almost a bit of a joke.
While a seasoned demon hunter being obsessed with a collectible card game is silly, Gwent itself is well ingrained within the world. Powerful cards are treated as valuable artifacts, often being used as leverage to convince the player to undertake dangerous quests. The designers also use the game to create some humorous moments and truly enrich the game world.
Last of Us – Chess
It’s a can be a surprise to come across a chess player in a post-apocalyptic zombie wasteland, but it’s super meaningful when you do. When Joel and Ellie find themselves in Lincoln, the lone survivor, Bill, has a chess board. Ellie remarks how she always wanted to learn, which reinforces her childlike curiosity while reminding us of the grim realities of this world.
Ellie doesn’t get a chance, because Bill shouts at her not to touch anything. Which begs a question: why does Bill, a solitary recluse, have a two player game set up? We find out that Bill had a partner who isn’t around anymore, and though he constantly remarks that other people will just get you killed we’re given hints that he’s hiding an internal pain.
While playing chess by yourself can pass time, it’s easy to imagine Bill keeps it set up to remember the good times.
Overwatch – Hearthstone
Blizzard’s Universe is already dense with crossovers between it’s properties (as we’ve touched on before), but Overwatch is literally littered with Hearthstone references. Several maps have the game open on computer screens, and a couple have physical versions of hearthstone cards.
The ultimate reference is in the original cinematic trailer, where a museum guard doesn’t realize that 4 supers have crashed into the exhibit and are wrecking stuff because he’s playing hearthstone. I think that really speaks to how addictive Hearthstone is.
Dragon Age: Inquisition – Wicked Grace
Dragon Age Inquisition offers remarkable player choice and a deeply thematic open world, but it’s strength lies in it’s compelling characters. You cultivate relationships with a ragtag group of adventurers with their own goals and motivations in an attempt to, ultimately, save the world. Make the right choices, and between adventuring you’ll be invited to a game of Wicked Grace.
We already discussed how Wicked Grace became a clever puzzle in Dragon Age: Origins (See our last article on Board Games in Video Games), but Dragon Age: Inquisition sits your entire party around a table for a bit of fun and chance.
Taking the characters out of the main narrative for a moment lets us dig deeper into each of them, as they laugh, play, and tell stories. In playing a card game, the characters become more real and relatable in a way that few games accomplish. We can all empathize with losing one’s shirt in a game with good friends.
Like Varrick remarks afterwards, it’s too easy to get so wrapped up in a mission that you forget to be a real person.
Undertale – Poker at Grillbys
Grillby’s is where the Royal Guard hangs out when they’re on their break, and, being entirely made up of dogs, they play poker. Like a lot of elements in Undertale, these poker playing dogs is a brief humanizing moment the combines a bit of humor and weirdness. It helps cement the idea that the royal guard is more than just a job title, they’re family.
This is especially true because if any of the royal guard aren’t at Grillby’s for “reasons”, each member’s dialogue changes to reflect their “missing” companions. When you expect someone at a Poker Night and they don’t show up, their absence is very apparent.
Unless they are Lesser Dog, and they just play poker by themselves in the corner.
Fall Out: New Vegas – Caravan
Out in the wastelands the game of choice is Caravan. Set in a post-apocalyptic Vegas setting, players can make a deck out of whatever playing cards they can scrounge or steal. While the casinos host more traditional gambling games, the guards that guard caravans prefer to play the game of Caravan.
The wealth of games in Fall Out: New Vegas gives depth to the game. The establishment, through the casinos, offers games designed to dehumanize and defraud, while the folks on the outskirts of society play a game where your ability to win is directly proportional to your ability to survive and collect cards among a nightmarish hellscape.
Devil May Cry 4 – Dice Game
Devil May Cry 4 has a ridiculous Chutes and Ladders level. The player attacks a giant die to roll it, and when the player’s giant piece lands on a space, some horrible trap is sprung. “Roll and move” at its worst. Maybe the game devs were going for a Gyan Chauper philosophy vibe.
Gyan Chauper is the ancestor of Chutes and Laddes and was used a meditative device in ancient India. The game teaches that though we feel like we have agency over our own lives, we are really chained to the fickle winds of fate. Of course, in Devil May Cry you can cheat, because screw chance and fate.
Persona 5 – Shogi
In Persona 5, you lead a team of magical teenagers who “steal” the darkness out of adults hearts to change the world for the better. Between “heists”, though, there are a huge number of side quests to explore.
You meet Hifumi playing shogi in a church, and strike up a conversation. She offers to teach you the basics if you’ll let her try out her “advanced shogi” tactics against you. Each time you play, you increase your knowledge skill and improve your relationship with Hifume.
It quickly becomes apparent that Shogi is Hifume’s life. She’s moving forward in becoming a professional shogi player, but is struggling with the notoriety that success brings. Her mom is pushing her to become a shogi “idol”, using her looks rather than her wits. Conversely, shogi is the game she shared with her father before he became too sick to play.
For a side quest, it runs remarkably like an anime series arc ( see Nouri no Shogi in our Board Games in Anime Article). Shogi’s relationship with Japanese culture and competitive professional league make Hifumi’s narrative especially compelling.
Where most modern American and Euro Games trace their lineage back to Prussian Kriegsspiel influenced heavily by WWII, Japan’s board gaming history pulls from Weiqi (Go), Hanafuda (card game), and Shogi (a variant of Chaturanga, the common ancestor of all chess variants). All of which are games that were invented elsewhere and integrated into Japanese culture, how does that affect Japan’s portrayal of game in pop culture? Let’s look at 10 board game references in Anime.
Naruto – Shogi
Ubiquitous with Anime in the United States, Naruto spiraled totally out of control. But early seasons introduced a pessimist named Shikamaru. Considered apathetic and lazy, Shikamaru attempts to live life with minimum effort. To contrast his personality, he is an expert Shogi player. Spoilers.
When Shikamaru plays with his mentor, he gets dragged into a debate about who the king represents. If not their leader, then who? Later in the series when Shikamaru’s mentor dies, he utters on his dying breath that the king represents the unborn children of the future, whom must be protected even unto death.
Black Butler – Chess
Black Butler follows Ciel, a child bent on avenging his parents who sells his soul to a demon butler. The series follows a ton of Sherlockian tropes as the boy and his butler solve macabre mysteries in Victorian England.
The show is rife with Chess motifs, throughout, and is often used as a parallel metaphor to Ciel matching wits with whatever villain of the week they happen to encounter. The show builds on the metaphor as the story progresses, with Ciel making sacrifice after sacrifice in pursuit of revenge.
Yu Yu Hakusho – Taboo
Our ragtag protagonists enter a mansion to fight a bunch of nerds with access to unnatural dark energy. Each nerd has a realm where they can impose their own rules and if anyone fails to obey those rules the nerds get to harvest their soles.
So the linguistic nerd sets up his realm as a game of taboo, where people can’t speak certain words or letters. Kurama, one of our protagonists, makes a wager to beat the nerd at his own game. Each minute they add the next letter of the alphabet to the list of taboos.
The twist comes at the end. After the episode builds intense tension of the villain is undone by Kurama making him laugh with a funny face.
Full Metal Alchemist – Chess
Full Metal Alchemist is very much a story of chess; characters become the unknowing pawns in the grand machinations of a battle they don’t understand. As a result, Chess comes up more than a few time.
Colonel Mustang makes a habit of communicating through secret messages, including by way of a chess game. Mustang has his hands tied by a nefarious government, and treads the delicate line of trying to bring the government down from the inside.
When dealing in political intrigue, you have to play the game.
Hikaru no Go – Go
A young boy, Hikaru, finds an old Go Board possessed by the ghost of a Heian Era Go master who loved Go so much that he cannot rest until he has played the perfect game of Go. Hikaru is totally chill with just being straight up haunted by a board game ghost, who helps him become a Go master.
Otherwise, the show follows a pretty standard “sports anime” formula. Spunky kid with supernatural help rises through the ranks of the Go world. He makes a powerful rival, and develops an unhealthy obsession with minutia surrounding the game.
Sailor Moon – Chess
Sailor Mercury joins a chess tournament at the local “chess tower”. She works her way up the tournament ladder to fight Bertie the “evil” “negamoon sister” at chess. They reveal their secret identities, and Bertie traps the Sailor Scouts in an ice bubble, forcing Mercury to play.
Also, lets be clear, the villain just straight up cheats. She freely manipulates the board, and freezes Mercury each time she captures a piece. How do the Sailor Scouts escape this mess? Tuxedo Mask just randomly drops in and throws a rose at the chessboard to break the ice spell. That’s how I solve all my problems.
Shion no Ō – Shogi
Shion’s parents were killed when she was very young, and the only clue was a Shogi piece the killer left behind. The trauma rendered her mute, but she became fascinated by Shogi in trying to solve the mystery surrounding her parents. Shogi becomes how Shion comes to terms with her trauma and the world around her.
The mystery and Shogi take a back seat to the interactions between characters, and the personal growth that Shion achieves as a young girl coming of age. It is a weird concept for an anime, but the writing is surprisingly good.
Hunter x Hunter – Gungi
A monster slowly takes over a region, and decides to put the humans in the region to death. To show his superiority to humans, he challenges the top players of a local game called “gungi”, and plans to beat them all before he has them all killed.
Things look grim for mankind, until he comes across a blind girl who is incredibly meek, but also can’t be beaten at “gungi”. The monster is intrigued by the girl, which grows into a fondness, and we start to see mercy grow within him. This becomes a problem as the regions are thrown into conflict and the monster’s advisors see his mercy as weakness.
Tonari no Seki-kun – Shogi
In grade school did you ever have that kid sitting next to you who was super distracting? Like, constantly distracting you with ridiculous drawings, peeling glue off their hands, or eating paper? Well they made an anime about that.
In the second episode “Seki” sets up a game of shogi for himself, while “Rumi” is innocently trying to pay attention. The solo game of Shogi goes hilariously off the rails. There’s a betrayal, a lower piece becomes the new king, pieces are “killed” when the new king activates trap doors in Seki’s desk.
Durarara!!! – “Checkers”
Durarara follows a handful of unsavory characters in an area of Tokyo, and weaves an interesting web of crime, intrigue, and more than a little magic. One character, Izaya Orihara, is an information broker with a bit of a wildcard streak. Often playing the trickster archetype, he manipulates information and people, mostly for a laugh.
As a manipulative puppet master, he invented a totally indecipherable board game that roughly represents the characters and events that surround the plot.
Of course, being an agent of chaos means that sometimes your plans go up in flames.
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So that’s all the board game anime out there. Yep, no other game based anime out there. . . But WAIT!
YOU’VE ACTIVATED MY TRAP CARD!!!!!
Yu Gi Oh – Yu Gi Oh
I don’t think there is much that needs to be said about Yu Gi Oh. Ancient Egyptian artifacts . Children’s card game. Dark Magic. Eccentric Billionaires. Throw a bunch of children onto an island in the card game version of Battle Royale. Honestly I could do whole article just about Yu Gi Oh and the ridiculous permutations and spin offs.
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