Cartoons have their own rules, their own systems, their own physics. It takes skilled writers and artists to produce animation that we can relate to. Sometimes our favorite cartoon characters sit down to a board game, and we realize they aren’t so different from you or I. Take a look at 10 examples of board games in your favorite cartoons.
1. Hey Arnold – Chinese Checkers – S2E37A
Hey Arnold is equal parts touching and goofy, a formula that created some fantastic moments. When Arnold’s grandpa, “Steely Phil”, was young, he was so wrapped up in winning the City Master’s Tournament that he overlooked a move that would have let him stalemate. Missing that move cost him his dream. A dream of being a Chinese Checkers Grandmaster.
Which, let’s be honest, is ridiculous. I’m sure you can put your Chinese Checkers Trophy up next to your degree in underwater basket weaving. Maybe don’t be proud of a solved German board game that the Pressman Brothers marketed as “Hop Ching” Checkers in the 1920’s because cultural appropriation made them a quick buck.
Regardless, this episode conveys a great message to kids. If you’re too serious about only winning, you’ll overlook your options. Sometimes we’re faced with a no-win scenario (unless your name is Kirk), and it’s important to do the best you can with the cards you’re dealt.
2. The Simpsons – Scrabbleship – S13E13
“You sunk my scrabbleship!” “This game makes no sense” “Tell that to the brave men who just lost their lives”
The Simpsons have played numerous board games throughout their long run. They’re a suburban family, of course they play board games: Scrabble, Checkers, Candyland. True to Simpsons’ tradition they all tend to spiral into violence (you know, like in real life).
However, nothing quite captures the spirit of the Simpsons like the game of Scrabbleship. It is a
representation of how the family can come up with creative ways to show affection by not letting rules or boundaries get in the way a quick gag about inside jokes and incomprehensible social rules.
3. Steven Universe – Citchen Calamity – S1E38
“The Game of Citchen Calamity may be played for fun, but the hunger is real.”
Nothing is quite as relatable or humanizing as watching people play a board game they don’t understand or care about. We all have that friend (or are that friend) who breaks out a board game when you’d rather be playing Mario Kart or Rock Band. They’re sooo excited to show it to you, but you couldn’t care less about it.
That experience is about 90% of Steven Universe. Steven is super-hyped about Cookie Cat, or Sad Breakfast Friends, or an episode of a Canadian soap opera, or some other totally mundane nonsense that the Gems REALLY don’t care about. Yet Steven cares so deeply and so passionately, that they can’t help but be swept along for the ride. I can sympathize with Stephen every time I try and teach a new group Arkham Horror or Battlestar Galactica.
Steven’s game, Citchen Calamity, is about as complex and insane as they come, because when frostburn forces you to discard your fish sticks you won’t be able to complete your bachelor meal set, nor can you ring the dinner bell.
4. Gravity Falls – Dungeons, Dungeons, and More Dungeons – S2E13
If you’re living with your Gruncle Stan in the Pacific Northwest, you might think you’re too busy fighting gnomes and multi-bears to have time for a board game, but you’d be wrong.
Dipper Pines may just be 12 years old (not technically a teenager), but he thinks of himself as pretty smart, especially when he meets his “fancy know-it-all” Gruncle Ford. Put the two egg-heads together and you’re going to see them play a ridiculously tedious role playing game: Dungeons, Dungeons, and More Dungeons. Everyone’s favorite fantasy-talking, level-counting, statistics and graph-paper-involving game of all time.
The episode immediately polarizes the characters into two groups: gamers and non-gamers. Gamers belittling those of lesser intelligence and non-gamers belittling those who would waste time on a stupid game.
The game comes to life, and everyone learns how being “smart” can mean a lot of things: sometimes you need to know esoteric fictional factoids and sometimes you need to cheat at dice.
5. Futurama – Tri-D Scrabble – S1E4
If you want to bring your relationship with your Grandma to the next level (blegh), it’s time to break out TriD Scrabble.
Futurama hits the nail on the head by showing us a future that’s just as dumb and ridiculous as today. An obvious riff on Star Trek’s TriD Chess, it seems that Parker Brothers of the future are not above making everything 3D.
Honestly, though? Actual “Tri-D” chess in Star Trek is just as gimmicky and awful as Futurama’s TriD Scrabble seems.
6. Bob’s Burgers – Gayle Force Winds – S4E19
When Louise avoids getting her cavity filled, she runs away and hangs out with her Aunt Gayle. Louise can’t be bribed, but she can be tricked into a bet: survive the full weekend with her crazy aunt, and she doesn’t need the filling.
Linda, Louise’s mom, feels pretty confident about the plan. “Of course it’ll work, because we’re going to cheat.” That’s the kind of wisdom outlined in Linda’s parenting book “Hey, Put That Down”.
Linda turns Aunt Gayle’s crazy all the way up, and when cat hygiene and bad poetry won’t cut it, Gayle brings out a board game that “stimulates the imagination, but is too good for the major board game companies to even touch.”
It certainly paints Aunt Gayle somewhere on the spectrum between out-of-touch and deranged, but it’s her passionate creativity and role playing that ultimately makes going to the dentist tolerable for Louise. Gayle may be out of touch, but she’s been dealt a bad hand, and that’s made her an expert at escaping reality when times are tough.
7. My Little Pony – Saddleship – S2E16
After Rainbow Dash is stuck for a few days at the hospital, her friends bring a copy of her “favorite” board game to pass the time, a ponified version of Battleship. Which, if you’ve ever been hospitalized, can really mean alot to a lonely patient.
But not in this case.
Rainbow Dash is desperate to get back to an adventure novel, and intentionally tanks the game so her friends will leave her alone with her book. Dash is defined by her love of winning, so for her to lose on purpose shows how much she wants to return to her book.
Until this point, Dash has been a pony of singular athletic ambitions, so it’s fascinating to watch her struggle with a new passion. Despite her ultra-competitive streak, Dash would lose intentionally if it meant a few extra moment of reading.
8. Star vs the Forces of Evil -Slides & Stairs S2E11
A board game perfectly demonstrates the differences between Marco and Star Butterfly. Marco ‘Safe Kid’ Diaz plays by the rules; that’s both how he plays games and lives life. Meanwhile Star just does whatever she feels, whether that means breaking someone out of St. Olga’s Reform School for Wayward Princesses or only moving three spaces when she rolls a four. “If the rules get in the way of the fun, what’s the point?”
Also, if it’s unclear, they’re playing with miniature versions of themselves.
It’s their differences that make them a great team. Star’s relentless energy and positivity make for a good time, while Marco’s caution helps reduce the collateral damage. Later in the episode, the pair volunteer to babysit and they rely on each other’s strengths when things go wrong.
Even if their differences make it hard to enjoy a board game together, their unique individuality gives them strength.
9. Adventure Time – Card Wars – S4E14
Card Wars is a fantasy card game that’s super complicated and awesome, and Jake the Dog is totally obsessed with it. Jake is bummed that no one will play it with him, so his buddy Finn is more than happy to sit down for a round with his good buddy.
Card Wars is the perfect representation of what a game like Magic: The Gathering looks like to an outsider. You can floop cards, but that’s different than activating them. It takes Jake 2 hours to explain and Finn falls asleep during the instructions. With the Adventure Time setting already so outrageous, Card Wars is appropriately ridiculous.
Finn plays (and excels at) Card Wars because he wants to cheer Jake up. When Finn starts winning though, Jake shows how poor a loser he is. It’s clear that he doesn’t want to play for fun; he wants to play to show off how awesome he is. When that starts to backfire, Jake starts to lose it.
With a little advice from BMO, Finn quickly realizes he wanted to play the game to make Jake feel better, so he takes a dive. Jake maybe realizes what’s going on, but takes the win anyway. There’s something broken in Jake, and maybe this small win helps get him to a place where he can address his character flaws.
10. Avatar the Last Air Bender & Korra – Pai Sho – S2E31 | S3E9
Iroh was once the most fearsome general of the Fire Nation, but by the time we meet him he is a peace-loving old man obsessed with the perfect cup of tea and playing Pai Sho. Despite being tasked with capturing the Avatar, Iroh never misses an opportunity to relax with a game or two. He attempts to teach the game to his nephew, but Zuko is so focused on his mission that the game becomes a point of conflict between the two.
It’s later revealed that the secret organization known as the White Lotus uses the game of Pai Sho as code to covertly signal membership to each other. Iroh explains his membership and the organization’s goal to protect the Avatar. The game comes to represent the difficult layers in Iroh’s relationship with his nephew.
In the sequel series, Korra, 70 years later our new protagonists revisit the same town where we first encountered Pai Sho, and we’re given a fascinating slice of gaming anthropology. Two characters sit down to play a game of Pai Sho, but their perspectives on the game are wildly different.
Bolin grew up as a street urchin and cutpurse, and considers Pai Sho a fast and loose game of wits. Conversely, Asami is from a wealthy family and considers it a slow methodical game of foresight and planning.
Before printed rulebooks were common, games were an oral tradition. It’s not surprising that games are seen differently by the groups of people who play them. The episode uses this esoteric bit of cultural awareness to effortlessly add depth to their characters.
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