Reading board game rulebooks is tedious, but when board games get into your books it can make reading fun! Lets look at 10 times authors incorporated board games into their narrative.
The Wise Man’s Fear
by Patrick Rothfuss
“Tak reflects the subtle turning of the world. It is a mirror we hold to life. No one wins a dance, boy. The point of dancing is the motion that a body makes. A well-played game of Tak reveals the moving of a mind. There is a beauty to these things for those with eyes to see it.”
He gestured at the brief and brutal lay of stones between us. “Look at that. Why would I ever want to win a game such as this?”
I looked down at the board. “The point isn’t to win?” I asked.
“The point,” Bredon said grandly, “is to play a beautiful game.” He lifted his hands and shrugged, his face breaking into a beatific smile. “Why would I want to win anything other than a beautiful game?”
Patrick Rothfuss writes such compelling stories, in part, because he strives to put his characters in realistic and relatable circumstances. The idea of playing a “beautiful game” is one that resonates deeply with many board gamers; it becomes a potent life philosophy, but Rothfuss keeps it grounded in a simple exchange between characters enjoying a game.
A Dance with Dragons
by George R.R. Martin
Smiling, he seized his dragon, flew it across the board.
“I hope Your Grace will pardon me. Your king is trapped. Death in four.” The prince stared at the playing board.
“-is too far away to save you. You should have moved her to the center of the battle.”
“But you said-“
“I lied. Trust no one. And keep your dragon close.”’
There isn’t a single word wasted in the Song of Ice and Fire series. George R.R. Martin catches a lot of flack for 8 page descriptions of every last meal, but, if you read deeply into any scene, every page is dripping with foreshadowing and clever metaphor.
The game of Cyvasse is played with pieces that clearly map to different houses and characters, so a game of Cyvasse can quickly fill with subtext about the game of thrones.
The Empty City
by Andrew Looney
“Lori was fairly confused, but she agreed to go ahead and play. Jim played very casually in order to give her a chance, and they frequently stopped to discuss the finer points of the rules. He had a hard time getting her to understand which pieces could be removed during over-icing, and also what it meant to be in the Icehouse. But by the time their food arrived, she had a pretty good understanding of the game, and was also enjoying it very much.”
I’ll admit to not reading The Empty City. I enjoy Icehouse, and think that Andrew Looney is a great game designer, but this quote does not fill me with confidence in his abilities as a fiction writer.
This reads like every board game nerd’s power fantasy. Nothing says magnanimous white knight syndrome than “discussing the finer points of the rules” and “she was enjoying it very much”. Then again, Looney may have been characterizing Jim this way on purpose. Where Rothfuss and Martin can use a few words to integrate the nature of the game into the narrative, Looney presents a character that cares a lot more about explaining the board game than interacting with the plot.
Cripple Mr. Onion
by Terry Pratchett
“Knowing how stories work is almost all the battle.
For example, when an obvious innocent sits down with three experienced card sharpers and says ‘How do you play this game, then?’, someone is about to be shaken down until their teeth fall out.
‘She’ll get into terrible trouble if she uses magic to win,’ said Magrat. ‘And you know how she hates losing,’ she added.Granny Weatherwax was not a good loser. From her point of view, losing was something that happened to other people.”
Pratchett’s writing style is absolutely delightful as he describes Granny setting up a con. Watching an old lady outwit a bunch of cardsharks by playing the fool is glorious. Granny is shown to be powerful, but this scene gives Pratchett the opportunity to show that power is more than the simple application of magic.
The Traitor Game
by B.R. Collins
“Michael and Francis share a secret passion for Evgard, the fantasy role playing setting they have created together. But then Michael finds a note in his locker, revealing the boys’ secret. Convinced Francis has been making fun of him all along; Michael gets revenge. But did Francis really betray his friend? Or is Michael the real traitor?”
Role playing is the ultimate form of escapism. When the real world beats you down and leaves you open to the winds of fate, RPG’s can give you a sense of control, stability, and catharsis. Sharing those worlds with other people creates a powerful bond, so using a game as a contrast to betrayals is immediately compelling.
Dragon Riders of Pern
by Anne McCaffrey
“Bitra has a reputation among those who like to gamble for having the highest concentration of card manipulators and sharpers of Hold or Weyr on Pern. If anybody is looking for a cutthroat game of dragon poker or poly-dice, Bitra is the best place to look. With one another Bitrans play mah-jongg and other games at which it is difficult or impossible to cheat, but outsiders are far game to all Bitra’s skills.”
Pern has mixed reactions among readers, but it certainly paints an interesting setting. Pern is a world of the far flung future, where earthling settlers instigated a new off-world colony thousands of years ago, and the technology of the past became the magic of the future. The culture pulls in eclectic mixes of old and new, so we get “poly-dice” next to something like mah-jongg. I’d say it’s an odd choice to say that mah-jongg, which is only hundreds of years old, would survive more than Go, which is thousands of years old.
Gambling is a trend in Pern, partly to show the rough and dangerous lifestyle of the people, and the games MCCaffrey illustrate here, do give a sense of that kind of culture.
Buggers and Astronauts
by Orson Scott Card
“It would not be a good game, Ender knew it was not a question of winning. When kids played in the corridors, whole troops of them, the buggers never won, and sometimes the games got mean. But here in their flat, the game would start mean, and the bugger couldn’t just go empty and quit the way buggers did in the real wars. The bugger was in it until the astronaut decided it was over.”
Kids are cruel, and few are so cruel as Peter Wiggin when seen through Ender’s eyes. It is one thing for a child to be violent, but it takes a special kind of psychopath to construct an elaborate system of rules to enact that violence. Throughout the book, Ender is perpetually wary of Peter and his rise to power, and this early scene gives him good reason to be.
A Crown of Swords
by Robert Jordan
“Pedron Niall grunted as Morgase placed a white stone on the board with a smile of triumph. Lesser players might set two dozen more stones each yet, but he could see the inevitable course now, and so could she.
‘You did not realise I saw the trap you were laying from your thirty-first stone, Lord Niall, and you took my feint from the forty-third stone to be my real attack.’ “
The Wheel of Time series is one of the worst offenders when it comes to epic fantasy pitfalls. Where George R.R. Martin uses a feast to set up the personality of a noble house that will come into play later, Jordan and Sanderson meander through their settings out of pure indulgence.
To take their own advice, lesser authors set out two dozen more subplots, they should see the inevitable course of their plot and keep to it.
The Last Hawk
by Catherine Asaro
“In 2258 A.D., Kelric, a fighter pilot, crashes on Coba, an off-limits planet. He discovers a thriving civilization headed by women managers of 12 estates. Choosing to spare his life, they detain Kelric as both honored concubine and prisoner for 20 years. As he is traded or sold to different estates, his knowledge of the physics-based quis dice game that governs Coba increases his value and power.”
Again, full disclosure, I haven’t read this book, but what a nerd power fantasy. A dashing space captain lands on a planet where his skills at a dice game allow him to become famous and wealthy. According to the Wikipedia page, Kelric has two children from two of his wives. That implies more than two wives. Normally, being a huge nerd about board games gets you no wives. I can’t tell if this is just hacky schlock, or if maybe it’s so bad it becomes good again.
Harry Potter and the Philosophers Stone
by J.K. Rowling
“Ron also started teaching Harry wizard chess. This was exactly like Muggle chess except that the figures were alive, which made it a lot like directing troops in battle. Ron’s set was very old and battered. Like everything else he owned, it had once belonged to someone else in his family — in this case, his grandfather. However, old chessmen weren’t a drawback at all. Ron knew them so well he never had trouble getting them to do what he wanted.”
Poor dumb Ron, not terribly ambitious or gifted he bungles his way through wizard school. J.K. Rowling did see fit to give him a knack for board games, which allows him to lend that particular skill to the big climax at the end of the book. Rowling does a good job at showing that Ron isn’t a total waste of space, but he also doesn’t put in a lot of effort either. It’s actually a nifty bit of characterization.
by Chris Van Allsburg
“The game under the tree looked like a hundred others Peters and Judy had at home. But they were bored and restless and, looking for something interesting to do, thought they’d give Jumanji a try. Little did they know when they unfolded its ordinary-looking playing board that they were about to be plunged into the most exciting and bizare adventure of their lives.”
I actually didn’t know that Jumanji was a childrens book before Robin Williams started screaming “What Year IS IT?!”. It’s actually a pretty simple book about kids opening a portal to “jungle universe” or whatever. It’s actually delightful even for young children, as opposed to the film . . .
Around the World in 80 Days
by Jules Verne
“Ralph would not concede that the work of the detectives was likely to be in vain, for he thought that the prize offered would greatly stimulate their zeal and activity. But Stuart was far from sharing this confidence; and, as they placed themselves at the whist-table, they continued to argue the matter. Stuart and Flanagan played together, while Phileas Fogg had Fallentin for his partner. As the game proceeded the conversation ceased, excepting between the rubbers, when it revived again.”
In doing research for this article, I was actually surprised that Jules Verne made it to the list. It makes perfect sense that a Victorian gentleman like Phileas Fogg would embark on his titular voyage after getting into a pissing match over cards. It’s nice to know that a board game is the inciting incident in one of literature’s classic novels.