Age of Empires II – Chess
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.”
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.
. . .
. . .
. . .
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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Nothing says “Good Game. How about another?” like flipping the chess board and yelling loudly. As long as you yell it in Russian.
S1E2 – Scrabble
Bart introduces us to the word Kwyjibo. A big, dumb, balding, North American Ape with no chin and a short temper. It’s worth 22 points, unless you’re playing with a Kwyjibo, then it’s worth domestic violence.
S3E6 – Chess
To convince Rabbi Hyman Krustofsky to forgive his son, Bart and Lisa engage him in a scripture battle, trading quotes from the Torah. They meet the Rabbi on his home battlefield, and trade quotes like moves on a chess board. When Bart delivers a quote that wins over the Rabbi, he does it over a literal chessboard.
S13E13 – Scrabbleship
“You sunk my Scrabbleship!”
“This game makes no sense”
“Tell that to the brave men who just lost their lives”
The best games are the games that make no sense, but you’re more invested in them than you are in anything else.
S4E10 / S8E17 – The Good Samaritan
You gotta love the Flanders’ Board Game Collection. Nothing says “excitement” like the Good Samaritan, and by excitement I mean “quiet contemplation”. You have to throw out the dice though, because dice are wicked. You can just move one space at a time, because it is less fun that way!
S6E21 – Chess
When school closes due to a strike, the children are free wreak havoc. So Bart goes out and does all the things he would do without school. Mess with construction workers, play violent video games, and, of course, reenact a scene from the 1993 film “Searching for Bobby Fischer”. To be fair though, Bobby Fischer won three games of chess at the same time. Suppose that’s still more wholesome than flying a kite at night.
S24E11 – Emissaries to Byzantium
On a rainy day with your family, sometimes you’ll want to break out a fun game to help pass the time. Maybe you’ll want something deep and engaging to help take your mind off of things. Maybe you’ll want to try. . . Emissaries of Byzantium. Here’s a hint, don’t. Unless you think your kids would prefer to be adopted by people with names like “Mav” and “Portia”.
S7E8 – Operation
The 60’s were a simpler time in Springfield. Joe Namath’s long flowing hair inspired women to become hippies, companies could freely participate in germ warfare, and there weren’t any safety restrictions on board games like Operation. Apparently, it’s a myth that the old games of operation could shock you, but there is a growing family of games out there that will.
S17E14 – Christian Clue
Get your church group together for the “Vatican’s Great Detective Game”. This actually looks like the best game in the Flanders’ collection. Who could cast doubt on the faith? Was it the secular humanist, in the school house, with misinformation? Just make sure you don’t cut your finger on the knife.
S13E7 – Monopoly
There have been a ton of monopolies as a running gag on the Simpsons. Everything from Rasta-Mon-Opoly to Edna Krabappoly.
The one time they play “original” monopoly, Bart cheats by using legos as hotels and the whole thing descends into violence and chaos. So, a pretty accurate depiction of a game of Monopoly.
S22E4 -Satan’s Path
The Simpson’s Treehouse of Horrors XXI contains a smorgasbord of board game references when Marge forces Bart and Milhouse to play board games instead of violent video games. They manage to open a copy of “Satan’s Path”, where you can be the devil or the thimble. Once they start playing, Satan’s Path Jumanjis all the other board games to life and starts destroying the town. They reference 50 board games, easily. Think you can name them all? Let me know in the comments below, and feast you eyes on the ridiculous board game mayhem.
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.
The Wire – Chess – S1E3
The Wire has an incredibly iconic scene where D’Angelo catches Bodie and Wallace playing checkers with a chess set. D’Angelo uses examples from their lives to explain the intricacies of chess. The King is the King so he moves anyway he wants, but he has no hustle, which is alright because he’s got everybody else to back him up. It’s a clever metaphor, but it goes deeper, because Bodie and Wallace focus on the pawns and the king.
“How do you get to be the king”
“It aint like that. See the King, stay the King. Everyone stay who he is. Except the pawns. If the pawn gets all the way to the other dude’s side he get to be queen.”
“Alright, so if I get to the other side I win?”
It’s clever and subtle, since Bodie and Wallace immediately use “I” when referring to the pawns, and are focused on the “pawns” becoming “top dog”. Which, we’ll learn, is a pretty accurate description of their position and aspirations.
Handmaids Tale – Scrabble – S1E2
In The Handmaid’s Tale, when fertility rates drop and a radical religious order takes control of the continental United States, the few woman who can still carry children are forced into brutal servitude, and all women are subjugated to harsh social rules. It only takes a few years for social code to become so absolute that those with power don’t fear reprisal.
This becomes totally apparent to our protagonist, who realizes that though her masters don’t lock her door, she is no less a prisoner.
The metaphor is reiterated when her master encourages her to play a game of scrabble with her. Women are prohibited from many things for the sake of the system, including reading. Her master is happy to let her break this rule for his amusement; the system is so complete that he doesn’t fear reprisal or uprising.
The West Wing – Chess – S3E14
Bartlett has a lot on his plate, simultaneously balancing the start of primary elections and a situation brewing between China and Taiwan. As a gift, Bartlett passes a chess set to Sam and another chess set to Toby. He plays a game simultaneously with each of the while he discuss the election and international relations.
President Bartlett struggles with his intellectualism throughout the show. Nobody likes the smartest kid in the class, so he feels a need to come across as a “common” man. In contrast, he plays two simultaneous chess games while handling an international incident. “Common man” might be a little disingenuous.
CSI – Logos
“We found scrabble pieces lodged in his esophagus.”
“I guess someone made him swallow his words.”
(•_•) ( •_•)>⌐■-■ (⌐■_■) ~yeeeaaaaaaaahhhhhhhhhhhhh
That’s actually a CSI plot. There’s a
scrabble logos tournament in town, and the champion was found dead with a belly full of scrabble logos tiles.
I can’t imagine why Hasbro wasn’t keen on having a crime drama using one of their games as a murder weapon, though maybe you’ll think twice before you cross Grandma during game night at the home.
House MD – Chess – S3e23
In an episode entitled “The Jerk” , House’s team gets a child patient who collapsed after flying into a rage and beating up another child after a chess match. To disprove a diagnosis, House trash talks the kid into a chess game to see how he reacts to stress (hint: he has a seizure).
Basically, House’s sets out to prove that the uncontrollable rage isn’t a symptom, the kid is just a huge asshole. If Primetime television is trying to teach us anything, it’s that playing board games put’s you at risk of being a violent sociopath. (Diplomacy, anyone?)
Walking Dead – Backgammon – S4E6
The Governor, Phillip Blake, lost everything when he lost Woodbury, and wanders the streets a broken man. When he’s ready to give up, he’s taken in by a family: a crippled old man, his two daughters, and his mute granddaughter, Meghan. The family does alright, but Meghan stopped speaking and they can’t seem to comfort her.
The old man doesn’t trust Phillip, but confides that there are games upstairs among a few zombies, and maybe the games could cheer up Meghan. They need Phillip in order to get them, and the old man would do anything to see his granddaughter happy.
Phillip’s whole personality revolved around his daughter whom he lost, and as he builds a relationship with Meghan, we can see him start to regain some of his humanity. Though as he teaches Meghan a little about chess, we see a glimpse of his dark side.
Breaking Bad – Chess – S3E6
In season 3 of Breaking Bad, we meet Gale, a new assistant who reminds Walt about the pure joy of chemistry. Gale is a nerd and academic, and brings a sense of normalcy to meth-making that appeals to Walt’s suburban sensibilities. Gale has a side project to produce the perfect cup of coffee, he recites a bit of poetic verse, and, of course, he plays a bit of chess.
A chess board set up in a meth lab, is a clever prop to show how Gustavo’s ‘Superlab’ is someplace that Walter White could be comfortable and halfway normal. A quick glance at the chess board looks like things are quickly deteriorating for Walter White’s side of the board, it seems unlikely that he’ll be comfortable for long.
Lost – Senet – S6E15
People have been getting stranded on “the island” throughout history. In flashbacks we see two young Roman brothers, shipwrecked, and find an Egyptian Senet board on the beach. The games becomes a central metaphor for the conflict between them.
Senet provides an atmosphere of age and mysticism. The Egyptians were as old to the Romans as the Romans feel to us. The children don’t know the rules to Senet, so they just make them up on the fly; just like the writers did with the plot.
Without spoiling too much, Senet is the start of an extended metaphor that stretches throughout the history of the island, the thoughtful methodical struggle between good and evil.
Joan of Arcadia – Chess – S1E3
So God want’s Joan to read about chess, taking her $12 and passing her a book. Joan, however, is too busy trying to fit into the “in” crowd to read the book, instead doing some detective work for the popular girls to see if Grace Polk is gay.
It would have been easier if she had read the chess book, as Joan suddenly has to defend her actions and struggles with her classmates. It all starts to unravel until Joan plays chess with God in the school basement. She learns three things about chess: once you take an action it has a consequence, you win by not playing your opponent’s game, and that God is using chess as a metaphor.
It doesn’t really sink in for Joan until her brother repeats the advice when Joan is at wits end. The next time Joan is confronted with drama, we see her make a clear choice to play by her own rules, and things start to improve as a result.
Jessica Jones – Poker – S1E5
Whatever, Kilgrave says, you do. Which doesn’t make him a great opponent in poker. He seats himself at a high-stakes poker game, tells his opponents to go all in, and then tells them all to fold.
Kilgrave has a penchant for complex machinations; he could just force them to hand over the cash, but he’d prefer to make them dance.
I won’t spoil the plot, but, as the series progresses, something very specific is motivating Kilgrave to jump through hoops. Despite his incredible power, he the reason why he practices “playing by the rules” is incredibly clever.
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I published my first board game references article 6 months ago about board game references in cartoons, and I have since found way more references in some of my favorite cartoons. I’m starting to come to the conclusion that any cartoon that runs long enough will invariably feature a board game at some point. With that in mind take a look at these 10 more times board games got into your favorite cartoons.
1. Rugrats- Neurosis -S3E6
Rugrats has an ever present contrast between the whimsical adventures of the babies and the incredibly mundane lives of the grown-ups: paying taxes, grocery shopping, and playing flavorless board games.
The adults play a game called Neurosis, which is like “Life” but with twice the rules and none of the bright colors. They desperately cling to finishing the game despite the junior terrorism of Angelica’s “scheme of the week”. Grown-ups will do anything that promises to deliver them from the soul crushing futility of their day to day suburban lives.
Unfortunately, their board game will give them no satisfaction, they really ought to be playing something like Ticket to Ride for that.
2. Doug -BarnYard Chess -S3E1
“Barnyard Chess” comes up in more than a couple episodes, how it differs from normal chess is never totally clear. Doug and Skeeter often play to pass the time, but in the episode Doug’s Fat Cat he plays it with his sister Judy. The show plays to a lot of typical archetypes–the best friend, the school bully, the haughty-er than thou sister, etc–and it would be easy to think the characters are two dimensional.
But we routinely see depth in Judy and Doug’s relationship. She may be dramatic and focused on her “art”, but she still has time for her brother, whether that means getting him out of a jam or just sitting down and playing a board game.
3. Dexter’s Lab – Chess – S4E17
Smart people play chess, apparently that’s a whole . . . cultural stereotype. Chess was designed before people thought board games could be fun, so the goal of chess is to show how much smarter your are than your opponent. So you can bet that boy geniuses line up to play the game.
Dexter’s Lab uses chess as a stand in for soccer to play the usual “soccer mom” trope. Just because a boy genius doesn’t play soccer doesn’t mean that his mom won’t be on the sidelines in face paint making everyone feel uncomfortable.
4. Spongebob – P & P – S5E55B
“Art though feeling it now Mr. Crabbs?” When you need to feel young and hip, nothing compares to playing a pen and paper RPG with a Sponge and Starfish.
Mr. Crabbs just isn’t “feeling it”. In a mid-life funk, he turns to Spongebob to rediscover his inner child. P&P, a nautical role playing game, pops up in a quick sequence of nonsensical activities and delivers a low hanging punchline.
Interestingly, the episode nestles a tabletop RPG between a coin-op hobby horse and a kiddie pool. Each activity is it’s own kind of make believe, so while it’s easy to dismiss Spongebob as a drug-induced fever dream, he’s making an interesting point. The key to connecting with your inner child is through imagination.
5. Jackie Chan Adventures – Mahjong -S2E30
While Jackie Chan oversees a valuable relic being transported in the secret safe aboard a cruise ship, he brings along Uncle, Jade, and Tohru.While Jackie works to keep the artifact safe, his family can take a bit of a vacation.
Tohru also brings along his mother, who is constantly at odds with Uncle. Uncle is actually prepared to swim back to shore rather than spend the trip with Mama Tohru. . . until she mentions mah-jongg. Rivalry sparks and the two elders spend the cruise trying to outdo each other in a variety of games.
Jackie Chan Adventures, at times, gave us a reasonably authentic look at Chinese-American culture, so it felt natural to have mah-jongg featured strongly in an episode. Not only do both Uncle and Mama Tohru claim to be experts, but they back up their claims with awards won in competitive circuits.
6. Angry Beavers – El Grapadura and Ladders – S3E30
When Dag and Norb are paid a visit from their backwoods cousin, they’re tasked with treating him with extra consideration. While Dag isnt particularly hospitable, he does treat his photorealistic cousin to the “best board game ever”: The Limited Gold Edition of El Grapadura and Ladders.
Dag’s more the type to obsesss over video games, as the episode starts with him playing a lumberjack simulator instead of helping clean house. Still, when extended family comes to stay, board games are the activity of choice, even for beavers.
7. My Life as a Teenage Robot- ‘Monopoly’ – s3E8
Tensions run high when Jenny and her friends play some form of Monopoly. Brad and Tuck cheat, but Jenny wins because she’s an insufferable rules lawyer and takes advantage of a technicality. Everyone’s a jerk, everyone is angry, and Jenny has to go rescue someone from a garbage planet beyond Jupiter. Brad and Tuck aren’t done being petty, though, and tag along.
The gang has to put aside there pettiness to fight a tri-villain team up. You’d think the lesson would be how our heroes are heroes because the don’t let pettiness get in the way of saving the day. Not true. They only put aside their petty complaints at the last critical moment, and, even then, only briefly.
What Jenny wants more than anything else is to live life like a normal teenager. The episode paints the protagonists as petty to the point of self harm, so I think the message is pretty accurate.
8. MY LIttle Pony – Ogres & Oubliettes -S6e17
Given a free evening, Discord finds his usual companions occupied and decides to grace the “sidekicks” with his presence. Big Mac and Spike bring Discord in on their plans for an evening of “Ogres and Oubliettes”, Equestria’s off-brand D&D. Discord dismisses them and their game out of hand, but a few moments into the game, he earns ridicule for making poor game choices.
Here’s a tip, maybe don’t poke fun at a god of chaos during an RPG session. Discord pulls a Jumanji, and sucks Spike and Big Mac into a world where the game has come to life, and is ready to kill them.
I feel My Little Pony really captured the emotions and dynamics of some RPG group’s I’ve encountered. Snide comments can cut deep, and emotions can overflow. Eventually, Discord comes to realize that he’s not “too cool” for the sidekicks, while Big Mac and Spike realize they were a little too hard on Discord. Reconciling their frustrations and hurt feelings, all of them are able to enjoy the game more together than they could without each other.
That’s an important lesson in escapism. Games let us rewrite our social contracts, but that doesn’t give us a free pass to be jerks. I think that’s a great takeaway message, and something that many RPG groups struggle with.
9. Gravity Falls – Chess – S2E15
Bill Cipher is the big bad of Gravity Falls. A nigh omnipotent deity of pure chaos, Cipher is bound by an inscrutable system of rules and limitations. Mostly though, Bill needs to make deals with humankind to gain access to reality.
Cipher befriends Stanford, a lonely intellectual, by offering knowledge and stoking his ego. Over time, their partnership grows, and we see them engage in a round of chess.
Chess is a great tool to express their relationship. Ford, looking for companionship enjoys what, to him, would be intellectual stimulation shared by equals. From Cipher’s point of view, chess mirrors his life; to get what he wants he needs to navigate complex rituals and, more importantly, he needs to get an opponent to sit down with him.
10. Adventure Time- S7E37
Adventure Time revisits Card Wars after Jake has become a father. Spending time with his daughter Charlie, he begs her to play doubles Card Wars with him at an upcoming tournament. She prefers Tarot cards, but, after Jake begs, she agrees to play one game in exchange for one of his bones.
We’re given a glimpse into Jake’s history of being violent and vindictive when losing a card game. He’s a father now and he’s lost track of how old he is, maybe he’s almost 40. According to Jake, 20’s are for regretting, 30’s are for being dignified, and 40’s are older than he ever wants to be. He want’s to unpack and bury his last decade before embarking on the next one.
Which means coming to terms with himself in a card game.
Charlie plays a single game, and then leaves. No amount of bones will entice her to stay, and Jake attempts to continue the tournament alone. Without the influence of his daughter, he quickly succumbs to the impulse to win at all costs (including at the cost of his dignity).
We watch him struggle, while Charlie uses the bone to peer into the future and gain mysterious wisdom. Afterwards, she realizes that she was a total “wan” to her dad, and return to help him. Jake is barely able to hold it together until Charlie helps him to be content. They don’t win the match, but Jake is able to bury his 20’s.
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