10 Times Board Games Got Into Your Favorite SciFi

The future is a foreign country; they play games differently there. Whether it’s the alien games of distant worlds, or familiar games PLAYED. IN. SPAAAAACE, science fiction loves bringing board games into the plot. Regardless of the ships you pilot or creatures you encounter, someone is willing to set up a board of some kind. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

Star Trek Original Series – Tri D Chess

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The third episode of Star Trek opens with Spock and Kirk playing a little Tri-D Chess. While we’re given bits and pieces of Spock’s cold Vulcan logic in previous episodes, this game really sets up the core of Spock and Kirk’s relationship. Spock’s calculated strategies give him the upper hand, while Kirk’s irrational playstyle is often surprising. Kirk finds Spock’s emotionless play irritating, because, for him, humanity is ruled by emotion. To be human is to embrace our flaws, struggles, and passions.

Seeing the pair interact during leisure helps solidify the closeness of their friendship.

Having Kirk’s humanity laid bare in a game becomes relevant as the episode progresses. A crewman is imbued with psychic abilities that continue to become more and more powerful. Greater power strips the crewman of his flaws and, consequently, his humanity. This crewman becomes convinced that his power is absolute, and that a new race of superior psychics should replace mankind. Unpredictably, Kirk kills him with some rocks.

Star Wars – Holochess (Dejarik)

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What do you know about Wookiees? These days, we know a lot about their mannerisms, their home planet, and their Life Day traditions.

Maybe too much about their life Day traditions.

But in 1977, we knew very little about Wookiees. In fact, the word Wookiee only appears once in A New Hope.

“Let the Wookie win”

Aboard Han Solo’s ship, there’s a Holochess terminal that Chewbacca and R2D2 take to playing. It’s not surprising that an interstellar starship would have some form of entertainment, but the scene allows for some interesting world building.

Comic by iharthdarth

Han comments about the Wookiee propensity to rip the arms off of players who beat them at holochess; that gives us two pieces of information: Chewbacca is a Wookiee and Wookiees are violently sore losers.

This brief scene is a great introduction to one of the most iconic characters from the Star Wars universe, and the presence of a game allows Lucas to playfully instill the notion that Star Wars is much larger than what we’re just seeing on the screen.

Battlestar Galactica – Triad

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Triad is a pretty funny example of different for the sake of different. The show runners looked at the script and saw the characters playing poker and said, “Nuh uh, this is SPACE, we gotta have ’em playing SPACE POKER, and they play with hexagons or something.”

In the original BSG, Triad was the name for the space-equivalent of basketball and space poker was called Pyramid. Apparently, when they rebooted the series, they got the names mixed up, and noone on the team thought to double check.

Obama close enough meme with cylon head

Back to the Future 3 – Chess

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This chess reference is a clever bit of set dressing. Doc Brown’s dog, Copernicus, sits at a chess board with all the pieces wired up in a ridiculous mad scientist rig. At first glance, it’s easy to write it off as a goofy prop, but Doc Brown’s brainwave reader is used in a couple bits in the series.

Upon careful examination of the board, chess nerds agree that Marty’s move has given Copernicus a significant advantage with board position, because Copernicus is a good boy.

Tron: Legacy – Go

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When Tron Legacy was released, computer AI’s were only just starting to consistently beat the best human players at Go. It’s no accident that Finn would have a Go set, since it represents a battleground where humanity is engaged in a losing struggle against artificial intelligence.

Finn is engaged in a losing struggle against Clu, a rogue program made in Finn’s image. Finn has always been defined by games, transitioning from the twitchy games of 80’s arcade cabinets to the patient strategy of board games. Clu has an equal but opposite love of games, creating violent blood sports for his own amusement.

Finn’s fondness for Go becomes a visual representation of his philosophy and disposition. Quorra, his protege, describes her own strategy as rash and impulsive compared to his more measured approach.

The game also describes Finn’s relationship with Quorra. Despite a life of danger, Finn spends time to teach her Go. Sharing the game allowed him to be the father figure for Quorra that he couldn’t be for his actual son.

Firefly | S1E2 – Chinese Checkers

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Firefly is a joy, and it’s filled to the brim with personality. It never misses a moment to playfully expand the relationships between characters. Watching our smugglers enjoy a quiet moment of leisure gives us a chance to laugh and get closer to them. I just wish they weren’t playing Chinese Checkers.

Firefly has a problem. The setting is a mix of Western and Eastern influences. Character’s swear in mandarin, Asian text is commonly seen, many spaceports have a decidedly eastern feel. However, all of those elements are surface level. There are almost no Asian actors, and no meaningful interactions with how Eastern traditions would translate into a space opera. It’s guilty of cultural appropriation.

Cultural appropriation is trying to sell someone’s heritage as exotic without actually exploring what that heritage means. Chinese Checkers is actually a perfect example of cultural appropriation. Developed in Germany in the late 1800’s, Chinese Checkers is based on purely western games, but salesmen thought it would sell better as a exotic game from “the Orient”. This is both disingenuous and stands in the way of pop culture with actual eastern heritage getting wider adoption.

So to see this game come up in Firefly feels particularly tone deaf.

Dr. Who | S6E13 – Live Chess

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“The crowd is getting restless. They know the queen is your only legal move. Except you’ve already moved it 12 times, which means there are now over 4 million volts running through it. That’s why they call it live chess.”

Leave it to a British TV show to make chess into a bloodsport. It’s a brilliant device in this episode. The Doctor corners his opponent into a chess game and, using only his intellect, strips his opponent of any options except to divulge some very critical information.

“Even with the gauntlet, you’ll never make it to Bishop 4 alive.”

The chess game is both incredibly descriptive of the Doctor as a character, but it also acts as a metaphor for the plot of this particular episode. The Doctor is searching for information, meticulously beating up pawns, and working a plan to corner the leader who pulls the string.

In Chess, the goal isn’t to kill the king; checkmate is when the king cannot move. Likewise, the Doctor’s plan is one of decidedly nonviolent entrapment.

 

X Files | S5E20 – Stratego

After the first season of X-Files, the department is shut down and Mulder finds himself struck in a web of intrigue. He wants to pursue the truth, but he can’t risk any information getting found out. After a discrete talk with Skully, he begins to question his perspective.

Later, he dreams of the night his sister was abducted by aliens, the core reason for Mulder’s search for the truth. Before she was taken, the two of them were playing Stratego.

Stratego represents Mulder’s struggles moving forward in the series. Secrets are the core of Stratego’s gameplay, both keeping them and uncovering them. While a game like Clue is about solving a mystery, Stratego is about surviving in a web of intrigue. If Mulder wants to find his sister, his survival will hinge on his ability to play a game of secrets.

Stargate SG1 – Poker

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Lieutenant Colonel Cameron Mitchell spent a big chunk of the later seasons of Stargate trying to get the SG-1 team back together, which proves a difficult feat both physically and emotionally (for both him and the casting directors).

To call the team members that do manage to return dysfunctional, is somewhat of an understatement. To improve performance, Major General Hank Landry forces the team on a “relaxing” log cabin vacation. It has all the fun of a mandatory work picnic, and Mitchell and Landry spend several awkward moments over a chess board. Neither are fond of chess, but they also don’t know how to interact with each other outside of work and need something to fill the time.

Eventually the team bonds over solving a mystery and killing a monster. They’re reminded of their bonds as a team, and they finish the episode playing poker. The transition from chess (a game where you could ignore your opponents and just look at the board) to poker (a game that relies on reading your opponents) certainly shows the team warming up to one another off-duty.

 

 

X Men: Days of Future Past – Chess

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Comic books really get off on the whole good-verses-evil motif. I mean “super-hero” and “super-villain” pretty much scream moral absolutes. Chess is a pretty common trope, because it immediately invokes the concept of “us vs them”.

The recent string of X-men movies revolve around Professor X and Magneto hurling their figurative pawns at one another, so it’s no surprise we get to see them do so in a literal sense as well.

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The movies also revolve around how Captain Picard and Gandalf are the bestest of best friends.

 


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Another Fave Five Board Game References

Met some great folks at PAX East this year and they gave me some great suggestions. Since April has 5 weeks, I figured I would share another fave five board game references.

Anime Crimes Division | S1E2 – Yugioh


When someone commits a crime against Anime in Neo Otaku City, they don’t call the police; they call the anime crimes division. The second episode follows an art heist plot. Valuable art goes missing, and investigators Diesel and Joe have to go undercover to find it. The missing art is a special Promo Yugioh Card that’s made its way into an underground Yugioh dueling circuit.

While there is some strategy in Yugioh, the game is notorious for having rare and powerful cards that totally unbalance the game. Theft of valuable cards is something that is common both in the anime and in real life. While a criminal organization based around a card game seems far fetched, Yugioh seems designed to encourage this kind of behavior. Anime Crimes Division bridges that concept into the crime drama formula, giving us all the over the top shonen tropes in a setting built like NCIS.

West World | S1E6 – Dominoes


The first time we see Ford encounter the maze in Westworld, it’s branded on a table where two hosts are playing dominoes, instead of poker. There are two things that dominoes are generally known for.

The first is setting up long sets of chain events. Like dominoes, we come to know that events have been put into motion that will inevitably lead to their inscrutible conclusions; these violent delights have violent ends. The maze marks the mystery of Arnold, and the pieces he left behind, waiting as part of a chain reaction.

Secondly, dominoes are known for making connections. You look at hand of dominoes and you try to see where the pieces fit together best. Maieve is trying to connect a forgotten past with an ambitious future, Bernard is trying to connect what he thinks he knows with what he is learning, and Dolores is trying to connect so many many broken parts of herself.

The dominoes are a small element, but they portend the greater things to come.

Royal Pains Commercial | Operation


Hank is a surgeon and his brother is the get-rich-quick-nathan-lane-style accountant slash business guy. It’s a low hanging gag, you’d expect the surgeon to be great, but it’s the comedic relief brother showing the skill. However, it’s also a pretty solid metaphor for their relationship.

Hank’s brother is good at ‘playing the game’ of socializing in the Hamptons, while Hank finds that his skills as a surgeon can only take him so far by himself.

Also, yes, I will reference a board game in a commercial for a pretty mediocre television drama. It’s pretty well done reference and I like it. What are you gonna do about it?

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 souls.

Kaito, a linguistic nerd, sets up his realm as a game of taboo, where people can’t speak certain words or letters. He has a longstanding feud with Kurama, who routinely one ups Kaito in highschool.

Playing a party game for one’s soul is an unorthodox choice, but it paints Kurama as a genius in a way that would be otherwise difficult to convey in a show mostly about punching monsters.

Betrayal at House on the Hill | Haunt 37 – Chess


Betrayal at House on the Hill is one of my all time favorite board games, where you investigate an old house to find out what sort of horrible thing is haunting it. You explore the house tile by tile, and each room adds a ton of personality, including a game room complete with a chess board.

If you come across the skull omen, you’re likely to encounter Haunt 37 and you’ll have to play chess with Death for your very life. While chess against death is a common trope, you actually don’t see it much in the kinds of horror films Betrayal references in its haunts.

Which is weird because early artwork depicting death playing chess is creepy AF.

To turn chess with death into true horror movie fair, the designers added a roving murderer for players to simultaneously contend with; in case chess wasn’t exciting enough for you.


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10 Times Board Games Got Into Your Favorite Disney Films

In the board game world, Disney doesn’t have a reputation for much beyond slapping their IP onto garbage toy-games. Like they say: merchandise, merchandise, merchandise. On the other hand, Disney has a rich history of peppering their animations with board games to improve their narratives. Let’s look at 10 times board games got into Disney films.

Beauty and the Beast – Chess

No one matches wits like Gaston. Exceeds often, but matches never. Regardless your feelings about the mixed messages and plot holes in Beauty and the Beast, we can all agree that if you flip the board in chess, you’re an asshole. Continue reading “10 Times Board Games Got Into Your Favorite Disney Films”

10 Times Board Games Got In Your Video Games

Don’t you love it when designers put games in your game so you can game while you game? Whether board games are used to enhance the setting, make a joke, or change the pace of a video game, these ten video games add a little analog gameplay to their digital narratives.

1. Assassin’s Creed III – Nine Men’s Morris

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Nine Men’s Morris is a very old game, at least as old as the Holy Roman Empire. So when a member of an ancient order of Assassins encounters the game in colonial New England it evokes a light touch of history and mystery. Continue reading “10 Times Board Games Got In Your Video Games”

10 Times Board Games Got Into Your SitComs

Sitcoms rely on characters to be successful. Well, often they rely on stale jokes and a distracted audience, but good sitcoms rely on characters. We only care about the plot if we care about the people the plot is happening to. There are a lot of ways we learn about characters, but few are as clever or as interesting as watching them play a board game. Take a look at 10 examples of board games in your favorite sitcoms.

1. Community | S2E14 – D&D

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There are enough board game references in Community to warrant its own list, but none so moving as the first Dungeons and Dragons episode. Continue reading “10 Times Board Games Got Into Your SitComs”

10 Times Board Games Got Into Your Favorite Cartoons

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

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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. Continue reading “10 Times Board Games Got Into Your Favorite Cartoons”