1. Whackbat, Fantastic Mr. Fox
Games reflect the culture that created them, and in fiction, they can serve as an easy way to distinguish a fictional world from our own, while often commenting on ours. Well, “easy” in theory, because these alternate-world games often have complicated or confusingly vague rules, though they’re often easily understood by the characters in that world. Owen Wilson’s Coach Skip rattles off the rule set for Whackbat in Wes Anderson’s Fantastic Mr. Fox as if its convoluted mixture of baseball, cricket, and track and field is so familiar, it hardly warrants explanation. (He’s surprised to hear from new student Kristofferson that the game doesn’t exist on the other side of the river, where they run grass sprints or play acorns.) It’s “real simple,” says Coach Skip during a dazzling sequence: The batter at Whackbat tries to hit a cedar stick off a “cross rock” with a flaming pinecone that’s pitched at him by the center tagger. The five twig-runners dash back and forth until the pinecone burns out and the umpire calls “Hotbox!” At the end, you count up how many “scoredowns” that adds up to and divide it by nine. “Got it!” says Kristofferson. Wait, what?
2. Brockian Ultra-Cricket, The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy
An apparent analogue to earthly cricket played by some of the higher dimensions’ more frivolous inhabitants, Brockian Ultra-Cricket is a game so complex as to evade explanation. As Douglas Adams’ first Hitchhiker’s Guide book puts it, “A full set of the rules is so massively complicated that the only time they were all bound together to form a single volume, they underwent gravitational collapse and became a black hole.” What few rules have emerged seem to involve taking sticks and hitting people, though the inconveniently large walls built between players and spectators render that a matter of mere speculation. At least one thing is clear: “The winning team shall be the first team that wins.”
3. Sabacc, Star Wars
It began with an offhanded exchange between Lando Calrissian and Han Solo in The Empire Strikes Back, when Calrissian referred to the Millennium Falcon as “my ship,” and Solo snapped back, “Hey, remember, you lost her to me fair and square.” Although the story of Calrissian’s loss and Solo’s gain is never told during the course of the Star Wars films, it was revealed in later short stories and novels to have taken place in the final hand of the Cloud City Sabacc Tournament. Sabacc serves as an approximation of poker in the Star Wars universe, but it’s a far more complicated cousin, using a deck of 76 electronic cards that have a nasty tendency to shift their suit and/or value. The two most sought-after hands in the game are the Idiot’s Array and Pure Sabacc; although Calrissian was only one card away from achieving the former, Solo beat him to the punch by pulling the latter, his cards consisting of The Queen Of Air And Darkness, The Five Of Coins, The Six Of Staves, and The Master Of Coins… or at least, that’s what it says on Wookieepedia.
4. Fizzbin, Star Trek
From Kal-toh to Kadis-kot to Strategema, fictional games abound in Star Trek. But the original and best is Fizzbin. Introduced in the original-series episode “A Piece Of The Action,” Fizzbin is an ad hoc, intentionally confounding card game devised by Captain Kirk to craftily distract a group of gangster-impersonating aliens who hold him and Spock hostage—just long enough for Spock to give them the old Vulcan nerve-pinch. From there, Fizzbin took on a life of its own in the Star Trek mythos, to the point where it was referenced again three decades later in Deep Space Nine. And in the same way Klingon has become a language people use in the real world, Fizzbin is now an actual, playable game—minus the nerve-pinch, of course.
5. Azad, The Player Of Games
In 1988, fans of science-fiction author Iain M. Banks got a major clue as to just how complex his Culture series (which is now up to nine books) was going to become. That year saw the release of the second book in the series, The Player Of Games, which revolves around Azad, a convoluted game of cards, dice, and Risk-like strategy that’s so epic in scale, it shares its name with the galactic empire that plays it. But Azad is more than a pastime for its billions of citizens; as the main character of the story—a renowned gamer and resident of the rival Culture empire—finds out, playing Azad against its native citizens reveals fundamental philosophical differences between the opponents, which eventually leads to a showdown against Azad’s emperor.
6. Blernsball, Futurama
Before Futurama gets to the heart of its season-one episode “Fear Of A Bot Planet,” it takes a few easy swings at the segregated past and lulling pace of America’s (former) favorite pastime, baseball. Now “evolved” into Blernsball—a simultaneous send-up of extreme sports and baseball’s tediousness—it bears a slight resemblance to the original game, save for the tethered Blernsball, indecipherable score-keeping, the seventh-inning grope, and a pinball-esque multi-ball round involving motorcycles and exploding bases. Robots can’t play, though, which Bender takes as an affront, setting up the episode’s satirical plot.
7. Rollerball, Rollerball
This science-fiction movie is set in a dystopian future in which corporations have replaced governments, and nationalistic passions are now projected onto an international full-contact arena sport called Rollerball. The game is played on a circular track between two competing teams composed of men wearing helmets, spiked gloves, and body armor. Most of them wear roller skates, but a few ride motorcycles. The offensive team scores by hurling a heavy steel ball into a magnetic goal embedded in the wall; the defensive team has full leave to maim, mutilate, and kill as many players as possible in order to prevent this. The corporate overlords who sponsor the games believe that it teaches their drone populations that individual effort is doomed—so when James Caan, the world’s biggest Rollerball star, becomes too idolized for their comfort, they start arbitrarily changing the rules in the hopes that he’ll be killed. But because both the game and the movie are specifically designed to provide as many opportunities for bloody mayhem as possible, it’s hard to tell any difference even after they start messing with it.
8. Dragon Poker, the Myth Adventures books
Dragon Poker isn’t, in and of itself, a terribly complicated game, beyond the fact that it revolves around six-card hands, thereby increasing the usual terminology into a realm that involves newly invented hands like the Full Belly (two sets of three of a kind) and the Full Dragon (four of a kind plus a pair). It’s only when the game’s dreaded conditional modifiers come into play that things start to get difficult to follow. Once per night, a player can change the suit of one of his cards; every five games, lower cards become higher cards and vice versa; and depending on where the game is played, how many people are playing, or even what day of the week or in which dimension the game is taking place, different cards might be wild. These are just a few examples, but the list goes on and on, changing from book to book. The late Robert Asprin, author of the Myth Adventures series, never fully defined the rules of Dragon Poker—probably because even he didn’t know what they all were.
9. Cyvasse, A Song Of Ice And Fire
A Game Of Thrones is the title of the first book of George R. R. Martin’s epic fantasy series, A Song Of Ice And Fire—and the book title reveals that the story is going to resemble a vast competition played out on a board composed of whole nations. Martin uses cyvasse—which hasn’t yet appeared in HBO’s TV adaptation, Game Of Thrones—as a symbol-in-microcosm for that sprawling game. Described by Martin in an interview as “a bit of chess, a bit of Blitzkrieg, a bit of Stratego—mix well and add imagination,” cyvasse is popular among nobles, merchants, and orphans. In fact, in spite of its complexity, it’s one of the few levelers in Ice And Fire’s rigidly striated societies. In A Dance With Dragons, the fifth volume of the series, cyvasse takes on a new prominence and importance, as Tyrion Lannister’s mastery of the convoluted game grants him certain advantages beyond the board—especially when pulling his punches causes his opponent to let his down guard regarding matters that concern the far larger game being played.
10. Quintet, Quintet
One of Robert Altman’s least-loved films, Quintet is set in a post-apocalyptic tundra. For diversion, survivors compete in a tournament of Quintet, which involves six players, “three game pieces, usually fashioned to his or her personality,” dice, and killing. Specifically, each gamer is assigned a person to (potentially) kill. Whoever rolls the highest number at the beginning attains the status of Sixth Man, who sits out the first half of the game (“Frontgame”) and determines the killing order for the other five participants. The Sixth Man tries to sabotage the other players at the beginning, hopefully manipulating the weakest player to win, because the Sixth Man has to face him/her in Quintet’s second half, a duel called Endgame. Because the rules are almost as confusing as the story points, there’s a sort of Quintet referee, but in the movie, his decisions mostly serve to knock off the supporting cast that much quicker.