Talking About Games: Making an Example
Continuing our Patreon-funded discussion on the vocabulary of board games criticism, today we’re talking about one of my favorite positive examples.
Welcome back! Once again we’re talking about the need to form a new vocabulary for board games criticism! In part one, we talked about the theme/mechanics divide, which is both as prevalent as a head cold and approximately as useful. In part two, we introduced five categories: setting and theme, components and mechanics, and feedback — an “ephemeral glue,” in Evan Clark’s words — which is where we can begin talking about the coherency or elegance of a game, especially once it enters that interactive space on the table.
Buckle up, because today we’ll be applying those categories to a game you’ve probably played. Its identity will shock you.
Is that click-baity enough?
Our first example is none other than modern Chaturanga, also known as modern Shatranj, also known as modern Schach, also known, although perhaps least well, as Chess.
If you haven’t played chess, let’s be real: you’ve played chess. It’s so universal that its importance is codified via lower case: chess rather than Chess, because we are no longer discussing a game but a cultural force, every bit as recognizable as “velcro” or “popsicle,” no matter which corporate representative insists their trademark be recognized via oh-so-stately capitalization.
But if you’ve been living under a rock since the literal year 600 CE, the basics go something like this. Two identical armies of sixteen pieces each stand across each other on an eight-by-eight board. Of those sixteen pieces, there are six unique figures. Pawns make up a full half of both forces, in addition to rarer knights, rooks, and bishops, plus an uncomfortably individualist queen and hapless king. From your starting ranks you push a piece out onto the board — each type has its own move — and landing a piece on top of another piece means you’ve “captured” it, which is a Gupta euphemism for “hideously disemboweled.” Unsurprisingly, this removes the captured piece from the table.
But here’s where the rules sheet for chess starts to look pretty good. Rather than being a mere game of attrition — “boring,” in professional critical parlance — chess is about entrapment. In case you aren’t averse to spoilers, that’s one of the game’s central themes. You see, while it’s possible to run around capturing enemy pieces, the game isn’t won that way. Death and destruction are means to an end. In this case, that end is to place your opponent’s king in “checkmate”: he’s under threat of capture, but no possible move can wriggle him free of the falling blade. When that happens, however, the king is not summarily executed. Rather, both players shake hands and return to their respective lives. This is because one of chess’s lesser-known themes is that the people in power — kings, for example — can inflict any quantity of harm and mayhem upon the world, and ultimately get away with it after some momentarily humiliation and perhaps exile. So it goes when half of the population is no better than a pawn.
By today’s standards, chess is a moldy oldie. It was getting played before your grandparents were alive, for pete’s sakes. But it’s easy to see why parks frequented by the elderly have eight-by-eight black-and-white grids etched directly onto the picnic tables, at least in films about smart people.
For one thing, it’s one of those games that has something important to say about every one of our five categories. We’ve already talked about the game’s themes of entrapment and court etiquette, but let’s rewind to the game’s setting. In this case, it’s plainly evoking an ancient or medieval battlefield, two lines of forces staring at each other across a short distance. This setting, like the settings of many abstract games, is a thin veneer — but an effective one.
Why so effective? Mainly because of how it informs the mechanics, with each piece’s capabilities tied to some inborn understanding of pre-mechanized warfare. Here are the pawns, slow and ineffectual unless properly shepherded. Knights are both powerful and frustrating in their unpredictability. Rooks — notched towers — lock down clear lines of sight with their ranged weaponry. Shifty bishops slip between the usual choke points. Kings are doddering and vulnerable, while their wife-queens fight tooth and claw to maintain some degree of unlikely power. Do you smell that? It’s a whiff of the medieval court intrigues that spawned such comparisons.
And the joys of sliding a weaker piece, so diminutive within the game’s visible ranked hierarchy, onto a larger one! Pawn takes bishop. Knight takes queen. Queen rampages through the soft underbelly of an unprepared enemy army. Every maneuver transforms the board state into a razor-jawed trap with multiple teeth and springs, any one of them threatening to put your plans to rest with a metallic snap. Want to understand how to make every move matter? Look no further than chess.
But even after all that praise, we’re still only talking about chess’s first four categories. Oh, we’ve touched upon feedback; after all, there’s something ephemeral about how perfectly those categories combine, from the hollow wood-on-wood scrape of a piece signaling its intent as it slides across the board to the clatter of something crucial being toppled. Components enacting mechanisms informed by setting evoking theme. The feedback is evident. But it isn’t limited to only what’s happening on the table.
Feedback is also about what’s happening above it.
I’ll give you two examples of above-the-table feedback.
The first is Pax Renaissance by Phil Eklund, which places you in command of Renaissance bankers trying to manipulate the politics of Europe by securing trade monopolies, arranging marriages, financing wars and coups and peasant rebellions and crusades, and generally behaving as though the Illuminati were an actual organization with its tendrils polluting every pie in the world.
There’s no shortage of interesting stuff to say about Pax Renaissance. For the purposes of this essay, however, the important detail is that Eklund did something extraordinarily clever by using chess pieces to represent, well, basically everything. Kings and queens are the cards you’ll use to control various nations. More than that, while kings are often your goal, they’re captured by other pieces, and only after careful preparation. Rooks and knights represent a kingdom’s nobility and actual knights, the essential supporting actors behind every major power. Bishops travel across cards rather than the map — therefore slipping across the usual lines of control. And, in fitting with Eklund’s argument that the rising mercantile class transformed Renaissance Europe, pawns represent both the downtrodden and merchant alike, both expendable saps and those who ultimately give shape to a world in metamorphosis.
In other words, Eklund uses these pieces to represent a game that operates like a bigger, more complicated, more sprawling, more exception-laden round of chess. Pieces are shuffled into place, traps are laid, pawns are sacrificed and eventually transformed into queens in their own right, and when the match is concluded somebody comes two syllables short of uttering “checkmate.” You might as well. You’ve effectively done the same thing. And it was only possible because the feedback of chess is so successful, so all-permeating, that those pieces and their operations have been ingrained within our culture until we understand them at an instinctive level. No thought necessary. Pure reflex.
Another example. Picture something for me. It should be no trouble at all. You’ve seen it a hundred times already.
Our wily protagonist is in trouble. He needs information. He goes to the park, the one with the strips of greenery and the joggers, the one where the elderly go to await their final sleep. He meets with somebody, an informant, who has what he needs. They sit at a table, a grid of squares permanently etched upon its surface.
“I’ll tell you what,” the informant says, his voice an even blend of magnanimity and snake oil. “Let’s play for it.” Our protagonist hesitates, but the informant knows what comes next, because there is no other choice. This moment is as inevitable as the death of the sun. Wagers are made. Information on one side, our protagonist’s 1970 Ford Mustang Boss 302 on the other. The stakes have never been higher.
What do they play? Do they go bowling? Count one-two-three-four-I-declare-a-thumb-war? Break out Catan with the Seafarers expansion? Shit no. They play chess. The game of kings and shahs and weirdly anachronistic (but pleasantly so) female primacy.
Sometimes they even go one further. Sometimes they just say their moves. That’s how you know they’re geniuses, because they’re holding all those pieces in their mind palaces with utmost precision. That or yelping gibberish at each other and hoping their rival doesn’t notice. Which, in its own way, is also a form of genius. “Bishop to bishop fourteen,” they say, and we understand its meaning even though it doesn’t mean anything. If you take my meaning.
For those who don’t, I’ll spell it out. Chess does more than slap a veneer on top and bury a theme underneath. It does more than deploy its components to enact its systems. It does something that cannot be explained by its rule sheet or an image of it set up on a table in a park frequented by paramedics.
Even though it’s roughly ten thousand years old, it comes to life. It represents itself and yourself. Your intelligence. Your wiles. Your ability to both plan and react. And it does these things with such effectiveness that it has written itself upon the forehead of our culture. There’s a reason many people shy away from a round of chess. In playing poorly, we betray our own weaknesses. You can lose at most games. But to lose at chess is to fail at life itself.
That’s feedback. The glue that holds the previous four categories together. And more than that, what the game does — what it becomes — the instant players get their paws on it. The spark, whether great or small, that’s worthy of consideration beyond the artifact on the table.
And to further drive the point home, next time we’ll look at a negative example.
Part Four can be found on Patreon right now for supporters. Cheapskates will be able to find it here in a few weeks!