World-Building: Making Up Your Own Games

One totally optional, but (in my opinion) totally fun aspect of world building is making up fictional games for your world. Like holidays and festivals, games unique to your world can give it a deeper feel and provide an endless source of subplots, conflicts, and climactic settings.

And they're easy to come up with: just take a real-world game and change it slightly. Put Chinese chess on a circular board and change the tiles. Play chess with holographic monsters. Combine Blitzkrieg with Stratego.

For a lot of fictional games, the rules don't actually matter. Although fans have made up rules for Avatar's Pai Sho and Song of Ice and Fire's cyvasse, nobody knows the rules used in the actual worlds because they don't matter. The writers have an idea of the basic concepts of the games (taken from the real-world games they combined) and they only reveal what they need to keep the plot moving.

But sometimes you want more than that. A critical event might turn on the outcome of a bet, like in Pirates 2 or Phantom Menace. Or your entire plot might center on a game, like Ender's Battle Room. In these cases, the reader needs to understand and care about what's going on. They need to know the rules.

If you're not into game design, keep things simple. Liars' Dice, podracing, and even the Battle Room are directly translated form real-world games. The writers only made slight alterations for their settings.

If you want something more complicated, be warned: an unbalanced game, whose rules are detailed in the story, will shatter the reader's disbelief. You can solve this by asking, "How could I break this game so that I win every time?" and then fix it, but that's getting into game design techniques, which I don't think you came here for.

Got that? Here's the summary:
  • Fictional games are easy to make: take a real-world game and change it slightly.
  • If the plot does not hinge on the outcome of a game: be vague about the rules.
  • If the plot does hinge on the outcome: stick as close to the rules of a real-world game as possible.
  • If the plot hinges on the outcome and you really, really want to come up with something unique: welcome to the world of game design, my friend. Here's a list of games to study up on.
Next week, I'll talk about one particular fantasy game that doesn't work, why it doesn't work, and why the novels end up working anyway. Until then, what are your favorite fictional games and why?


Patchi said...

I read AC Crispin's Han Solo trilogy this summer. She mentions people playing sabacc early in the story, but only explains the rules when the stakes get high. However, she builds interest in the game before describing it. I thought that was a great strategy, and it worked well combined with the reader already wanting to know how Han won the Falcon from Lando.

Steve MC said...

Ooh, sabacc, yes.

And Star Trek's three-dimensional chess.

And cricket, which was so strange to this Yanks that it fit right into Hitchhiker's.

Laura Hughes, MittensMorgul said...

In the first novel I ever tried to write (now safely locked away where it can't hurt anyone), the opening scenes are centered around a game. I went into great detail about the rules of said game, which sort of killed all reader interest in simply watching the action unfold naturally. If I ever go back and try to resuscitate that novel, I'll definitely rewrite that whole scene.

Susan Kaye Quinn said...

My son was convinced this morning that our cat was playing Quidditch. :) I am really, really not a gamer, so I'm looking forward to your next post. It would be interesting to think about a game to add to my MG Fantasy.

Matthew MacNish said...

Quidditch and Wizard's Chess are both quite cool, but I suppose I always loved Mech battles when I was a kid, especially the ones that were gambled on.

Cap'n Heine said...

I just finished reading The Chessman of Mars and the whole plot revolves around (you guessed it) Martian Chess. It's essentially just chess with all the pieces having different names and moves and more win/lose/draw conditions.

MattyDub said...

Obviously the next game Adam will talk about will be Quidditch. 'Tis a silly game, but it works for JKR because it lets HP be a hero.

But Adam, I'm surprised you didn't mention Thud! Heck, it even has its own site now. It's also based off of "real" games, and tweaked slightly.

I do wish there were real rules for Cyvasse, though.

Mel Chesley said...

I like the three dimensional chess as well. That's pretty cool. I also love Quidditch and wish it was possible to play lol!

I'm a new follower, came over from MacNish's blog. :D

linda said...

Ooh, strategy board games are awesome! Haven't played in a while. Should remedy that.

One fictional game I remember reading about was the one in Lev Grossman's The Magician. I don't even remember the name of the game. It involved capturing squares with magic or something. I think that might be a really bad example because all I can think about is what a miserable reading experience that was -- I hated that book with a passion.