“There may be other universes based on all sorts of other principles,” William S Burroughs once wrote, “but ours seems to be based on war and games.” And as this list aims to prove, war and games are a common sight in the universes created by the finest geek writers in film and TV.
Whether they require a dice, board and counters, or a weirdly shaped pack of cards, the entries below represent a few of the fictional games that have popped up on the large and small screen over the past few decades. Bear in mind we’re not talking about future sports here (something we’ll hold back for another list further down the line) or made-up videogames. No, these are the kinds of games you could theoretically play with your family after Sunday lunch, or with your friends over a beer on a Friday night. That is, if you can even figure out how to play them…
NukemAs seen in: RoboCop
“That’s it, buster! No more military aid!” The appearance of this fictional board game may have been brief, but its cynical, blackly comic atmosphere perfectly sums up both the attitude of RoboCop’s makers, and also the 80s era it sprang from. Possibly a futuristic, computer-enhanced combination of Battleship and Risk, Nukem is the must-have family board game for the late Cold War era – a kill-or-be-killed nuclear stand-off that inevitably ends in Armageddon.
With a few of the other fictional games on this list eventually becoming material reality, we’re a little saddened that some enterprising soul never came up with a real-world version of Nukem. All we can do is gaze longingly at its advert for the umpteenth time and wistfully mutter, “We’d buy that for a dollar…”
Tri-Dimensional ChessAs seen in: Star Trek
The richly wrought Star Trek universe has produced so many made-up games, sports and pastimes that it’s probably worthy of its own list. Tri-Dimensional Chess is perhaps the most prominent, though, given that it’s turned up so regularly in Star Trek movies and episodes since the Original Series aired for the very first time in 1966.
Although variations of 3D Chess – using multiple boards suspended one over the other – had been toyed with by inventors since the 1800s, the version seen in Star Trek has a uniquely 60s, faintly kitsch appearance, with its black and white pieces mounted on a gloriously designed multi-tiered chrome framework of chrome and plastic.
Naturally, Mister Spock is a Tri-D Chess expert, and his abilities came in most useful in episode 20, Court Martial, where the game serves as a pivotal part in the story. Writer and illustrator expanded on the rules of Tri-D Chess in his book The Star Trek Star Fleet Technical Manual in 1975, and the Franklin Mint issued a full-size version of the set back in 1994. Only made in limited quantities, they’re now highly sought-after collector’s items.
TadekAs seen in: Farscape
Just as Spock played Tri-D Chess in Star Trek, so the diminutive Rygel chose Tadek as his game of choice in Farscape. Making a brief appearance in season one episode The Flax, Tadek looks a bit like draughts with disco lights, as players move crystalline tiles around a board covered in multi-coloured lights. The rules, however, seem to be rather more involved than draughts, with its Risk-like complicated manoeuvres and weird futuristic sound effects. There appears to be a poker-like element to Tadek, too, since bluffing appears to be a valid tactic, and Rygel enjoys playing for Farscape’s currency, the Kelvic crystal.
Sadly, Farscape’s cancellation in 2003 probably means that, barring some kind of miraculous resurgence, we’ll never see the Franklin Mint create a reproduction of Tadek as it did for Star Trek’s Tri-D Chess.
Don’t Whiz on the Electric FenceAs seen in: The Ren & Stimpy Show
Quite possibly the weirdest animated TV series of the 90s, Ren & Stimpy was a collision of golden-age-style design, odd-couple sitcom and pure anarchy. Each episode was so unpredictable in plot and setting, the only thing you could really rely on was the presence of its two lead characters – Ren, a deranged Chihuahua who spoke like Peter Lorre, and Stimpy, an overweight, terminally dim cat.
One of the funniest episodes, season two’s Svën Höek, saw a guest appearance from Ren’s Swedish cousin, a character even more doltish than Stimpy. Alone in the house and bored while Ren’s at work, Svën and Stimpy decide to play “The funnest game in the whole wide world”. Don’t Whiz on the Electric Fence, a board game apparently inspired by Mouse Trap. It features a strikingly similar maze-like board with little counters and dice, except there’s a miniature electric fence sitting in the middle instead of an elaborate mouse catching device.
Svën and Stimpy barely have time to set up the game (and plug it into the mains) before Ren returns home from work. Furious at the mess Svën and Stimpy have made around the house (“My collection of rare incurable diseases!”), Ren foolishly urinates on the electric fence in a psychotic act of revenge, blowing up the house and killing them all instantly. We told you it was a weird series.TriadAs seen in: Battlestar Galactica
As seen in Ronald D Moore’s reimagined noughties version of Battlestar Galactica, Triad is a sci-fi variant of poker favoured by semi-inebriated, boisterous fighter pilots. Potentially winning hands go by arcane names such as “full colours”, “prince high red” and “three on a run”, though it’s said the actors in BSG have no idea how the game’s played, and simply make it up as they go along – exactly how we play poker, as it happens.
Confusingly, Triad wasn’t a card game in the original Battlestar series, but a team sport that vaguely resembles netball – a pastime called Pyramid in Moore’s version of the show. This was, Moore has since admitted, due to a mix-up on his part, where the two similar sounding games were transposed in his memory.
Personally, we’d far prefer to settle down with some booze and a deck of hexagonal cards (BSG decks are available to purchase, sci-fi card fans), but sportier readers may be interested to know that a Colonial Triad League has been set up in Australia – its organisers occasionally post games up on YouTube. Who knows, maybe you’ll be able to play this down your local park soon…
Tall CardAs seen in: Firefly
As the above entries prove, you can’t very well create a sci-fi television series without also coming up with its own arcane pastime, and Tall Card is, in the universe of Joss Whedon’s Firefly, the poker-like card game of choice – though exactly what the rules are is anyone’s guess. Tall Card’s briefly seen in the episode, Shindig, where Simon hosts a game to decide who’ll carry out various boring chores. “Plums are tall,” he says, mysteriously. “No tall card claim.”
Writer Jane Espenson briefly got everyone’s hopes up when she claimed that a full list of Tall Card’s rules were available on Fox’s website – something that later turned out to be a false alarm. Firefly fans are endlessly inventive, though, and some have managed to piece together their own version of Tall Card based on its brief cameo in the series. This means that, with the help of an inkjet printer and a pair of scissors, you too can use Tall Card to decide who will do the washing up, hoovering or septic tank cleansing.
Double CrankoAs seen in: M*A*S*H
A mixture of draughts, chess, poker and drinking game, Double Cranko appeared in the M*A*S*H episode, Your Hit Parade in 1978. It’s a game so unfathomable that even its inventors, Hawkeye and Captain Hunnicutt, aren’t sure of its rules, as Colonel Potter soon discovers. “Is that in the rules?” Potter asks, when he spots Hawkeye pulling off a strange manoeuvre, to which Hunnicutt replies, “What rules?” JumanjiAs seen in: Jumanji
Jumanji’s an obvious choice, really, given that the whole film’s based around the enchanted board game of the title. And if this 1995 family movie’s taught us anything, it’s that board games where the pieces can miraculously move themselves should be avoided at all costs – unless you’re a fan of jungle animals, that is. As Jumanji’s protagonists find out, playing the game will unleash all kinds of wild creatures, zany special effects and Robin Williams.
The popularity of Jumanji spawned a proper board game courtesy of Milton Bradley, which replicated the riddles and look of the film without the rampaging animals. Zathura, a sort-of-sequel to Jumanji from the same writer, didn’t do well enough to spawn a tie-in board game of its own.DejarikAs seen in: Star Wars
If you’d like to know how dull life was in the 80s, before the invention of the Internet and such, here’s a taster: my friends and I would often talk excitedly about Dejarik, the game Chewbacca and R2-D2 are seen playing aboard the Millennium Falcon in Star Wars. It’s essentially a circular variant of chess, where holographic creatures fight tooth and claw for control of the board.
I suppose, like almost everything in Star Wars and its sequels, Dejarik looked like the kind of thing a kid of the 80s would want in their bedroom, which is probably why the game, although only making a cameo appearance in Star Wars, repeatedly turned up in tie-in novels, videogames and episodes of The Clone Wars.
The enduring power of Dejarik is such that, years later, some dedicated fans have come up with the rules for their own version of the game, one American company created a scale model version of the board and its little fighting creatures (now sold out), and there are even open-source versions of it available to download, if you’re prepared to search for them.
Sadly, the ultimate toy we’ve been waiting for since childhood – a proper, full-size version of Dejarik with actual holographic monsters – remains elusive. We’ll just have to carry on doing the same thing we’ve been doing for the last 20 years: setting up some He-Man figures on a round coffee table and pretending the dog’s Chewbacca.