Losing at Board Games: The Sacrifice Necessary to Win

by Jon Beall


William Bell, a character in the TV show Fringe, spends a bit of time in Season 4 Episode 21 talking about chess.

“The art of chess… is knowing when a piece is most valuable and then… being willing to sacrifice it. For in the vacuum created by the loss of what is most precious, opportunity abounds, influences maximize, and desire becomes destiny.”

While Season 4 is one of the weaker seasons of Fringe I found myself compelled by this discussion.  Is it a little melodramatic?  Sure.  But I see in this statement an element of truth.

Chess Beginnings

I have played chess for as long as I can remember.  My dad is an intense chess player who did not believe in letting his children win.  He played me without his queen for many games; a crowning achievement of my high school days was when he switched to playing without his rook.

As a young player, I would get excited at moments where I could gain a piece for free.  My father would seem to leave a piece exposed and I would pounce, grateful to have captured an enemy.

I learned, however, that this was rarely an unforeseen move to my father.  Instead, he was sacrificing a piece in order to gain a positional advantage.  This advantage would typically lead to my downfall and the glee I felt at gaining a free piece would be short-lived as I found myself in yet another checkmate.

Issues of Chess Life would be floating around my dad’s office, and I started to learn from chess books.

Photo: Jon Beall
Photo: Jon Beall

Chess Discovery

These manuscipts illuminated why I was repeatedly loosing in chess.

The goal of chess was checkmate, and any piece should be willingly sacrificed if checkmate could be achieved.

My dad would dangle a carrot out in front of me.  I would willingly move a piece out of a controlling situation in order to take this “free” piece.  I thought I wasn’t paying anything for the piece, but in fact I was tendering a dear cost – sacrificing position for minimal gain.

There were many high school afternoons passed in the focus of honing my abilities in chess.  Many of these matches were with my peers.  I had starting learning from my father.  I observed what pieces my opponents protected most often.  I observed what pieces would be most tempting for them if I were to sacrifice them for greater position.

Some of my opponents would take any opportunity to capture a free piece – even a pawn.  Others would take a greater temptation and I would have to lose a rook or a knight in order to gain position.

Photo: Jon Beall
Photo: Jon Beall

There would always be a sacrifice in order to gain the victory.

One of my favorite games is Reiner Knizia’s Tigris and Euphrates.  I was engaged with a fierce battle with the Political Mastermind last Saturday afternoon.  I looked at the board, and examined our stacks of pieces in each color.  I knew that it would take a significant shift in momentum in order for me to have a chance at winning.

I had a plague tile available to play; I studied the board to identify where I could place it in order to cripple her the most.

One location stood out to me.  I could cut her off from a statue that was generating points in black, her weakest color, but in order to do so I would have to cut two of my own leaders off from their most significant armies.

I evaluated.  Those leaders that I would be impacting were my strongest two colors whereas the leader I would be crippling belonged to her weakest color.  I played the tile and cut her off from her statue.

It totally threw her off.  She hadn’t even considered that I would be willing to hamper two of my leaders in order to slow the growth of one of her leaders.

I wish I could report that this sacrifice won me the game, but unfortunately that is not the case.  She earned a narrow victory, but if I hadn’t made the sacrifice, she would have won by a large margin.

That one tile placement altered the momentum of the game.

Photo: Jon Beall
Photo: Jon Beall

Hiking in Winter

While I am playing a game, I think of myself as a hiker in the snow.  I’ll enjoy the calm, and feel good about my pace.  The air is still, and the mountain to my left is beautiful and scenic; it is a good day to be hiking.
Five minutes later, there is a huge avalanche, and I am buried where I stand.

That is what it is like to lose at a board game.

What’s the point?

I have only recently realized that I should be applying what I learned in chess to other games.  So I am losing… for now.

But I’m learning.  I’m studying.
And maybe one of these days I’ll win.

Reality Makes the Best Fantasy: A Deity’s Gotta Eat

Peaches, a symbol of longevity and immortality in Chinese culture.
Peaches, a symbol of longevity and immortality in Chinese culture.

Eating. We do it every day. I just ate some ice cream while I did some research and started writing this article. I had a nice salad for lunch while I worked on some RPG stuff. I made a nice lunch of rice, spinach and leftover bulgogi for my daughter to take to school so she could have the energy to run around. Regardless of your relationship with food, food is the fuel we as humans partake of to give us the energy to get things done. Whether that’s sit in front of a computer and type out as many words as you can, as fast as you can, or work in field from sunup to sundown, tending to plants and animals, mowing, picking, planting or something in between those two, doing stuff takes energy and we get that energy from the food we eat.

What if the stuff you did was keep the sun from falling from the sky? Watched over all merchants? Sew seeds of discord among humans? Preside over every childbirth in the land? Know everything, see everything? Reign in all these people and keep them in their domains? It would probably take a hell of a lot more than a bowl of cereal and some coffee in the morning to get that done. Deities perform the kind of tasks only deities do, residing over the natural order, inspiring, protecting, making war, rewarding and punishing on epic scales man can try to approach…but will probably fail at. It’s only natural they partake of some divine sustenance.

Some deities partake of special substances, reserved only for them to maintain their divine power. Ambrosia and nectar are the first that comes to my mind, food of the Greek pantheon. Amrita is the Hindu equivalent, a substance consumed by their deities in order to maintain their immortality. Thetis rubbed ambrosia over her infant son, Achilles’ body in an effort to make him immortal. Psyche was given ambrosia to make her immortal once Aphrodite has put her through the ringer. In China, peaches are a sign of longevity, immortality, their ultimate form being the Peaches of Immortality, a tree that takes thousands of years to flower and fruit.

In addition to the foods deities take and make for themselves, there are also the foods and substances given to them by humans, in the form of dedications, sacrifices and oblations. Cultures across the globe require certain items, certain types of animals or plants to be offered at certain times. Some deities have a taste for cigars or bananas. Some prefer speckled goats and fresh barley. Some want the first fruits of your field. Others prefer the blood of humans. The bigger the request, the bigger the sacrifice. The powers that be can be persuaded or even aided in their endeavors by the offerings of humans. No energy put in and the results can be catastrophic.

If the divine is a part of your game, what do the members of your pantheon feed upon? What type of fuel does it take for them to keep things moving and how do humans participate in this great feeding of the divine? Are they the maitre ds? Or…on the menu?

For GMs

  • Who are the various deities at play in the world? What do they preside over? Does this affect the types of sacrifices they accept and prefer?
  • Is there a food or substance that is consumed only by the deities? Why do they alone eat it? What types of powers does it grant them? What is it like?
  • How often must sacrifices be made to deities? How are these sacrifices sent forth? Offered on altars? Burned? Submerged in water? Do the people offering them get to/have to partake of the items offered?
  • Who makes the sacrifices? Who deems the sacrifices good or not?
  • What types of things make the best sacrifices? What is forbidden to be sacrificed and why?
  • Are the foods of the deities naturally occurring or must they be prepared in a certain way?
  • What would befall any mortal who partakes of food for the divine?

Plot Hooks

  • An ancient manuscript is found by the PCs, containing a recipe which if brewed and offered in a certain location will awaken an older pantheon of deities. While some think the recipe is just nonsense, others think there is more to it. Some believe it’s a sure ticket to a new age, with new rules and a new divine order. Some see it as blasphemy, something which should be forgotten. Others see it as allegory while still others think it’s a code hinting at a real elixir of immortality for humans. The PCs must decide what to do with this recipe. What do they think it is? What deities will it unleash upon the land? Are the ingredients hard to find? Who thinks what about the possibilities it contains? Can the recipe be destroyed? Who hid it in the first place and why?
  • When a plant whose fruit is reserved only for the deities is discovered to have medicinal properties that can save lives in another region, the locals are angered when ambassadors come demanding the fruit for the good of their people; according to the tradition of where the trees are from, if the fruit is eaten by mortals, it will bring destruction to the land. How do the ambassadors enter the land? How was the fruit discovered to have been such beneficial medicine? Who is protecting these trees? What is the nature of the illness the fruit supposedly cures? Which deity is the fruit for specifically?
  • When a group of woodcutters’ family members all fall terribly ill, no reason behind the mysterious illness can be found: until they are questioned by the PCs. Years ago they came upon a strange copse of trees that exuded a sweet, fragrant substance when felled. Finding the sap to be delicious, they ate it and continued their work, leaving the trees to return to later for the sticky sap. However, further events proved the woodcutters impervious to injury or illness, stronger than before and aging slowly. The only thing they have in common is the sap. They urge the PCs to find the copse of trees and acquire some sap for their families before it is too late for their loved ones, unable to go as they fear leaving their sides. What do the PCs find at the copse? What is the sap? Is the copse connected to the illnesses of the woodcutters’ families? Do the PCs partake of the sap themselves?
  • When a powerful individual finds out flower buds have started to form on a tree whose fruit will grant immortality, the PCs are send on the arduous task of retrieving it. The fruit only forms once every 100 generations and lasts for one day, with many supernatural obstacles in their way. The PCs however are indebted in some way where saying no is not an option. What is the fruit? What can they expect to encounter on their journey? Do other people know of the fruit’s forthcoming? Why are they compelled to perform such a task and how can their employer ensure they won’t mess it up and be sure they don’t steal it for themselves?
  • When an invading force takes hold of the region, they forbid certain types of sacrifices, deeming them barbaric. When natural disasters take hold of the land, the indigenous people insist it is because of the lack of sacrifices and the invaders must decide what to do. What are the sacrifices being withheld? How different is the religion of the native people from the invaders? Are the sacrifices being done in secret? Is there a link between the change in sacrifices and the natural disasters? What do the people think will happen if the sacrifices do not resume?

For PCs

  • Are you a religious person? Do you follow a particular deity?
  • What sacrifices do they require and what do they promise in return if they are offered?
  • What is most precious to you? Would you sacrifice it if you thought it would help yourself? Your loved ones? A friend? A stranger?
  • If someone offered you the ‘food of the divine,’ would you eat it?

What say you? Can you whet the appetites of the divine?

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