Why Greg Universe is the greatest hero on the cartoon Steven Universe

1 Mar

Steven Universe is a show on Cartoon Network in which three space alien superheroines defend the Earth from the troublesome remnants of an ancient invasion and the impending peril of a new invasion. If you’ve seen the show you might be thinking, “Is this one of those articles that over-examines some perfectly innocent and gleeful children’s cartoon?” To which the answer is, yes, probably, but I hope it’s at least interesting.

I say I might be over-thinking it because at first glance, this is a pretty standard, perhaps even too perfect children’s cartoon. It’s full of fun and jokes and innocence and young love and, “You can help more when you’re grown” followed almost immediately by, “I’m already more grown than they give me credit for.” Ordinary childhood wish fulfillment sort of stuff. If the goal of the cast a crew was to create a cartoon that kids would watch and love, then they succeeded. All the boxes are ticked off.

One small personal note: Steven Universe actually reminds me of my own childhood because of a bizarre instance of synchronicity. When I was a kid, playing the Palladium Books role-playing game, Heroes Unlimited, one of the things I liked to do was actually use all the random character creation tables, that everyone else just skipped or picked from, even if it created some really strange heroes, like one time, a teenage mutant ninja hippopotamus, who despite being built like a hippo, was still as stealthy as a ninja. One month (campaigns rarely lasted more than a few months) I ended up with a crystalline alien heroine who had escaped her rigidly hierarchical interstellar civilization in which caste was determined by what sort of precious stone you seemed to be composed of. Every time the characters in Steven Universe interact with “Homeworld Gems” I get a flash of a reminder, a sort of involuntary memory, like a character in a Proust novel, about what it was like to be that boy with no responsibilities more pressing than making up stories of super heroics with my friends.

But I might not be over-thinking it, because there are elements in the cartoon that seem as is they were lifted from horror stories. I’m thinking of the character called Lapis Lazuli. Lapis was broken, literally, her gem, her most basic expression of who she is, was cracked and turned into a tool, a mirror that can record and replay sights and sounds. And she was stuck like this for thousands of years! It is unclear how much hope she had that she could ever be restored, but I’m thinking not much.

Think about what that would be like. Did you ever read Tribe 8? I suppose it would be like sundering. Tribe 8 is a role-playing game published by Dream Pod 9. It’s basically a zombie apocalypse on PCP. Hyper-mega-zombies protect humans from normal zombies so they can use the humans as raw materials, mostly to renew themselves, but also to make weapons, or architecture out of living humans. They make buildings out of humans that are still alive, that still respond and provide pleasure to the inhabitants of the buildings. A person can be turned into a wall, and left with no hope of ever being restored, forced to respond in the way that the hyper-mega-zombie desires, constantly praying for death. It still haunts me.

Also, what does Lapis Lazuli imply for the other gems that the Crystal Gems fight, capture and recover? The Heaven Beetle obviously seems sentient. It has a little bed, and a little book. It plays the bongos! For an old hippy like me, playing bongos is a huge step towards passing a Turing test! I own and play bongos regularly. And what about the bird that protected the Heaven Beetle? It seemed to be composed of dozens of crystal shards. Were they people once? Were they sentient? This is a serious question because gems (meaning these space aliens) are made in a process that ruins the planet that they are harvested from, so they don’t just happen casually. They are intentionally created at great cost.

When the other gems found the mirror that Lapis was imprisoned in, they had no concept that the gem that powered it was a person. Is this normal in their culture, to be stripped of your personhood and reduced to a device? When Steven expressed a desire to help the gem trapped and forced to power the mirror, they acted like it would probably be a monster, a horrible criminal, or dangerously insane from it’s millennia of debasing servitude. What kind of a monstrous society do the gems come from?

The answer is, their society is prejudiced, oppressively hierarchical, totalitarian, and unsustainable without interstellar exploration. The Crystal Gems, as the heroes of the show call themselves are the remnants of a rebellion that happened on Earth, wherein one particular Crystal Gem made the conscious decision to not be an invading alien parasitic monster. This person was Rose Quartz. She convinced others to choose not to be monsters, even though they knew it would make them criminals in the eyes of their fellows. Even though they knew they would have to fight, and most of them died.

Really, the society of the Homeworld Gems is terrible. When Jasper arrives she calls Garnet a “shameless display”. She disregards the virtue of intimacy. The cartoon is pretty clear on this. For the gems, there is no greater physical intimacy than to experience fusion. When two or more gems fuse their physical forms, when they join their magical energies to become one greater being, mitigating their weaknesses, enhancing their strengths, this is just as sexual, just as dangerously vulnerable, just as important as the most intimate acts humans can perform for each other, and she called it “a trick”. What a horrible culture they must have that to them intimacy is only ever a means to some other end.

They chose to rebel, because they were inspired by us, humans. Sure we are predatory, pack-hunting apes. We can be pretty horrible. But we are not parasite monsters that leach the life out of everywhere we choose to reproduce. We can be intimate with each other. We can be in harmony with our surroundings. We can find sustainable ways of being. We can nurture those things we find necessary to survive. A lot of what we thrive on is just grass and weeds anyways, if the mint in my window-box is any indication. Seriously mint, whats going on with you? This runner that I am pruning right now: I am not pruning it because I need mint for tabuli. I am pruning it because there is no way you are ever going to find sun, soil, and water on my carpet. Stay in the window box. Where are you trying to reach?

So after thousands of years protecting us humans despite all our weird horribleness, Rose Quartz met Greg Universe. And she had almost given up hope. She was just going through the motions, just protecting the Earth from the remnants of the mess that was made when her civilization invaded the Earth. But how could she do anything else? If she went elsewhere, the parasite monsters would come back. Could she rebuild her army? She didn’t know any other way to make new gems. She only knew that gems were made in the ground and that it sapped something from the Earth or polluted it in some way, I’m not sure. I haven’t watched much past the first season and not in order. The point is, she was painted into a corner. Eventually she would die, either in accident or battle, eventually all the remaining Crystal Gems would die, and their aspirations would die with them. No new gems would take up their cause.

But when she met Greg, he offered her a way out of the corner she’d painted herself into. Humans, half of us at any rate, have little human making factories built into us. The right sort of human, the female sort, can make another human inside her, and it doesn’t leach any kind of life energy from her at all, except maybe calcium, but that’s what almonds are for, or canned salmon burgers, you get it. Seriously moms, get your calcium. Osteoporosis is weird and scary.

If Rose Quartz could make a person inside her, she could make decedents, inheritors. Being a shape-changing magical alien, this should be easy for her. But even if she could do it, make a new human, that wouldn’t get her out of her trap. Human decedents would still consign her people, gems, to extinction or monstrosity. In order for Rose to have a decedent that could inherit her culture and civilization, she would need to create something new in the universe, some sort of human with a gem built into it.

In order for Rose to offer the possibility of a sustainable future for her people, she would need to create Steven, even if it meant that she had to put the only gem she had to work with, her own, into this new being.

Steven Universe is the hope of two entire species. Steven Universe is the hope for all humanity, that we can become something more magnificent, not frail creatures of meat and bone, but creatures of magic and power, stepping out among the stars. Steven Universe is the hope for all gem-kind that they could become something more magnificent, not rigid creatures of stone and oppression, but creatures of warmth and sisterhood.

Maybe Rose’s experiment will fail. Maybe Steven will never grow up and make more beings like himself, or new gems without the drawbacks of kindergardens. Maybe he will never be able to teach humans without gems to fuse or perform other magical gem abilities. Maybe it’s all just a pipe dream. Maybe the gem civilization will spread until they can no longer find worlds to despoil at which time they will become extinct with nobody to inherit their great achievements. Maybe the hand that Greg extended to Rose, maybe the love that he shared with her, maybe the hope that he offered her was all for naught. But right now, nobody knows what Steven is capable of. For right now, Steven is the hope of the universe.

And I believe in Steven.


Hey I wrote a haiku in Toki Pona

19 Mar

You wanna hear it? Here it go.  <- Ha ha, obscure David Alan Grier referrence

kasi weka len
alasa ale pini
tenpo insa ni

It means something along the lines of:

Naked trees
Gathering all done
Inside time

It was really difficult to write a haiku in a language with only 123 words in it, but there it is. I did it. I should try some calligraphy to show it off nicely.

How about Hiragana.


That’s pretty good. But maybe we could try something else. Jonathan Gabel developed a unique script for Toki Pona.


Man oh man, calligraphy is fun. That is a cool looking poem. But Sitelen Sitelen isn’t just a phonetic syllabary. There are also glyphs for each word. Let’s write the poem with those.


Awesome! Because each line of the poem contains the same number of words, even though a different number of syllables, the glyphs representing individual words can still form this cool square.

Oh hey, on this site, each Toki Pona word is assigned a Kanji. I could have written it in a little square of Kanji characters.


Gorgeous! Well that was fun. I’ll try to do another calligraphy project soon.

Gender in Tron

4 Nov

Let me begin by admitting that I just binge watched Tron Uprising, and I enjoyed it immensely. Not only have I enjoyed how the setting of Tron has developed since Kitsis and Horowitz brought Tron back for Tron Legacy, but I enjoyed Tron Uprising as it’s own thing. Let’s be honest with ourselves, the original Tron (1982) was not a science fiction classic. Tron was pretty much The Wizard of Oz, with a glowy computer theme laid over it. But Tron Legacy was a thoughtful film about emergent artificial intelligence, in which the villain was in the right, and he was ultimately defeated with a big hug. I’m really not sure how we, audiences lucked out, since The Day The Earth Stood Still (1951) was a science fiction classic, and in 2008 it was a moronic snorefest in which aliens were upset that humans were destroying the habitability of the Earth, so they threatened to Destroy The Earth! (I blame David Scarpa.)

I even loved the art, the character design, and the cultural references in Tron Uprising. The characters have roughly the same proportions as characters from a CLAMP cartoon.


Watanuki takes a mean fall.

Beck takes a mean fall.

Beck takes a mean fall.

This frame, aside from being beautiful and meaningful all on its own, deprived of any context, also seems to be an allusion to another great work of science fiction, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.

Classic Sci-Fi

Classic Sci-Fi

Maybe they made this reference because Elijah Wood was also in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Later on in the series, Beck (Elijah Wood’s character) does come into possession of a mighty weapon, shaped like a ring, that corrupts whoever uses it, and he has to take it somewhere to destroy it. At least this time he doesn’t have to walk the whole way.

Tron Uprising wasn’t as thoughtful as Tron Legacy. Much the same way Tron (1982) was Wizard of Oz in computers, Tron Uprising is Zorro in computers. I thought this was awesome because I love Zorro. And I cannot stress enough how well suited the Tron universe is to Zorro style storytelling. In a Zorro TV show, you might have to occasionally have an establishing shot before a fight or a chase scene. In Tron, no such shots are necessary. If you need a fight, the characters pull their disks off their backs and engage in some Anis Cheurfa style martial arts action. (Thank you Anis Cheurfa; your gymnastics changed what Tron was about in an awesome way.) If you need a chase scene, the characters pull batons off their legs, materialize bikes or jets or something and go to it. Tron is an excuse for instant fight and chase scenes with as little fuss as possible.

However, Clu is disappointingly a much simpler character in Tron Uprising. In Tron Legacy, there was really no way for Clu to understand the significance of emergent artificial intelligence. His only point of view was as a program, so to him ISOs (emergent artificial intelligences) could only be perceived as malfunctions. He was tragic in several ways. In Tron Uprising, Clu is just a tyrant, and ISOs are usually nothing more than a convenient target for the racism and xenophobia of the programs (as the other inhabitants of the grid call themselves). I thought Uprising was simpler than Legacy because Uprising was a Disney cartoon for kids, but they waste absolutely no time and jump immediately to brutally murdering characters that we were just starting to like, and getting the surviving characters in complicated sexual relationships.

Yes, they brutally murder each other in this show. In the most grizzly samurai story, you might hear about a samurai testing a new weapon on some hapless peasant, but this happens in Tron Uprising, almost as if we should have expected it. There is a character named Pavel, played by Paul Reubens (and his performance is amazing). Because I always forget Paul’s name, I had trouble remembering Pavel’s name, and periodically just called him Evil Pee Wee.

So help me, Jambi, if you mess up one more wish I will reach into your box and CHOKE THE LIFE OUT OF YOU!

So help me, Jambi, if you mess up one more wish I will reach into your box and CHOKE THE LIFE OUT OF YOU!

Well, in one episode, Evil Pee Wee walks down a line of cells, picks one with three tough guys in it, unlocks the cell, unlocks their weapons, tells them to not escape in the most sarcastic voice you have ever heard, and then brutally cuts them into little cubes, all to test his weapon.

But the violence wasn’t the only thing that startled me about this cartoon. It is dripping in complex sexual relationships.

If we count the pilot as the first episode, then this scene takes place six and a half minutes into episode two.

If we count the pilot as the first episode, then this scene takes place six and a half minutes into episode two.

This isn’t just some boy who has a crush on a girl he works with. This guy is pining for that girl, and when they go out to a club together and he feels like she has firmly friend-zoned him, he runs off with another girl who tries to seduce him.

Either she always arches her back uncomfortably for no reason or she is giving him "come hither hiney".

Either she always arches her back uncomfortably for no reason or she is giving him “come hither hiney”.

I swear to you, she just said, “Well, it's getting late.” When a sexy human female leans back and says, “It's getting late.” she means, “Take off your clothes or take me home because I can't wait any longer for you to make your move.”

I swear to you, she just said, “Well, it’s getting late.” When a sexy human female leans back and says, “It’s getting late.” she means, “Take off your clothes or take me home because I can’t wait any longer for you to make your move.”

And this really got me thinking. Why? Why is there sex in Tron at all? Why are any of the programs female? Don’t leave a comment that some of the programs are female because it’s a movie and we have to cast it, because other sci-fi franchises are so short on ladies you’d think they were made by people who hate ladies. In Star Wars, as a child I thought The Clone Wars were some conflict in which women were made largely obsolete by cloning technology and that’s why there were no women other than Princess Leia and Aunt Beru.

But the presence of females in Tron is puzzling because that is not where new programs come from.

Clu cannot create new programs.

Clu cannot create new programs.

This means that there is no amount of wealth or social power that Clu could amass that would give him access to something that makes new programs. This is in sharp contrast to humans in which massive amounts of wealth or power often gives one very easy access to baby makers.

They (the ISOs) were never written. They serve no purpose.

They (the ISOs) were never written. They serve no purpose.

Incidentally, no one knows where new ISOs come from either, not even the ISOs.

So, programs must, in some way, be written. This adds another tragic level to Clu’s struggle. Clu must strive to create the perfect system. If he doesn’t then why does he exist at all? The perfect system should be complex, efficient, and predictable. ISOs are not predictable. Therefore Clu must overthrow Flynn and destroy the ISOs. But doing so removes his access to the process by which new programs are created. If Clu cannot gain access to Flynn’s disk and get into the larger physical world, he knows that one day all the programs will die and be derezzed. Even if programs never age, they do “die” through accident or combat. Clu’s war for “perfection” will make the grid desolate and empty, if he cannot win it and beat Flynn.

So why do programs have genders? I remember the first Tron (1982).

Our spirit remains in every program we design for this computer.

Our spirit remains in every program we design for this computer.

OK, so Tron looks like Alan (Bruce Boxlietner) because Alan’s spirit remains in Tron. Yori looks like Lora (Cindy Morgan) because Lora’s spirit remains in the program she developed to handle laser simulations. Tron and Yori are in love because Alan and Lora are in love. But then this raises the question:


Which sluts imbued their spirits into these programs?

And the Wizard of Oz theme seems to have been abandoned in Tron Legacy. There is no program named Duze played by Cillian Murphy because Cillian Murphy played Edward Dillinger who wrote OS12. Although that would be awesome, right? Duze invented the means to repurpose programs because OS12 turns your computer into a police state where you can’t do what you want with your own files, if those files contain copyrighted content. Plus:

This year, we put a 12 on the box.

This year, we put a 12 on the box.

I don’t know. I doubt Disney would let a critique of DRM sneak into one of their films, no matter how fancifully presented.

Back on topic. In Tron Uprising, programs do not seem to have gender because of some human designer somewhere who imbued the program with his or her spirit. So what is the purpose of their genders? Is there some thing that programs accomplish in their mating that aids the system overall? Is that why they were programed to desire mating? Maybe they just like to mate because it feels good. Programs have program sex to experience program orgasms?

But then why are their gender values like ours?

Human females feel like, “If we have sex with you we might get pregnant and even if we take every precaution against pregnancy, sex’s reproductive function is still written on every molecule of our being so we’re going to be less eager to have sex than you males.” Program females have never reproduced through sex so there is no reason any female program would ever need more convincing to have sex than a male program. Male programs should not be pursuing female programs. If anything female programs should be trying to convince the male programs to go through the exertion of having sex for his measly single orgasm while she has half a dozen. She gets more out of the relationship than he does. Why do programs of different genders have substantially different attitudes towards sex?

Also, are there sexually transmitted computer viruses?

If sex is divorced from reproduction in Tron, can we even call these genders, since they seem to play no generative purpose, they lead to no new generations? And am I looking at this from a limited human perspective? Because I am cis-sexual (in difference to trans-sexual, ie. I am a man who alternates between actively liking my gender identity or totally ignoring it as irrelevant.) am I missing some aspect of Tron gender?

Full disclosure: I have what might seem like a weird take on gender-revolutionary trans-sexuality. If you (cis-sexual person) so desperately need to fit people into the gender categories of male or female that you have to ask ambiguous people about their genitals then your rudeness borders on a personality disorder. However if you don’t obviously fit into male or female genders then just deal with whatever pronouns occur to me. I got it “wrong” because I seriously don’t care. My perception of your gender shouldn’t matter to you unless you are sexually interested in me. Gender is a social construct. I am part of society. Don’t tell me I’m not part of society or shove whatever gender you feel you are in my face. That is also a level of rude that borders on personality disorder.

Perhaps, in Tron, they have more than two genders. Are sirens female? CmdR Paige is a female program. She used to be a medic, considered becoming a musician, and then she became a military cmdR. Could she hypothetically quit her job as cmdR and become a siren? Sirens are a different color. They look vastly different than females who aren’t sirens.

Also, why are the sirens so much more sexed up in the cartoon?

Sexy live-action siren buttocks – note how the glowy parts of her outfit accentuate her waist. Very nice.

Sexy live-action siren buttocks – note how the glowy parts of her outfit accentuate her waist. Very nice.

Cartoon siren buttocks – note the buttock cleavage. They drew her without pants. Her buttocks are simply colored white.

Cartoon siren buttocks – note the buttock cleavage. They drew her without pants. Her buttocks are simply colored white.

Are these guys male? Or do they represent a different gender with fundamentally different interests in whatever kind of sex programs have?

Are these guys male? Or do they represent a different gender with fundamentally different interests in whatever kind of sex programs have?

Is “shoulder pad guard” a job, a social position, a gender, or what? What is “siren”? I am aware that the lines between job, social position and gender have not always been easy or clear. Here is an interesting article on the definition of the term “Eunuch”.

Also I’m not wondering how many genders programs have in Tron because I read Joe Mcdaldno’s Rookvale and now I can’t stop thinking of Rookvale society with its six genders. This has nothing to do with Rookvale. If I read Joe’s game properly, then you put the gender cards on the table and every player picks one, meaning a group cannot have two characters of the same gender. This would seem to be more of a meditation on how we express gender roles and gender values, even in all male or all female groups. We’ve all noticed that the “mom” of a group of friends is not necessarily the oldest woman in the group but could be a young heterosexual dude, just whoever is most mom-like to this group, usually whoever is most concerned that this particular group of friends doesn’t get involved in antics that are too stupid or dangerous.

Rather, I’m wondering how many genders programs have in Tron because I sincerely want to know if “siren” is such a fundamental part of identity that a siren is always a siren no matter what job the siren might have, and which jobs and types of relationships are only for sirens, and which jobs and types of relationships are sirens generally thought to be excluded from. And can sirens go against these standards? Can a siren do a job or get in a relationship that is thought to be for female programs, or male programs?

There is an episode towards the end of the first season called Rendezvous in which I thought some of my perplexity was going to be alleviated. In this episode Beck goes out on a date with Paige. Elijah Wood is really good in this episode. Beck often sounds insincere and borderline rude to Paige without it sounding like Elijah Wood is just acting poorly. He sounds like Beck is on this date with ulterior motives that he can’t adequately hide (at least from the audience), and that he’s baiting Paige.

Paige frequently contorts her body into sexy poses when she's around Beck.

Paige frequently contorts her body into sexy poses when she’s around Beck.

At this point we are two increments from watching these two programs make out.

At this point we are two increments from watching these two programs make out.

But then Pavel interrupts them and I never got to find out what they hoped to accomplish on their date, what kind of digital sex acts that programs might find rewarding and why they might feel that way. I swear that I screamed at the screen. “No, Evil Pee Wee! Stop! They were about to show me how and why programs get busy. Why are you such a terrifyingly horrible and insane villain?” Later in that episode Evil Pee Wee hires someone to torture Paige, alters her memories, and then he uses a super-weapon on her that nearly kills her, pretty much just because Paul Reubens plays a brilliant psychopath.

I don’t think they will be making this cartoon anymore, which disappoints me, but as far as I know there will be another Tron movie. I doubt that Kitsis and Horowitz or anyone at Disney has any interest in explaining to me why programs have gender dimorphism, or gender polymorphism or whatever we want to call it. But I thought Tron was cool when I was a little kid in the 80s racing my lightcycle through stunts on my parent’s driveway. (You pulled a ripcord, placed it on the ground and it zoomed off. It was a great toy.) Now that Tron is much more mature and interesting, I want to think about it more, but now that it’s more mature and interesting there is this weird thing (gender that seems to have no bearing on reproduction) that I am finding very distracting, but not distracting in a bad way, because I seem to enjoy thinking about it.

Somehow I seem to enjoy the distracting thought that Lux might not be wearing pants. Weird, huh? Incidentally, Lux's relationship to Cobalt (the character she's touching in this image) is so horrible and complex that it gave me the ick.

Somehow I seem to enjoy the distracting thought that Lux might not be wearing pants. Weird, huh? Incidentally, Lux’s relationship to Cobalt (the character she’s touching in this image) is so horrible and complex that it gave me the ick.

Gender values in Manqala

10 Jun

(in which Sheikh Jahbooty shows his feminine side)

So I made these Chess wedges, the kind you might use to play Martian Chess


or BT&T (Barsoomite Go)


And I wondered if it was worth it. I mean those games are beautiful on the wooden chess wedges, and the wedges look like some sort of wide Martian crystal dagger or something, so they are aesthetically pleasing all by themselves.


But I guess I was having a sort of crafter’s remorse, like “Was it worth the time and effort I put into making these things?” Eventually I took two of them and put them together and they make a really cool looking half of a Chess board. So I thought, “If I knew a bunch of games to play on half of a chessboard I would completely feel like it was certainly worth the work I put into them because they could be put to more versatile uses.”


this game is still gorgeous

And Richard Hutnick has that list of 32 games to play on the 32 squares of half a chessboard, and a bunch of those are actually quite good.

this game is clever and pretty

this game is clever and pretty

But while I was just sort of listlessly stacking pennies on the board, I realized:

This is the starting position of Bao la Kiswahili.

This is the starting position of Bao la Kiswahili.

Subhan’Allah! How awesome is that? I decided then and there to teach myself how to play Bao. But I didn’t want to just learn it. I wanted to train. I wanted to try out different strategies and get good at the game. I don’t know how I decided this, but I decided that Bao was a game that it was worth the expenditure of time and energy to learn to play well.

And I learned that player one has a really aggressive opening strategy that is central to playing the early game well. The strategy is: threaten to capture the nyumba and another chumba at the same time. (If the nyumba has been safaried, then the strategy will be to threaten to capture two chumba that both contain a lot of kete.) Also, since an aggressive player’s strategy will be to force you to defend your nyumba while he captures your other spaces, leaving your nyumba intact when you have the option to safari from it has to be a seriously considered act. Don’t leave your nyumba intact unless it’s very early in the game and safariing is clearly a losing move.

Once you finish the namua stage, meaning after the 44th move, when the last reserve kete has been added to the board, you begin the mtaji stage, and I feel like the real meat of Bao begins. In namua, the game is just too easy. Does the opponent have a particular chumba you want to capture? Do you have kete across from his kete? Then you can capture. Take a kete from reserve. It ends it’s journey to the board in the hole you pick. And you capture.

But even though the really fun and challenging part of Bao starts in the mtaji stage, there is no guarantee that you can get there. It is apparently called mkononi, and it is a victory while there are still kete in reserve, before even all the kete have entered the board. When it happens it’s disappointing even if you are just playing practice games to teach yourself.

So I thought, what is the purpose of the namua phase? Is it just to save time? You only have to get 20 kete on the board before you can begin playing, and getting the rest of the kete onto the board is part of the game, thus saving time in setup? Which two-cycle manqala games lack the namua phase?

Specifically I wanted two-cycle manqala games because I liked how seeds never leave the board in Bao. There is an end state that the players are trying to reach, having your opponent’s front row empty, but there is nothing in the rules that forces that to happen after a certain amount of time. One-cycle manqala games are as different from two cycle manqala games, as chess is from shogi, or draughts is from sapos. In one-cycle manqala games (and chess and draughts), captured pieces leave the board and do not come back. The game inexorably draws to an end, as the pieces run out. In two-cycle manqala games (and shogi and sapos), pieces come back onto the board. After 1000 moves, you could be no further towards the end of the game than when you started. In fact, in Bao, your front row tends to fill up with a lot of large quantities of kete as you get closer to winning, which means that as you get closer to winning, you become more vulnerable to captures that can turn the tide of the game. For some reason, this really appealed to me, so I wanted to find other games that had these characteristics.

Soon I discovered Omweso, and Isolo. The rules for Isolo that I found on-line were vague, but there was something of particular note. There are slightly different Isolo rules for boys than for girls. The rules for boys use less bowls and less seeds, and only when necessary, a boy can bring in the extra seeds and bowls to stay in the game if he’s losing ground. So normally, a boy would use 15 seeds and 14 holes, but if he’s losing he can bring in the other 2 holes and other 17 seeds, and from then on, play the game just like a girl might. This, I learned, was typical of manqala games. Games that are thought of as boy games use less holes or less seeds or they might be single lap games (games where you scoop a hole, sew the seeds, and that is your turn. If the last seed ends in a hole that already has seeds in it. You do not scoop out all those seeds and continue sewing.) Games that have lots of holes and multi-lap sewing are thought of as games for girls, games like Sungka.

But why do these gender values exist in manqala games? Why are girl games more difficult?

Well, here are my hypotheses:

1) Girls are better at math than boys are. – I don’t really have any data or supporting arguments for this one. I just have to admit it as a possibility.

2) Girls invented manqala games so they’ve been playing them longer and want, as a community, more challenging games. – Is it just me, or are ladies the people that lead humanity into the agricultural revolution? I mean, when we see people living on the edge, between hunter gatherers and agriculturalists, we usually see the men continuing to hunt and gather, or perhaps herd, while the women farm. That’s the way it is, right? It’s probably just a biological thing. In the age before sports bras, it was really not fun for a lady to chase down an antelope. But if we think about the materials used to play manqala games, they were usually seeds, sewn into holes in the ground. This is a farming activity. It is not a hunting activity. It could be that girls made up simpler games for the hunters to play, so the boys wouldn’t be stumped by these farmer games.

3) In the societies where manqala games became cultural institutions, it was important for girls to train to be really good at math. – I can recognize about seven things. If you show me a group of things and there are seven of them or less, I can know immediately how many things there are. If there are eight things, I mentally split them up into groups that I can recognize, two groups of four, thus eight. If you were an ancient farmer with a sack full of yam sprouts, it might be especially useful for you if you could recognize 17 yam sprouts, without having to count them. If you spend part of every day playing a game where 17 cowrie shells end up in a bowl together, eventually maybe you just get used to seeing large numbers of things, so you know what 17 of something looks like, without counting. So maybe the female manqala games arose as a way to train young farmers to be able to plan their use of supplies better.

4) Maybe they are only more difficult for me. – I have to admit this is a possibility as well. Maybe I play manqala games the way a boy does, with boy strategies, and a lady would play feminine manqala games with her own tactics and values so she wouldn’t find them more difficult. Maybe ladies would find masculine manqala games just as difficult as I find feminine manqala games.

But then this begs the question: How am I playing differently? So far I only have one answer for this, and it’s based on my subjective experience, rather than statistical data, so I may be completely off on this one. Ladies are much less interested in look-ahead. What I mean by look-ahead is the ability to have some sense where the game will be ten moves from now. But why should this be?

My first thought was that ladies get less of a rush from beating each other at games, but I’ve known some crazy competitive ladies so that might not be true. Those ladies were obviously getting a rush from being winners, even if they were playing something goofy, like Trivial Pursuit.

But maybe competitiveness in ladies is a cultural thing. We have to admit that for most of human existence, ladies did not have to compete for mates. Technically they still don’t. If I want a child, I have to convince a woman to do something with me that would make her pregnant for nine months. If a lady wants a child, she has to convince a man to do something with her that would make him tired for an hour. If you say to your partner, “I will raise the child alone,” it’s just a lot easier to get a man to commit to an hour’s worth of effort than it is to get a woman to commit to the months of effort that she would expend being pregnant. Men are more competitive because we have to compete for the far more selective affection of ladies.

And when I think of my own experience, I have to admit that when I sit down to play games with ladies, they are always card games or dice games. My wife loves to play backgammon with me. We can play half a dozen games of Magnate, back to back. Aquarius is one of her favorite games, and it’s so infuriatingly luckish (or psychedelic, depending on how you want to look at it) that I feel like I have to remove half the “shuffle goals” cards before I play that game. My mother taught me about a dozen card games. She introduced me to Rummy-Q, and Mah Jong. On the other hand, my father taught me chess and Go.

And maybe the ladies sitting under a tree or under the eaves of a building or in the shade of a wall thought, “This game is cool and all. Maybe dudes would like it. But if we’re just going to sit here for the hottest part of the day, we should play a game that leads to completely unforeseeable circumstances. I don’t need to think ten moves ahead and prove that I’m smarter than the lady across from me. That would gain me relatively little. I would much rather have a game with exciting twists of fate and turns of fortune.”

Admittedly, all of these theories have their problems, but I think that the key difference between feminine manqala games and masculine manqala games is that feminine games are more chaotic and unpredictable. Masculine manqala games favor long term strategy over short term tactical resourcefulness.

In manqala games, unpredictability doesn’t come from dice or cards or any other kind of randomizer. It comes from chaos (in the mathematical sense). In some games, the chaos is thick, almost impossible to see through. One of the first manqala games I learned was this sort of game. My friend, Old Skillet, taught me a variant of the game Congkak that we could play with the manqala equipment we had on hand. This is a game where the chaos starts thick and heavy. It is unsurprisingly thought of as a game for women in Malaysia. But for me it was the doorway to a marvelous and fascinating new world of gaming. And one of the things I liked most about the game was the unpredictability. You could tell where your first few laps were going to go, but twice around the track was too much to keep strait in my head. At a certain point you just had to pick up the pieces and make the move.

I loved the chaos.

This is why I find Bao to be disappointing until it reaches the mtaji stage. The namua stage doesn’t have enough unpredictability. It’s too masculine. But then, does this mean that I have feminine taste in Manqala games?

girly man?

girly man?

I prefer to think that I’m a more complete individual.

So if I’m going to find a two-cycle manqala game that I like, I will have to find a game that has a lot of chaos. The game I finally settled on is Omweso. You can play it on half of a chess board with 64 pennies. And most importantly, the chaos runs so thick on an Omweso board that when you are winning, it is possible to sew around the board half a dozen times before dropping your last empiki in an empty space. Theoretically, it’s possible to play a move that never ends, just keeps cycling around your half of the board over and over. I’ve never seen such a move, so I imagine they must be rare, but mathematically they are possible. Captures in Omweso are devastating. It’s not weird for the first few captures to be of eight empiki each. That is one eighth of the pieces on the board switching hands on each capture. It is possible to see which moves your opponent has available, and which moves you could do, but a strategy of how to play several moves ahead is almost useless. It’s a case of no battle plan surviving contact with the enemy.

Also, the back row in Omweso is very kinetic. And controlling the back row is hugely important in defending your pieces from capture. But guess what, as you get closer to winning, you have less control over your half of the board, as it fills up with constantly shifting and impossible to predict pieces. I feel like Omweso is a metaphor for two people trying to have a gunfight while surfing during a typhoon.

Bao is a great game. If someone wanted to play me in a game of Bao, I would be very happy to. I like Bao la Kiswahili. I just like it less than I like Omweso.

Toki Pona

13 Mar

Please allow me to introduce you to the jive rap that the kids lay down to each other these days.

You didn’t understand a single word of it, did you. I hope it didn’t make you feel old. But when you were a kid and the un-hip old people didn’t understand the lingo, did you mean that you spoke a whole different language? No you did not. But this is a whole new language, and it’s called Toki Pona.

When I discovered Toki Pona I wasn’t trying to learn a new language. I was trying to figure out what sorts of game boards I could make with a spare clock face that had been left in my workshop. I’d already decided that one side of the clock face would become a Circular Chess board. And the other side would become… Volo? Mehen? I don’t know. Something that would use up most of a circle, and allow for the fact that the clock face already has a whole in the middle. I couldn’t figure it out. Maybe, I thought, there are other spiral race games like Mehen, and I could make an abstract spiral track that I could use to play several games, so I typed “spiral” into the geeklist search field and found a geeklist called “Enter the Spiral”. There weren’t that many, and Mehen seemed like the most interesting, but the spiral list was missing Kori Heath’s Mandala, which is played by arranging the pieces in a spiral on a flat table without a board, so I got to add that.

Maybe the person who made this list, also made a list of torus games, that I could browse. That person is Sonja Elen Kisa. She has some badges under her name. The first one is a star and crescent. One would expect that to mean Muslim, but they aren’t always intuitive. It could mean she is a fan of the games Mecca or Medina. No, it couldn’t mean Mecca Fan, because the game Mecca is decorated with an Om. I cannot express to you how much it gets on my nerves that the game called Mecca is decorated with a Hindu holy symbol. But you can mouse over the badges, I just learned, and it does indeed mean Muslim. Sweet. And another means Esperanto. Hey, I’m a Muslim who speaks Esperanto. I’ve only actually used it twice in my life so I probably couldn’t remember it if you bumped into me on the street. Once was to get around Li Luyi’s site and he explained in a comment on my blog why he changed it to Esperanto, and the other time was to read about Deguchi Onisaburo of Oomoto Shinto. Esperanto is apparently taken very seriously in Asia. If you want to translate something in Chinese or Japanese or Korean for international exposure, the first language you translate it into is Esperanto.

So maybe we have a lot in common.

Another badge means she speaks, Toki Pona, and at that moment, I still had no idea what it was. The name of the language made me think it was from a south Pacific island. So I looked it up, and it was a language that she had made up herself. It wasn’t from the south Pacific. It was from Toronto. And people all over the world are into it. And it’s clear to see why. It’s super easy and lot of fun.

What else can I learn from her. This is great.

Another of her badges is a rainbow, and mousing over it provides no clue as to what it means. It just says “Rainbow”. What does it signify? Skittles? Leprechaun Gold? Fan of Rainbow Deck card games? Support for sexual diversity? Or some other form of diversity? I decided to use my recently acquired Toki Pona philosophy to discover the meaning behind the rainbow badge.

ona li jo e sitelen pi kule ale tan… kule ale.
(She has a rainbow badge, because… “Rainbow”.)

She’s also a fan of Fudge (a role playing game that uses dice with pluses and minuses on them).

What the hey?!

As I read that, I was currently folding origami Fudge Dice.

origami fudge

and alternately playing solitaire Micropul

I am such a big fan of fudge that I’ve actually made fudge dice with the Chinese symbols for plus and minus on them in the hopes that one day I will get to play in a Kung Fu style game Fudge or Firefly-esque game of Diaspora, or Airbender (Republic City) style game of Spirit of the Century. But I’ve been told I would need to be playing FATE with a linguist before anyone would let me use these dice.

How is this person not already my best friend?

Oh wait. I was so sleep deprived my last trip to Toronto that I can’t remember a large chunk of it. We could be friends and I wouldn’t know. Hmmm. As I learned Toki Pona, I tried to remember that trip to Toronto more clearly.

One morning Tabasco Cat came into my room in Jersey City and asked, “Want to go to Toronto?” and I wasn’t doing anything, so I said sure, and we both got in his car and drove there. It took all day. It was really late at night before we got to the border of Canada. I warned T.C. as we approached the border that Canadian border guards are all gorgeous. I’m sure the men must be fit and handsome, but the women are staggering. If we wanted to get through the border without incident we must not flirt with them. So we pulled up and I immediately started flirting with the goddess that came out the border station.

We must have looked haggard. We had been driving all day. She seemed to want to know why we had to get into Canada at that very moment rather than in the morning. I think she suspected we were running from something. She brought us inside. Her boss was even more beautiful. They separated Tabasco Cat and I. The chief, who was blonde, took me into her office, and the dark haired one that we saw earlier took T.C. to another room. The walls were glass so I could see T.C. talking to his beauty. I felt like, “Oh, maybe T.C. wanted to chat up the blonde woman.” I’m not the kind of guy who “prefers blondes” or anything like that. And the chief was very professional and polite. Still I wondered why they were taking so much time talking to us.

“What brings you to Canada?”


“How long do you think you will be staying?”

“Now that I know you’re here, I don’t think I ever want to leave.”

“Well, Immigrating to Canada works on a point system, based on your professional skills, assets you will be bringing to Canada, friends you may have here, etc.”

“I hope we can be friends, quite intimate friends.”

After she shot me down, they took us back to the car, searched the entire thing, and sent us off to Toronto. I just assumed they were bored, since they never actually came out and asked me anything direct. Tabasco Cat disabused me of that notion.

“They thought we were in some sort of trouble with the law and because I’m black it was my fault. They took me aside and grilled me.”

“That cute girl?”

“And a really big dude.”

“Oh, sorry man.”

“By the way, were you trying to get her to have sex with you on her desk?”

“Were you watching me?… I mean, no, of course not, that would be silly.”

“At a certain point, they stopped giving me a hard time so we could watch what you were doing.”

By the time we pulled into Toronto it was Oh-God-o’clock in the morning. It was too late to get a room somewhere and not late enough to find a mosque to pray fajr. You know how a lot of mosques will open up for fajr and then if anyone is there, they just stay open until esha, so you can find a rug off to the side and sleep until noon. If you need to crash out after it makes sense to get a room, but before fajr, I informed T.C. in another sage piece of Sheikh Jahbooty wisdom, you park in the parking lot of a 24 hour supermarket, and sleep in your car. If you wake up in the middle of the night and have to pee, you can go inside and use their bathroom. When you wake up in the morning and have to pee, you can go to the bathroom, and before you go back to your car, you can already buy breakfast. Plus, nobody bothers you and they have security cameras, so nobody messes with your car.

But we didn’t know where any of the supermarkets were in Toronto. So we just pulled into a park by the lake with a public bathroom that was open, and reclined our chairs to go to sleep.

This was a mistake. We had parked in the sex zone.

This particular parking lot outside of a public mensroom was where the insomniac people of Toronto went to meet each other to arrange sexual adventures. Everyone that passed through that parking lot that night had a reaction to our presences. Some were demanding, “You cute men have parked in the sex zone. And you are not having sex. This is unacceptable. Come with me and have sex.” Some were quite helpful, “Why haven’t you come to the mensroom already for sex? Are you shy? There’s nothing scarey about it. Sex is fun. I’ll hold your hand. We can go together.” The reaction we really wanted and got from nobody was, “Oh, they’re sleeping. Let’s not bother them.”

At a certain point, T.C. was so tired and exhausted from the constant interruptions that he suggested, “Maybe we should cuddle. If we look like we just had sex, they might leave us alone.” In retrospect I should have dug up a sheet of loose-leaf paper and put a sign in the window that read, “All sexed out. No more sex, please. We need to sleep now.”

In the morning we drove off without going to the bathroom to pee. They were still using the bathroom. They had gone all night! When we drove away there were dudes in Toronto checking their watch to see if they could squeeze in some public mensroom sex before they had to be in work.

The whole trip was like that. Oh a mosque,… that is only open at prayer times. Oh a hotel,… that is all booked up from a prom. Oh a motel,… with no rooms because of a convention. Oh that’s it, I am pulling over next to this park and sleeping in the car… knocking on our window, “Are you guys OK? It’s not safe to sleep in your car on a hot day.”

I don’t remember much beyond the first morning. I have some pictures of me posing lewdly with public art. I might have lost my mind. The next picture seems to be of Tabasco Cat at Niagara Falls, trying to convince a sexy Chinese woman that he is a secret agent. “Tabasco Cat is my code name in the agency.”

Yeah, I suppose I don’t know Sonja Elen Kisa. If I did, I would have hit her up for couch surfing. “Please, sister. It’s the example of Prophet Muhammad (salallahu alayhi wasallam). He would give us three days of hospitality. And we don’t even want three days. I just need a nap! You don’t understand, sister. I can’t take the peer pressure. People have these expectations of me (expectations of public mensroom sex), and I feel so horrible for failing to live up to them. You have to hide me.”

Although couch surfing requests always seem so much more sublime and spiritual in Arabic.

Oh my noble sister, my pilgrimage leads me... to your couch.

Oh my noble sister, my pilgrimage leads me… to your couch.

So now that I feel certain I don’t know Sonja, I feel really jealous of those lonely monsters up there. I want to run around a snowy forest in my underwear speaking a cool language.

Actually, I suppose that’s easily arranged.

I mean, Toki Pona isn’t perfect, but its so much fun.

It does lack a functional number system. The only number words in the language are 1, 2, and many. The word for hand doubles as 5. But the whole business seems really awkward. Proponents of Toki Pona claim that it is a good language for talking about human relationships. But it would seem that the only human relationships you can talk about are the ones that require absolutely no scheduling.

Sheikh Jahbooty: tenpo sina tawa weka la mi pilin e weka sina.

Mrs. Jahbooty: mi kama sin.

Sheikh Jahbooty: tenpo seme la sina kama sin?

Mrs. Jahbooty: tenpo suno pi nanpa tu

Sheikh Jahbooty: ni li kama pi tenpo suno tu.

Mrs. Jahbooty: ala. mi pakala. tenpo suno pi nanpa tu pi kama sin

Sheikh Jahbooty: tenpo suno pi nanpa tu lon kulupu pi tenpo suno luka tu kama.

Mrs. Jahbooty: tenpo suno pi nanpa luka… luka luka… luka… luka? tu tu lon tenpo mun pi nanpa luka luka wan.

Sheikh Jahbooty: mi sona ala awen.

And as a minimalist language I have to wonder why the word “kin” exists in it at all. It seems to correspond to the French word “meme”, but I’ve been looking pretty hard, and I can’t find a use for it that couldn’t use “awen”, or “sama”, or “mute” instead.

Of course, I could simply not understand the word “kin” properly. It might happen that tomorrow someone will tell me that “kin” is also used as a base ten place holder, and I would feel pretty silly offering these two criticisms here.

365 = tu wan kin luka wan kin luka

1001 Arabian Nights = tenpo pimeja ma Alapi wan kin kin kin wan

or something like that

But heck, it’s so much fun that even without numbers or any real way to schedule things, it’s fun to speak Toki Pona. “monsi unpa” is the phrase that people seem to typically use for “sexy butt”, but what’s to stop us from saying “anpa unpa” for “sexy bottom”? Try saying it. “Ampa Oompa!”

jan lili o, sina jo e anpa unpa.

The word, “unpa” does remind me of oompa loompas, and now I can’t stop thinking of them… doing things to each other. jan mute Unpa Lunpa li unpa lupa e ante sama.

Things I really dig about Toki Pona:

la: In Lojban we have this way of describing a relationship and then describing another relationship dependent on the first. We do this using the word “zo’u” pronounced “zohu” usually. In Lojban, its really awkward, because in order for the second relationship to directly relate to the first you have to assign pronouns. In fact, I have grown to hate Lojban prenexes because they are so convoluted. But in Toki Pona, this is the simplest most elegant thing in the world.

ken la mi tawa e esun. = There is an ability (or possibility) such that I go to the store. = Maybe I’ll go to the store.

tenpo pini la sina moli ala moli e pipi lili ni = There is a time past such that you killed or didn’t kill this little bug. = Did you kill this little bug?

pi: I’m going to compare this to Lojban again. In English we might say “pretty little girls school” and the typical meaning would be a “pretty and small building in which is a school for girls”. In Lojban, words modify each other sequentially, so “melbi cmalu nixli ckule” means “a school for girls who are beautifully small”. If we want all the modifiers to refer to the school, the easiest way is to say “melbi je cmalu je nixli ckule” meaning “pretty and little and girl’s school”.

In Toki Pona, we can just say “tomo sona meli lili suwi” which means exactly what we usually mean in English, or you can add “pi” somewhere in there to mean different things that are actually quite difficult to express in English. “tomo sona pi meli lili suwi” means “a school for pretty little girls”. “tomo pi sona meli lili suwi” means “a school for teaching small pretty feminine knowledge (presumably to girls)”. “tomo sona meli pi lili suwi” means “a school for girls who are adorably small”. “pi” effectively cuts off the word that other words are meant to modify. I suppose there are some prepositions or common phrases that do that too. It’s not entirely clear.

So because of the word “pi” this language about ambiguity and minimalism is actually less ambiguous than English, and more intuitive than Lojban (yes, I know that Lojban is clearer and that logical connectives within tanru are still pretty easy to use).

Crazy pronouns: One generally doesn’t see combination pronouns used in Toki Pona, other than pronoun + mute, but I don’t see as how they would be ungrammatical.

sina ali – y’all, or hypothetically used for addressing the cosmic universe.

mi anpa – I, who am humble in your presence

mi sewi – Me, I am so great!

(there are languages in which you use different pronouns for I to indicate deference, like “ore” and “watakushi”, in Japanese)

sina lili – diminutive you

sina suli – grandiose you

ona ike – it, an evil thing or person

ona pona – it, a good thing or person

(I just think it would be weird and worth trying to specify moral propriety rather than gender with one’s third person pronouns)

ona ijo – it, an inanimate thing

ona jan – he or she, a person

(some people may feel the need to express this, several natural languages do)

mi kon – I, referring to my soul or spirit

mi sijelo – I, referring to my bodily inclinations

(kon wile. taso sijelo wawa ala.)

(mi kon li wile unpa sin e sina.)

mi kulupu – the royal we

mi sina – we that only includes speaker and listener or listeners

mi ona – we that excludes the listener or listeners

I suppose it’s appropriate that I learned about Toki Pona on Board Game Geek since Tolkien did refer to the act of creating a new language as “a new art, or a new game”. And Toki Pona definitely qualifies as art and game. It’s like a meditation on what we truly need to say, and what we really convey to each other with our language. And it’s like the linguistic version of Little Alchemy. You get 123 words and about 20 pages of grammar, and you have to combine words to somehow convey what you mean to whomever you are speaking with. And I’m having a lot of fun playing.

PS: Please feel free to fill the comments with your favorite con-lang. Until I discovered Toki Pona and did a bit of research for this essay I didn’t realize how serious and diverse the community of con-lang creators were. People who are ignorant of this community tend to think that there is Esperanto and a whole bunch of languages like Quenya or Klingon, languages that aren’t really of interest unless you are interested in the fantasy world the language is meant to enhance. I was slightly less than ignorant, so I knew of Lojban as well. But there are languages specifically designed for speed and efficiency. There are languages designed to be easy to teach to another species, an alien species for example. I doubt I’ll be very active, since I obviously don’t actively participate in Lojban or Esperanto activities, but I might learn it well enough to understand simple conversations. So if you’d like to share your creation with me, please do.

Clam Shell Board Game System

2 Oct

I would like to introduce the world to the Clam Shell Board Game System.

For the past year I have been on a bit of a board game binge. I’ve been geeking out and appropriately spending a lot of time on Board Game Geek. And one thing that I’ve found particularly interesting is versatile game components. Most of this is the result of owning one game and wanting a new game but not wanting to leave the house to go get a new game, so there are hoards of chess variants. There is even a chess variant called Hoard Chess. There are dozens of games you can play with a Go (Wei Qi) board and pieces.

But of particular interest to me are those game components that were designed for one game but almost immediately began being used to play others and those that were designed to be used to play several different games. In the first category are Looney Labs Pyramids, also called Icehouse pieces because that is the game they were invented to play, and SiegeStones. In the second category are piecepack, Sly, Orion, and almost everything Kadon Enterprises sells.

Well all of those run into three problems. Firstly, they cost too much. On Looney Labs pyramids page they equate the pyramids to playing cards, but you can buy playing cards at the dollar store. One “stash” of pyramids costs more than ten dollars and you need at least 3 stashes to play some of the more interesting games (Homeworlds). Most of the really good games require 5 stashes. If you’re going to play Gnostica (an amazing game, you must try it, quite genius) you’re going to blow $60 at a specialty game store and then you should probably swing by the dollar store anyway for the deck of tarot cards that you also need to play Gnostica. I don’t even know who’s making and selling piecepacks right now. It’s been released into the public domain, so maybe it’s you. You are making and selling them.

But the second thing wrong with these game systems is that they are difficult to make. In the above paragraph I complained about the cost of Loony Labs Pyramids. Well even if you make your own out of paper, 5 stashes is 75 pieces. I guarantee you can earn more than $60 in the time it would take you to make 75 little paper pyramids. You have to love craft projects, be unable to earn money, like if you are just a kid, or simply be a goof, in order to not buy them. A piecepack is not just 24 tiles numbered 1 to 6 in 4 different colors. It probably should be. But it is also 24 coins, and 4 dice and they all have suit symbols on them and the pawns don’t have suit symbols, just colors, oh and they aren’t numbered 1 to 6 they are numbered blank, ace, 2 through 5, including the die faces. And you might want to make some piecepack pyramids. They are just like Looney Labs Pyramids except they are squatter and they come in 6 sizes. You will need two sets in two different suits to play Activator (sweet game).

Actually SiegeStones doesn’t have the first two weeknesses. I think you can get it on Amazon for less than $25 (American) and I actually accidentally have a SiegeStones set. (I made my own Attangle board, and put it down next to my half finished Gounki set and a $7 bag of colored glass bits from the craft store.) But even SiegeStones suffers from the third weakness.

Games have to be written for these game systems.

Stop and think for a moment about all the different card games you know. If you’re not really into card games you probably only know Poker, Rummy, Go Fish, and War. You probably need a hand rank reference for Poker. Maybe you know Old Maid, or Spades. I can guarantee there are more card games than Icehouse games or piecepack games. If you’re really into card games, you know the dozen or so that you think are the best.

Because these game systems are all so new compared to playing cards, there are all sorts of people making up games for these systems, right now. Most of those games are not good, or are only half finished. Sure Gnostica is genius, but it also requires a tarot deck. Pikemen is a great game, but you have to play it on a chess board. In fact, knowing 10 pyramid games that you like and want to play is kind of a special thing. They have a name for it. I don’t even want to go into how many piecepack games require extra bits to work, or games that don’t use the bits that are official piecepack bits (especially the wonky dice). It would just make me sad. I may really like Activator. I may be excited to try Culture Wars. But I had to sort through boring or ill conceived games to find those, and then I had to make or gather extra bits. I don’t even know if there are 10 SiegeStone games, but at least they all use the same pieces.

So my new board game system will have none of these problems.

  1. It will be easy and cheap to acquire.
  2. If a game requires extra bits, they will be a single class of extra bit.
  3. And you will be able to play a large cannon of games with this game system that are old enough that a good portion of them will be good.

So I took a ride on my bike and quite literally picked this game system off of the ground. I call it the Clam Shell Board Game System.

Here is a picture of my new game system set up to play Lahemay Waladat.


Yes, it is just clam shells and acorns. In fact I want to encourage future Clam Shell Board Game System game designers to design games that only require clam shells and stuff to put in clam shells. But using just this, clam shells and stuff to put in clam shells, you can play all of these games. And all of these games as well.

Not all of the games that you can play with the Clam Shell Board Game System are old. Some are new.

ImageLike Cirk,

Imageor Christian Freeling’s Glass Bead Game. In fact using shells to play this game is better than a board. Pick up the shell you are seeding from, and replace it when empty. In the Glass Bead Game, you do not sow a bead into the shell from which you picked up the beads.

After I put this set together, I realized it is kind of bulky. It’s a lot to carry around. If I want to play Bao, I have to stack 32 shells, wrap them in cloth to protect them and put together a pouch of 64 acorns or pebbles or something. It’s like carrying around the spine of a dead animal. It’s big and heavy and frail.

So one night, after our evening meal, I washed these off.

ImageAcorns don’t fit in these, and I was already in the kitchen so I grabbed those whole coffee beans. The Nyumba is turned differently from the other shells in the row, but once you sow from it, you can turn it the other way. But these are easy to carry around, and a tiny plastic baggy holds hundreds of coffee beans.

I also have a personal reason for favoring clam shells over actual manqala boards. My wife has MS and she isn’t really able to scoop pieces from bowls. But she can pick up a shell, pour the pieces into her hand, and sow from there.

So I think this is the best game system yet.

I do anticipate one question.

Are you seriously hyping this stuff you found on the ground as a superior game system to whatever my favorite game system is (probably Orion, but maybe piecepack or Looney Pyramids)?

I’m partially goofing around. While all the criticism above is valid, my game system is partially good natured ribbing towards Andrew Looney and James Kyle.

But I am partially very serious.

Here’s a challenge. Go outside of your home, and go to a game store. No, go to any store. Buy a board to play Bao. This web page will still be here when you come back empty-handed. It is known as the Chess of manqala games. I have only ever seen a Bao board in a store once. It was one of those things that had been carved 60 years ago by some dude who loved Bao and he took immaculate care of it but when he died it sat in the basement of his family until they decided to sell it to some American collector who had an import shop in NYC, that sold ridiculously expensive handmade art pieces imported from Africa. I’m going to imagine that his grandkids got a good deal on the board, but it was cracked by this point.

Why should you deprive yourself of more than a continent’s worth of ludic inventivity? Are you so poor, so lacking in resourcefulness?

Here is a good example. There is a game, Imbelece, played by the Wagenia, or I suppose we could say Genyas (wa is the plural prefix, right?). There are no photos of this game on the internet. The whole internet! I suppose that makes sense. There are probably less than 20,000 Genyas. But nobody ever took a picture of people playing this game and put it on-line?

ImageI did. There are no play reports anywhere else on the internet of this game. Why? Does it suck?

ImageNo. It’s really good! As soon as you capture the first bowl you realize, this is perhaps not a good thing. And the first capture happens really quick, within a half dozen moves. The endgame has already started. Your boys have already started accumulating in the center shell. If this is your first time playing, you’re going to think that capturing more of your opponent’s bowls will help you win, but this is not necessarily the case. Capturing more of his bowls will restrict his moves, and you want that. But you will both run out of seeds.

ImageYou will run out of seeds and there is nothing that can stop it at this point. The shrinking board and the dwindling resources gives it a sort of Atlantis feel. All you need to do to win at this point is to have seeds on your side of the board when your opponent runs out.

There are hundreds of manqala games, and plenty of gems like this one that nobody seems to play. Sure there are a lot of manqala games that you can play on the standard 2 by 6 board that you can pick up pretty cheap at Target or Walmart or wherever. But there are a lot more that require a 2 by 4 board, or 2 by 5, or 3 by 6, or 4 by 7, or Cirk up there that requires 7 bowls around a central bowl. Even if you have a lathe and like woodworking making all those boards would get annoying for anyone who wants to learn about and enjoy manqala games.

So I’m kind of serious. Why am I the only person doing this? Everyone else has severe shellfish allergies? You all keep kosher and do not live near beaches? You’re vegetarians who have no craft stores that sell shells?


It was free! I got this game system as a side effect of enjoying delicious clams in white wine, butter, and garlic. The first one I got as a side effect of spending my day riding my bike to the beach and then riding through the park to collect acorns.

There are good piecepack games, Hanging Gardens, Alien City, etc. There are great Looney Pyramid games, Pikemen, Gnostica, (actually Dectana is better than Gnostica if you have more than 2 players because of the crazy stuff that players can collude on in Dectana), etc. Angry Gods for SiegeStones is a fascinating and beautiful game. But in order to get these game systems you have to sit in a workshop and make them, or worse actually go to work and do the vastly more efficient, but alienating labor of the consumer economy.

The Clam Shell Board Game System allows you to play ancient games that have almost been forgotten, and you get it by pulling it from the sand while listening to the ocean.


1 Jul

I have invented a new game, or a variant on an old game, that I’ve been calling Towers Alquerque, or Quirkat-ul-Buruj, or just Al Buruj (which is also the name of a chapter of The Qur’an, and a space opera RPG that I’ve wanted to write for a few years now).

I combined Alquerque and Bashni and I like the game even better than either one.

Alquerque is a really old Spanish game, probably brought to Spain from Africa back when Spain was full of Moorish kingdoms. Think of checkers played on a tight interconnected board. In fact checkers is probably just a variant of Alquerque played on a chess board.

Men playing Alquerque, pictured in Libro de lo...

Men playing Alquerque, pictured in Libro de los juegos. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Alquerque is such an old game and was so popular in Medieval Europe that when the Spanish colonized the New World, they brought the game with them, and the Zuni people even made up their own variant that they play on yet another different board.

Awithlaknannai board start

Awithlaknannai board start (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Now, Alquerque is a fun game. Because the board is so small and interconnected, each board position is like a puzzle of sorts. You have to slow down and think about what the best move is in each situation. Sometimes it’s really easy to tell. But sometimes you would need to be a computer to figure out what the board position would be after both players have completed a series of obligatory jumps.

But Alquerque tends to be short and result in ties. And to many players this is a real downside.

Bashni is a checkers variant from Russia that people have played on and off for the past hundred or hundred fifty years. The difference between normal checkers and Bashni is that when you capture a piece in Bashni you do not remove it from the board. You place it underneath the piece that did the capturing. Eventually the pieces that remain in play will be formed into stacks. And when you jump a stack, you take the top piece off of it and place it underneath the capturing piece or capturing stack.

This creates a number of tactics that don’t exist in normal checkers. When you sacrifice a piece in Bashni, you can get it back by capturing the piece that took your sacrifice. If you have a big stack that includes five of your own pieces on three of your opponent’s pieces, you can sacrifice the top of your own stack and after your opponent jumps you, you can jump him right back, which results in you capturing your opponent and having your stack split into two.

In fact this game is so good that the chess master Emmanuel Lasker was fond of it, and really liked playing it on a 7 by 7 board. This tighter board meant that pieces would be in danger pretty much from the first move, and that exciting multiple jumps were a lot more likely, and a lot easier to set up, in the middle of the game. His variant is called Lasca and people still like to play it a hundred years later.

Lasker’s 7 by 7 board and an Alquerque board both have 25 positions, but each space on Lasker’s board has 1, 2 or 4 connections. Each space on an Alquerque board has 3, 4, 5, or 8 connections. This means that in this new game that I put together it is not terribly hard to set up 5 jump moves or a series of obligatory jumps lasting 6 to 10 moves. It is possible to make a bad move while playing Quirkat-ul-Buruj, and to not know it was a bad move until 3 or 4 moves later.

Just like in Bashni or Lasca, it is possible in Al Buruj for a player reduced to one stack to still come back and win.

Just to be clear, the rules for Towers Alquerque are:

  1. Start from this position.

    Commenters are not allowed to make fun of my rustic board that I made from an old shelf or my amateur polymer clay pieces. The lines were seered into the board with a hot iron, and the board was coated with spar varnish because I tend to use it as a coaster in bed, and I’ve spilled coffee on it. The pieces were the first time I’ve ever made anything out of polymer clay.

  2. Move each piece one space along a line. Don’t worry about forwards or backwards. You can move along any line in any direction, and you do not “king” an opponent’s piece if it reaches your side of the board. You don’t really have a side of the board.
  3. If you can capture, you must. I’ve been playing that you just take back a move if you do not see a capture but your opponent does, or if your opponent sees a capture that captures more pieces, he can ask you to take back your move and make that one instead. (In normal checkers you can “huff” a piece that fails to make a capture, and that adds an interesting tactical element, the question of, “Are you willing to let a piece die so that you can set up a better move for yourself with another piece.” But huffing a piece is a rule that novice players use to be rude to each other, punishing your opponent for not seeing an opportunity to capture, and it seems out of the spirit of the game since it would remove a piece from the board, so I haven’t experimented with it yet.)
  4. If you jump a piece (capture), you place it under the piece or stack that jumped it. If you jump a stack, you put the top piece under the piece or stack that jumped it. Multiple jumps are fine, but you cannot jump a stack that you just jumped. I’ve been playing that you can jump a stack twice if you jump another stack in between. (If you want to make multiple jumps more dangerous then make it the rule that once a stack has been jumped, it cannot be jumped again that turn. This will create a situation where some multiple jumps leave your piece right next to an opponent’s stack that can jump it on the next move. This will force the players to think more tactically about their jumps, but I find crazy multiple jumps more exciting, as long as you can’t jump back and forth over the same stack.)

    If you play that multiple jumping a stack is possible, then this arrangement of pieces will allow the orange swirls to make a 7 jump move. If you play that a stack cannot be jumped twice in one turn, then all 5 stacks can still be jumped, but at the end of the move, the new stack controlled by orange will be jumped by purple, liberating a 5 piece stack of purple.

  5. To win you must get all of your opponent’s pieces under your own pieces (or off the board if you’re going to allow huffing). I think that a draw is probably impossible, but if you can’t totally deprive your opponent of all moves, then that should be a draw.

I can’t imagine this invention is worth any money. An Alquerque board is something that can be easily remembered and drawn on a napkin in a pub, with one player using copper coins and another using silver coins (pennies and dimes if you are reading this in North America). So I’m just going to call No IP on Al Buruj and trust that someone, somewhere will remember that Sheikh Jahbooty made it up.

Is it hubris of me to create a Board Game Geek page for my game, or should I create a variant page on the Alquerque page? Should I wait until my contribution to the field of board gaming is recognised by someone else who will create those pages, like how you can’t create a wikipedia page about yourself? I’ll just leave this here and figure that out later. I just like this game and wanted to share it with you all.