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Necessary background info: So I made a hard(ish, there is FTL but it's fairly restricted and that's about it in terms of scientific implausibility) science fiction worldbuild. There is the "Oval", a small region of space where there is a higher concentration of habitable worlds and alien civilizations. These alien races are diverse and it's often hard to understand their culture and psychology. Nevertheless, some things are near-universal with non-hive-mind civilizations, such as board games. There's even a huge interspecies abstract game tournament, involving games equivalent in popularity to chess and go. I design abstract games as a hobby so it's something of an author appeal for me.

However, and this is where the worldbuilding question comes in, how do I make sure that an alien culture's abstract board games feel truly different from what humans would design? Optional but desired: What is a good way to make these games subtly reflect their worldview?

Sorry if this is a super niche question, it's a weird worldbuild.

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    $\begingroup$ You may not be able to do this; you are human, after all. $\endgroup$ Nov 1, 2022 at 10:51
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    $\begingroup$ Hahaha, that's clever but the goal is making it seem very unfamiliar. We can't really truly predict what aliens would prefer for entertainment. $\endgroup$ Nov 1, 2022 at 10:59
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    $\begingroup$ Reminds me somewhat of the book, The Player of Games. $\endgroup$
    – Avi Cherry
    Nov 1, 2022 at 18:10
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    $\begingroup$ Require a sense humans don't have. $\endgroup$
    – Tony Ennis
    Nov 1, 2022 at 19:11
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    $\begingroup$ Are you making a playable game, or merely describing a game which takes place in your story? $\endgroup$ Nov 1, 2022 at 22:47

17 Answers 17

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Games that are not about winning.

One concept almost all human board games have in common is that there must be winners and losers. Even if it is a cooperative game, the group as a whole wins or loses.

But aliens which are not bound to the human mindset of competition might instead approach board games from a completely different perspective. They might play games which have mechanics, but no goals, win-conditions or lose-conditions. They just play, and once the game is over, they thank each other for the enjoyable experience and congratulate each other for the elegant moves they made. But there is no score, no winners and no losers.

Other aliens might have a very pessimistic worldview. For them, life is suffering. Everyone dies, the question is just when and how. So life is pointless anyway. That philosophy could be reflected in the games they play. In their games, there are no winners. Everyone loses. The point of the game is to figure out how exactly each player loses the game.

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    $\begingroup$ Good idea. I think it's just inherently hard to balance a cooperative game, especially an abstract one, but if their cultural whole doesn't care about balance it's viable. $\endgroup$ Nov 1, 2022 at 12:38
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    $\begingroup$ This reminds me of watching my daughters working together to build things out of blocks. It is a multi-player co-op game that offers a challenge to overcome without any clear goal of winning or losing. $\endgroup$
    – Nosajimiki
    Nov 1, 2022 at 19:30
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    $\begingroup$ In a similar vain you could have games that are just intrinsically unfair. Say the oldest player is always heavily favored to win. $\endgroup$
    – quarague
    Nov 1, 2022 at 20:56
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    $\begingroup$ Note : While non-competitive goals are rare in abstract board games, there are quite some in non-board abstract ones, where the purpose is often to discover each other's socially. Exquisite corpse and truth or dare are quite good examples of this. $\endgroup$ Nov 1, 2022 at 23:17
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    $\begingroup$ An example of game would be something like "Triominos", with players attempting cooperatively to make interesting shapes... but with a common pool of triominos, and no point awarded. The game ends when the pool is done. The game was partilcularly interesting (GG) if the players manage to produce rare shapes, or if a player managed to produce a shape that no other player realized was coming, or Marty narrated a funny story, or... and a "good player" is someone who makes the games interesting, so that more people like to play with them. $\endgroup$ Nov 2, 2022 at 8:18
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Use the 3Cs

In video game design, the 3Cs or "character-camera-controller" is a very important concept to get a hold of. While the terms are specifically thought for video games, they also apply to an extent to any kind of game, computer or not. The general goal is to focus on what the aliens would do to have the best game experience they can.

Camera

In short, what information the game gives to you? What do you see, hear, smell, feel or even taste? If your aliens are very different, they will use different canals than humans to receive these feedbacks. The more the canals used will be different from our favored ones, the stranger your game will look. In other words, reduce to the maximum the usage of sight, hearing and touch (in this order of priority) to favor other feedbacks.

Some examples :

  • Your alien is a shark capable of electroreception 🦈? It's only normal that they use this as one of the many game feedbacks.
  • Use fragrant smells or even let them be tasted to identify the game elements or effects.
  • It works even with a softer approach : only using abstract, eerie sounds to play, you're sure to have a chill going up in one's spine.

Controller

People interact with games, how do they do it? Do they move a piece on the board, do they change the board itself? Or is it a conversationnal game, where you speak to others to play? You get a lot to play with here : Your aliens will use what is the easiest for them to interact with the game. This goes as broad as the principle itself (moving, touching, speaking...) to as detailed as how a piece can be handled. It also includes how many things you can do at once, so play with this too!

Some examples :

  • Multi-brained octopuses with many tentacles will want a specific game space and pieces to play comfortably 🐙, but at the same time they would do multiple things at once to challenge them.
  • A trumpet alien will play a melody to interact with the game.
  • The electroreceptive sharks will pay attention to their own electric signals when playing shark-poker!

Character(s)

Who you are, in the game? What is representing you in the game and what is it able to interact with, from an inside-the-game perspective? A set of chess pieces with different movements and killable instantly? A number of hitpoints, mana and cards in hands to play? A top hat on the street, with stacks of cash at hand? Piles of seeds and 6 aligned holes? This is where the culture will shine the most : Your avatar, your representation of the game is in abstract what you experience in the world.

In the above examples chess is an abstraction of medieval warfare; Magic: the gathering a battle between two mages with cards giving an emphasis on wild fantasy imagination; Monopoly a capitalist game at core; Oware is a game where there's not a winner in the traditional sense, only players sharing their food stocks.

Some examples (again!) :

  • If your sharks are very religious, your game will have their dogmas through their character (priests...) and actions (seek god redemption, ...)
  • If your octopuses are peaceful, it will focus on cooperative thinking, sharing resources with each others. Being multi-brained, it wouldn't be surprising such octopuses control multiple characters either, or that characters act on multiple dimensions in order to satiate their superbrains's power.

Alter the verbs

To further extend and alter the viewpoint, use the game's verbs principle. Most human games follow codes, genres, which can be defined by a set of simple verbs. A car race is simply "moving" fast to "reach" the destination 🚗➡️🎯. Chess will be roughly akin to "plan" your "moves" and "attacks" in order to "capture" the king1. Notice that there's always an action and an overarching goal : You do something in order to reach a goal. Be sure to always have this, otherwise your game will lose all its meaning.

Now, take a genre you like, check the verbs used in it and alter some of it. Taking the racing game as example : "Move" to "reach" the destination... What if, to reach the destination, we're not "moving", but "spreading", like some goo expanding over the place? With chess, would it be interesting if your goal was not to "capture" the king, but to help it "copy" itself? And so on. The more imaginative your verbs will be from the original genre's ones, the stranger it will feel like.

Warning about making unusual games

The more you alter the 3Cs and verbs for your aliens, the less any human will be able to play -and worse, enjoy- these games. The harder it will also be to understand the game from an outsider point of view. If your world intention is not to put your audience at a state of confusion, bewilderment or unease, be careful not to overdo it and focus on a few core mechanics to make the learning and understanding as smooth as possible.


1 : There's one study that made a clear categorization of action verbs, alas I can't find it back 😞. In game design it was too abstract to be used meaningfully, though here it would have been very useful...

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    $\begingroup$ A race of sentient cephalopods as we understand them might well be largely solitary and/or cannibalistic. Perhaps their games might favour a highly adversarial stance where the winner takes everything the loser has. Octopodes might enjoy poker for example, though the concept of a poker-face would be alien to them as their skin betrays their emotional states very easily. $\endgroup$
    – Ruadhan
    Nov 2, 2022 at 16:07
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    $\begingroup$ @Ruadhan We can only understand Earth octopuses, no alien ones, especially if they're supposed to feel "alien" to us ^^. But indeed real world octopuses are more solitary than I tell, even if they are quite clever. Games wouldn't necessarily need be competitive for them, but be solo or 2 players at most. $\endgroup$ Nov 2, 2022 at 16:24
  • $\begingroup$ Importantly, the way the aliens interact with the games should be the alien part - something like an alien utilizing the fact it has two brains to keep track of two different things at the same time (without "sharing information" between the brains). Keep the rules simple, except for the parts that are alien, which may be possible but still very difficult for humans. $\endgroup$
    – ArmanX
    Nov 2, 2022 at 22:24
  • $\begingroup$ Yeah makes sense, will take this into account. $\endgroup$ Nov 3, 2022 at 3:07
  • $\begingroup$ "There's one study that made a clear categorization of action verbs." Henry Burger's The WordTree? $\endgroup$
    – Rosie F
    Nov 3, 2022 at 9:28
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Redefine the fundamental conflict solution

Animals play games to practice conflict. This is true across all animals that engage in play, and will likely remain true for your aliens. So, to have an alien race have a different kind of traditional abstract game, you need to redefine how their primitive society would have solved conflict differently than ours.

When we take a look at all the oldest board games in human history (Chess, Checkers, 9 Men's Morris, Go, the Royal Game of Ur, etc.), they all share a common theme that you must outmaneuver your opponent in a way that represents physically dominating them in a war like way. War, in this context, could be considered humanity's fundamental solution to a conflict. But, if your aliens did not resort to war in primitive society, then their games would have represented another solution to conflict.

Maybe they saw sharing as the fundamental solution; so, instead of competing to dominate their opponents, they compete to fulfill needs. Maybe they saw economy as their fundamental solution; so, their game may be like some simplified abstract version of monopoly. Maybe they saw herd protection as the fundamental solution; so, their game represents minimizing looses against something representative of a predator or amassing a population.

So there are infinite other kinds of abstract games that would seem alien to us, but as long as you shy away from outmaneuvering for dominance as the key mechanic, it should seem adequately alien.

The way we play games may be more different than the games themselves

Humans have a tendency towards war-think which itself may be alien to other intelligent races; so, even if our games end up with similar rules, we may not play them the same. For example, if we try playing chess with an alien who's used to playing co-operative games, they may be unable to resist giving you advice about what moves you should make, or they may see a stalemate as preferable to a checkmate so that no one has to lose. Or maybe a herd-thinking race will choose to lead thier attack with the king so that they don't risk the whole herd in a meaningless war. Or a capitalist minded race may care a lot more about who has more pieces left at the end of the game than who was checkmated.

So in addition to just seeing alien boardgames, you may also see aliens try to play human games in very alien ways, or humans trying to play alien games, and missing the whole point much to the frustration of thier "opponents".

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  • $\begingroup$ Makes sense, it's conceivable that a civilization could prefer cooperative/non-directly competitive games. $\endgroup$ Nov 2, 2022 at 7:00
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    $\begingroup$ “Animals play games to practice conflict” — Not just conflict. Animals play to practice interaction — and conflict is a major fundamental kind of interaction, but not the only one. There are traditional human games that illustrate this, e.g. “truth or dare” and “exquisite corpse” mentioned in comments on the question — games giving codified frameworks for socialisation, flirtation, and so on. $\endgroup$ Nov 3, 2022 at 9:59
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    $\begingroup$ @PeterLeFanuLumsdaine It's true that not all human games are about conflict, but as far as I can tell, it's somewhere well over 90%. I would even argue that “truth or dare” is rooted in conflict. When you really break it down, it's just a submission duel, fought with words. The game typically goes on until one person beats the other by asking something that makes the other person yield. Ironically, we don't even need to put clear winning conditions into a game's rules for people to assume a winning condition and compete towards it. $\endgroup$
    – Nosajimiki
    Nov 3, 2022 at 20:31
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    $\begingroup$ @Nosajimiki The game's deep nature lies beyond the conflicts stated in the game mechanics. In the case of competitive games, the conflict is superficial, it's more a challenge... to learn about others. That's why telling they practice for conflict is only partially true. People wouldn't play games if they weren't social butterflies 🦋. $\endgroup$ Nov 4, 2022 at 0:32
  • $\begingroup$ @Nosajimiki Except that those games do not actually represent anything about war - that's simply the fluff around the game. Monopoly doesn't really reflect an economy either - again that's just the contextual fluff around the game. Games are mental competition, and that's all there is to them. Equally there are many, many games which are self-competition. $\endgroup$
    – Graham
    Nov 4, 2022 at 9:05
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Real-time games

The majority of human board games are played over a series of turns or rounds. It's very common for players to have time between moves to strategize and carefully consider their next move. Some games may limit the time taken for a turn (as seen with a chess clock, for example), but often the timing of a turn isn't a strategic consideration. A board game usually consists of a you-go, I-go dynamic with silent thought in between. A society where most board games are played in real-time with possibly frenetic action throughout might seem unusual indeed given the typically measured pace of human board games. Human games that are played in real-time are generally light on the strategy aspect to account for reduced decision-making time, but it might be possible for an alien race to make complex strategic considerations in limited time, allowing for an alien genre of real-time deep strategy games.

Continuous strategy space games

Another common feature of human board games is that not only time, but almost every aspect of a game relies on some kind of discretization - there are discrete spaces on the playing board with an integer number of pieces, you draw a discrete number of cards and gain/lose a discrete number of points/resources/etc. In most games, the strategy space may be vast, but it is nearly always enumerable in that every player action must be chosen among a clearly defined set of choices. Games played in continuous time or space throw this convention out the window, allowing for an uncountably infinite number of possible strategies. Perhaps pieces can move continuous distances rather than discrete ones, or maybe the pieces themselves are defined by continuous features like weight or size and are not simply discrete 0/1 indicators, or maybe randomness is featured not in a discrete way like with dice, but with a continuous random variable. I'm imagining something like a continuous version of Go where players "paint" continuous swaths of territory rather than occupying discrete board spaces.

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  • $\begingroup$ These aliens would love Egyptian Ratscrew. $\endgroup$
    – Nosajimiki
    Nov 1, 2022 at 18:59
  • $\begingroup$ @Nosajimiki Exactly my first thought when trying to think of games with simultaneous player action. Pit and Spit are two more I could think of, but I couldn't think of any with significant strategic depth. A faster-thinking alien race might be able to combine the strategy of turn-based games with the twitchiness of real-time games. $\endgroup$ Nov 1, 2022 at 19:31
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    $\begingroup$ Continuous-space games! Didn't think of that. Good idea, will use. $\endgroup$ Nov 2, 2022 at 7:02
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    $\begingroup$ The idea of real time decision making does exist in board games but it is more common in physical games like tennis $\endgroup$
    – Slarty
    Nov 2, 2022 at 7:22
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    $\begingroup$ There actually are a few human-made real-time board games. I know of only two, but they exist (one uses small hourglasses to time delays between moves). $\endgroup$
    – Tom
    Nov 3, 2022 at 8:36
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Alien Senses

enter image description here

Human board games rely on sight and touch to understand. Some board games have verbal elements like Taboo or Scrabble.

Dog board games have one or more of the senses replaced by a sense of smell. Dogs are capable of telling riddles and making puns entirely through the medium of smell. These jokes don't translate into human at all.

Aliens are even worse. They don't have touch and feel and smell. They have Xwarst types I, II and II(a), severance alarm and electromagnetic tentapoles. They don't have riddles and puns. They have fly-catcher restracosimony except on Wednesdays.

It is easy to make the board game sound alien. The hard part is to make it still sound like a board game and not just a string of nonsense words.

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    $\begingroup$ Yeah that last sentence was kinda part of the point of my question, to keep it sorta playable by humans yet still very unfamiliar. Should have clarified that. But, inspiring answer and I'll keep it in mind. $\endgroup$ Nov 1, 2022 at 11:03
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    $\begingroup$ @TeamOrange Perhaps take an existing board game and bolt on a silly alien sense mechanic to it. Then make it a team board game where a human plays with an alien partner who handles all the alien stuff. $\endgroup$
    – Daron
    Nov 1, 2022 at 11:12
  • $\begingroup$ Yeah that makes sense, thanks! Though I'll be not-lazy and bolt the sense thing onto an original design. ;) $\endgroup$ Nov 1, 2022 at 11:21
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    $\begingroup$ You can always have a "game board" and "points" to make it obvious to a human reader who is winning, even if the way you move or score points is unintelligible. $\endgroup$
    – Daron
    Nov 1, 2022 at 11:29
  • $\begingroup$ It is a board game. Board games are purely abstract; the physical board and physical pieces are there only as a prop for beginners, and can be replaced with any other kind of prop with helps the beginners understand the current state of the game. $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Nov 1, 2022 at 13:36
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My off the cuff thinking: don't worry about making it so alien.

Aliens in sci-fi are frequently just exaggerated humans, and the aliens are there mainly to showcase exaggerated human features. Star Trek is really the poster child for this, because while they sometimes have truly "alien" aliens, more often they are just exaggerated humans: Vulcans are humans with exaggerated logic. Klingons are humans with exaggerated aggression. Romulans are humans with exaggerated paranoia. Betazoids are just what humans might be if they had perfect emotion reading.

So my thinking is: imagine a human characteristic. Exaggerate it. Think of how aliens like that might play a game. Klingon games: definitely directly competitive, generally with a goal of taking out the other players. Romulan games: lots of intrigue and backstabbing where winning without being obvious about it is encouraged. Betazoid games: built around sensing, manipulating or perhaps fooling the emotions of the other players.

Etc.

In short, start with the alien, then make the game.

You could aim for some truly alien features (games you can only play if you can directly sense and transmit the 2 Ghz radio spectrum) but with a target audience of "humans" for your world (book, game, whatever), you might have trouble keeping people's interest if the games are so foreign that they can't be really described or understood. But we can understand exaggerated human things.

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  • $\begingroup$ Well that's kinda what I am doing tbh, with more nuance than Trek-style "planet of hats" but fundamentally a similar concept. Nice to know I was on the right track. $\endgroup$ Nov 2, 2022 at 7:01
  • $\begingroup$ "Romulan games: lots of intrigue and backstabbing where winning without being obvious about it is encouraged. ". Pretty much a definition of the human board game "Diplomacy" (which is not entirely unlike the real thing but with more warfare and fewer consequences). $\endgroup$
    – nigel222
    Nov 2, 2022 at 17:47
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The best way to make something alien isn't worldbuilding, it's writing. Don't design the game, not even for your own purposes. Avoid mid-level detail when describing the game. You can provide low-level details (describe individual moves) and high-level descriptions (how is the game progressing), but do nothing to connect them. The goal is to leave it to the reader to try (and hopefully fail) to fill in the blanks.

The comment about The Player of Games is a good one: we know nothing about "Azad" other than that it's an insanely complicated tabletop strategy game. We're given occasional descriptions of individual moves or pieces, and descriptions of dramatic shifts in how the game is going for the players, but nothing about how everything ties together to produce an actual game.

Recommended TVTropes reading: Calvinball, noodle implements.

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This, also, is a Frame Challenge

I've enjoyed reading both the answers and the comments, but after reading them I think that your goal is in conflict with your intent.

An alien species... any species at all... that has the ability to innovate, motivate, and solve problems, will come across some universal standards.

  • Planets are spheres. In fact, a lot of things are spheres. In fact, geometric shapes will be common to all tangible intelligent species. I'm going to ignore the special cases of intelligent energy, intelligent wind.... My point is that the odds of an alien species not having a game played with one or more spheres and one or more targets or holes seems unlikely. And any such game played with a geometrical object will have a similarity to any one of a number of human games.

  • Most if not all physical constants will be universal. Fruit falls from trees. Water runs downhill. Something thrown on a planet will have a ballistic path. This means how the geometric objects are used will have similarities to human games.

  • We are all creatures of our environment. Humans thrive on land, water, and air, so we have games in all three environments. We're not so good in molten lava — but an intelligent species may have evolved in exactly that environment. In that regard they may have a game based on extreme heat and molten rock that humans literally can't play. Since your audience is human, that excludes any and all game possibilities based on environments we can't survive. I believe we could plausibly come up with a game dolphins might play — but humans couldn't play it. Can't hold our breath long enough or move fast enough underwater. But could we speak Dolphin, we could understand the game, because it must adhere to constants and standards (rocks sink...). Nevertheless, since humans must play your game, all differences based on environment are moot.

  • We are also creatures of our physiology. Humans could plausibly appreciate a game played by bats because humans can, to a degree, develop a sense of echolocation. But we can't fly in a way a bat can, so we can never play the game. Since the point of your efforts is to allow humans to play the game, all differences based on physiology are moot.

When you boil this all down, a debate of odd-vs-alien (you can find that in comments to other questions) doesn't make sense because it's unlikely that the components of a game will not have a similar representation on Earth. Aliens may not have card games, but the odds of not using vegetable fiber or animal skin to represent a numerical and/or hierarchical sequence for the purpose of randomized distribution to play a game involving some combination of pattern recognition and/or development, distraction and/or deceit, even risk, is pretty low. A species that innovates and solves problems would naturally have games that reflect innovation and problem solving — and we'd recognize that same aspect of our own species.

What this means is that no game can ever be truly alien — only odd. It can use a language we can't decipher. It can espouse goals and motivations that don't make sense to our own developed logic. But in the end, there's nothing about an alien game that isn't reflected in our own games and can't be understood given some experience with the game.

Finally, and worst of all, as you say, you're looking for something that feels alien. It can't actually be alien or humans can't play the game (or won't enjoy it long enough to learn how to play it). It's contrary to your needs to be thoroughly alien.

And that brings us to one, fundamental problem.

Unless you have an example of an organized game with rules played by spiders, everything we can possibly come up with will be tainted by the fact that we have no experience understanding the games of any species other than humans

Yes, animals and insects of all types play. But there's a difference between two kittens practicing hunting skills by rolling around on my living room carpet and playing an organized game with codified rules.

In that regard, anything and everything we can come up with is just another variation of a human game that others haven't played before. Once they play it, it becomes familiar and is no longer alien.

Every game you come up with will be this way. "Alien" the first time or two someone plays it. Then very, very human.

And everything I've said (indeed, everything we've all said) could be completely wrong simply because we have nothing to compare against. All we have are humans trying to guess what it would be like to not be human. What can I say but, good luck with that!

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  • $\begingroup$ Right. I was basically doing things this way, for this reason, but wasn't sure if it was the correct way. $\endgroup$ Nov 2, 2022 at 6:59
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    $\begingroup$ "But there's a difference between two kittens practicing hunting skills by rolling around on my living room carpet and playing an organized game with codified rules." not THAT much difference, though. A lot of sports, games, and competitions evolved out of humans were already doing. Like hunting and fighting. The sport/game allowed humans to practice the same skill but in a more constrained environment, not unlike kittens. Eventually this skill practising were codified to get us things like Greco-Roman wresting and boxing as distinct things. $\endgroup$
    – VLAZ
    Nov 2, 2022 at 7:32
  • $\begingroup$ @VLAZ You're absolutely right, and that's valuable insight for the idea of developing a game from an alien perspective. What are their, let's call them "hereditary behaviors," that lead to codification in games? A species that slithers will have a different set of physiological derivatives that later get codified into games. Good insight! $\endgroup$
    – JBH
    Nov 2, 2022 at 16:18
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alien (adj.)

c. 1300, "strange, foreign," from Old French alien "strange, foreign;" as a noun, "an alien, stranger, foreigner," from Latin alienus "of or belonging to another, not one's own, foreign, strange," also, as a noun, "a stranger, foreigner," adjective from alius (adv.) "another, other, different"

Anything to which you are not used looks and feel alien. It's even in the etymology of the word itself.

If you want an example, have you ever seen a game of korfball? For a non Dutch, it looks like somebody wanted to play basketball without spending money into a board and a net for the basket.

enter image description here

You can start from the baseline of a known game, and add "odd" variations. A typical example might be the Star Trek version of chess.

Or refer to Philip Dick's The Game-Players of Titan, where the aliens play a sort of poker while mind reading is allowed, so the actual game is tricking/blocking your opponent's mind reading.

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    $\begingroup$ One of the games I designed sorta resembles chess on a triangular grid and with pieces that take up multiple tiles. It definitely feels weird to play but I just got weird "too familiar" vibes from it. $\endgroup$ Nov 1, 2022 at 11:00
  • $\begingroup$ @TeamOrange - That ...weird "too familiar" vibe... is essentially my entire point in my original comment on the question. You're human; anything you come up with is going to be influenced by that simple fact, and the long human history of game creation. $\endgroup$ Nov 1, 2022 at 11:15
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    $\begingroup$ As far as the comment in this answer, Anything to which you are not used looks and feel[s] alien, I disagree - it doesn't feel alien, just odd. I look at korfball, and I see an odd basketball variant; I look at pesäpallo or cricket, and I see an odd baseball variant; I look at US football, and I see an odd rugby variant. They don't seem alien to me; they're just as human as the games I'm more familiar with, and I can understand the rules and psychology behind them with little effort. $\endgroup$ Nov 1, 2022 at 11:22
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    $\begingroup$ Korfball... I can remember a day when Soccer wasn't the juggernaut in the U.S. played by bazillions of seven-year-olds that it is today. My first introduction to the game had a lot of "why the heck would you do that?" moments. And don't even start me about Cricket. +1 for pointing out that alien already exists on Earth simply between cultures. $\endgroup$
    – JBH
    Nov 1, 2022 at 23:04
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    $\begingroup$ As for alien-vs-odd, I think there's an excellent debate there. What are the odds of aliens not playing a game involving a sphere and a target or hole? What will we see? Baseball, cricket, bowling, golf, Myan Pitz... A truly alien game would require something played without any geometrical references that would allow us to draw a similarity. We may never understand the rules, but I bet poker looks the same on all planets. $\endgroup$
    – JBH
    Nov 1, 2022 at 23:08
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Sunsunchachacha is an abstract game of tower-building and tower-toppling for six players. Each player has their own personal randomly selected victory condition, independent of all others. Thus, it is possible for all players to win. However, the species who designed the game do not solely prioritise their own victory - they focus on making sure their personal enemies fail to achieve victory. A game where all players lose is considered the best overall result.

Pb'klat is a game for three to four hundred players, played on a single board the size of a standard football field, loosely themed around trade and tariffs. Games typically take between two and three Earth-years to complete. The ultimate result will usually be obvious within the first year or two, but stopping play before the end is an unforgiveable social crime; if an active player dies, their primary heir must take their place. How you play (cunning or noble, flashy or classy...) is far more important than the final result. The winner of a game is forbidden from ever playing again.

Mhe is a game of bluff, themed around intestinal parasites. Anyone caught bluffing is exiled from the planet. The best players are usually visitors from other cultures, who have less to lose.

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  • $\begingroup$ lol, fantastic ideas. $\endgroup$ Nov 3, 2022 at 3:07
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Have the aliens be part of a hive mind. They are still individuals, but think alike. So they may play a game with moves logical to an outsider, but the goals will be very alien. Are they competing? Are they cooperating? Did they just swap sides for no obvious reason? They both seem happy with the outcome.

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Frame challenge: I don’t think it’s going to be possible; I think that if you write an alien that humans can interact usefully with - that is, if humans and the aliens can understand each other enough to establish diplomatic and commercial relations - you’ve essentially written humans. A concept explicated in the second and third of Orson Scott Card’s Ender Wiggen novels (Speaker for the Dead and Xenocide) is useful here; your aliens must essentially be ramen; if they’re varelse (or, worse, djur), you won't have a story beause there’s no reasonable point of contact; if they’re utlanning or framling, they’re essentially human, and you might as well write your story about Americans vs. Chinese or Germans vs. Zulu or whatever.

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  • $\begingroup$ Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. $\endgroup$
    – L.Dutch
    Nov 2, 2022 at 17:32
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I'd split it between having alien goals, and gameplay requiring alien skills.

  • Alien goals: our games mostly reward making patterns, gathering resources, and winning conflict, which reflects our worldview. But aliens might optimize for something else. This could be an explicit rule (capture the king to win) or the unwritten way to play (resign if your loss is guaranteed, winning by more points is better, communicate often).
    • Unusual goals that could be either explicit or unwritten: maximizing flow rate or efficiency, destroying resources, maximizing/minimizing variety of experiences (items or events witnessed), hiding information, minimizing yours or everybody's waste, making quick decisions, behaving unpredictably, maximize/minimize available own options or of all players, communicating efficiently, forecasting accuratetly, identifying errors, minimizing/maximizing how many players you rely on, minimizing/maximizing effort required to play each turn.
    • And goals that would probably be unwritten, but might shape the game rules: cheating without being caught, bending the rules, entertain/bore/confuse/convince/disgust/subjugate/embarrass other players or even the audience.
  • Alien skills: poker can be hard to play if a bird-shaped alien cannot hold the cards, an empath cannot lie, a telepath knows if you're lying, or a culture doesn't distinguish between the numbers 9 and 10. Maybe their games are difficult for our body or minds too.
    • Physical manipulation. Their games might require moving a piece electromagnetically behind a barrier, moving sensitive/minuscule/heavy pieces, holding too many items, manipulating gas/liquids/sand, precisely estimating weight/size/color/pitch/brightness/sharpness/temperature/charge/composition.
    • Mental skills that humans are not very good at. Advanced math (algebra, long computations, even proving theorems), extreme memory, hard computational problems (graph and sorting algorithms, knapsack), writing programs, or just handling too much complexity.
    • Can also go the other way: the game might be trivial for human bodies or minds.
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  • $\begingroup$ I really like the math idea. A lot of our games involve very basic counting and geometry. Videogames open up a ton of opportunities because the computer can do those calculations for us, but I could easily imagine a games that allows a piece to move in ways requiring Patagonian or Derivative calculations to be done in your head. $\endgroup$
    – Nosajimiki
    Nov 2, 2022 at 17:36
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    $\begingroup$ Amazing ideas! Thanks. $\endgroup$ Nov 3, 2022 at 2:52
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    $\begingroup$ Love the idea of having game pieces that are not distinguished by color but by electric charge or a magnetic field they emit. $\endgroup$
    – Rad80
    Nov 3, 2022 at 16:52
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    $\begingroup$ The goals you describe are quite common, actually : Optimizing efficiency and maximizing/minimizing options ➡️ most games, 'specially combinatory ones (Star Realms, Smallworld, Azul...); hiding information and relying on others ➡️ Poker, Dixit, The Werewolves of Millers Hollow; Quick decisions ➡️ Jungle speed; Good communication ➡️Kemps, Codenames; Forecasting accurately ➡️French Tarot, Risk, Battleships... Hum, Sorry, got carried away, I didn't mean to blast away so many examples ^^". I'll just end here telling that playing unpredictably is more a perception of playstyle than a goal. $\endgroup$ Nov 3, 2022 at 18:02
  • $\begingroup$ @Tortliena thanks for the examples. I'd be careful to distinguish between goals and strategies, though. In Azul you get more points for better patterns, and maximizing your options is just a good strategy. In Poker you're trying to beat your opponent's hand or intimidate them, and hiding information is just a good strategy. Compare that to hypothetical games where you literally win by your number of valid moves, or by guessing your opponent's secret. $\endgroup$
    – BoppreH
    Nov 3, 2022 at 18:32
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Redefine 'board'

Despite having hundreds of thousands of board games, the boards themselves are inevitably a single flat plane, usually contiguous, but virtually never layered.

This is because we can only see visible light, and have wide hands, not narrow tentacles.

It turns out we're outliers and this type of game is too; the typical alien game has multiple boards, fairly closely stacked.

This may add a 3D element (think 3D chess), or a thematic element (think chess with a simultaneous economic layer added, and even one cooperative layer).

We work around the lack of visibility with technology and the lack of tentacles by having an alien on the team (or technology).

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  • $\begingroup$ Yeah, thought of this. $\endgroup$ Nov 3, 2022 at 2:49
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Star Trek had a lot of alien games get mentioned varying from sport to board games. Deep Space Nine even featured a race that's entire culture revolved around playing games (though they were only in one early episode and fan consensus is the episode was best left forgotten). A few games do reveal something about a race's culture. Vulcan games tend to be single player logic puzzles that would test the player's ability to find a logical solution to solve the puzzle. Klingons, who were all about physical combat often played games that would involve weapons use or test of physical skill, though some had elements of mental strength as part of the challenge and Klingon's being Klingons, they often could leave participants with injuries and, though the difference between a game and combat was probably in games, killing one's opponent is not the goal. They probably had very Spartan views on cheating (it's okay unless you got caught), and many games will end on pleasant terms, as the loser is happy to meet someone who can give them a challenge.

Ferengi (the aliens that treated capitalism as not just an economic policy but a religion) favored games with gambling elements and heavy use of a risk vs. reward system (The greater the risk the greater the reward was an oft quoted line from their Bible equivelent). Of the two games we see, Dabo is a pure game of chance (it seems like the love child of Slot Machines and Roulette) while Tongo has elements of poker with cards and an ante system, but also includes a board with a central spinner element. Both games have lights and sound elements for likely similar reasons to why Casino games have them. And while no game was specifically mentioned, one DS9 episode had Quark show another always capitalist species (the difference is that they are all about maximizing customer satisfaction to maximize profit) the fact that Ferengi Society does enjoy the risk and likens the very dire situation the pair find themselves in to a gambling game.

As for making a game "look alien" Star Trek would frequently take a real game and add elements that changed it and demonstrated play with little comment on how to play with the new elements. This style was either inspired by or resulted in the conclusion to the Original Series episode "A Piece of the Action" where Kirk makes up the game "Fizbin" on the spot to distract his opponents he and his crew can escape. He claims the game is very popular, and goes on to explain the rules (really he's just spouting nonsense and to get them to drop their guards by trying to pay attention to the convoluted rules. Not only did it work in the immediate game, but by the time of Deep Space 9, set over 80 years after TOS, one alien implies that the people who Kirk introduced the game too were so fooled, they somehow manage to figure out all the rules to the game and introduced it to other races think it was real.).

Which brings to the final element of, when all else fails, make it a game of Calvin Ball. Calvin Ball is a term for a fictional game where the ruleset is incomplete as far as the reader is aware. The term derives from the favorite sport of the titular duo from the Calvin and Hobbs comic strips. As Calvin explains, the only rule of Calvin Ball is that you are not allowed to play with the same ruleset twice (Although for some reason, in all depictions a bandit style mask around the eyes is required for all players to wear. Which would violate the first and only consistent rule but it's never discussed by the players.). The strips usually show the game devolving into an argument over the convoluted rules as to whether the play was valid or not. The argument resolves differently with it reaching the "Fair" conclusion or devolving in to a physical fight between the two players. The ultimate pay off to the story comes from the final story arch to feature Roslyn, Calvin's recurring Babysitter who is one of the few people who he actually fears and loathes. They end up bonding when he introduces the sport to her and she legit enjoys it. As a literary concept, it's not important to understand the rules of Calvin Ball to any degree that it's playable in real life since the element being focused on is someone who doesn't know the game is baffled by people who do understand it and is giving a quick and unhelpful play by play to the uninitiated. The level of rules given to the reader can be "little" to "a general full play but some critical elements are poorly discussed OR points are weighted so disproportionately, that one has to wonder why the low point scores were added in the first place. For example, Quiditch in Harry Potter, has a very understood ruleset as to how one plays the game, but it's stated that the complete list of rules is known by only a few (Specifically a rather lengthy foul list that is withheld from players to "keep them from getting ideas.") and addition the Snitch being so heavily weighted compared to traditional scoring (although not specifically listed in the books, the team that wins the most points wins the game, but the scores for each game are added together to determine the team that wins a league's season, which means that in some games, the Seeker wants to prevent an early capture of the Snitch because there is a point deficit in their season score that will set them back in the rankings.).

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    $\begingroup$ My first instinct to this question was what a Cardassian boardgame must be like. The winners are picked in the beginning based on rank, and then it's everyone's job to make sure that player wins $\endgroup$
    – Andrey
    Nov 2, 2022 at 17:31
  • $\begingroup$ @Andrey I recall there was a board game shown but don't recall specifics. It seemed similar to go. I imagine Cardassian games play similar to Diplomacy or Werewolf. $\endgroup$
    – hszmv
    Nov 2, 2022 at 17:49
  • $\begingroup$ Yea, makes sense. $\endgroup$ Nov 3, 2022 at 2:52
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Religious Topological Vivisection.

The "board" for the game is the body of one of the aliens. Two beings compete for the honor of producing the most beautiful modifications to the body of the third being.

The players use various implements to make modifications to the body of the "board."

The goal is to create the most elaborate and imaginative designs from the body parts of the "board" without causing death. The body can be cut open and parts pulled out, but no parts can be completely severed from the body. Severing a part results in an immediate loss.

Creativity and beauty of the modifications is considered in scoring, and extra honor is earned if the board survives the procedure.

The highest level of achievement is for a truly beautiful sculpture to be presented, then returned to its original body state and appearance, and for the board to survive the process.

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My proposal is game without any rules. You can watch aliens play, win, lose, show great emotion - but you can't understand, how and why they move their pieces, what constitutes as good move, what is bad move etc etc. If you ask them, they can't explain any of that; they will insist on having no rules at all.

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