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Cheating by the rules in Pirateball and Illuminati

Pirate Ball at NU Grounds

One of the designers of the game Pirateball describes it as “extremely stupid”. I recently ran it at a games festival and discovered that it’s also crafted quite cleverly.

Pirate baseball

To potential players I always say that it’s baseball as pirates play it. Then you get an idea. That’s the first trick: the name is a metaphor for how to play. Cheating is part of the (wafer-thin) fictional layer of the game.

When you’re up to bat, and you touch the ball, you take your bat with you to first base. An opponent awaits you there, and he has a bat as well. After a short duel (the rules explain that the player on first base is “kind of a wuss,”) you go on your way. But not to second base. No, you run straight over the field, jump over the mound and walk straight to third base. If from here you run back to where you started, you score a point. Then the next one’s up. There are no teams, it’s every man for himself. You can’t be tagged with the ball, but the ball is thrown at you.

A coworker of mine describes the game as “semi-structured messing around.” It certainly is true that in order to enjoy this comedic game you have to be “advanced.” That is, the game is only fun if you play it on multiple levels at once, not if you only follow the rules literally and try to win. Recognize the irony of what you’re doing and try to play the game well on that level.

Formalizing rules

By playing with the rules of baseball, Pirateball also cleverly introduces an unexpected difficulty level. Especially if you were fanatic at school about baseball and the like. I can’t count the times I’ve seen players throw their bats to the ground with determination at a home strike and then turn back halfway to first base because there’s the (somewhat wimpy) psychopath with the other bat. Or the player who starts to run from first to second base after winning a duel, and has to change course because he has to jump over the mound because those are the rules. Hilarity ensues.

You have to forget old reflexes from such games to be able to play Pirateball.

Pirateball’s rules formalize a game of baseball played by cheating pirates. This, to me, is a perfect example of the layers that even a seemingly simple “urban game” can have.


If you can’t get enough of ‘playing with cheating,’ I’d like to recommend a couple of rounds of the board game Illuminati. Once you’ve got the basics down, game-maker Steve Jackson advises you to introduce the extra rules for cheating. I quote the rules:

Suggested methods for cheating include:
1. Accidentally misread the dice.
2. Steal from the bank.
4. Stack the deck, or peek ahead.
5. If anyone leaves the table, anything goes!

Unlike Pirateball, Illuminati uses the social layer of the game as medium for formalized cheating. So you’re entirely welcome to play the game according to the rules one minute, and the next, you’re taking advantage of your fellow players’ inattentiveness to be able to cheat. Just like with Pirateball, you need to be able to play the game on multiple levels at once. You need to have a feel for cheating according to the rules versus ruining the game. Steve Jackson explains: “We recommend you play the Cheating Game only with very good friends, or with people you will never see again.” By examining these two examples under a loop, the importance of instinct, a feel about how to play the game is illustrated. This is a skill, something you have to learn. Pirateball and Illuminati confront you with this in a fun way.

This piece originally appeared on Bashers in Dutch and was translated by Alexis Moran Translations.

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