Hubbub has gone into hibernation.

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.

This entry was posted in Articles and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Both comments and trackbacks are currently closed.