When a grand, overarching game-themed metaphor with just a touch of pompous pretentiousness is needed, chess always seems to be the go-to. It’s an ancient game, dating back thousands of Earth years and going far, far beyond that in galactic terms. To win, the most important skill is thinking ahead; as many moves as you possibly can. Strategy and cunning, plans upon plans, layers upon layers. The complexity is delicious, and the metagame doubly so.
“And that’s why it’s important that you at least know the rules, ” the Doctor concludes, peering imperiously over the board at an unamused-looking Ace.
“Why?” comes the somewhat belligerent response. “You’re trying to get me to think a billion steps ahead by playing some ancient strategy board game for stuffy old men?”
“Hm? Oh, no, of course not. You can figure that out on your own, I’m sure. No, it’s the metaphor bit you need to be far more aware of. So many dreadfully deadly dictators and despots delight in drawing on the good old-fashioned chessboard to explain their plans. Always good to know what your enemy’s talking about, I’ve found.”
“And this is meant to be a basic sort of game? To teach me the rules? So I can know what pretentious evil dictator types are rattling on about?”
“Right.” Ace reviews the board. “And is that why your bishops have buggered off from the squares that they’re meant to be on, and are currently busy protesting angrily against unfair marriage laws on the sidelines?”
“Are they? Oh, would you look at that. I suppose they are.” The Doctor hooks a finger elegantly around his kingside rook, and wiggles it back and forth thoughtfully. “They’re well within their rights to do so, you know; freedom of speech is quite essential. And for what it’s worth, I wholeheartedly endorse their efforts, although I very much suspect they’re preaching to the choir, so to speak.”
“Pretty sure that’s not in the rules, Professor.”
“It’s a very nuanced and complex game, Ace.”
“ Hm, ” she says, in what he’s marginally sure is a rather dreadful impression of him, and watches as he sweeps the rook forwards, bumping it into one of her own pawns.
“Rook takes pawn,” he offers.
“Pawn takes rook ,” she counters. “To court. Unprovoked assault, mate; can’t be having that.”
She’s caught on rather quickly, hasn’t she? He’s inordinately proud. He should tell her that, sometime. But first, a game to win. “Nearby pawn bystander asserts that’s not what he saw, and has the video evidence to back it up.”
“Oi, that’s not fair. They’re clearly related, just look at them. Unreliable evidence!”
“Knight takes pawn out from behind,” the Doctor says, “just to shut him up.”
Ace pulls a face. “There’s got to be a better way to do this.”
“You’re absolutely right, Ace; a proper investigation is what’s in order here. Kindly pass me the Cluedo board. This heinous act of injustice shall not be allowed to continue – but I steadfastly demand to be Miss Scarlet.”
Stumbling through a houseful of secret passages and murder weapons and strange smiling people with their strange plastic-wreathed faces doesn’t last for very long at all. The Doctor claims that he knew the murder weapon, the location, and the murderer all from the beginning, and Ace tells him no way that’s true, she definitely saw him peeking. The Doctor doesn’t see why the specifics of how he managed to discern this information should matter, just as long as he managed to find it somehow.
“That explains a lot, you know,” Ace says, with a muffled yawn.
“Does it?” He shoots her a cryptic little smile.
“Okay, if you’re going to go all evasive on me again , we might as well play something more direct.” She looks around, searching for inspiration. “There’s some cards. Loads of things you can do with a pack of cards.”
The Doctor gets up to retrieve them, and slides them out of their packaging with a neat back-and-forth flick. Clever fingers, that’s the way to do it. “Patience?”
“Don’t have much.”
“I could have guessed as much.” He chuckles, leans backwards to dodge her light swat of semi-exasperation, and offers the deck out to Ace. She takes it, shooting him a quizzical look. “Something more thematically appropriate, then. Poker? I do believe I have some spare chips in this old jacket of mine, somewhere...”
She considers this, then nods. “You’d better not cheat.” She starts to deal.
“I won’t if you don’t,” he replies, already slipping aces upon aces up his sleeves for prompt future retrieval.
“‘Course not,” she grins, and finishes dealing just as he unearths a set of ancient-looking red-and-green poker chips from the deepest, darkest depths of his pocket lining. “Hm... okay, I’ll bet three.”
They both cheat mercilessly all through the game, of course, but it’s not as if either had expected anything different. Ace knows most of his tricks and bluffs at this point, and he thinks he knows all of hers – although she does keep surprising him, it’s true. Splendid. He has rarely enjoyed being kept on his toes quite so much.
It’s impossible to tell how long they play for. By the end, it’s less a game of poker and more a modified game of Cheat, but who’s keeping track, really?
“Now that I’ve successfully cleaned you out of all the worthless pointless plastic currency you own,” Ace says, when it’s over – she doesn’t know that he let her win, and that most of the fun of this game was keeping her from realizing that – “are we going to reset? Or try something different?”
“Variety is the rice of life. Something different, I think.”
“ Spice of life, Professor.”
“Yes, yes, that. Snakes and Ladders?”
“...Anything different? Snakes and Ladders is... well, a bit naff.”
“Not if real snakes are involved,” he counters.
Her face reflects a thrilling combination of reluctant interest and vague horror. “And... are there real snakes involved?”
“I should sincerely hope not. An exciting version of a game does not always mean the version of the game that is most conducive to your continued health and wellbeing. And I suppose you’re right. What were you thinking?”
Ace twists around, sees a bright yellow board with an unfortunate-looking cartoon man who seems to be quite in pieces; bits of him falling out all over the place. “How steady are your hands?”
So Operation it is, and after they’ve successfully performed open-everything-surgery on the universe’s most put-up patient, they try their hand at Ludo (which they both almost immediately dismiss as far, far too uneventful for either of their tastes). Tiddlywinks is a no-go because Ace keeps laughing at the (entirely respectable, perfectly ordinary) names of the pieces and strategies and moves.
“Luck-based games are overrated, anyway,” Ace says. “Let’s try something else. The Game of Life? Don’t think I’ve ever played that one.”
“The Game of Life is primarily luck,” the Doctor informs her.
“Unless you win,” Ace points out. “In which case you claim that you’re a genius and you planned it all along.”
“All right; Scrabble it is.”
One would generally assume that you can’t cheat at Scrabble. The Doctor can quite reliably and cheerfully inform you that it is , in fact, entirely possible, and the only reason that you probably shouldn’t try the ‘oh, but it is a word, in Whatever Alien Language Springs To Mind; haven’t you been paying attention?’ gambit more than once is because if you’re living your life correctly, the person you’re playing against is the sort of person who catches on after the second attempt.
“That is not Gallifreyan and you know it.”
“My goodness! Ace, are you accusing me of making up words on the spot? How positively uncouth; I would never dream of doing such a thing!”
“You told me last week that Time Lord language doesn’t have a functioning equivalent for the letter J, you liar – ”
The Scrabble board becomes mysteriously upended, and within minutes they’re throwing tiles at each other and laughing heartily, and then that somehow becomes them playing Hangman on the back of the scorepad with increasingly ridiculous, nonexistent words.
“We’ve still got shelves and shelves to go,” the Doctor points out, when they’ve both calmed down. “Twister?”
Ace yawns. “Mm... I’m a bit too tired. That’s funny, really, because we haven’t been doing much of anything at all.”
“I suppose that means Tag is also out of the question,” the Doctor says, and looks at her. She does look tired – drained, even. Not all that much, but enough to make him pause and think, because they haven’t been participating in any activities more strenuous than some casual, friendly game piece-flinging and considerable vigorous brain activity. He hums and drums his fingers lightly across the table that they’re seated at. “Do you feel that there’s something distinctly strange about this situation that we find ourselves in, Ace?”
“Now that you mention it...” Ace stifles another yawn. She swivels around; looks left-to-right very, very slowly. Sees, as he already has, the distinct lack of doors and windows and decoration. “Professor, I think someone’s playing games with us.”
“With us? Oh, no. If they were doing that , they’d at least do us the common courtesy of joining us at this table. I do believe they’re forcing us to play the games for them.”
“ Rude. ”
“Unreservedly. Would you happen to know how long we’ve been here?”
“Er – no. That also seems like a problem.”
“Mm. Quite. Probably best not to wink, if you can manage it,” the Doctor notes. “That could start up a very nasty breed of game indeed; one that I have no inclination to play with you. Not with these stakes.”
“Wink...?” It take her a minute, but she shudders as she realizes. “Right. No, I think I’ll pass on that one.”
“Indeed. That being said, if our mysterious opponent had been expecting us to play by the rules at all, I think they’re quickly finding they’re sorely mistaken.”
“Because you’re a filthy, rotten cheater, no matter what game you’re playing?”
“As I recall, you cheated first.”
“Learned from the best.”
“Do you suppose we can keep it up?”
“Keep on cheating? I think we can do that.” She swipes an unmarked box from the nearest shelf, and dumps it out onto the floor. Little two-ended black-and-white tiles go spilling everywhere. “Professor, d’you know how to play dominoes?”
“Not the faintest clue,” he admits freely, settling down onto the ground next to her.
“Wicked; neither do I.” She scoops up a handful at random, and starts setting them up on the ground one-by-one in a twisting, winding line. “But my third-grade teacher always told me this was the wrong way to do it."
“Ah, excellent. ”
The domino chain goes all across and all around the increasingly small room that they’re in, looping around the legs of the table and running improbably up the side of the chair. When it’s done, they set it off, and then pour all the star-shaped tokens out from the Risk box. They tear the board in half, and begin playing it on the Monopoly board instead. Mairfair quickly falls to the combined might of Ace’s united army front; the Doctor claims all of the Chance and Community Chest squares and defends them with a vengeance.
The room rumbles and warps around them. Several game boxes fall off the now drastically slanting shelves, crashing to the ground and splitting open. This doesn’t phase them in the least, since the only reasonable thing to do in response is to take the tokens and cards and boards now scattered around them and add them into the chaos that’s resulted.
“I don’t think whoever-it-is is very happy with us,” Ace says, evidentially delighted at the amount of wordless distress and anger that the room they’re in is communicating at them.
“Perhaps they would have preferred charades,” the Doctor notes. “I find it hard to imagine how even we could manage to throw charades sideways.”
“Eh, I bet we could have figured out a way. Oh, here’s Trivial Pursuit.”
“Excellent. I shall lie shamelessly all the way through, and I hope you’ll join me. What’s the first question?”
This continues for quite a while.
“Well,” says the Doctor when the majority of the games on the shelves have been ransacked and appropriated for completely nonsensical purposes, “this certainly has been fun. But I’ve found that I’m growing rather sick of board games by now. I don’t suppose you’d have any unorthodox solutions to this rather pressing dilemma that we seem to find ourselves in? I’d hate to be drained to death of energy by a simple game of Consequences.”
Ace glowers; magnificent. Her hand goes to her rucksack at her feet. Good. An Ace without her rucksack is like a bingo card with no free space at the centre – functional, but intrinsically incomplete. “Can’t we just blow them all up?”
Frustration dissipates like morning mist in bright sunlight. “Why not?” he says. “There’s more than one way to win a cat, and many, many ways to skin a game.”