Thursday, September 6, 2018

Joanna Russ' and Samuel Delaney's Game I Want to Play - Vlet

Vlet is a fictional boardgame. It doesn't really exist. It first appeared in Joanna Russ' short story "A Game of Vlet," and then appeared again in Samuel Delaney's novel Trouble on Triton.
Vlet is a vaguely chess-like game with two sides defined by color, a board divided into squares, pieces that are named for medieval occupations. It also seems chess-like in that it's supposed to be a game with deep strategy, one that novices can play but poorly, and that enthralls its master players with its complexity. Delaney's version also reminds me of contemporary boardgames, with its ornate gameboard and pieces, its supplemental second board, its cards and stretch-goal upgraded meeples.
The quotes below are taken from chapters 2 and 4 of Triton. I've edited the text to remove everything except the games-playing. In the first scene, Bron, Sam, and Lawrence are playing vlet in the common room of their apartment building. Delaney had his characters debating various ideas while they played, so the actual book contains a paragraph of dialogue, a sentence of vlet, followed by another soliloquy, etc. I've reduced it down to just a description of them playing the game. (I should also note, the last dice the game uses isn't a dodecahedron, it's an icosahedron, known D&D players as a d20. The book also includes an elaborate math equation for calculating the score. I had no way to reproduce it, and it isn't really important. It's only meant to impress you with how complex the game must be to include such an equation.)
"Bronze clasps, cast as clawing beasts, snapped back under Lawrence's wrinkled thumb. Lawrence opened out the meter-wide case. The case's wooden back, inlaid with ivory and walnut, clacked to the common-room's baize table. He gazed over the board: within the teak rim, in three dimensions, the landscape spread, mountains to the left, ocean to the right. The jungle between was cut here by a narrow, double-rutted road, there by a mazey river. A tongue of desert wound from behind the steeper crags, alongside the ragged quarry. Drifting in from the border, small waves inched the glassy sea till, near shore, they broke, foaming. Alongside the beach, wrinkling spume slid up and out, up and out. The river's silver, leaving the mountains, poured over a little waterfall, bright as falling mica. A darker green blush crossed the jungle: a micro-breeze, disturbing the tops of micro-trees."
"Lawrence assembled the astral cube: the six six-by-six plastic squares, stacked on brass stilts, made a three dimensional, transparent playing space to the right of the main board, on which all demonic, mythical, magical, and astral battles were enacted."
" 'There: that's all together. Would you get the cards out of the side drawer, please?' "
"Bron looked around the side of the vlet case, pulled out the long, narrow drawer. He picked up the tooled leather dice-cup; the five dice clicked hollowly. Thrown, three would be black with white pips, one would be transparent with diamond pips, and the fifth, not cubic, but scarlet and dodecahedral, had seven faces blank (usually benign in play, occasionally they could prove, if you threw one at the wrong time, disastrous); the others showed thirteen alien constellations, picked out in black and gold."
"Bron set the cup down and fingered up the thick pack. He unwrapped the blue silk cloth from around it. Along the napkin's edge, gold threads embroidered the rather difficult modulus by which the even more difficult scoring system (Lawrence had not taught him that yet; he knew only that O was a measurement of strategic angles of attack [over different sorts of terrain N, M, and A] and that small ones netted more points than large ones) proceeded. As he pulled back the blue corner, two cards slid to the table. He picked them up - the Wizard of Rocks and the Child Empress - and squared them with the deck."
"Lawrence opened the drawer on the other side of the case and took out a handful of the small, mirrored and transparent screens (some etched with the same, alien constellations, some with different), set them upright beside the board, then reached back in for the playing pieces: carved foot soldiers, mounted men, model army-encampments; and, from this same drawer, two miniature cities, with their tiny streets, squares, and markets; one of these he put in its place in the mountains, the second he set by the shore. Lawrence took up one red foot soldier, one green one, sat back in his chair, put the pieces behind his back. Lawrence brought his fists together above the mountains. 'Choose-' "
"Bron tapped Lawrence's left fist."
"The fist turned over, opened: a scarlet foot soldier."
" 'Thank you,' Lawrence said."
"Bron took the piece, looked around at the other side of the case, and began to pick the scarlet pieces from the green velvet drawer. He stopped with the piece called the Beast between his thumb and forefinger, regarded it: the miniature, hulking figure, with its metal claws and plastic eyes. During certain gambits, the speaker grill beside the dice-cup drawer would yield up the creature's roar, as well as the terrified shouts of its attackers. Bron turned it in his fingers, pondering, smiling, wondering."
" 'Anybody winning?' Sam came down the narrow, iron steps. 'How've you been going along since I left?' "
" 'He's getting pretty good,' Lawrence said. 'Bron's got quite a feel for vlet, I think. You'll have to try some to catch up with him from where you were last time.' "
" 'I'm still not in the same league with Lawrence there.' "
"What Lawrence had laid out on the green baize table was the vlet game."
"Sam said: 'Can you play this one with the grid-' And lowered an eyebrow at Bron- 'or are you beyond that now?' "
"Bron said: 'Well, I don't know if-' "
"But Lawrence reached for one of the toggles in the card drawer. Across the landscape, pin-points of light picked out a squared pattern, thirty-three by thirty-three. 'Bron could do with a few more gridded games I expect-' For advanced players (Lawrence had explained two weeks ago when Sam was last in) the grid was only used for the final scoring, to decide who had taken exactly what territory. In the actual play, however, elementary players found it helpful in judging those all-important O's. Bron had been contemplating suggesting that they omit it this game. But there it was; and the cities had been placed, the encampments had been deployed. The plastic Sea Serpent had been put, bobbing, into the sea. The Beast leered from its lair; Lawrence's soldiers were set up along the river bank, his peasants in their fields, his royalty gathered behind the lines, his magicians in their caves."
"Bron said: 'Sam, why don't you play this one. I mean I've had the last two weeks to practice.' "
" 'No,' Sam said. 'No, I want to watch. I've forgotten half the moves since Lawrence explained them to me anyway. Go on.' He took a meditative step backward and moved around to view the board from Bron's side."
"Bron picked up the deck and shuffled, thinking."
"The hand Bron dealt himself was good. Carefully, he arranged the cards."
"Lawrence rolled the dice over the desert to begin play, bid five-royal, melded the Juggler with the Poet, discarded the three of Jewels and moved two of his cargo vessels out of the harbor into open waters."
"Bron's own throw yielded him a double six, a diamond three, with the three-eyed visage of Yildrith showing on the dodecahedron. He covered Lawrence's meld with the seven, eight, and nine of Storms, set the tiny mirrored screen, with the grinning face of Yildrith etched on it, four spaces ahead of Lawrence's lead cargo ship, bid seven-common to cover Lawrence's six-royal, discarded the Page of Dawn and took Lawrence's three of Jewels with the Ace of Flames; his own caravan began the trek upriver toward the mountain pass at the Vale of K'hiri, where, due to the presence of a green Witch, all points scored there would be doubled."
"Twenty minutes into the play, the red Courier was trapped between two mirrored screens (with the horned head of Zamtyl, and the many-tongued Arkrol, reflected back and forth to infinity); the scarlet Hero offered some help but was, basically, blocked with a transparent screen. On the dice a diamond two glittered amidst black ones and fives, and Lawrence was a point away from his bid; which meant an astral battle."
"As they turned their attention to the three-dimensional board which dominated higher decisions (and each of the seven markers which they played there bore the frowning face of a god), Bron turned to make some comment-"
"Sam was not at his shoulder. Sam sat at one of the readers, in the niche."
"-when the common room lamps dropped to quarter-brightness. (Lawrence's wrinkled chin, the tips of his fingers, and the base of the green Magician he was about to place, glowed above the vlet board's light.)"
"The lamps flickered once, then went out completely."
"Somehow, twenty minutes after that, the pieces had been rearranged on the vlet board."
"He lost the astral battle seven to one."
" 'What,' Lawrence said, sitting back in his chair, 'were you ever thinking of?' "
"Bron reached out and removed his own, overturned scarlet Assassin and slid Lawrence's green Duchess into the square by the waterfall's bank, to threaten the caravan preparing to cross the river less than three squares to the East. With the pieces still in his fist (he could feel its nubs and corners), he picked up his cards and surveyed his depleted points. Only one meld was possible and he was three away from his most recent bid."
"Lawrence returned his eyes to the board: in the Mountains of Norhia a situation had been developing for some time that Bron had hoped would turn to his advantage, if Lawrence would only keep the transparent screens of Egoth and Dartor out of it: the Mountains of Norhia were where Lawrence was looking."
"Bron's frown dropped to the micro-mountains, the miniscule trees, the shore where tiny waves lapped the bright, barbaric sands."
"Lawrence said: "I do believe it's your move.' "
" 'What do you think I should do, Lawrence?' "
" 'Whatever you think you should do. You might try playing the game- hello, Sam!' who had come up to the table. 'Say, why don't you two play together against me. Bron's gone quite mushy. It's shot his concentration all to hell. Come on, Sam. Sit down and give him a hand.' "
"On the point of spluttering protest, Bron made room on the couch. Sam asked something about his meld strategy and, when Bron explained, gave a complimentary whistle. At least Bron thought it was complimentary."
"They played. Tides turned. So did the score. By the time they adjourned for the evening (elementary players, Lawrence had explained, shouldn't even hope to play a game to completion for the first six months), Bron and Sam were pounding each other's shoulders and laughing and congratulating Lawrence and, of course, they would all get together tomorrow evening and take up where they'd left off."
" 'You want to continue from where we left off?' Sam put the case up on the table and sat. 'Lawrence said to set up the pieces as best we remembered, and he'd come down in ten minutes and make corrections.' Sam thumbed back brass claws, opened out the board."
"Between them micro-waves lapped, micro-breezes blew, micro-trees bent, and micro-torrents plashed and whispered down micro-rocks."
"Bron opened the case's side drawer, removed the transparent plates of the astral cube and began to assemble them on their brass stilts. When he did glance up, Sam was regarding him seriously, the cards in his dark fingers halted in midshuffle. A corner of the White Novice showed."
"Bron pulled out the other side drawer of velvet-cradled ships, warriors, horsemen, herdsmen, and hunters. He picked up the screen showing the horned head of Aolyon (cheeks puffed with hurricane winds) and set it, on its tiny base, upon the waters - which immediately darkened about it; green troughs and frothing crowns rolled about the little stretch of sea."
"Sam put down the pack, reached into the control drawer and turned a survey knob. From the side-speaker came a crack and crackle over rushing wind, followed by a mumbling as of crumbled boulders. 'That's quite a storm ... were there any sea-monsters in here? I don't remember-' "
"Bron picked up his own scarlet Beast and set it on the rocky ledge, where it lowered over at the narrow trail winding the chasm below. Sam sat back to watch Bron set out the tiny figures. Bron picked up green pieces and set them by river, rock, and road. Sam was turning a transparent die between dark forefinger and thumb. Sam came forward again, to set scarlet's caravan, one piece after the other, on the jungle trail. Bron fished the last cargo ship from the drawer and positioned it at the edge of the storm - immediately it began to doff and roll. Sam began to place the screens."
"Lawrence's voice came loudly and cheerfully from the middle of the room. Bron and Sam looked up. Lawrence came over. Lawrence grunted and sat next to Sam, who moved over for him."
"Lawrence turned a switch; the grid flickered over the board. Lawrence reached out and adjusted two Queens. 'I think those were there, actually. Otherwise, the two of you seem to have done pretty well. All right, now- Get away from me! Get away-! You're both playing against me now- don't think by sidling up like that you'll get any advantages.' Sam changed his seat."
"Lawrence picked up the pack and dealt. Sam fanned the cards. Bron looked at their joint hand, reached over and reversed two of the cards. Sam, still looking at the cards, had that mocking smile. Bron reached over and pulled out the four-card meld in the high Flames Sam had overlooked; which, for the first half hour of play, at any rate, gave them a decided advantage - before Lawrence, by adroit manipulation of all the gods and astral powers, regained his customary edge."
In the next scene, Bron and Sam are on a business trip together. They observe a couple other passengers playing vlet en route, and then play against the pair.
"Bron spent a lot of time 'down' in the dimly-lit free-fall chamber, looking through a window there at the stars."
" 'Hey,' Sam called to him. 'Come up here a minute. You have to see this.' "
"Bron emerged into the weighted chamber - an odd experience, having your head, then your shoulders, then your arms and chest go all heavy - and came up by the pool."
" 'Come on, take a look at this.' Sam doffed a drink in one hand, guiding Bron's shoulder with the other. 'Come on.' "
"By the poolside, at one of the wall tables, sat the redhead; across from him sat an oriental woman with irregularly-clipped, black hair. Between them was a vlet board. It was only a quarter the size of Lawrence's. (A small traveling version?) The landscape was simply a laminated 3-D photograph, not Lawrence's animated holographic surface. The pieces were not carefully carved and painted but merely raised symbols on red and green plastic markers. The astral cube did not have its own stand. But Bron could see, in the deployment of the gods, the detritus of a vicious astral battle that green (the red-head's side) had evidently won."
"Five melds were already down."
"The woman threw the dice and, in a rather surprising way (a rather clever one too, Bron though as soon as the move was completed), managed to bring her Guards in from the right, just as green's caravan crossed the forge, to pull it out of the influence of the scarlet Magician, substantially multiplied by three reflecting screens."
"The redhead tossed the dice, discarded a low Flame, dispersed the screens to the corners of the board in one move (which left Bron, among the game's half-donzen spectators, frowning) and turned to rearrange a matrix on the astral board. That's clever! Bron thought. The woman would have to answer it, pulling some of her powers from the Real World, which would leave some of her strongest pieces unprotected."
"The edge of the playing board, the table, and the woman's cheek flickered with reflections off the pool."
"Sam nudged Bron and grinned. 'I was thinking we might challenge them to a game of doubles, you and me. But I guess they're a little out of our league.' "
"The woman won the battle in three moves."
"Some time later they did play a game of doubles - and were wiped off the board in twenty minutes. While Sam was saying, 'Well, we may not have won, but I bet we've learned something! Lawrence better watch out when we get back, hey Bron?' Bron, smiling, nodding, retired down into the free-fall chamber."
Russ' short story, "A Game of Vlet," as its title implies, contains only a single game of vlet. It's played between a revolutionary magician and a politician's mistress. She initially appears to play very poorly, although later the magician realizes he doesn't understand her goal for the game.
"Now it is often said that in Vlet experienced players lose sight of everything but the game itself, and so passionate is this intellectual haze that they forget to eat or drink, sometimes even to breathe in the intensity of their concentration, but never before had such a thing actually happened to the Lady. As she touched the first piece - it was a black one - all the sounds in the hall died away, and everything there faded and dissolved into mist. Only she herself existed, she and the board of Vlet, the pieces of Vlet, which stood before her in unnatural distinctness, as if she were looking down from a mountain at the camps of two opposing armies. One army was red and one was black, and on the other side of the great smoky plains sat the magician, himself the size of a mountain or a god. He held in one hand a piece of Red. He looked over the board as if he looked into an abyss."
" 'You are playing for your life,' she said, 'for I declare myself to be the Government.' "
" 'I play,' said he, 'as myself and for the Revolution.' "
"And he moved his first piece."
"She moved all her Common Persons at once, which was a popular way to open the game. They move one square at a time."
"So did he."
"In back of her Common Persons she put her Strongbox, which is a very strong offensive piece but weak on defense; she moved her Archpriest - the sliding piece - in front of her Governor, who is the ultimate object of the game, and brought her Elephant to the side, keeping it in reserve. She went to move a set of Common Persons and discovered with a shock that she seemed to have no Common Persons at all and her opponent nothing else; then she saw that all her black Common Persons had fled to the other side of the board and that they had all turned red. In those days it was possible - depending on the direction from which your piece came - either to take an enemy's piece out of the game - 'kill it,' they said - or to convert it to your own use. One signaled this by standing the piece on its head. The Lady had occasionally lost a game to her own converted Vlet pieces, but never in her life before had she seen ones that literally changed color, or ones that slipped away by themselves when you were not looking, or pieces that made noise, for something across the board was making the oddest noise she had ever heard, like all the little Common Persons singing together. The Lady gasped and gripped the edge of the Vlet board, for that was exactly what was happening; across the board her enemy's little red pieces of Vlet, Common Persons all, were moving their miniature knees up and down and singing heartily:"
" 'The Pee-pul!' "
" 'The Pee-pul!' "
" 'An ancient verse,' said Rav, mountainous across the board. 'Make your move,' and she saw her own hand, huge as a giant's move down into the valley, where transparent buildings and streets seemed to spring up all over the board. She moved her Strongbox closer to the Governor, playing for time."
"He moved another set of Common Persons."
"Her Tax-Collector was caught."
"She moved her Archpriest, and in horror watched him shake his fist at her and stand sullenly grimacing in the square where she had put him; then, before she could stop him, he hopped two more squares, knocked flat a couple of commoners whose blood and intestines flowed tinily out onto the board, jeered at her, hopped two more, and killed a third man before she could get her fingers on him."
"So she picked up the squirming Archpriest, younger son of a younger son, stupid, spiteful, ambitious, and thrust him across the board, deep into enemy territory, where the Commons could pothook him to their hearts' content."
" 'We don't do things that way,' said Rav, his voice rolling godlike across the valley, across the towers and terraces, across the parties held on whitewashed roofs where ladies ate cherries and pelted gentlemen with flowers, where aristocratic persons played at darts, embroidered, smoked hemp, and behaved as nobles should. One couple was even playing - so tiny as to be almost invisible - a miniature game of Vlet."
" 'We play a clean game,' said Rav."
"Which is so difficult that only a Grandmaster of Grandmasters attempts it more than once a year. Pieces must be converted but not killed."
"Her Elephant, which she immobilized, and set her Nobles killing one another, which an inept player can actually do in Vlet. She threw away piece after piece, give him the opportunity for a Fool's Kill, which he did not take, exposed every piece. While Rav smiled pitifully, far away, out in the city suburbs, in the hovels of peasant freeholds that surrounded the real city, out in the real night she could hear a rumble, a rising voice, thunder; she finds herself surrounding the Red Governor, who wasn't a Governor but a Leader, a little piece with Rav's features and with the same smile."
" 'Check,' said the Lady, 'and Mate.' She did not want to do it. A guard in the room laughed. Out in the city all was quiet. Then, quite beside herself, a strange Lady in the black Gown of the Night, seeing a Red Assassin with her own features scream furiously from the other side of the board and dart violently across it, took the board in both hands and threw the game high into the air."
Russ' version of vlet seems pretty much like chess to me, with most of the same pieces - or very close analogs, like "Common Persons" and pawns. But there are clearly rules changes. You can choose to "capture" pieces by converting them to your side instead of "capturing" them by removing them from the board. You can move multiple pieces at once. It's possible for an incompetent player to kill one of their own pieces and remove it from the game. Pieces like the "Strongbox" sound like they might be related to chess pieces (the castle, the rook) but the analogy seems so imperfect, you start to wonder if it's a false cognate.
Delany actually addresses the velt-chess comparison directly. At one point on the business trip, Bron sees a couple people playing chess, and finds in baffling, in part because all the pieces have specific rules for how to move that he's heard before but can never remember. This suggests that in vlet, movement either has a general set of rules, or follows principles based on location on the board, but that all the pieces move more or less the same way. Vlet pieces then are distinguished based on what they do, not on how they move; whereas chess pieces all do the same thing - that is, capture other pieces by landing on them - and are distinguished by their unique movements. This is only true in Delay's version of vlet though; Russ clearly assigns specific movements to specific pieces.
Of the two authors, Delany does more to describe what it might look like to play vlet, in part, I think, because his version of the game exists pretty much for its own sake. It's set dressing, just something for his characters to do while they talk to each other. As such, it doesn't particularly carry any narrative burden. Bron plays vlet poorly and Lawrence plays it well, but mostly due to their respective levels of experience with the game. Unless I really missed it, nothing that happens on the velt-board is a metaphor for any of the social or political maneuvering that goes on in the novel. The way Bron plays isn't intended to be a metaphor for his overall psychological condition; he plays like a novice, but not in a way that reveals him to be an expatriate Martian living in a libertarian utopia on a Neptunian moon, who's unable to be happy because he's unable to cope with the absence of strict ritualized norms governing behavior. The game is detached from all that, and instead, it just gets to exist. What I guess I mean is, Russ narrates what happens inside the game, but Delany narrates what it feels like to be a player, manipulating a complex set of pieces, relying partly on luck, and trying to outsmart your friend who knows what he's doing much better than you.
Instead, Russ's big idea is that if you make an object in such a way that no one involved really looks at or touches any of the raw materials or finished products, then the first time someone uses that object, it will have one-time magical properties. Mine silver in complete darkness, smelt it blindfolded, and have blind craftsmen polish it into a mirror, and the first time someone looks into that mirror they can view any scene over any distance. Craft a virgin vlet-board in much the same way, and the players of the game can cause a people's revolution and the royal response to play out in real time. The parallels between the game and the revolution are very cool in Russ' original story, although of course you can't tell it from my abridged version here.
It would be difficult for me to recommend Triton as a novel, although I enjoyed Delaney's version of vlet the more than Russ's. In a society that emphasizes personal freedom, most of Delaney's characters are hobbyists - they're into things, that they mostly do in groups. One leads a troupe that performs pop-up flash-fiction street theater. There's a pseudo-religion of people who memorize hundred-syllable-long nonsense chants and march around town chanting it with their eyes closed. There's a philosophy that leads its adherent's to walk on all fours; to stop wearing clothes, bathing, or even speaking; to self-injure; and to assault anyone who attempts to speak to them. Most people are naked most of the time, and most choose to live in single-sex communes. The government has set up "photo booth" style kiosks where anyone can go in and watch a randomly-selected bit of security footage of themselves taken from the omnipresent state surveillance. Delaney's vision of freedom baffles me, especially since he contrasts it all favorably with the behavior of his protagonist, an off-worlder who can't navigate life in the absence of external constraints on his behavior, and who spends most of the novel attempting to sexually dominate and emotionally manipulate a woman who doesn't want to be in a relationship with him. Bron's behavior ranges from self-centered to gross, but honestly, the blind-nonsense-chanters and the people-trying-to-be-animals don't really seem to know what to do with their freedom either; they've just chosen to renounce freedom by submitting to an impersonal authority and an anti-humane code of behavior. So I'm not really sure what Delaney is trying to say. Maybe that freedom is better than tyranny, but that we shouldn't get our hopes up too high about how most people will make use of unlimited leisure? Anyway, this is off-topic. The generic idea of people organizing their lives around fandoms and hobbies rings true to me, although except for vlet and the street theater, I didn't especially care for the particular's of Delaney's vision on this one.


  1. Vlet seems pretty great, particularly the fetishistic description of the board and miniature components. I'll chuck up there with the Glass Bead Game and Interstellar Pig as fictional games I need to get to the table.

    1. I particularly like the separate transparent cubic board for "all demonic, mythical, magical, and astral battles".

      I'm aware of the Glass Bead Game, but haven't read the book yet. I'll need to look up Interstellar Pig though.

      Thanks for the tips, Andrew!