Some notes on the game

(The game being Castle, or at least that’s its common name in 20th ct State.)

What it looks like is a rabid mash of chess and mill: a board divided into 81 squares which is immediately filled with 72 pieces or “pillars” of identical shape (pyramids or cylinders, most often; human figures are virtually unheard of despite the pieces also being known as “soldiers”), 36 per player. The pieces are placed in an orderly fashion, top to bottom and left to right skipping the middle nine squares, but they’re drawn randomly and if I knew maths I could tell you the number of possible starting layouts but I don’t, so I’ll say “plenty”; there’s little chance of exhausting the way this starts. The colours of most sets are black and white — the heraldically appropriate black for us and white for Her — and old boards and pieces are exclusively this. Newer sets take any two colours but these are seldom random and mostly differ regionally (or by generation) in their choice of locally significant families. The game has consequently become a popular wedding present in which the impossibility of winning symbolises an equilibrium — in long term view — between the joining families.

In the meantime, of course, they negotiate.

This symbolic meaning belongs to the original game, which was less a means of entertainment and more a lesson in philosophy. The goal was to assert dominance of the board by placing a figure in the middle field (raised or sometimes depressed in older boards), but getting there hinged on the player’s ability to construct and maintain an unbroken field of colour along the outer edge, with a tendril leading to the centre. Such a layout requires all of the game’s pieces to be in place, their starting chaos swapped out square by square into the single winning configuration. The way the game is played today — and which justifies the name of Castle, with strategic corners getting held or captured rather than an empty middle — suggests a plethora of rules for the older version, to give the players a chance at completion rather than endless turns at obstruction. Instead, however, rules were few but moves would be gained or lost as randomly as the drawing of pieces to set the board, whether it was a round of morra that determined order, or a throw of a two-coloured die.

What this game sought to illustrate was a rather antagonistic take on our relationship with Her, still under the influence of earlier beliefs. We know, because we used to live together, that outsiders build everything on conflict; recall the stories of people against gods, gods against demons, good against evil and light against dark — both out in the world and inside of us. That’s the story of the game when it was known as Garden: that She and us are at war, unhappy, and the only way to resolve the conflict is to do away with this duality. Upset the balance, claim the “maybe” between the “yes” and the “no”, obliterate the dusk between night and day, and let only one of them remain. One is undefined is nothing, and where there’s nothing there is nothing to fight.

A rather morbid view, really. (And yes, She triumphs either way, before you point that out.)

That this game is impossible to win is not a subtle criticism or subversion of its story. If you try to play it the old way you’ll keep at it because you’ll feel you can win. It’s there, it’s within reach, the pillars will align for you again and again. The game is very clever. But what it’s meant to teach you is that you cannot win. If you play it long enough you’ll wish for more focus, for more space to think, and you’ll realise that you need to be as vast as Her just to play this single tricky board, never mind the universe. You’ll respect Her then, and wish to be one of Her soldiers.

Because the middle square remains intact, it eventually went from depressed to missing altogether in board design. From the eighteenth century onwards boards were increasingly built with a hole in the centre, leading to the rise in value of the squares surrounding it, particularly the four corner ones mirroring the outer corners. These became known as “turrets” or “watchtowers” and what was once an abstraction of the workings of the world became a different game of war, scaled down for humans. It is no coincidence however that this gained in popularity with the rising of the Wall and the outrage it inspired on the outside. For as long as we have contact with people so invested in conflict that they base their world upon it, we must play their games.