Fictional Boardgames from TV Shows


This is a repost from my weekly-ish TinyLetter. If you enjoy this stuff, please consider subscribing.

If the geeks control popular media, do we win by default? There are clearly a bunch of us in writers’ rooms, at any rate, because fake-yet-plausible board games are cropping up in television shows left and right.

And while they’re almost universally used as a tool to show the level of someone’s obsessive and/or competitive qualities, there’s also a clearly deep love for these things, their evolution from the board games of our childhoods, and the amount of fun that is possible when playing them (even if everyone goes a little bit bonkers, too).

Cones of Dunshire (Parks & Recreation)

“Presenting … the Cones of Dunshire, a brand-new gaming experience [for] eight to twelve players,” he excitedly tells his interest-feigning wife, Leslie (Amy Poehler), before rattling off ever-nerdier details about his invention, including its goal (“to accumulate cones: Four cones wins, but in order to get a cone you have to build a civilization … which is where the Spirit Cards come in”), its hyper-specific character types (“two wizards, a maverick, the Arbiter, two warriors, a corporal, and a ledgerman,” the latter of which merely keeps score while wearing a hat that says Ledgerman), and its many quirks (“the thing about the Challenge Play is that it’s basically the game” — here, Ben opens his hand dramatically to reveal disc-shaped game pieces — “in reverse”)

Narrative role: Meticulous-minded Ben is also a hardcore geek, and the creation of Cones of Dunshire is a very sweet way for the show to demonstrate that side of his personality, even if it’s a bit mystifying for his wife. He ends up leaving it as a gift for his equally-dorky accountant firm ex-coworkers, who immediately parse its rules and purpose.

Read Vulture’s excellent and detailed Oral History of the Cones of Dunshire, including insights into the underlying game mechanics.

Watch a clip of the game in action.

Pile of Bullets (Community)

“Look what Rachel got me: Pile of Bullets. An interactive Old West-themed VCR game from the ’90s.”
“I found it at Goodwill. It was between a Thighmaster and a Dick Tracy Burger King glass.”

A near-incomprehensible game for at least? at most? 4 players, with advanced features such as pause, fast foward and “Torndado!”, this tape-based activity also features a cameo of Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan as the rootin’ tootin’ cowboy host. (That’s also his podcast co-host [and real life DM] as Annie’s brother, on the left.)

Narrative purpose: Annie and Abed are competing to see who’s going to be their third roommate/new best friend: Annie’s misfit brother or Abed’s extremely tolerant girlfriend. The catch is, they haven’t told their prospective roommates why, exactly, the stakes are so high–and their obsessive, competitive approach to the game nearly destroy all three relationships in the process.

There’s no breakdown of the rules online (yet), but there is some amusing speculation as to each of the characters’ favorite board games of the 90’s.

Watch a clip of the game in action (and see a bonus clip of the cowboy here).

Gale Force Winds (Bob’s Burgers)

“Hey, Aunt Gale? I wish there was a board game that we could play that stimulates the imagination but was too good for the major board game companies to even touch.” 
“I made a board game that we could play that stimulates the imagination but was too good for the major board game companies to even touch!”

This one’s fairly straightforward; roll the dice, move your piece to a certain space, perform a task or suffer consequences/fight an antagonist.

Narrative purpose: The kids’ aunt Gale is a lonely cat lady who uses make-believe to comfort herself (for example, she pretends that the world has been overcome with zombies and all of the men have died, so that it’s okay for her to sleep alone). In the episode, Louise (pink bunny ears) makes a bet that she can stay at Gale’s for an entire weekend, to avoid having a cavity filled; her parents use every dirty trick they can think of, including dragging out Gale Force Winds, to try and break her resolve. However, in the end, Gale leads a game of make-believe to help Louise overcome her fear of the dentist.

Because the episode (“The Kids Run Away”, s4e19) just came out last weekend, there’s almost nothing about it online; so, here’s every piece of it from the ep:

  • “It’s called Gale Force Winds. It’s more than just a board game. It’s about love and war and fantasy and plagues and fashion. Princess Gale must save the five realms of Worldlandia from the evil wind sent by the evil sorceress Rebecca, who thinks she’s soooo cute. She lives upstairs.”
  • Land on Spongin’ Dungeon. Sit with a wet sponge on your head for 30 minutes.
  • Cluck like an enchanted chicken for 20 minutes, receive magic ointment.
  • Land in Coldsoria. Can borrow magic ointment.
  • Indecision upsets Gale Force Winds—fan is turned on, pieces are toppled and players start over.
  • Known duration: at least 6 hours, usually longer
  • Pieces/characters: army man, child-size blue shoes, blender
  • Additional location: Cliffs of Huxtable
  • Additional antagonist: Rebecca’s monkey army

Card Wars (Adventure Time)

If kids and dogs played AR interactive Magic: the Gathering in a post-nuclear wasteland, it might look something like Card Wars, a game played in Adventure Time (s04e14).

Teaching someone the rules takes, according to the show, about two hours. It plays out like a fairly normal collectible card game, with tapping of resources and battle phases, although this one has the benefit of holographic elements that perform the actions on the table in front of you. (Read more details about the episode and the workings of the game here.)

Narrative purpose: Once again, the game is used to demonstrate someone’s obsessiveness and competitiveness: Lady Rainicorn and BMO won’t play Card Wars with Jake any more, because he’s brutal (and also can’t handle a loss). After Finn continues to succeed despite not really knowing how to play, BMO advises him to take a dive, for the sake of Finn’s friendship with Jake. Finn does, and the relationship is saved; though Jake does acquiesce a bit at the end, and they both drink gross ham soda from the designated loser punishment mug.

The cool thing about this one, though, is that it actually got made into a real life game, which you can buy in card form or on iOS. The card version has decent ratings on Board Game Geek.

Thanks to Bookmore for the suggestion!

See the game in action here.

Bonus: True American (New Girl)

Jess: “So, it’s 50% drinking game, 50% life-size Candy Land.”
Schmidt: “Well, it’s more like 75 drinking, 20 Candy Land. And by the way, the floor is molten lava.”
Winston: “It’s actually 90% drinking and then it’s got a loose Candy Land-like structure to it.”
Jess: “But with stakes.”

Not precisely a board game, True American is one of the most popular fictional games I’ve encountered thus far. It seems to be mostly focused on standing on furniture, call-and-response, and drinking. The rules don’t exactly make sense, but it probably starts gaining cohesion the more you’ve imbibed. (They are detailed, insofar as that’s possible, here.)

Narrative purpose: Someone is inducted into the game without being told the rules, but unlike the other examples I’ve detailed, it’s shown to be more fun and less bewildering. This one is definitely all about demonstrating the social cohesion of the group.

One of the really interesting things is that lots of people seem to be playing this in real life, and they’ve developed all sorts of house rules and variations. Check out the comments at the bottom of for more of that.

Thanks to Kate D. for the suggestion.

Watch the game in action here. (Direct link to .mp4)

Bonus bonus: The Bored Game

This is an awesome 90s-style ad for the best game that never was, created by putting every board game from that era in a box, giving them a good shake, and throwing it at your friend’s head–for points. Given some of the stuff I used to play as a kid, I’m sure I’d have been all over it. Watch the video and be amazed.

What’s your favorite game from fiction–board or otherwise?



This is a repost from my weekly-ish TinyLetter. If you enjoy this stuff, please consider subscribing.

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