According to Birgitte in The Shadow Rising, To The Tower of Ghenjei, the game Foxes and Snakes is a “remembrance of old dealings” with the Aelfinn and Eelfinn. This article will deal with what we know of this game and suggest a real-life equivalent.
The game is one of unequal forces. The foxes and snakes pieces are united in chasing and capturing the two black human pieces. The fugitive human pieces aim to move from the central circle to the outer edge of the board and back, without being touched by any fox or snake pieces. It is considered “only a child’s game,” because due to the forces being so unequal, it is a game:
you would not win so long as you followed the rules.The game is played as a solitaire with the one player moving pieces for both sides according to the rolls of the dice.
- Lord of Chaos, Courage to Strengthen.
The board is either wooden, or , as in Olver’s game, a piece of red cloth, with the web of lines drawn in black ink, and arrows showing which lines allow movement only one way and which both. The pieces consist of 10 pale wooden discs each with an inked triangle (the foxes), 10 pale wooden discs with a wavy line (the snakes) and two black discs (their fugitive human prey). The two black discs start in the centre and the pale discs are stacked in the corners of the web. Six dice are rolled to determine the moves of the pieces. We don’t know all the faces on the dice, but they have at least one face with a triangle (representing foxes) face and also at least one face with a wavy line (representing snakes). There is no guarantee that the faces of the dice are fair to the human pieces.
To open the game, the player makes a sign in the air of “a triangle and then a wavy line through it”, and then chants words:
“Courage to strengthen, fire to blind, music to daze, iron to bind,”Despite Olver’s fondness for playing Foxes and Snakes, Lord of Chaos, Courage to Strengthen and Knife of Dreams, A Village in Shiota are the only chapters so far to describe a game in detail. In Courage to Strengthen, when Mat and Olver play the game, Olver rolls the dice. Mat honourably decides not to use his luck, but even his chance-twisting presence is enough to delay the snakes and foxes from capturing their pieces.
-Lord of Chaos, Courage to Strengthen.
Their two black-stained discs were nearly back to the circle in the middle of the board, but the next roll of the dice would be for the snakes and foxes. Most of the time you did not make it as far as the outer edge.The human pieces are moved in such a way as to keep as much distance between them and the snakes and foxes as possible. On the snakes' and foxes' turn, the number of triangles rolled is the number of fox pieces moved and the number of wavy lines on the dice is the number of snake pieces moved.
-Lord of Chaos, Courage to Strengthen
This time three dice showed faces marked with a triangle, the other three wavy lines…On their turn you had to move the snakes and foxes toward your own pieces by the shortest path, and if one landed on the point you occupied…A snake touched Olver, a fox Mat and Mat could see if the rest of the pips had been played, two more snakes would have reached him.If a fox or a snake piece touches one of the human pieces, that piece is removed. The foxes and snakes win if both pieces are removed. The human pieces win if they can reach the edge of the board and return to the central circle.
-Lord of Chaos, Courage to Strengthen
It is unknown if a player can play with a different number of human pieces.
Olver actually wins a game in Towers of Midnight just as he was on the verge of giving up on Foxes and Snakes:
[Olver] moved his piece across one more line, then froze.This very unlikely event was not witnessed by anybody, so we don’t know if Olver miscounted as Talmanes suggested, or if some of Mat’s luck has rubbed off.
His piece was on the center spot.
"I won!" he exclaimed.
Talmanes looked up, pipe lowering in his lips. He cocked his head, staring at the board. "Burn me," he muttered. "We must have counted wrong, or . . ."
"I mean . . ." Talmanes looked stunned. "You can't win. The game can't be won. It just can't."
That was nonsense. Why would Olver play if it could not be won? He smiled, looking over the board. The snakes and the foxes were within one toss of getting to his piece and making him lose. But this time, he'd gotten all the way to the outside ring and back. He had won.
- Towers of Midnight, Epilogue
Amusingly, a few chapters before, Mat was rolling his dice to find the way to the bargaining chamber in the *Finn’s world as if he was playing the game of Snakes and Foxes.
"Twelve pips. Three for each doorway. If I roll a one, a two, or a three, we go straight. Four, five, or six, we take the right path, and so on."He really entered into the spirit of Moiraine’s suggestion to take heed of the game when visiting the *Finns’ world to rescue her and managed to win. Just.
"But Mat," Noal whispered, glancing at the sleeping Eelfinn. "The rolls won't be equal. You can't roll a one, for example, and a seven is far more likely to-"
"You don't understand, Noal," Mat said, tossing the dice to the floor. They rattled against the scale-like tiles, clacking like teeth. "It doesn't matter what is likely. Not when I'm around."
- Towers of Midnight, Gateways
Is There A Real-Life Equivalent To Foxes And Snakes?
The closest game is Fox and Geese, a medieval game played on a cross shaped board. It is related to the tafl games that are described in the sha’rah article. Like Foxes and Snakes, it is a game of unequal forces.
The geese cannot capture the fox but aim to use their greater numbers to hem the fox in so that he cannot move. The objective of the fox, on the other hand, is to capture so many geese that it becomes impossible for them to trap him.
The game of Fox and Geese is played on a board with five squares arranged in a cross shape. Each square is bisected horizontally, vertically and on both diagonals. This results in 33 points of intersection upon which the pieces are played.
There are similar South East Asian hunt games played on triangular boards, or square boards with a triangle extension on one or more sides, which are close to the web shape of the Foxes and Snakes board. The grids of two such boards are shown below:
Pieces consist of one black or red fox and 13 white geese. The pieces are placed on the intersection of lines.
The geese start by occupying all 6 points of one arm of the cross plus the whole first adjacent row. The fox starts on the central point of the board.
1. Players toss a coin to decide who will play the fox.
2. The geese move first.
3. Players take turns to move one of their pieces to an adjacent vacant point along a line. The player of the geese can only move one goose per turn.
4. The geese can only move forwards or sideways, not backwards.
5. On the fox's turn, if a goose is adjacent to the fox with an empty point directly behind, the fox may capture that goose by hopping over it onto the empty point. The captured goose is removed from the board. Captured pieces are never replayed.
6. If the fox is surrounded by geese and can’t move (this requires at least 3 geese) the geese are victorious. If the fox has captured so many geese that there are only 2 left, the fox is victorious.
Like all unequal games, it makes sense to play an even number of games, each player alternating between playing the fox and playing the geese. The player who wins the most games wins the match.
The amount of geese can be varied: 15, 17 or 19 can be tried. These extra pieces are placed symmetrically on points along the central row. For 19 geese, the fox is placed in the centre of the next vacant row.
Two foxes may be used.
The fox’s player can choose to start the fox anywhere on the board not occupied by a goose.
Limitations on movement of pieces can be tried. For example, diagonal movement can be disallowed for either or both pieces.
What Are The Differences Between The Two Games?
Foxes and Snakes is played like a solitaire with dice and rules to determine movements of the two sides. Fox and Geese is played with two opposing players.
Both are games of inequality. In Fox and Geese, there are at least 13 geese and one fox, and in Foxes and Snakes there are 10 foxes and 10 snakes against 2 fugitive human pieces. The tables have been turned because the Finns are so alien that they are dangerous to humans.
In Foxes and Snakes, the idea is for the human pieces to get to the board edge and back to the centre whilst eluding capture by the foxes and snakes. In Fox and Geese, the geese aim to trap the fox so he cannot move, while the fox aims to capture the geese.
The Foxes and Snakes game has a web-shaped board, not cross-shaped.
Both games have different restrictions in movement: in Foxes and Snakes the pieces can only move one way on some lines, two on others; in Fox and Geese the geese can only move forwards or sideways, not backwards.
Robert Jordan has combined a medieval game (Fox and Geese) with his alien races of Aelfinn (snakes) and Eelfinn (foxes) to form his game of Snakes and Foxes. Like a nursery rhyme, the game Snakes and Foxes is a folk memory of things it was once useful to know - in this case of the dangers of trading with the Aelfinn and Eelfinn. The rhyme that goes with the game ties the game closely with the reality of dealing with these dangerous folk, explaining why the game is unequal, without actually affecting the rules of the game. This makes the game less abstract, and more allegorical. It’s well to remember that:
Nearly all the traditional games we now regard as abstract were in their day considered representational, or at least symbolic.If Robert Jordan has increased the fox piece to 10 snakes and 10 foxes, then that means the 2 human prey pieces were derived from the geese. That’s appropriate, since you would be a goose indeed to step into the world of the Aelfinn and Eelfinn and provoke pursuit…
- David Parlett, The Oxford History of Board Games
Written by Linda, April 2004 and updated June 2013