The most popular board game played in the Wheel of Time lands is Stones. It has been played continuously since at least the Age of Legends, when it was known as no’ri (The Path of Daggers, Deceptive Appearances). As has been noted before, Stones is almost exactly like the real world game Go.
A brief description of the game will be given from the various quotes in the books, then basic instructions will be given for Go. Finally, any differences between the two games will be noted.
Reconstructing Stones from the Wheel of Time books
Stones is played on a board with interconnecting or grid lines (The Dragon Reborn, Caemlyn). The pieces are flat, round stones, black or white in colour. One colour for each player (The Dragon Reborn, To Race The Shadow).
The objective of the game is trap your opponent’s stones (The Dragon Reborn, To Race The Shadow).
To allocate colours for the game, a player hides a black stone in one hand and a white in the other and gets the opponent to choose a hand. Black goes first. (The Shadow Rising, Strings).
Stones are put on the board one by one with each player taking turns.
The game can be very complex when skilled players play. One such game described in the books is in A Crown of Swords:
Pedron Niall grunted as Morgase placed a white stone on the board with a smile of triumph. Lesser players might set two dozen more stones each yet, but he could see the inevitable course now, and so could she.Interestingly, if Morgase was white, Niall was black and thus had the advantage of going first. Yet Morgase won.
“You did not realise I saw the trap you were laying from your thirty-first stone, Lord Niall, and you took my feint from the forty-third stone to be my real attack.”
-A Crown of Swords, Lightnings
Games can also end in a draw, as did the game between Mat and Tuon in Crossroads of Twilight, A Cluster of Rosebuds, when each controlled “half the board in irregular pools and patches”.
Players can be handicapped if the players are unequal in skill. For instance, in A Crown of Swords, Swovan Night, Thom offers to spot Juilin 10 stones to place as he will any time during the game.
The Real World Game
Go (Japan), Wei Qi (China), or Baduk (Korea) is one of the world’s greatest games of strategy. It has few rules and yet is very intellectually challenging.
Pieces and Objective
Go pieces are black and white round discs called stones. The Go board can either be a simple board or worked into a table top. The board is a square grid of 19 x 19 lines, the pieces being placed upon the intersections of the lines.
The primary objective of go is to encircle as much territory as possible. In doing so, opposing stones may be captured and the winner is the player at the end with the greatest amount of territory and captured stones.
The basic rules to the game are:
The most important terms to understand are "group" and "liberty".
A group of stones is any set of stones of the same colour that are horizontally or vertically adjacent and thus connected by grid lines. So three stones in a row along a line form a group, because every stone sits horizontally next to at least one other stone. However, two stones next to each other diagonally are not connected in any way and so simply form two groups of one stone each. If a third stone were to be added to the two diagonal stones so that it sat next to both of them, however, an L-shaped group of three stones would be formed.
Groups can get quite large and irregularly–shaped but the principle still applies - if a stone lies horizontally or vertically next to another stone of the same colour, then both stones are part of the same group.
Any empty point horizontally or vertically adjacent to a group of stones is said to be a liberty of that group.
A stone on the edge of the board has three liberties, one on either side and one towards the middle of the board. Away from the edge, single stones have four liberties: north, south, east and west. If the opponent places 4 stones on these points during the game, that stone is capture and removed. A group of two stones in the middle of the board has six liberties – one at each end and two on either side.
Stones set in squares or rectangles will have liberties around the outside and also any open spaces in the centre. Such open spaces are called eyes.
An eye is any empty point that is surrounded horizontally and vertically by pieces of the same colour. Groups with an eye are always difficult for an opponent to capture.
For example, a group of 8 stones in a square with one eye in the centre can be captured by the opponent if the opponent already occupies the 12 points around the outside of the group. After this, the group of 8 stones is vulnerable - if the player who owns it puts a stone in the centre of the group, the group of 9 stones would be immediately captured having no remaining liberties. And this is the only situation where it is legitimate for the opponent to play a stone to the middle since in doing so, the last remaining liberty of the group is eliminated and the group is captured and removed. The stone just played would be left on the board surrounded by 4 liberties.
If a group with one eye is difficult to capture, any group containing two eyes is safe and can never be captured. In order to capture the group all liberties must be eliminated and so both eyes would need to be occupied. But since a stone played to either eye would immediately be captured, it is impossible for both eyes to be occupied.
"Seki" is an area into which neither player dare play because to do so would cause the opponent to capture territory or stones. It is a kind of local stalemate, and generally none of the vacant points inside a “seki” count as territory for either player.
"Ko" is a pattern of stones in which a position or capture can be repeated indefinitely. A player is not allowed to repeat the same capture in the same area, but must make at least one move elsewhere first. Then they are permitted to retake the “ko”.
Go employs a simple and effective handicapping scheme. The weaker player always plays black but also places an amount of stones onto the board before the start of the game according to the amount of the handicap. The board has nine dots (called "star" points) in a square shape marked on it. The handicap number of stones are placed on the star points in the following way:
1 stone handicap - on a corner star point
2 stone handicap - on opposite corner star points
3 stone handicap – on 3 corner star points
4 stone handicap - on 4 corner star points
5 stone handicap – on 4 corner + 1 side star point or on 4 corner + central star point
6 stone handicap – on 4 corner + 2 opposing side star points
7 stone handicap – on 4 corners + 3 side star points or on 4 corners + 2 opposing side + centre star points
8 stone handicap - 4 corners + 4 side star points
9 stone handicap - all 9 star points.
At the beginning of the game, good players try to play stones far enough apart to claim territory, but close enough so that they can be linked up into groups should they come under attack. Some players set stones near the corners at the start, since corners are the easiest places to capture territory because they only have to be surrounded on two sides. Soon, battles will form in areas of contention. Players need to be able to deal with these battles while keeping their mind on the overall war.
Eventually, the players agree that no more stones can be played since all territory is claimed and all battles have been concluded. Play continues until both players agree to this.
At the end of the game, players count one point for each vacant point inside their own territory, and one point for every stone they have captured. The player with the most points is the winner.
Since it is generally recognised that black has an advantage by going first, non-handicapped games are often decided as the best of two games with players taking turns to play black for fairly equal players. The margins of victory are summed after both games have been completed to determine the winner.
Differences Between Stones And Go
In truth, there are very few differences between the two games.
The board and pieces are on a humbler scale, with the pieces kept in bags and not wooden bowls (The Shadow Rising, Strings).
There is no accounting done at the end of stones as there is in go. In all games described, there is no disagreement as to who won. The players don’t worry about working out the actual margin.
The name ‘stones’ is the name of the pieces in go. No’ri, the name of the game in the Age of Legends, is the Japanese name for an edible seaweed and reflects the game’s real world origin in the Orient. Even closer, the Korean word for game or play is written in Romanised form as nol.i, no.li, no'ri or no'li.
Thom offers Juilin a handicap by allowing him to put 10 stones on board when and where he wishes. This is different to the handicapping system in Go, but 10 stones is a very big handicap. No wonder Juilin was indignant.
Written by Linda, April 2004