Thursday, March 21, 2002

Foxes and Snakes

By Linda

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.

- Lord of Chaos, Courage to Strengthen.

The game is played as a solitaire with the one player moving pieces for both sides according to the rolls of the dice.

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 ten pale wooden discs each with an inked triangle (the foxes), ten 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,”

- Lord of Chaos, Courage to Strengthen.

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 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.

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.

- Lord of Chaos, Courage to Strengthen

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.

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.

- Lord of Chaos, Courage to Strengthen

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.

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.
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 . . ."
"Counted wrong?"
"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

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.

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."
"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

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.

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 thirteen (!) white geese. The pieces are placed on the intersection of lines.


The geese start by occupying all six 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 three geese) the geese are victorious. If the fox has captured so many geese that there are only two 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—balance! 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.

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 thirteen geese and one fox, and in Foxes and Snakes there are ten foxes and ten snakes against two 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.

- David Parlett, The Oxford History of Board Games

If Robert Jordan has increased the fox piece to ten snakes and ten foxes, then that means the two 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…


Written by Linda, April 2004 and updated June 2013


Unknown said...

Again, excellent. Thank you so much for your efforts, and your fine, clear, informative writing. Your professionalism is evident, whether or not you are formally a professional writer or editor.

A few thoughts/queries a little off your subject. Do you have any speculations on the meaning/reasons for the iron/fire/music limitations? Could there be any meaningful relationship between the limitations and the game strategy beyond the unequal nature of the contest?

Bronze knives helpful for more than access to the Tower?

What about Mat's power-wrought spear? Seems it would be no-iron since it was held by them. But would it be useful against them?

Is there a fear of weapons, iron weapons, or just any manifestation of elemental iron? Seems the later given the "iron to bind" comment. Which is, of course, the most mysterious of the four admonitions. "Fire to blind" and "music to daze" appear more intuitively obvious (perhaps much too obvious). Perhaps melodies or polyphony might confuse them and/or their mental processes (I've seen speculation about Thom singing, but I bet he could also improvise an instrument out of next to nothing). And one surely must have courage to enter at all.

Clearly the box of matches would be one way to cheat. Fire to blind if they have sensitive eyes? or perhaps a more metaphorical meaning?

I suppose we will know soon enough. I suspect in this book, but if not, the next.

Linda said...

Thanks for your message. I did receive the first one, and most interesting it is too, but alas I'm working overtime ATM on a study and a report for a client. This (7.30 pm) is literally my first free hour today.

The game is a way of reminding people what the Aelfinn and Eelfinn are like. They make deals, and like most deal-makers, they try to twist the deal greatly in their favour. Hence the unequal forces in the game.

The saying is a folk memory, a nursery rhyme that goes with the game. Nursery rhymes can be remnants of historical events like the plague, or the dissolution of the monasteries. I can't think of any real world board game that has a rhyme attached in this way. However there are card games that have various customary phrases and announcements that go with them.

Apart from showing you that the odds are so against you that you have to break the rules (cheat) to win, the rhyme doesn't seem to have any intrinsic relevance to the game itself.

The *Finns are based on fairies or elfin people and such folk are traditionally sensitive to iron, fire and music. Iron they particularly dislike because it is magnetic. Some steels have little or no magnetism, or the spear blade could be a non-ferrous alloy. Elves favour bronze, which is why the Tower of Ghenjei responds to a bronze blade. Blood too has quite a bit of iron in it, as I've speculated elsewhere. Being liquid it could bind quite well.

Fairies and elves burn easily and are sensitive to strong sunlight. So maybe the fire is just simply to blind. When Rand made a sword of fire in the Tear Doorway, the Aelfinn hid their eyes from it.

I agree with you about Thom and music. Music supposedly dazes the fairy folk.

Knowing RJ it won't be totally straightforward.

Mendark said...


Long time lurker here and thought I should actually finally make an attempt to give back :P

When reading I thought Oliver winning a game of snakes and foxes was representative of Matt "winning" in the tower, rather then any direct indication of luck on Olivers part. I don't think Oliver miscounted at all... just proof that the game can in fact be won

I thought it was also probably a subtle reinforcement of where the timelines were, indicating this was most likely when Matt and Thom walked out of the tower (which because of the difference of time between worlds left us a little in the dark on). Which in turn gives us some hope that Matt will get back to Andor just in the nick of time to rally the troops and "Save the bloody Queen.... again!"

PS: Thanks for the fantastic site!

Linda said...

Mendark: Olver's game symbolised the real 'game' in the Tower. Whether the endings of the game synchronised is another matter. Time flows so differently in the world of the *elfinn folk.

Will Mat get back in time to save Caemlyn from devastation? I always thought he'd turn up late for the Last Battle. Maybe he is later for Caemlyn too.

Scooter said...

I also read Olver's win as happening at the same moment that Matt escaped the Tower. I'm not sure why, it was just an instantaneous intuitive reaction on my part. It also makes sense to me as providing the framework of the time that Matt and group spent inside the Tower. And if memory serves (forgive me for being too lazy to go grab the book at look) I believe that Olver and Talmanes were playing sort of later, certainly at what my grandmother would refer to as 'big dark,' while Matt and company were much further west of Olver and emerged in the late afternoon, in fading twilight time. It just makes sense to me.

As an aside, I wanted to say, Linda, that I so very much appreciate the work you and your collaborators put into the site. It is a daily stop for me and I stea...I mean, I reference your work liberally in my posts on other sites, such as RAFO. Thanks so much for all you do!

Jeff Caird said...

If you'd like to actually play a version of the game, here's a site that has a free .pdf of a set of rules. It's not an exact translation of the RJ version but it is close. The game is actually winnable in this version (if difficult!)

Anonymous said...

I would like to point out that in the example mentioned above where Olver succeeds in winning, he had rolled a so called "perfect game".

" “Dovie’andi se tovya sagain,” Olver said, throwing the dice. They rolled across the canvas floor of the tent. Olver smiled as they came up. All black dots, no wavy lines or triangles. A lucky roll indeed. " -Towers of Midnight

Then after the character Talmanes takes his roll, Olver rolls again:

" He threw his dice. Another full run. Olver smiled, moving his piece back toward the center of the board, half lost in thought and dreaming of the day when he would finally get his revenge, like was proper. He moved his piece across one more line, then froze. His piece was on the center spot. “I won!” he exclaimed. " -Towers of Midnight

This would seem to suggest that the only so-called "legal" way in which to win this game is to roll a perfect game. Anything less will result in the human pieces losing.

Linda said...

I agree. Perfectly lucky or you lose.