"Other kids' games are such a bore! They gotta have rules and they gotta keep score! Calvinball is better by far! It's never the same! It's always bizarre! You never need a team or a referee! You know that it's great, 'cause it's named after me"!
Describe Calvinball here.
If only it were that easy...
See, this is for any game which the protagonists play, but which we don't learn the full rules for. And often, what rules we do learn are insanely convoluted, can change at a moment's notice, and/or have bizarre exceptions and by-laws. Usually, this is for one of four good reasons:
The game's rules change whenever the players want, the players know this and aren't playing to win, but just to have fun.
The protagonists are playing a non-existent game, making up the rules as they go in an attempt to hide an ulterior motive.
It's a "Nomic" style game, with a built-in mechanic for changing the rules as you play. It's actually quite well-defined, it's just never the same twice and looks bafflingly random to onlookers.
You know you're dealing with a Calvinball-style game when the game's name is introduced, followed by a cut to another scene, then a cut back to a disaster area. Those are always the best.
If the basic structure of the game is laid out it is not an example of Calvin Ball. After all these are fictional games which appear in some kind of narrative, and we should not expect a full manual of rules to interrupt the flow of the story. If it's merely the points system that's arbitrary, it's The Points Mean Nothing. When one player changes the rules of a game with clearly established rules to their own advantage, it's Movingthe Goalposts.
Also see Pac Man Fever, where writers create Calvinball out of video games (intentionally or not) — all we know is that most involve levels where you kill everyone with lots and lots of Button Mashing and joystick swinging — far more than what a game should have. See Screw the Rules, I Have Plot! when the premise is all about a specific game but they end up turning it into Calvinball. When a known game or sport is played like Calvinball, then it's not Calvin's ball, but Wayne Gretzky's.
Bleach: Apparently any time the shinigami try to do something for the New Year, this happens.
In Episode 303, the shinigami play a New Year's karuta card game. It's originally supposed to be based on a real game but Yachiru doesn't bother explaining the rules. Players get ejected on the basis of made-up rules and things quickly degenerate into chaos. Kidou and shikai end up being liberally thrown around until bankai reduces everything to rubble.
In Episode 335, Kira Got Volunteered by Hisagi to host a New Year's divisional kite-flying bonding exercise, but Hisagi sabotages it to spice things up. Things escalate from gentle bonding to all-out war until Kira's attempt to end it accidentally destroys Yamamoto's barracks. Yamamoto's Unstoppable Rage ends the chaos with the effectiveness of a Fantastic Nuke.
Parodied in Mazinger Z with Brockenball. It vaguely resembles soccer, but the only established rule is everyone wins. Except the ball. Which is Count Brocken'shead. Kouji and his friends played in the original manga and Shin Mazinger when they managed capture it. They found it very funny, but Brocken -a Cyborg whose head and body are separated and work independantly- found it not funny at all.
Duel Monsters from Yu-Gi-Oh! is this, especially in the early story arcs before a more concrete set of rules was established; even then, new cards were constantly introduced that changed the existing rules, to the extent that the series was formerly the Trope Namer for New Rules as the Plot Demands.
Even in the real life card game, the rules state if the card contradicts the rules, you're supposed to do what the card says.
That's simply an inherited rule from Magic: the Gathering. If the rules superceded the cards, then you could not make unique cards. Part of what makes certain cards fun to use is simply because they don't work like other cards.
Izaya from Durarara!! plays some game involving a Go board, chess pieces, Shogi pieces, playing cards, and matches (and eventually gasoline). Apparently it corresponds in some way with the games he plays with the citizens of Ikebukuro. Other than that, only he knows. His hired secretary even loudly questions to herself just how does he play the game, anyways?
Genesis in Sket Dance. Apparently it's so popular that it even has a World Prix.
Also Hyperion (board game) and Wontendo (video game). Anytime Yamanobe Kunio shows up, he's bound to ask the SKET Dan to try some game he learned from a Master Wong in China. Usually, people get into these games for a short while, but later lose interest when they realize how pointless they are.
Not entirely relevant, but Poland in Axis Powers Hetalia sometimes inflicts a "Poland Rule" whenever playing a game, to his advantage (eg. "It's my turn forever now!")
The Gundam Fight in G Gundam actually does have a set of codified rules; however, in the Finals, the host nation (whomever won the previous Fight) has carte blanche to alter the rules at will. In the 13th Fight (the one depicted in the anime), Neo Hong Kong's Prime Minister throws all sorts of rules around, such as suspending the normal Thou Shalt Not Kill rule. Fitting more in line with this trope, he comes up with a number of unusual rules and handicap matches with the specific intent of screwing over The Hero Domon; the most memorable of these would have to be the cage match with explosives AND a cartoonish horseshoe magnet that kept Domon's God Gundam from moving.
Nichijou brings us "Igo Soccer", a combination of Soccer and Go. The club's president Daiku started the Igo Soccer club not even realizing it was apparently a real game. When Daiku meets actual players and sees the game on display, he has no idea what's going on other than those involved striking very odd poses. It leaves even his Emotionless Girl partner Sekiguchi in open-mouthed shock and confusion.
Haiyore! Nyarko-san follows BoBoBo's example with Space CQC, the fighting style used by the alien characters. According to the textbook they used, Space CQC is whatever the user says it is, even if other people disagree; this means that things like Nyarko's Unholy Hand Grenade and Ranma-style dirty tactics or Cuuko's Attack Drones are considered perfectly valid techniques.
D-Frag! brings us the girls of the Game Development Club (temp), who specialize in creating board games that change layouts and/or rules depending on their whim.
There's a whole class of games where the rules can be changed, such as Nomic, Bartok, and Dvorak. Depending on the group playing the game, the complication and absurdity of the rules can quickly reach Calvinball-esque levels.
Another, much less absurd game of Nomic, Here. Current rules are here. New players can still join(Rules 305.3, 305.7.1) as long as they don't cheat(Rule 101). You can always quit if you decide you hate it(Rule 305.7.2), and there's no penalty for quitting(Rule 113), so it can't hurt to take a look(Rule 116).(The winner is the first player to get to 200 points(Rules 112, 208. For scoring, see also Rules 305.3.1, 305.4, 206, 307, and 309.2)
In fact, it came from a book about government, The Paradox of Self-Amendment: if a government's laws include laws on how to change the laws, and they're used, is it still the same government? One of the appendices presented Nomic, a set of laws with almost everything except the how-to-change-the-laws part stripped out, so people could actually play with it and get a feel for it.
In the game Democrazy, the object is to reshape (by player vote) the rules for acquiring and scoring colored chips so that your stash of chips is worth the most points at the end. As in the Fluxx example below, a winning position one turn can become worthless next turn, or vice versa.
Steve Jackson Games' Knightmare Chess uses a deck of cards, from which each player draws with every move, to turn chess into calvinchess. Typical card effects including blowing up pieces and rotating the board ninety degrees.
Rithmomachy. It still was as popular as chess in 17th century Europe.
Talisman: the Magic Quest Game, by Games Workshop, an expandable board game loosely based on the Warhammer and Warhammer 40,000 role-playing games. Players advanced simplified RPG characters toward a simple goal (claiming a magical crown or some such), but the game took every chance to complicate and subvert this goal. Much of the gameplay occurred through card wars in the fashion of Magic: The Gathering, with the added dimensions of dice and boards. Even without the expansions, various player powers and cards indicated contradictory or overlapping results. Expansions added wild elements like time travel, outer space, underground dungeons, and cityscapes. The overall effect was of a network of overlapping and shifting rules, whose precedence was hotly debated at every turn. In fact, half the fun of the game is debating the rules.
Some chess variants. But the first place probably belongs to "Ultimate Shogi" with a 36*36 board and like 200 different pieces. (By the way, in standard Japanese chess a player loses the game if he makes an invalid move. Good luck enforcing the rule in this variant.)
There's a variant called "Tic" that's just that. Plus, you only play on your hand, not on others, the hand size increases from three cards at the start of the game to thirteen by the end, each hand has its own wild card, and some variants even leave in the trademark and instruction cards as additional wild cards!
The rules of the card game Fluxx start simply, but constantly shift with each new card, such that the players can't always be sure what will make a winning hand next turn. In particular, there is no win condition until somebody plays a card that defines one, and that only lasts until replaced by another win condition (unless you change the rules to allow two at a time).
The card game 1000 Blank White Cards has far fewer rules than Fluxx. The game ends when someone cannot play or draw a card, and the person with the highest score wins. Other than that, players can mess with the score, the rules, and really just do whatever they want by creating a card with that effect. This is Nomic with cards.
This page proves that the only rule is "Draw on card-shaped pieces of paper".
As, indeed, is the aforementioned Dvorak. Which is superior seems to depend on if you prefer your Nomics with democracy or without.
The most important rule of the card game Mao is that you can't tell anyone else the rules. The point of the game is to guess them. New players are introduced to the game with the phrase, "The only rule I can tell you is this one." You are penalized for every infraction of the rules. One popular rule is that the winner can also add one more rule to the next game. There are three main types of Mao. There's bureaucratic Mao, where discussion about the rules is allowed when not playing the game, but the rules are numerous and hard to keep track of all of them. There's fraternal Mao, which is what was described above. And there is dictatorial Mao, where a single player has full control over all rules and enforcement, but generally does not play to win, changing the rules at his whim.
The game Magic: The Gathering has had to constantly change its rules because of the unexpected ways in which new cards could interact with older ones; the entire batch/stack system, which has been responsible for 99% of rules confusion and crazy Rube Goldberg card combos throughout the game's history, actually grew out of one single rule called the "paradox rule". Originally, the rules were only changed when necessary; now, however, they are changed on some rather ridiculous whims ("why should there be a rule preventing walls from attacking? Let's just make up a new keyword and put it on every wall in existence..."), and the game currently survives by introducing new rules with every expansion set (no matter how little they contribute to actual gameplay) and then forgetting about them just as quickly.
The comprehensive rulebook is hundreds of pages long and reads like the federal tax code. It's only available online because the rules change so often that a printed version would be out of date within weeks.
It's been said by many Magic pros that the only consistent rule in Magic is that Blue will always get the best cards and mechanics every set.
Webzine Critical Miss gave us "Clique": the unplayable, uncollectable card game. The goal is to confuse as many spectators as possible.
In the card game/drinking game alternately known as "Asshole" and "President", one of the things the president can do is add a new rule at the start of a round (for instance, "pass all of the twos to me"). Whether or not these rules stay in effect for the whole game is up to the traditions of the players. As well, seats are constantly changed depending on who won the previous round, and drinking elements are often incorporated into it.
In a similar vein is the Danish card/drinking game "Gud" ("God"). Each drawn card has such effects as "Texas Quick-Draw" (Last person to mime drawing six-shooters must drink) or "Lawyer" (Create or remove a rule). The real fun starts when a player draws a king, though. This will render him or her "God", and the player is thus allowed to alter, create or remove any rule at will. Needless to say, this can get very convoluted rather quickly. And since rule violations require penalties in the form of extra drinking...
Another game, Numbers, has each card using a different rule (for example Four has all girls drink and Six has all guys drink). The King lets whoever drew it add a new rule that has to be followed or else the breaker has to drink again. One of the favorites was that you can't say the word "Drink".
The card game Killer Bunnies And The Quest For The Magic Carrot increasingly gets this way with each expansion deck you add. Each card has a ridiculous amount of rules behind it, some only explained in the manuals, like a certain card not working on dates with all even numbers (like 02/18/08), or cards where you have to roll every dice X times, with X being the month. And then in the end, the winner is decided by what's essentially a complete random and arbitrary card that was shuffled and pre-chosen at the start of the game. Truly a game where the point is to have fun along the way, but the presence of "Green Gelatin (With Evil Pineapple Chunks)" as a weapon in the first deck was probably a tip-off...
Steve Jackson's Munchkin series states in the rules themselves that players are not required to follow the rules, and indeed, that players can even make their own rules up as they go along, with the stipulation that whoever owns the game gets the final say in the matter. The fact that there are numerous different versions of Munchkin (Munchkin Cthulhu, Munchkin Bites, Star Munchkin, etc.) and the fact that each of these versions have their own expansion packs, plus the fact that you are encouraged to combine decks can result in very Calvinball-like games indeed. Then there's the bookmarks and other swag (including a rare coin token) that go with the games, which have even more ridiculous rules than some of the cards themselves.
The "Cheat" card lets you play any card in the game regardless of whether you would normally be able to.
If read literally, a Cheat card allows you to play a card someone else has already equipped.
We Didn't Playtest This At All, and its sequel We Didn't Playtest This Either, from Asmadi Games. The objective of both is to play a card that lets you win the game. It's possible to have multiple winners, but it's also possible to have no winners at all. Each card you play has an effect or introduces a new rule. There are "Bomb" cards that cause everyone to lose if there are four or more bombs in play. There are cards that make you lose because you got eaten by a dragon, sucked into a black hole, or blinded by a laser pointer (and cards that counter those cards). There's the "Spite" card, which makes you lose the game, but also makes a player that would have otherwise won instead lose. There's a card that forces players to say "Ahh! Zombies!" before they're allowed to play a card, unless they have a banana. There are cards like "Cake or Death", whose effect changes depending on how many players picked one option over the other. There are cards that make all the players still in the game play Rock-Paper-Scissors or pick numbers between one and five, except only the player who played the card knows what will happen (everyone who throws scissors loses, or you win if the numbers everyone picked add up to a prime number, for example). There are cards that make it illegal to point at anything, or to say certain pronouns. There's a card that counters other cards by having them intercepted by a kitten. Then there's the Chaos Pack expansion, where a randomly-chosen "chaos card" affects the game, such as one that changes all cards that say certain words to instead say other words (for example, swapping "even" and "odd" or "cake" and "death").
Special Edition: vehicle sites, non-unique planet sites, exterior Cloud City sites, permanent weapon, unique permanent pilot
Jabba's palace: Jabba's Palace sites
Death Star II: admiral's orders, Death Star sectors
Tatooine: podracing, underwater sites, droids that can generate presence
"Card: The Game". The basic rules for this game are: If it's card-sized and card-shaped, and has a picture and/or a number somewhere on it, it goes. A player starts out with a deck of 60 cards (or anything else that fits the description of "card" and fits the rule noted above) and begins play by setting any three cards in front of them; one has to have a picture of some sort that represents the "player". or if lacking a picture is something that you can explain as representing the player ("My card has a heart on; I'm the Queen of Hearts" is perfectly fine logic here), one that represents 'mode of transportation', and the last being 'location', AKA where your character card is. Basically, the game is improvisation based on the cards you pull; as long as what you do has SOMETHING to do with something on the card, it goes. Players try to take actions and respond to other player's actions using improvisation based on whatever numbers or images are on the cards they have either in their hand or placed face-down in front of them specifically to use in defense against other player's actions (whether against them, against another player, or against another player's response to someone ELSE's action, etcetera.) ("I have a card with the number nine on it; I'm launching nine cruise missiles at another player." "Hum... Well, I have an Ace of Spades: he goes out and builds an anti-cruise-missile wall around me." "Wait, wait- I have a Jigglypuff! Jigglypuff puts your Ace of Spades to sleep so he can't build your wall." All of this goes.)
Switch — see http://www.switch-cardgame.com/ — can get like this if the exact rules haven't been agreed on before play (it's been known to cause fights where this happens). There are so many different variants of the game, it puts Final Fantasy VIII's card game to shame.
Cosmic Encounter, covered under its name in The Other Wiki, is a game where apparently chaotic changes from session to session and during sessions are according to statable rules.
The Sandman's A Game of You and, perhaps, this trope in general may be summarized by the quotation prefacing the book:
The distinguishing characteristic of a traditional folk game is that although it has rules they are not written. Nobody knows exactly what they are. The players have a tradition to guide them, but must settle among themselves the details of how to play a particular game.
—From One Potato, Two Potato: The Secret Education of American Children, by Mary and Herbert Knapp
From The Muppet Show Comic Book, the board game not-Statler-and-Waldorf are playing in the "Family Reunion" arc. It looks like chess, and the goal is apparently to create chaos by introducing new pieces, but beyond that, who knows.
Steve Purcell created "fizzball" in an old Sam & Max: Freelance Police comic. Technically it did have defined rules, but there was no actual win condition, and as long as you met the basic requirements set out by the given rules, you could play how you liked.
Those rules, for the curious:
Take a case of beer (a cheap, undrinkable American domestic brew is good for this, although Purcell never specified a brand), a couple of buddies, and an axe handle or length of two-by-four; anything heavy that you can get a good swing with.
Go out into a field or sizeable backyard.
Take turns being pitcher and batter. The pitcher, naturally, tosses cans of beer at the batter; make 'em easy underhands, you want him to hit it.
Keep going until you run out of Pabst. Optionally, go back inside to enjoy a few bottles of good beer.
Deadpool's entire style of fighting could be defined as this as Taskmaster (who's ability is to copy anyone he meets fighting style) to not be able to copy it to do "it being so random and unpredictable"
One issue of Legionnaires features Triad and Bouncing Boy watching a game that looks almost exactly like baseball, until you notice the cricket wickets.
Episode 107 of the actual show plays with this as well. After a duel shifts to a dice game, it is declared that the roll of a die will alter each monster's strength. The protagonist declares that his roll doubles his power, while his opponent's...
Nesbitt: A five! That must be good! Duke: Actually, that cuts your monster's power in half. Nesbitt:What?!?' That doesn't make any sense! Are you making this up as you go along?!?
In 3 Slytherin Marauders Harry, his cousin, some friends and a couple adults were playing water polo with a frisbee instead of a ball and rules that were made up on the spot.
Total Drama Island's iconic dodgeball match takes on shades of Calvinball in the TDI reimagining story, The Legend of Total Drama Island. When Chris briefs the teams before the match, he warns them that the rules might not remain constant throughout. When he later decides that a game is going too quickly, he springs a new rule on the contestants and tells them that he can restore the teams to full strength whenever he wants. The match is largely described in the style of a battle scene from The Iliad, and Chris’ fluid rules parallel The Iliad’s divine interventions.
The Game the Princesses Play follows Princess Celestia and Luna playing a game they invented in which the rules must never be the same twice, which drives the ponies of the court absolutely batty trying to understand it.
Film - Animated
In Fantastic Mr. Fox, the animal school's official sport is Whackbat, an incomprehensible game similar to baseball and cricket played with a flaming pinecone. A sequence of the game in play features animals hitting the pinecone, running around in random directions and spinning in place.
"Basically, there's three grabbers, three taggers, five twig runners, and a player at Whackbat. Center tagger lights a pine cone and chucks it over the basket and the whack-batter tries to hit the cedar stick off the cross rock. Then the twig runners dash back and forth until the pine cone burns out and the umpire calls hotbox. Finally, you count up however many score-downs it adds up to and divide that by nine."
In Bedknobs and Broomsticks (well, it's part-animated!) the animals (all animated) playing football (soccer). It's basically implied the king makes up the rules as he goes along. Hilarity Ensues.
And yet despite being the one making up the rules, the king still insists the game can't be played without a referee (which David Tomlinson's character volunteers for - and quickly regrets).
Film - Live-Action
From the Fun with Acronyms Department comes TEGWAR, or The Exciting Game Without Any Rules. First seen in the movie Bang the Drum Slowly, it is a game invented by professional baseball players for the sole purpose of winning money off of gullible fans (who, for the most part, are just happy to play a card game with pro baseball players).
Although explained in depth in the novels, Quidditch from Harry Potter comes off like this in the movies. Some of the rules do seem to be different, especially fouls and the bounds of the field. On the other hand, see below to read about the fouls...
In The Whoopee Boys, the protagonists must not only learn the rules to "Cross Courts," but they must also master the sport only known to elite socialites.
Baseketball started this way - the protagonists invented rules on the fly to make it impossible to win for their competitors (obfuscating this through various "are you stupid? How could you not now this? Obviously it's ..."). Eventually however, rules are set and there are even national games.
The audio commentaries of Peter Jackson's The Lord of the Rings movies include a couple of stories about "Tig." It started with a few of the cast members simply poking each other and saying various nonsense words, but Elijah Wood thought they were playing an actual game. They proceeded to make up rules as they went along just to mess with him. It was over a year before he realized that it wasn't a real thing.
The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy has Brockian Ultra-Cricket, which primarily involves smacking people with random sports equipment, then apologizing from a distance. The only known attempt to collect all the rules resulted in a volume so massive it produced a black hole. There have been fewer games of Ultra-Cricket than wars fought over rule differences in Ultra-Cricket.
Which is actually a good thing since Brockian Ultra-Cricket is actually more devastating than the wars fought over the rules.
While a complete list of rules has only ever been assembled once, some of the rules are as follows:
Rule One: Grow at least three extra legs. You won’t need them, but it keeps the crowds amused.
Rule Two: Find one extremely good Brockian Ultra Cricket player. Clone him off a few times. This saves an enormous amount of tedious selection and training.
Rule Three: Put your team and the opposing team in a large field and build a high wall around them. The reason for this is that, though the game is a major spectator sport, the frustration experienced by the audience at not actually being able to see what’s going on leads them to imagine that it’s a lot more exciting than it really is. A crowd that has just watched a rather humdrum game experiences far less life affirmation than a crowd that believes it has just missed the most dramatic event in sporting history.
Rule Four: Throw lots of assorted items of sporting equipment over the wall for the players. Anything will do – cricket bats, basecube bats, tennis racquets, skis, anything you can get a good swing with.
Rule Five: The players should now lay about themselves for all they are worth with whatever they find to hand. Whenever a player scored a “hit” on another player, he should immediately run away as fast as he can and apologize from a safe distance. Apologies should be concise, sincere, and, for maximum clarity and points, delivered through a megaphone.
Rule Six: The winning team shall be the first team that wins.
Gary Cohn's "Rules of Moopsball", as the name suggests, describes the increasingly bizarre rules of a most unusual sport. The Tabletop Games setting GURPS Illuminati University makes Moopsball the most popular sport on campus.
Attempts have been made to codify and play Cripple Mr. Onion, the most famous card game on the Discworld, but it really is funnier left to the reader's imagination.
Discworld has also been mentioned as having its Gods play games to which no one knows the rules, sometimes including the gods themselves.
We do know that they find Chess too complicated and don't have the patience. Death kinds of like it, though, and manages to win every game he plays, even though he's not quite sure how the horseys move.
The game they play with the lives of men appears to be a form of D&D, complete with random encounter tables. They don't seem to do this as much anymore, after their favorite pieces staged an assassination attempt on them in The Last Hero (and they were only saved by another set of heroes acting independently).
Actually, there are official rules for Cripple Mr. Onion lying around, and it appears to be perfectly playable. At least part of the challenge is compensating for the fact that Cripple Mr. Onion requires eight suits to play; the most common solution is to put together two decks with distinctive face designs (preferably with the same backings), or relying on the other players' goodwill that they won't peek while you check if all your hearts are the same color on the back. If you can get hold of a European deck (or a Tarot Minor Arcana the same size as regular playing cards) you're solid.
Snuff introduces two: Crockett, which as the name suggests, is a cross between cricket and croquet; and pork saddle, a combination of spillikins, halma and brandy. The latter's rules are entirely forgotten, and there is some doubt that there ever really were any.
The Leary family in Anne Tyler's The Accidental Tourist invented a card game called "Vaccination", which after decades of refinements has become so convoluted that no outsider could possibly learn how to play it. Except for Julian, who marries into the family; when he learns the rules, lead character Macon Leary is so impressed he withdraws his objection to Julian marrying his sister.
Older than Television: The 1943 Herman Hesse novel The Glass Bead Game (Magister Ludi in early translations, Das Glasperlenspiel in its original German) revolves around an extraordinarily complex game whose rules are never explained. It's implied, however, to be a kind of Liebnizian symbolic model of philosophy.
Shent from Tad Williams' Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn is implied to be like this. Its complexity is increased by the fact that players aren't expected to play to win, but rather to create aesthetically pleasing situations.
Azad in The Player of Games by Iain M. Banks is a non-comedic example of an absurdly complex game. It involves at least three large boards and several smaller boards as well as multiple side games involving cards. The winner of an Azad tournament becomes the next Emperor.
In the Black Jewels Trilogy, by Anne Bishop, Jaenelle and her coven invent a game played with cards and a board that has twenty-six variations, which the players may switch between in the middle of the game. Their respective husbands and consorts suspect that they purposely made it up to frustrate the male mind, until Daemon, Jaenelle's consort, invents a twenty-seventh variation that allows him to beat Jaenelle. Their conversation about it the next morning turns into Innocent Innuendo.
The game's name is "cradle". It consists of a game board, colored stones, bone discs, a deck of cards, and sadistic ingenuity. The dialogue goes something like this:
Lucivar: You look like you put in a long night yourself. Daemon: It was interesting. Jaenelle: There's something a bit sneaky about the positions in variation twenty-seven that give a male so much of an advantage, but I haven't worked it out... yet. (Philip glares angrily at Daemon) Khardeen: You know twenty-seven variations? (Daemon says nothing) Jaenelle: Yes, he does, and that variation is brilliant. Sneaky, but brilliant. (Khardeen and Aaron haul him out of the room) Khardeen: We'll get breakfast later. First, we need to have a little talk. Daemon: It's not what you think. It's really nothing. Aaron: Nothing!? Khardeen: If you've figured out a new variation of "cradle" that gives a man the advantage, it's your duty as a Brother of the First Circle to share it with the rest of us before the coven figures out how to beat it. (Daemon is not sure he had heard them correctly) Aaron: Well, what did you think Consorts do at night? (Daemon bursts out laughing)
In Malazan Book of the Fallen, Fiddler and the Bridgeburners will occasionally play a game with the tarot-like Deck of Dragons that is something like poker, except they make up the rules as they go along. Because they are playing with a deck of cards used to represent their world's pantheon, the games end up being more than a little prophetic—as well as disconcerting onlookers, as the Deck is actually dangerous to use, and playing with it is paramount to blaspheming against the pantheon.
In all honesty, Quidditch from the Harry Potter novels seem to have fairly straightforward rules, except when it comes to violations of those rules. It is mentioned that there are over 700 different fouls — and one of the novels cites a professional game where every single foul at that time (plus some that were not yet declared fouls at that time) occurred.
One of the rules of Quidditch is that players are not allowed to learn about the fouls. It might "give them ideas". (Although what ideas they might get from being forbidden to carry a swarm of vampire bats in your pants is open to debate ...)
Which makes it all the more perplexing how they managed to commit all of them. If the game were sufficiently long enough (as games can be very long), then it is possible. But how long would it have to be before the players decided to start attempting to decapitate each other with broadswords?
It's noted in Quidditch Through the Ages that the author has had access to the complete foul list, and agrees that "No good could come of its release to the general public." He also notes that while the ban on wand use in-game would automatically restrict over half of them, and ones such as "striking another player with an axe"... well...
Decoding Reality by Vlatko Vedral, uses a story of a card game as a metaphor for the scientific process, which involves players sitting around a table, playing cards that feature random images. The only rule of the game prohibits context from being definitively established (the cards do not explain their own meaning, and the players are not allowed to speak to one another). The player is left to interpret the images on the cards and the facial expressions of the players, with the caveat that every time a new card is played, it could completely invalidate your interpretation. There is not even any indication that it's a game, because there are no defined rules. The players themselves may all be playing completely different games at the same table, and none could ever know it.
In Tom Holt's Who's Afraid of Beowulf?, two imps have spent the past thousand years playing "Goblin's Teeth". They're still on their first game. Descriptions of the gameplay suggest it contains elements of chess, Monopoly, Scrabble and several others.
Not exactly the first game. They're in their first match, which is composed of 100,000 sets, each of which is of ten games. The score at the end is 99,999 sets and 9 games to Prexz, and 9 games (and rising) to Zxerp. Then the hero and villain play them for one set and win handily. Then the last surviving Goblin's Teeth board goes to Valhalla with the Vikings, leaving the match forever unresolved.
In John Knowles's A Separate Peace, Finny creates Blitzball which has rules understood by Finny and Finny alone.
In Welkin Weasels, the most popular game among mustelidae is called "hollyhockers". The game appears to be a bizarre mixture of poker and the I Ching, in which bets are placed on patterns that a thrown cupful of hollyhock seeds will fall into.
Second Apocalypse has the game of Benjuka, in which the rules are changed by the moves players make. It's meant to take the war metaphor of chess Up to Eleven.
The Myth series by Robert Asprin features Dragon Poker, which includes such rules as sitting in the chair at a certain point of the compass enables you to retroactively declare certain cards wild after the hand has been dealt. But only once per night, so the game won't completely get out of hand...
The main character actually gave up on understanding the rules and just went all-in on the first hand of a high-stakes game to turn it into pure luck—which still isn't enough to keep The Magic Poker Equation from kicking in.
The Caucus Race in Alice in Wonderland, in which everyone runs around at random for half an hour, after which it is announced that "EVERYBODY has won, and all must have prizes".
The Goosebumps book The Beast from the East is described here as a book-long description of a game of Calvinball.
Even though it is anything BUT Calvinball, Mike Henke treats Grayson style Baseball like this sort of game in Honor Harrington, especially once it gets into the more obscure strike/foul rules
Quantum Gravity: It looks like literally every game played by the fey falls under this. Specifically, Malachi is annoyed by human sports because they're so boring and "the rules never change."
A depicted but unnamed sport in Oh The Places Youll Go by Dr. Seuss. It mainly resembles basketball. The accompanying text includes "And the magical things you can do with that ball will make you the winning-est winner of all."
In The Time Traveler's Wife, Henry, Claire, Charisse and Gomez play a game called "Modern Capitalist Mind-Fuck", which seems to have rules based more closely on a stock exchange than Monopoly, despite the fact it use a regular Monopoly board and properties. Watching them play is one of the funniest scenes in the novel.
Russell Hoban's How Tom Beat Captain Najork and his Hired Sportsmen features three such games: womble, muck and sneedball.
In Cory Doctorow's Makers, a self-confessed game of "Calvinball" is played with an assortment of board games on the floor, and "The rules are, the rules can never be the same twice."
In David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest, the students at the Enfield Tennis Academy play Eschaton, a game of nuclear geopolitics, which has become something of an Academy tradition. One of the tennis courts is intricately painted with a map of the Earth and all its nations for this purpose. True to the trope, all that is made explicitly clear is that nuclear strikes are represented by serving tennis balls onto the map; the rest of the rules are stated to be so complex that they can only be understood through total memorization.
The Zarathustrans in Figments of Reality — a nonfiction book by Ian Stewart and Jack Cohen that uses stories about these aliens to make a point occasionally — have a game called Octopoly. Besides the fact that the same original game has been played for ages because no-one remembered to set a winning condition, and that it takes decades before anyone will even make a move, what we hear of the rules sounds like an incomprehensible mixture of different games, including board games and, well, Calvinball — though somehow the overall effect sounds like Cricket.
The Star Wars Expanded Universe features the card game known as sabacc. Its something like a bizarre fusion of poker and blackjack, played with a Tarot-like deck in which some of the "major arcana" cards have negative value... except the cards change into random other cards at random times when not face-up on the table.
Warbreaker features the game of tarachin, an exceedingly complex game that involves throwing balls of various colors onto a field, and scoring points based on a variety of factors including distance and postion relative to other balls. The main character doesn't know the rules and picks and throws balls at random. This causes him to win every single game.
Live Action TV
Penn Jillette of Penn & Teller has referred to Celebrity Apprentice as this trope, claiming that since it is impossible to determine the eccentric whims of the sole judge of who stays and who goes, Donald Trump, especially in the entirely subjective competitions of product design, advertising and event planning which dominate most of the competition, that people playing it just accept that there are no rules.
Even Stevens: In one episode Louis and Twitty play a game called "Sweaty Sock Ball" which the rules seem to change at will and depending what day it is and if you do a certain thing; very similar to the rule changes in the Trope Namer.
The infamous "Kamoulox" invented by French comedians Kad and Olivier. It's a parody of Jeopardy!-look-alike TV shows, whose habit of giving nicknames to their special rules can make them very obscure at first viewing. The game must have a referee and any number of players, giving special penalties to other players who have to answer with counter-penalties. These special rules are completely made up on the moment and must have the most stupid names possible. The referee decides if the counter-penalties work or not, based on other stupidly-named rules found in improvisation. He can also invoke rules of his own. The game ends whenever a player says "Kamoulox" (he wins then). The whole game is just an excuse to say stupid things.
Referee: We begin by an ostrogoth chicken onslaught. Player 1... Player 1: I don't know anything about this subject, so I prefer to use my porcine opera wildcard to skip this part. Referee: This puts you in a very delicate situation, Player 2! What will you do? Player 2: I'm saying that at random, but I'm picking the reluctant Machiavellian houseplant. Referee: Correct answer. That was a close one! Now it's your turn, Player 2: what's the content of an Assyrian fridge? Player 2: A frustrated Hollywood actress sporting a baseball as a hat! Player 1: KAMOULOX! Referee: You win! That was a pretty stupid mistake, Player 2! According to the Melvin rule, you can't use any reference to the Parisian ukulele bonus. Player 2: I know, I should have paid more attention...
Star Trek has these by the assload, such as Dom-Jot, Dabo, and Tongo. A full list can be found here. Kirk once used a game like this to occupy some guards until he, Spock and McCoy could make their escape. Called "Fizzbin" it starts out more or less like regular poker. Then he starts introducing the special rules...
The only true example here is Fizzbin, which Kirk was making up as he went along to deliberately confuse his captors. The others would only fit the trope in a meta-sense, as the writers may not have had the rules for the games in mind (although they appear to be well-established games with defined rules in-universe).
In The Monkees TV show, Micky Dolenz invents the game of "Creebage" for much the same reason as Kirk invented Fizzbin: to distract a captor and allow for a quick escape.
The British show Green Wing gives us Guyball, which features all the quirks of jai alai, basketball, and Eton College's Wall Game. Plus a really funny hat.
The one rule actually given was "curbing the Matterhorn", which entails insulting your opponent as much as possible.
It's worth quoting the advice on play given by Guy to his unfortunate victim Martin before the game starts:
Guy: Now remember, don't leave the parish, if you get to the maison, put your hand up and shout, "Maison!" Dr. Macartney: Maison! Guy: There are no hedgehogs, and no burrowing tactics. I won the toss, so sticklers are random. Have you got that? Martin: No, not really. Guy: Good. Go!
The League of Gentlemen has "Go, Johnny, Go, Go, Go, Go", a sketch in which a novice player makes increasingly trivial mistakes and violations of the rules to the titular game.
The Scrubs episode "My Jiggly Ball" had the titular jigglyball, which was actually a hoax designed by the Janitor to maneuver J.D. into a position where the entire hospital got to throw tennis balls at him.
The Goodies had the game of "Spat", which seemed to be made of rules that led to Bill always losing and being injured.
I believe it's mentioned in the commentary that Bill really didn't have any idea what the other two were doing.
The show featured Cups, a card game invented by Chandler to transfer money to Joey without him recognising it as charity. Beginner's Luck is a vitally important feature.
Joey auditioned to be a host of a quiz show Bamboozle! which involves "Wicked Wango Cards" and "The Wheel Of Mayhem". This actually becomes a plot point in-show, as the studio execs want to change it to a more conventional quiz show because it's too complicated for the audience to follow.
Joey: Well, what's complicated? You spin the Wheel Of Mayhem to go up the Ladder Of Chance, you go past the Mud Hut through the Rainbow Ring to get to the Golden Monkey, you pull his tail and boom, you're in Paradise Pond!
Phoebe Ball, which Phoebe makes up and names on a whim, and which appears to consist of Phoebe asking questions and arbitrarily awarding points for the answer closest to the description she was thinking of. This being Phoebe, the others gets frustrated after one round.
The British show That Mitchell and Webb Look (and its radio predecessor) features Numberwang, "the maths quiz that simply everyone is talking about." Unfortunately, it's portrayed as so ubiquitous its rules no longer need explaining — and the rules are not intuitive. Here are threesamplegames so that you can find a pattern.
Series two offers the home version, which comes with the rulebook in twenty volumes; it also has a history sketch which shows a 1930's episode where "the boffins" take several hours to work out whether the first move was Numberwang or not (among other segments), and even an episode of the show in Germany (With a reference to the movie The Great Escape). There is one discernible rule: Julie (portrayed by Olivia Colman) always loses (and suffers some humiliation such as being whacked by a frying pan to the head repeatedly) while Simon (portrayed by Paterson Joseph) always wins (Except for the one episode in series one where the game went to Sudden Death)
There's the Spin-Off series Wordwang which is the same show "but with one difference, and that's words!"
One episode had Hawkeye and Trapper playing a weird game with many tabletop game items, but as a Drinking Game.
Double Cranko, played with a poker deck, a chess board, checkers, dice, and no rules whatsoever. When Colonel Potter finally turns the tables on Hawkeye in it, Hawkeye proceeds to invent Triple Cranko.
B.J.: Care to sit in for a hand, Radar? Radar: Uh, no thank you, sirs. Whenever I lose, I always like to know why.
In Stargate Atlantis, Ronon introduces Sheppard to a "traditional Satedan sport" that is a sparring session where the rules change with every round. After picking himself off the floor a few times, Sheppard complains that Ronon is just inventing this as an excuse to kick his ass. He good-naturedly indulges Ronon though, possibly because he's used to it by now (his teammate Teyla regularly kicks his butt while attempting to teach him her fighting technique).
Technically, Counterfactuals isn't fully a Calvinball game, since it has specific rules and cards, but "freestyling" it in RL probably would do. The game involves extrapolating an Alternate Universe from a certain concept and answering a bizarre question about it. For example, in the show, a question was, "In a World where mankind is ruled by beaver overlords, what food does not exist?" The answer? Cheese Danishes. (Watch the episode to learn why.) In the show, the answers are rigid (as befitting Sheldon's personality), but if you "freestyled" it, making up the questions, then the answers could be literally anything, as long as it could be explained.
There's also Mystical Warlords of Ka'a, the card game the guys can be found playing in certain episodes. To date, the rules appear to be "Lay down a card onto a pile and say its name, and eventually someone wins."
In the I Love Lucy episode "The Golf Game", Lucy and Ethel want to take up golf, and ask Fred and Ricky how to play. The men don't want their wives following them around the golf course, so they try to discourage them by inventing a set of crazy and overly complex instructions for play.
The Gillies Report had a running gag involving a reporter describing the results of the fictitious sport of farnarkling. He would describe the game using bizarre terminology but acting as if it was commonly understood. A typical example: "And he was soon arkling the grommet from all points of the gonad".
The episode "Bushwhacked" opens with a spirited game of Calvinball in the cargo bay. About the only discernible rules were that there are some form of teams and it at most resembles a variant of half-court basketball where the court is circular and the hoop is in the center.
Simon: They don't seem to be playing according to any civilized rules that I know.
Inara: Well, we're pretty far from civilization.
In "Shindig," where they're playing a card game that uses round cards with pictures of fruit on them. "Tall card... plum. Plums are tall." In fact, the actors demanded that the writer make up a full set of actual rules for the game so they'd know what they were doing, but since we never find out what the rules are it comes off as Calvinball.
The unsold British game show pilot Quizzlestick. Remember, always remember to use your Green Quizzle Chance.
In the French TV series Kaamelott, Perceval knows lots of unplayable games that he alone can understand and play. Some of them involve 14 dice and artichokes.
King Arthur seems to know perfectly the twisted rules of the "countersyrup" card game, as well:
"We need 14 dice to play that game. Anyway, we can play it with cards, that's not a problem. What matter are the announcements."
"Bask-ice Ball," the hockey/basketball hybrid that Marshall's family plays. Presently, Lily asks Marshall what the rules are, and he admits that there are none; they just whale on each other.
Marsh-Gammon, involving a Candy Land board, poker chips, playing cards, a buzzer, handwritten "Autobiography cards", a Twister spinner and some dice. This was featured in "Game Night", which reveals that Marshall is very good at games.
Episode "Atlantic City" features an unfathomable casino game called "Xing hai shi Bu Xing", which features cards, poker chips, Mahjong-like tiles, changing seats with other contestants, a wheel of fortune, and a jellybean. Marshall is the only one who could figure out the rules just by watching the game while everybody else stands there befuddled and he's even able to give Barney game-winning advice as the group's expert on games. Bilingual Bonus for "Xing Hai Shi Bu Xing": The title of the game translates from Mandarin as "Deal or No Deal"
The Middle Man gave us Shabumi, an exceedingly complex card game played by high-class villainous types. Each player is given a full deck of cards, over 300 verbal and physical challenges are involved, and the price for losing or cheating is death. Oh, and live bunnies are involved somehow.
Monty Python's Flying Circus featured the quiz show "It's A Living", the rules of which were so insanely convoluted and complex (but somehow revolving around what fees the BBC got) that by the time the presenter finished explaining them, the show had finished.
In the 2004 Sci Fi Channel reboot of Battlestar Galactica the pilots are often seen playing a card game known on the original show as "Pyramid", referred to on the reboot show as "Triad". The cards are six sided with a variety of symbols and colors to designate suit and rank; there are rules posted online but they are largely created from fan speculation. It is potentially impossible to integrate canon with an actual rule set, since the actors playing the pilots were known to improvise game terms and names of winning or losing hands on the spot.
Averted with the reboot show's game that uses the name "Pyramid:" a vaguely handball-like game played in a small court with three goals and for which the writers did, in fact, draft up a full set of rules.
Somebody was either confused or being a smart-alec. In the original series, Triad was the handball-like game and Pyramid the card game.
Puppeteer/comedian Marc Weiner had a bit where he and two volunteers from the audience would play a game called "That's Not Fair!" where no one ever gave the right answers and points were awarded arbitrarily.
The Prisoner features the sport of Kosho, played on two trampolines set on either side of a four-foot-by-eight-foot tank of water and bordered on two sides by a wall with an angled ledge and hand-rail. Two helmeted opponents each wear a boxing glove on their left hand and a lighter padded glove on their right, and while moving freely in three dimensions attempt to knock, push or throw each other into the tank.
In Swedish TV Christmas Calendar Sune's Christmas, the titular character and his friend would play a Calvinball-type card game with Sune's younger brother. The main purpose of the game was to force little brother to run around the house wearing a lampshade on his head. This happened every time he broke a rule. Since Sune and his friend changed the rules whenever they felt like it, little brother always lost. Until their father joined in...
Shooting Stars, a UK panel show presented by Vic Reeves and Bob Mortimer, which despite having a scoring system, the answers are entirely the whim of the hosts. Contains questions like "True or false: Richard Attenborough" and the less said about the last round the Better.
Bottom has Eddie's card game "One Card Slam". In which Eddie flips out a random card from the pack, slams it on the table, and demands twelve quid from Richie.
On one episode of The George Burns/Gracie Allen Show, Burns makes up a card game called Klebob as he goes along to psych Gracie. This backfires when Gracie easily figures out the rules to the game—partially because she's a Cloud Cuckoolander, and partially because it's just like the game George made up last week.
An episode of The Bob Newhart Show features Bob and his poker buddies playing ever more outlandish card games such as Snee-Ho (where one wins if they draw the "King of Snee") and Klopsky (which calls for four packs of cards and a banana).
An episode of It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia featured the game of Chardee Macdennis. The rule book was bigger than most phone books, asking questions about the rules was penalized, cheating is encouraged but violations were punishable by eating a cake (but only the individual components i.e. flour, eggs, salt), and challenges ranged anywhere from getting darts thrown at your hand to having suicide-inducing insults hurled at you for extended periods of time. The prize? You get to smash your opponents' game pieces.
The British show Noels House Party featured in a game in the 1992-93 series called "Open the cupboards" which had a running gag about the rules being complicated (and if you watched a playing of the game, it looks that way). "You throw a six to start, the referee's decision is final, and deuces are twice as valuable as a pair of spades in your hand."
New Girl has "True American", a drinking game with Candyland elements, in which the floor is lava. The rules involve zones (some of which are crazy), yelling out the names of presidents, and alcohol (with cans of beer as Soldiers of the Secret Order, and a bottle of bourbon as King of the Castle). If you take a break to have sex with a beautiful woman, everyone else wins. And everything you hear in True American is a lie.
Upright Citizen's Brigade had "Pro Thunderball" which combines this trope with Blood Sport. The game features baseball bats used as weapons, wild hounds wandering the field, a roving car, and a "gun circle" containing a fully loaded pistol that players are forbidden to use.
In Mystery Science Theater 3000, this is what Australian Rules Football boiled down to. Of course, the fact that ARF is a real game with a well-defined set of rules is irrelevant, it was just a catch-all term for whatever wacky sports game they were playing on the satellite.
The classic South Bend area sketch comedy show Beyond Our Control did a parody of 70s game shows with a Calvinball-style game called "How Do You Play This Game?". Check it out here.
The music video for "New Lands" by Justice, starting off as a baseball game, then adding lacrosse, football, and roller derby.
The name comes from the anti-game invented by Calvin and Hobbes, whose only consistent rule was that you couldn't play the game the same way twice (although no one was ever allowed to question the masks, either). Watterson mentioned in the tenth anniversary annotations that he constantly got fanmail asking for the rules, to which he commented they were simple: you make them up as you go along, although the main point seemed to be to make up whatever rules would cause your opponent the most defeat, humiliation and annoyance. Hobbes was very good at it, and Rosalyn picked it up quickly.
Calvin seems to be fond of games with impossibly convoluted rules, even though he's not very good at regular baseball, let alone the variation with over two dozen bases spread out over half the neighborhood, entire "ghost" teams and usually ending in a Big Ball of Violence with Hobbes.
The trope's first reported instance was in MAD back in the 60s, when they invented a college game called 43-man Squamish. Details are sketchy, but when official gear includes a shepherd's crook, a helmet with a beanie-propeller on top, and flippers, odds are the game wasn't meant to be played anyway. Still, apparently some actual teams were formed for a bit. An excerpt from the rules:
An earlier example from Mad is the late-fifties board game parody Gringo.
Another was the board game "Three-Cornered Pitney" in 1983, with similarly ridiculous rules, as it was designed by one of the creators of 43-Man Squamish.
The Onion printed a sport called "Snøkåathlaan" for the 2010 Winter Olympics, complete with history, rules, and athletes to watch.
At WWE Backlash in 2001, William Regal challenged Chris Jericho to a Duchess of Queensbury rules match, which Jericho readily accepted, despite having no idea what "Duchess of Queensbury rules" entailed. It turned out that Duchess of Queensbury rules simply meant that Regal got to change the rules whenever Jericho was about to win. Jericho attempts to pin Regal? Oops, the match is divided into two rounds, and round one just ended. Jericho gets a submission? Oops, submissions aren't allowed!
This is especially jarring to those players who go so far as to set up an enormous double lengthwise switch halfway through the game, only for it to be called nothing more than a lot of bull. Philistines.
Stephen Fry's Saturday Night Fry gave us the game of "Kick The Frog", in which Hugh Laurie was the frog and had to answer questions. If he got the answers wrong, Jim Broadbent kicked him. If he got the answers right, Phyllida Law kicked him. There was no mechanism to make someone else the frog.
From the back of the box: "Kick The Frog is like life. It isn't fair." The rules were subsequently changed to become (in principle) fairer, first by becoming a democracy (in which only Stephen and Jim had the vote, and both voted Hugh should remain the frog, and neither he nor Phyllida should get a vote) and eventually into a pluralist social democracy (in which, after long discussion, almost everyone agrees it makes sense for Hugh to remain the frog). Eventually Hugh persuades them to stop playing altogether. So they just kick him instead.
Since 2005 or so, Netflix has used radio ads featuring contestants on a fictional quiz show with absurd questions and nonsensical answers, such as "A dog goes ahead in time and bites his tail. When does he feel it?" "Yesterday." "Correct!"
A new BBC Radio 4 panel show called It's Your Round requires the four guests to make up their own rounds for the others to play.
Stand Up Comedy
The Stella comedy group performs a sketch in which one of them suggests they play a "logic game" in which the players take turns saying one of two nonsense words in a unspecified pattern. The second member quickly grasps the pattern and is able to play along, but the third member always guesses wrong. It becomes increasingly obvious that the "pattern" is completely random, and the third member will be deemed wrong no matter what he says.
In one of the Dungeons & Dragons settings, "Kholiast" is an elven game played with "a deck of more than 1000 cards, a variable hand determined by a throw of dice, and a point-counting system that would drive even the most dedicated Candlekeep scholar completely mad."
Dragons have the Great Game, xorvintaal, the objective of which is to steal the other dragon players' treasure with the help of mortal chess pieces called exarchs. The game is a "tortured mess of contradictory rules and exceptions that only a dragon with centuries to study could understand," far beyond the comprehension of younger races. Narratively speaking, xorvintaal exists to fuel Excuse Plots, so if the DM needs dragons or the PCs to do something all they have to do is call it a xorvintaal maneuver.
Talislanta has "Trivarian," which is so complex that it can only be played by people with two brains.
Pyramid Magazine featured a campaign setting called LudiCROUS — The Sport of the Future!, about a sport where the rules could change from moment to moment... including the rules about how the rules could change. A good LudiCROUS team needs people with a wide variety of skills, from footballers to chessmasters, because the goal of the game could be almost anything.
Paranoia might fit the bill or subvert it, depending on how you see it. The rulebook (often ignored) states that arguing rules is against the Big Orwellian Omniscient AI's will, and it can (and will) result in painful death for the players. Actually, GMs make the rules as long as they keep the game interesting.
Arguing rules isn't directly prohibited, but most of the rulebook (everything besides setting description and character creation guide) is considered Ultraviolet security clearance. If you admit to knowing enough of the rules to think you can question them (and aren't already the highest possible rank in the complex), you're openly admitting to treason.
Exalted has Gateway and The Games of Divinity. The first is for mortals, and has been shown in comics and illustrations, though the appearance may be different depending on the artist. The second is for the gods, is played in the Jade Pleasure Dome in Heaven, and is VERY addictive...
Any RPG that encourages participants to develop their own house rules is, in effect, an example of this trope. Among 3rd Edition D&D fans, house-ruling became known as "invoking Rule Zero ", in reference to the 3E Player's Handbook having prefaced its numbered list of character-creation steps with a reminder that the DM may have modified the procedure to suit his or her campaign.
Ratchet: My Blargian snagglebeast devours your mutant swampfly! Oh yeah! I bet you didn't see that one coming!
Clank: (moves a piece) Check, and mate!
Ratchet: What? Bu-bu-but that's cheating!
Clank: On the contrary. The Blargian snagglebeast has an allergic reaction to mutant swampflies that lasts two turns.
Many of the Zoq-Fot-Pik from Star Control II: The Ur-Quan Masters (specifically, the Pik, much to the annoyance of Zoq) are obsessed with Frungy, the "sport of kings". Naturally, the player is never given an opportunity to learn the rules of Frungy.
In Final Fantasy IX, Tetra Master is Calvinball to the people who play it. Nobody who you meet actually know the rules, and as a player you have to pick the rules up from other character's suppositions and actual gameplay. Apparently the cards sort of play themselves somehow. This is an unfortunate case of Guide Dang It. Back in the day, Square-Enix provided a full and detailed strategy guide on their website that explained how to obtain everything in the game. It even explained how Tetra Master uses a Hexidecimal numbering system to explain the strengths and weaknesses of the 4 numbers (or letters) listed on each card. Just learning this alone made the game far easier to play and understand. Sadly, around 2003 or so, the website was given a major overhaul and the entire strategy guide on the website was lost to Internet Oblivion.
The card game in the previous game, Final Fantasy VIII, wasn't much better. The basic rules were simple enough, but the extra rules would get added more or less at random, and the purpose of some of the rules a bit arcane be rendered moot if you had high level cards, or just didn't spread rules in the first place.
Directly parodied in Adventurers!! with "Septuple Scare" (below).
Chuckles the jester in Ultima VII is a champion of "The Game", which it's impossible for him to explain the rules of without violating them. The objective is to complete a conversation with him without using any words containing more than one syllable.
Ultima Underworld II has a game called White Rock Black Rock, with fairly simple rules: if you pick the white rock (by choice, not by chance) then you win, and if you pick the black rock you lose. However, the game's rules become very bizarre when you play it in the Ethereal Void later on: fish, limbo and peas are somehow involved, among other things.
Forge Mode in Halo: Reach and Halo 3 has a propensity to devolve into this unless a single person or dedicated group is trying to create something specific (thus keeping everyone on task). It seldom takes long before everyone starts aiming gravity lifts to hurl Scorpion Tanks at each other. Targets of these Monty Python style attacks then spawn walls to block the incoming tanks. When it is realized how they sometimes bounce errantly from a certain angle it becomes an accuracy challenge to land the tank on top of a rock over an ocean. So on and so forth, until the map has been filled with whatever caught the occupants' fancy in their item spawn frenzy. These maps are almost always deleted and the blank canvas is restored until another night's session.
"Thrashball" in Gears of War is Blernsball as applied to NFL football rather than baseball; in many ways very similar to a familiar sport, but in many others bizarre and incomprehensible. There's a guy with shields in the backfield.
Strong Bad: What the crap kind of freaked-up sport are you guys playing anyways? I mean, you're on a football field, but you've got a basketball goal, and basketballs and footballs... Homestar Runner: I know! It's America's pastime!
Strong Bad later mentions a dice-and-cards-and-board game called "Three-to-One Marny".
Also used prominently in the Strong Bad Email "the show", in which Homestar hosts a talk-/game-show hybrid. Homestar offers 500 points to the Poopsmith to share his "polictical" views. He then turns to Pom Pom, asking him, "For the block: do you agree?" turning it into a bizarre version of Hollywood Squares. After they both leave without answering, he awards each contestant 162 points.
In Dork Tower, Igor insists on inventing '"house rules" for almost every game played, including rules for landmines in Candyland and a variation of Licence Plate Bingo that was so arcane the road trip was over by the time he'd finished explaining.
Mac Hall has Australian Indoor-Rules Quiddich. The entire point of the game is to smack a ball with an LED light at people while playing in a blacked-out hallway. No score, no other rules. Just carnage.
New School Kids has Trevopoly, which appears to be a mixture of Battle Ship and Sorry, played on a Monopoly board, with made up rules.
Boxer Hockey centers around a team of a sport, after which the strip is named. The basic rules are that players wear nothing but boxer shorts (not briefs, not thongs, not longjohns, boxer shorts), and they carry around any blunt object which can be used for hitting things. This is because the object of the game is to get the ball, which is actually a gene-spliced frog that's had it's DNA cut with rubber, into the opponent's goal. Other than that, it's up to the players as to the strategies they use and nothing's forbidden. Beating your opponent into pulp is a valid strategy, although actually killing them is frowned upon. Killing a frog loses the team points, and a dead frog cannot be scored with.
Ansem Retort used this nicely in one strip. Namine challenges Larxene to a card game where the rules are entirely made up, any card ever can be played, and there is apparently no real way to win. However...
Axel: What do you mean you lost? You were making up the rules! Namine: She played a Monopoly "Get out of Jail Free" card. How am I supposed to beat that?
The Impossible Quiz. Sometimes the answers are perfectly logical if you stop and think for a moment, other times they're logical, but the logic they run on is so obscure you'll be there for ages trying to work it out, and other times... well, they're completely random and nonsensical. This is the whole point.
Viking Secret Wildcard Poker in LoadingReadyRun's "Poker Before Dusk" appears at first to be some unusual variety of Texas Hold'Em. It gets a great deal sillier, incorporating cards from Magic: The Gathering and Clue.
Right now Elway's going to have to decide if he should hold the knobs steady, cut the straight along his outside felch, or scrump all his grits in one trug and go ahead with the check.
I wouldn't be surprised if Lamont pulls a full under-crunch moonsault.
Futurama has Blernsball, which is like baseball, but with so many new rules and gimmicks added — including the ball being attached to a bungee cord, a "multi-ball" mode, and a giant spider that runs the bases — that hardly anyone can tell what's going on. It's quite obviously a spectator sport, because it at least looks really cool. We see it twice... and it changes near-completely between viewings. Specifically, in "Fear of a Bot Planet" it's Calvin Ball. By "A Leela of Her Own" it's baseball with a bungee cord.
Fry: Hey I'm starting to get the hang of this game! The blerns are loaded, the count's three blerns and two anti-blerns and the infield blern rule is in effect, right?
Leela: Except for the word "blern", that was complete gibberish.
On Garfield and Friends, a U.S. Acres short involved Orson convincing the others to play a game of "pigball". We don't see how actual pigball is played, as Roy plays a joke by switching the actual rules with a set of increasingly absurd ones (like flipping a baked potato not only to see who plays first, but if the game is actually played at all) which instruct the players to score points by doing embarrassing and ridiculous stunts (like dressing in silly outfits or finding a live hippopotamus). They get back at Roy with a "game" called "roosterball", whose rules are to take the person with the most feathers and throw him in a mud hole.
In another short, Garfield finds himself trapped in a Western show, playing poker. The stakes get ridiculously high ("I'll see your horse and raise you...") and then Garfield ends the game by declaring, "You had the old maid! I win."
At the start of the Sponge Bob Square Pants episode "Squidward the Unfriendly Ghost", SpongeBob and Patrick are playing a game that involves bubble-blowing, moving pieces on a chess board with your breath, carrying rocks around, climbing a tree, and other crazyness. At one point, Patrick triumphantly shouts "I lose!", until SpongeBob reminds him, "But it's not Tuesday, Patrick."* A reference to one of the few known rules of Fizzbin When an annoyed Squidward asks them what they're doing, they sheepishly admit, "We don't know."
There's an episode of Fairly Oddparents in which Timmy and friends play "Timmyball". Same principle.
Cosmo: That's the first rule of Timmyball — Timmy wins. Wanda: I thought Timmyball had no rules. Cosmo:That's the second rule.
Compared to Wandaball, which uses a cinderblock.
The Ed, Edd n Eddy episode "Urban Ed" opens with the Eds getting Johnny to play a game consisting of seemingly random stunts (like shooting peas through a straw to pop balloons, or throwing marshmallows into a tuba bell). When the last step turns out to be "put a quarter in the jar", Johnny sees through their Bavarian Fire Drill and walks off, saying "Nice try, Eddy."
Chowder has "Sniffleball", which is baseball played with giant gloves on one's head, a ball of slow-moving green snot, and twelve bases that are located underwater, in the sky, and in Bowser's castle. Really.
And later on there was "Big Ball" (the actual name being ridiculously long). Apparently if one team were to actually win, the game would literally be trashed (actually thrown in the trash) by Bowser (what's with all the Mario references?).
Wait, it's bad luck not to say the whole name: Field Tournament Style Up and Down On the Ground Manja Flanja Blanja Banja Ishka Bibble Babble Flabble Doma Roma Floma Boma Jingle Jangle Every Angle Bricka Bracka Flacka Stacka Two Ton Rerun Free for All Big Ball.
Mung: (As he's scolding Truffles for scoring a goal) ...Now you've ruined the whole sport!
Subverted on an episode of The Simpsons where Homer, Lenny, and Carl are playing a chair-hockey game. They disagree on not only the rules, but what game they're playing (Homer claims it's called "Cincinnati Time-Waste"). At first, it would seem that this would fall into Calvinball territory, but then Carl opens up an official Cincinnati Time-Waste rulebook....
Played straight in another episode where Bart and Homer are playing their own game: a combination of Scrabble and Battleship. For extra points, they appear to be using two boards, one of which is definitely designed for Monopoly.
Phineas: That's two points for recycling! The girls' score is now the square-root of pi while the boys still have a crudely-drawn picture of a duck. Clearly, it's still anyone's game!
"Let's Take a Quiz" is a game-show version of this trope (And Wordwang); the only rule seems to be "answer quickly, and answer often", and Candace is still fairly baffled at first.
She is, however, an expert at Skiddley Whiffers, which is a board game variant of this trope.
An episode of King of the Hill had a B-plot revolving around Peggy's attempt to develop a mock game show based on all the things people like most about TV game shows. The result is an incomprehensible game called "Spin the Choice"; "On your turn, you can choose to spin, or you can choose to choose. If you choose to spin, you spin the Wheel of Choice..."
Ironically, the episode was titled "Spin the Choice"; the A-plot involved Bobby taking John Redcorn's latent Native American irritation with white mistreatment of his people to heart and boycotting Thanksgiving.
At one point in Total Drama Action, Heather, frustrated at one of Chris' seeming last second rules change that screwed her team out of a victory, accuses him of making the rules up as he goes along. Chris simply replies, "I love my job."
In Teen Titans, Cyborg and Beast Boy play Stankball, which apparently involves pegging the other player with a wadded-up ball of dirty laundry. By the end of the episode the game has been upgraded to Extreme Stankball.
An episode of Jimmy Two-Shoes opened with Jimmy and Beezy playing a game involving a catapult and a score that keeps changing because of the day.
The aptly named sport of 'Mutilation Ball' on Robotomy.
In the episode of Regular Show "But I Have a Receipt", Mordecai and Rigby have to face off against a dungeon master in a D&D style fight where they have to use their imaginations. Needless to say, the game eventually turns into Calvinball, with rule changes occurring every half second. What makes the whole thing even more absurd is that Mordecai, Rigby, and the DM are fighting over a $6 refund for a game.
In The Mighty B! Bessie enjoys playing a game of Pineapple with her friends. While the rules aren't stated, all we know is that they're fairly inconsistent and involves someone dressing up as a pineapple.
The Hey Arnold! episode "Cool Jerk" begins with the kids playing a schoolyard game known as "Nuclear Ball".
There's a Rocket Power episode where the kids try to invent their own sport, "Rocketball." Although it starts out very simple ("hit the ball into the trash can"), more people gradually join in, and, to make it "fairer," so many rules are added that it degrades into this.
In the Foster's Home for Imaginary Friends episode "Bloo Tube", the gang plays "Farat Trap Of Life", which is played on four boards similar to Monopoly, The Game Of Life, Mousetrap, and Pop-O-Matic Trouble.
The game of Bucket-Stick-Fruitball from Spliced. The rules change based on Rule of Funny. One episode has them introduce a completely new role called a Forward Bucket Checker, who has to run away from Entree on a tricycle while covered in butter. And hitting it with parts of your head gives you absurd amounts of points.
Aqua Teen Hunger Force has an episode where they get a new house and Shake is jealous that Meatwad gets it, challenging him to a game of Rock Paper Scissors. After several rounds, it appears to be going fine, then suddenly we jump cut to Shake using a condominium while Meatwad uses hurricane, and apparently there were other housing venues as Meatwad states that hurricane beats all housing. What housing beats and where they came up with it is uncertain (not that it matters).
The Bizarre and Improbable Golf Game in one of the show's spinoff videogames turned, you guessed it, golf into a cross between Calvinball and Fallout. Complete with chainsaw fights against time-travelling robot turkeys, and that's before it gets ridiculous. Somehow there's a course on the Moon, and another one in Hell. All of this is apparently legal.
One episode of Rugrats had a B-plot with the adults all trying out a board game called "Neurosis" that follows a long list of byzantine rules depending on the current state of the game, such as "Player One can only move counter-clockwise when all the other players are in the Penalty Zone." By the second or third time it cuts back to them, they're all bored and confused out of their minds, but for some reason, they still keep playing.
The Amazing World of Gumball features "Dodge or Dare", a board game that Gumball and Darwin created, which involves rolling the dice, then taking a card and doing whatever is says on it. The concept of the game is (very loosely) structured with a set of "rules", and the "rules" themselves are only there to ensure that sheer chaos results from playing it. Nicole once thought back to all the outcomes from playing that game, one of which involved the house being set on fire when the kids' dad, Richard, played along with them.
"Sarcastaball" from South Park. Created as a response to growing football safety regulations, Sarcastaball is an ever-evolving inversion of the sport where players wear bras and tinfoil hats and toss a balloon across the field while hugging and congratulating nearby opponents.
In the Codename: Kids Next Door episode "Operation: D.O.G.H.O.U.S.E.", the KND play a game of "cinder-ball", which involves launching a cinder-block with a BFG, hitting it with a giant tennis racket, bouncing off a launched trampoline, and running around bases and spinning.
The students of Third Street School on Recess play a game called "Battle Tag." We don't see it played, but we do see all the kids on the playground sprawled on the ground afterwards with their clothes all ripped and covered with dirt.
In another episode, the kids become hooked on a Pokémon-esque card game called "Ajimbo". Some of the rules are apparently nonsensical and inconsistent.
Many a person may remember a time in their childhood when they collected cards that belonged to a trading card game, like Yu-Gi-Oh! or Pokemon TCG. However, not everyone of them received the starter set with the rules. Thus, it was up to them to try and make sense as to what the terms and numbers meant, resulting in many versions of the game itself.
So, you know Rock-Paper-Scissors? That game, with three gestures? Well, people made five-gesture versions that added "Lizard" and "Spock" (but disagreed on which beats which).
Similar to Rock, Paper, Anything is the version where the traditional pre-throw chant ("Rock, paper, scissors, shoot!") is taken literally by some wiseass who decides that a Finger Gun is a valid gesture and beats everything.
In the philosophical treatise Finite and Infinite Games Professor James Carse divides games into two kinds — finite games, where the rules are fixed and the object is to win, and infinite games, where the object is to continue play and the rules change in order to prevent the game's end. It's deep philosophy, but it fits the trope since infinite games just wind up sounding like more fun.
Nomic is a game that consists of a set of rules that govern how the rules can be changed. There can be rules that allow a player to win, but whatever that rule is, it can be changed. Games may - and will - devolve into anything from Rock, Paper, Scissors to Diplomacy. It's Calvinball for academics.
The game of Bar Chess. The rules: sit in a bar. Move the things (ashtrays, beer mats, etc.) around. Occasionally say things like "Check" or "No, you can't do that". The aim is to make the people around you think you are playing a game. Bonus points if they start to offer tactical advice. Also called "Table Chess", and played at any table with things to move on it. College dining halls are favored venues, for the sheer number of available items and amount of space.
The sport of Cricket is often seen as this by those who don't have a history of playing it, due to its complex ruleset and arcane terminology. This has often been a source of humour for Americans in particular.
The drinking dice game "Three-man" has the rule that if you roll consecutive 6-1's, you get to make up a new rule, penalty of having to take sips. Rules can be everything from "always drink from your left hand" to "keep your right pinky on the table at all times" to "keep your right thumb to your nose at all times" to "Always address other players as 'Floyd' and nothing else" to "never say 'and'". All rules must be honored at all times.
Financial markets seem to degenerate into this, given half a chance. It's almost if the crashes occur the moment enough players realize that the game they've been playing is Calvinball.
Some economists have compared the stock markets to the queues in supermarkets. If everyone joins what they think is the smallest queue, the smaller the differences between the queues get. Subsequently the very act of working out which is the smallest queue becomes increasingly pointless.
A probably-apocryphal examplenote Games involving running with a ball are much older than the idea of kicking one around, so it seems much more likely for rugby to have evolved from the former: one day in the nineteenth century at a boarding school in England, a group of boys were playing a game more-or-less like soccer, when a boy called William Webb-Ellis decided that instead of dribbling the ball with his feet, he would pick it up and just run towards the other team's goal. The kids on the other team tried to stop him by tackling him to the ground. The boys realized they had just invented a new game, which they decided they liked better than soccer. The boarding school in question was named "Rugby", so the new sport was known as "Rugby football".
Many fans of the Indy Car Series feel Brian Barnhart's liberal and inconsistent application of an admittedly ill-defined rulebook have essentially reduced the series to an automotive form of Calvinball.
The 2012 United States Republican presidential primary election season has shown that every single state's rules for selecting delegates to support a given candidate are...very different. On top of that, there are state-specific penalties...and also the workarounds to cheat them. Here are some examples:
Arizona's delegates are all awarded to whoever wins the primary vote in the state. ("winner-take-all")
Florida is also winner-take-all, but was penalized 50% of their delegate count for moving their primary too early. Instead of awarding 99 delegates to the winner, the winner only gets 50 delegates.
In Kansas, the winner of each federal congressional district gets three delegates, the winner of the state gets three delegates additionally, and there are another 25 delegates that are distributed proportionally according to one of two formulas: (1) If only one candidate gets over 20% of the primary vote, take the vote percentage of the top candidate, multiply that by 25 delegates, round up, and allocate that many delegates to that candidate, and then repeat for the next candidate down, and the next, until all delegates are allocated; (2) If more than one candidate gets over 20% of the primary vote, do the same as (1) but do the calculations as if the votes garnered by candidates who didn't break 20% did not exist.
In Michigan, the winner of each federal congressional district gets two delegates. The candidates are all proportionally allocated two at-large delegates—in other words, each of the top two finishers gets one unless the first-place finisher obliterates the second-place finisher. However, state party leaders may choose to instead award both at-large delegates to the state's overall winner...which is exactly what happened.
In order to avoid being penalized of delegates but also get early candidate and press attention, Missouri features an early primary election...but it doesn't count at all, and is often referred to as a "beauty contest" because of its non-binding nature. Instead, it selects its delegates at a caucus meeting about a month later. Furthermore, caucus-goers don't vote for the candidate they want to support, but instead they vote for the delegates (the people) themselves.
And this is why the Democrats require proportional representation for all states.
Ezra Klein of The Washington Post gave the game a namecheck when discussing the 2013 US government shutdown: "As the White House sees it, Speaker John Boehner has begun playing politics as game of Calvinball, in which Republicans invent new rules on the fly and then demand the media and the Democrats accept them as reality and find a way to work around them."
Kamoulox, a French game created by two humorists, works this way : make a nonsensical sentence (eg. : "I stab Tony Danza in the toe with my ice cream."), then let your opponent answer your sentence with another one that can alter or not the (non-existent) rules (eg. : "You can't, I parked my Audi in a walnut tree." or "This gets me 50 points because I made an apple pie for the transsexual German karate team."). For added insanity, a referee (always called "John-Bob" regardless of the gender) can make suggestions. ANY kind of suggestions (eg. "For 16 turns, your sentences must include the word 'marxist'." or "Player B, your next sentence must be said with a drunk Texas accent."). The winner is the first man who manages to yell "Kamoulox!" when his/her opponent takes too long to come up with an answer. And even that can be contested by John-Bob.
There is a game called "The Moon, The Moon, The Magical Moon" (or something similar) where the participants normally recite "The moon, the moon, the magical moon has two eyes, a nose and a mouth" while doing a series of actions with an object and the judge says "Yes". Newbies will attempt to replicate the lines and actions but inevitably be told "No" because they got it wrong. For people who don't twig to the trick, it becomes Calvinball rapidly when people doing whatever they want and passing the piece with a "Yes". The trick is not to do with the lines or the actions but to say "Thank you" when handed the object.