"Other kids’ games are such a bore!Calvinball is a game which we see characters play but whose rules we don’t know. This allows authors to create games that are absurdly silly, complicated, or arcane. Such games typically fall into these categories:
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!"
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!"
- Games which don’t have a codified ruleset In-Universe; the players aren’t playing to win, but just to have fun, and they’ll happily change the rules to make it more fun.
- Games which don’t exist In-Universe either, but are rather pretext or have an ulterior motive; the players are making it up as they go along, without other characters’ knowledge.
- “Nomic-style” games, which do have rules, but also have built-in mechanics for changing the rules during play; they’re well-defined, but they’re never played the same way twice, and they look baffling to onlookers.
- Games which aren’t described in full because it’s just funnier that way.
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Anime & Manga
- Bleach: Apparently any time the shinigami try to do something for the New Year during filler, 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.
- 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.
- Mazinger Z’s “Brockenball” vaguely resembles soccer, but the only established rule is that everyone wins — except the ball, which is Count Brocken’s head. And Brocken happens to be a cyborg whose head and body can operate independently.
- Yu-Gi-Oh! centers around the game of Duel Monsters, which wasn’t always clearly defined, especially in early story arcs before a more concrete set of rules was established. Even then, new cards are constantly introduced that change the existing rules, usually to help the protagonists win.
- Izaya from Durarara!! plays a 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 can’t even fathom how it works.
- The Gundam Fight in G Gundam actually does have a set of codified rules; however, in the Finals, the host nation (who is the defending champion) has carte blanche to alter the rules at will. Neo Hong Kong’s Prime Minister changes all sorts of rules to screw with The Hero Domon, including a cage match with explosives (while holding Domon’s Gundam in place with a giant horseshoe magnet); most scarily, he also suspends the normal Thou Shalt Not Kill rule.
- Nichijou brings us “Igo Soccer”, a combination of soccer and Go. Daiku, the club’s president, started an Igo Soccer club without even realizing that it was a real game. He can’t make head or tail of the game itself when he sees it, other than that it involves striking very odd poses. Even his Emotionless Girl partner Sekiguchi is left in open-mouthed shock and confusion.
- D-Frag! brings us the girls of the Game Development Club (temp), who specialize in creating board games that change layouts or rules depending on their whim.
- In an animé filler arc of Fairy Tail, Cana is challenged to a competitive card game called Guild Wars by the Eclipse Version of Scorpio. While the game has a set basic structure and win condition as established by Scorpio, the cards and their effects drawn from each player's deck are completely made up by each player as they go, resulting in the cards becoming more and more powerful as they play. The last few cards have such ridiculously overpowered abilities that they'd certainly be banned from any real life version of the game.
- 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. The idea comes from a book about government, The Paradox of Self-Amendment, which posed the following question: If a government’s laws include laws on how to change the laws, and those laws are used, is it still the same government?
- Democrazy is about acquiring and scoring colored chips, but the players can vote on any new rules regarding how those chips can be acquired and scored. This means that a winning position can become a worthless one in one turn.
- 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.
- Talisman: the Magic Quest Game, by Games Workshop, an expandable board game loosely based on the Warhammer and Warhammer 40,000 role-playing games. Much of the gameplay occurs through card wars like Magic: The Gathering, but with dice and boards. This led to a network of overlapping and shifting rules, and nobody’s sure which rules take precedence, which leads to a Calvinball-like experience.
- Several Chess variants can seem like Calvinball, especially given the idea that the more complicated the variant is, the smarter you’d have to be to be good at it. The most complicated is probably “Ultimate Shogi”, which has a 36x36 board and 200 different pieces. (And in standard Japanese chess, if a player makes an invalid move, he loses automatically.) This kind of variant chess is parodied in “How Chess Was Meant To Be Played”.
- The rules of the card game Fluxx start simple, but they change with each new card. This means that players can never be sure that a winning hand this turn will be one next turn. And there is no win condition until somebody plays a card that defines one, which can be overwritten by a new one. Prince of Persia creator Jordan Mechner explicitly called it a Calvinball card game on an episode of Tabletop.
- Blank White Cards is the closest we’ll get to “Nomic with cards”. The only rules are that the game ends when someone cannot play or draw a card, and the person with the highest score wins. Beyond that, the individual players can write or draw on the cards and have them do pretty much whatever.
- Mao is a card game defined by the phrase, “The only rule I can tell you is this one.” The point of the game is to guess the rules; they will never be explained to players, so players have to learn the rules by unwittingly breaking them (and being penalized for them). The easier variant is called “Bureaucratic Mao”, where you can discuss the rules outside the game (there are just too many to keep track of). The harder variant is called “Dictatorial Mao”, where a single player has full control of the rules and enforcement and changes them at his whim. Another common House Rule is to allow the winner to add a rule for the next game.
- A common card game (which goes by different names, such as “Asshole”, “President”, or “God”) gives a single player the power to create new rules, which may or may not remain in effect when power transfers to a new person. Other variants (such as Kings) allow any player to create a new rule if they draw a King. Drinking is usually involved.
- 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 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. Perhaps the most ridiculous mechanic, though, is the “Cheat” card, which allows you to play any card regardless of whether you would normally be able to, which could be construed to apply to any card from any game whatsoever.
- Card: The Game has one basic rule: if it’s card-sized, card-shaped, and has a number and/or picture on it somewhere, it’s a card. Play starts with each player putting down three cards, one representing their “character”, one being their “mode of transportation”, and the third being their “location”. The idea is that the players improvise what those cards actually do based on what’s on them; if they’re even vaguely related, then that’s what the card does.
- 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.— One Potato, Two Potato: The Secret Education of American Children, by Mary and Herbert Knapp
- In The Muppet Show Comic Book, not-Statler-and-Waldorf are playing a strange board game 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.
- One issue of Legionnaires features Triad and Bouncing Boy watching a game that looks almost exactly like Baseball, until you notice the Cricket wickets.
- In My Little Pony: Fiendship Is Magic #1, Young Sombra and Radiant Hope play a version of an imagination game that Radiant seems to make up rules for on the fly.
- In chapter 6 of Scordatura, an Ah! My Goddess fanfic by Davner, Urd is forced into an actual game of Calvinball against her sister Skuld in a sequence that parodies the Thunderdome sequence of Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome.
- The Trope Namer is frequently played in Calvin and Hobbes: The Series.
- Yu-Gi-Oh! The Abridged Series often portrays the eponymous “children's card game” this way, mostly as a way of making fun of how complicated the game actually is, and how the original show clearly doesn’t even use the same rules.
- In 3 Slytherin Marauders, Harry, his cousin, some friends, and a couple adults play 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 decides that a game is going too quickly, he springs a new rule on the players and tells them that he can restore the teams to full strength whenever he wants. He later changes the number of balls on the court, without bothering to call time out, to counter hoarding. 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.
- Hoyle's Rules of Dragon Poker has 241 possible rule changes, some of which are vague specifically to cause arguments, and all of which stack. Good luck trying to play without a notepad by your side.
- Interlude 10 of My Family and Other Equestrians has Celestia, Luna, Discord and the protagonist’s father play a game of Mornington Crescent (from I'm Sorry I Haven't a Clue, described in Radio below). Discord is apparently very good at it.
- The Infinite Loops gives us Chaos, a game invented by a reformed Discord. It appears to be some kind of card game, and like its creator, it doesn’t seem to make any sense. It also apparently has “expansions”, including a sci-fi themed one seen being played by Captain Picard.
- The Oversaturated World has Criffleball, which has utterly nonsensical terminology and rules. People who watch it are incredibly confused. Oddly, though, the group forum hashed out a perfectly comprehensible ruleset in Real Life.
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, the animated animals play a game that’s nominally supposed to be soccer. It’s implied that the king makes up the rules as he goes along, and Hilarity Ensues. One thing the king insists on is that the game can’t be played without a referee – for which David Tomlinson’s character volunteers, 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 card game invented by professional baseball players for the sole purpose of winning money from gullible fans (who, for the most part, are just happy to play a card game with professional baseball players).
- In Play Misty for Me, Clint Eastwood’s character plays a game of “Crybastion” with his barkeeper to get a woman to strike up a conversation with them.
- 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, even the books have a Calvinball-esque range of possible fouls.
- In The Whoopee Boys, the protagonists must learn to master “Cross Courts”, a sport known only to elite socialites. They have trouble even grasping the arcane rules.
- Baseketball starts this way — the protagonists invent rules on the fly to make it impossible for their competitors to win (all while pretending they were perfectly obvious. But eventually, the game gets codified rules and becomes a national phenomenon.
- 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 running away and 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 good, because said wars tend to be less destructive than the game itself). The winning team is defined in the rules as “the first team that wins”, and spectators aren’t even allowed to watch it — because in their minds, they’ll think any game they missed could have been the best game they’d ever see.
- 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. Cohn also worked on comics, and the game appeared in Legion of Super-Heroes as a Shout-Out.
- The card game Cripple Mr. Onion is described as being incomprehensible, in spite of it being the most famous card game on the Disc. People have derived a playable game from it (although it requires eight suits like some European decks), but it’s funnier when left to the reader’s imagination.
- Discworld’s gods have been known to play games to which no one knows the rules, sometimes even the gods themselves. We do know, though, that they consider games like Bridge and Chess to be so complicated as to be Calvinballs (Death is pretty good at chess, naturally, but even he’s not quite sure how the horseys move). The game they play with the lives of men appears to be a form of Dungeons & Dragons, complete with encounter tables, although their favorite pieces have fought back against them before.
- Snuff introduces two: “Crockett”, a cross between cricket and croquet which takes all day to explain the rules; and “Pork Saddle”, a combination of spillikins, halma, and brandy — its 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.
- 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 Black Jewels books, Jaenelle and her coven invent a game called “cradle”, played with cards and a board. It 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.
- 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 to onlookers, as the Deck is actually dangerous to use, and playing with it is paramount to blaspheming against the pantheon.
- Quidditch from the Harry Potter novels has fairly straightforward rules, except when it comes to violations of those rules. It is mentioned that there are over 700 different fouls — and at the first Quidditch World Cup, every single foul at that time (plus some that were not yet declared fouls at that time) was committed. One of the rules of Quidditch is that players are not allowed to learn about the fouls. It might give them ideas. In Quidditch Through the Ages, the book’s author was apparently given access to the complete foul list, and agrees that “no good could come of its release to the general public.” And many of the fouls don’t even require a wand (although they might require much Hammerspace).
- 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 no one would 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.
- In John Knowles’ A Separate Peace, Finny creates Blitzball, a game to which only he understands the rules.
- 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 strategy board game of Benjuka, in which the rules are changed by the moves players make. Players frequently reference how the changing rules of Benjuka mirrors the complexity of real life.
- The Myth series by Robert Asprin features Dragon Poker, which includes a massive list of arcane rules. The protagonist has given up on understanding them; he resorted to going all-in on the first hand of a high-stakes game to turn it into pure luck. That ''still' wasn’t enough to keep The Magic Poker Equation from kicking it. It turns out the dealer was fixing the game.
- Alice in Wonderland has the Caucus Race, 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.
- Quantum Gravity: It looks like literally every game played by the fey is a form of Calvinball. Specifically, Malachi is annoyed by human sports because they're so boring and “the rules never change.”
- 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 that “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. The same original game has been played for ages because no one remembered to set a winning condition, and 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. The twist is that cards will randomly change into other cards when not face-up on the table. And just like poker, there are hundreds of variants that can affect the cards’ values, the order of play, or even which hand is a winner. In one book, Han and Lando play for ownership of the Falcon and decide on “Random Sabacc”, a version where the rules themselves change at random intervals, refereed by C-3PO.
- 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 position 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.
- Rihannsu: The Empty Chair takes fizzbin from Star Trek: The Original Series and runs with it to create “Tournament Fizzbin”, a game where you make up the rules as you go along. The Enterprise crew creates it after their Romulan friends Ael t’Rllaillieu has trouble grasping poker. The goal seems not to win so much as to get drunk and have fun.
- The novel Triton describes a game that is a fusion of “Risk, D&D, Chess, and Contract Bridge.” Scoring is determined by calculus equations, which are ultimately meaningless.
- In the poem “Your Lead, Partner, I Just Hope We've Read the Same Book”, Ogden Nash, decrying the proliferation of strategy guides for card games, invents a game called Amateuro. No one knows about it or understands it except him and his friends. The outline he gives of it is mostly just Inherently Funny Words, before concluding:
I bet before my cuff-links are on the bureau,
Some expert will have written A Guide to Amateuro.
- In Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, this is actually encouraged; because the world economy emphasizes constant consumption and production, the Controllers will only approve new sports or games if their creators can prove that playing it requires the consumption of more resources than currently-existing ones. Hence people enjoying elaborate and complex games such as “centrifugal bumble-puppy” and sports such as Escalator-Squash Racket, Obstacle- and Electro-magnetic Golf, and Riemann Surface Tennis.
Live Action TV
- Our Miss Brooks: In the episode “Parlor Game”, Miss Brooks invents a convoluted parlor game in order to annoy Mr. Conklin and, in so doing, convinces him to allow his family to go out for the evening.
- Penn Jillette has referred to The Apprentice as a Calvinball, claiming that winning is entirely dependent on the whim of its host, Donald Trump, especially where categories are entirely subjective anyway. Participants seem to accept that there are no rules.
- Even Stevens: In one episode, Louis and Twitty play a game called “Sweaty Sock Ball”, whose convoluted rules seem to change depending on the wim of the participants.
- French comedians Kad And Olivier invented a game called “Kamoulox”, a Jeopardy!-like game show with a number of arcane and stupidly-named rules. The players basically give nonsensical answers to nonsensical questions (“I’m picking the reluctant Machiavellian houseplant”), they’re judged by a referee (always named “John-Bob”, regardless of gender) who penalizes them for infractions of the arcane rules, and the winner is the first to say “Kamoulox”.
- Star Trek has a number of strange alien games, such as Dom-Jot, Dabo, and Tongo; a full list can be found here. These, at least, are codified In-Universe, as opposed to “Fizzbin”, which Kirk invented to distract the guards and allow the crew to escape capture; it’s basically poker with whichever rules Kirk feels like adding. Strangely, though, it may have picked up a codified ruleset, as Quark is shown playing a hand in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.
- On The Monkees’ TV show, Mickey 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 only rule actually explained was “curbing the Matterhorn”, which entails insulting your opponent as much as possible.
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 eponymous game.
- The Scrubs episode “My Jiggly Ball” gave us “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”, whose sole purpose was to assure that Bill always lost and suffered Amusing Injuries.
- Friends has a number:
- “Cups” is a card game Chandler invented for the sole purpose of allowing Joey to win money from him without recognizing it as charity. Beginner's Luck is a vitally important feature.
- Joey auditions to be a host of a quiz show Bamboozled! which involves “Wicked Wango Cards” and “The Wheel of Mayhem”. The executives realize it’s too complicated for the audience to follow and threaten to can it:
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”, invented by Phoebe on the spot, appears to consist of Phoebe asking questions and arbitrarily awarding points for the answer closest to the description she was thinking of. The others last a single round before giving up in frustration.
- Chandler and Joey play a number of dangerously stupid games of their own invention. One is “Hammer Darts”; beyond what can be intuited from the name, all we know about it is that it cost them their insurance and part of the wall. Another is “Fireball”, which involves oven gloves, lighter fluid, and a tennis ball, and its variant “Ultimate Fireball”, with a bowling ball and acetylene torch.
- 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 that its rules no longer need explaining, and the rules are far from intuitive. It seems to involve the players just yelling out random numbers (while a different number lights up on the board); if they yell out the right number, the host yells out, “That’s Numberwang!” The scoring makes no sense whatsoever. Here are three sample games. The only discernible pattern is that Julie (played by Olivia Colman) nearly always loses and suffers some sort of humiliation.
- Series two does offer the home version, which comes with the rulebook in thirty-seven volumes. Only two beings have ever been identified as being able to identify Numberwang without use of the thirty-seven-volume rulebook: Professor Bertrand Russell, who had an epiphany while staring at a jug on his desk (which he smashed so that no one could copy his work); and Colosson, a living computer made during WW2 to determine Numberwang (it has extreme views as to what should be done to things that aren’t Numberwang, though).
B.J.: Care to sit in for a hand, Radar?
- One episode had Hawkeye and Trapper playing a weird game with many tabletop game items, but as a Drinking Game.
- Double Cranko is played with a poker deck, a chess board, checkers, dice, and no rules whatsoever. Hawkeye almost always wins; when Colonel Potter finally turns the tables on Hawkeye, he proceeds to invent Triple Cranko.
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” which is basically 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.
- The Big Bang Theory:
- “Counterfactuals” could easily be a Calvinball; it involves extrapolating an Alternate Universe from a single concept and answering a bizarre question about it (for example, “In a world where mankind is ruled by beaver overlords, what food does not exist?” has the answer cheese danishes). If you freestyled it, it could easily be a Calvinball because the possibilities are endless. In-Universe, though, it’s usually played by Sheldon, who has a very rigid way of thinking.
- Sheldon invented a bizarre chess variant by trying to invent a three-way chess gamenote and ending up inventing a number of new pieces with interesting effects (such as Prince Joey, the King’s well-meaning but klutzy brother, who has a one-in-five chance of accidentally killing himself every time he moves). The end result includes a catapult, transporter pad, golf cart, and time machine. Sheldon being Sheldon, he may just have been trying to invent something so complex only he would understand it (and win at it).
- The guys can occasionally be seen playing the card game Mystical Warlords of Ka’a. The main mechanic appears to be to lay down a card on the pile and say its name.
- 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 rules.
- The Gillies Report has 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 (“And he was soon arkling the grommet from all points of the gonad”).
Simon: They don’t seem to be playing according to any civilized rules that I know.
- The episode “Bushwhacked” opens with a spirited game of Calvinball in the cargo bay. It was some bizarre variant of basketball, and it was a team game, but beyond that, no rules were really discernible.
Inara: Well, we're pretty far from civilization.
- In “Shindig”, the crew plays 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 that they’d know what they were doing, but since we never find out what the rules are, it comes off as Calvinball.
- 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 the twisted rules of the card game “countersyrup” as well:
“We need 14 dice to play that game. Anyway, we can play it with cards, that’s not a problem. What matters is the announcements.”
- How I Met Your Mother:
- “Bask-ice Ball” is a hockey-basketball hybrid played by Marshall’s family. Marshall admits to Lily that there are no rules; it’s just an excuse for everyone to whale on each other.
- “Marsh-Gammon” involves 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.
- “Xing Hai Shi Bu Xing” is an unfathomable casino game which features poker chips, Mahjong tiles, changing seats with other contestants, a wheel of fortune, and a jellybean. Everybody is befuddled by it — except for Marshall, who can even give Barney game-winning advice. The game’s title, by the way, is Mandarin for “Deal or No Deal”.
- The Middle Man gives 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. And live bunnies are involved somehow.
- Monty Python's Flying Circus features the quiz show It’s a Living, the rules of which are so insanely convoluted and complex that by the time the presenter finishes explaining them, the show has finished. Part of it seems to revolve around how much the BBC has received in fees lately.
- In the 2004 Battlestar Galactica, the pilots are often seen playing a card game known on the original show as “Pyramid”, referred to on the reboot as “Triad”. The cards are six-sided with a variety of symbols and colors to designate suit and rank. The rules are not shown consistently and the actors more or less improvised them; fans have tried to put together a consistent ruleset, but it’s been tough going.
- 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 gives the right answers and points are awarded arbitrarily.
- 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 the 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, the little brother always lost — until their father joined in.
- Shooting Stars, a UK panel show presented by Vic Reeves and Bob Mortimer, was a game like this. Despite having a scoring system, the answers are entirely the whim of the hosts. Sample question: “True or False: Richard Attenborough”.
- 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 Burns and 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 — partly because she’s a Cloud Cuckoolander, and partly 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 a player wins if he draws the “King of Snee”) and Klopsky (which calls for four packs of cards and a banana).
- On Married... with Children, Al and Griff are shown playing chess with elements of checkers, Simon Says, and dice thrown in. According to Griff, the game would be better if they knew how to actually play chess.
- An episode of It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia featured the game of Chardee Macdennis. The rule book is bigger than most phone books, and asking questions about the rules is penalized. Cheating is encouraged, but violators are made to eat a cake — in its original components (i.e. chunks of flour, eggs, salt, etc). Challenges ranged from getting darts thrown at your hand to having insults hurled at you for extended periods of time. The winner gets to smash his opponents’ game pieces.
- The British show Noels House Party featured a game in the 1992-93 series called “Open the Cupboards”, which had a very complicated ruleset.
“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 crazy zones, 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. Fans were excited enough to adapt this into a real game, which can be seen here.
- Upright Citizens Brigade has “Pro Thunderball”, which combines Calvinball 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. It is a real sport, but as it’s only really played in Australia, the series treated it like a Calvinball (and a catch-all term for whatever wacky sport was being shown on screen).
- The Savage Eye gives us a number of weird sports, like “Eel Wranglin” and “Potato Whispering”. Perhaps the most violent, though, is a precursor of Gaelic football called “Whackadabollockin”, where the object appears to be to hit someone's testicles with a hurdle.
- The 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?, as shown here.
- In Parks and Recreation, Ben creates “Cones of Dunshire”, a game which involves cones, characters with various abilities, rolling huge numbers of dice, trading resources, territory control, and requires eight to twelve players. One person is designated the “ledgerman”, whose entire role is to wear a special hat and keep track of what everyone else is doing. Tellingly, it first catches on in a firm of accountants, though it later gains wider appeal.
Ben: Gameplay Magazine called it “punishingly intricate.”
- In Community, Abed and Anne play “Pile of Bullets”, a baffling VCR game that includes multiple tokens, various cards that interact with each other, frequent need to shout “Bang!” at the screen, and impressive amounts of multitasking. There are technically two other players, but they give up on trying to make sense of it almost immediately.
- In a sketch on The Flip Wilson Show, George Carlin and Joe Namath teach Flip a card game called “Carlotta”. They started by winking at each other, letting us know the bewildering rules were a practical joke on Flip.
Namath: You got Carlotta!
Flip: All right! (Reaches for chips)
Carlin: Carlotta loses! (Rakes in chips)
- On The Electric Company (1971), Jim Boyd’s inventor/salesman introduces Luis Avalos’ game company executive, Mr. Overprice, to the game called “Pay”. It involves hitting an enormous baseball with a cudgel and running around the bases (i.e., the office furniture).
Mr. Overprice: I think you named it right in naming it “Pay”, because you are about to pay for everything you've broken! (grabs the inventor in rage)
Inventor: Ah, Mr. Overprice, you can't touch me while I'm standing on home base.
- The very short-lived 70s NBC game show Winning Streak wasn’t designed to be a Calvinball, but it certainly came off as one — enough that even the host, the legendary Bill Cullen, admitted it “just didn’t work”. The page has all the detail you need to figure it out (hopefully).
- The sport shown in the music video for “New Lands” by Justice starts off as a baseball game, then adds lacrosse, football, and roller derby. By the end, it’s utterly incomprehensible.
- [chorus]Syd: Have you got it yet?Band: No, no...
- “Schnofeln”, by the Berlin comedy troupe Die Insterburgs, describes a game vaguely related to soccer whose rules get more silly and pointless the longer the song goes. In the end, the whole game is cancelled by coin flip.
- Calvinball’s Trope Namer is the anti-game invented by Calvin and Hobbes. There were only two consistent rules: you couldn’t play the same way twice, and you couldn’t question the masks. Calvin just doesn’t have the patience for games with rigid rules, hierarchies, and scorekeeping; the rules are made up as the players go along, and the main point seemed to just be to have the most fun (or annoy your opponent as much as possible). Although Calvin invented it, Hobbes is very good at it too, and Rosalyn picked it up quickly as well. Calvin also notes that virtually every real game he tries to play eventually turns into Calvinball (like his variant of baseball with over two dozen bases spread out around the whole neighborhood):
Calvin: I mean, it's fun playing baseball with just you, because we both get to pitch, bat, run and catch all at once. We get to do everything.
Hobbes: Mostly we just argue over the rules we make up! That's the part I like!
- A Running Gag in Sally Forth (Howard) is Ted getting the Monopoly board out and describing increasingly bizarre and arcane House Rules, to the point that it barely resembles Monopoly anymore. Sally and Hil have usually given up by then.
- Frazz had a week dedicated to Bedlamball, which has no discernible rules. It’s not surprising, especially considering the Epileptic Tree that Frazz is, in fact, an adult Calvin.
- MAD has described several games like this:
A Squamish team consists of 43 players: the left and right Inside Grouches, the left and right Outside Grouches, four Deep Brooders, four Shallow Brooders, five Wicket Men, three Offensive Niblings, four Quarter-Frummerts, two Half-Frummerts, one Full-Frummert, two Overblats, two Underblats, nine Back-Up Finks, two Leapers, and a Dummy.
- In the late 50s, they had a bizarre parody board game called Gringo.
- In The '60s, they invented a college game called 43-Man Squamish. Details are sketchy, but official gear includes a shepherd’s crook, a helmet with a beanie-propeller on top, and flippers. This didn’t stop some actual teams from briefly being formed. An excerpt from the rules:
- In 1983, they gave us the board game “Three-Cornered Pitney”, which had similarly ridiculous rules, as it was designed by one of the creators of 43-Man Squamish.
- This kind of thing happens every now and then in Professional Wrestling, usually when a heel tries to trick his opponent into accepting a set of rules he doesn’t understand — which the heel just makes up as an excuse to beat the tar out of his opponent. At WWE Backlash in 2001, William Regal challenged Chris Jericho to fight under “Duchess of Queensbury rules” under this guise, and any time Jericho had the drop on Regal, Regal would arbitrarily declare his last move invalid for whatever reason.
- British radio show I'm Sorry I Haven't a Clue gives us Mornington Crescent, a game centered around The London Underground; presumably, you move around between stations, and the first to reach Mornington Crescent wins. The problem is that the rules are far from intuitive, it has many arcane stratagems and many more variants, and it looks to untrained observers like the players are just randomly shouting the names of Underground stations which, in the end, they totally are. Mornington Crescent does at least have the distinction of being one of the most complicated stations to actually reach by Tube.
- 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. As the back of the box described it, “Kick the Frog is like life; it isn’t fair.” Hugh did manage to convince the others to change the rules, first leading to a democracy (in which only Stephen and Jim had the vote, and both voted that Hugh should remain the frog), then to a pluralist social democracy (where after long discussion, almost everyone agrees that it just makes sense for Hugh to remain the frog) to just not playing anymore (where they just kick him).
- Netflix has a series of 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!”
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.
- Role-playing game designer Ron Edwards describes “Calvinballing” as where a player misinterprets the rules entirely to his benefit, at the expense of the game actually being fun or fair.
- Dungeons & Dragons:
- “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. To get a sense of how complex it is, the entirety of World War I would be an intermediate xorvintaal maneuver, with World War II being a good countermove.
- Talislanta has “Trivarian”, a game 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 fits the bill, depending on how you see it. Only the GM is allowed to see any of the rules beyond the setting description and character creation guide; for the most part, they can make up whatever rules they want beyond that if it keeps the game interesting. In keeping with the spirit of the game, questioning the rules will result in painful death for the players.
- The Simpsons: Tapped Out includes a mini-game event called “Tap Ball”, in which two characters square off and do a unique maneuver (e.g. Lisa kicks a soccer ball, Apu throws a bowling ball, the Comic Book Guy swings his nunchucks), to no real end. Not surprisingly, the sport was invented by Homer Simpson, and the rules make sense only to him.
- Ratchet & Clank: Up Your Arsenal includes the pair playing a game that vaguely resembles chess:
Ratchet: My Blargian snagglebeast devours your mutant swampfly! Oh yeah! I bet you didn’t see that one coming! (Clank moves a piece) Hey! Uh, what are you doing?!
Clank: 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. When fans asked the developers about it, they gleefully replied, “With gusto!”
- The Zork series featured Double Fanucci, a card game with fifteen suits and absurdly complex rules, which are never given in full. You actually have to play it in one of the games; thankfully, the only rule explained to you there is an Instant-Win Condition.
- Pokkaball, the primary sport of The Spellcasting Series. You can read about it in the school paper and watch a few matches, but it appears to be completely random and absurdly dangerous.
- Tetra Master from Final Fantasy IX is a strange example. It’s a card game that looks totally incomprehensible, even to those who play it, and you have to pick up the rules from watching the gameplay. The cards appear to play themselves somehow. Square Enix apparently designed it with hexadecimal strength and weakness values, but this explanation was part of their online strategy guide that completely disappeared from the Internet circa 2003.
- Chuckles the jester in Ultima VII is a champion of “The Game”, whose rules he cannot explain without violating them. The objective appears to be 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.
- Subverted in The World Ends with You. It looks like Tin Pin Slammer is going to be something that just parodies Yu-Gi-Oh, but then you actually play it.
- Halo's Forge Mode (included in virtually all the games since Halo 3) has a propensity to devolve into Calvinball unless a single person or dedicated group is trying to create something specific (thus keeping everyone on task). Without it, people start pointing gravity lifts everywhere and coming up with arcane, arbitrary, and ridiculous challenges. Such maps end up filled with whatever caught their occupants’ fancy in their item spawn frenzy, and they’re almost always deleted afterwards.
- “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.
- “Wolfball” in Battle Realms apparently involves a solid iron ball, a walled-in arena, and a pack of rabid wolves, and it’s fatal to play for those not of the Wolf Clan. No rules are forthcoming, but it speaks volumes that one of the playing positions (the “hurler”, who has a gigantic two-handed Atlatl) does double duty as a military unit in-game.
- The inhabitants of the Chaotic Stupid Chaosrealm in Mortal Kombat: Deception have a game called “Everybody Runs Around”, where everybody just runs around with no win condition or rules.
- Most of the sports featured in Homestar Runner are some sort of Calvinball; even the name “Homestar Runner” derives from one of the creators’ total mangling of baseball terminology.
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...
- Strong Bad was pointing out how ridiculous these games were as early as “In Search of the Yello Dello”:
Homestar Runner: I know! It's America’s pastime!
- In the Strong Bad Email “army”, Strong Bad mentions a dice-and-cards-and-board game called “Three-to-One Marny”.
- In the email “mascot”, Strong Bad reveals that Crazy-Go-Nuts University has a “golf club” team, which seems to be an excuse for Strong Bad and his friends to hit stuff with a nine iron. The Cheat is seen taking on “Pile of Electronics State”, and Strong Bad announces that next week they're playing “Homestar’s Knees Tech”.
- The email “the show” has Homestar hosting a hybrid between a talk show and a game show. He first offers 500 points to the Poopsmith to share his “polictical views”, before turning to Pom Pom and asking him, “For the block, do you agree?” and turning it into a bizarre version of The Hollywood Squares. Both leave without answering, to which he awards each contestant 162 points.
- This short animation by Tom Fawkes reinvisions a Mario Party minigame being played by The Runaway Guys as a truly bizarre sports contest, involving a boomerang, multiple balls, collecting stars, and an assault rifle.
- A magical version pops up in Furmentation. It tends to last much shorter than a game of Quidditch.
- Ozy and Millie occasionally partake in House Rules Parcheesi. We never see much of the game itself, but we do see its aftermath: the room tends to look like a tornado hit it. Shout-out and Suspiciously Specific Denial.
- Euchre is a game in Real Life, but in this strip of Loserz it's described in a way that it sounds like Calvinball. The disturbing part, though, is that the rules presented are in fact less confusing than the actual rules. Euchre was originally a game for the upper classes, because nobody else had the time to learn it.
- In Dork Tower, Igor insists on inventing “house rules” for almost every game played, including rules for landmines in Candyland and a variation of License Plate Bingo that was so arcane, the road trip was over by the time he’d finished explaining it.
- 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 Battleship and Sorry, played on a Monopoly board, with made-up rules.
- 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 beat her. 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?
- Septuple Scare from Adventurers!! is portrayed this way. Ardam is currently the only one who has figured out the rules. It’s also a clear parody of Final Fantasy IX's Tetra Master.
- From Schlock Mercenary, we bring you Munchkin-clix of Cataan:
- My Cardboard Life features Colin and his nieces and nephews playing a board game using all the games in their closet mixed together.
- In Sheldon, Sheldon and Dante’s games usually devolve into something like this, always involving a salmon of invincibility.
- Wizard’s Sudoku in Problem Sleuth combines sudoku, live chess, jousting, Q*bert, Tetris, cube-building, and teapot cars. In addition, the video game elements of Problem Sleuth itself are needlessly complicated and completely nonsensical.
- The board game occasionally seen in Casey and Andy.
Andy: Dude, that thing just totally grabbed your face! That's four points for me, right?
- The Adventures Of Joe The Circle gives us Zorgellian Mega-Poker. In addition to the traditional cards and chips, it requires each player to have a compass, a tide chart, an anvil, and a working knowledge of the laws of thermodynamics.
- In Weregeek, Joel and Wayne mash together a poker deck with Munchkin, Chez Geek, and Fluxx cards. When Abbie realizes this means they're playing Card Game Calvinball, she dubs them “Megadork Prime” and “Sir Nerdsalot”.
- Sluggy Freelance has “Quisatz Haderach”, an exaggerated parody of Harry Potter’s Quidditch with random Dune references that turns the nonsensical rules Up to Eleven.
- Mountain Time has “PlusBum”:
Jeff: I’m pouring vodka on raw chicken!
Host: Plusbum! 13 points!
- In Urban Underbrush, they play Magic the Gathering with a mixed up deck including a standard deck of cards and cards from Old Maid. Another character observes it's a form of Calvinball.
- Lady Dove in Erfworld uses a card game like this to demonstrate the rudiments of Carnymancy. The basic rules are simple, but after the cards are dealt, everyone gets to make a new rule. The twist is that no player can use a rule he made himself to win a trick.
- xkcd has Metaball, which appears to be a blend of every different major sport whose individual rules apply randomly depending on which “zone” you’re in. The referee is seen consulting either a large map or a long list of rules.
- In the Whateley Universe, there's Dis-chess, which is something like 3-D chess where the rules change every few minutes.
- Barats And Bereta, makers of the Man-tage, give us Mouse-mate
- The Impossible Quiz, a Flash quiz game whose answers can range from a Moon Logic Puzzle to Trial-and-Error Gameplay. There’s no rhyme or reason to most of the questions, hence why it’s impossible.
- This is a picture of WTFZee◊, which appears to be a completely random collection of different dice.
- Grifball from Red vs. Blue started out this way; it was basically an excuse to whale on Grif. Then it became an actual game, developed a concrete ruleset, and even has a special map within Halo for you to play it on yourself, but the goal is still to torture Grif.
- Viking Secret Wildcard Poker in LoadingReadyRun’s “Poker Before Dusk” appears at first to be an 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.”
- Skippy's List has examples that suggest that someone has tried this in the real-life military:
142. “Calvin-Ball” is not authorized PT.
- Reddit has r/scoreball, created in response to this nonsensical 6th-grade paper◊ that describes it as Uruguay’s national sport (maybe).
- Whenever 4chan’s /tg/ tries to play a game (usually Connect Four, chess, or tic-tac-toe), it inevitably turns into this. Usually, the first few moves are okay. Then someone calls in reinforcements. Then someone else deepstrikes a team of Space Marines. Then someone else nukes the gameboard. Then someone else breaks out the trading cards. A picture◊ near the end of one thread shows just how insane they can get. note
- Fallout is Dragons gives us Faceball, which is played with a decapitated head, two teams of three, has unexplained rules for scoring based on how the head lands, and the losers are only executed in professional leagues.
- The sport of Sideball from Qwerpline, which (so far) seems to be equal parts cricket, baseball, lacrosse and American football, contains such positions as punter and first and second turnstile, and allows up to six positions to be manned by non-humans (except for raccoons, which are specifically banned).
- Wolf 359 has Funzo, a board game so complicated and bizarre, there’s a warning about it in the survival manual:
Hera: Guys! It’s really not that complicated. You spin the wheel of ages until you have enough power tokens to get a part of the sunken idol. After that, you just keep going up the celestial steps, avoid the secret surveillance network, and make it to the Temple of Light with three crowns of wisdom.
Maxwell: Unless someone plays a sabotage card.
Hera: Unless someone plays a sabotage card.
- 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. The second time we see it, it’s completely different, and 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 involves 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 SpongeBob SquarePants 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 craziness. At one point, Patrick triumphantly shouts “I lose!”, until SpongeBob reminds him, “But it's not Tuesday, Patrick.”* When an annoyed Squidward asks them what they’re doing, they sheepishly admit, “We don't know.”
- The Fairly OddParents! shows Timmy and friends playing "Timmyball" (and later "Wandaball", which is the same but with a cinderblock):
Cosmo: That's the first rule of Timmyball — Timmy wins.
Wanda: I thought Timmyball had no rules.
Cosmo: That's the second rule.
- 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 a couple:
Mung: (after Truffles scores a goal) Now you’ve ruined the whole sport!
- “Sniffleball” 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.
- “Big Ball” is often referred to by its full Overly Long Name,note if only because it’s bad luck not to say the whole name. The goal appears not to actually win; doing so would cause Bowser to show up and trash the entire game.
- The Simpsons:
- "Ice Cream of Margie (with the Light Blue Hair)" shows Homer, Lenny, and Carl playing a chair-hockey game. They disagree not only on the rules, but also on what game they’re even playing. Homer claims it's called "Cincinnati Time-Waste", and Carl pulls out an official Cincinnati Time-Waste rulebook.
- In "The Old Man and the Key", Bart and Homer are playing a game of their own creation. It’s a combination of Scrabble and Battleship, which also uses extra boards, one of which is for Monopoly.
- Phineas and Ferb:
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!
- This description of the “F Games” is a good indication of what you’re in for:
- “Let's Take a Quiz” is a game-show Calvinball whose only rule seems to be “answer quickly and answer often.” Candace is quite baffled at first. The board game variant is called “Skiddley Whiffers”, and Candace is an expert at that.
- In “Tales from the Resistance: Back to the 2nd Dimension”, Phineas and Ferb’s dad gives them his sports equipment for them to play with after Doofenshmirtz is defeated and freedom and fun are restored to the Tri-State Area. They and the other kids are confused about how to use them and end up creating a game of Calvinball. The sports-playing montage ends with Ferb hitting a soccer ball with a golf club into a flaming hula hoop to score a touchdown.
- 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...”
- At one point in Total Drama Action, Heather, frustrated at one of Chris’ last second rule changes seeming to screw 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.
- One episode of Jimmy Two-Shoes opens Jimmy and Beezy playing a game where they hurl themselves at a giant dartboard via catapult. Points are awarded based on where they land and the day of the week.
- 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 involve someone dressing up as a pineapple.
- One episode of Rocket Power has the kids trying 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 Calvinball.
- 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 is a Running Gag throughout the series. Peri and Entree are the only characters who can play the game without getting confused and injured. The game begins by launching a fruit into the air using a stick, at which point one of the players tries to catch it using a bucket. What happens after this is never made clear, but it involves a tricycle, a wig, and being covered in butter, among other things.
- Aqua Teen Hunger Force:
- One episode sees Shake challenging Meatwad 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 a hurricane (which apparently beats all housing).
- The Bizarre and Improbable Golf Game in one of the show’s spinoff videogames turns golf into a cross between Calvinball and Fallout. Complete with chainsaw fights against time-travelling robot turkeys, and that’s before it gets ridiculous. There are courses on the moon and 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 "Dodj or Daar", a board game that Gumball and Darwin created, which involves rolling 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. At least one game led to the house being set on fire (and that’s with the kids’ dad joining in). The rules were fleshed out for real, though, in “The Game”, but since the cards apparently literally create whatever hazards they claim to (like “the floor is lava”), it still results in total chaos.
- “Sarcastaball” from South Park was created as a response to growing football safety regulations. It’s 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 couple of games like this. One is 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”; most of its rules are nonsensical and inconsistent, so much so that when Child Prodigy Gretchen works out a system to winning, it falls apart seconds after working perfectly to her confusion and aggravation.
- Steven Universe: The episode "The Test" opens with Steven and the Gems playing "Citchen Calamity" (sic), a board game with rules so nonsensical none of the Crystal Gems understand it, with the possible exception of Garnet.
Garnet: I am now the owner of the golden can opener... Yesss.
- The New Mr. Peabody & Sherman Show has the eponymous duo go back in time to watch what is supposed to be the first game of baseball, but the inventor Alexander Cartwright is such a poor sport, he keeps changing the rules on the fly to make sure he wins. Eventually, it gets so bad that the game bears no resemblance to baseball, and even Alexander agrees it’s become a mess.
- “Ultrahyperball” from the Penn Zero: Part-Time Hero episode of the same name is so complicated, it can take thousands of years to play a single game, and trying to load the rules caused Sashi’s computerized glasses to explode. The actual rulebook is extremely large and takes so long to read, players’ eyes will fall out of their sockets long before finding out how to actually win (by popping the ball). On top of it all, the losing team has their planet destroyed while the winners have a pizza party.
- In Home: Adventures with Tip & Oh, Oh shows Tip the Boov sport of Nuttypunny. Contestants are set out into a field of random trials with no real direction and are graded with "Compliances" or "Blunders" based on how they do. Oh reveals that the game is literally impossible to win and is just about having a fun time. When Oh and Tip play together the "right" way, they still get an equal amount of Compliances and Blunders, even getting a Blunder doing the exact same thing that was worth a Compliance earlier.
- Many games and sports can seem like this to the newcomer. If you aren’t introduced to the rules first, you’ll see a bunch of people doing things in a ridiculous specific fashion and avoiding things that appear to be logical, like taking the ball with your hands in basketball, or using the hands in soccer. It’s even true if you’re familiar with one sport and see another that’s kind of similar but not the same (like baseball and cricket).
- One particularly egregious example of this is modern olympic fencing. There are three styles (Foil, Sabre, Epee), and each has their own ruleset. Epee is the most logical to onlookers; touch your opponent to score a point, stay within the allotted space, etc. Foil adds onto this a narrower target area and the idea of "priority", where a fencer's attack can have the right of way over their opponent's simultaneous attack. This gets taken Up to Eleven by Sabre, where priority is so important and has so many more rules that it becomes a wild mess of twitching, stepping, and stabbing to the uninitiated.
- Many children newly introduced to trading card games don’t always have the full starter set or have access to the rulebook (or the inclination to read it). So they tended to try and make sense of the game themselves with what the terms and numbers mean, resulting in many variations and House Rules.
- Rock-Paper-Scissors is a simple game, so naturally people who think it’s kind of boring have tried to spice it up. It typically starts with just two extra symbols (often called “Lizard” and “Spock”) This went Up to Eleven until a game was codified with 101 gestures, and by then, it’s a total Calvinball because nobody can keep track of anything. More fun? Perhaps. Useful in dispute resolution? Not so much.
- 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.
- “Bar Chess” is an exercise in tricking other bar patrons into thinking you’re playing a game. You sit in a bar, move things around (like ashtrays or beer mats), and occasionally say things like “Check” or “no, that’s against the rules”. You can play it outside a bar (college dining halls are great venues). The best players can get others to offer tactical advice.
- Financial markets are often described as a form of Calvinball. The only problem with this analysis is that if the participants actually realize that it’s Calvinball, the game (and thus the market) collapses.
- Schoolyard tag can result in some hilarious rules. The most basic rule apart from "touch someone else" is "no touch backs". It can go up in complexity to include (but not limited to) certain items of clothing, two pounds of spaghetti and a random car accident.
- 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.”