"I knew it! I knew I was a piece in the middle of a cosmic chess game!"An extension of Cosmic Plaything, where two or more gods (or similarly powered entities) are effectively using the entire world as a game board. Often one god is portrayed as actually caring about his pawns while his opponent is pure evil. May lead to a Rage Against the Heavens when the heroes find out they've been used. Often a god acts specifically through one mortal or a small group, sometimes an entire species. May also lead to Cosmic Horror Story if the manipulators are incomprehensible entities. This is a subtrope to Divine Conflict. Indeed, it might overlap with Combat by Champion to prevent the gods from duking it out themselves. Contrast Chess with Death. Human Chess is this on a much lower scale.
— King, Housepets!
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Anime and Manga
- For much of Bleach, the antagonists were being used as tools by Sosuke Aizen, while the protagonists were manipulated as surrogates by Kisuke Urahara.
- In Saint Seiya, the goddess Athena and her rivals Poseidon and Hades would serve this way for their armies. Athena was unique in that she frequently gave her champions a power boost if they were close to losing, a risky gambit since every time she did so she had to conserve power to stop a global threat.
- The Witches' Game in Umineko: When They Cry. Unique in that it's fairly small in scope, limiting itself to a small island with 18 people in it. Until the Voyagers reveal the whole of what's going on: namely, an infinite number of the same small islands with the same 18 people on it thanks to the Schrödinger's Cat scenario.
- In the Millennium World arc of the Yu-Gi-Oh! manga and the anime's final season, it's revealed that all the events happening in the Pharaoh's Memory World are taking place during a Cosmic Role-Playing Game between Dark Yugi and Dark Bakura. Moreso in the manga, where the rules are explained and the game is consistently seen being played after the reveal as any other traditional role-playing game would with the simulated events from the Memory World happening simultaneously, whereas in the anime the rules are vague and the table is a giant TV screen.
- No Game No Life has Tet, the God of Games, rule over the world of Disboard which is inhabited by 16 races. Each race's powers and status are granted by a chess piece McGuffin; Tet challenges the protagonists to unite - or conquer - all races in order to obtain the full set and face him for the ultimate game.
- Marvel Comics' Grandmaster does this regularly—it's his Hat. Sometimes he's the good guy and sometimes he's the bad guy.
- Another Marvel Comics example... In the Alan Moore penned issues of Captain Britain, Merlin and Roma are literally playing chess with the main characters: they have a chess board with pieces that look like the characters, and the fate of Captain Britain's universe is at stake in the game. At one point a killer robot shoots CB with a laser beam or something, and Merlin tries to protect him in a rather literal way by putting his hands around the CB chess piece, which saves CB but gets Merlin's hands burned. The game returns in Excalibur v1, even being used as the basis for the cover of issue #47.
- In Thor, Thor once saw all Asgard asleep, except for his father who was playing chess with a foe. He goes off to the foe's realm to cause trouble and disrupt the game. Sif stops him, and he learns that if he had succeeded, Odin would have forfeited the game — he has acted as the enemy's piece. Fortunately, the game ended in a draw. The idea comes up again in the Original Sin tie-in miniseries The Tenth Realm: Odin's imprisonment of the Serpent in Asgard is represented as a game the two of them are playing, with Odin always winning. When Loki comes to get Odin's assistance, Odin's forfeiture of the game frees the Serpent.
- In the Superman/Batman story "With a Vengeance", The Joker (using Reality Warper abilities stolen from Bat-Mite) and Mr. Mxyzptlk play a board game with their pieces being an assortment of Superman and Batman-related characters.
- The events of the "Family Reunion" story arc in The Muppet Show Comic Book, are all part of a boardgame being played by two celestial beings who happen to resemble Statler and Waldorf.
- Black Moon Chronicles: The entire plot of the series was set in motion by Lucifer and his minion Pazuzu when they decided to play a game where Pazuzu couldn't just let his boss win every time to escape his wrath. Each of them would create a child on Earth and let them battle for the fate of the world.
- The premise of My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic fanfic "Chess Game of the Gods" is that Discord, when he was free for the short duration before encased in stone again, started a literal Chess Game of the Gods, with the players being Celestia, Luna, Discord, Athena, Terra (Goddess of Equs, the planet), Lady Luck, and others, and the chess pieces being humans, transformed into anything other than ponies, and sent to Equestria or its surroundings to do their part. This has led to several different writers making their own contributions, collaborating with others, and making their mark in the series' canon.
- The idea of an immortal game is thrown around several times in The Immortal Game, even in the very beginning, where Celestia refers to her weakened self and the corrupted Twilight Sparkle as nothing more than pieces on the board. Titan, on the other hand, views it very differently, instead seeing it as a game he has already won. Notably, the story was originally called Ponies Make War, until the author decided to rename in order to get the concept across better.
- In Starcrossed, Q and his mysterious partner are playing a game with the Federation and Empire as pieces. Currently, there is a cliffhanger with another Q discovering a second board... and its pieces are the gods.
- Webwork reveals right at the beginning that the Balance Between Good and Evil is one of these between the entities that represent Light and Darkness, with each manipulating everything that occurs in the mortal world, large and small, in order to advance their side.
- Near the conclusion of The 10 Doctors, the Tenth Doctor finds out that all that mess was caused by the Guardians of Time, who were playing chess with a board and pieces representing the characters. Obviously, he is not amused.
- In Ripples, it appears that everything that's happened to Will — being sent back in time, being de-aged and transformed, and becoming Phobos' Only Friend and Morality Chain — is all part of a wager between two powerful, but currently unidentified, beings. (Word of God has confirmed that they'll appear and be explained in the sequel)
- In Child of the Storm, Doctor Stephen Strange uses chess metaphors from time to time, but is basically playing Cosmic Solitaire, making sure that events go the way he wants them to - and as a mixture of Seer and Time Master thanks to the Time Stone, he has a lot of scope to make that happen. He actually engineers an absolutely colossal Gambit Pileup, and pretty much everything that happens is due to his manipulations, or due to attempts to evade them. His only known limit is that he admits he can't deceive four of the seven Endless at oncenote . Really, this is not much of a limit - there's a reason this version of him is a member of the Omniscient Council of Vagueness.
- It's implied that he also plays a straighter version of this trope with various other beings from throughout time and space and all sorts of dimensions (just after explaining this, of course, he cracks a joke about being a Doctor who fights in the Time War).
- In the 1981 Clash of the Titans, Perseus is guided and protected by his father Zeus, while Calibos is aided by his mother Thetis. Both use clay figures to plot destinies.
- In the 2010 Clash of the Titans, Perseus is guided and protected by his father Zeus (which is interesting since Perseus is in this movie opposing him), while Calibos is aided by Hades, who had a real easy time of convincing him considering the (not entirely undeserved) doozy Zeus pulled on him.
- Jason and the Argonauts are watched, challenged and aided by the Gods in Olympus, who plot their movements on a game board.
- In Star Wars, Jedi and Sith are guided by opposing parts of the same entity, The Force. Which is given a Deconstruction and drives the primary plot of Knights of the Old Republic II. Kreia is manipulating you in order to destroy the proverbial playing board.
- The end of Men in Black reveals that the whole universe is nothing but a huge cosmic marble game played by aliens. The marbles are entire galaxies.
- Played with in The Gamers: Hands of Fate, in which the characters of a CCG seem to become aware they are playing pieces.
- In Animorphs, the heroes are guided by Big Good The Ellimist, while Crayak is behind the Yeerks and other adversaries. They're both godlike beings who've Ascended to a Higher Plane of Existence. The reason they're doing this is because they're so morally opposed that they would be fighting one another, except that as they currently exist, if they tried to fight each other directly it would probably mean the end of all creation, which neither wants. The last time they did fight physically, they took out entire star systems until they both ran into a black hole, leading to the aforementioned Ascended to a Higher Plane of Existence. So, they've agreed to a game of manipulation and guidance, with each bound by inviolable rules (not that both don't try to cheat).
- David Eddings really likes this trope.
- In The Belgariad, the heroes and villains are respectively guided by two opposing Purposes of the Universe. The heroes have an advantage in that they receive instructions directly, whereas the Big Bad Torak does not grant his minions this privilege.
- In The Elenium, it seems as though events are being manipulated by a couple of gods. In The Tamuli, it turns out that everything, including the gods who thought they were doing the manipulating, is actually being manipulated by two beings who spend their time creating worlds and then fighting over them.
- In The Redemption of Althalus, the two sides are being guided/manipulated by two of the three sibling gods.
- Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser have their lives often controlled by their sorcerous advisors, Ningauble of the Seven Eyes and Sheelba of the Eyeless Face. Interestingly, Ningauble and Sheelba have more of a friendly rivalry then being enemies of each other.
- The early novels in the Night Watch series were all about this: as their Power Levels approach godhood, Others lose the ability to influence events directly without causing a reality warp. When that happens, they start relying on convoluted plans involving multiple Unwitting Pawns to continue the eternal struggle between Light and Darkness. The protagonists of the books usually find themselves either in the middle of this clash or in the shoes of said unwitting pawns. And then, there is the Inquisition that constantly plays the Night and Day Watches for utter fools.
- Appears several times in the Discworld series:
Thunder rolled. It rolled a six.
- Appears particularly in The Colour of Magic and Interesting Times — it's implied to be going on all the time, but those books happen to star Cosmic Plaything Rincewind. Most of the gods are involved, but the best players appear to be Fate and "The Lady" (implied to be Lady Luck, but of course saying her name is unlucky).
- More prominently appears in The Last Hero, in which among other things, the heroes realize the gods are the ones who give them the maps they use while adventuring.
- Near the end of Small Gods, the newly repowered Om intervenes to stop one of these, having learned what it's like to be one of the pieces.
- Pops up repeatedly as an aside or gag in books where gods aren't directly involved, generally to the effect of "the gods play games, but they're not smart enough for chess." It's usually more like Snakes and Ladders with greased rungs.
- Good Omens plays with the trope, as it's suggested that the conflict between Angels and Demons is less this, and more "very complicated Solitaire".
- Often happens in Xanth with the Demons. In fact, it gets to the point where there's fairly even chance that any reveal will be a Demon wager on the actions of mortals.
- In the Book of Swords fantasy series by Fred Saberhagen, the gods produced a number of incredibly powerful artifact swords with fantastic magical powers, with the intent of giving them to a number of humans as part of some kind of cosmic chess game between the gods. But the swords were so powerful that they allowed the people holding them to become players in their own right. By the end of the third book (of eleven), the gods had lost.
- In the Tales of the Branion Realm series, the gods are seen in vision playing "strategy" for influence. Sometimes, however, they come to earth and take over the bodies of their heroes, literally fighting it out on the battlefield. This is painful and deadly for the pawns.
- While it's fairly common practice in the Perry Rhodan universe for entities that have Ascended to a Higher Plane of Existence to recruit and use anywhere from chosen individuals to entire species as pawns and auxiliaries, the probably most famous example is the literal "cosmic chess game" between It (ES in the German original) and its Enemy Without Anti-It for final absolute control over their shared-but-contested-for-millennia territory that includes but isn't limited to both the Milky Way and Andromeda galaxies (issues #600-649). Naturally, the series protagonist ends up being one of the main pawns.
- Isaac Asimov wrote a short story in which mankind manages to completely eradicate cockroaches from the planet... at which point the universe ends, because it was just a Simulation Game being played by two gods, where each player creates a species, and the winner is the one whose species survives longest.
- Parodied in The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy: "There was one planet off in the seventh dimension that got used as a ball in a game of intergalactic bar billiards. Got potted straight into a black hole." (PS: ten billion killed)
Live Action TV
- Babylon 5, the young races to the Shadows and the Vorlons.
- Doctor Who:
- In The Armageddon Factor (the finale of the Key To Time Story Arc) the Doctor, who was sent on a Plot Coupon mission to get the parts of the Key To Time by the White Guardian, is opposed by the Shadow, who was sent by the Black Guardian to get the pieces of the Key.
- In Seasons 25 and 26 there are hints that the Seventh Doctor, who here began to be portrayed as a more godlike figure and Chessmaster, is playing a game against an unknown opponent. It is revealed in "The Curse of Fenric" that the Doctor's opponent is the Eldritch Abomination Fenric, who he beat at a Chess game centuries ago, but who has been manipulating events since Season 24.
- For a while, Power Rangers had this when Rita gained the Green Ranger to oppose Zordon and the rangers. Of course, he eventually switched sides.
- In Tru Calling, Jack was working for The Grim Reaper (or simply Fate), while the titular Tru had been chosen by an unknown power to save lives by way of "Groundhog Day" Loop. Interestingly, a suicide caused the two spirits to swap champions for an episode.
- In Lost, everyone's a piece to be used by Jacob and the Man in Black, but the Oceanic 815 survivors are the main pieces.
Table Top Games
- The stated reasoning behind the games of the Illuminati in the card game of the same name.
- Nobilis: The Player Characters are essentially minor (relatively) gods, but using their powers blatantly can have deleterious effects on mortal sanity, so they're encouraged to use subtle effects or bound mortal agents to weaken their enemies' estates.
- This is what Scion could be perceived as being about. At least one illustration uses the concept - the opening image of the Pantheon chapter in Hero 1e, with the signature characters as the pieces and their divine parents watching the board.
- Werewolf: The Apocalypse, in that it is about the cosmic struggle of Order, Chaos, and Corruption.
- In BlazBlue all the heroes seem to be controlled by Rachel or Jubei ( since they're all some combination of Jubei's students, Rachel's "servants" or Kokonoe's subordinates. Or are friends thereof.) in some roundabout way while all the villains appear to be manipulated by Hazama ( mostly because they're being extorted, brainwashed, More Than Mind Controlled or Mind Raped). The few exceptions are Arakune (completely insane and almost driven entirely by instinct) and Carl Clover (who has his own business with his father) and Bang Shishigami (who's in it to promote JUSTICE).We later find out that the real Big Bad Izanami is using Terumi and Relius as pawns the entire time and they never were in control to being with.
- In Crash Bandicoot, Crash and his friends are guided by the ancient witch-doctor mask Aku Aku, while Dr. Cortex and his gang are controlled by Aku Aku's Evil Twin Uka Uka.
- In Dead Space, Isaac is guided by The Red Marker in the form of hallucinations of his dead girlfriend. Meanwhile Mad Scientist Dr. Mercer seems to be getting (un)holy visions from the Hive Mind, not to mention the legion of Necromorphs it's sending to kill Isaac.
- Dissidia has Chaos and Cosmos doing this quite explicitly.
- In Fahrenheit, Lucas is guided by a race of anti-human AI's, and the Serial Killer Mayan priest by a human cabal. And there's a faction of Almighty Janitors who know and see everything.
- Kun Lan and Harman Smith, from Killer7 are another example, and they even have pieces to play with (Harman has the Smiths and Kun Lan has the targets the Smiths are looking for).
- In the Soul Series, Soul Edge and Soul Calibur, two sentient swords, use their powers to manipulate others to fight for them.
- The ending cinematic of Hexen implies that by killing the final boss you have just made a move on one of these chessboards.
- In Persona 2, humanity is guided by two mysterious all-powerful entities known as Philemon and Nyarlathotep, and they have a bit of a competition to see whose path humanity will eventually choose. Interestingly, both of them are also aspects of humanity's collective subconscious.
- The events of Persona 5 were set in motion by a bet between Igor, who believes in the good of humanity and backs the protagonist to prove it, and Yaldabaoth, who wants to trash this world and start over with a new one.
- The gods of Shin Megami Tensei are always fighting to get humans to believe in them, because human belief is what empowers gods.
- Herc's Adventures opens on a chess game between Zeus and Hades. The playable characters are the only pieces Zeus has left.
- The E3 trailer for Kingdom Hearts III has young versions of Master Xehanort and Master Erasqus playing chess in this manner. Close examination of the pieces shows they have symbols corresponding to various characters the two of them haven't even met yet.
- The entire setting of Nexus Clash is in the middle of one of these. The Powers That Be used to battle more directly, but the Good and Neutral deities didn't like the risk of the destruction of the mortal world and the Evil ones didn't like the risk that this posed to their own lives, so over countless eons the Nexal Struggle fought by mortals has become the agreed-upon method of solving divine disputes over who gets to shape the universe next. Sometimes the influence of the various Powers is obvious and sometimes it is very, very subtle. Given the generally bleak prospect of being caught between feuding gods for all eternity, the setting is never short on player characters who try to Rage Against the Heavens instead.
- The first main underlying plot of Housepets! was a game of "Universes & Unrealities" between a Dragon and a Gryphon (with a Kitsune GMing). It eventually ended in a stalemate, with both combatants being declared losers when the pawns decided not to play anymore. Though there was a winner: one of the pawns, King.
- Homestuck with the forces of Derse and Prospit battling on Skaia (a planet with chessboard soil).
- The Meek: the two spirits in this case are brothers. And one is a giant white cave salamander and the other a vast, malformed tiger with glowing eyes.
- The gods of TwoKinds seem to be doing this with the humans and keidrans.
- In The Gamer's Alliance, the gods prefer manipulating mortals to do their bidding and fight wars for them when possible. Nergal the God of War goes as far as to refer to mortals as his pawns and actually likens the millennia-spanning conflict between the gods to a comic chess game which he intends to win.
- Some of the more cynical inhabitants of the Orion's Arm universe think the archailects are doing this to modosophont life for their own amusement.
- The Grand Game in The Fear Mythos is implied to be one of these. The Fears are causing terror, making and breaking alliances with one another and ruining lives for the sake of a game they're playing against one another. Earth is the board and we are the pawns.
- In the Christmas episode of Class of the Titans, Cronus abducts Zeus and forces him to play a game of chess. Cronus uses monsters as his pieces; Zeus's pieces are the seven heroes.
- The Cold War is the closest real life analog. Since a direct clash between the Soviet Union and the United States could potentially have ended all human life or at least human civilization, the Cold War was largely spent trying to secure the best position in case that clash were to actually happen, with proxy wars being fought across aligned territories.