When you have two pool tables to share between almost twenty kids, the typically two-player nature of pool games becomes an issue that had never really occurred to me before. I know that there are traditional games played on a pool table that support many more than two players, but none of my kids do – so they made up their own.
They call it “War”, but I prefer the more emotive “Battle Pool” which also handily avoids confusion with the card game. Battle Pool is played with up to six players, each defending a cushion around the edge of the table. Two balls of the same color, one spot and one stripe, are given to each player and constitute their army. The aim is to be the last man standing, eradicating the other players by potting their balls with your own.
On the face of it, quite simple, but there have been some emergent rules that I think are worthy of discussion.
With each player having only two pieces in the game, it’s clear that any kind of alliance would be disproportionately powerful. To get around this, the kids made a very strict “no quarterbacking” rule. No one is allowed to make any strategic commentary at all, let alone directly tell another player what to do. The penalty is skipping their next turn and dropping to last in the turn order for the following game (more details later). It seems pretty intuitive that this rule emerged from each child’s own desire not to be targeted when in a vulnerable position, because the developing brain is basically renowned for its ability to perceive unfairness towards itself. However, this rule also protects the layer of strategy that sits below the “pocket easy shots” surface by maintaining the relevance of a player’s ability to predict their opponents’ choices. They don’t seem to realize it, but by being a little selfish they have made their game a little better.
Many people who hold an interest in the modern board gaming hobby consider player elimination to be a downside of a game, sometimes a significant one that can make or break a purchase. Many also realize that it can have a place, particularly in less formal atmospheres or with younger children. It can be a great relief to be able to move on to another activity when you are losing. Furthermore, each game of Battle Pool lasts only around fifteen minutes so eliminated players can quickly be back in action. The low number of playing pieces lends the game strength here, or at least minimizes the impact of a possible negative.
The last rule of Battle Pool that I would like to mention is how player order is determined. For the first round, in true elementary school styles, turns are simply “called”. Someone will call out that they’re taking the first turn and those who are paying the most attention will follow up and claim the next most advantageous spot. Nothing special there. It is the following games where the kids have intuitively developed a similar system to such games as Patchwork and Tokaido – the loser goes first. Whoever was out first last game goes first this game. Out second, goes second, and so on until the last spot is taken by the previous winner. A pretty solid effort at ruling out turn advantage.
Don’t get me wrong, Battle Pool is far from a budding classic. It is a fascinating look into organized play from the perspective of a third grader, where you can see more sophisticated systems emerging from their invention than they perhaps imagined. I love seeing a problem come up with the working ruleset that they have, and watching them just fix it on the fly. Ganging up on someone? No more tactical talk. Very rarely am I asked to intervene because they all have an implicit agreement to follow the rules before playing; there are very few attempts at cheating, simply because of their ownership of the game.
This sense of ownership is something I try to foster at our club. Not of how the games themselves are played, of course, but of the club experience itself. It’s theirs, which means that following the rules is to improve their experience and not just to keep me off their backs. It’s theirs.