WARNING: CONTAINS SPOILERS FOR A MEMORY OF LIGHT
Sha’rah is one of four board games mentioned in the Wheel of Time books. (The other three games are stones (no’ri), tcheran and foxes and snakes and are described in separate articles).
The only part of the series so far that mentions sha’rah is The Path of Daggers, Deceptive Appearances. All quotes about sha'rah are taken from there.
What do we know about Sha’rah?
We know that it is a game that is no longer played on the mainland, perhaps not in the whole of the Wheel of Time world, although it was popular in the Age of Legends: “Only nine living people even remembered the game,” according to Moridin. (These nine were the nine living Forsaken at that time: Moridin/Ishamael, Graendal, Demandred, Semirhage, Mesaana, Moghedien, Osangar/Aginor, Arangar/Balthamel and Cyndane/Lanfear.)
[It is] a complex game, ancient long before the War of the Power…much more complex than tcheran and no’ri.Sha’rah is played on a board consisting of a black and white chequered "playing surface of thirteen squares by thirteen":
- The Path of Daggers, Deceptive Appearances
His [Moridin’s] real attention was on the game laid out before him on the table, thirty-three red pieces and thirty-three green arrayed across a playing surface of thirteen squares by thirteen…The most important piece, the Fisher, black-and-white like the playing surface…Around the outside of this black and white playing surface is a "green-and-red goal-row":
- The Path of Daggers, Deceptive Appearances
The green-and-red goal-row that surrounded the playing surface could be threatened by any piece, but only the Fisher could move onto it.There are thirty three red and thirty three green pieces and the black and white Fisher (King).
- The Path of Daggers, Deceptive Appearances
One player will be red and the other green. The red player uses the red pieces and owns the red squares on the goal-row and the green player the green.
We know there are several types of pieces in the game and some of them have varying moves (perhaps similar to chess), but only the Fisher (King) is described in detail:
The (black and white) Fisher is always worked as a man, with a bandage blinding his eyes and one hand pressed to his side, a few drops of blood dripping through his fingers.The Fisher starts the game on the central square of the board, but we do not know the starting positions of each player’s thirty three pieces. When the Fisher is on a white square he is “weak in attack, yet agile and far-ranging in escape”, when he is on a black square, he is “strong in attack, but slow and vulnerable”. While any piece can threaten the red and green goal-row, the Fisher is the only piece that can actually move onto it. (Due to the odd number of squares per row, the Fisher King's starting position is marked differently to the other squares as it is in the real world games from which sha'rah is devised, in this case in the Fisher's actual colours.)
- The Path of Daggers, Deceptive Appearances
The first object of the game is to capture the Fisher, and then manoeuvre him into a winning position. The Fisher can be captured and used by either player. It changes sides many times when skilled players play and is never safe.
We don’t know how the Fisher changes sides, nor how pieces are taken.
There are 3 ways to win the game:
Get the Fisher onto a square of your colour on the goal row at your opponent’s end of the board (the easiest victory),
Force your opponent to move the Fisher onto a square of your colour anywhere along the goal-row around the board, or
Completely annihilate your opponent (take all their pieces).
Who does the Fisher represent?
Moridin suggests that the Fisher represents Rand; or more precisely, that it was derived from the Dragon, the Creator’s surrogate soul in the eternal War against the Shadow:
Perhaps the Fisher did come from some dim remnant of a memory of Rand al’Thor, the shadow of a shadow. It did not matter. He realised he was laughing, and made no effort to stop. On the board, the Fisher stood waiting, but in the greater game, al’Thor moved already to his wishes. And soon, now... It was very hard to lose a game when you played both sides of the boardThe Fisher is an allusion to the Fisher King of Arthurian Legend, the guardian of the Holy Grail who was wounded by a lance. He is the protector of the land, at one with the land and cannot be healed until the land is. The Fisher playing piece in sha’rah is worked as a man with a bandage over his eyes and a wound in his side dripping blood. Similarly, Rand, the saviour of this Age, has an unhealable wound in his side that bleeds from time to time and was guarding the access keys to the Choedan Kal sa’angreal. Also, Perrin had a vision in the wolf dream of Rand with a bandage over his eyes:
-The Path of Daggers, Deceptive Appearances
Perrin thought it was Rand. He wore rags and a rough cloak, and a bandage covered his eyes.Rand too is linked to the land, and his wounds represent the land's wounds as the world suffers under the threat of the Shadow. This is shown in a passage in the Karaethon cycle where the Dragon Reborn is associated with the health of the land:
- The Shadow Rising, To the Tower of Ghenjei
"There can be no health in us, nor any good thing grow, for the land is one with the Dragon Reborn, and he one with the land."So the Fisher playing piece, the Fisher King of Arthurian legend, and Rand, the Dragon Reborn, are all linked; they have similar roles (see Rand essay). The Fisher piece is probably a memory of a Dragon figure in an earlier Age. So is the Fisher King.
- A Crown of Swords, Opening prophecy
As the Fisher piece in the game of sha’rah, Rand is being manipulated by many players and would-be players for the Shadow and for the Light.
Moridin’s strategy to ensure his victory in the real-life game of sha’rah currently being enacted is to play both sides of the board. He rescued Rand in Shadar Logoth and gave him useful hints on how to beat or survive Sammael (to keep Rand alive until it is time for him to die in the Last Battle); but he also has set Black Asha’man the task of killing Rand, or at least taking Rand’s objects of the power (when he thinks that Rand might be getting ahead of him in the game). Other Forsaken, under Moridin’s control and/or direction, are manipulating forces such as the Aes Sedai, the Seanchan, etc in readiness for the Last Battle. Moridin’s strategy, his ultimate goal (pun intended) is to have Rand placed exactly where he wants him – in the winning position for the Shadow.
Is there a real world equivalent to sha'rah?
The closest equivalent to sha’rah is the tafl family of games. These games are Norse in origin, and were very popular prior to the introduction of chess in the eleventh century. By the late sixteenth century the game was no longer played in Wales, and was gone from Lapland in the early eighteenth century. There were many variants, such as hnefatafl, tablut, gwyddbwyll, and alea evangelii, all with similar rules and styles, but played on different sized boards.
How would Robert Jordan have heard of this?
One of the tafl games, gwyddbwyll, is mentioned in three stories in the Mabinogion, a masterpiece of medieval and Arthurian literature. The Fisher King itself is another borrowing from the Arthurian literature.
The edition used is the 1974 edition of the translation by Professors Gwyn and Thomas Jones. The three stories are: The Dream of Macsen Wledig, The Dream of Rhonabwy and Peredur son of Efrawg.
From The Dream of Macsen Wledig:
And on the couch facing him he could see two auburn-haired youths playing at gwyddbwyll. A silver board he saw for the gwyddbwyll and golden pieces thereon.From The Dream of Rhonabwy:
And Arthur seated himself upon the mantle, with Owein son of Urien standing before him.In Peredur son of Efrawg, Peredur not only saw “three bald-headed swarthy youths playing gwyddbwyll,” he also met the Lame (Fisher) King, whose wounds symbolise the strife in his land.
“Owein,” said Arthur, “wilt play gwyddbwyll?”
“I will, lord,” said Owein. And the red-headed servitor brought the gwyddbwyll to Arthur and Owein: gold pieces and a board of silver. And they began to play.”
The translators explain gwyddbwyll in a footnote:
“Not, as hitherto translated, chess (a battle-game), but a hunt game, like the Icelandic hnefatafl. Like chess, however, it was played with board and pieces. The king, from the centre of the board, tries to break through to the safety of the outer edge; the hunting party (without a king) endeavours to pen him in and capture him.”Objective
The king, in his central castle, is protected by his defenders and is besieged by 4 armies of assailants. With the aid of his defenders, he must escape the aggressors by reaching one of the four corners of the board. There are twice as many assailants as defenders, and they are divided into 4 armies. They must capture the king by blocking him in and preventing his movement.
The variants of the tafl family were played on boards of odd numbers of squares as small as 7 x 7 and as large as 19 x 19. The boards were usually wooden and the squares were all one colour. Most boards had the starting positions of the pieces marked to facilitate setting up.
The boards for the tafl variants are:
A 7 x 7 board was used for gwyddbwyll (Welsh), ard-ri (Scottish), and fidchell, brandubh, fitchneal or fithcheall (Irish).
A 9 x 9 board was used for tablut (Finnish) and a Lapp variant of the game.
An 11 x 11 board was used for tawlbwrdd (Welsh), and for hnefatafl, the Norse variant (see photo right). The tawlbwrdd board had three shaded rows, the fourth, sixth, and eight.
Hnefatafl was also played on a 13 x 13 board (see photo right).
A 19 x 19 board was used for alea evangelii, the Saxon variant.
Pieces consisted of a white king, white defenders and black assailants. The king was bigger and more ornate.
For 7 x 7 and 9 x 9 boards, the white king had 8 white defenders and was opposed by 16 black assailants. Boards with more squares typically had 12 light pieces and a king facing twenty-four dark pieces.
In alea evangelii, the white king and his 24 defenders faced 48 dark attackers. The king's pieces were sometimes differentiated, with a small, elite "king's guard" of uncapturable pieces.
The king is placed on the central square (throne), surrounded by his defenders (other white pieces). On the smaller boards, the 8 defenders are placed in each of the two squares adjacent to and projecting outward to the right, left, top, and bottom of the central square to form a cross shape. On the larger boards, the extra 4 defenders are placed on the 4 diagonals adjacent to the king.
On the smaller boards, the 16 black assailants are placed in 4 equal groups along the 4 sides of the board. In each group, three assailants are centred along the outermost row and one is in the centre of the next row in, forming a T shape. For the large boards the attacking pieces are still placed in 4 T shapes on the 4 sides of the board. Five pieces are centred along the board edge and the sixth is in the centre of the next row in.
1. Each player in turn moves only one piece. The assailants (black) move first - except in the case of alea evangelii, where the defenders (white) move first.
2. All the pieces move orthogonally any number of vacant squares (the move of the rook in chess). The square moved to must be vacant.
3. The throne and the four corner squares are off-limits to all pieces expect the king. For the smaller board variants, pieces of either colour may pass over the throne; for the larger board variants, only the king may do so.
4. A piece is captured and removed from the board when the opponent moves to occupy both adjacent squares in a row or column. This is the custodian method of capture. It is possible to capture more than one piece with a single move.
5. A piece may move safely onto an empty square between two enemy pieces without being captured.
6. The king is captured by double custodianship: that is if all four squares around him are occupied by enemy pieces; or if he is surrounded on three sides by enemy pieces and on the fourth by the throne square or the side of the board. The king can also be captured if he and no more than one defender are surrounded on all sides and incapable of moving. When the king is captured, the game is over and the assailants are victorious.
When the king is in danger of being captured on the assailants’ next move, the assailants’ player must announce "Watch your king" to the king’s player. (This is the forerunner of the prohibition against moving one's king into check in chess).
7. The king’s player wins if the king reaches any corner square, or, on the larger boards, any side square. When there is a clear route for the king to a corner square, the king’s player must warn the opposing player by saying "Raichi!" When there are two clear routes the player must say "Tuichi!" This is the equivalent of "checkmate" since it is impossible to block two directions in the same move.
8. Because the game is uneven, it is usual to play two games, switching sides. Each player keeps track of how many pieces he lost or took from his opponent and this score is used to determine the ultimate winner.
The king's forces usually possess a slight advantage, despite being outnumbered. Tactically, the defenders (king's men) must arrange for the king to escape the board. Therefore, the defenders should try to capture as many attackers as possible to clear an escape route, while not trying too hard to protect themselves, since they, too, can block the king's escape. The attacker's object is not only to prevent the king's escape, but also to capture him. The best way to do this is to avoid making captures early in the game, instead scattering the attackers to block possible escape routes.
The King, in his initial position, is blocked from reaching an edge square by three or four pieces. The king’s player:
therefore aims to do everything in his power to clear a pathway. The enemy, however, is in something of a double bind. While wishing to capture royal guards in order to render the king vulnerable, he may equally prefer to leave them be, since their continued presence, in the hands of an inexpert player, can restrict the king’s field of movement and block his passage to the edge. Between equally matched players, the royal force should normally win.These tactics sound familiar! Rand’s success is blocked at times by the actions, or lack of actions, of people on his own side, or at least neutral to him. And the Shadow at the least let it happen, or even try to set it up. Moridin left Rand’s left- and right-hand generals in place for much of the series, but said in Knife of Dreams that, with the advent of the Last Days, the time had come to clear the board of these pieces…
- David Parlett, The Oxford History of Board Games
In some games the king could help kill pieces and in others he could not.
In some games the throne is considered a piece (may be used to assist a capture and may only be crossed or occupied by the king piece).
Another variation is that a piece may not move to place itself in sandwich between two opposing pieces without being captured.
With the smaller boards, a different game is played if the pieces can only move one square at a time.
Experienced players may choose to complicate the play by observing two extra rules: the king may only move one square at a time and only the king may move onto squares adjacent to the corner squares.
Finally, an element of chance can be introduced by the use of dice. If the player rolls an odd number, they can move, if an even, they skip their turn.
What are the differences between sha’rah and the tafl games?
Robert Jordan has combined an ancient game with a mythological figure from Arthurian literature – the Fisher King - to form a very complex game that reflects the actual situation in his world. The wounds of the Fisher reflect the wounds of his lands in the same way that Rand’s wounds reflect his damaged world and the sacrifice he will make to Heal it.
The black and white chequered board is derived from chess. This is about the only influence from chess in sha’rah<. While the size of the board is typical of the tafl games, the sha’rah board has an extra ‘goal row’ with red and green squares. Only the king can step onto the goal row, as is typical of the advanced rules in the tafl games.
There are more pieces in sha’rah than in tafl, even considering the size of the board, because the struggle against the Shadow involves the whole world. The pieces have differing moves – many different groups are involved in the struggle and this adds to the game’s and the actual situation’s complexity. Only one of the tafl games, alea evangelii, had king’s pieces that were differentiated and that in a more simple manner.
Each side has the same number of pieces and each side can use the Fisher. This makes the game and the war against the Shadow totally even. In the tafl games, the sides were uneven, with the smaller, king’s side having the advantage.
The pieces are red and green, not black (Shadow) and white (Light), as though it is hard to tell which player is for the Light and which for the Shadow. Or even which pieces are for the Light and which for the Shadow…
The Fisher changes sides and is coloured black and white to reflect this. While we don’t know how the Fisher is forced to change sides, perhaps it occurs when he is blocked and taken in custody by one player in a similar way to the tafl games. If at this point the Fisher then becomes a piece of the player who trapped and surrounded him, his previous owner would have to separate him from these now protective pieces and try to take him back into their custody. Or else force the Fisher onto a square of their colour on the goal row.
He has differing moves depending on his square colour: on a white square he is “weak in attack, yet agile and far-ranging in escape”, when he is on a black square, he is “strong in attack, but slow and vulnerable”. This weakens the Fisher’s powers since makes it him unstable and also makes playing him more complicated. This symbolises Rand’s vulnerability and tendency to cause chaos, but also his strokes of luck and genius.
The Fisher is the target. He changes sides as the Shadow wanted Rand to do and the Light tried to prevent. Instead of one player having the king and trying to get him to a corner of the board, and the other player trying to trap and capture the king as in tafl, in sha’rah, both players vie for the Fisher and each try to get him onto one of their goal-row squares at their opponent’s end or force their opponent to put him on one of their squares on the goal-row. Part of the tactics is manipulating the other player to play the Fisher where you want, not where they want. This reflects the amount of manipulation going on in the war against the Shadow. In fact, it is not possible to win in sha’rah unless one manipulates the other player, and through them, the Fisher.
Moridin tried to win by constraining Rand, surrounding him on all fronts, including inside his head, or disguising his pieces as Rand’s pieces (eg Taim), or subverting Rand’s pieces. Order burned to clear Rand’s path, and Moridin did all he could to get Rand’s people to hinder Rand with conflicting orders, misinformation, subverted aides, forced conversions to the Shadow, distractions (eg rebellion), multiple enemies (eg Seanchan), you name it. He let Perrin and Mat largely be while they seemed to have been distracted from their original instructions, and thus were getting in Rand’s way. But in the Last Days he has commanded they be killed, to free up some space so he can get his own pieces in for the final blocking moves, the double custodianship, on the Fisher King.
If a player decides to win by eliminating all the opponent’s pieces, the other player would have to do likewise for their own protection. The game would indeed “degenerate into a bloody melee” as Moridin described it, since there are so many pieces.
Min correctly deduced that Callandor, often called a 'fearful blade' or 'the blade of ruin' in the prophecies, would make Rand open to attack if he used it (Towers of Midnight, A Storm of Light). Rand thought that this flaw in Callandor would result in his death. However, in the game of sha’rah, when the Fisher is weak in attack, he would also be agile and far ranging in escape... So logically using Callandor might be the saving of him in some way as well as his undoing. This turned out to be the case: Moridin was trapped with Callandor’s flaw and forced to help Rand and the two women seal the Dark One away. Rand’s body and identity and Moridin’s soul died, but Rand's soul lived on in Moridin’s body. So Rand won his battle against the Dark One, but ‘died’, and yet escaped death.
Where did the name sha’rah come from?
Jordan probably derived the name from the ancient Persian game shatranj. It is believed that tablut (a tafl game) and shatranj were combined to create chess.
However, the rules for shatranj are much more similar to chess than they are to sha’rah. Shatranj has the same size board as chess, although unchequered, and the same number of pieces. Many of the pieces are the same as in chess: the king (called the shah, and thus itself similar to sha’rah), rooks, knights and pawns all move the same. However, there is no initial two-step move or en passant capture option for the pawn. Elephants replace the bishops and they leap to the second diagonal square, never occupying the first one. Generals replace the queen and can move to the first diagonal square. Pawns arriving at the last rank are always promoted to generals. There is no castling option. A stalemate counts as a win, as does capturing all your opponent’s pieces except their king. If your own last piece is captured in the next move the game is a draw.
So while the name sha’rah came from shatranj, the actual game is from tafl, with the Fisher King added to heighten the parallel between the board game Moridin is a master of, and the real game the Shadow is playing against the Light.
And the winner is…
Sha’rah has been changed from tafl to make an even contest between the players. This reflected the great uncertainty over who would win the game – the Light or the Shadow.
Written by Linda, April 2004 and updated June 2013