Eschaton: The World's Most Complicated Game?

Playing Eschaton, a game dreamed up by David Foster Wallace, is like fighting out World War III with tennis balls. It's also very complicated to play—or write about.

Eschaton explained     Photo: Jake Mohan/Flickr

"I was invited to 'fight World War Three with tennis balls.'"

In this business of journalism it is convenient, although not always necessary, to see things. For instance, if one were to write about Buzkashi—essentially a form of polo played with decapitated goats—it is immensely helpful to see the game firsthand.

What do the goats smell like? Where do the heads go? Are multiple carcasses on hand? What part of the animal must go through the goal to score?

Unfortunately, it’s not always possible to witness things firsthand. The villagers may be savage. The sport may have fallen out of play. Or the event may have occurred many, many years ago. In all of these cases (and when money is tight) one must make do with research, imagination and embellishment.

Thus, the typical opening sentence, evocative of no place or time, always sunny with a great many adjectives and half-truths. As I saw a player hold the decapitated and sun-warmed goat in his hands, the smell of rotting entrails overcame me. I could feel sweat beading down my forehead, and imagine projecting vomit across my uncovered feet in the harsh heat.

Never mind that my fantasy makes some crucial errors (the goat is often a calf, for example, and is generally disemboweled and soaked in cold water)—it has the ring of truth. No matter how stilted the text, it works: The act of experiencing becomes part of the story, and the story is thereby made far more tell-able.

Regrettably, I have not been to a remote Afghan village to play Buzkashi. But I can imagine a universe—that of Infinite Jest, a novel by the late and great David Foster Wallace—filled with games that could rival it. His book is a wealth of stories.

I could write about his legless wheelchair assassins, or the game (it involves jumping in front of trains) that so gruesomely severs their legs. There are even giant gerbils to imagine. Following in the footsteps of Quidditch, we could propose last-minute freight-train jumping become an Olympic sport.

But editors here have higher standards. I cannot create events to write about them “as though they were, in fact, actual unchoreographed happenstance,” as the great Bill Zehme wrote. And so I am forced to write about another of Wallace’s games: Eschaton.

Eschaton isn’t as exotic as Buzkashi or as insane to recreate as freight-train jumping, but it comes with its own set of problems. Nobody really plays the game. That’s probably because it involves the intermediate value theorem and is just so complicated.

Thankfully, Keith Pille, an avid DFW fan, made things a bit easier for us. He simplified the game into Eschaton Lite, posted the rulebook to his website, and even got eight people together to play the game back in 2010. I was not among those invited on Facebook, but that will not stop me from (somewhat) faithfully recreating the event, with myself posing as a key character.

The scene is both comical and confusing in the park. Tennis balls dot the lawn. And little paper cut-outs are set to exact coordinates. Someone is smoking pot (she calls it Bob Hope). And that same someone’s Gatorade is spiked with vodka. We call her the fanatic. It’s a bit of a mess.

Things had started off innocently enough; the fanatic wasn't always involved. I was invited to “fight World War III with tennis balls,” by Pille after he "worked up a set of rules in a kind of weird fugue." In more precise language, he invited me to play Eschaton Lite, a modified version of a game the late and great David Foster Wallace invented with his novel Infinite Jest.

Eschaton, as imagined, is played over six tennis courts dotted with dirty clothing chosen to represent real-life objects (shoes stand in for nuclear submarines) of strategic importance arranged in a 3x2 pattern. The object of the game is to survive with the most items of value (think: civilian population centers, power plants, etc.).

According to very strict rules, probabilities and such, players lob tennis balls (Intercontinental Nuclear Missiles) at enemy targets. Alliances and pacts can form at will. And at the center rests a boy who changes hats from red to white to propeller-style pending the degree of worldwide nuclear peril.

Our version of the game is a bit simpler because none of Pille’s friends are tennis prodigies. Instead of lobbing, we can just throw the tennis balls. And the complicated process of allotting warheads and using calculus is simplified. At first, that seemed like a mistake. Things are going slowly, really slowly. The fanatic is reciting from her Infinite Jest bible. And all of the dice throwing and political science-style escalation stuff slows down the action (you must be at DEFCON 1 to launch your missiles in the game ... we all started at DEFCON 5).

We are split into two blocs: East (comprised of the USSR and Warsaw Pact) and West (U.S.A. and NATO) with Israel freelancing (but expected to line-up with the West). Given the situation—set in 1984, a CIA op goes terribly wrong in East Berlin, the agents kill the entire leadership of Communist East Germany and declare themselves heads of the East German Government—I expected fireworks.

But calm prevails—at first. I (the acting prime minister of Israel) have the first turn and elect to drop down to DEFCON 3. The others follow suit—but go no further. For a while, there is some high-level communication between the U.S.A and the Soviets. They're trying to keep the peace.

Not much was happening with all of the diplomacy. So I decided to mix things up by dropping down to DEFCON 1. People got worried. But they were also laughing. Israel had an allotment of five nukes, a pittance compared to the USSR’s 20. What was I going to do?

More than they imagined. Using my secret weapon, my Mossad infiltration team, I walk over to Washington, and drop a tennis ball. Washington: gone.

Meanwhile, the other teams are at DEFCON 3 and will need to drop down to DEFCON 1 before announcing their intentions to fire missiles. Moreover, I put the U.S. a step behind. Because I hit their capital, their communications are impaired, and they cannot fire for two rounds, as per the rules.

Needless to say, the peace didn’t last for long. Nor did the game. The fanatic has disappeared from the Web. The people who offered to drive up from Omaha never showed. Pille received a few emails about his rulebook, but they’ve died down. The game was as fun as Pille imagined it to be, but he hasn’t played in years. All that remains is a video produced co-creater of Parks and Recreation. 

He hasn't had enough interest or people. "Even though I tried to simplify Wallace's rules a bunch (since being ridiculously overcomplicated was part of his joke), even my simplified version was kind of on the outer edge of actually being playable," he wrote. "The big winner was my dog, who is still working her way through the tennis ball bounty."

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