Making a Game Board: Agon and Zurgaan Tal

Over Christmas, I made a hexagonal game board. For once, I documented the process, so I thought I’d share it here. It’s a double-sided board for two historic games of very different origins. Agon is a French game that was probably invented in the 19th century. A Queen and her six guards must struggle against their opposite numbers to occupy the centre of the board. Zurgaan Tal is a Mongolian relative of Nine Men’s Morris – you might call it “Hexagonal Seventeen Men’s Morris.” (The links lead to the best summaries of the rules I can find.)

Agon has a grid of hexagonal spaces, which is not the easiest thing to draw. A few years ago I managed to create the Agon layout by starting from a grid of equalateral traingles. I don’t remember how. I made what I call a “test board,” of cheap paper glued to corrugated cardboard. Then I forgot about it. Fortunately I still had my workings out, which I was able to transfer by rubbing to a sheet of blue card. I then inked it with brush pens.

I made a test board for Zurgaan Tal and tried it out. I was unhappy with how little space there was for pieces on the central hexagon, so I changed it for the finished design.

Cutting a scavenged piece of board for a backing. It was considerably denser and tougher than expected – harder to cut than hardboard.

I use decoupage lacquer to glue the board together and to give it a glossy, protective coating. There are probably better ways to do it, but some of them involve spray lacquers, which are not great for my lungs. Here, slathering the base board with gloss lacquer.

The card stock is glued on both sides, and I am applying strips of washi tape (a kind of Japanese ornamental masking tape) as a quick and easy way to make the edges.

Applying layers of gloss decoupage to the surface. This is the second of three layers on the “Agon” side, I think. I spread it using a sponge brush (just about visible in the upper right corner), wiping in a different layer each time to build up a woven texture. Each layer takes about an hour to dry.

Snagging: cardstock is not actually ideal for decoupage as bubbles can form under it. I pricked discreet holes with a compass and pressed the board with weights to get rid of them.

The final layer is of matt lacquer, to take the shine down to a more practical level. (On the Zurgaan Tal side, applying the first layer caused the pigment in the cardstock to run, producing a marbled effect I rather like.)

Finally, I cut some stick-on felt pads into thirds to act as feet. Here’s some Chess pieces set out for the beginning of Agon….

…and some of my crude home-made pieces midway through a game of Zurgaan Tal.

Thanks for reading!

©Copyright David Breslin 2022

The Twelve Robots of Christmas: 2. Singin’ While You’re Swimmin’

Ariel III swam endlessly, her propellors churning, her sensors vainly scanning the darkness for life. A voice reached her down the cable that ran through twenty kilometres of ice to where Susan waited above, in her airtight cabin on the surface of the Jovian moon Europa. “It’s Christmas, Ariel! Do you want to do the song?”

“I’d like that,” Ariel said. “I’m so bored down here.”

They sang “While Shepherds Watched” together, mellow human contralto and buzzing robot soprano in unison. On a whim, Ariel broadcast it through her external speakers.

They were most surprised when the Europans joined in.

The Twelve Robots of Christmas: 12 days, 12 tiny stories, 12 probably not tiny writers. To read the rest, see

©Copyright David Breslin 2021

Army of Geese

Making a Fox and Geese set.

I spent my free time last winter making a board for the medieval game of Fox and Geese. Disclaimer: I am not in the least bit skilled at crafts. I just do it anyway. While I didn’t fully document the process, I took a few photographs along the way. Making this game was a particular delight for me because of its theme. I often see foxes as I walk to work before dawn, and the site where I work is shared with a bustling community of four wild goose species.

15 eyeless geese vs 1 unpainted fox

Fox and Geese originated in Europe in the Middle Ages, and is still popular in Scandinavia, where it is called “Halatafl”. This game isn’t played on squares, unlike Chess or Draughts. Like many old strategy games, the board is a network of lines. Pieces are placed on the points where the lines meet, and their moves must follow the lines. It’s an asymetrical game, the two players having different powers and different objectives. One player has the fox (or a pair of foxes). They are outnumbered, but a fox can capture a goose by leaping over it onto a vacant point on the other side. (The fox can make a whole chain of captures, as in Draughts, and must capture if it can.) The other player has a large flock of geese. They can’t capture the fox, but they can win the game by blocking the fox so it can’t move. The fox wins by capturing so many geese that they can’t achieve this.

The finished pieces set up for Asalto

Being a folk game, Fox and Geese has never really been standardised. The rules, the number of pieces, and the shape of the board vary from place to place and throughout history. What I made was the most common type of board, including markings for a square “fortress” which the foxes have to defend in some versions. In the earliest descriptions of the game, a single fox faces 13 geese on a board with no diagonal lines and no fortress. A well-known 18th-century version called “Asalto” has replaced the animal theme with a mutiny, with two officers besieged by 24 soldiers. The soldiers cannot move backwards, only advance towards the fortress; and if they occupy it completely, this is another way they can win the game. I made this board to try out these variants and many others in between.

Drying the menagerie

I sculpted the pieces out of air-dry clay. I’ve long wanted to try my hand at animal game-pieces, and one day I thought, “Surely even I can make a goose!” Their necks are a bit short, to make them less prone to breakage. The two foxes turned out better than I had any right to expect. They are painted in acrylic, which is easier on my lungs than working with enamel. The geese have multiple coats of paint because I couldn’t get the shade of grey quite right. I forgot to varnish them until several months later. That was a stroke of luck- I’ve since wrecked the paintwork on some other pieces by varnishing them too soon. Rather than make a seperate set of officer and soldier pieces, I just use the animals again for Asalto.

The board just before laquering

The board is a sheet of hardboard I scavenged from some abandoned furniture, ‘cos I’m classy like that. (I have some more in the airing cupboard.) The board lines were worked out in pencil on thick paper or thin card, then inked with brush pens. I glued the paper to the board with gloss decoupage paste, and taped down the edges with decorative Japanese washi masking tape. Then I laquered it with several more layers of the paste over a couple of days to produce a durable surface. You’re supposed to sand between layers, but I don’t because a) I’m lazy and b) I like the woven texture you can get by wiping each layer across the board at 90 degrees to the last layer. For the final layer I used matt decoupage paste, to reduce the shine to a less ridiculous level.

I put old Christmas wrapping paper on the rough underside of the hardboard. Then I decided that was a waste of space and stuck another game there instead. This is the board for a game called Surakarta, or Car-Gonu. I might talk about that in another post, once I’ve figured out how to play it. As a defence against escaped coffee or beer, the corners of the board are built up on both sides using little triangles of scrap hardboard, to lift the whole thing above the table a bit.

The ancient and mysterious game of Car-Gonu

This was an enjoyable project, and the largest, most elaborate game I’ve made to date. Sadly, thanks to the rigours of the Plague Era, I have yet to actually play anyone on this board! To learn more about the game, see the entry on Fox And Geese at “Board and Pieces”, a superb online collection of traditional games compiled by James J. Bond.

Freshly-painted foxes

©Copyright David Breslin 2021

The Real Betelgeuse Emerald

I have been messing around with science fiction and fantasy writing prompts lately. For one of the first I attempted, I wrote what I thought was a pithy, ultra-condensed 4-paragraph story. Then I looked at the prompt again and realised it was supposed to be 3 sentences long! Here are both versions.

The Uncut Betelgeuse Emerald

Petronella Caravaggio had escaped me yet again, I thought. She was almost at the gate. But then I remembered we were in 0.05 gravity. Without stopping to think, I vaulted over the turnstile and kept going, ricocheting off the curved “ceiling” in the centre of the docking hub. People scattered as I hit the floor on the far side of the spindle. I slid to a halt at Petronella’s feet, my neuralizer raised. “Freeze! You are under arrest for the theft of the Betelgeuse Emerald!”

The turquoise-haired jewel thief shot me a glance of pure poison, but she dropped her bag. “Fine,” she said. “I hope you have more joy with the blasted thing than I did.”

I got to my feet while keeping her covered and retrieving the bag with my other hand. (My old free-fall gymnastics teacher would have been proud.) But I was startled by a theatrical cough coming, not from the thief, but from the bag. The zipper was opening. Inside, the fist-sized green gem crackled with light. It spoke.

“I should clarify that Ms. Caravaggio has not stolen anything. She has merely aided my escape from the hideous realm of alien meatsacks that I have been trapped in for far too long. Or rather, she has been escorting one of my decoys. I, the real ‘Betelgeuse Emerald’, am already beyond human space. This remote will detonate in five, four….”

The Real Betelgeuse Emerald

As we struggled in mid-air in the centre of Docking Bay 14, Petronella’s bag split open and the Betelgeuse Emerald tumbled out. The fist-size gem crackled with light and spoke in a snarky voice: “Stop squabbling, you filthy apes, this is just a decoy. The real Betelgeuse Emerald is already far beyond Human space on the way back to her own people.”`

©Copyright David Breslin 2021

Great Women in Astronomical History (2)

Cecilia Payne found out what the Sun is made of. This seems like it should be a bigger deal.


I learned about Cecilia Payne from two books: “15 Million Degrees: A Journey to the Centre of the Sun” by solar physicist Lucie Green, and “13.8: The Quest to Find the True Age of the Universe and the Theory of Everything” by veteran science writer John Gribbin. This post is based mainly on information extracted from those two books. Both authors described her as probably the most underrated astrophysicist of the twentieth century. Her story illustrates the struggle of female scientists to win recognition.

Born in England, Payne studied sciences at Cambridge University but was not awarded a degree- she was disqualified by her fatal lack of a “Y” chromosome. So she made the move to America. Following in the footsteps of Annie Jump Cannon and Henrietta Swan Leavitt, she arrived at Harvard College Observatory in 1923 to join their new graduate program in astronomy. Her PhD thesis was to quietly make history.

When sunlight or the light of a distant star is spilt through a prism, the resulting rainbow spectrum contains spectral lines. A thin, dark line interrupting the colours shows where atoms in the outer atmosphere of the star are absorbing light. Different chemical elements have a strong preference for particular wavelengths of light: for example, hydrogen produces dark lines in four very precise places in the visible spectrum.

The absorption lines in sunlight show mostly the same chemical elements that are common on Earth. So astronomers naturally assumed that the Sun and the Earth are made of similar stuff in similar proportions. The relative strength of the different lines seemed to back this up. Payne showed that this was an illusion.

Her PhD work was a fiendishly complex analysis of the effects of temperature on light absorption by ionised atoms of different elements. She showed that these effects were confusing the picture. In fact, the bulk of the Sun- 99 percent of it- was made up of the two lightest elements, hydrogen and helium. All the rest, including elements like iron and silicon that are very common on Earth, were merely traces- a thin foam of heavy elements on a vast boiling sea of hydrogen and helium. And the other stars were much the same.

When it came to seeking publication, Payne was told that her results were too implausible to be true. She was strongly discouraged from pressing home her conclusions. Instead, she included a caveat saying that her new approach had produced results that were almost certainly wrong. Still, her colleagues knew of her radical new model of the sun, and the results were out there in print.

The idea of a hydrogen/helium Sun percolated gradually through the astronomical community, but not everyone who took it up seems to have known who originated it. It helped provide the answer to one of the burning scientific questions of the day: how has the Sun managed to keep shining for billions of years?

Astrophysicists thought the newly-discovered nuclear reactions might supply the power, but couldn’t get the theory to work for a Sun of Earthlike composition. German physicist Hans Bethe eventually cracked the problem: he found a chain reaction where hydrogen nuclei can fuse together to make helium nuclei, releasing huge amounts of energy. This could only happen naturally in the heart of Cecilia Payne’s “implausible” hydrogen/helium Sun.

Happily, Payne’s career did not end with her marriage as it might well have done a generation previously. She married the astronomer Sergei Gaposchkin (changing her name to Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin), with whom she collaborated with in some of her later work. But she never did get the recognition that was her due.

Salvage Suite

I spent January at the piano, dealing with unfinished business. Let me explain:

When I was studying music at University, I spent a lot of time trying to be a composer. And I mean “trying.” I finished the occasional piece and some of them were OK. A couple were more than OK. But for every completed piece of music, I started about eight others that just disintegrated on the page.

I can see now that there were two main problems. Firstly, I was an insane perfectionist with an almost total lack of technical skill. I was trying to get everything just right when I didn’t even know how to get it kinda-sorta right.

Secondly, I was forever trying to reconcile my own rather 19th-century taste in mellow tunefulness with the prickly, atonal modernism favoured by most other student composers and by our lecturers. And again, this challenge was way beyond my skill level.

All this turned composing into a source of misery and depression instead of pride and joy. Since then, I’ve given up on composing for years at a time. Every so often I’d come back to it and write a couple of short piano pieces solely for my own enjoyment, which took a lot of the pressure off. I also found a slim textbook by a certain P. I. Tchaikovsky, which remains the only comprehensible book on strict classical harmony I’ve ever seen.

Meanwhile, I became a singer-songwriter and found the joy of getting music to do what I want it to do. Learning the guitar was a godsend. It does a lot of the grunt work for you, allowing you to concentrate on the bigger picture.

For February Album Writing Month last year, I decided to write some tiny piano pieces. My rules: Don’t worry about whether the style is “acceptable.” Don’t worry about whether the notes are “right.” Just write, as fast as you can. I wrote seven preludes that month, and added five more to the set in March. For the first time, I felt like I was “back” as a composer.

I felt like giving my horribly frustrated 20-year-old self some closure at last. So last month I dug out some of my manuscript books from nearly two decades ago. I took six of the better ideas and turned them into six tiny, tiny piano pieces. (It’s early days yet: that’s about all I’m good for!) The third one is something I wrestled with for months back then. Now, it took me under an hour to solve all the problems with it. I call the result “Salvage Suite.”

There’s also a song, which I haven’t figured out how to record yet as my “piano” is actually a Yamaha keyboard that’s old enough to vote. It rattles loudly, so I have to record it through headphone splitters! Come March, I’ll start looking for a proper electric piano.

I’ve finally earned it.

The Melancholy Wail of the Ukulele

When recording my songs at home, I have to face facts and make lemonade.

I live in a small council flat, underneath a young and rather loud family. If I wait until I won’t disturb or be disturbed, I’ll wait a long time. So from now on I’ll be more blasée about firing up the ol’ Zoom recorder. So long as there’s not a full-blown tantrum in progress overhead, I can tolerate the odd footstep or muted wail. Plus, if anything, my singing seems to calm the sproglets down. Or bore them. Not sure I care which, to be honest.

I’ve spent a lot of time nursing a foot wound this year, which means a lot of time sat at a strange angle feeling bored. That’s the lemons. The lemonade? Ukuleles are great for playing in awkward postures! So I’ve got a whole lot of uke practice in lately, while neglecting my guitar and not even touching the poor old bass.

Here’s some of the sparkly stuff:


Think “ukulele,” and you think “cheerful.” Happy songs, major chords, manic speed or up-tempo swing. Possibly Manic Pixie Dream Girls wearing berets. I have different ideas. My friend Deb is probably to blame- she got me into ukulele playing by showing me (amoung other things) a uke cover of Radiohead’s “Creep” on YouTube. But it’s also the sounds I discover while exploring that tiny, tiny fretboard.

Many chords are much easier to play on ukulele than on guitar. So a wild and melancholy E-flat minor or a G-minor-with-major-7th can easily sneak into a simple C major song. This has made me more adventurous harmonically as I can try out all kinds of odd juxtapositions with very little effort.

I’m also very keen on fingerpicking. This is where, instead of strumming all the strings, you pluck them individually with your fingertips. It’s not that commonly used on the ukulele, because it takes more thought than on a guitar. The uke only has four strings, and they’re pitched in an odd way: high, low, medium, high*. With those restrictions it isn’t easy to find a good fingerpicking pattern for a song, but when you do the results are often striking and rather haunting.

I tend to neglect my ukulele stuff, so I’ve started that new Soundcloud playlist for them. The first four, “Different Moon,” “Who Knows,” “Blue Dwarf Star” and “Scarborough Sunday,” are all songs I’ve finished in the last 4-5 weeks. I’ll be interested to know what you think.

Some of my geeky obsessions are on display here. Blue dwarfs are a kind of star that doesn’t exist yet. They’re what red dwarf stars grow up to be once they stop fusing hydrogen. But the Universe is nowhere near old enough for even the very first red dwarfs to go through that change. And “Scarborough Sunday” comes from memories of Fantasycon by the Sea in 2016: sitting on the patio outside the bar in the Grand Hotel in Scarborough, looking over the windswept North Sea.

*That’s the standard, “re-entrant” tuning, G C E A.

Great Women in Astronomical History (1)

I’ve been reading up on the history of astronomy lately. One thing strikes me: until fairly recently, very few women had the chance to make a name for themselves in the field, but those who did were spectacular over-achievers. Some made major discoveries that the scientific community has been very slow to give them credit for. I’m far from an expert, but I’d like to share some of my favourite stories.

Caroline Herschel (1750-1848) was the sister of William Herschel, the musician-turned-astronomer who discovered the planet Uranus. Born in Hanover in a family who neglected and exploited her, she had few prospects until her brother took her to England to train as a singer for his concert series. This role morphed into that of unpaid astronomer’s assistant. Amidst a gruelling schedule of grinding telescope mirrors and note-taking during all-night observation sessions, she found time to learn the skills of the science and to make her own observations. She discovered an impressive total of eight comets, and later complied the most accurate and detailed star atlas of the Northern hemisphere to date. It was presented as an updated version of Flamsteed’s catalogue, and published under her brother’s name. Continue reading

Mashup: “Harry Potter and the Mirror Empire”


SORTING HAT: Oh, this is interesting.
HAT: Harry, you have the makings of a very powerful Omajista!
HARRY: What’s that when it’s at home?
HAT: Drawing on the power of the dark star Oma, you would become a great master of blood magic.
HARRY: That… doesn’t sound like such a good thing.
HAT: Oh, but think, Harry! You could be great, you know, it’s all here in your blood, and Oma will help you to greatness. With a sufficiently large mass human sacrifice, you could tear open the walls that divide the universes!
HAT: Or I could just put you in Gryffindor.


HERMIONE GRANGER: Come quickly, Professor Flitwick! Malfoy’s just cast Disembowelatus on Ron!
PROFESSOR FLITWICK: Don’t worry. What with that immortality curse Professor Snape put on him for copying your homework, he’ll be up and around in no time.
RON WEASLEY: Why… can’t…. I… die…?
FLITWICK: Now, now, Weasley. Don’t talk like that. The world needs you. We need you… to maintain Professor Dumbledore’s artificial spleen for him. Heaven forfend he should ever die, there’d be blood in the halls for months.
RON: Get… Hufflepuffs… to… grow… another….
FLITWICK: You know the star Huffle is descendent. Hufflepuffs are weak and useless now.
HERMIONE: Hold on now, Ron, you’re almost there! Your… er, I think that’s your duodenum climbing back in through the hole. I kind of wish I didn’t know that.
RON: Ugh. That’s better. Blasted Malfoy, I’ll make him eat slugs next time! Um. Why is everyone staring at me?
HERMOINE: You look… different. And your voice. It isn’t breaking anymore.
RON: [hopefully] Is it all deep and manly now? Oh. No. No, it’s not. Not again. I’ll never hear the end of this when Fred and George find out.
HERMIONE: It’s all right, Ron. There’s a spare bed in the girls’ dorm.


PROFESSOR DUMBLEDORE: As some of you may know, a student died today. Kathioka Maasaar of House Ravenclaw, a talented young parajista and a friend to many of you. I myself shall miss her a great deal. Our dinner tonight will not be vegetarian for once, as we honour the remains of the deceased in our traditional manner. [pause] Professor Snape, would you care to carve?


HARRY: But I saw them! I saw them! My parents are alive!
DUMBLEDORE: Harry, when we very much want something, there are magics that can mislead-
HARRY: I took a picture! On my phone!
DUMBLEDORE: Dammit. OK, I’ll level with you. Your parents are dead, Harry. But picture another world in which there are two people just like Lily and James Potter. Or rather, who look just like your mother and father. They led very different lives from their equivalents in our world. So different, in fact, that by now you could hardly consider them to be the same people at all.
HARRY: But if they look just like my parents, surely they’re the same people inside? I mean, really?
HARRY: How so?
DUMBLEDORE: Your parents were… how shall I put it? Significantly less genocidal.
HARRY: I guess.
DUMBLEDORE: And also didn’t have killer trees growing out of their wrists. See, that’s a bit of a giveaway.

[The Mirror Empire: vol 1 of the Worldbreaker Saga by Kameron Hurley. Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone by J. K. Rowling, of course.]

BVW 835/2

My brief career as a burglar ended the night I tried to rob the Browns.

On paper, it looked easy. The Browns’ place had an easy-to-climb white picket fence, like a tornado had picked up a little piece of middle America and dropped it here in Hexborough. A path led along the bottom of the back garden, and the house across the path was hidden by conifers. I’d seen where they hid the spare back door key, under a plant pot on the patio.

There was a doghouse, which worried me at first. Then I saw the occupant. It was a goofy-looking white beagle that mooched around like it was in some doggy daydream. It never barked, never even wagged its tail. I doubted it was a biter, but I packed a couple of dog biscuits anyway.

It was a mild October night. Cloudy and still, which was how I liked it. Creeping unobserved down the path, I pulled on my balaclava and gloves. I picked a part of the fence overshadowed by a tree in the Browns’ garden, and threw my jacket over it to pad the pointy tops of the boards. One leg over, other leg over- simple. I kept perfectly still for a while, watching and listening. No lights. No movement. I tiptoed towards the house.

Then came the music.

I froze. Someone, somewhere, was playing a toy piano. It sounded very close, but slightly muffled. To my astonishment, I recognised the music as the Fugue in D-Sharp Minor, BWV 853/2, from Book 1 of J.S. Bach’s “Well-Tempered Clavier.”

I should mention that although I was a burglar, I was not altogether uncultured. I’d nicked car stereos in some pretty ritzy areas. I took any cassettes I found, too. The previous year I’d hit the jackpot, scoring a four-tape set of Glenn Gould playing the forty-eight preludes and fugues of “The Well-Tempered Clavier.” The music blew my mind; I got lost for hours in its complexities and shifting colours. A few months later, I harvested the replacement stereo from the same car, and what do you know? they’d replaced the Bach as well. This time it was a rather more purist interpretation by András Schiff. So I knew the “48” pretty damn well, is what I’m saying.

And this mysterious toy-pianist was better than Gould or Schiff. Technically perfect, for all the limitations of the instrument: each line of the counterpoint was clear and well-articulated. That D-sharp minor fugue is a long and serious one. The unseen player gave it a sense of dignified purpose in the shadow of tragedy, the main theme patiently leading the way through all the wild and melancholy key-changes to the hard-won light of day. It bought tears to my eyes and sent a shiver down my spine.

The music finished, and I remembered where I was: stood on one foot in someone else’s garden at 2AM, a balaclava pulled over my face. Still I couldn’t move.

The dog came out of the doghouse.

It was walking on its hind legs like it was the most natural thing in the world. That ugly white dog stopped, and looked right at me. It raised its front paws and wiggled its… I can only call them fingers. Agile, clawless digits, short but disturbingly human. The dog grinned at me, a wide, wide grin full of sharp yellow teeth.

I ran. I don’t even remember getting over the fence, or which way I ran. I ran all the way home, three and a half miles. Later, as I put my trousers in the wash, I resolved to live an honest life from then on.


©Copyright David Breslin 2016