ELF

HISTORY

CULTURE

Atha’sur: A good example of the ubiquity of martial themes in elven culture is the strategy game atha’sur, also known as “elven tiles” or just “tiles.”

The elven name for the game translates roughly as “abstract competitive sword forms.” The name “tiles” references the traditional playing pieces, which are small stone or wooden tiles engraved with pictographic glyphs. Despite the common name, the game can just as easily be played with scraps of paper or leather, or any other two-sided playing piece which could display the glyphs on one side.

The glyphs used in any game of atha’sur each represent one of the 131 recognized maneuvers or “forms” that make up the elven asa’sur’atha, or “way of the sword.” Each form or glyph belongs to one of five elemental suits or “stances:” Air, Earth, Fire, Water and Life. Each “stance” contains 26 forms, which also correspond to the numbers 1 through 13, sequenced twice as “high” forms and “low” forms.

Thus, any given tile or “form” can be referenced by element, number and position, such as “low seven of fire” or “high three of water.” That said, doing so is considered amateurish, and any player of real skill or experience will call each glyph by the name of the martial maneuver it represents, such as “boulder rolling down the mountain.” Glyphs may also be referenced by other common traits, such as “the low forms,” “the fire forms,” or “forms of the seventh.”

Interestingly, each of the “high” forms of the water and air suits, as well as all 26 of life suit forms correspond with one of the 52 letters in the elven alphabet. Those glyphs can therefore be referenced by letter, or used to write messages. Information written in the “language of swords,” as it’s called, are time consuming and cumbersome to scribe, but constitute a particular form of elven calligraphy that is considered to have great artistic merrit. Since few non-elves (except eladrin, of course) learn this aspect of the elven alphabet, “sword writing” is sometimes used to semi-coded messages.

In a full set of 131 proper atha’sur tiles, there is a single piece that lays outside the structure of the common forms. This 131st tile is called “The Nemesis Form,” and its use in play is governed by complex rules particular to that piece, most of which at least risk costing its player the game. Some versions of atha’sur are played without the 131st tile.

Atha’sur has many rules variants, ranging from very simple rules sets played by nearly all elven children to incredibly complex versions played by masters of martial philosphy.

In the simplest version of atha’sur—used primarily to teach elven children and non-elves the game—the entire stack of tiles is divided into two blind piles of 65 and 66 respectively. The players take turns placing tiles, unseen and face down, revealing them simultaneously, and comparing the result. In this simplest version, the focus is on teaching the players which glyphs defeat which, a determination that encompasses all three aspects of each tile (element, number and position), in a two-out-of-three analysis wherein:

  • Water defeats fire defeats life defeats earth defeats air defeats water (elements that are not directly connected tie).
  • Bigger numbers defeat smaller numbers except 1 which defeats 13
  • High defeats low.

So, when compared to each other, a “low three of fire” would lose against a “high five of earth” because two out of the three aspects of each card favor earth (position and number); while a “low three of fire” would win against a “high two of life,” for the same reason. Note that the elemental “suit” of the tiles is functionally the weakest aspect of any tile, since elemental comparisons often generate ties, which are less common with the other aspects. If glyphs tie as to two aspects, but not as to the third, then the third becomes the determiner.

In the above mentioned children’s game, a tie between tiles calls for a second tile to be placed, and so on, until one player wins the hand, and then play continues.

In more advanced versions of play, the players pull five or seven tiles from the full 131 tile set, and these become the player’s hand. Players may look at these tiles, and choose which they play, with each round of play being limited to the players’ current hands, which are either used up or discarded when the winner of the round is determined.

Truly skilled play of the sort that can lead to true mastery of the game, begins more and more to resemble actual swordplay, where which tiles can be played and which ones emerge victorious is dependent on which tiles were played previously. For example, one might play “boulder rolling down the mountain” after playing “six kings orating,” but would be disallowed from playing “the patient farmer” as one’s next move. Similarly, “a boat launches” may lose to “a child laughs at the wind” in most circumstances, but would win against the same glyph if played immediately after “a bear awakens.”

Games of atha’sur between elven masters, who are almost always also masters of actual swordsmanship, can last for days, and it is believed that much can be learned about a player’s personality, philosophy and skill as a warrior depending on their play style.

Atha’sur is even fairly popular among other races, though non-elves generally play one of the simplified versions played by elven children. Exceptions are common among the eladrin, who generally play an eladrin-specific varient called atha’mathel; and among dragonborn of the northern creche tradition, in whose culture mastery of atha’sur (and elven swordsmanship) is considered a source of great honor.

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