Fans of Avatar: The Last Airbender are known for their dedication. From their elaborate fan theories to their excellent cosplay, the fandom has created many mind-blowing things. But one of their most fascinating endeavors has to be their efforts to defictionalize Pai Sho. Pai Sho is a board game seen several times throughout the Avatar franchise and is especially notable as Uncle Iroh's favorite pastime.
The game plays an important role in the series and its mythology, specifically the game's White Lotus tile. However, very little is shown of the actual gameplay, with Pai Sho scenes often used for exposition or character-building conversations. In the commentary for the episode "The Stakeout," series creators Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko mention that they didn't think up all the rules for Pai Sho and only came up with the few unconnected elements that are seen on screen.
However, this changed when Nickelodeon made a videogame version of Pai Sho for their website. This formalized some of the rules and concepts, which were used as a guide when animating later Pai Sho scenes. With this resource, several fan communities formed across the internet and spent hours poring over screenshots and studying similar games in an attempt to work out exactly how Pai Sho worked. This led to several different variations of the game being created, all of which differ dramatically from the version Nickelodeon offered.
The most popular variant of Pai Sho is Skud Pai Sho, which itself is a fusion of several variants created by fans. It is played on a circular board with several regions differentiated by color. There are four "Gates" on each side of the board, and the center of the board features a square area made of four triangles, called "Gardens." There are two different colors of Garden, one for each player, with the rest of the board made of areas called Neutral Gardens.
Each player has three Basic Flower tiles, each one of which can move a different number of spaces. Players also have access to four Accent Tiles with unique rules, and finally, each player has one Orchid and White Lotus tile each. As the players place and move tiles around the board, they aim to create Harmonies by forming lines of specific tiles. This is complicated by the fact that placing certain tiles in line with some of your opponent's tiles creates a Clash.
Much in the same way you can't move into check in a game of chess, you can't deliberately create a Clash. Thus, players must move carefully and capture opposing pieces to gain control of the board, with the eventual aim being to win by creating a series of Harmonies that surround the center of the board, called a Harmony Ring.
However, other variants have different rules. Solitaire Pai Sho is a single-player game where the player draws random tiles and tries to create an even number of Harmonies and Clashes. Overgrowth Pai Sho builds on this, turning it into a competitive game where one player aims for Harmonies and the other Clashes, with the victor being the one who has the most on the board when the game ends. One popular variant, called Vagabond Pai Sho, is inspired by a work of fan fiction called "The Gambler and Vagabond." This variant makes the game resemble chess, with each special piece getting more defined special rules along with unique methods of movement and capture.
If you want to play Pai Sho yourself, there are several options, such as from websites like The Garden Gate that allow you to play over the internet to many beautiful handmade sets you can use to play in person. The vibrant and welcoming community often organizes tournaments and exhibition matches online and at conventions.
The existence of Pai Sho is a testament to the dedication of Avatar fans. Using a handful of shots, some lines of dialogue and years of crowd-sourced tinkering, they have created a game that is thematically fitting and amazingly fun to play, even if you're not a fan of the original series. Hopefully, the community continues to grow over time, and more people find and learn this fantastic and strategic game.