It seems the love that fans have for Avatar: The Last Airbender knows no bounds. From the insane amount of fan fiction and fan art that exists across the internet to the cosplay community and Avatar-based tattoos that we see in the real world, this Nickelodeon cartoon has one of the strongest fan bases of any show to ever air. Although Avatar: The Last Airbender and The Legend of Korra were both originally meant to be children’s cartoons, they’ve both garnered a wide following among young adults as well because of their ability to bring a whimsical approach to deep philosophical issues.
Avatar: The Last Airbender has recently been among the most-watched shows on Netflix month after month. With so many people getting into the series, the craze has only intensified. If you’re familiar with the series, you probably remember a certain board game that’s adored by Uncle Iroh called Pai Sho. Well, luckily for the undying fans of the Avatar series, someone out there actually came up with rules to Pai Sho and fans can now play it online and in person.
The game notably appears in the episode “The Waterbending Scroll” in Avatar: The Last Airbender and the episode “The Stakeout” in The Legend of Korra but is never explained in any detail. Apparently, Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko, the series creators, never actually formulated any rules to the game and really just meant for it to be a plot device in the show rather than an playable game in the real world. However, with how much people have come to love Avatar: The Last Airbender in the last few years, it was only a matter of time before someone set an official list of rules to the game.
Before we get into where Pai Sho exists in the real world and how to play it, let’s take a look at the role that it plays in the Avatar universe.
Pai Sho in the Avatar Universe
The game of Pai Sho is apparently popular all throughout the world of Avatar, and possibly even beyond the physical world. The game is rumored to have been invented by the spirits themselves, and it dates back to the era of Raava when the world was created. Since its creation, Pai Sho has been played by people of all ages and across every one of the four nations.
Each nation has their own varied rules and play styles which have developed over the centuries of its history, but overall, it is a game of both chance and strategy. Certain nations prefer to play it as a slow-paced, well-thought-out game of strategy and forethought, while other nations prefer a more fast-paced, intense variation of the game. If you’ve watched through the Avatar series, I’m sure you can infer which nations prefer to play in which manner.
One tile in the game is particularly special, as Uncle Iroh tells us in the Avatar series, and that is the white lotus tile. In the words of Iroh, “Most people think the lotus tile insignificant, but it is essential for the unusual strategy that I employ.” Iroh even changes the course of Zuko’s ship and heads back to port instead of chasing the Avatar when he leaves behind his white lotus tile.
The supreme importance of the white lotus tile comes from its role as the namesake of the Order of the White Lotus as well as a way of secretly communicating and identifying fellow members. Up until the end of the Hundred Years War, when the Order of the White Lotus revealed themselves to help the Avatar and his friends defeat the Fire Nation, they were forced to remain in hiding, and thus the white lotus tile played a very vital role to their existence.
The white lotus tile was also used in the game of Pai Sho that Aang played against his former master Monk Gyatso, indicating Gyatso’s recognition of the tile’s importance. Sokka is also given a white lotus tile by his swordsmanship master Piandao after he has completed his training. Piandao is later revealed to be a member of the Order of the White Lotus in the final episode of Avatar: the Last Airbender.
While the rules for Pai Sho were never fully explained in either Avatar: the Last Airbender or The Legend of Korra, the popularity of the two series spurred people to create an actual set of rules for the game and start playing it with other fans.
Pai Sho in the Real World
The first iteration of Pai Sho in the real world came around the time that The Legend of Korra was airing for the first time. An online game created by employees at Nickelodeon called Pai Sho became playable on Nick.com; however, the game didn’t really resemble the game from the series apart from the layout of the board. The tiles in the game did not have unique images on them, nor unique movement patterns or special abilities, they were simply four different colors to represent the four nations. This was a game created for kids to play, and so it was highly simplified. The game was eventually taken down and can no longer be played on Nick.com.
Needless to say, once the Avatar series gained wild popularity among young adults and teenagers, fans needed a new, more strategic version of the game to play. Who exactly set out the rules for the new version of Pai Sho is unclear, but it has become pretty standardized among Avatar fans.
Pai Show bears resemblance in its board layout and gameplay to Go, straight checkers, Chinese checkers, and Xiangqi. The game can also be gambled on, as Uncle Iroh notes in the series, in a way similar to the Chinese domino game Pai gow, which may be what Pai Sho’s name is based on.
If you want to play Pai Sho yourself, there are many websites where you can find boards and tile sets online so you can physically play with your other Avatar-obsessed friends. You can also play alone or play real-time games online against people from all across the globe on skudpaisho.com.
For brevity’s sake, I won’t go through all of the rules of Pai Sho here, as the game is pretty complicated. However, I will say that once you understand the rules and can start employing real strategies, Pai Sho is an absolute joy to play.
The Basic Idea of Pai Sho
The game is played on a circular board covered in a grid. At the center of the board, there’s a diamond shape that is divided into four quarters. There are also smaller triangles connected to each point on the diamond that expand to the edges of the board. The board has 256 total spaces on it.
Pai Sho can only be played with two players. Each player is given 54 tiles (6 jasmine, 6 white lily, 6 white jade, 6 rose, 6 rhododendron, 6 chrysanthemum, 3 knotweed, 3 wheel, 3 rock, 3 boat, 3 white dragon, and 3 white lotus). Similar to chess, each of the tiles can only move in a certain pattern or direction. Some tiles can move more spaces than others. Additionally, some tiles have special abilities.
The way to score points in the game is by creating harmonies, which happens when you align two tiles in an uninterrupted line. However, your opponent can negate your harmony by placing a tile in between your two tiles, which is called a disharmony.
There are several ways that the game can end, sometimes when there are no moves left or sometimes when a player builds a chain of harmonies around the center point of the board, among others. When the game has ended, the players count up the number of uninterrupted harmonies they have and whoever has more is the winner.
If you want the full set of rules for a proper game of Pai Sho, you can find it here.