Sphinx's Paw

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Sphinx's Paw
Designed by Matthew Rogers
Weird Tales for Summer 1924
Escape from monsters beneath the Great Pyramid of Giza
:Players Players: 2 - 4
:Time Length: Medium
:Complexity Complexity: Simple
Trios per color: 1
Number of colors: 5
Pyramid trios:
Monochr. stashes:
Five-color sets: 1
- - - - - - Other equipment - - - - - -
Chessboard, Playing cards, Six-sided die
Setup time: 2 min
Playing time: 5 min
0.0833 Hr
- 45 min
0.75 Hr
Strategy depth: Medium
Random chance: High
Game mechanics: Race
Theme: Egyptian
BGG Link:
Status: Playtesting (v2.0), Year released: 2011

Under development

This game is currently under development, in the Playtesting stage. Feedback is strongly encouraged! Feel free to give comments on game design or structure on the talk page.


The cover story for the summer 1924 issue of Weird Tales had the byline of Harry Houdini (it was actually written by H.P. Lovecraft), and was called "Imprisoned with the Pharaohs." In its later reprints as an admitted Lovecraft story, it had the title "Under the Pyramids."

In this game inspired by Lovecraft's tale, each player tries to escape from a horror-filled underworld, and to see that the monsters corner his or her rivals. It is possible for multiple players to win and/or lose.


Each player needs two of each size of piece. Color is only significant in that each player's Magician (a 1-pip piece, see below) must be of a unique color. A regular deck of playing cards is needed; although almost any card deck can be used with minimal creativity. Play takes place on a standard 8 x 8 chess board, with some special names for places on the board.

  • The Depth is the very center of the board.
  • There are four Pylons: each consists of the two squares in the center of one edge of the board.


Remove the ace, deuce, trey, Jack, and King of each suit from the deck. Give a Jack to each player. Shuffle the remaining Kings and small cards, and deal a stack of four into each of the four pylons. They may extend off the side of the board, depending on the relative sizes of the board and the cards.

Each player takes a single one-pip piece and places it on its side. This piece is the Magician, and represents the unfortunate human trying to escape the grisly underworld. The other five pieces stand on their square bases; they are Monsters -- the five digits of the Sphinx's Paw.

No pyramid pieces are on the board before play begins.

Turn Sequence

After the Pylon cards have been placed for setup, each player cuts the remaining deck. High card (value over suit, suits ranked as in bridge) goes first.

An individual turn consists of the following five steps:

  1. Move the Magician (optional). On the first turn, this consists of placing the Magician (who has just been lowered into the Depth) on one of the four central squares. Thereafter, the magician can move one square per turn in any direction, orthogonally or diagonally, into a space with no Monsters. (Magicians can jointly occupy a square.)
  2. If the Magician has reached a Pylon square, turn up the top card there, and place it next to the board. If the card is an ace, deuce, or trey, place a Monster of the indicated size (1-pip, 2-pip, 3-pip) on the other square of the pylon. If the card is a King that does not match the suit of the player's Jack, show it to the other player(s), and place it at the bottom of that pylon's pack. If the card is a King that does match the suit of the player's Jack, remove the Magician and declare Victory (see below).
  3. Roll die to determine Monster points for this turn. If all of the Monsters are on the board, subtract 3 from any result 4 and up to get the point value.
  4. Use some Monster points to introduce Monsters to the board (optional). Introducing a Monster costs a number of points equal to the number of pips of the pyramid piece. Monsters may be introduced from the Depth into any one of the four central spaces, or to a Pylon space where one of the spades has been turned up. Monsters cannot be introduced to a space where there is a Magician.
  5. Use some Monster points to move Monsters (optional). It costs one point to move any Monster a number of spaces up to its pip-value.

Notes on Monster Movement

  • Monsters only move orthogonally, not diagonally, but they may corner or change direction during a multi-space move.
  • Monsters can move through spaces occupied by Monsters, and end on spaces occupied by Monsters of any color. Stack 'em, if you like. But it doesn't mean anything except that they're in the same space.
  • Monsters cannot move through or onto a space occupied by a Magician.
  • Monsters cannot move through or onto Pylons (although they may enter there because of a card).
  • Multiple points may be expended to move a single Monster beyond its basic movement allowance in a single turn. E.g. Spending two Monster points on a 3-pip monster would allow it to move up to six spaces that turn.
  • Monster points do not all need to be used, but they do not accrue from turn to turn. Use them or lose them.

Subsequent Turns

Play passes around the board to the right. A Magician in a Pylon may remain there to turn up further cards, one card per turn, at considerable hazard.

Victory Conditions

The Words of Victory:

The Game has been played duly.
The victory is won.
My soul is risen newly
to greet the risen Sun.
  • A player who turns up the King matching the suit of the player's Jack wins.
  • Players continue to play the Monster segments of the turn (3-5 above) until everyone has won or lost.

Loss Conditions

The Words of Loss:

Alas! For all my Force & Care,
Despite my Fortitude & Wit,
I lose the Path: the Sphinx's Snare
Is surely Infinite.
  • If five Monsters (of any color) enclose a Magician against a wall (i.e. board edge) so that he has no access to any Pylon, the Magician's player loses.
  • If eight Monsters completely fill the squares around a Magician, the Magician's player loses.
  • Players continue to play the Monster segments of the turn (3-5 above) until everyone has won or lost.

Designer Remarks

This game is highly dependent on random chance. In its current form, it is hardly a test of skill, and more of a vicarious ritual ordeal performed through a board game. Think of it like the ancient Egyptian Senet, revised for the chaos of modern mechanistic materialism!

Playtesting Notes

In light of reader feedback and my own misgivings, I've made some significant changes, and I'm contemplating further ones. Playtesting is still welcome, but I make no promises for the current rules, and I deprecate the earlier ones.

(Earlier notes: A playtester made the interesting suggestion that perhaps Magicians should only be able to move diagonally. That would keep the game fast-moving, but give the Monsters more power to block Magicians. Any further testing on these lines would be valued! Playtesting with three and four players is still needed to find out if the field tends to get unworkably crowded with monsters.)

External Links