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*Freelance Traveller

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This article appeared in the February 2013 issue of the magazine.

When Scouts get together on leave, or between missions, they often want to socialize with others that understand them, and they want to burn off energy and get some exercise. This is especially true of X-boat pilots, who, even though they’re chosen for their ability to endure isolation, nevertheless need contact with others to avoid going stir-crazy. The informal sport of Gyro-Ball fills this need well.

Any number of players from two up may be involved in a game, though it works best with three to eight players per ball (multiple balls may be in play at once). There are no teams as such, though temporary alliances between players can be made—and broken—as seems good to the involved players.

The ball is 30-40 cm in diameter, and textured for gripping, but otherwise visually undifferentiated, with no external clues to what’s inside it. Most players who own balls put a personal identifying mark of some sort on it in a regular pattern so that the ball remains visually undifferentiated but identified. The ball is surprising heavy for its size. Gyro-Balls are sold with a special carrying case; the case has some controls to ‘activate’ the ball for play, or ‘deactivate’ it when the game breaks up. Activation takes a few seconds, and an activated ball has an ‘odd’ feel to it, like it is perhaps resisting movement.

Once the ball is activated, play begins. The players are scattered around the playing area, whose sole criterion for suitability is that it not be an unprotected hard surface—anything from a grassy field to a padded gym floor is acceptable. The player with initial possession of the ball calls the name of one of the other players, and throws the ball in that player’s general direction. The named player must then attempt to catch the ball without it touching the ground, then name another player and throw the ball, ad infinitum, and preferably keeping the ball moving as much as possible. Play continues as long as the ball does not touch the ground; if it does, the player who was named to catch it must drop out of the game. Diving catches are not unknown, and the occasionally completely maladroit maneuver can result in the player being injured, which is considered part of the game.

The game’s challenge is that the ball does not move on a completely predictable course when thrown; the activated ball is “gyroscopically destabilized” and, within limits, moves erratically. The best players seem to intuit the motion of the ball, and be where the difficulty of intercepting it is minimized.

A player may drop out at any time; to do so, one merely calls out one’s name followed by the word ‘out’, optionally also with the reason, e.g., “Eneri out, time committed”. If the player dropping out is the one who provided the ball, the call would be, e.g., “Eneri out, my ball, sorry, called to ship”, and the game ends, unless there are additional balls in play. Similarly, new players may join in at any time; the procedure for joining in is to simply shout out one’s name followed by the word ‘joining’, e.g., “Sharik joining” or “Sharik joining, with ball”. There is no requirement for uniqueness in names, and if there are duplicate names, the other players often find it entertaining to maneuver the duplicately-named players into close proximity and then target one of them as the next recipient, to watch the nearly inevitable collision between them as they both attempt to catch the ball and keep it in play. A player who dropped out by allowing the ball to touch the ground may rejoin after one hour or two new players have joined, whichever occurs first.

A game ends only when there are no balls in play, or when all participants but one have dropped out due to allowing the ball to touch the ground.

Rumored, but never provably seen, is a ‘Slam Ball’, whose behavior is distinctly more erratic than the normal Gyro-Ball, and which can allegedly speed up after being thrown. Most players have heard stories of others being killed by a Slam Ball snuck into a game, but such stories have never been verified.