"Hmm…" Yujia mused. She didn't actually have a game in mind whenever she suggested it. It just felt like there was nothing else better to do to pass the time. After a long thought passed, she suggested, "How about Tic-Tac-Toe?"
Zhizhong repeated the words after her. "Tic-Tac-Toe? What's that? A type of chess? But we have no board or pieces."
"You don't need a board to play this game," Yujia laughed, "Just ink and paper." An idea lit up in her head. She ran over to the side of the shop, pulled out two pencils, then returned. "Or a pencil and paper works just as well. Perhaps even better."
"Really? How do you play?"
Yujia pulled out a sheet of loose paper, drew out the four lines necessary for setting up the "board", explaining as she went, "It's really simple. There are X's— just crosses— and O's— circles. I'll be the cross, and you'll be the circle. We take turns marking the paper between the blank, and whoever gets three in a row wins. Make sense?"
She handed Zhizhong a pencil, which he accepted and tapped at the grid Yujia just drew. "So just three in a row?"
He stared at the paper for a long second. Then, he snorted out a laugh, shaking his head in disbelief. "This is going to be easy. How is it possible for anyone with any intelligence to lose?"
"Don't be so quick to judge before you play it." Yujia smiled a bit.
"I've won so many chess matches against my brothers— do you think that this small game will faze me?"
"Well then, let's try and see," she hummed.
With her pencil, she drew an X at the top left corner of the grid. "Cross goes first. Your turn."
Zhizhong carelessly circled an O at the bottom left grid. Yujia noticed as he did so that he was a lot more confident in using the pencil now. Before, he held it in a stiff manner like a brush, but after Yujia gave him plenty of pointers and lessons, he held it like in a normal manner without looking too uncomfortable as he used it.
Yujia scratched an X right in the middle. Upon seeing her move, Zhizhong frowned a little. "Why did you do that?" he asked.
"What do you mean?" She shrugged. It seemed like a pretty normal move to her.
He didn't say much, only drawing another O right below the middle X. Yujia drew an X in return at the bottom right.
"You blocked me!" he pointed out.
"Yes, and I also won the game." Yujia drew a line through the three X's that went diagonally from the top left corner to the bottom right corner. She looked up to see Zhizhong's expression, which was morphing into one of complete shock.
"Wait, you can go diagonally?" he exclaimed in protest, "I didn't know! I thought it was just vertical and horizontal!"
She winked. "I said all directions, didn't I?"
"Not fair," he scowled, "I could've won if that wasn't the case."
"Not exactly." Yujia used the end of her pencil to tap at a few of the empty spots. "If the game went on like this, you would be unable to make any rows of threes. Meanwhile, I could place an X in the top-right corner, and then, regardless of whether you block me in the top middle spot or the rightmost middle spot, I would've been able to win."
Zhizhong pressed his lips together. "Still. Let's play again. I'll win this time."
"You can try," she taunted.
The next round proceeded to end with Yujia winning yet again. This time, she used a simple strategy that was obvious to anyone who had played this game before. But with Zhizhong, who still barely knew how it worked, the strategy was more than enough.
"How?" He protested with an even larger scowl. "Even if I blocked you on the other side, you still would've won because of the two openings you had to get three in a row."
"It's all good strategy."
"Or no!" Zhizhong suddenly sat straighter, pointing at her X. "I bet you always win because you play first! This time, let me!"
"Sure." Yujia shrugged one shoulder. Playing with an O was definitely harder than X, but it was pretty easy to win too with the strategies she had in mind.
And she won once more.
The expression shown on Zhizhong's face was definitely the most amusing thing Yujia saw all day. This— seeing his wide-eyed, jaw-dropped look as he realized he lost yet again— definitely made such a simple game of Tic-Tac-Toe entertaining.
A few more seconds passed, and Zhizhong spent it staring at the sheet of paper they were playing on, calculating all types of unknown things in his head. Once he was done, he looked up with resolute in his eyes. "I'm going to win this time. Back then, I just wasn't thinking and skipped over details. But now, I know all your tricks, and I will win."
They ended up with a tie.
Although it was a tie, Zhizhong still looked satisfied enough with that. After all, a tie was a lot better than losing three times in a row. This was enough motivation for Zhizhong to propose another game, in which Yujia purposely made a few mistakes to allow him to win and give him more encouragement. This boosted the bits of self-esteem that Zhizhong lost after playing the losing games.
"You can't trick me anymore," he boasted, "Watch, I'll win the next round too."
"How about we raise the stakes?" Finally, Yujia got to the more exciting part of her proposed game, and one of the reasons why she suggested Tic-Tac-Toe in the first place.
He leaned forward, appearing intrigued. "What sort of stakes?"
"The winner gets to do one thing to the loser."
"Fun," he agreed.
Before the game could start, though, Yujia quickly cut in, "But just playing three by three is far too easy. Why not try something more difficult… say a variation of this game? We'll play with a five by five board. You can keep playing crosses, and I'll play circles— except the circles get to place two at a time, and the circles do not have to be next to each other as they're played. Whoever gets five in a row wins."
Zhizhong listened to her instructions carefully, nodding his head as she went. Towards the end though, he seemed a bit wary and had questions. "But don't you get an advantage then, if you get to play two circles per turn?"
"It's to balance out the advantage you have by going first," she explained, "If that doesn't make you feel convinced, then if the entire grid is filled, it'll be counted as your win too, not a tie. I'll give you some time to think about this. With such 'high' stakes, I'm sure we both don't want to make silly mistakes."
He indeed took a minute to think about it. With his finger in the air, he worked out a few combinations in his head, before finally agreeing. "Sure, then."
Yujia wouldn't have suggested this game if she didn't already have plans and strategies in her head. The truth was, she knew quite a few strategies involving Tic-Tac-Toe and similar games, only because in high school, she had one friend who was obsessed and taught her all of them. A couple of the ideas were already faded memories, but she still recalled a few that would definitely lead to quick wins. Her friend was also the one who taught her the five by five version.
Tragically, however, if it was any other game, she would've lost. She simply didn't have enough memorized strategies. All of her skill with Tic-Tac-Toe came from brute memorization. At least she was confident that with the first few games of Tic-Tac-Toe, she could still beat a beginner like Bo Zhizhong though.
Using a trick involving a box with the O's, Yujia slowly worked on winning while Zhizhong struggled. The game went a lot slower this round, since Zhizhong actually gave quite a bit of thought to his moves, and so did Yujia.
Nevertheless, at the very end, Yujia leaned back in her chair.
She won the game with a horizontal line of circles.
Zhizhong took a while to look at her strategy in marvel. Instead of showing the disappointment she thought he'd display, he instead pointed at her various moves. "So, you chose to put those circles at the very top to distract me! And once you've made another row down there… you had to win. And you placed the circles separate instead of together every turn to ensure the most space that you had to make winning moves!"
"Ah, you're smart." He gave her a big grin, clasping his hands in respect. "That was a fun game. Let's play it again later, when I have more practice. I'll be sure to win then. Now… what do you want from me? I won't go back on my words; you won."
"Nothing much." A sly smile appeared on Yujia's face. She picked up the brush dipped in ink that Zhizhong used to work on calculations earlier. With the thought of what she was about to propose next, she couldn't hold back a laugh.
"How about… you let me draw on your face?"