Thoughts from Chess 2

A couple months ago, Chess 2 caught my eye. I love chess, and don’t buy into “purist” philosophies, so anytime someone comes up with a variant for chess my interest is piqued.

However, there’s one problem: the designer is treating modern-day chess as “Chess 1,” asserting that the game has been static since its inception. That’s patently not true. For example (using some quick Wikipedia research to verify dates):

  • Chess grew in the early 2nd millennium from its predecessors. It wasn’t a new game to start.
  • Castling was added to European chess in the 14th or 15th century and did not develop into its present form until the 17th century. That’s likely to improve the speed of the game and to vary it up after it started to feel too rote.
  • The initial pawn double-move was introduced sometime in the 15th century, to get to the mid-game sooner. Shortly after that was en passant, to cover an edge case due to the double-move.
  • The rules on stalemates where solidified in the 19th century.
  • The chess clock is the newest addition to the game, so if you think that the game hasn’t changed since the 17th century, you’re not counting the impact of the chess clock.

This says nothing about all of the variants that exist (two of which are the reason I became a game designer: Steve Jackson Games’s Knightmare Chess and Tile Chess)

As game designers, we should keep this evolution of chess in mind before we think of something as sacrosanct, or we make arrogant boasts that we’re bringing innovation to where there was none before.

To move onto Chess 2, I really like the additional win condition: you also win if your king crosses the midline. It turns the king not just from a piece to protect or go after to a piece that can be aggressive — and that’s an interesting design space to peer in. The other bits don’t fire me us as much; people will always come up with novel pieces and boards (point of note, centuries ago the queen was a novel piece). But I suspect we would see very different mid-games (and far fewer stalemates) if that additional victory condition was part of the “chess core.”

Though I don’t care for some parts, I still find all of it valuable to think about, to play with, and to share with others. Games are like everything else in human history: they evolve as we gain understanding and insight, which happens over generations.

– Ryan


8 Responses to Thoughts from Chess 2

  1. I don’t know that we need this one, either – Chess descended from Shatranj, which descended from Chaturanga. There are other games in the family which are worth looking into – Makruk is similar enough that it can be played with a standard chess set. Xiangqi is simple enough to find inexpensively. Janggi is harder to find but more fluid than Xiangqi. Shogi is easy to find but can be a bit pricey.

    All of them bring something unique and interesting to the table.

    I particularly like Shogi with its “Captured pieces can be returned to the table” and promotion rules.

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      “I don’t know that we need this one” is a really shameful thing to say :( It’s completely dismissive of a work’s inherent qualities based on pre-existing biases, and is the sort of argument that craps on potential innovation.

      It might not be for you, and that’s fair. Don’t presume to speak for others, for the gaming community at large. And technically, we don’t “need” chess or any other game either, but that’s irrelevant.

      – Ryan

    • Realistically, you are right. We don’t NEED any more games.

      And I apologize if I came across as trying to speak for the Community At Large – such was not my intent, and, on seeing my wording through your eyes, I can see why it was interpreted that way.

      Also: I’m a bad person and I should feel bad. Clearly.

      That said: Other than the new win condition, there is nothing different in this game that catches my interest in a positive way.

      I agree with a few of his concerns, but the lack of hidden information is not a flaw in Chess. It’s one of the strengths of the game. Likewise the lack of bidding and bluffing.

      Speaking of bidding and bluffing: the “duel” mechanic sounds cool, but it’s not as strategic as it looks – instead of being a game of maneuver, it’ll be all about slaughtering your opponent’s pawns so that you can gain tokens. Because the token economy becomes so much more important than the positions of the pieces.

      The variant armies have a few cool ideas, but the bookkeeping and player familiarity with vanilla chess can cause issues. Especially when different players are using different armies.

      Interestingly, the “Whirlwind Attack” image in the rulebook is an illegal play as pictured, because the king performing the attack is in check. And that’s not a minor detail, either. And if he missed this, what other details did he miss? How thoroughly playtested is this thing?

      What happens if someone catches BOTH Warrior Kings in a Knight’s Fork? It’s not a Checkmate, but it could lead to the capture of a King … but the rules don’t mention how to handle it. And there are numerous ways to put two Kings in Check simultaneously – not just a Knight’s Fork.

      I’ve seen Sirlin’s other work – it may just come down to a trust thing: I don’t trust that he’s created a well-balanced game right out of the gates. Puzzle Strike hit its THIRD edition in two years because Sirlin kept having balance issues pointed out to him. Flash Duel hit a second edition in a year because the game had balance issues and/or necessary tweaks.

      These tweaks and balances are the kind of thing that usually gets worked out during playtesting. I’m strongly opposed to using customers are playtesters unless they are aware of it in advance. But Sirlin has a pattern of doing so.

      So watch for Chess 2.5 in June. And Chess 2 Second Edition next January.

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      I am looking forward to Chess Next.

      I like the endgame condition idea, and that’s one of the two reasons I wrote about it. The other being “folks, FFS there’s no ‘Chess 1.’ Get some history, yo.” and tie that into a greater understanding of games. (I didn’t want to nitpick for that reason, as well, because it would have distracted from my core points.)

      – Ryan

  2. blackcoat says:

    I really like the ‘king cross midline’ rule. It, in a lot of ways, lends weight to the theory that one should control the center of the board (although with diagonal movement flanking becomes much stronger). Another variant of the rule that I see is “king ends two turns in a row in center four squares”, or something. (King Of The Hill, effectively)

  3. Andy says:

    In total honesty, the description stuck me as being a bit tongue-in-cheek, with a veritable dogpile of mechanics. The “Chess 1 was a hit, but there’s problems” struck me as a parody of us game designers, who are constantly thinking “Okay, so this is how I would fix X”.

    But it does sound like it’s got some interesting bits–the alternate win condition especially.

  4. Ray D. says:

    As a pretty good, though not master level chess player, my first thought is that the midline rule will give too much advantage to white.

    There is now a variation called “Fischer Random Chess” or “Chess960”, where the pieces are placed randomly. I read a master who played this game, and she said that even re-arranging the pieces on the back can tip the balance too much in favor of the player who moves first, if you are really good.

    Perhaps a better victory condition would be to grant victory to the side whose king gets all the way to the opponent’s back rank. (A promotion of the King to Emperor.)

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      Yeah, the midline rule is likely broken in that regard, but I would want to playtest it before I throw it out. Playtesting would tell me why it doesn’t work, not just confirm (or deny) a hypothesis.

      More importantly, though, is that it’s

      I do think that — and again, playtesting would actually say what’s true — having king promotion be an alternate victory condition would be a waste of words in a book. It’s too slow to be of interest except in a strained endgame. Maybe getting to the (relative) 6th rank would be…I dunno.

      – Ryan