Makin’ the Right Moves

What if you had a piece that was a rook sometimes and a knight sometimes? Ooh, that could be good.

As I continue my leisurely stroll through the fallow, yet fertile fields of chess variants, I’m finding a few fascinating oddities. For one thing, the field seems to be a lot less active than it was ten years ago. The Chess Variant Pages is still on the Web, but if you click through to their “Variant of the Month” page, you discover that nobody has even bothered to nominate a variant of the month since 2006.

My guess: smartphones. The kind of geeky guys who think chess variants are cool are mostly the kind of geeky guys who like downloading apps to their smartphones. I guess I’m the exception. The only app I’ve ever downloaded was Pandora, and that’s so I can listen to music while I’m at the gym.

But then, I lost interest in chess variants ten years ago too. Here’s another theory: Inventing variants is easy. Playing them well is a lot harder. And the more variants there are, the less likely you are to master any of them.

Even so, the possibilities are endlessly intriguing. Using a standard chess board — or maybe one that’s 8×10 or 10×10 at most — you can staff the players’ armies with a huge variety of dynamic and mind-boggling pieces. And if you want to try out these pieces in actual game-play, it’s easy — at least if you use Windows. Zillions of Games is only $25. It hasn’t been updated in a decade, but it works fine in Windows 7. (I haven’t tested it in Windows 8.) Zillions scripts for the pieces mentioned below are all free for download.

The elk I mentioned above. When it’s sitting on a white square, it’s a knight. When it’s sitting on a black square, it’s a rook. The script lets you choose whether to replace your knights or your rooks with elks. Either choice will have a major effect on the opening and development. If your elks replace the rooks, white has an elk on the king-side, but black’s elk is on the queen-side. This asymmetry affects everything. If you replace the knights with elks, white can’t play N-f3, because the piece on g1 is, at the moment, a rook.

A scorpion is a pawn with a little extra juice. In addition to its normal moves, it can make a non-capturing move forward at a wide angle, for instance from e4 to c5 or g5. This simple change lets you open a file for a rook or fix a doubled pawn.

The marshall and the archbishop were proposed a hundred years ago. They’ve been given various names by various game designers. Just as the queen combines the moves of rook and bishop, the marshall combines the moves of rook and knight, and the archbishop combines the moves of bishop and knight. They’re highly maneuverable and deadly.

On a large board the knights are at a disadvantage, because they’re short-range pieces. So how about using knightriders instead? This piece can continue making knight leaps in the same direction, all in a single move, as long as the squares it lands on are empty.

Many variants use cannons, a piece adapted from Asian versions of chess. A cannon leaps over one or more pieces and continues its move (in a rook-like sliding manner) on the far side. A cannon can hide behind a pawn and still threaten an enemy piece — nasty.

One of the more interesting pieces I’ve run into is the trebuchet. It’s a catapult. It moves one or two squares in any direction, like a short-range queen, but when it moves, the nearest piece behind it is thrown forward to the next square past it.

The trebuchet can’t actually capture enemy pieces itself, not in the usual way. Neither can the coordinator. The coordinator moves like a queen, and captures enemy pieces that share an orthogonal or diagonal with both the coordinator’s destination square and the coordinator’s king. It can capture two or more pieces in a single move, but to use it effectively you’ll have to get your king out into the action.

And so on. The hard part is figuring out which game you’d like to focus on so as to learn how one or two of these pieces actually affect the tactics. I’m a lousy chess player, so it’s kind of dispiriting when Zillions uses its trebuchet to catapult a pawn down to my end of the board so it promotes to a queen.

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