There are lots of ways to mess with the rules of chess. You can play it on a board of hexagons, for instance. But you can do quite a lot to freshen up the game without needing any special equipment. Change one or two rules, and you have a whole new game. Here are my top ten suggestions for chess variants that require no special equipment, just a standard board and pieces.
Berolina Pawns. Normal pawns move straight forward and capture by moving diagonally. Berolina pawns are just the opposite — they move along the forward diagonals, and capture by moving straight forward. I like the idea of “Berolina plus” pawns, which add the ability to capture by moving sideways. Like normal pawns, a Berolina pawn can optionally move two squares on its initial move, and is otherwise restricted to moves of a single square. Berolina pawns are a simple idea that completely transforms the opening.
Scorpion Pawns. In addition to the normal pawn movement and capture, scorpion pawns can make a non-capturing move like a knight, but forward-wide only. A pawn on e4, for instance, would have extra moves to c5 and g5. Scorpion pawns are dangerously maneuverable.
Cylindrical Board. The left and right edges of the board are considered to be joined to one another. A rook on a3, for instance, can move to the left and arrive on h3. A cylindrical board has no center — or rather, the entire 4th and 5th ranks are the center. Advancing the rook and knight pawns in the opening, rather than the king, queen, and bishop pawns, becomes sensible, and castling makes little or no sense.
Contagious Knights. Any piece that is protected by a friendly knight gains the extra ability to move and capture like a knight. This variant can be played either with the knights operating like normal pieces, or with knights that can neither capture enemy pieces nor be captured.
Reflecting Bishops. On reaching a square at the edge of the board, a bishop can bounce like a billiard ball, continuing its move on a diagonal at right angles to the start of its move.
Rook Catapults. During its normal move, a rook can “throw” the friendly piece most nearly behind its starting square “over its head,” so that the other piece lands on the far side of the rook’s destination square. Several variations of this idea are feasible. The rook might be required to catapult the piece behind it, or the catapult might be optional. The catapulted piece might land on the square immediately past the rook’s destination square, or it might travel further along an unobstructed rank or file. The rook catapult would probably have little or no effect on the opening of the game, because a rook has to have made one or two moves before it’s in a position to catapult anything.
Rook Push/Drag. A rook can push a friendly piece in front of it during its move if the rook starts its move on the square immediately behind the other piece, or drag a friendly piece that starts on the square immediately behind it. This capability would likely affect the opening in interesting ways, because a rook could push its own pawn forward and move itself into play at the same time.
Knight Gazelles. In addition to their 1×2 leap, knights can use a 1×3 leap. This makes them more powerful, more maneuverable, and more dangerous.
Balaklava. This is an idea I ran into only recently. All pieces except the king can make non-capturing knight moves. The knights are replaced by elephants, which also make non-capturing knight moves, but their standard move (capturing or non-capturing) is a leap of two squares orthogonally or diagonally. Pawns can only leap forward, and can’t leap into the promotion row. There is no en passant.
Indirect Capture. This is another idea that I’ve only just discovered online. When one piece is protecting another, the protecting piece can “transfer” through the piece it’s protecting in order to make a capture. After using the protected piece as a sort of springboard, the protecting piece captures by moving in the manner of the protected piece. For example, if you have a knight on a3 and a bishop on c4, the knight is protecting the bishop, so instead of using the bishop to capture the black pawn on f7, you could capture that pawn with the knight, thereby forking black’s queen and rook — and the black king would be unable to capture the knight on f7, because it would be protected by the bishop. This capability is fairly radical, and will undoubtedly lead to major changes in strategy and tactics.
Magnetic Chess. This variant is wild and chaotic, but fun. All pieces except the kings act as magnets when they move. When a piece lands on a new square, its “magnetic field” affects the nearest pieces (other than kings, which are immune) on the vertical and horizontal. Pieces the same color as the moved piece are repelled, and pieces of the opposite color are attracted. A repelled piece immediately scoots to the unoccupied square furthest from the moved piece; an attracted piece scoots in and lands on the adjacent square. Magnetic influence is not contagious: Only the single piece originally moved by the player has a magnetic effect. Pawn promotion occurs early and often in magnetic chess, so watch out!
Benedict Chess. Named after famed traitor Benedict Arnold, Benedict chess uses the standard pieces and movement, but pieces are never captured. Instead, when a piece is moved, any enemy pieces that it threatens when it lands on its new square change sides — they’re traitors. (Technically, this isn’t a “no extra equipment” variant, because you’ll need two identical sets of pieces to play it.) Changed pieces can be moved on the following turn by the player who now owns them. When a piece changes sides, it doesn’t create further traitors based on the pieces it now threatens, nor do exposed threats result in side-switching: Only a moving piece creates traitors. The goal of the game is to cause the enemy king to switch sides. In other words, if you’re checked, you lose, except that discovered check is meaningless and pieces are never pinned.
So there you have it — eleven easy-to-understand variants to try. Of course, you can mix and match these ideas. Berolina pawns on a cylindrical board would be an obvious choice. Hundreds of other ideas are as close as the Chess Variants website. And if you’re a Windows user, you can buy a copy of Zillions of Games and play many of them against the computer by downloading Zillions files from Chess Variants. You can also write your own Zillions scripts, or edit an existing script to add scorpion pawns or whatever you like.