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 suggestions for chess variants that require no special equipment, just a standard board and pieces.
Berolina Pawns. This is a well-known (classic) variant. 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.
Magic Pawns. When any piece is guarding a friendly pawn, it can swap places with that pawn (only if the piece is not on the first rank, however).
Blocked Pawn Push. A pawn whose forward movement is blocked can push the blocking piece back by one square. Several sub-variants are possible: A pawn might only be able to push another pawn, or push either an enemy piece or pawn, or push any piece, even a friendly one. A push might be allowed only if the square behind the pushed piece is vacant, or a pawn might be able to push a column of two or more pieces.
Blocked Pawn Swap. A pawn whose forward movement is blocked can swap places with the piece blocking it.
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.
Diagonal Board. Here’s an elegant idea I just encountered (adding this to the blog in October 2021). The image should be self-explanatory. Other than there being no castling, this layout would use standard rules. Arguably, the two rearward pawns would still be able to do a two-square move if they begin with a single-square move. That would be less confusing visually, but it’s not necessary, because the players can easily see where the pawn that is now on a dark square came from. Notice that the white bishops can move immediately, from the opening position. This makes it difficult to use the light-square knight immediately in the opening, because that exposes the rook to attack by the opposing bishop.
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 themselves, nor be captured.
Reincarnating Knights. When either of your knights is captured, you can later return it to play (instead of making a normal move) by placing it onto any vacant square orthogonally adjacent to one of your own pieces. Alternatively, a knight might return to the board by replacing a friendly pawn on any square, the pawn being removed from the game. This may be a better alternative, because there will be a cost when a knight is captured, and a player who has no more pawns won’t be able to bring knights back onto the board.
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 directly 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.
Setup. At the start of the game, only the kings are on the board (on their normal starting squares). For the player’s turn, the player can either move a piece that’s already on the board or place one of the pieces that he or she has not yet placed. This variant completely does away with the standard opening book, because there is no standard positioning for the pieces. Pieces must be placed according to a few simple rules. The new piece must be placed orthogonally adjacent to one of the player’s existing pieces. Pawns cannot be placed in the first or the eighth rank. Bishops must be placed on squares of opposite colors. And that’s it. You can hold back a piece while moving other pieces and then drop the held piece in such a way as to check or checkmate the enemy king — that’s legal.
Balaklava. This is an idea I ran into only recently. All pieces except the king can make non-capturing knight moves. Their capturing moves are of their normal type. 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 make knight-leaps only 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 either in the manner of the protected piece, or using its normal movement; both variants are possible, but they probably shouldn’t be combined.
Synchronous. Rather than making moves alternately, players write down their moves and then reveal them simultaneously. This sounds like a nifty idea, but there are issues that would have to be worked out. For starters, checkmate becomes nearly impossible. If you have pieces covering all of the squares to which the king could retreat, you still have to guess which square he’ll retreat to in order to capture him on the next move. Possibly an inelegant special rule is needed to deal with this. Another issue is what happens if one player makes a move that would capture the other player’s piece, but that piece is moved. What’s the order of precedence? Does the vulnerable piece move to safety because it moved first, or is it captured because it hadn’t yet moved?
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!
So there you have it — more than a dozen 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.