Bad Chess

The play in classic board games like chess and go tends to be purely strategic. There’s no random element. Card games, on the other hand, always involve an element of luck. The deck is shuffled, so the deal is random.

The modern board games I’ve been looking at lately all include some form of randomness, either dice or drawing from a shuffled card deck (or both). This was also true of kids’ board games like Monopoly, but Monopoly is so old-school it’s not even worth talking about.

The point of randomness in a game is, I think, that it forces players to do the best they can when faced with situations and resources that can’t be predicted in advance. You try to predict what may be useful later, without knowing for sure. This is attractive (i.e., fun) for reasons to do with how human brains work.

I’ve designed a few chess variants. A couple of my designs are pretty good, but most of them are just silly. The folk wisdom (it may or may not be true) is that chess was originally played by four people using a more limited set of pieces per player, and was a gambling game that used dice. So I got to wondering if a new chess variant that involved rolling dice might be interesting.

Naturally, I came up with two of them. They go by the collective name Bad Chess. They’re similar, so I’ll start by explaining the simpler of the two and then turn to how the other one works. Both use a standard chessboard and a standard set of pieces, and all of the pieces move exactly as  you’d expect — no surprises.

Chess with Three Dice

Before making a move, the player rolls three standard dice. The roll of the dice determines which pieces the player can move in that turn. If a die shows a 1, a pawn can be moved; if it shows a 2, a knight can be moved; and so on: 3 = bishop, 4 = rook, and 5 = a royal piece (either the king or the queen, your choice).

When one of the dice shows a 6, you can re-roll. More on that in a minute.

If all three dice show the same number, you have no choice: You have to move the corresponding piece. If there are two different numbers, you choose one of those two piece types for your move. If there are three different numbers, you can choose one of three piece types for your move.

If you’ve lost both of your bishops, knights, or rooks, then obviously you won’t be able to move that type of piece. If all your pawn moves are blocked, again you won’t be able to move a pawn. As a result, there may be times when you can’t make a move at all, and must pass. Your opponent then rolls the dice and moves. This can happen at any point in the game. While it may be more likely in the end-game, when many pieces have been lost, it can also happen in the opening. If your roll includes only 3, 4, and 5 in some combination, before any of your pawns have moved, you have to pass. (Okay, let’s be nit-picky. If you’ve moved a knight before any pawns have moved, then when you roll a 5 you can move a rook to the knight’s home square.)

In Bad Chess there is no notion of check, though it’s polite to announce it. The game ends when one king is physically captured. Leaving your king in check at the end of your move may happen from time to time — but if your opponent’s roll doesn’t allow the checking piece to be moved, your king will be safe for now.

For the same reason, there’s no concept of a piece being pinned. If your knight is all that’s blocking an attack on your king and your roll forces you to move the knight, you move the knight. You can even castle through or into check if you want to.

When one of the dice shows a 6, you can either re-roll that die or re-roll the other two. If two dice show 6, again you can re-roll them both or re-roll the third one. When only one of the three is a 6, you might like the other two numbers but want to re-roll the 6 to try for an even better number. Conversely, if both of the other numbers are bad, you would probably want to re-roll them rather than re-roll the 6, as that will double your chances of being able to make a decent move. If there are two 6’s, it seems clear that you’re well advised to keep the third die, no matter what it shows, and re-roll the two 6’s. If all three show 6, then obviously you’ll re-roll all of them.

Only one re-roll is allowed per turn. If your re-roll ends with some combination of 6’s and other numbers for pieces that you no longer have (or that can’t be moved because they’re hemmed in), you have to pass your turn.

With Two Dice

The assignment of numbers to the pieces and the rule for re-rolling are the same when you only use two dice. The difference is that instead of choosing one of the dice to select your next move, you use them both. This is a double-move variant. If you roll a double, you can move two different pieces of that type, moving each of them once, or you can move a single piece of that type twice in a single turn.

Each of the moves in a double move must be legal, and can be either capturing or non-capturing, but as in the three-dice version, it’s perfectly legal for the king to be in check at the end of its move. You can take the two moves in either order — for instance, moving a pawn out of the way so that a rook can move.

As an alternative that offers a bit more skill and a bit less luck, you might want to play with a rule that says if you roll a 6 on either die, you can choose between a re-roll and having your opponent retract his most recent move. This could be especially useful if your opponent has just captured your king! Roll one last time, and if your roll includes a 6, you get your king back and the game isn’t over yet. Move retraction should apply only to the opponent’s most recent turn, not to the turn before that, but if your opponent has moved twice in the previous turn and you roll a double 6, you could require that both moves be retracted; or that the 2nd of the two moves be retracted, after which you re-roll one of the 6’s.

And there you go — Bad Chess.

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