Halma, Tell Us!

The game of Halma was invented in the 1880s. By today’s gaming standards it’s very old-school. The board is too large, and play with four players is bound to be rather tedious. You can read about it on wikipedia. It was later adapted to a hexagonal board and marketed in the U.S. as “Chinese checkers,” though it has nothing to do with China and very little to do with checkers.

(Sorry about the blog title. It’s a reference to a song by Tom Lehrer about Alma Mahler, and I can’t get it out of my head!)

The idea in Halma is to get all of your pieces across the board into the locations where your opponent’s pieces started. The first person who does this is the winner. There’s no capturing. Pieces can either slide or leap over one another.

Playing a variant of Halma on a chess board with chess pieces is very feasible. I’m not the first person to suggest this; there’s a variant called Chelma on the Chess Variants website, but I don’t think much of it. I’d like to propose my own version. I haven’t given it a name, but if you want to call it Lehrma, you may.

Instead of setting up the board with the sides facing the players, turn it 45 degrees so that the corners point to the players. Here’s my first suggestion for how to set up the pieces:

Pieces can either move (by sliding) or hop over other pieces. The bishops and rook make non-hopping moves exactly as in chess. (You’ll notice that all of the bishops, both yours and your opponent’s, are on black squares.) The pawns can make a non-hopping move by sliding one square orthogonally in any direction. It may be important to note that “orthogonally” means with respect to the squares on the board, not with respect to where the players are sitting.

In a hopping move, a piece can leap over any other adjacent piece and land on a vacant square on the far side. Hops must also be orthogonal. You can continue hopping, making multiple hops in a single turn, as in checkers. However, hopping moves are optional (unlike in checkers). You can hop over either your own or the opponent’s pieces in any combination, and change directions while hopping. You can only hop over one piece at a time, not over two pieces that are adjacent to one another.

Allowing diagonal hops, and allowing the pawns to make diagonal sliding moves, is a feasible alternative. I kind of like the orthogonal-only rule, though. Only the bishops’ sliding moves can be diagonal.

To win, it’s not enough to get your pieces into the opponent’s opening area. They must conform to the initial setup, with the rook in the corner and the bishops adjacent to it.

A problem in Halma-type games is that your opponent can force a drawn game by failing to move one of his or her pieces out of the opening array. One way to handle this is to require that each player vacate the opening area by move 30, but I don’t care for this, because it forces the players to count the moves. Instead, I suggest that if your opponent’s piece is still in its opening area, your piece can move onto its square and thereby swap places with the offending piece, it being moved to the square that your piece has just vacated. A swapping move cannot be made by hopping, and you can’t swap places with your own pieces, nor with an opposing piece that has left its opening area.

The limitation with respect to swapping is that the bishops have to remain on dark squares. As a result, pawns can’t swap with the opponent’s bishops. A rook can swap squares with the opponent’s bishop only if the rook is starting its move from a dark square.

Here’s a slightly more complex setup, if you’re up for a challenge. The rules are the same:

Here again, only the bishops and rooks that start on bishop-friendly squares (in this case, the light squares) can swap with enemy bishops that haven’t left their opening area. A knight’s non-hopping move always changes from light squares to dark or vice versa, so a knight can’t swap with a bishop. Knights, bishops, and rooks all make hopping moves exactly the way the pawns do.

The key to winning a Halma-type game is to make as many multiple hops as you can. Sliding moves by the pawns are not efficient. I’m pretty sure this game is playable; I hope I’ll have a chance next year to try it out!

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