Unreality Check

Current events in the real world are so disturbing that I need to check out. Not deal with it, if possible not even think about it. Because what good would it do to think about it? None.

I take refuge in recreational activities, such as (today’s topic) board games. There’s an immense variety of games — simple games and complex games, games for two players and games for four or five players, games with an ancient pedigree and games that were invented last week, games that require special equipment and games you can play with a pencil and paper.

Inventing games is one of the most pleasant and least controversial things that we humans do, and that’s reason enough to devote endless hours to playing games.

Three of the games I’ve bought in the past couple of years are vaguely related to chess.

In Onitama, you move one of your pieces by playing one of the cards from your hand — after which you pass the card to your opponent. Each card specifies a different type of move, so after you’ve used a certain movement vector, it’s no longer available to you until your opponent uses it and passes the card back.

In Thrive, each of your pieces is a flat chunk with a 5×5 grid of holes. After each move, you add wooden pegs to a couple of the holes (in the piece you just moved or in other pieces). Each piece can only move to squares that correspond to its pegs, so each piece has a different and expanding set of possible moves.

And then there’s Hive. In Hive the pieces (ants, beetles, spiders, grasshoppers, and so on) are hexagonal, and each has its own type of move. There’s no capturing, and there’s no board at all. In each turn you can either add a piece from your reserve or move one that’s already in play, sliding it around the perimeter of the hive or possibly hopping up on top of another piece. I suspect Hive is the best of the three, but I need to play each of them a few times to develop an informed opinion. (People with whom to play games have been in short supply during the pandemic.)

Having hauled out Thrive to refresh my memory, I got to thinking about chess variants. A few years ago I bought some handsome weighted variant pieces from House of Staunton and drew up a 10×8 board on a thick piece of poster board. So this morning I set it up and had a think.

I replaced the rooks with elephants, the knights with leopards, and the bishops with hawks. Next to the king and queen I added a pair of cannons. I’m not sure yet how playable this variant is, but it’s definitely intense. Each of the new pieces is rather like a standard chess piece, but more powerful.

The elephants move and capture like rooks, but they have an additional power: When their move starts adjacent to another piece, they can push that piece (if there’s nothing behind it) or pull it.

The leopards can move and capture like knights, and can also move or capture by one or two squares diagonally (leaping over the adjacent diagonal square if it’s occupied).

The hawk moves and captures like a bishop, but it can “fly” over a contiguous group of pieces on its way. The cannon does exactly the same thing, but moving and capturing like a rook. These pieces can threaten enemy pieces “from cover,” which makes them quite powerful.

I’m tinkering with a couple of other ideas. The set includes chancellors and archbishops in addition to queens, so I’m thinking that the queen may be a morphing piece. Each time it moves, when it reaches its destination square it turns into one of the other types. It’s also possible that pawns may be able to make a non-capturing move of a single square sideways.

My best guess, at the moment, is that all of the “minor” pieces are just about equivalent in power. The queen/chancellor/archbishop is more powerful. Now all I need to do is find somebody who wants to try it out.

But wait, there’s more! This morning I learned about a variant called Paco Sako. Had to order it, but it’s coming from the Netherlands, so it may not arrive for a while. The pieces in Paco Sako are exactly like standard chess pieces, but there is no capturing. Instead, the white and black pieces embrace one another. It’s rather sexy, actually, and the special chess set looks to be well designed.

Now I have to figure out whether to splurge on a color printer so I can print out boards and cards and things for games that I design myself. My old printer doesn’t want to print red anymore, not even with a fresh ink cartridge and a head cleaning, so it’s time for an upgrade. I have a couple of games in mind, one a smaller chess variant and the other a multi-player game with a board of square tiles.

I have no ambitions as a professional game designer. I don’t need the hassle, and I don’t need the money. This is all just for fun. I hope you have as much fun today as I’m having!

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