In the world of board games one thing which is not in short supply is chess variants.
There are dozens, and dozens, some are great, some lousy, some falling short of expectation, others falling into the great middle ground of all right, but not exactly holding one’s interest.
Through the years I have ran across variants which fit into all of the above categories, hurting a few designer egos along the way.
And now another offering has come my way Sovereign Chess by designer Mark Bates.
I’ll start by saying whether a variant is good, bad, or otherwise, I appreciate the effort, especially for those bold enough to try something significantly different from ordinary chess. Experience has shown that effort can come up short of expectation, and that sometimes a more simple approach to changing chess -- think Omega or Grand Chess – creates greatness, but the boldness of a huge divergence is appreciated in principle.
Sovereign Chess pushes chess significantly.
To start this variant is played on a larger board (16x16) with multiple colours of neutral pieces around the edge of the board.
As something of a purest who happens to think black and white is generally the epitome of aesthetic design for abstract strategy games, (I prefer carbon Hive over the ‘louder’ coloured version), the visual element here takes some getting used to.
The pieces around the board edge look a bit like the crayon selection for Grade school, and the board too has spaces of matching colours. For some that will be off-putting to be sure.
Still, at the core of the game each player begins with a normal complement of chess pieces--one player is black, and the other is white. Moves follow that of traditional chess, with a few variations--most notably that pawns may move orthogonally (and capture diagonally) toward the center of the board.
When a player's piece is on a coloured square, he controls the pieces of that colour. This is where you start to appreciate the colours even if they are a bit overwhelming to start. Players can control multiple colours at once, via a couple of mechanisms, most directly with a number of their own pieces. The secondary way is through a ‘chain’ For example, if the white player has her pawn on a red square, and then moves a red pawn to the blue square, then she controls both red and blue. Here I might suggest a pen and paper to mark colours down, as who controls what can change with each piece moved, or captured.
The goal of the game is to checkmate the opposing king, although with multiple kings, that gets trickier here.
In a general sense I have always thought of chess as a military battle between two armies.
Sovereign Chess has that core, but it adds an element of a bunch of subsidiary factions who enter the fray under tenuous at best alliances which can be forged, or evaporate on a single move.
The gameplay is thus a touch more chaotic, with less opportunity for long term, structured attacks and defences. Sovereign chess is more about the ability to create new opportunities by gaining control of additional colours, and defending such moves by the opponent. Again I see a fractured kingdom of lesser nobles trying to influence the key players in a battle for the crown.
I did have an opportunity to correspond with the game’s designer, and not surprisingly he is a long time abstract strategy fan.
“I have always had a love of mathematics--and in fact, I'm a Mathematics Professor by day,” he explained via email. “Abstract games have a sense of ‘mathematical purity’ that can be different from other types of games.
“That being said, I do enjoy a wide range of board and card games...”
But loving a style of games is alone not enough to take on designing a variant.
“There were two different influences which led to the creation of Sovereign Chess,” said Bates.
“First, I wanted a chess variant with many different colours, but which didn't require an equal number of players.
“Second, since I grew up during the Cold War, I was fascinated by smaller countries which were ‘influenced’ by a superpower (East/West Germany, North/South Korea, and so on...).
“When thinking about how to model this on a chess board, I came up with the "squares of colour", which would control different armies. When an army is not controlled by either player, it is neutral, which means it cannot be moved or captured, which limits possible moves, especially early in the game, and prevents wanton capturing.”
Bates said he wanted chess to reflect now more than ancient times in his chess variant.
“I suppose that I was trying to achieve chess in a more modern worldview, with multiple countries, but still only a few large influences,” he said. “To be clear, I never denigrate traditional chess--it's just that more historical conflicts would engage two armies, which is what chess was trying to imitate.”
Development of the game was something of a varied experience.
“That's a great question, with a few different answers,” said Bates. “Believe it or not, I developed the general idea of the game, the size and design of the board, and the location of the pieces...in a single day.
“However, I did a ton of playtesting, which honed things down quite a bit. I had a few more complicated rules, which I ended up simplifying or eliminating. I slightly rearranged the setup of the gray pieces in the corners. I originally had light and dark gray pawns, which had to move diagonally at first, but didn't ‘feel’ like traditional chess. Like any good game, playtesting is crucial, as a designer can see what works, and doesn't, what energizes players, or bores them, and what they pick up quickly, or are confused by.
“The eventual journey from idea to production was over ten years.”
So what does Bates see as the best aspect of Sovereign Chess?
“I love the layout of the squares of colour, and am thrilled at how they work out,” he said. “The pattern has 180 degree rotational symmetry, so each colour is equally accessible by either side, and they allow for players to control multiple colours quickly.
“For many players, their biggest thrill is when they create a ‘chain of control’ with multiple colours, and then use those colours to win the game.”
While the purists might shudder at the look Bates likes so much, admittedly my first impression, this is a game that I can see the design goal achieved in the multiple factions.
There is enough changing of the playing field that over analyzing things won’t work very often, so players can just have fun reacting to the changing face of the battlefield.
Check it out at www.overeignchess.com