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Chess: A framework for better games

Historically, how has the game of chess evolved? And how can the framework of chess help us develop better games? Read about chess from India, China, and Europe, and see how the same framework has been modified to create distinct forms of play.

Christian Bigham, Blogger

April 27, 2015

11 Min Read

It is no time to be playing at chess when the house is on fire. Italian Proverb (Knight, 1975, p. 227)

             Chess—a game for board game experts and novices alike, a game composed of simple rules which bring forth epic complexity. Each piece has a set of possible places it can go, upon neatly delineated squares—sixty four in total. Corner the king, and victory is sealed. However, chess as we know it today is different from how it was played in the past; slight aesthetic and mechanical modifications have been made to both the board and the pieces which dance upon it. Despite these adaptations, chess retains an unmistakable charm which never fails at spurring on another round. What has propelled chess into the twenty first century? Why has chess seized the hearts and minds of players through time? The answers unfold before us once we examine where chess came from, and plot how the game has evolved from one culture to the next. Once we understand the framework of chess, we hold the power to create better forms of play.

Chess is a sea in which a gnat may drink and an elephant may bathe. Indian Proverb (Knight, 1975, p.226)

            Although there is some debate regarding the exact country chess originated from, historians point to India as the place of origin. A seventh century story found within a collection of Persian stories known as the Chatrang-namak suggests that chess traveled into Persia from India (Schafroth, 2002, p. 18). Four Centuries later, distinguished Persian poet Abul Kasim Mansur tells the same story of chess in his epic Shah Namah (Schafroth, 2002, p. 18). The game was sent as a riddle by the rajah of India to King Khosrau I of Persia (Schafroth, 2002, p. 18). With the help of his minister, the king solves the riddle, describing it as “a game for two opponents played on a board of sixty-four squares” (Schafroth, 2002, p. 18-9). From that form of the game, a fascinating adaptation occurred—the likes of which chess had never seen. From two players to four, the variant version of Indian chess—chaturanga—completely changed the dynamics of its predecessor. Sanskrit for “four members,” the Indian game of chaturanga put four eight piece armies head to head on a board of sixty-four squares (Schafroth, 2002, p. 21). Each army was composed of four infantry, a chariot, elephant, cavalry (Schafroth, 2002, p. 21). Occasionally, dice were used during play (perhaps deciding which piece to play next), and the game continued until only one player remained (Schafroth, 2002, p. 21). 

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            As designers, we must take the question of quantity into serious consideration; for, when we decide how many players can play or how many pieces each player has, our choices profoundly impact all sorts of game dynamics. Not only does the aesthetic of the game change, but so does the degree to which players are inclined to interact, the amount of time spent playing the game, and even the difficulty of the game—have it be difficult to play or learn. Chaturanga reminds us that the number of players involved in the game is critical to the type of gameplay which will ensue. We can imagine that a game of chaturanga would be fast paced, and if played with dice—contain an element of unpredictability. Note that chaturanga also gives players the choice to team up. Intentional or not, whoever designed chaturanga created a framework for an arguably more difficult strategy game. Since, as unpredictable as war, players must have struggled to see even a few moves ahead. However, chaturanga is a rather tame variant of sister chess; for greater differences, we turn to the eastern world.

An ancient writer said that if there were no flowers and moon and beautiful women, he would not want to be born in the world, and I might add, if there was no pen and ink and chess and wine, there was no purpose in being born a man—Lin Yutang, The Importance of Living (1938) (Knight, 1975, p. 77)

chinese chess.JPG             The framework of Chinese chess completely alters how board space and pieces interact with each other. As the traditional story goes, the game was created by General Han-Sing as a form of entertainment and instruction for the soldiers of his king, Co-chu of Kiangnan (Wilkes, 1952, p. 1). At first glance, the board seems almost western, with a grid which subdivides most of the board.  However, the board of Chinese chess differs in two critical ways. The board is divided into two halves by a horizontal band, and each half contains four special squares—each divided into two triangles (Wilkes, 1952, p. 6). The fascinating bit is how these physical changes to the board affect the behavior of the game pieces.

             The pieces each have a unique militaristic purpose, with their corresponding names written on their sides (Wilkes, 1952, p. 2). In general, the western equivalents to pieces such as the rook, bishop, and king, differ only slightly from their Chinese counterparts (Wilkes, 1952, p. 2-3).


             However, Chinese chess pieces move upon the intersections of lines, as opposed to the squares (Wilkes, 1952, p. 2). The king and guard pieces are played in the four squares crossed by two diagonal lines, within which they must remain for the entirety of the game (Wilkes, 1952, p. 8). The king may only move on the horizontal and vertical lines, while his two guards may only move on the diagonals (Wilkes, 1952, p. 8). This space restraint placed upon the king is actually quite logical when one considers that no king would actually enter the battlefield. The horizontal band which divides the board—the river—is interesting in that it both retrains and liberates how pieces can behave. 


             For example, the elephant piece is akin to the western bishop, in that it has the ability to move diagonally (Wilkes, 1952, p. 10). However, the elephant cannot move past the river, as an elephant would presumably drown if it tried (Wilkes, 1952, p. 10). On the other hand, the pawn piece gains the ability to move along horizontal lines when it crosses the river, in addition to its standard vertical move (Wilkes, 1952, p. 9). Finally, while not entirely affected in the same way as the pawn and elephant pieces, the cannon piece is an absolute game changer. Not found in western chess, the cannon piece captures an opponent by jumping over another piece (enemy or ally) which acts as a “screen” (Wilkes, 1952, p. 13). Thus, the cannon further complicated the game; since, players already have to consider the location of their pieces in relation to the river, as well as the location of their king.

             In this way, Chinese chess is an example of a game in which the gamespace and game mechanics harmonize perfectly; each area of the board serves a distinct purpose, and nearly every piece’s behavior is determined by its location on the board. The framework of European chess is just as successful. However, the story of European chess is one of aesthetic change, focusing more on the ‘feel’ of the game.

And after death like chessmen having stood in play for Bishops some for knights and pawnes we all together shall be tumbled up into one bagge—Jack Drum’s Entertainment (c. 1600) (Knight, 1975, p. 172).

Lewis Chessmen.jpg            European chess pieces were originally based on the abstract style of Arab chess pieces—a style based on earlier designs by the Persians (Schafroth, 2002, p. 47). From the tenth to eleventh century, Europeans experimented with the simplistic Arab style, designing more and more elaborate chess pieces (Schafroth, 2002, p. 47-8). Interestingly, the ambiguity of the Arab chess pieces led to a number of different European recreations; the Arab elephant become a more familiar bishop’s minister—or a fool’s cap to others (Schafroth, 2002, p. 48). Western Europeans interpreted the Arab rukh as a castle tower, and changed the vizier to a queen (Schafroth, 2002, p. 49). This European desire to carve their world into chess is exemplified perfectly in the Lewis Chessmen set. Most likely carved in Scandinavia by a traveling merchant, the Lewis Chessmen set, with its realistic caricatures and entirely European theme, is more than a pretty chess set (Schafroth, 2002, p. 50-1). In fact, the set demonstrates a shift in the purpose of chess pieces; the queen is not only a token with which the game is played—she is an artifact of her culture. While the same can be said for an Arab chess set, the difference between Arab and European chess lies in the way players perceive the game piece. While it may be possible that Arab players more or less identified with the knight piece or rukh, the Europeans literally carved their identity into their pieces.

…for chess, that superb, cold, infinitely satisfying anodyne to life, I feel the ardour of a lover, the humility of a disciple. Chess [is] the greatest of all games, greater than any game. It is in my opinion, one of the few products of human intellect—Herbert Russell Wakefield, Professor Pownall’s Oversight in a Ghostly Company (1935) (Knight, 1975, p. 4-5).

            Perhaps the major appeal of chess is its simplicity; the game may be minimized to colored stones on a wooden board: bare pieces sliding on an imaginary plane. Subdivided by humans, the board takes on the meaning we wish upon it. On the board, playing pieces act as marble mirrors—with faces resembling loved ones lost in combat. Without timers, score cards, twenty sided dice, or paper money, chess is played with only two game systems. With a few differentiated pieces and a board, chess is as simple as it gets. Costikyan (2011) regards chess as an abstract strategy game which is praised for its aesthetic. The game is not about the physical nature of the pieces; rather, “...the game is in the forces [the pieces] project, with their variable movement capabilities, and it matters not a whit that one is shaped like a horse and another like a castle”. In this way, we can regard chess as a game which relies on its mechanics for appeal and replay value. Moreover, we have also seen how other countries have modified its game mechanics to create equally engaging games. Still, these chess variants are just that—variants. Each version of the game puts a twist on the same framework. The story of chess is a best seller; it is an evolution of checkered boards and carved pieces. This begs the question: what would a new framework look like?

…and he [the vice-chainman] recommended bachelors to get married if only for the pleasure of teaching their children to play at chess—J. Lister, The Chess Player’s Chronicle (February 1845) (Knight, 1975, p. 197).

            As designers, it is important that we understand why certain game frameworks work. Furthermore, it is important that we not only build upon previously successful models, but that we build new ones too. Chess is but one floating boat in of a sea of successful game types. We should not point to chess as the pinnacle of game design, or argue for more games like it. Rather, we should consider alternative game frameworks which dare push the boundaries of what ‘works’ or is ‘safe’. While chess and friends rely purely on pieces and a board, perhaps one could think of a framework which does not need ‘pieces’ at all. There are forms of play which have yet to float to the surface, drowning under sailors who dare not take risks. Rather than stick to hard and fast notions of what constitutes a game, it may be more beneficial to free our minds of game labels like ‘board game’ or ‘FPS’. Although this task seems daunting, it is not as difficult as it seems; like chess, original ideas can come from everyday occurrences. Hidden in the aisles of a department store, or waiting to be discovered at the post office, unplayed games wait. Dear reader, dare to find games in unplayful places.




Costikyan, G. (2011, August 7). Boardgame Aesthetics. Retrieved April 4, 2015, from http://press.etc.cmu.edu/content/boardgame-aesthetics-greg-costikyan

Knight, N. (1975). King, queen, and knight: A chess anthology in prose and verse. London: B.T. Batsford.

            Schafroth, C. (2002). The art of chess. New York: H.N. Abrams.

            Wilkes, C. (1952). A manual of Chinese chess. San Francisco: Yamato Press.

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