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Design Points: Chess

A few short design lenses, focusing on Chess.

Tom Kail, Blogger

March 20, 2017

4 Min Read


Unequal sacrifices

The point system isn’t the end all of chess, but a dynamic which emerges when all units are equally powerful (can capture another unit in one move) but not equally valuable (since they have varying utilities of movement) is that in a trade situation, a less valuable piece can force an more valuable piece to retreat - essentially gaining the upper hand via lack of value. I think this is really cool, especially given how I can’t think of another game to do it.

Inelegant rules

There are some really bizarre, and quite inelegant rules that I can only imagine are design patches. These include pawns only capturing diagonally, castling, and the en passant rule (which I’ve never seen in play). I have no idea what these things are actually patching. I suspect castling exists due to a bug where the inability to move your king led to “fools mate” strategies ruining the meta game.

Pawns becoming queens when they reach the other side of the map is a really good rule. I suspect it too was a patch, since it’s quite a detached sort of a supporting mechanic. I imagine the issue was that the end game would lack tension and often end in draws, and that your own pawns would generally feel more like annoyances.

Overpowered units?

The queen is insanely valuable. At my level, I found that in half the games I’d play someone would lose their queen via a blunder, and it tends to ruin the game since it becomes incredibly hard to catch up. I actually don’t know how queens are played at a really high level, but I suspect that the games might revolve around forcing players to make a lesser trade with them.

In general there’s a really strong feedback loop when it comes to getting ahead, which is a shame in some ways since it makes play between players of different skill basically impossible. I suppose this is generally true of games with little or no randomness.


The pacing curve of chess is wonderful. I imagine it maps onto a curve of possible moves over turns. At the start you can only move a few units, but by the mid-game the complexity of each turn is massive, and this is when the game is most interesting. The end-game tends to be the weakest part of the game, since the winner has often effectively been decided. This is an issue with basically every strategy game (www.youtube.com%2Fwatch%3Fv%3DPJKTDz1zYzs&t=ZjZjMjRmMjNkNzJkMTY0NTBkZWVhNDA0MzllMDRkNTA3ZjRiZjFlMCxCR1VBbFJ6Tg%3D%3D&b=t%3AVoxPdqIP6Ry-KcPS1GGRXQ&p=http%3A%2F%2Fataxtk.tumblr.com%2Fpost%2F158545500943%2Frandom-thoughts-on-chess&m=1">Extra Credits have a great one on this), but since it’s between two humans it’s not uncommon for players to just yield games. This means that the highest peak on the pacing curve happens earlier than on the www.gamasutra.com%2Fdb_area%2Fimages%2Ffeature%2F4032%2Fpacing_01_star_wars.gif&t=YTc2YmUzZjI5MGViMWUzMGQwZjczOTdlMWJmNDJlMmYzYTM2Zjk4MyxCR1VBbFJ6Tg%3D%3D&b=t%3AVoxPdqIP6Ry-KcPS1GGRXQ&p=http%3A%2F%2Fataxtk.tumblr.com%2Fpost%2F158545500943%2Frandom-thoughts-on-chess&m=1">ur-pacing curve. I think this is tied into the feedback loop mentioned earlier, which discourages reversals nearer the end of the game, which is a shame, although I don’t see any way of fixing it.

Time between moves

It’s hard to play with not enough time to make moves (although it’s a fun rule to play once in a while), but harder to play with too much time between them, since taking a break means you need to re-evaluate the board, which sort of kills the action->reaction loop and turns the game into a sort of puzzle where each turn is played independently of the greater game. Annoyingly these two situations are incredibly common (especially between two humans) since they tend to better fit our free time.


The way that units block each other is a really interesting. The very setup of the board prevents you from moving most of your best units, and how two opposing pawns can simply block each other is a really interesting system. I’m sure good players think on this level a lot, and it’s interesting how while most games have some sort of blocking (two units can’t be in the same position, and two players can’t own the same territory), but it’s never as important to play. Even other turn based tactics games like Fire Emblem mostly only allow blocking to shape a few specific situations, such as blocking paths and providing a shield for longer ranged units.


A related idea is developing pieces by moving them from their blocked off starting positions into more useful places. It’s so much more elegant than being able to level up pieces, which is basically what all other strategy games do.

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