Warlord Chess

Updated: Dec 26, 2019

Chess has been around in its current form for more than 500 years. It's an abstract war game with no element of randomness or luck. Because of this, it has evolved from a pastime to a highly intellectual challenge. Masters of the game don't merely plan many moves ahead, they also learn and recognise winning patterns by studying the play of others. This is both the joy and the curse of chess: players who haven't studied and learnt from the games of giants of the game are put off casual play because they know they are at a fatal disadvantage when playing head-to-head against a savant.

It's this fact that, over the past 150 years, has helped to spur the invention of countless chess variants. Though the term Fairy Chess wasn't coined till 1914, games adding or substituting new pieces with new powers pre-date the name. For example, the Grasshopper is a Fairy Chess piece that moves like a Queen except that it must always hop over a single piece to move or capture. Fairy Chess is usually played on a conventional 8 x 8 board and you often come across it in newspaper puzzle sections as a problem-solving exercise.

There have been attempts too over the years to alter the board of play. Three-dimensional Chess with layered boards was famously featured in the original series of Star Trek and this, and other '3D' variants have been produced but we've yet to see any that work satisfactorily as a game. Hexagonal chess has its advocates, and there are various odd-shaped boards that have been tried to facilitate three- and four-player Chess games. These have mostly had mixed success at best. A key problem is that a 64-square board does not allow enough space for more than two players but expanding the board upsets the balance of the pieces. The expanded board developed by George Hope Verney in 1881, for example, uses a 14 x 14 board from which the four 3 x 3 corners have been excised. This is the board most commonly used for four-player chess variants but its use results in pieces that are notably weaker than in the standard game.

As analysts have pointed out, a Queen in one of the four centre squares of a standard 8 x 8 board controls 30 of the 64 squares, whereas a Queen in the corresponding position on a Verney board controls only 42 out of the total 160 squares: a much lower proportion.

With Hammerdog Games' Warlord Chess, designer Danny O'Neill has tweaked the Verney board and certain aspects of play in order to redress the imbalances. Rather than at the four sides, the starting set up for Warlord Chess is across the four corners. The corner areas that are missing entirely from the Verney board are replaced in Warlord Chess with 'the castle': strips that control multiple files and which allow pieces to move from one side to another.

With set up on each of the four corners, the pawns' direction of movement remains straight ahead so Pawns move forward on the diagonal rather than orthogonally. Though on first sight this switch to diagonal movement might seem to result in Bishops being more powerful than Rooks, the 'castle' areas in the corner redress the balance. Although they further empower Bishops by allowing them to switch the colour of diagonals they control, they empower the Rooks and the Queen even more by allowing them to control multiple ranks from their castle positions. The design also further empowers the Knights, Pawn and King by allowing them to move from one of the four centre squares to a space they can legally reach from any of those four squares. This gives a Knight in one of the square a 28-square reach referred to by the designer as a 'doughnut of death'.

Like other Chess variants, Warlord Chess isn't Chess. It uses and builds on the rules of Chess but the modifications, and the fact that you are playing with three opponents rather than just one, mean that the dynamics are very different and it demands quite different strategies from the conventional game. For many of us, that is of itself a key attraction: Warlord Chess takes Chess back to its origins as an abstract strategy game. It allows casual players to enjoy the game again without its overly cerebral overheads.

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