The Twilight in Video Game Chess

Who doesn’t love video game chess? Whether playing with a colleague, friend, or a distant stranger - chess has been entertainment for thousands of years. After all, who could forget classic pieces like the King, the Pawn, the… Elephant? The Boat? What kind of pieces are those? Is there some hidden history of chess that seems to have missed the video game train?

Chess exists in all kinds of varieties. Some of them might be more clear-cut than others. For example, plenty of people play the variety where moves are on a timer, so the other player can’t just endlessly hover over their pieces. There’s chess with additional dimensions, minimalist puzzle scenarios, or endless boards. Few video games can top 5D Chess, which supplements the spatial dimensions of chess with parallel and temporal dimensions. If you ever think you’ve fully mastered chess, think again when you have to deal with opponents sending their queens back in time to assassinate your knight. 

That said, there are different kinds of varieties. The online chess game has expanded chess in terms of its technical varieties, 5D chess being an obvious example. But of course, there are also style variations. From Star Wars chess to Mario chess, [insert popular media franchise here] almost certainly has its chess spin-off, whether physical, digital, or unlicensed. However, there’s a kind of variety that we’ve seemingly been losing over the years. 

Recently I was listening to the amazing No Such Thing as a Fish podcast, which features all kinds of fascinating factoids about literally anything. One of the facts was about chess – namely, there are more living world chess champions than people who can make the knights in the chess sets they use. From there, they moved to discuss fascinating historical variations and mutations of chess. There were once pieces like the elephant? Chess sets with far more pieces than the 16 ones we’re used to?

Naturally, I couldn’t contain my curiosity. What I found was an additional dimension of chess varieties. Chess with completely different rules or outlandish pieces. Historically, this used to be the most prominent way of varying. Nowadays, many variants seem to have vanished into a twilight zone of video game chess. What are these chess varieties? Where did they come from? What happened to them in the modern age of gaming? What is the power of gaming in the future of chess?

A scattered phenomenon

Chess is one of those games where the concept is the same wherever you are, but the way it’s developed into a game differs massively. Regardless of whether you go to Europe, Asia, Africa, or America, the idea of chess always in some way revolves around capturing the other side’s king. The game was developed in India in the 6th century. From there, it spread through Persia and the Islamic Caliphates to Europe, Africa, and Asia.

I won’t bore you with a long history lesson. You’re here for gaming, after all. But what’s fascinating is that each of the variants developed in a certain historical context. The game most of us know rebranded and tweaked many pieces, which we now know as “normal.” Queens and bishops in Europe have their counterparts of ferz and pil in Iran and advisors and elephants in China. The differences go beyond just slapping a different name on the same piece, though. From unique move sets to different formations and even compromising on the iconic chessboard, the historical variations of the game offer an entirely new dimension to the diversity of the chess concept.

Chesses, chesses everywhere

Although the list is far too long to discuss every historical variation on chess, there are a few that are particularly worth mentioning.

Xiangqi

Chinese Chess is already wildly different from what we’ve come to understand as “modern” chess. Heck, it’s hardly even chess. Although some theories say it developed from ancient Indian chess, others say it’s more similar to backgammon, making it an entirely different game. So if you go charging in with a chess mindset, Xiangqi’s gonna give you a hard time.

At face value, you wouldn't even say this was actually a chess variant.

At face value, you wouldn’t even say this was actually a chess variant.

The most distinctive feature of this form of chess is that the pieces don’t sit on the fields themselves but on the lines between the fields. However, the differences don’t stop there. Whereas the chessboard is relatively featureless, like a flat plain, the Xiangqi board is a little more diverse. It has a river in between the two armies and a palace in the back. Both of these features influence where certain pieces can go, how they can behave, and how many points they’re worth.

Of course, there are also some unique pieces in Xiangqi that make the game all the more fascinating. For starters, there’s the elephant, which is similar to a defensive bishop. It moves diagonally, but it can never cross the river. I can only describe cannons as jumping rooks. They can move in straight lines across the board, but they attack by jumping over a piece to capture one directly behind it. Instead of a queen, the king has two advisors. They can move diagonally, but similar to the king, they can only move inside the palace area. Although the goal is the same as modern chess – checkmate the enemy’s king – the means of doing so are wildly different.

A Chess Player’s Guide to Xiangqi | The Basics of Chinese Chess

What happened to Xiangqi?

Xiangqi is the furthest thing from dead or forgotten. It’s still crazy popular in China. Although exact statistics are pretty hard to find, according to Tencent’s official Xiangqi site there were about 1.2 billion registered users in 2019. However, to this day, Xiangqi never managed to gain a lot of traction outside of China, remaining mostly isolated to Chinese and Vietnamese communities. 

In terms of video game chess, Steam has about 10 games listed that directly use Chinese Chess mechanics, such as Battle Chess II: Chinese Chess. That said, there is an abundance of mobile apps on the Google Play Store and the App Store. However, when it comes to fully developed console games that are more than a simplified digital replica of the game, Xiangqi has made some, albeit limited, inroads.

Falcon-Hunter Chess

Have you ever felt like there weren’t enough birds in your chess game? I sure do. Who wouldn’t want an awesome bird to join the chess ranks? Thankfully, there’s a chess variant for that too. Falcon-Hunter Chess was developed over the course of the 1940s and 1950s that will radically do away with any endgame strategy you can imagine.

Birds in chess seem like a winning addition to me.

Birds in chess seem like a winning addition to me.

Falcon-Hunter Chess is mostly the same game as standard chess. That is, aside from two new pieces, unsurprisingly the hunter and the falcon. Both are a combination of a bishop and a rook. The falcon moves forward diagonally, like a bishop, while retreating like a rook. For the hunter, it’s the other way around. 

In most variants, the pieces are not on the board at the start of the game. They can either join in the late game by pawn promotion (when one of the pawns reaches the final row of the opponent) or by replacing a slain queen, bishop, knight, or rook.

What happened to Falcon-Hunter Chess?

Contrary to Xiangqi, it seems like Falcon-Hunter Chess never gained too much popularity. I scoured the internet for hours, trying to find any mention of it. Aside from a single Java program, I couldn’t find any trace of it, let alone as a digitized version. When it comes to video gaming, Falcon-Hunter Chess seems to be dying as a lone Wikipedia entry.

Tamerlane Chess

Like Falcon-Hunter Chess, Tamerlane Chess is played with more pieces. Unlike it, it involves way more pieces. Tamerlane chess originates in Central Asia. It’s named after the conqueror Timur, who loved expanding his empire as much as his chessboard. 

Any game that ends up using Tamerlane chess mechanics should at least make sure it’s a little easier to tell which piece is what.

Any game that ends up using Tamerlane chess mechanics should at least make sure it’s a little easier to tell which piece is what.

The most obvious “strange” feature of Tamerlane Chess is the chessboard itself. Not only is it a little bigger than our modern chess boards (10 x 11 instead of 8 x 8), and there are far more pieces in play, the board has additional squares in the second and second-to-last row. These are citadels, which play an important role in the game. When the enemy king occupies your citadel, the game ends in a draw. So you have to protect it!

Thankfully, there’s no shortage of pieces to protect it with. The game features famous pieces like the rook and the knight, but also far more outlandish ones. My personal favorites are the giraffe, which moves one square diagonally and then minimally three spaces either left or right (unless obstructed), and the scout, which is like a bishop that has to move at least two squares. What makes this variant truly crazy is that all the pawns are connected to another piece. There’s a king’s pawn, a knight’s pawn, and yes, even a pawn’s pawn. This matters when a pawn reaches the first line of the opponent – but it’s way too convoluted for me to fully outline in text. You should watch this excellent explainer instead:

The next level of chess | Tamerlane Chess

What happened to Tamerlane Chess?

Tamerlane Chess still exists on the fringes of the active chess world. There is an online preset available and small chess clubs in the world still play it. However, as a fully-fledged video game Tamerlane Chess seems largely forgotten. Aside from that online preset, it seems Timur’s chess died with his empire.

Senterej / Shatranj

We’ve had chess without fields. Now get ready for chess without turns! In the Ethiopian version of chess, Senterej, the first phase starts with a “mobilization” phase. Both players move their pieces in any formation that pleases them, without turn-based order. Only once one player decides to attack another piece, the game truly begins, and turn-based combat ensues. This form of chess derives from the ancient Iranian predecessor of “standard” chess, Shatranj.

Even in Ancient Iran, there were those annoying players who insisted on reading the manual mid-game.

Even in Ancient Iran, there were those annoying players who insisted on reading the manual mid-game.

Shatranj is pretty similar to modern chess. It’s far less wild than Tamerlane Chess, in any case. There are some changes in the line-up, which may be familiar now that you know about Xiangqi. The elephants are back to replace the bishops and move two squares diagonally while jumping over any piece that may blockade them. The queen’s out too, and instead, there’s a councilor, who moves a single square diagonally. 

What happened to Senterej and Shatranj?

Shatranj is mostly an outdated version of modern chess, which means it’s fallen out of favor. However, you can still play it. There are some online apps that let you experience the tactical minds of 6th century Iran, and there are some java-based experiences too. Whereas Shatranj is mostly a dead game, Senterej is certainly more alive. Although the game lost a lot of popularity in the late 20th and early 21st century, the memory of it is still vividly alive, and there are still organizations dedicated to the chess variant. However, in terms of video games, these chess variants seem to be leaving few traces.

The great exception: Shogi

All these variants gained prominence at least at one point in history and somewhere in the world. However, most of them didn’t gain much international traction in the international gaming space. Xiangqi comes closest, but still remains mostly limited to the Chinese cultural sphere. However, there’s one chess variant that did gain plenty of international attention in the international gaming space – Japanese Chess, better known as Shogi.

Shogi's presence is hard to ignore in video game chess | Footage: MetalSmasherGaming

Shogi’s presence is hard to ignore in video game chess | Footage: MetalSmasherGaming

Shogi has a long and varied history, not in the least when it comes to video games. Since the 1980s, there has been a steady flow of Shogi games on all kinds of consoles. Although the vast majority of Shogi games are released exclusively in Japan, there’s no shortage of players outside Japan either. The game 51 Worldwide Games, which prominently featured Shogi, was downloaded over 4 million times within 2 years.

How to play Shogi (Japanese Chess)

Of course, Japan has historically played a much larger role in international gaming than some of the other countries in this article. Ethiopia, Iran, or even China don’t have the same traditional influence on the international gaming space that Japan has. Thus, it’s not surprising that Shogi is the major exception when it comes to the diversity of chess games in the online space – even though Xiangqi is quickly catching up.

The history in and future of video game chess

It wouldn’t be a misnomer to include chess in a list of oldest and most influential strategy games. Wargaming alone, which lays the basis for games like Panzer General, Total War, and even the Hearts of Iron series, derives from chess after the Prussians got their hands on it. 

It doesn’t seem that online chess games became less varied. There’s still plenty of flavor in the different games that prevent the fabled strategy game from becoming a homogenous formula. However, in terms of historical variety, chess is facing some obstacles. Whereas video games have worked excellently for some variants, notably Shogi, other cool variants of the mind game are increasingly left in the twilight. 

That in itself is not gaming’s fault. The decline of these chess variants happened decades, sometimes even centuries ago. However, there is an interesting opportunity for the video game industry as a whole to put the spotlight on how diverse and fascinating the different human interpretations of chess can be. 

I for one would love to play Senterej or Tamerlane Chess with some friends! Perhaps in the form of a chessboard, or maybe just as a core mechanic with some more flavorful gameplay and worldbuilding around it. The immense cultural diversity around chess is far too cool to confine to Wikipedia, encyclopedias, and archives.

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