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Game Design Essentials: 20 Real-World Games

August 12, 2010 Article Start Previous Page 3 of 21 Next

2. Chess

Cultural game

Type: Two-player abstract tactical piece-taking

Depth: Extreme

Designed by: Unknown (lost to time)

Luck factor: None

Description: Two players alternate moving pieces, with different movement and attack patterns, around a checkerboard to try to threaten the opposing side's king.

Play Summary

On a checkerboard of eight by eight squares two players engage in an abstract tactical battle. They each have 16 pieces of six different types. Each has a certain simple movement pattern unique to it.

On each turn, a player moves one, and only one, of his pieces. (There are a couple of exceptions to this, but they are beyond the scope of this interview. There are plenty of places to learn about Chess anyway.)

These are the pieces in the game:

  • Pawns only move forward, across the board. They are halted if any piece stands in its way, but they can capture by moving diagonally forward. This is the only way they can move other than straight ahead. If a pawn makes it to the other end of the board, it promotes, turning into any other kind of piece besides king. (90 percent of the time, this means Queen.)
  • Rooks move as many spaces as they have room horizontally or vertically. They are powerful pieces, but are difficult to effectively bring into play due to starting in the corner.
  • Bishops move only diagonally. They are less powerful than rooks generally, but can enter play much faster. A consequence of their movement pattern is that a bishop can never enter a board space of the color opposite the one it started on; if it begins on black, it can never move onto white. In consequence, a bishop can only ever attack half the spaces on the board.
  • Knights are strange pieces. They jump as they move, two spaces in one cardinal direction and one to the side. They "pass over" any intervening pieces. They are the only type of piece that doesn't have to worry about being blocked by intervening pieces, but this is balanced by their limited range and movement options. It requires a knight a minimum of three turns to move to an adjacent space. Knights are the only kind of piece that can make moves a queen cannot duplicate, which makes them an alternate choice for pawn promotion. On the first turn of the game all the pieces are behind a wall of pawns, but this doesn't hinder knights.
  • Queens are the most powerful pieces on the board, combining the movement options of rooks and bishops. Each side only gets one, barring pawn promotion. Losing the Queen is a major setback unless great advantage is earned in compensation.
  • Kings move like queens, except they move at most one space at a time. This makes them only a bit more powerful then pawns. Since losing the king loses the game, protecting this piece is essential.

Moving a piece into the same space as an opponent's piece "captures" it, removing it from the game and so reducing its owner's arsenal. No piece may move through another, which sometimes creates instances where one's own pieces limit movement and capturing options by getting in the way. This is especially the case at the beginning of the game, where the line of pawns at the front of each player's army block the attacks of the more-powerful pieces behind them.

The king is a weak piece in movement range and attack potential, but it is of great importance because its loss means losing the game. In practice the king is never actually captured; the game ends when it gets in a situation of inescapable danger.

The emphasis, thus, is not to capture the king through opponent error, hoping he does not notice a threat. Instead it is on engineering situations, covering escape routes and pinning down defenders. This emphasis on situations, creating and surviving them, as opposed to meta-game distractions, is an important distinction for serious gameplay. Chess enthusiasts take this to unequaled heights.

The various other pieces have their own movement styles, and studying how they interact and comparing their value is the core of the game. Ultimately chess is a game of tactics, of the worth of individual moves, but a good strategic sense of the game can greatly expand one's options.

What can we draw from this game?

If you're making a tactical wargame, then you can't go wrong from making a study of Chess, to which they owe a great debt. To pick a simple example: many video wargames give players a unit whose loss means immediate loss. Most of the time this unit is like the king in Chess -- fairly weak and so best left off the front lines.

Much has been made lately of the great strides made by computer chess programs. Their greatest strength is providing an immensely strong tactical machine, being able to search for strong moves by brute-force computation rather than human insight, but the sheer number of moves a tactics engine would have to examine to exhaust even a simple situation means that, even now, the best chess programs make use of heuristic, strategic play as well.

Another great advantage possessed by these programs is having a vast database of pre-considered situations to work from, histories of pre-played games stored in a database. This is of the greatest value at the beginning of a game, in which the situations encountered are common to many different games.

It has been observed that Chess has become somewhat mired in its vast history of play. Most multiplayer computer games, when you come down to it, have game-breaking strategies that become evident only after a lot of study. A key aim of the multiplayer game designer is to minimize the chances of this, which is difficult without the benefit of an extensive play history to study. No game has as extensive a play history as Chess; it is probably the most studied game in the world, and has innumerable lessons to teach.

Article Start Previous Page 3 of 21 Next

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