When you think of the timeless, cerebral game of chess, surely you think -- what it needs is some improvements
, and that among those necessary and long-neglected iterations is an eight-on-eight speed pawn-off where nobody has to wait their turn.
"I hate chess," independent game developer Bennett Foddy tells Gamasutra. "It focuses heavily on three things I am bad at: thinking ahead, book learning, and waiting for a really long time."
Bennett Foddy's Speed Chess
was commissioned for New York University's Game Center and its No Quarter exhibition, an annual curation of work from renowned and up-and-coming independent design minds. Geared primarily for exhibitions, it pits two teams of up to eight players against one another in a deathmatch for the other side of the board. It acts as an "extreme reaction" to everything Foddy says he doesn't like about the original game.
"To get really good at chess, you memorize a library's worth of famous games and gambits, and you get good at recognizing when other people are playing those moves, and what the best counter-moves are," he explains. "You get good at staying focused on your five next moves while the other person sits and takes literally an hour to decide their move. And then if all goes to plan, you can tell your opponent 'checkmate in 15' with a really smug look on your face, wearing the same kind of black satin waistcoat that Jimmy White would have worn when he played a game of snooker from beginning to end without giving the other person a turn."
"I guess chess is actually a pretty good game."
"I guess chess is actually a pretty good game," he relents. "Its rules have been perfected over thousands of years, and literally millions of really smart people seem happy with them, because we haven't changed the rules in ages. Who am I to say it's a bad game? And yet, here we are."
Foddy says he's lately been experimenting with games that resolve quickly and can be replayed multiple times. "I implanted a secret version of Get On Top
into my recent project Sportsfriends
, where you play until someone wins one thousand rounds, but each round takes around three seconds," he says. "When you make a competitive game like this, you get very quickly to that fascinating part of competitive games, sometimes known as the 'meta', where you are making counterstrategies to address your opponent's favorite counterstrategies."
Get on Top
, an awkward competitive wrestling game, was apparently originally designed to be played by two users on trampolines. Foddy's previous athletic works, like QWOP, GIRP
and Pole Riders
, are all mechanically interesting -- at the same time they seem virtually created to frustrate and embarrass players, often in the public spaces where they're ideally exhibited.
I asked Foddy whether this whole Speed Chess
thing was just another mean joke. Full disclosure: Before conducting this interview, Foddy and I were part of the same card game of Marrying Mr. Darcy
, where he drew Elizabeth Bennett and collected most of the wit and beauty cards while the rest of us felt inadequate.
"I think you have a pretty good read on my personality, but in this case it's not so much about scaring players as it is about fucking with their expectations and predilections," he says. According to Foddy, showing a game like Speed Chess
in public creates two opportunities: You can trick action game fans into playing chess, and you can get one over on those pesky well-prepared chess students.
"I try to push on cultural boundaries with a lot of my games -- tricking video game nerds (like me) into playing sports, and simultaneously tricking football bros into playing weird creative video games."
"If they love chess, they come at it with their books full of gambits and their ability to think twelve moves ahead, and they just get smashed by the chess newbies on the other side," enthuses Foddy. "I try to push on cultural boundaries in this way with a lot of my games -- tricking video game nerds (like me) into playing sports, and simultaneously tricking football bros into playing weird creative video games."
Nobody can actually think as quickly as Speed Chess requires, Foddy says. In light of that, he offers some tips: "Just queue up a bunch of moves in your head before the round starts, then you put them into the gamepad in a panic, and see what happens. If you lose, you just adjust your strategy and go again. It's not as though a trapdoor opens up under you and you fall into a creek, although that would be cool too."
After showing the game at No Quarter at NYU this year and later at the XOXO conference arcade in Portland, where I was also a speaker, Foddy noticed repeat players would learn cooperative techniques together. "The best player would take control of the king, and the other players would cooperate to free the king and move him to safety at the start of a round, thwarting any pre-arranged plan on the opposing side to capture him," he says. "I saw coordinated walls of pawns advance up the field to block the opposing side's pawns from advancing."
"As for mastering it, I really doubt anyone has gotten near that! Everyone who's played it so far has been at a one-night special event or party," he says. "To master it you'd need to play with the same team over and over. I hope someone installs it in a dorm."
Foddy says a game like Speed Chess
is "almost impossible" to properly test while prototyping -- "which made the process of design iteration exciting, like walking tightrope without a net," he says. "I made dumb computer players to make sure all the systems were working, but obviously I couldn't discuss tactics with my digital teammates, so it didn't really prove the merits of the design at all."
He looked into other high-speed versions of chess -- matches with limited time allotments either per move or per game. "While it involves less waiting than regular chess, it in fact involves more rote learning, because there isn't time to really think things through," he says. "In the digital realm, every single 'realtime chess' game I could find was a variant of 'Kung Fu Chess', which is essentially regular chess for two players, with timers on each piece instead of turns. Those games add a dimension of execution-difficulty which helps to mess up precise planning, but since the speed of each player's moves is symmetrical, it still winds up being a lot
like regular chess."
happens so quickly all that precision goes out the window, and ideally compels the player all the more: "As a designer I try to work in service of chaos, but I think chaos is best when it's juxtaposed with a player's inherent need to impose order," he says.
"I was reading David Chang's Momofuku cookbook, and there's a passage in there where he points out that there's this convention amongst top-flight chefs," he continues. "They are all expected to offer their own personal take on two basic standards: bread service, and an egg dish. These foods are so neutral in flavour and so dependent on technique that you can use them to analyze the difference between chefs as artists."
"And I reflected on what that would mean for game designers. I decided that we should all make our own versions of Pong
(which is eggs), and chess (which is definitely bread)," Foddy suggests. "I would strongly recommend it as an exercise to anyone in a creative fieldófigure out what the bread is, and what the eggs are, and then give them your best shot. It's a great way of figuring out your own identity as a creator."