Thursday, November 22, 2007

Top 10 Chess Variants

Our beloved chess game has evolved through roughly 1500 years and is now an extremely playable game. It owes its playability to many different factors. In my opinion two of the most important are:

  • the stabilizing power of the pawns which sometimes allows very long-term strategical planning.
  • the unlikely similarity in strength of knights and bishops which sometimes may demand an extremely careful evaluation of the position.

But although our game is the end result of a long evolutionary process it's not the only viable chess game. Here are my top rankings. With one exception the links lead to the Chess Variants home page which offers rules and a short introduction. However, also Wikipedia's Chess Variant Pages are quite good.

  1. Shogi
    This is the Japanese version of chess and to me it appears a just as good game as what we normally call chess, but which I in this entry will refer to as IC (International Chess). The main difference from IC is that when you capture an enemy piece, it joins your army and you can put it back onto the board again instead of moving one of your "on-board" pieces.
  2. Bughouse
    Also known as Tandem chess, this variant is basically a team chess game. You are sure to have seen it if you have attended a week-end tournament with young participants.
  3. Ultima
    As a student I used to enjoy a version of this game, called Australian Chess. It has relatively little to do with IC and gives me futuristic associations - the high-tech variation of chess.
  4. Xiangqi
    This is the traditional Chinese chess. It's played on a special 9x10 board but with some difficulty it's possible to use the corners of an IC board. Usually the games are highly tactical as pieces are not as hindered by pawns as in IC.
  5. Fischer Random
    This is also known as Fischer 960 and according to some players the future of IC. The only difference between this version and IC is that the games start with random piece configurations on the back rank. The main advantage of the FR is that opening theory has not yet developed (to automatically assume that it will never develop seems a bit naive).
    In my experience from various internet chess servers it appears that most piece configurations are roughly as playable as normal chess but a few tend to lead to rapid exchanges while others seem to give White a greater advantage than traditional chess.
  6. Crazyhouse
    I consider this game a cross between IC and Shogi. It's played on a IC board with IC pieces but captured enemy pieces join your army and can be placed on the board For practical reasons this game is mainly played online - with a chess engine changing the
    colour of captured pieces). I plan to design and produce a set of flat Crazyhouse pieces which are white on one side and black on the other but I would like them to look really nice, so I don't know when I will find the time.
  7. Suicide Chess
    This is also a popular chess variant to be seen at tournaments with young players passing time between rounds. Besides the obvious charm of reversing the aim of the game (you try to lose pieces rather than winning them), it's also a fascinating game because it's possible to calculate extremely long, forcing lines.
    There also is a version of this game called Losing Chess which I have never liked. The difference is mainly that the king cannot be captured and the objective is to lose all your pieces OR to be checkmated. To me this version appears to be a compromise between IC and Suicide - possibly introduced by an incompetent or lazy programmer.
  8. Progressive Chess
    In this variant White first makes one move; Black makes two, White three, Black four etc. Unlike most variants it can probably be a good training tool for visualization and mating patterns. There are amazingly many nice mates from roughly Black's 2nd move (4 consecutive moves) to White's 4th move (7 consecutive moves).
  9. Kriegspiel
    This is another chess variant I used to play a lot as a student - usually through most of the night as it's quite time consuming if you allow the players time to really ponder their moves. In addition to the two players you need a referee. This may be quite hard to find but there actually are those who enjoy this role even more than playing the game themselves.
  10. Kung Fu Chess
    This is the real-time version of chess. You don't have to wait for your opponent's move - just keep your pieces flowing. This requires quite a lot of physical skill and I must admit that I have always been exceptionally inept at this game.

Honorary Mention
This chess version is quite close to the original Indian chess - Chaturanga. I find the game a bit too slow to be really engaging but in a future blog I will probably return to the Thai version of the game which actually is quite close to the Indian original.

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