Two Chess Variants I've Played... & Two I'd Never Heard Of

Oct 13, 2009, 12:23 PM |

I received a couple of coupon codes from the folks over at Chess House and took an opportunity to re-visit their site to see what was new.  Before long, I ended up in their "variants" section.  Normally, I don't have too much time for variants, which is understandable given Lord Byron's maxim that "Life it too short for chess"... much less bughouse.  But I have played a couple--namely Seirawan (or Sharper) chess and 960 (or Fischer-random).

960 is cheap and easy to learn; it's just chess but without the benefit/drawback of openings theory.  Take a normal chess set, use one of the 960 valid patterns for piece-placement on the back rows, and you're off.  (Well, ok, there are a few rules to learn regarding castling and such, & if you're interested you can check them out here.)

Seirawan chess requires an additional two pieces (the Elephant and Hawk) to be added to the usual cast of characters--but it's played on a standard board.  Whenever you move one of your normal pieces off the back rank, you may on the same turn drop either of the new pieces in the vacated bank-rank square (which itself can be quite deadly on an open file or diagonal).  The new pieces are somewhere between a Rook and a Queen in terms of potency:  On a given turn, the Hawk may move either as a Bishop or as a Knight, whereas the mighty Elephant may move either like a Rook or a Knight.  Their inclusion in the game has the same defenestrating effect on openings theory as in 960, & there's a lot more 'heat' on the board early in the game, which often leads to pretty spectacular tactical fireworks.  (Seirawan pieces can be purchased here.)

To be honest, though, my 'variant' chess games are few and far between, vastly in the minority of all the chess games I play.  In part, that's an output of the fact that 'classic' chess is my priority:  I still consider myself an improving player, & to further that end I employ computer analysis and chess databases to learn from my mistakes.  From this perspective, a game of Seirawan chess is a relatively idle pastime--a 'throw-away' game that is done & gone when it's over.

But that aside, the reason I like these two variants while resisting others that alter the board dimensions is that larger boards tend to change the strength of the chess pieces in disproportionate ways--in general, to the disadvantage of the Knight.  But last night, I came across two new (to me) games that I'd genuinely like to try...

First, Plunder Chess doesn't change the size of the board or introduce any new pieces.  Instead, it adds a new dimension to the way pieces move:  When one piece captures another, it can 'plunder' or steal the captured piece's movement ability, to be used once in a chosen future move.  For instance, if your Knight captures an enemy Rook, you may steal that Rook's movement, allowing your Knight to move like a Rook one time in the future.  The set consists of a specially shaped but otherwise conventional chess-set, and a set of fitted 'collars' than can be affixed to the pieces.  Of course, the collars show which pieces have plundered move capabilities (and which pieces' moves they've plundered).  I'm not sure why the graphic shows each army as having two Kings, but there's maybe more here than meets the product description.  Anyway, it sounds like a blast.

The second variant that looked (very) interesting is called Shuuro, and this time, the board IS bigger--quite a bit bigger actually.  (To add value, there's a conventional chess board printed on the underside of the Shuuro board.)

There are a couple of innovations here that I think make this variant a winner.  First, there are eight cubic "plinths" that are arranged on the board randomly at the start of each game--to represent terrain, etc.  These act as insurmountable obstacles to all pieces except one--you guessed it, the Knight, who can not only pass over them but also use them as uber-outposts by standing on top of them (a position vulnerable only to attack by another Knight).  For me, this amply repays the Knight for the deficit of being a short-range piece on a larger 12x12 landscape.

The second difference is the potential variety of the opposing chess armies, both from game to game and relative to each other in a given game.  At the outset of a Shuuro game, opponents agree how many "points" they will each have to expend on their armies (eg. each player gets 800 points for military spending), and then use a point-piece system (for example, a Queen is worth 110 points, a rook is 70 points and a pawn is 10) to select their own tailor-made army.  For people who think standard chess games are a bit too 'vanilla' and want more variety, I think this variant would be a godsend.

Anybody played either of these?  If so, what did you think?