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Variant Chess

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Now that's just silly.

World President: So this will be our home for the next few weeks. I hope you play a good game of 3-dimensional chess, Captain.
Captain Brown: I play a very good game, sir.

It's the far-flung future, or an alien planet, or even a Wizarding School. The two characters are talking about the latest plot point over a game of Chess.

No wait... It looks like chess (or checkers or what have you), but it isn't quite the chess we know. It could have multiple, circular, or other odd boards. It could be that the pieces are sentient. It could be something as simple as a different motif for the pieces, or a new unique piece or two. But in some way, the characters are playing a different board game. The characters may or may not still use terms like "Checkmate".

Two of the most common variations are chess with humans for pieces, and layered boards. Outside of anime conventions and renaissance fairs, the "living pieces" version has understandably negative connotations, being a favored trope of villains.


From a narrative and world-building standpoint, this strange, alien board game serves to establish the setting as different from our own in a simple way, while maintaining some verisimilitude by showing the characters do, in fact, play board games. This may be why layered boards are a common choice, as they are visually distinctive (or were, at some point). The game may not even be much like chess or any other game of ours, but as a visual trope the rules often won't come up anyway.

"Fantastic Chess", "Wizard Chess", and "Future" or "Space Chess" are more specific terms based on setting. Human Chess is a subtrope (so see that page for those examples). Also see Smart People Play Chess. House Rules can act as a Justification depending on the circumstances.

Very much present in Real Life — The Wikipedia article on Chess Variants puts the number at over 2000 (and that's only counting published ones), with the amount perhaps unlimited. Some of these even enjoy a fair following. Since WWI a subgroup, which includes unusual problems as well as non-standard pieces, known as "Fairy Chess" has been popular, engendering multiple international organizations of players and theorists. See also this page.



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    Board Games 
Most Board Game companies have "unsolicited submissions" piles filled with new Chess Variants. At least one of the 5 biggest RPG manufacturers in America automatically rejects them. While they are neat in fiction, and may even be fun to play, they never sell well enough to be worth it unless there is a popular license attached.
  • Arimaa: Pieces push and pull each other into pits in an effort to get their weakest pieces across the board. Designed to be difficult for computers, but still simple and fun for humans.
  • Forchess: four-player, two-on-two chess (and it also has a free-for-all version using the same rules).
  • Tile Chess, where the board is made of multiple free-standing tiles, thus allowing a non-standard board that keeps changing shape, and allows up to SIX players at the same time. It's very fun.
  • Stealth Chess (not related to the Discworld sort below): The pieces are pictures on tiles, facing away from the other player, and you can arrange the pieces any way you like at the beginning of the game. Since the other player doesn't know what your pieces are you can bluff when moving pieces. They also introduced Super Castling (Rook Teleportation) and some other wacky unique moves.
  • Blind Chess, wherein the two players play on separate boards, with some sort of divider between them, with only their pieces, and a third (unseen by the other two) person who can see them both maintains a complete view of the game as a referee, telling them when and what they've taken with their latest move, whether moves are legal, and whether they are in check. This is called Kriegspiel (which is German for "War Game.")
  • Knightmare Chess, where the rules change over the course of the game, based on cards.
  • Chess 960, where the starting position is chosen randomly from 960 possibilities. Invented by Bobby Fischer.
  • Proteus, where the pieces can change identity repeatedly throughout the game. Also introduces a new piece that can't move but also can't be captured.
  • Dragon Magazine proposed a game called Dragon Chess, with three boards (representing the surface, the Underdark, and the sky) using miniatures for pieces. Unfortunately they were unable to design a board capable of supporting the weight of the miniatures.
  • Omega Chess deserves special mention as it gives the impression of actually having the intent to take the place in mainstream board-games on which Chess has historically held a monopoly.
  • Games like Shōgi (Japanese chess) and xiangqi (Chinese chess) are related and similar to international chess; both Western/international chess and these games themselves started as variants of the Indian game chaturanga. Some of these games, like makruk (Thai chess) can be played on an international chess board with the same pieces.
  • There's an entire web site devoted to chess variants called, appropriately enough,
  • Byzantine chess, which is played on a round board instead of a square one, was created after Pope John VII declared chess the product of "pagans" and banned its play from Christian lands. The monks who invented Byzantine Chess reasoned that, as the circle was a symbol of the sun, and thus a symbol of God, a circular board could not be "pagan". They got away with it.
  • Alice in Wonderland chess, which uses two boards, one of which is initially empty. Each piece, immediately after its move, "teleports" to the corresponding square of the other board (the move has to be legal before the "teleportation" and you can't move to a square if the corresponding square on the other board is occupied). This creates bizarre situations, e.g. if you want to protect your king from a check by moving a piece in front of the king, the moving piece needs to start its move on the board without the king. This, and other quirks of the game, make traditional defence useless and allows for some attacks impossible in traditional chess (for example, thanks to the fact that the same square on both boards can never be occupied, moving behind enemy lines is much easier).
  • Guide to Fairy Chess by Anthony Stewart Mackay Dickins (1971). A good history of a particular group of non-standard chess problems, pieces, and boards played since the late 19th Century, and their evolution and additions through the 20th Century.
  • Martian Chess; each person controls one quadrant of a chessboard, and it uses icehouse pyramids rather than regular chess pieces. Everyone automatically controls pieces in their territory, so every time you capture an enemy piece you lose the capturing piece. The winner is based on value of captured pieces. From those good people over at Looney Labs, it was mentioned in The Empty City as an alternative to the more popular game of Icehouse.
    • A similar game from the same people is Monochrome Chess; the same idea of a board that has been divided and you only control the pieces in your territory, but it uses regular chess pieces rather than icehouse pyramids. All sorts of recursive game development going on...
  • And of course the horrifying (if apocryphal) Chess: With THAC0
  • The page image with the circular board is 3 Man Chess. And yes, there are rules keeping you from taking the rook right next to yours at the beginning, among other things. Some other quirks that arise due to the board include diagonal and horizontal moves sometimes allowing the piece to move in a full circle.
  • Katherine Kurtz Deryni novels have something called Cardounet, which seems similar to chess.
  • Harry Turtledove puts one in his Videssos books in which the pieces representing coins get more valuable the farther into 'enemy' territory they get.

    Anime and Manga 
  • In Legend of Galactic Heroes, there is a variant of chess called Three-Dimensional Chess, which consists on standard chess but with two extra boards above and below the main board, and there are rules for moving the classic chess pieces from one board to the other. Actually makes awesome sense if you analyze it, since, with the advent of space battling, the third dimension has become an important component of military strategy, and this future's version of chess reflects it.

    Comic Books 
  • In 1963, MAD decided, since old-fashioned chess reflected an obsolete kind of warfare, that the pieces and rules of chess needed to be redesigned to reflect modern military innovation. This "Modern Chess" would be, in other words, Global Thermonuclear War, with bishops, rooks and knights replaced by ICBMs, air raid sirens and fallout shelters, and so on:
    Strategy is limited to each player waiting for the other to make the first move. End of game is followed by deathly silence. Unlike old-fashioned chess, there is no winner. There is also no loser. After several years, the radiation subsides enough to permit another game to begin ... if there's anyone left to play it. Also, a new chess set is used which MAD is now designing — with caveman-type pieces.
  • A particularly irksome moment in the Storm comics has the protagonist teaching a whole city to abandon their bloody gladiatorial games because chess is so much more fun.

  • One truck commercial shows musclemen playing chess on an outdoor board, using huge marble/stone chess pieces that presumably only they could lift. Yeah.
  • This commercial for the U.S. Marine Corps, circa 1990 or so. Named one of the 25 most epic ads of all time by Ad Freak.


  • Wizard Chess in Harry Potter, where the pieces are semi-sentient and respond to verbal commands. Harry isn't very good at Wizard Chess; his pieces actually argue with him over bad decisions. Ron, on the other hand, is excellent; his pieces have come to trust him and obey his orders without question. In the climax of the first book, this becomes a Chekhov's Skill when the trio become pieces in a game of Human Chess.
  • Discworld has stealth chess.
  • In Isaac Asimov's novel, Pebble in the Sky, set thousands of years into The Future, it is mentioned that 3d and other variants of chess existing, though the game that features as a plot point during chapter 11 is of the common sort, with glowing pieces.
    Grew told him of variations of chess. There was fourhanded chess, in which each player had a board, touching each other at the corners, with a fifth board filling the hollow in the center as a common No Man's Land. There were three-dimensional chess games in which eight transparent boards were placed one over the other and in which each piece moved in three dimensions as they formerly moved in two, and in which the number of pieces and pawns were doubled, the win coming only when a simultaneous check of both enemy kings occurred. There were even the popular varieties, in which the original position of the chessmen were decided by throws of the dice, or where certain squares conferred advantages or disadvantages to the pieces upon them, or where new pieces with strange properties were introduced.
    But chess itself, the original and unchangeable, was the same-and the tournament between Schwartz and Grew had completed its first fifty games.
  • From Dune's Terminology of the Imperium:
    "CHEOPS: pyramid chess; nine-level chess with the double object of putting your queen at the apex and the opponent's king in check."[1]
  • Chess, or "shah", is played on both worlds of Raymond E. Feist's The Riftwar Cycle.
  • David Eddings' The Belgariad occasionally refers to a chess-like game being played by superhuman forces, and the books each have a chess-related title (the protagonist is the titular Pawn of Prophecy). Despite this, neither chess nor any other board game appear in the actual story.
  • Tom Corbett, Space Cadet has space chess, played in three dimensions using a cube of intersecting light beams and neutral-buoyancy balloon pieces.
  • Star Trek Expanded Universe novels:
    • In The Final Reflection, by John M. Ford, the protagonist's father studies other races through their chess-equivalents. Of the several mentioned in the novel, klin zha, the Klingon game, is of particular and recurring significance, and has itself several variants.
    • In Diane Duane's My Enemy, My Ally, Kirk has gotten a bit bored with "traditional" 3D chess and so his recreation chief creates a 4D variant using a cubic version of the chessboard and very precise transporters. McCoy then beats Spock at it. When he had never played it before. From a position where Kirk was about to resign. Diane Duane really likes McCoy.
  • Since The Player of Games revolves around the protagonist's unsurpassed game-playing ability, it's unsurprising that a lot of the games that get mentioned are variants on the abstract strategy theme. Azad itself is somewhat chess-like, except for the room-sized board ... and the changing pieces ... and the multiple side games.
  • The John Carter of Mars books by Edgar Rice Burroughs feature a Martian Chess, called Jetan. In the book The Chessmen of Mars, they play it with live pieces. In S.M. Stirling's novel In The Courts Of The Crimson Kings it reappears as "atanj". Obvious?
  • Gor has its own chess variant, Kaissa. Although it features quite often, the rules are never explained in detail. It serves as a vehicle for sermonising (Tarnsman of Gor), a game played for the hero's life (Assassin of Gor), a means to fraternise with the locals (Marauders of Gor) and others besides.
  • Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid proposes a game in which (certain parameters of) the rules are represented as pieces on a second chessboard, so that on your turn you can move a piece or change the rules. Or there could be only one board, so that on your turn you are moving a piece and changing the rules. Unsurprisingly, some aficionados have actually tried this out.
  • Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World features a game called chess, with different but overlapping pieces compared to the basic version.
  • A Song of Ice and Fire has cyvasse, a chess-variant with pieces like dragon, elephant, crossbow, trebuchet and mountain. The players align their pieces in a custom starting alignment before the beginning of the game, with a Battleships-style screen dividing the board so your opponent doesn't know your deployment until the game begins. Smart People Play Cyvasse is in full effect.
  • The Wheel of Time fills this narrative slot with "stones", which appears to be Go or a game very much like it. It's stated to be a simplified form of a more complex game called "Sha'rah", whose strategy centers around the capture and/or manipulation of a powerful piece called the Fisher. The children's game Snakes and Foxes (similar to the Real Life Chutes and Ladders, except that it's nearly Unwinnable by Design) is also a major plot point.
  • The Liavek books have "cylindrical shah". "Regular" shah seems to be chess with a different name and different names for all the pieces; cylindrical shah is a variant in which the players pretend that the board is a cylinder with the two sides touching- meaning that the player can move a piece "off" one side and "onto" the other. There's a complicated incident where some characters get stuck as the pieces in a game of Human Chess between gods, and realize partway through that they're playing cylindrical shah, not the usual version.
  • The Green Rider series has Intrigue. The game is described as having messengers, generals, knights, spies, and a queen and king. It can be played between two people or with a third member, called the Triad. The Triad can choose to ally with either player but can also choose to be neutral. He or she can also break that alliance at any time. It's intended as a teaching tool for noble youths in the arts of treachery, tactics, and strategy, and is often used as a motif in the stories for the same.
  • War of the Spider Queen describes a game called "sava", which allows each player to roll dice once per game for a chance to make one of the opponent's pieces capture another. The board is also web-shaped.
  • Perry Rhodan gives us "Martha-Martha", which is highly popular among the reptilian Tarts (sic) in the Duchy of Krandhor. That the game eventually turns out to be derived from classic Earth chess (introduced by human castaways) even becomes a plot point.
  • The Dark Tower series features fleeting mentions of a chess variant called Castles with differently-named pieces, and evidently some sort of "hillock" square(s) in the middle of the board which restrict a player's view of the opposing pieces.
  • The Ciaphas Cain novels by Sandy Mitchell mentioned a game called "Regicide", of which Cain himself was a pretty good player of—a variant of chess (Warhammer 40,000-style) that could be played with a variety of alternate rules, such as each piece having special abilities, putting obstacles on the board/"field" which forced the players to adjust their strategies to go around them or a "blind" version which put a cover over the board and forced the players to play... well, blind. Now (partially) undergoing Defictionalization with the upcoming Regicide video game.
  • Codex Alera has Ludus. In addition to the various pieces being renamed (First Lord, Citizen, Freeholder, etc...), there is an additional board that represents the sky above the battlefield. This makes sense given that some Alerans are capable of flight and aerial battles and tactics are an important part of Aleran warfare.
  • Starman Jones has 3D chess, and the game pieces are different types of spaceships instead of medieval figures.
  • The Adventures of Tom Rynosseros: fire chess is Serious Business in future Australia. The details of the game are intentionally left vague, but all the pieces are alit during play.

    Live-Action TV 
  • Star Trek:
    • 3D chess was used often in Star Trek. Spock was obviously a master. As the rules were concocted after the board was designed just to 'look' futuristic, there are several sets: one involves being able to move several small four-square 'attack boards' with pieces on them to different clipped-on positions on the the three main boards in lieu of a move.
    • Features as a plot point in the TOS first season episode "Court Martial," where Spock beating the computer at chess is a clue that the computer has been tampered with.
    • In the 3rd Season episode "Whom Gods Destroy", the sign-countersign Kirk is supposed to use to get beamed back up to the Enterprise — to make sure it was really him and not an impostor — was "Queen to Queen's Level Three". (The countersign was "Queen to King's Level One.")
    • The Star Trek: The Next Generation episode "Peak Performance" introduces Strategema, which appears to be similar to Go played on a holographic board, in real time and at high speed. Data is unable to defeat a visiting third-level grand master, but is later able to force a draw and cause the Arrogant Kung-Fu Guy to leave in a huff after a game that lasted for only a few seconds but apparently included over 33,000 moves between them. This was some eight years before a similar match in Real Life in which the IBM computer Deep Blue was able to beat (human) champion Gary Kasparov at chess two games to one (with three draws) in a battle of attrition.
    • An episode of Star Trek: Voyager briefly features a game called "derada." Not much is known about it other than that B'Elanna always falls for Tom's "Novakovich Gambit."
    • Another such game featured on Voyager is kadis-kot. Naomi, Neelix, and Seven are fond of playing it.
  • Blake's 7
  • Sheldon and Leonard play 3D chess in one episode of The Big Bang Theory. After Leonard loses several times in a row, Sheldon suggests that "perhaps three-dimensional Candy Land is more your speed."
  • Double the Fist had Steve Foxx travel back in time to make the world better by killing Captain Cook, but Cook's crew had force fields and rayguns and fought Steve's allies to a standstill (don't ask) so Steve accepted an offer to settle things peacefully over a game of chess. Holographic 3D chess where moves and captures were declared by announcing Cluedo-style murders.
  • Lexx had a live-piece chess game in one of the trippy later-season episodes.
  • One of the things that gets interrupted by the Batphone in the old Batman (1966) TV series is a game of chess, played on four or five layered boards.
  • In the Doctor Who episode "The Wedding Of River Song", The Doctor and an agent of the Silence play Live Chess in a gladiator-style pit, with crowds of cheering/screaming spectators.
    The Doctor: The crowd is getting restless, they know the queen is your only legal move. Except you've already moved it twelve times, which means there are now over four million volts running through it. That's why they call it live chess.
    • The Doctor used a chess puzzle to defeat Fenric in "The Curse of Fenric." The first time he set up the challenge, he carved the pieces from bones in the sand, and posed his Unwinnable by Design puzzle. The solution? The black pawns join forces with the white ones. Of course, the Doctor never said Fenric couldn't do this!
    • When The Third Doctor is imprisoned in the Lunar Penal Colony in "Frontier In Space," the inmates play a Variant Chess game involving translucent pieces of peculiar cylindrical shapes, four irregular tiers and an either eccentric or repetitive set-up procedure. The terms "Check" and "Mate" are both employed, but no other rules are observable.

    Tabletop Games 
  • Invisible Sun features the Spider's Game, a version of chess routinely played by members of the magical Order of Weavers to keep their magic weaving skills sharp. It involves anywhere from four to nine boards and a complex array of pieces and moves that anyone outside the Weavers are likely to find incomprehensible.
  • Dungeons & Dragons has dragonchess, a variant played on three different boards at once, representing the sky, land, and Underdark. It also uses (mostly) its own pieces based on traditional D&D races, classes, and monsters, each with its own unique rules.

    Video Games 
  • There exist a number of chess engines that can handle variant rules range from specific Fairy Chess rulesets to programs like Zillions of Games that allow the definition of a wide variety of variants and boards and attempts to use brute force algorithms to allow the computer to play intelligently.
  • Archon and featured a chess-like setup but it had different (but equivalent) pieces on each side with various abilities. Capturing pieces was performed via an arcade sequence where the two pieces fought it out and either one could win. Its sequel was much less chess-like at first glance (being on an irregularly-shaped board where you have to summon most of your pieces to the field).
  • In-universe in Touhou, Momiji Inubashiri of the Youkai Mountain Patrol is a fan of shogi. She and the other patrolmen came up with an extremely complex variant, Dai Tengu Shogi. She was quite annoyed to find out the outside world had also developed different pieces and alternate rules.
  • Chess Evolved Online is an ambitious online chess variant that adds over 300 pieces to the game, with players choosing 15 pieces and a king using a Point Buy system. New pieces range from relative mundane upgrades to existing pieces (Bishop+ can move one square orthogonality, as long as this doesn't capture an enemy piece) to completely original pieces that change the game completely (Liches can Cast from Hit Points to summon skeletons, Wind Mages can push both allied and enemy pieces around.)
  • The Framing Device for Kingdom Hearts III involves a vaguely chess-like game between Xehanort and Eraqus during their youth. Unbeknownst to them, their moves just happen to correspond to the battle between Sora's allies and Xehanort's various incarnations. In the epilogue, Eraqus starts up a new game, resembling the coming conflict between Sora and the Foretellers.
  • "Auto Chess" games are the latest fad to take over videogames in 2019 (following the end of the Battle Royale Game gold rush), starting out as a mod for Dota 2 called Dota Auto Chess, which rapidly exploded in popularity, leading to both Valve creating a standalone version called Dota Underlords and Riot Games making their own version based on their League of Legends called Team Fight Tactics. It's a bit of a Nonindicative Name even by the trope's standards, as the games have little to nothing to do with chess beyond putting a range of different units (that you buy with currency, upgrade and equip with items) on either side of a gridded board to fight each other (even the fighting is all done automatically, as the name suggests).
  • There have been several video game implementations of Laser Chess. While the exact rules were different in different versions the basic premise was the same. Each side had a Laser Cannon and the other pieces are equipped with mirrors allowing players to bounce the laser beam around to take out enemy pieces. Since the mirrors are directional players have to be concerned with the orientation of their pieces as well as the position.
  • 5D Chess With Multiverse Time Travel is technically 4D (2 spatial dimension and 2 temporal), but it's basically normal chess with the ability to move pieces and attack back into the past, which generates an alternate timeline when it's done so. Winning is usual by getting a checkmate, but that can also be done through time and alternate timelines in addition to on the normal board.

    Web Comics 
  • In Homestuck, every prototyping changes the Variant Chess world known as Skaia and as each player enters it grows more complex
    • 0 Prototypings: A constant stalemate between two kings stuck on a 3 x 3 board
    • 1 Prototyping: Normal chess
    • 2 Prototypings: It becomes a giant CUBE with normal chess rules
      • Vriska and Doc Scratch seem to enjoy playing this Variant Chess
    • 3 Prototypings: Skaia becomes a planet and the pieces have achieved sentience so it's more like a real time strategy war
    • 4 Prototypings: A giant mass of roots encase Skaia
    • 12 Prototypings: In the troll universe their Skaia looks like a giant ocean planet with with a giant frog named Bilious Slick, the human universe that the trolls created at the center and it's covered in lily pads. It looks like this (spoilers ahead).
    • 12+ Prototypings: They are supposedly too eldritch to understand beyond this point
  • Schlock Mercenary in this strip shows a cthulhu piece next to a bishop and a knight. "The game has changed a bit over time." "No, I'm not telling you how the Cthulhu piece moves."
  • Tales of the Questor has a four-player variant with the same social role as poker.
  • In Yokoka's Quest, Fahrin is playing a solo game of what appears to be chess with unorthodox pieces, when first introduced at the end of chapter 4.

    Web Original 
  • Door Monster uses this in a sketch about mini games called "Elaborate Fantasy Checkers". Two of the pieces appear to be a Remortgaged Fortress and a Suspiciously Unholy Infant.
    There's always time for elaborate fantasy checkers.

    Western Animation 
  • When Jimmy Neutron used his super science to make Sheen super-smart, the teaching montage they went through had Sheen win at a game of three-tiered chess, and then a normal game of chess.
  • An episode of The Jetsons had a character promoting a game called "Chess-O-Matic." It was a variant that spanned three different levels of game board platforms.
  • Used a few times in Futurama, one with a holographic chess set and another with multi-tiered Scrabble-ish game.
    "Get 'im boys!"
  • Triplicate Girl from the Legion Of Superheroes sometimes splits in three and plays against herself in a game of chess. The chess board is, of course, in two of her colours (orange and purple), and the pieces float above the board. One wonders, though, how she tells the difference between the identical, triangular pieces.
  • Pai-sho from Avatar: The Last Airbender seems to be a cross between Chess and Go, with maybe a little bit of Mahjong thrown in for good measure.
  • The chess variant that the Game Master plays with various people, with the only consistent rule being "wizard takes all", in The Smurfs episode "The Grouchiest Game In Town".

    Real Life 
  • Human Chess is a real thing, believe it or not. See the "Real Life" section of the article for more details.
  • Chess Boxing is a hybrid sport where players alternate between boxing and playing chess. Only Genius Bruisers need apply.


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