7-in-1 Magnetic Family Game: Chess

By Kieron Gillen on June 4th, 2009 at 7:47 pm.

I'm totally winning.
Chess was invented in 1959 by Mr Chess. It’s quite the game.

That running joke first appeared in the pages of the oft-miraculous early-noughties Future PC magazine 101 PC Games (Miraculous because it should have been terrible, but somehow, by dint of the sheer editorial vision of Lee Hall, was actually terribly awesome). One of their pieces of page architecture was a tiny bubble where you had to include a relevant fact to do with the game. Jim and Walker competed to see who could get the most ludicrous “fact” into it. I have no idea whose mind it ejected from – probably Jim’s, I suspect – but “Mr Chess invented Chess in 1959″ was my favourite. It’s a gag which speaks to the station of chess. It wouldn’t be nearly as funny as “Mr Ludo” or “Mr Backgammon”. It’s funny because it’s Chess.

In other words, unlike any other game in the box, Chess is an icon. Unlike any other game in the box, it works brilliantly as a videogame – in fact, I’d argue it was one of the first. And unlike any other game in the game, it speaks to videogames – and many of the subtler things which makes Chess compelling to sub-Kasparov intellects are present in many videogames. And, as such, it’s the game I’m going to return time and time over in these essays as a point of comparison. In a completely unfair way, note why Chess is Chess and Ludo is not Chess.

Fucking Ludo.

This is totally faked.

We’re getting ahead of ourselves – though worth stressing, by the end of his exercise I want a DEATH TO LUDO movement formed, driven by the proper levels of homicidal fury. Chess was the first game we reached for, set up and dived into. Over our initial moves, we bemoaned our lack of any real strategic knowledge. Somewhat disingenuously, I was doing this while fluffing a four-move mate, which I then explained how I’d fluffed – saying it was about the only early attack I knew – before then twisting it into another mate on similar lines. Which was somewhat cruel, to say the least, and I suspect earned negative karma which helped lead to the string of exciting, crushing defeats that awaited me in the future, on other bloody boards. In the spirit of summer, I took back the final move and played from there, which blossomed into a game which was interesting for the both of us. While I was the slightly more experienced player, by going for such an aggressive opening, I was playing from severe positional weakness, making things really more interesting. And those early gambits gone, I was left with playing chess the way I – and, I suspect, most non-serious chess players play. As in, as a tactical rather than a strategic game.

I don’t have the brain to see the moves in the future. So I played knowing the strength of pieces. This series of exchanges leads to me being a bishop up. I play this, it threatens the Queen. If she fucks up, I’ve got a major edge. In other words, attritional chess. You play until your opponent can’t stop you winning the game rather than playing for the win itself. I think, looking across most strategy games, that’s the difference between amateurs and the skilled. The memorizing of build orders is really just akin to my silly early checkmates – it’s not really skill, at least in a way which is of interest. As you learn, unable to see the conclusion, you play the steps. I mean, that’s how we all play RTS, yeah? I mean, us. Not you. You’re good. Us. The ones who do okay with our friends but lose when we go wild on the net.

(Still, even with our skills, I was amused to see the personality shining through. My Lady played a wonderfully annoyingly deceptive game. Where my attacks were pretty brutal stomping things, her finest moments elegantly set up strikes with a piece blocking the way, then moved the intervening piece to subtly reveal the threat. Which I probably missed. I vaguely know there’s a name for it (Opposite of a pin or something?), but it impressed me. Point being: It’s a game where expression was possible, even at lower levels. How people played said something. It was human in a way that – say – playing tic-tac-toe isn’t.)

I won though. By brutal steamroller attrition. It felt good. The lady felt good losing. It wasn’t just the red wine we found in the flat and drank with little fear. It’s a good game, y’know?

But here’s a reason you don’t often hear when hailing the beauty of chess: It has good graphics.

Though the photos get more experimental as we go through the box-set.

I was always somewhat enchanted by chess. Part of it is the monolithic cultural part of it – the cold-war proxy of the Fischer/Russians 70s and all that – but it’s a game which works as decoration as much a game. My parents, late in our childhood, brought a fancy board. As far as I’m aware, it’s never been played with. Who cares? It’s beautiful. But, relevantly to videogames, its beauty is one which adds drama and meaning to it. It bears no relation to any battle that has ever been fought, its interactions as abstract as possible – but they become visceral and emotionally meaningful just by the shape of the pieces and the names they carry. They are more than their ludic content – they represent something else, they inspire, they ask us to create narratives from.

Walker, when playing DS Game Slitherlink, talked about how he started to personalise the numbers of the game:

“More peculiar is the anthropomorphism I’ve developed when I view the numbers. Numbropomorphism as someone suggested (I rudely forget who, so fail to award credit). 3s are greedy, boisterous, and definitely male. They bully the other numbers, barging their way through queues and spilling pints. 2s are the very opposite, prim and polite, sensible, and certainly female. They are business-like, efficient and tidy, but remarkably clever. They tolerate the 3s, but find the 1s tiresome. And indeed the 1s are tiresome. Needy cowards, they feebly sit in the way, refusing to help.”

Walker describes it as madness. I say that madness is part of almost every modern videogame we play, and we don’t notice because the steps are eased by the graphics. Even with chess, in seconds we’re aware of a knight and bishop’s personality. The point of any kind of non-abstract representation in a game is to do that, and to elevate the rules. Jim used to say “Graphics over Gameplay” to upturn the oft-stated truism and argue that graphics are gameplay – and in a real way, without a visual part of the game, the game is unplayable (Bar solely sound-based games, of course). Chess shows that graphics elevate a game, even on the most basic level of play. Pawns, Knights and Queens are more fun than pieces 1, 2 and 4.

Good work, Mr Chess.

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149 Comments »

  1. Stupoider says:

    Chess is a glorious game! :) One of my favourite board games.

    Do people agree that it’s a fairly logical game?

  2. Tom says:

    Chess Titans on Vista is probably my most played game.
    Love the fact it auto saves/loads so I can dip in and out.

  3. Kieron Gillen says:

    Not how I play it.

    (But yeah)

    KG

  4. Vinraith says:

    I adore chess, it’s been too long since I played it against a human being. I keep meaning to import Fritz for the DS (you’ve got it in the UK but for some reason it’s not been released in the US) so I can carry it around on the go.

    As the standard bearer of the strategy genre, chess’ impact on PC games is fairly profound. In addition to old classics like battle chess, there’s a degree to which it’s responsible for the proliferation of (grand and turn based) strategy games in general (both PC and board). In short: yay chess!

    Oh, and it’s also an excellent pie.

  5. SuperNashwan says:

    I’m amazed you managed to finish the article without mentioning terrifying ASCII characters in rogue-likes. Are you really Kieron?
    Also, is Jim’s (?) old Devil’s Advocate piece on graphics over gameplay still online somewhere? I remember it caused quite a fuss in olden times on the Gamer forums.

  6. Kieron Gillen says:

    (I almost wrote about Battle Chess – the idea that the pieces fight and kill each other in amusing ways shows how different it is from – say – Backgammon. You wouldn’t have a Backgammon game where the pieces fuck each other up. Chess, for all its purity, tells an easily readable story)

    SuperNashwan: Kind of the opposite of my point for once, actually.

    KG

  7. Vinraith says:

    I’d never thought of it but you’re right, among “pure” board games it’s rare to find something genuinely narrative like chess. Most universally popular non-video games are fairly abstract and wouldn’t translate particularly well the way chess has.

  8. Bhazor says:

    Fucking ruined by Pawn spam.

  9. Senethro says:

    I’m not sure the comparison between RTS and Chess can be made. When playing Chess I’ve got the analytical, hypothetical gears grinding away. When playing RTS its a purely physical skill – I’m dancing little units about in my opponents face to maximise their effectiveness. Hence, build orders. They’re a mnemonic of sorts to reduce the load on brain processing so I can do the fighty bit of the RTS more effectively. Any and all introspection for RTS comes after the game has finished and am watching the replay.

    However, I’d argue that skill at both Chess and RTS is an understanding of not just the basics, but what the game is actually about multiplied by a lot of experience and practice. You can get a long way at an amateur level with good practice of someone elses theories – no need to flex your own brain muscle.

  10. simbo says:

    “One night in Bangkok and the world’s your oyster”…

    ..oh, I see. Sorry.

  11. Zero says:

    Where my attacks were pretty brutal stomping things, her finest moments elegantly set up strikes with a piece blocking the way, then moved the intervening piece to subtly reveal the threat. Which I probably missed. I vaguely know there’s a name for it (Opposite of a pin or something?)

    If you move your own piece out of the way of another which then provides a threat, it’s called a “discovered attack”. Those can be brutal, particularly if the piece you move can gain its own attack on a different vector.

  12. Jeremy says:

    Kieron, you explained perfectly how I play chess. It is a matter of attrition where I am always sacrificing a piece for a piece, I just hope that my piece is less of a sacrifice.

  13. Bhazor says:

    The RTS/ Chess comparison is a little unfair. Mainly because chess is turn based.

    But really if chess was a game it would be deemed too limited with identical sides, only one map (not including those mental three way/3d boards) and no random elements. Now it can be compared to say TF2 vanilla with its three unchanging maps and identical sides.

  14. Bhazor says:

    The RTS/ Chess comparison is a little unfair. Mainly because chess is turn based.

    But really if chess was a game it would be deemed too limited with identical sides, only one map (not including those mental three way/3d boards) and no random elements. Now it can be compared to say TF2 vanilla with its three unchanging maps and identical sides.

    Also: Edit button? Where art though?

    Edit: Oh there it is. Sorry. Please delete please.

  15. Wirbelwind says:

    That was a fun read.

  16. The_B says:

    How dare WH Smith release six more games after this one? I bet they’ll stop supporting Chess now, and they promised they’d keep it up to date like their previous products! Fuckers!

  17. Oddtwang says:

    Revealed check FTWM!

  18. Tei says:

    I always cheat on chess. I don’t want to lose..

  19. Lack_26 says:

    I suck at chess, I set out to be aggressive and soon end up on the back foot. But I fight to the last man God-damn it, I die like a man.

  20. Gap Gen says:

    The king stay the king.

  21. Gap Gen says:

    “Fucking ruined by Pawn spam.”

    Is there a version of asymmetric chess? E.g. three queens against 16 pawns?

  22. SBF says:

    “I vaguely know there’s a name for it (Opposite of a pin or something?)”

    Sounds like a fork but I dunno.

  23. VelvetFistIronGlove says:

    7 games in 1? That’s even better value than The Orange Box!

    Also, I’ve been waiting almost as long for Chess 2 as I did for Duke Nukem Forever. I hope that Mr Chess’s company doesn’t follow the fate of Mr Miller’s.

  24. Goatman says:

    Chess is an awesome recursive single player game with an unlimited number of user generated puzzles.

    Sorry my mind is a bit frazzled, and I’m not sure if the above statement is supposed to make sense.

  25. ...hmm... says:

    i have always had bad luck playing chess on computers, against computers etc.

    i have just realised why this is – computers play tactical, as do i because i suck. but computers are inherently better at it.

    :(

  26. Malagate says:

    I like the idea of chess, but in practice I don’t enjoy playing it! It’s like I can’t think of it as a tactical game when I play, I just see it as a small army and concentrate on a few pieces I consider good rather than using the whole together.

    But indeed fuck ludo. Fuck ludo until it’s battered, burned and dead. It’s takes forever to play and is incredibly boring, the only vaguely interesting thing being the choice of which enemy counters you want to land on and send back to the beginning. I watched in horror for about 3 hours during the morning after a new year party as some of my friends slogged through a giant version of ludo, not the kind of thing you want to see in a new year at all.

  27. James G says:

    I played real-time chess once. It was obviously quite a different game, and certainly interesting as a novelty. However I haven’t played chess for years. I still remember the rules, but have entirely forgotten how to apply them. I’m sure I’d be beaten easily by just about anyone.

  28. Rich_P says:

    Chess is a perfect game. Two identical sides, symmetric game board, just your wits against your opponent’s. Thankfully no one has yet applied unlockable weapons and level grinding to chess :p Did you kill my bishop, or was that just his feign-death unlock in action? Ha, good luck defeating my level 10 knights with +1 movement horses of doom.

    Now it can be compared to say TF2 vanilla …

    Those were the days.

    PS: the rook is one of the best game pieces ever, especially the lumbering stone golem version from BattleChess.

  29. Markoff Chaney says:

    My Gods. I love RPS. Thank you for the read. Enjoyable, Entertaining AND Informative. One of my first and favorite puzzle/logic/step games and I still am abysmal. Nice share. :)

  30. Susan says:

    Queens are OP.

    Nerf Queens!

  31. JonFitt says:

    I used to play by attempting to adopt my own made-up defensive setup with all the pawns covering each other in a sort of W with bishops out to the wings etc.
    I’d either manage that and then start attacking, or the opponent would mess it up in some way, but either way the rest of the game was a reactionary attrition like you describe.

    I guess I’m a Chess turtler.

  32. Malagate says:

    Also@ Gap Gen, there is a game which could be considered a little bit like an asymmetric chess, or at least only one that springs to my mind right now. It’s called Thud!, and it was designed with a Terry Pratchett discworld story in mind. A side of dwarves against a side of trolls, all dwarves move like queens but can only take a troll when using a certain formation. Trolls move like kings but can take out any number of dwarves that are in the squares next to them. There’s more rules than that, and I think it’s 8 trolls against 16 dwarves, so very asymmetrical.

  33. sinister agent says:

    Chess is the only game in the world at which it is impossible to cheat without detection. Although if you play with a girlfriend with “distraction allowed, and indeed, encouraged” rules, that is arguably less applicable.

    I forget where I read it, but didn’t Prussian army officers have to play chess without any of the pieces on the board as part of their training at one point? They were given only the moves, and everything else they had to do in their head. Makes my mind scream, but I can’t think of a better way to bulk up the brain.

  34. Sam says:

    Great Review! I like chess, but it’s not quite the most elegant of games, to my mind. Ideally, you want a game with as simple rules as possible but which leads to a great amount of complexity. Chess has a lot of rules, but not really that much complexity. Certainly not in comparision to something like, say, Go.

    So in conclusion, will you be reviewing Go? (Rhetorically speaking, although it would be nice if you or one of the others did, separate from the 7 that’ll be done anyway.)

  35. jalf says:

    by the end of his exercise I want a DEATH TO LUDO movement formed, driven by the proper levels of homicidal fury

    Isn’t Ludo technically outside the jurisdiction of the AIM? I’m not sure we can legally form a DEATH TO LUDO movement without infringing on some other group of angry people’s territory.
    It is a terrible game, though.

  36. toonu says:

    Ahh this was a fun read, just the thing to read on a summer evening under the window…that is covered in rain.

  37. Stuk says:

    Oh what’s this bullshit Chess superiority?! You can keep your carefully carved pieces because Ludo has fucking colour. We’ve moved on from black and white! Our circular-based-pyramids-with-spheres-on-top pieces are accessible. You may be the AAA title of the board gaming world, but we have the casual gamers, and that’s where the money is now!

    Long Live Ludo! Long Live Ludo!

  38. Kieron Gillen says:

    Sam: Go, alas, isn’t in the box. It may turn up in the discussion, as I talked about it at length with the Lady. Not that I’ve ever played it.

    (The *desire* to play something is something else which I may touch on)

    Go is more elegant and complex than Chess, sure. But from playing it, Chess’ inelegancy is part of its charm. Two sets of coloured stones don’t have the sexiness of the hard-ass queen, etc.

    (And I suspect it’s worth noting that for 99.9999% of players the relative lack of depth of Chess compared to Go doesn’t matter. Depth isn’t the whole point is kind of what I’m talking about. Chess is a great game *even though we’re shit at it*. The highest level of play being the only level of play which counts is something I think that needs to be argued against. This may turn up towards the end of the series when I get to the deck of cards.)

    The Wire: Glad someone made the reference. But – fuck me – that scene is terrible.

    Stuk 2: What did you make of Ludo 2? I mean, was extra coloured pieces enough for you?

    KG

  39. Dolphan says:

    @Malagate: Thud wasn’t really designed for the story – it’s a slightly modified version of Hnefatafl (that may be spelt wrong). Haven’t played Thud, but Hnefatafl is great fun.

    In general: CHESS STRATEGY IS NOT ABOUT THINKING AHEAD. Ahem. Sorry.

    I was utter rubbish at chess as a child and teenager until I found out at uni that I’d been misled in thinking that getting better was about thinking further ahead. Tactics do involve looking a few moves ahead, but strategy is about seeing patterns and knowing what makes for a strong position – controlling the centre and setting up pieces so they all focus their threat on a weak area of your opponent’s line.

    Also, thing about the four-move mate is that it relies on your opponent being a little bit blind, and you can end up getting your queen chased around the board while they get pieces set up. There’s a two-move mate, but that relies on your opponent making a pair of pretty bizarre opening moves.

  40. unwize says:

    I wrote an essay several years ago on expertise in relation to chess for a Cognitive Psychology module.

    The key to human expertise, IIRC, is knowledge and pattern recognition. If you’ve seen a particular arrangement of pieces before, you’re more likely to have experienced what does and doesn’t work from that point onwards.

    Computers, being unsuited to this type of learning and pattern recognition, need to compensate by evaluating millions of outcomes and picking the one that scores best, something humans are obviously pretty poor at. I’m sure contemporary chess super computers are a little more sophisticated than this, however!

  41. notarobot says:

    clearly i need to stop looking at the internet for a while. the first thing i thought when i saw the picture was, “why do those graphics look so fuzzy? wait, what game is he talking abo– oh.”

    sigh.

  42. Dolphan says:

    What do you mean, lack of depth compared to Go? :-p Go might be more elegant, lacking varied pieces, but Chess hardly lacks depth. They’re both insanely complex.

  43. Gap Gen says:

    Ironically, the current version of chess has fewer players than previous versions (some of which had 4 players).

  44. Bhazor says:

    Anyone else here played the more recent Chess Master games? The most fascinating part is that the AI rather than just getting harder on higher levels actually has proper personalities. So you have AI opponents who just attack relentlessly without long term goals, or petulant teenagers who doesn’t actually want to play and just makes moves at random. Its actually quite weird to spot these quirks and how they fit with their little biography. But god I wish that strategy games beside Warrior Kings and Advance Wars would use these AI personalities rather than just “easy, medium or hard”.

    Reply to JonFitt

    Hey that’s my tactic too! We’re chess pals!

    Reply to Sinister Agent

    He also invented Stealth Chess, which is like normal chess but with two extra columns and a new assassin character. Terry Pratchett really boggles the mind sometimes.

    (Kieron’s really taking his brackets for a walk today)

  45. Gap Gen says:

    Go is still a game that humans are better at than computers. The number of possible permutations of moves is too great to brute-force, so computers have to use tactics like humans do. And we know what the current level of strategy AI is like.

  46. JonFitt says:

    I recently went out and bought a few board/card games that play well with 2 players, and was recommended Pente:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pente
    It’s definitely worth a look, it’s a bit like Go in that it’s played on a Go board, but quicker.

    @Bhazor
    Woo for Chess turtlers! They’re good to play against as they don’t try and mess up your turtling while they’re doing their own :)

  47. Dolphan says:

    @Gap Gen – The relative capability of computers at chess and go isn’t really a good comparison. Time and energy have been poured into making computers better at chess for decades – it’s been a signficant thread in the development of computers (because of the widespread recognition of the problem rather than it having any intrinsic importance). Nobody’s custom-built a supercomputer to play Go.

  48. Pod says:

    101 PC Games? Is that a codename for PCG?
    ALSO:
    The oppositie of a pin is known as a skewer.

  49. Pags says:

    I am getting an incredible urge to play Archon right now.

  50. DMJ says:

    Ah, chess.

    I can master the intricacies of real-time movement, micromanagement in battles, running an economy, researching technology, exploring, and moving and fighting an army composed of land, sea, and air units. I can hold my own when it comes to most RTS games after a bit of practice.

    Yet chess, which has NONE of those complexities, is continually beyond my grasp.