• Sam Machell

Arctic Chess

-some disorganised rough ideas on games, strategy vs luck, creativity within rules, redesigns-

It’s a running joke on the podcast The Besties that every month they give the best game award to chess. Although it’s, y'know, humour, there’s truth in this. Chess is probably (definitely?) the purest, most elegant, most perfect, bestest game ever. The rules are clearly defined and elegant in their relative simplicity, it's nothing but like you and your opponent, and within that there's an infinite amount of complexity. The difficulty of chess is totally proportional to the skill of the other player. The simplicity and constraints of the game and its design are what give it such longevity. But like there’s no point in me writing about chess because frankly I don’t know enough about it and I’m not very good at and y’know like what do I have to add to the chess discussion?

So I got thinking about the games I find have the most longevity for me… that I have more authority to talk about. There are probably two that I can pinpoint as my favourites and that also work for what I'm talking about: Super Smash Bros, and Super Pole Riders (above). Chess’ complexity and longevity comes from a limited rule set, simplicity within this rule set, and the ability to be creative within this… to develop strategies, to learn tactics, things like this. These games I’ve mentioned though, don’t really operate like this. Although certainly strategies and techniques etc are a part of them and exist, on a surface level they appear less strategic and measured and calculated... more like random and luck based to some extent... partly due to unpredictable physics. Or maybe that’s not what would be thought, and like everyone is already clued in and I'm not saying anything new. But either way there’s a great video about what separates Smash from other fighting games which is like dead on I reckon and important to this essay thing:

Chess is about finding creativity within the rules of the game, Smash and SPR are about finding creativity within the rules of the game. If that makes any kind of sense… But I think this is what gives all of these games such longevity, an ability for a meta game, for room to experiment within. And so this got me thinking further, how could you combine both of these aspects. Could you create a game as beautifully elegant in strategy as chess while having room for experimenting within the form of the game itself.

Redesigning chess is something that has been done loads of times before, in fact I remember having a discussion with a teacher in primary school about it. Like quite a long discussion (maybe it was a whole class?), we talked about like adding new pieces with new moves etc. Although this is like good fun, ultimately I don’t think it can go anywhere because chess is near perfect anyway and none of these pieces are likely to significantly or meaningfully change the core game, or if they did it would remove the simplicity and beauty of chess and make something worse. I remember we talked about making it so that the edges of the board acted like portals, like edges of the Pacman screen (or like Towerfall) and so if a piece went off one end it’d loop round to the other. I’ve not tested this, he had. He said although it was interesting to think more abstractly about defence and making it harder to plan it makes the game too hard to grasp and too luck based just because it’s so much harder. But then again, this doesn’t really change the game that much either.

Although, once again, I haven’t played it, I’ve seen footage of a variation of chess within Frog Fractions 2 that turns chess into a real time strategy game (above). There’s no turn system here, both players can move their pieces at the same time, but each piece has a cool down time before it can be moved again. From what I’ve seen this is probably the most interesting redesign of chess that I’ve encountered. Obviously it goes without saying that I am very uneducated in all of this, these are just my observations. This turns chess from a slow game that allows players to think indefinitely about each move into a more chaotic, fast game. I think this is a really significant and interesting change… but still not what I’m imagining as the sweet middle ground.

I thought I’d also quickly mention something else, Jonathon Blow’s Oracle Billiards prototype. Perhaps billiards is a good example of a game that is both strategic but also slightly luck based, given it is dependent on physics, on the systems of the universe, rather than just precise player choice. Blow has spoken about how he wanted to try to turn billiards into a game purely based around strategy, by showing exactly the outcome of every single possibility the player could make there is no element of luck or skill in the action, it becomes totally strategy based. Blow has said himself this doesn’t work for many reasons and the game becomes much less enjoyable and playable. Example:

Anyway… thinking about this, and thinking about chess, has led me to my current idea for a game which combines experimentation within rules and experimentation within the game system: Arctic Chess... or some other name. At its core it is chess, with the same pieces and movesets, and the same win condition of killing the opponent’s king, but it is fundamentally different in the way the player interacts with it.

I imagine it as a game of chess played on ice, when a player decides where a piece will go, the piece will move to the space, but the momentum of the piece’s movement will make it slide a little further than the space you aimed for. There is distinct strategy in choosing where the piece will go, but the physics of the game world will impact the final position just a little bit. This means that if you want to move a pawn two spaces forward on your first go, it may end up somewhere around three spaces forward instead. Or, if you wanted to move a piece through a diagonal gap of two other pieces, it would clip both on the way through, and they will slide a little bit too. A cross between chess and billiards or curling.

Physics based game systems definitely allow for the most amount of player experimentation from what I’ve seen, and also allow for very unique and interesting situations and outcomes. I think this game would be pretty fun to play.

There would have to be nuances and changes in the design which I can't foresee at the moment. Obviously the way you take opponent's pieces would have to change; instead of a piece being taken as soon as another piece touches it, I think they would have to have some kind of health system. The harder a piece gets hit the more damage it takes. A king could be one-hit perhaps… players would do their best to make sure the king never gets touched, sliding pieces in front of it to protect it etc etc. Maybe you could bounce pieces off the edge of the game board? I think there’s room for experimentation in design within this system. I don’t know.

This is a very under-developed idea… I’d like to prototype it but I don’t know how. I’m going to keep thinking about all these things, but writing them all out like this has definitely helped me organise my thoughts and hopefully it’s a semi fun reading experience too.

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