The Chess Variant Pages

3D chess from Star Trek

In a number of Star Trek episodes, Kirk and Spock can be seen playing a three dimensional chess variant together. Being three-dimensional and unusual in design, it leaves the impression that it is a game requiring even greater skill and intelligence than Chess. The board consisted of three 4x4 layers and four more 2x2 areas for a total of 64 squares, the same number as there are in Chess. The pieces they used were designed by Peter Ganine, who is known for various Chess piece designs. The particular design used in Star Trek is called Classic, and it should not be confused with Gothic (a.k.a. Superba), which shows faces, or Conqueror, which are figurine. The Classic pieces are a futuristic variation of the Staunton design. Perhaps because of their association with Star Trek, they have become the rarest and most collectible of all the Peter Ganine designs. You may search ebay for ganine classic chess, but you will rarely find a set. However, Star Trek tridimensional sets are available with a different piece set. You can find these on ebay by searching for star trek chess or for tridimensional chess.

The set used in Star Trek was a prop with no particular rules behind it. After instructions for making the board were published in the Starfleet Technical Reference Manual in 1976, Star Trek fan Andrew Bartmess was excited about this but also disappointed that no rules were provided for the game. So he wrote to the book's author, Franz Joseph Schnaubelt, who encouraged him to develop rules for the game himself. So, he did, and he has been selling printed manuals of the game from his own website. Although he has not published the whole rules online, he has provided a page with a partial description of the game.

In the early 1990's, James Dixon (1947 - 2010), an extreme Star Trek fan who according to secondhand hearsay from an unknown source, allegedly had a breakdown and eventually died after the 2009 Star Trek reboot came out, posted his own description of the rules to a newsgroup. It is presently unclear whether this was a description of the rules published by Bartmess or Dixon's own rules for the game. Dixon's description, reworded by site founder Hans Bodlaender, follows. Note that Bartmess has updated his rules since this time, and whether or not it was supposed to be Bartmess's rules, it will not be up-to-date with the current rules.

See also:

General information

The three dimensional board consists of seven different levels. Three of these have size four by four, and have a fixed position; the four others have size two by two and can be moved by the players. The position of the fixed levels looks like a staircase: each next level starts above the third row of the previous level, while the other sides of all fixed levels are parallel. The movable levels find themselves initially above the outermost corners of the upper and lower level; i.e., one of its corner has a corner of the board below it, while the other three corners have no fixed level board below it.

When the movable levels go to a different spot, they will always be above or below a corner of a fixed level, with three squares extending from the level. Note that always black squares are above and below black squares, and white squares are above and below white squares.

side view with fixed and movable levels

Starting position

The position of the pieces when the game starts is depicted below; the board is `flattened' for ease of display.

Movable levels

Each of the movable levels can be above or below any corner of one of the three fixed levels.

Hence, there can be a movable level below and above the same corner.

Players may, when it is their turn, either move a movable level (under some restrictions), or move a piece.

Moving movable levels

A player can move a movable level when one of the following conditions is fulfilled (and of course, the move doesn't leave him in check):

  • He moves an empty movable level.
  • He moves a movable level which contains one of his pawns and no other pieces.

When he moves a movable level, there are the following choices, provided the movable level is not moved to a position already taken by another movable level:

  • The level is moved to the other side of the same corner of a fixed board, i.e., when the level is below a corner, it may be moved to the position above the corner, or vice versa. For such a move, the board should be empty.
  • The level is moved to a corner that is adjacent on the same board, and on the same side; i.e., if the level is above the upper-left corner of a fixed board, it may be moved to above the down-left or upper-right corners of the board.
  • The level is moved to an `adjacent' corner of the next board. When the level is above a fixed board, it can be moved to below the same corner of the next higher fixed board. For such a move, the board should be empty.

Movement of Pieces

Movement of pieces is similar to that of orthodox chess, but there are two additional rules. First, when we look to the board from above, the piece should be able to make a normal chess move to the square he wants to go to. Secondly, each step taken, the piece can go up or down one or more levels; where going up or down a level always means going from a movable level to a fixed level or vice versa. (Think of it as follows: fixed levels have heights 2, 4 and 6. Movable levels can have heights 1, 3, 5, or 7.) These are the only two additional conditions.

Thus, it is possible that a piece moves over another piece: see the diagram above.

Pieces Used on Star Trek

In most episodes of Star Trek that include 3D Chess, the game is played with the Classic pieces designed by Peter Ganine. Here are some closeups to show the pieces in detail. These pictures are here through fair use for the sake of informing you about the pieces used in the series.

This closeup from Charlie X, the second episode of the first season, shows a Black Queen, a white Bishop and Rook, and a Pawn of each color. The Pawns and Bishops are pointed. The Queen and Rook have flat tops, differing in height and proportion. The Queen is taller but thinner.

This second closeup, also from Charlie X, shows some of each type of piece, though the Kings are on the top layer and get cut off. Both white Knights are on the bottom layer, and the one to the lower right appears clearly enough.

This closeup from By Any Other Name, the 22nd episode of the 2nd season, shows the black King clearly. Appearing to the right of Spock's eyes, it looks like a Queen with a cone on top.

In Where No Man Has Gone Before, the third episode of the first season, they used a completely different set. Within the context of the series, I presume they were using a spare set after Charlie X destroyed some of the pieces of the Classic set they were using in the previous episode. Behind the scenes, this was actually intended as the pilot for the series, and they just hadn't started using Ganine's Classic set.

Here it is from another angle

The Classic set can be seen again in Court Martial, the 20th episode of the first season.

A completely different set is used in a game between Troi and Data in Conundrum, the 14th episode of the fifth season of Star Trek: The Next Generation.

Various sellers on ebay, whether from ignorance or duplicity, try to pass off Peter Ganine's Gothic set or Superba set as the pieces used in Star Trek. These are alternate names for the same design, this being one in which all the pieces have human faces. This is not the design used in Star Trek, though it has been used in the fan series Star Trek Continues. Here are a couple images from Pilgrim of Eternity, the first episode of that series.

Here are some pictures of the same set in the third episode of Star Trek Continues, Fairest of them All, which is a sequel to Mirror Mirror.

General notes

James Dixon wrote about the game:

One will notice that when playing 3D chess it will take a considerable amount of time just to move to the neutral level(the fx-lvls are referred to as the white, neutral, and black levels -- the lower, middle, and upper respectively), in fact longer for black(can the reader guess why?). But after that phase of the game is reached, the game can become very complex, very quickly. After a few games one can see how 3D chess can improve starship tactics and inspire three-dimensional thinking (Khan's deficiency and undoing).

Written by Hans Bodlaender. Materials based on texts of Andrew Bartmess and James Dixon. With thanks to C. Hallock, for spotting an error. New Introduction by Fergus Duniho.

WWW page created: 1995 or 1996. Last modified: Nov 1, 2000.