The Chess Variant Pages

Monkey King Chess

Peter Gelman

I. The GameBoards

The main board (1-8, A-E) is the Earth board. Q,R-100 and Q,R-101 are clouds.

The Red (Monkey King) player’s half of the Earth board is all the squares in ranks 1-4. The Blue (Goblin King) player’s half is the squares in ranks 5-8.


The squares on the Earth board with a red or blue line on it are magic river squares. These squares give the chess pieces (in this game, called disks) special powers. The blue magic river squares correspond to Cloud Q, R-100. The red magic river squares correspond to cloud Q, R-101.

The classic Chinese story of the Monkey King concerns a pilgrimage from China to India (“the West”) to find sacred Buddhist texts. Thus ranks 1-4, the Red territory, are parts of China, while 5-8, the Blue territory, ventures into India. As an aid to game play, each region has its own river color, red and blue; the same color forms the outline of the corresponding cloud.

II. Flight: Movement To and From the Cloud Boards

A piece requires the ability to fly to move to or from the Clouds. A few types of disk-faces have this ability. The ability to fly does not imply any additional movement ability or limitations. The fliers are: the six Monkey Kings, the two Goblin Generals, the two Lancers of each side, and the one Celestial of each side. Only a flier can fly to or from or across the Cloud squares. No piece may make a capture when they fly to or from a cloud. Furthermore, a disk may only fly to a cloud square from the magic river square associated with it (red for Q, R-101, blue for Q, R-100). The disk may land on either of the two squares of that cloud, so long as that square is empty.

No piece may make a capture when they fly to or from a cloud, including flight from one cloud to the other.

A disk starting movement on a Cloud square must note the color of the square first; it may fly to any empty square on the Earth board of the same color, or the other Cloud’s square of the same color if it is empty.

It is legal for pieces to move and capture within a cloud’s tiny two-square board. In practice, the limits of the pieces upon that two-square board mean that only the Goblin player’s Celestial can capture another piece on a cloud.

III. Object of the Game

The object of the game for the Monkey King player is to move his Pilgrim off the opposite side of the board; a winning move would be any Pilgrim move from row 8 off the board (to what would be a row 9 if it existed). The object of the game for the Goblin King player is to checkmate the Pilgrim. As with Sittuyin (Burmese Chess), a move that causes stalemate is illegal.

IV. Flipping

Except for the disks that represent the Pilgrim and the Goblin King, all of the disks are two-sided, with a different chess piece showing on either side. If you start a turn with a disk standing on any magic river square, you may flip the disk and simultaneously move it according to that new game piece's abilities. To put it another way, a disk standing on a magic river square has the ability to move as the disk on either side of its two faces. A disk may not flip if it is not on magic river square.

The Goblin King player cannot flip a disk if the Goblin King disk is not on Earth board (thus before initial placement, or after its capture, means the Goblin King player cannot flip disks).

The Monkey King player cannot flip disks unless he/she has initially placed the Pilgrim disk on the board.

V. Introducing disks

The game starts with the boards empty. Starting with the Goblin King player, each player takes turn either introducing a disk on their half of the Earth board, or moving a disk they previously had placed. Players may not introduce disks in this manner on any Cloud square.

The disks have a front and a back. Players may only place disks with the front side showing. The back side of the disks cannot appear unless the piece stands on a magic river square and flips it.

VI. The Pieces on the Disks

The two sides' pieces start the game roughly, but not exactly symmetrical. For the most part, even when identical on the front side, Red and Blue disks flip for different transformations.

There are twelve types of disks in the game: Pawn, Sea Serpent, Monkey King, Knight, Lancers, Goblin General, Whirling Monkey Fists, Celestial (a different type on each side), Goblin King, Buddhist Pilgrim.

All pieces that can capture move as they capture except the Sea Serpent. The Pilgrim and the Red Celestial cannot capture. Brave Whirling Monkey Fists is an off-board “counter”, not a normal type of chess piece.

Red (the Monkey King player)

6 Monkey Pawns: orthodox pawns with no initial double jump. These flip as Monkey Kings, which move/capture one diagonally (Ferz) and have cloud-flying ability. They also may receive additional turns from the Brave Whirling Monkey Fists tokens.

2 Monkey Knights: orthodox knights. These flip as Phoenix Lancers: like the Shogi lance + flying ability. They slide as rooks in one direction only-toward the opposite end of the board. If on a cloud on their side of the board, they may fly in the same fixed direction to the opposite cloud (again, only if the landing square is empty).

2 Heroes capture as they move, one diagonally or one orthogonally forward, exactly as Sittuyin's (Burmese Chess') Elephants. These flip to become Brave Whirling Monkey Fists, which are not board pieces but off-board tokens. The Red (Monkey King) player can spend these tokens, at any point during a Red turn, to give any Monkey King disk an immediate additional move.

These can be used separately; after a regular move, the Red player could spend the two tokens to move one Monkey King disk and then a different Monkey King disk (each move could be a non-capture, a capture or a cloud maneuver). Or, these can be used cumulatively; the Red player could use the regular turn plus two tokens to give one Monkey King disk a total of three moves (which could be zero to three captures and/or cloud maneuvers).

Once spent on an extra move, the players remove the Brave Whirling Monkey Fists disk from the game.

1 Buddhist Pilgrim: A "royal", whose capture brings Goblin victory, the Pilgrim moves one square in any direction like an orthodox chess king, but cannot capture any piece.

1 Red Celestial (more specifically, the Bodhisattva): She moves as a Rook (with cloud-flying ability) and is a variant of the now classic Immobilizer piece. (Ben Abbott invented the original Immobilizer for his game Ultima.) Any enemy piece that can trace an empty line of orthogonal squares (a clear rook path) to the Red Celestial cannot move. Thus the Bodhisattva does not capture, but as a "rook-ish immobilizer", may immobilize up to four enemy pieces near or far. The Red Celestial flips to become the Red Mountain. Imperial decree of the Emperor of Heaven states that any piece that captures a Celestial piece shall be immediately punished. The punishment is: burial under a mountain. First, make the capture as usual. Second, remove the capturing piece from the game; it is itself captured. Third, flip the captured Celestial to show its mountain side, and place that Mountain in the square from which the capturing piece attacked.

Blue (the Goblin King player)

6 Goblin Pawns: like Monkey Pawns, these orthodox pawns with no initial double-jump. These flip to become Sea Serpents, which move differently then they capture: they still capture as pawns, but move without capture by an orthodox knight-jump.

2 Goblin Knights: orthodox knights. These flip as Goblin Generals, the close Blue equivalent of the Monkey King. They move and capture one diagonally (like the classic Ferz) and may fly.

2 Goblin Hero-Foes (Lord Bear and Lord Tiger). These are exactly the same as the Red Heroes, based on Sittuyin Elephants (move/capture diagonally or one orthogonally forward). These flip to become Goblin Lancers - which are exactly the same as the Red Lancers - they slide orthogonally forward only, and may fly.

1 Goblin King. He moves/captures one in any direction, like an orthodox king. While he is not royal (capturing him does not win the game), the Goblin player requires his presence on the Earth board to give his pieces flip ability. Until the Goblin player places him in the game, no Goblin piece may flip; if the Monkey King player captures the Goblin King, the Goblin disks are frozen in their current flipped state.

1 Blue Celestial (Erh-Lang). He moves and captures as an orthodox chess Rook. He flips as the Blue Mountain. As with the Red Celestial, capture of the Celestial General is problematic. First, make the capture as usual. Second, remove the capturing piece from the game; it is itself captured. Third, flip the captured Celestial to show its mountain side, and place that Mountain in the square from which the capturing piece attacked.

No piece may attack or occupy a square with a Mountain. If the Red Mountain cannot move or attack, but if it stands on a magic river square, it may flip according to flipping rules

VII. Illustrated Chart of the Disks

At the risk of some redundancy, I would like to offer you this color-coded, illustrated chart of the disks. This way, a glance can tell you the identity of the two sides of a single disk. It also shows you, for what it's worth, my conception of what they should look like.

Each row of this chart shows a single disk and its two sides. I include in parenthesis story information about the pieces inspired by the classic novel Journey to the West but not essential to the game. I painted the pictures on wooden disks I used to test the game.

Red Pawns Orthodox pawn with no initial double-jump. Monkey King Ferz, may fly. May use Brave Whirling Monkey Fists. Monkey King Ferz, may fly. May use Brave Whirling Monkey Fists.
Blue Pawns Orthodox pawn with no initial double -jump. Sea Serpent Captures as pawn, moves (not captures) as knight-jump.
Red Knights Orthodox knight. Phoenix Lancer As Shogi lance, may fly.
Blue Knight Orthodox knight. Goblin General Ferz, may fly.
Red Hero (Friar Sand, and Mighty Pig) As Burmese chess elephant (ferz, or 1 orthogonally forward). Brave Whirling Monkey Fists Off-board token for extra Monkey King moves.
Blue Hero Foe (Lord Bear, Lord Tiger) As Burmese chess elephant (ferz, or 1 orthogonally forward) Goblin Lancer Shogi Lance, may fly.
Red Celestial (Bodhisattva) Moves as rook, may fly. Immobilizes orthogonal. Red Mountains Immobile, Immortal. Only if on magic river square, may flip.
Blue Celestial(Erh-lang) As orthodox rook; may fly. Blue Mountains Immobile, Immortal. If on magic river square, may flip.
Red Pilgrim(Master San Tsang) Royal; moves one as orthodox King but cannot capture. Blank; cannot flip.    
Blue Goblin King Man (non royal King). Blank; cannot flip.    

VIII. Design Influences

Burmese Chess (Sittuyin) was the starting point and my chief influence; it has what I call in this game the “magic river squares”, and the transformation of the pawns into the "general" (really Monkey King). It also offers the basic array of chess pieces that was the starting point of one side of the disks. I couldn't figure out a static placement that worked with the smaller board size and the flipping disks. So Moscow King Chess, another chess variant I enjoy, inspired the introductory placement game play.

Shogi, through Chessgi and Mortal Chessgi, influenced this game’s placement from off-board (from the clouds) and flipping. My Chinese Chess set showed me that physical chess pieces could be made of disks; although one-sided in that game, it does not take much effort to wonder about the possibilities of a game using the other side of the disk.

The story and characters of an ancient story inspired and motivated me to try to make a variant of Sittuyin, which portrays it (according to Dr. Peter Nicolaus’ interesting and helpful essay on Sittuyin explains that we should interpret Sittuyin as a chess portrayal of the Hindu story of Ramayana in a “Buddhist guise”. When I read I happened to be reading what I assume to be the Chinese version of the same story. This ancient novel is Journey to the West, also known as Monkey King, by Cheng-En Wu.

In my variant, I wanted to try to increase the powers and antics of the story’s monkey king in the classic Chinese version. I wanted this game to encourage simultaneous duplicates of pesky Monkey King. While Sittuyin does allow duplicate Monkey King, it requires pawn survival and advancement to the far side of the board, so in my experience it happens late in the game if at all.

Also to increase the story-inspired antics, and, I wanted to allow the monkey to use magic to “grow extra arms” with Magic Whirling Monkey Fists. I also intended that this would help compensate for the Monkey King player’s liability of the helpless Pilgrim.

In the story, the Monkey King was a scoundrel until the Pilgrim gave his life new purpose. Ancient illustrations of the Monkey King story often show the Pilgrim sitting on a cushion, waiting, while the other characters carry out the battle.

Journey to the West also lead me to change the identity of the early chess-based elephants of Sittuyin to story-based characters, the Heroes and Foes of the story.

Finally, the contest itself helped inspire the game. The requirement of making a game board with forty-four squares meant that since basic symmetrical configurations obligated forty squares, there remained four squares to place somewhere. This is what brought to mind the idea of some sort of second level to the game board—from which my mind leapt to the clouds on which the Monkey King playfully somersaults. In addition, the process of initial game play, with just a few disks on the board, generally remind me of confrontations between individual characters in the book; the addition of additional pieces seem to flow to subsequent chapters in a story.

It’s humbling to try to make a game worth playing, and I don’t know if I’ve succeeded. That’s one reason I looked for every opportunity for the physical game design, and its colors, to aid game play.

IX. Notes on Play

The chess pieces in Monkey King are, for the most part, not original. Players familiar with other chess variants, especially Sittuyin (Burmese Chess) may feel comfortable making the most of their strengths and limitations.

For example, in Shogi, the Lance, strict “downhill runners”, lose power every time they move forward. In both Shogi and Monkey King, a Lancer that runs to the end of the board and chooses not to promote is stuck on that square. In Shogi, they can gain new life by promoting to a more mobile piece at or near the bottom of their “hill”. Monkey King offers the Lance (I seem to be calling them Lancers in my game) two kinds of recourse, running the Lancer to a magic river square, where they can either fly up to the clouds for placement (in a future turn) “uphill” again, or immediately flip on that magic river square to a different kind of piece (different for each side).

However, new rules do influence the powers and tactics of some of those pieces. For example, the two Brave Whirling Monkey Fists not only give the Monkey King (ferz) some limited “running” ability like a limited bishop, but multiple moves and captures in one turn—possibly strikes from more than one Monkey King disk, if he has duplicated himself.

I haven’t decided what I think is the best use of the powers and limitations of the Sea Serpents. (The Dragon Kings of Journey to the West inspired them; they were dragons but lived under the sea, burgled and harassed by the Monkey King; I changed the name because of the existing Dragon King variant pieces in the Piececlopedia. Their frog-like ability to jump (but not capture) in any direction, including backward, seems a great advantage over a simple pawn. But the strength of pawns, arguably, is their ability to march, form, and reform their phalanx (pawn chain). The Sea Serpents can’t move forward one simple square as pawns do, suggesting that their role might be more sporadic, uncoordinated, and blustery. Certainly they will be useful in breaking the gaze of the Bodhisattva when she has frozen a more dangerous, fang-mouthed goblin.

The Goblin Player’s Celestial, Erh-lang, is the game’s master of the clouds. He can capture any enemy piece on the same cloud, or leap across to an empty square of the other cloud, to threaten capture of an enemy piece there. Other fliers can’t even move to a square of opposite color within a cloud; when they first fly to a cloud, they not only choose the cloud square they land on, but also the color of the earth square they ultimately jump down to. The Goblin Player’s Celestial, however, can easily move across the cloud to the other colored square.

The Monkey King’s Celestial, the Bodhisattva, can create instant weak points in the Goblin offense or defense. Across a long column of the Earth board, the moral force of her gaze can demolish another piece’s protection. It can encourage the Red player to make advantageous sacrifices. As I mentioned when discussing the Sea Serpent, it is of course often possible to block the Bodhisattva’s immobilizing gaze. Goblin knights can harass her out of sight, and Goblin Generals can jump down from clouds to threaten her diagonally, forcing retreat.

If you attack a Celestial, immuring your piece in the Mountain, remember that the Mountain can flip from a magic river square. So try to make your attack from any square but a magic-river square. Otherwise, you will have sacrificed your attacking piece for only a temporary absence of the Celestial. Still, there will be some situations where it can be decisive to deny your opponent access to a square by putting a Mountain barrier there, even temporarily.

If the Monkey King player can somehow win with the handicap of “fliplessness”, it is truly liberating to create an offensive without placing the Pilgrim, and worrying about defending a royal piece that cannot defend itself at all. But if you can’t flip, you can’t have any pieces with flying ability. Still, battling without flip ability may not be as much of a disadvantage as it seems--for about five turns. Then, as face Goblins jumping down from the clouds, unable to turn that flank, you might be biting your nails. It will take cleverness and monkey somersaults to turn your temporary checkmate-immunity into a territory or piece count advantage.

But ultimately, how can you win the game without the Monkey King?

The Pilgrim is a confounding liability as well as the key to winning; your timing, when placing him on the Earth board, will help determine a lot. In terms of momentum, there is a touch of compensation in the necessity of the Goblin player to place his/her nonroyal Goblin King to give his/her pieces flip ability, because it is a slow moving piece. Although the Goblin King is not royal, and the Goblin player can lose him and play on to win, he offers a similar vulnerability compared to the Pilgrim, in that the Goblins depend on his presence for their flip powers.

Flipping can be a burden or a potency. Seeking to flip a disk may lead to awkwardness and wasted time if not carefully thought out (or if your opponent obliges). The magic river squares in the center ranks of the board may be perilous to reach. Or the magic river square you need to flip upon may not be placed conveniently for that flipped disk’s best use. It’s a challenge that sometimes makes the flipped pieces seem to need to justify themselves.

On the other hand, when a piece stands on a magic river square, it attains the powers of both sides of its disk, making it a doubly powerful piece with (in a way) two simultaneous but separate identities. This can lead to opportunistic flipping, perhaps the happiest moments in the game. If your Pilgrim or Goblin King isn’t on the board, you deny your forces this power.

The introductory placement rule means development can’t be orthodox—even less so once cloud-jumping begins. But I wonder about the tradition of Shogi castle formations, especially as a means of protecting the Pilgrim. If you could set up this castle toward the border with India, the Pilgrim would have fewer squares to travel—but could you defend him?

X. Making a Monkey King Chess Set

To test the game, I made a set for it. I bought wooden disks in a hobby store, glued them together to make stacks with some heft, then painted them. It would be helpful to put an additional mark, such as a perimeter color, around one designated side of the disk to ease play. (The pictures of my pieces show an earlier version that does not have this demarcation.) It would help you quickly know which side of the disk is suitable for initial placement, and which can only appear after flipping.

For test purposes, I drew a Monkey King game board out of paper. Eventually I will paint a chessboard. You can make a Monkey King game board out of an orthodox 8x8 chessboard. You could buy an inexpensive cardboard chessboard and paint or paste over the squares you don’t need. Block out rank F entirely. Then outline the clouds by blocking out all the unwanted squares of ranks G and H: 1, 3,4,5,6, and 8. Finally, mark the magic river squares, using the same color for each of the two rivers to outline the corresponding cloud.

You don’t need a pet monkey to play the game, but a banana can only help. You can contact Peter Gelman at: petergelman [{at}]