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The Chess of an Imaginary Land:

Gothic Isles Chess

By Peter Aronson


          When I was in junior high school near Boston Massachusetts (sometime around 1970), I started hanging out at the MIT Strategic Games Society (SGS). Thus, when the first, playtest version of the Dungeons and Dragons fantasy roleplaying game hit, I was well placed to get infected. Bunches of D&D games sprung up at the SGS, including my Gothic Isles campaign.

          The Gothic Isles was a hodgepodge of every fantasy book I had every read (and I had read a lot), every book on mythology or history I had read (again, a lot), and everything I saw and liked in other peoples games (a lot of that too). It was a vaguely 12th century, vaguely European setting, with heaps of Renaissance Italy, Byzantium, and ancient Rome and Greece mixed in, with splashes of practically anything else that struck my fancy. Almost all of long running SGS D&D campaigns were connected, allowing characters and ideas to travel back and forth. Additionally, the Gothic Isles was connected via nexus points, time gates, and sorts of other contrivances to many different versions and times of our (and other) world(s). It was a terrific lot of fun, and I was blessed with great players who helped me define my universe.

          The genesis for this Chess variant came many years ago during a Gothic Isles expedition. The players had encountered a chest with a "chess-like" game on the top, and the only way to open the chest was to beat the game. To my surprise (and dismay), the players actually wanted to play the actual game. Alas, I had not actually created the game, so we were reduced to the unsatisfying expedient of rolling dice. Sometime after that, I produced a small, Chess-like game called Three-Rune to be the Gothic Isles' equivalent of Chess, which suffered from many of the problems endemic to small-board variants, plus from the fact that I had no idea what I was doing.

          Years went by, as they have a habit of doing. D&D receded into my past. I found myself corresponding with Tony Quintanilla about Chautranga and Shatranj. Then it hit me. Given the connections between the Gothic Isles' world and our world, wouldn't the Chess of the Gothic Isles be . . . Chess?

          It wouldn't necessarily be modern, FIDE Chess -- perhaps something based on medieval European Chess, maybe with elements of the far east too. Thus was the following variant born.


          The following is the game's history as it would be written if the Gothic Isles really existed.

          It is unclear just when Chess was introduced into the Gothic Isles, but the traditional version described here has elements borrowed from Indian Chess (Chaturanga), Islamic Chess (Shatranj) and Thai Chess (Makruk). Additionally, in the oldest records, the game was usually played on embroidered cloth boards like Turkish Chess, and with flat round and octagonal pieces of varying size (King being largest, Soldiers and Champions being the smallest) of red and black like Chinese and Korean Chess. Finally, the Soldiers had the Symbol for for Champion painted on their reverse side, and was flipped over upon promotion, rather like a Japanese Chess (Shogi) piece.

          The rules following represent the most common usages. The initial moves vary in actual use from as few as three to as many as twelve, and sometimes no piece is allowed to move twice in that phase. Sometimes the Soldiers are set up on the third rank instead of the second. The King's Knight's move may be allowed to capture, or may not be allowed to occur after King has been checked.

          The game has been known under many names, including The Soldiers Game and The Checking Game.

          In later times, this native form of Chess has been mostly supplanted by Modern European Chess. Hybrids, using some of the rules of both types of Chess are also found.

Board and Setup

               8  | W |:N:| D |:K:| C |:D:| N |:W:|
               7  |:S:| S |:S:| S |:S:| S |:S:| S |
               6  |   |:::|   |:::|   |:::|   |:::|
               5  |:::|   |:::|   |:::|   |:::|   |
               4  |   |:::|   |:::|   |:::|   |:::|
               3  |:::|   |:::|   |:::|   |:::|   |
               2  | s |:s:| s |:s:| s |:s:| s |:s:|
               1  |:w:| n |:d:| c |:k:| d |:n:| w |

K stands for King, W stands for Wizard, D stands for Dragon, N stands for Knight, C stands for Champion, and S stands for Soldier.

Gothic Isles Chess initial setup.


          The game uses the standard Modern European Chess array, except that Kings face each other crosswise. White moves first, and makes eight moves, none of which may cross the center-line of the board (marked by a heavier line), then Black makes eight moves with the same restriction, and then play alternates without the restriction.

          The King and Knights move as in Modern European Chess, and the Wizard moves like the usual Rook (and starts in its place). There is no castling, but the King may, if not in check, make a non-capturing Knight's move as its first move.

          The Dragon takes the place of the Elephant or Bishop. It may jump two squares (passing over friendly or hostile pieces) in any diagonal direction, or it may step one square diagonally. It is a more powerful version of the traditional Elephant.

          The Champion takes the place of the Councillor, General or Queen. It steps one square either diagonally or forward. The Champion that starts the game on the board (sometimes called the Queen) may move two squares diagonally or forward on its first move, but not to capture. This piece moves the same as the Silver General in Shogi, the Mask or Thon in Makruk, or the Elephant in Sittuyin.

          The Soldier moves as the usual Pawn, but has no initial double-step, and so, of course, no en-passant capture. A Soldier may promote in one of two ways: if it reaches the far end of the board, it must promote to a piece (Wizard, Knight, Dragon or Champion) of the owning player that has been captured (if any); if it makes a move into or within the enemy camp -- the three ranks at the far side of the board -- it may (but does not have to) promote to a Champion. (In the extremely unlikely case a Soldier reaches the enemy back rank without the owning player losing any pieces other than Soldiers, the Soldier must promote to a Champion).

          The goal of the game is to checkmate your opponent's King, stalemate your opponent, or reduce your opponent to only a King (bare King). Note: if you reduce your opponent to a bare King, and on the following turn he returns the favor, it is a draw.


          My goal with this design was to produce a plausible quasi-historical Chess variant that also matched my munufactured background. The game also had to be good enough to actually play. It did not have to be as good as the modern popular versions of Chess. Modern forms of Chess are faster: European Chess adopted stong Bishops and very strong Queens; Xiangqi adopted Cannons and a thinned Pawn line; and Shogi added drops. Gothic Isles Chess belongs to a more leisurely era.

          Tony Quintanilla was of enormous help in playtesting Gothic Isles Chess, and in cleaning up the piece graphics. The piece graphics, except for the Dragon are based on the set posted on the Chess Variant pages by Jean-Louis Cazaux. The Dragon is from Fairy Tale Draughts by Chris Huntoon.

Zillions of Games

          I have written an implementation of Gothic Isles Chess for Zillions of games. You can download it here:

Written by Peter Aronson.
WWW page created: April 11th, 2001.