The Chess Variant Pages Menu

What is a Chess variant?

A Chess variant is a game that is related to, based on, or similar enough to the game we call Chess.

Ancestors and Cousins of Chess

Chess as we know it today was not the original game. The game we today call Chess has been standardized by an international federation, and thanks to global communication through published books and other media, people around the world are presently taught to play Chess by the same rules. But it was not always like this. Chess has been traced to an Indian game called Chaturanga, invented around 1500 years ago. Like Chess, Chaturanga was played on an 8x8 board with its pieces starting in the same positions, and it differed from Chess mainly in that some of its pieces moved differently. In that time, there was no global communication like there is today, and the people who played Chess would often play by their own house rules. As knowledge of Chess spread east and west, different versions of Chess developed. This led to the creation of many historic variants and many oriental variants.

A few of these became very popular, such as Shatranj in the Muslim world, Xiangqi in China, Janggi in Korea, and Shogi in Japan. Shatranj eventually made its way to Europe, and the game evolved there into its present form. Since Shatranj was slow, Europeans sped it up by replacing some of the weaker pieces with more powerful pieces. Bishops replaced Elephants, and the Queen replaced the Ferz. Still, different communities in Europe continued to play Chess by their own sets of rules. It was likely thanks to increases in the speed of travel and communication that international competition became more popular, leading to the standardization of the rules. But prior to this standardization, Chess took on many forms around the world. Sources on these include the following:

Murray, H.J.R. The History of Chess
Davidson, Henry A. A Short History of Chess
Gollon, John. Chess Variations: Ancient, Regional, and Modern

Games Based on Chess

Ever since Chess became established as the predominant game of its form, it has served as a springboard for the creation of new games. There are five main ways of modifying Chess to create a Chess variant. These are to modify the rules, to change the pieces, to change the terrain, to introduce new elements, or to increase the number of players.

Modifying the Rules

This is a popular way of creating a new Chess variant, because a variant that only modifies the rules can be played with a regular Chess set. Many variants that just tweak the rules slightly have been classed as Modest Variants. Chess variants can modify rules in the following ways:

Changing the pieces

Besides the pieces normally used in Chess, there are many others that can be used in Chess variants. These other pieces usually have different powers of movement or capture. Some of the most popular examples include the Piececlopedia, a scholarly reference on the use and history of Chess variant pieces. You will also find that Charles Gilman has created a plethora of new pieces, which he has described in various Piece articles. Some variant pieces are available for sale commercially, sometimes separately and sometimes as part of commercial Chess variants. See the Chess Variant Construction Set page for details on some pieces you can buy commercially. Most variant pieces, however, exist only in the abstract. Thanks to computer graphics, though, many have their own images on this site.

Changing the terrain

The simplest way to change the terrain is to change the number of ranks and files on the board, making either small variants or large variants. Another way is to change the number of dimensions, creating three-dimensional variants or four-dimensional variants. Yet another way is to change the shape of the spaces, such as playing on a board with hexagonal spaces or on a round board. It's also possible to use various other unusually shaped boards. Instead of physically modifying the board, it is also possible to conceive of the board as a different kind of shape, such as a cylinder or a torus.

Adding new elements

Some variants add new elements to Chess, such as cards or dice. Heraldic Chess uses cards or dice to determine which pieces can move. Knightmare Chess adds cards which change the rules or modify the conditions of the game.

Increasing the number of players

While Chess is normally a two-player game, various multi-player Chess variants have been created.

Combinations of methods

Besides employing any of the methods mentioned above individually, more than one may be used together. For example, it is common to both increase the size of the board and to add extra pieces. Various other combinations are also possible. This leads to the question, How much may a game depart from Chess and still be considered a Chess variant? That is the subject for the next section.

Games Similar Enough to Chess

Even if a game is not related to or based on Chess, it may still be considered a Chess variant if it is similar enough. For example, if Jetan were actually a Martian game with no relation to any terrestrial game, it would still be considered a Chess variant due to its similarity to Chess. As it is, it is a creation of Edgar Rice Burroughs, who did base it on Chess, though he also departed further from Chess than most Chess variant inventors usually do. So let's consider the characteristics of Chess that we might expect to find in Chess variants.

Chess is a board game.

If I made a game in which people arrange Chess pieces on a pool table and knock them down with pool balls, sort of like bowling, this would not be a Chess variant. It may use some of the physical equipment of Chess, but it would not be the same sort of game. If I made a Chess-themed card game, which did not use a board or Chess pieces, it would not be a Chess variant unless the cards somehow simulated a board and pieces.

Chess is a strategy board game.

If I made a game in which people moved Chess pieces around the board according to rolls of dice with the goal of reaching a certain spot, as in Snakes and Ladders, this would not be a Chess variant. Although some Chess variants do include elements of randomness, strategy remains an important part of any Chess variant. Make the game entirely random, like Candyland, and it is not a Chess variant.

Chess is an abstract, strategy board game.

There is some strategy to playing a board game like Monopoly or Risk, but these are not abstract strategy board games. Both of these games depend upon the rolls of dice and the drawing of cards. In an abstract, strategy board game, the whole game can be represented mathematically, and each move of the game provides a player with a logical or mathematical puzzle to solve. This is why Chess problems have become such a big thing with Chess. Each Chess problem, which is a possible position in a Chess game, is itself a puzzle someone can work on solving without actually playing a game of Chess. There are no Monopoly or Risk problems, because they aren't that kind of game.

Some Chess variants do introduce elements of randomness. Heraldic Chess uses cards or dice to determine which pieces can move. Knightmare Chess uses cards to change the rules or to introduce new conditions into the game. These still count as Chess variants, because the randomness they introduce merely modifies the play of Chess, and apart from this randomness, each position could still be treated as an abstract puzzle. Overall, though, most Chess variants are fully abstract, strategy board games, and no game that is fully divorced from being an abstract, strategy board game could seriously be called a Chess variant.

Being abstract, an abstract strategy board game is usually unthemed or is only tangentially related to its theme. Chess has its roots in a war game called Chaturanga (whose name literally meant "the four arms of the military," referring to Chariots, Cavalry, Elephants, and Infantry). But this theme is not essential to Chess, and in the English-speaking world, the game came to take on more of a royal court theme, though that too is inessential to the game. In its essence, Chess is a game of mathematical relationships between mathematical objects, and it is this, not its theme as a war game or a royal court game, that gives it its character. Chess variants may have a variety of themes. It is not a game's theme that makes it a Chess variant. It is how much the nature of the game resembles the nature of Chess.

See Also: Defining the Abstract by Mark Thompson

Chess is a two-player game.

While there are multi-player Chess variants, the more players you add to the game, the more it becomes a game of diplomacy and luck instead of a game of skill. In a two-player game, differences in skill are usually the deciding factor in determining who will win. In multi-player games, groups of weaker players can temporarily form alliances to gang up on a stronger player. This is the problem of petty diplomacy. Although multi-player games that are like Chess in other respects do generally count as Chess variants, there might be limits on how many players you can add before it ceases to have the same appeal and character of Chess. Multi-player variants work best with three players or with players playing in teams.

See Also: The Three-Player Problem by Lewis Pulsipher

Chess is played with pieces that move across the board.

This distinguishes Chess from Go, a game in which pieces are simply dropped on the board. Go is sometimes described as the oriental Chess. There are book titles like East meets West: The Oriental Game of Chess... Go!!, The Original Secrets of Chess from China and Japan: GO, and GO: Enter the Hidden World of Chinese Chess!. Go is an abstract, strategy board game that may hold the place of honor in the east that Chess holds in the west, but it is not a Chess variant, and it is not the oriental equivalent of Chess. The orient actually has its own Chess variants, mentioned earlier on this page.

Chess is played with a variety of pieces that each have their own powers of movement or capture.

This is one of the things distinguishing Chess from Checkers. One of the names for Checkers, jeu de dames, suggests a relation to Chess. In French, the Queen is called a Dame. English has adopted the same word from French, it being a word meaning woman or lady. Prior to gaining the ability to move any number of spaces in any direction, the piece preceding the modern Queen moved one space diagonally, as checkers do in Checkers. Checkers is also played on the same board as Chess, and both are abstract strategy board games, but I would claim that Checkers is not a Chess variant, because it is too dissimilar to Chess. Because all the pieces are the same in Checkers, the game has a very different character than Chess has, and, at least to me, it lacks the same appeal.

Only one piece moves each turn.

This is one of the things distinguishing Chess from wargames. In wargames, players generally move as many of their forces as they wish each turn, since the purpose of a wargame is to simulate war, and that is how war actually works. Wargames are also usually distinguished from Chess by using dice to simulate combat. Both factors together distinguish wargames from Chess variants. But there are Chess variants with multiple moves, and one of my first Chess variants (Lifeforce Chess, created in High School) used D&D dice to simulate combat. Most multi-move Chess variants limit the number of moves per turn. Marseillais Chess, Double Move Chess, and Extra Move Chess all limit moves to two per turn. Some Chess-like games push the number of moves to the extreme, such as the commercial game Feudal, which allows each player to move all of his pieces each turn. Although this game is listed on this site, it is debatable whether it should be considered a Chess variant.

The object of Chess is to capture or checkmate a particular piece.

The English word Chess is derived from the Persian word Shaw, meaning the King, not from a corruption of Chaturanga, which coincidentally begins with the same letters. The word check, meaning to attack the King, also comes from Shaw. Despite drawing its name from the same root, Checkers is an elimination game, while Chess is a hunting game. In an elimination game, a player must capture all of the opponent's pieces to win, while in a hunting game, the target is more limited, usually being a single piece, as in Chess. According to Henry Davidson, the original goal of Chaturanga was to capture the King, and the Persians modified the game to make it illegal to move one's King into check, so a game could be won only by forcing the opponent's King into an inescapable position, and not through one's opponent inadvertently moving his King into check.

There is a Chess variant called Extinction Chess, in which the object to eliminate all of a particular kind of piece. This is still a hunting game rather than a elimination game, because the game ends before all pieces are eliminated from the game. It differs from Chess mainly in that the target is not a specific piece, leaving players more free to choose which targets they go after.


What is most essential to making a game a Chess variant is not that it is a particular type of game (such as a strategy board game) or has a particular goal (such as checkmate), but that it has enough features in common with Chess. Knightmare Chess is not an abstract, strategy board game, but its goal is checkmate, and it is played with Chess pieces on a Chess board, making it similar enough to Chess. Extinction Chess does not have the goal of checkmate, but it is still otherwise played like Chess with the same equipment. So it counts too. Feudal might count as a Chess variant. It is an abstract, strategy board game in which players move pieces with different powers of movement, and in which the object is to occupy a certain position (which is equivalent to capturing an immobile piece). It differs from Chess mainly in having a very different terrain and allowing movement of all pieces each turn. But abstract, strategy board games like Checkers and Go are too dissimilar from Chess to count as variants. These games do not have differently moving pieces, and the objects of these games are too dissimilar from the object of Chess.

Most Chess variants have all the characteristics listed above. They are non-random, abstract, strategy board games played with pieces that have different powers of movement, played by two players, each moving one piece per turn, with the goal of capturing or checkmating a particular piece on the other side. Any game fitting this description may be called a Chess variant, and it does fit such relatives of Chess as Shatranj, Xiangqi, Shogi, and Janggi. Also, many games fitting nearly all of this description may also be called Chess variants, though the more a game departs from this description, the less likely it is to count as one.

WWW page created: April 20, 2016.