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This page is written by the game's inventor, Seth McGinnis.


Fourteen shifty-eyed knaves skulk about the forest primeval, their bloody minds focused on larceny and violence! They lurk in the shadows, sniping from cover and back-stabbing with abandon, each pondering the same question: who has all the gold?

The chess variant Robber-Baron was created by Seth McGinnis in the summer of 1998 as an entry in Hans Bodlaender's 39 challenge.


The Board

Robber-Baron is played on a 7x7 square board missing ten squares, as shown below:

| r | b | r | b | r | b | r |
|   |###|   |###|   |###|   |
|   |   |   |   |   |   |   |
|###|   |###|   |###|   |###|
|   |   |   |   |   |   |   |
|   |###|   |###|   |###|   |
| R | B | R | B | R | B | R |

The Robber

The thing about a robber is that no matter how hard he tries, he just can't stay straight: the robber is a piece which moves alternately like a rook and like a bishop. That is, if it makes a diagonal (bishop) move this turn, then the next time it move it will make a lateral (rook) move, and vice-versa. To keep track of a robber's phase, it should be a flat piece like a shogi piece, which can be flipped over after it moves. In fact, one could even use shogi pieces, since there are enough types for the robbers to be distinct.

Rogues and footpads are an individualistic lot, and won't stand for being mistaken for one another! (And, more importantly, one of them is the Baron.) Each player's pieces should be distinguishable and therefore numbered, or, better yet, named. If you are naming your robbers, you will get coolness points if you can stick to a theme, like: Robin Hood, Friar Tuck, Will Scarlet... or Fingers, Scarface, Bugsy, Mad Dog... or even Sleepy, Happy, Dopey, Sneezy, Grumpy, Bashful, and Doc.

The Baron

Each player begins play with seven robbers, four initially moving as rooks and three initially as bishops, as shown in the diagram above. One of the robbers is actually a Robber-Baron. He is the one that's carrying all the loot stolen from the opponent, which is why the two sides are fighting. (Why did he steal the loot? So that there would be a reason for playing the game!) The goal of the game, naturally, is to capture your opponent's Robber-Baron and get all your loot back!

At the beginning of the game, each player decides, in secret, which of his robbers is the Baron, and writes it down on a piece of paper. If a player's Baron is taken, he loses, and the other player gets to gloat because now he has all the gold. Note that because the opponent does not know which piece is the Baron (the King-equivalent), there is no equivalent to check or checkmate.


Game Play

While Robber-Baron been by no means play-tested to exhaustion, I have played several games with my friend Neal, and we were quite entertained by the results. Not knowing which piece is the opponent's Baron can lead to some unexpected endings -- or lack thereof. Because naturally you want to keep your opponent from figuring out which piece is your Baron for as long as possible, one tactic is to treat it just like a normal piece, and to defend it only lightly. Obviously, this tactic can backfire, and halfway through the game you may find yourself surprising your opponent with the fact that actually, he has just won the game.

Another unexpected element is the strength of the board positions. It's easy to see that location is very important in this game; what's surprising is that whether a square is a powerful position or a dangerous position depends on whether the piece on it is moving laterally or diagonally. The changing move of the robber also causes the corners to be 'sticky': you can only move into a corner with a rook move, so the next move will be a bishop move. But since you must also make a rook move to leave, that means you'll have to spend an extra turn to flip the robber over to get it out of the corner.


Robber-Baron developed mostly from the board. Inspired by the 39 challenge, I spent a while playing around with different board configurations. When I came up with this one, I had visions of pieces lurking at the ends of the long open ranks, waiting for an enemy piece to step into the open. Then I thought of a piece that alternated between two different moves, which I called a "robber" from the combination of the words 'rook' and 'bishop'. This gave the game a definite flavor, and then I added the Stratego(tm) element of not knowing which piece was the objective. And there it was!


There are, of course, many many possible variations to the basic idea based on the configuration of the board. Perhaps the best way to define the game might just be to say that the board has "a number of missing squares" and leave it at that; you could play with the missing squares (or 'trees') in a different location every game!

And of course, we could also give the robbers different movements. A Highwayman piece (alternating rook-knight) might be interesting, or we might want to give the Baron the ability to move in knight fasion, if the player were willing to expose the Baron's identity. It would also definitely fit the spirit of the game to give pieces a "shooting" attack, although I haven't decided yet how that would be best done.

Written by Seth McGinnis. Image added by Hans Bodlaender.
This is a submission for the contest to design a chess variant on a board with 39 squares.
WWW page created: September 2, 1998. Last modified: September 27, 2001.
Robber Baron can be played with the Zillions of Games program, although players should determine themselves which piece is the baron. You can download the necessary files. (Zipfile.) Zrf-file by David Howe.