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The 40-squares chess variant design contest: Winners

The winners are known for the contest to design a chess variant on a board with exactly 40 squares. 22 games were submitted in this contest, and the jury, consisting of Ralph Betza and Ben Good evaluated the games on originality, playability, and more. The two jury members independently made a selection of those games they found best. These two lists directly gave a clear winner for the contest, as the game that was placed on position 1 by Ben Good was placed on an ex aeqo position 1-3 by Ralph Betza. The places 2-5 from the final ranking are given to the games, that ended on positions 2 and 3 from Ben Good's list, and the other two games on Ralph Betza's top-three list.


The winner of the contest is:
  1. Philosophers Chess. By Darren Izzard.
And the runners-up are:
  1. Cuarenta. By J. Mark Thompson. Selected by Ben Good.
  2. Magician Chess. By Jonathon Whittle. Selected by Ralph Betza.
  3. Chromopolis. By Alexandre Owen Muniz. Selected by Ralph Betza.
  4. Smegi. By Fergus Duniho. Selected by Ben Good.
Congratulations to all winners!

Honorary commendations

From the comments of the referees, a number of `runners-up' were selected. Some of these games have been mentioned by one, some by two of the referees as being among their most favorite from the competition.

The order is alphabetic:

Thoughts on Judging, by Ben Good

At the beginning I thought that originality would be the most important thing when judging the entries. But I soon discovered that playability is most important; it doesn't matter how original or clever a game is if it isn't fun to play. I felt as judges it was our job to rate the games as they were submitted, as games meant to be played and enjoyed, not as simply a collection of ideas that might be used to make a bigger, better game. Likewise I didn't consider how good a game would be if a few of the rules were changed around to make it better. If it didn't work as submitted, it wasn't considered a winner. One of the first things I learned as a judge was that you can't judge a game just by reading the rules. A lot of games I thought looked like good candidates to win turned out to be real duds, and some games I thought looked uninteresting on the first read were among my favorite to play.

As anyone whose ever designed a small chess variant knows, the biggest challenge is to create enough interesting action on the board without things being too crowded. If a game was so crowded that right from move one I had trouble just finding a legal move or finding a move that didn't immediately lead to material loss, I considered it a weak game. I was most impressed with games that I felt would not really be improved by making a bigger version of it - it meant that the inventor successfully handled the limitation of only having 40 squares to work with. Another problem with small games is draws. The general rule of thumb is, bigger games are less likely to draw, and conversely, smaller games are more likely. I dislike draws, so I tried to pick games I thought were less likely to draw. This was difficult to test for, however, because draws are most likely to occur when both players are playing at a high level, so I had to use my best judgment.

I would like to caution everybody against taking this contest too seriously. I took the judging seriously and did the best job I could, but it is just a contest. It was intended to be fun and informal and to get some new creative chess variant ideas exposed to those who are interested. Thanks to everybody who entered, everybody who playtested with me, everybody who made `Zillions' files for the entries, and Hans for hosting the contest.

Philosopher's Chess

The thought/philosopher combination is simply a brilliant idea, and combines well with the standard chess pieces. The enlightening philosopher is an added bonus. My experience in small games has been that often players make even trades for no other reason than to clear up space (often leading to everything being traded off quickly and a draw). In this game, however, one has to be careful when trading because if you leave your opponent with an enlightened philosopher without getting one in return you have just lost the game. Very fun to play and very well thought out.

One minor detail: I don't understand the rule that an enlightened philosopher two moves away from the opponent's king doesn't give check. Although there's nothing wrong with the rule, it seems confusing and awkward to me, and I can't think of any reason why it's necessary.


Thompson's board is very clever, more so than I gave it credit for at first glance. Without cheating the contest rules in fact or in spirit, Thompson has created a game that essentially feels like its on a 9x9 board. Just like in checkers, you don't really think about the fact that half the squares, for all practical purposes, are not really there. The result is a game that doesn't feel cramped, even though there are plenty of pieces.

The mobile pawns definitely give the game flexibility. I must admit that I originally predicted that the rule of `pawns can't capture each other' was a bad idea because it would lead to lockups and stalemate positions. In fact, just the opposite occurs. Because the pawns don't have to worry about capture from their counterparts, it gives them more options in where they can move. I also miscalled the `camel promotion rule': I originally predicted it was a useless rule because camel's are so weak and that players would never both with it, opting to promote on the last rank. But I was wrong. The number of games where I was checkmated by camel promotion is embarrassingly high, and there were several games where camel promotion was the difference in the game.

Just the fact that the camel can even function effectively on a 40 square board is testimony to how well the board is designed. Since all the pieces are colorbound, it puts them on equal footing. It is a game of generally weak pieces; the bishop is the most powerful. Only the frog is additionally limited, he can reach only half the squares. (My one complaint is putting both frogs per side on the same subset of squares, this is like making all your bishops white-squared in regular chess. One frog on each half would have been much more interesting, or perhaps allowing the frog a single step non-capturing move.) The game is also interesting because the relative values of the pieces change as the game goes. Not surprisingly to anyone who's played xiangqi, the cannon loses value as the game progresses. The frog, which is the weak piece to begin with, does also. The main thing however is that the pawn becomes worth much more, it is fairly mobile and becomes much easier to promote in the endgame. Trading a frog for a pawn is almost always worthwhile in the endgame, and often a pawn is better to have than a camel or cannon.


A very fun game to play. The `limited drop' rule is very clever and one that I've never seen before in any other game. It is also very appropriate to this game: drops make the game more exciting, but unlimited games would probably make the game too sharp - for example, a brain sitting in the back row with a piece with a piece in front of him would be a sitting duck to numskull drops. The obvious drawback of this game is its resemblance to Smess.

Convergent Chess

The key to the success of this game is the extra mobility given to the pawn. This keeps the game from locking up into a position where neither side has any real way to attack. The limited rooks allow the a- and f- pawns to get in the game right away. The alternate method of winning - occupying the opponent's royal squares - adds definite interest to the endgame and makes draws much less likely.

Eric's 40 Square Fiasco

With a very simple rule, the inventor successfully got the standard chess army (minus 3 pawns) into the game without things being too crowded. If things are too crowded in your own end, it's probably your own fault for dropping on pieces too fast. Fun to play and a standard chess set can be used. Biggest drawback is starting the kings on corner squares, it automatically directs the direction of your opponent's attack. My experience has been that games with the kings in the center to start are always better.

Diamond Chess

Unique board leads to many interesting combinations. The vizier can checkmate a king unaided. I think this game, however, would be better as a 41-square entry, the `hole' in the middle of the board is rather obtrusive and limits opening possibilities.


Another game with interesting pieces and combinations. Having the players choose their starting setups gives the game variety. Unfortunately the game suffers a bit from being crowded.

Black Holes

Well, despite my above claim that I judged games based on how they were submitted and not how they could be with a few changes, I had to let this one slip in. Originally I had this game ranked second. Even though I had only played a handful of games across the board, I was very impressed by the complexity and richness of the game, as well as the playability in such a small space. I had concerns, however, that with unlimited holes a player might force a draw by constantly putting up a huge barriers of holes around his king, even if he is was down in material (I still haven't resolved this either). To aid me, I requested that somebody make a Zillions of Games file for me so I could do additional playtesting. Peter Aranson took up the challenge. After I downloaded the file, the first thing I noticed is that Peter made the file so that holes can capture each other. I had not been playing that way. This changed everything.

I went back to the rules. The rules have the disadvantage of not being well written. I've tried to be sympathetic to that kind of thing since English is not everybody's first language (and I don't speak anything else), but in this case the rules often let implied things go unsaid rather than specifically stating them. (On a side note, Lorinc's idea of referring to the entry holes as `white holes' and the exit holes as `black holes' is very confusing, since `white hole' already refers to the holes owned by White. It's a bad idea and should be ignored.) As far as I could tell, however, it was in fact Lorinc's intent that holes should be able to capture each other. I went back to playtesting.

Unfortunately, the game does not work nearly as well with this rule in place. The holes become the most powerful piece on the board, which makes the other pieces largely irrelevant. Zillions would regularly trade a piece for a developed hole. I also had a disproportionately large number of games that ended in draw by repetition of moves: Zillions would develop a hole from the back rank to the middle of the board where it was in a threatening spot. I would capture with a hole on my back rank. Zillions would then drop a hole back in the empty spot on the back rank. I would have no choice but to drop a hole in the back rank as well. Zillions would move the hole out to the middle again. I would have to capture it. Etc etc.

I highly recommend that everybody try this game without allowing holes to capture. A rule limiting the number of holes per side might be a good idea too, perhaps 20 per player.

Variant, most enjoyable for children

The game that received the award for being most enjoyable for children is Pachessi, by Peter Aronson.

Instead of the announced prize, we let Peter choose between a few prizes, (including the announced CDrom), and he received a set of Chessapeak Porta-Challenge.

The game was choosen by Wim Bodlaender, with assistance of Klaas Lenstra.

Written by Hans Bodlaender; comments of Ben Good.
WWW page created: October 26, 2000. Last modified: December 18, 2000.