Omega Chess Review
By Benjamin C Good
Copyright 1999As a regular contributor to Hans Bodlaender's Chess Variants webpage and a longtime player on Richard's Play-by-Email server and Freeling's Mindsport Arena, I have played a lot of chess variants: large and small, simple and complex, historical and modern, three-dimensional, four-dimensional, hexagonal, you name it. Compared to some of these games, Omega Chess seems downright tame. And anyone familiar with chess variants over the years knows that commercial games invented in hopes of becoming the 'new chess' are a dime-a-dozen (and often poor games as well). As Pritchard puts it in the introduction to his Encyclopedia of Chess Variants, "Anyone can invent a chess variant in 10 minutes, and many people have (try it)." In the case of Omega Chess however, I have become a big fan and have a lot of reasons to be optimistic about the game's future.
To start with, let's take a look at the game itself. The 8x8 chess board has been expanded to 10x10, with an additional four squares, one on each corner. In addition to the standard army of chess pieces, each player receives two extra pawns, two champions, and two wizards. The new pieces are an interesting combination of historical pieces that allows them to work in a modern setting. The champion leaps exactly two squares in any direction, or moves a single square in any orthogonal direction. Two-square leapers appear in numerous historical variants, but the inherent problem with them is that they can only ever reach one-fourth of the board. The single orthogonal step solves this problem.
The wizard makes an elongated knight move, leaping three squares in one orthogonal direction and then one square in a perpendicular direction (compare to the knight, which leaps two squares and then one), or the wizard can move a single square in any diagonal direction. The wizard also has historical forerunners; its long leap appears in numerous historical variants in a piece traditionally called the camel. The camel is an extremely awkward piece to use (and in my humble opinion, usually not fun to play with). Again, the addition of the single diagonal step makes the piece much easier to work with. The wizard is unique in that it has the ability to attack pieces hiding behind a wall of pawns without being threatened by those pawns. It is also similar to the bishop in that it is colorbound - that is, it is confined to all squares of the same color.
Besides the new pieces and the larger board, the only change is that the pawns can now make an initial step of three squares as well as one or two. The en passant rules have been expanded accordingly. (I like the en passant rule, which I think makes sense and adds to the game. Many commercial chess variants don't mention en passant even though it would still work in their game. I suspect this is because it rarely occurs in games and that chess players will know to add it in anyway, but whenever en passant is missing, I always feel like the game company thinks we are not smart enough to handle it.) Castling, promotion, stalemate, and the 50 move rule are all unchanged.
The following relative values have been given for the pieces: pawn=1, knight=2, wizard, champion, bishop=4, rook=6, queen=12. Anyone who has seriously studied the relative values of chess pieces, standard or otherwise, knows that the relative values of pieces are never that simple. But the list presented here does have a valuable function in that it gives new players a general guideline with which to start. You'd think that if somebody was going to put money into manufacturing and marketing a new game, that they'd think it through carefully and test the game to make sure it is sound. Yet I have seen many games where it seems that the inventor had an idea that sounded good, but doesn't actually work when put into practice. So far with Omega Chess, we have interesting new pieces, but that doesn't necessarily mean we have a good game.
Fortunately Omega Chess is well thought-out. The new pieces are placed in logical positions in the opening setup so that they can readily be developed along with the other pieces. Additionally, by leaving the array of the standard chess pieces untouched, some of the pitfalls of some other variants are avoided. For example, many games place new pieces in between the knights and bishops, or in between the bishops and the king/queen. This pushes the knights farther away from the center, where it is difficult to effectively develop them to positions where they can help protect pawns in the center without getting the way of other pieces. And if a single piece is placed in-between the knight and the bishop, it means a fianchetto now blocks the square to which the knight would normally develop. Also, there are no unprotected pawns in the starting setup, something I think we take for granted. Anyone who has played a variant in which there are unprotected pawns knows that the first thing that happens is the players attack these pawns, and this has a great tendency to dictate play from the get-go.
So Omega Chess is a good game. But there's more to it than that. For one thing, the Omega Chess sets are nice. The standard chess pieces are solid plastic House of Staunton style, and could be used at USCF tournaments. The new pieces are well designed both to fit in with the style of the standard pieces and to reflect the names given to them. Boards are double folding cardboard, and have a standard chess board on the reverse side. At about $25 US, sets are reasonably priced and affordable. But selling a lot of sets doesn't necessarily help popularize a game either, if the sets are simply sitting on shelves unplayed.
Perhaps the most important thing about Omega Chess as far its popular success is concerned, is that people are playing it. Tournaments, with prize funds and rated games, are held every few months in Toronto, and tournaments in other cities are being organized. You can now play the game for free on Richard's Play-by-Email server. The game is endorsed by chess Grandmaster Michael Rohde and Grandmaster Alex Sherzer. In itself, this doesn't mean much - I've seen some lousy games endorsed by grandmasters, presumably because they are being paid. But Rohde and Sherzer arent just endorsing it, they are playing it, studying it, analyzing it, and sending out regular emails on what they discover. The Omega Chess webpage is a growing collection of strategies, ideas, puzzles, and games, and I plan to make some contributions myself.
It would be ridiculous for me to claim that Omega Chess is the future of chess, I have a better chance of predicting the next 20 Super Bowl winners. But it has a lot of good things going for it, and I would not be surprised if it develops a large and enthusiastic following. Since I enjoy playing Omega Chess, I certainly hope it does.
The Omega Chess webpage is at: http://www.omegachess.com. Richard's Play-by-Email server webpage is at: http://www.gamerz.net/pbmserv/. You can contact Daniel Macdonald, inventor of Omega Chess, at: (email removed contact us for address) gachess.com. You can contact Ben Good, author of this review, at: [email protected].
Please note that the author, other than being a player, has no financial interest or any other formal connection with Omega Chess. Thank you.
Written by Ben Good.
WWW page created: February 13, 1999.