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The Chess Variant Pages

Interview with Seth McGinnis

In 1998/1999, a competition to design a chess variant on a board with exactly 39 squares was held. Winner of this competition was Seth McGinnis, with his game Robber Baron. You can read an interview with Seth McGinnis below.

Dear Seth,

Congratulations with winning both the first prize in the contest to design a chess variant on 39 squares, and the prize for the game most enjoyable for children in this contest, and thank you for letting me have this interview with you.

Thanks! I was both suprised and pleased to learn that I had won.

Can you tell something about yourself: which year were you born, how old are you, where do you live, what is your occupation, etc.?

I'm 27, and I'm a graduate student in geophysics. I live in Boulder, Colorado, where I am working on my Ph.D. at the Uhiversity of Colorado. I study earthquake patterns using computer simulations.

Do you regularly play chess, e.g., in a club, or by email? How did you learn to play chess?

And chess variants - do you regularly play chess variants, and how?

I actually don't play much regular chess at all; I'm much fonder of chess variants. I attribute this to the fact that I'm actually a pretty weak chess player. I play a reasonable tactical game, but my strategic thinking isn't very good. (In other words, I tend to win battles but lose wars.) What I *am* good at is adapting quickly to new scenarios, so I make up for my poor chess game by convincing my friends to play some strange chess-like game and figuring out how to take advantage of its rules faster than they can. :-)

I don't have a regular chess variant club, but I generally get together to play games of one sort or another with my friends about once a week, and we play chess variants among other games.

What are your favourite chess variants?

Boy, that's a tough question! I think Duchess is pretty neat. I also like Stupid -- though I should point out that I haven't ever actually *played* Stupid. But I might have to pick Knightmare Chess (Steve Jackson Games' U.S. translation of Tempete sur l'Echequier by Pierre Clequin and Bruno Faidutti.) I've only played it once, but it was a lot of fun.

How did you come to the design of Robber Baron, your winning game?

As best I can remember, i think it went something like this: The game started from the board. I played around with various configurations of 39 spaces, and decided that I liked a 7x7 board with 10 holes in it. Then I started arranging the holes, and came up with a configuration I liked that had no holes touching, no holes at the edge of the board, and was relatively symmetric. I was struck by the open lanes in the board that resulted from this arrangement, and started thinking about how a piece might lurk at the end of one of the lanes, providing "cover fire" for other pieces. So that gave me a sort of "setting" for the game.

Then I started to think about an interesting pieces to place in the setting. I considered a piece that moved alternately like a rook and a bishop, and thought it would work well in a constrained setting like the board I had come up with. The name "rook-bishop" contracted to "roo-bi", and thence to "robber", and now I had a name for the piece. Combining the piece name with the setting, I had a game with a definite feel and mood; I added the hidden objective element (not knowing which piece of your opponent's you must capture), and then it was just a matter of play-testing it to see whether it worked.

Did you invent other board games? If so, can you tell something about them?

Along with Schizochess and Robber-Baron, I have toyed with several other chess variants (mostly involving unusual boards) over the years. Some of them are still unfinished, but there are several I just haven't had time to write up yet. One of my favorites (and one of the unfinished ones closest to completion) is a hexagonal chess variant. I know there are already quite a few hexagonal variants, but I've never been quite satisfied with the generalization from a square lattice to a hexagonal one. I think what I'm trying to come up with is not actually chess anymore, but the hexagonal equivalent of chess.

I think that's a tendency I have: to bend the rules to the point where it's not really clear whether the result can actually really be called "chess" anymore. I have a similar pile of ideas related to 3-D chess. I'm also working on a game that isn't really chess at all, but which is called "Rune Chess". My goal is to create a game with understandable rules, but with such complexity of interaction between the rules and the pieces that you can't play it analytically; the only practical way to play the game is on an intuitive level. We'll see whether it turns out playable at all...

Did you feel the requirement that the board had to have exactly 39 squares a limitation? Would this game be essentially better if it could be played on a different board with another number of squares?

Requiring the board to have 39 squares was definitely a limitation, but I think it's the kind of limitation that can really spur your creativity. Having to use exactly 39 squares makes you think very carefully about what the effects of the board layout will be. It's sort of like writing a poem -- sometimes trying to write something with a very strict form like a sonnet or a pantoum is almost easier to do than writing a good piece of free verse, because the form channels your efforts and makes a lot of decisions for you.

Having said that, I will also say that I don't think there's anything particularly special about the 39-square layout I came up with for Robber Baron. I think it's a good layout, but I never compared it to other layouts with different numbers of squares. In my mind, the defining features of the game are the alternating movement of the pieces, the hidden king, and the constraining factor of a board with holes on it. The exact layout of the holes in unimportant; it's the fact that they're there at all, creating open lanes where you can snipe at the oppoent and bottlenecks to work around that makes them an interesting and important part of the game. I think it might even be interesting to play with randomly-placed holes, and play a different game each time.

Do you regularly play chess, e.g., in a club, or by email? How did you learn to play chess?

I play chess very infrequently. My friends and I often get together on Friday evenings to play various games, and sometimes I will play chess then, but that's about it. I can't remember much about learning to play chess; I know that I learned when I was a child, and I think my uncle taught me.

What was your reaction when you learned that you won?

I was very surprised; the contest results came out while I was out of town on vacation, and to be honest, I had completely forgotten that I had entered the contest by the time I got back. So it was a pleasant surprise!

The `Children jury' (consisting of two of my children, a girl of age 11 and a boy of age 9) selected, without much doubt, your game as the one that is most enjoyable for children. What do you think of this?

I regard it as quite a compliment; kids are often a lot harder to please than adults are.

How do you now look at Robber Baron after the contest. If you had to redesign the game, would you do it in the same way? What do you feel yourself are the strong points of this game?

If I were to redesign the game, I would have to do a lot of playtesting of different board layouts, to figure out what features of the board make for interesting play. I would also like to come up with generalized rules for the board, so that you could make a different board each time, but still be guaranteed that it would be an interesting arena for the game.

I think the interaction of the blank squares and the way the robber moves are what makes the game most intersting. I also like the theme; if I were redesigning the game, I think I would try to elaborate on the "bandits" theme, if I could.

Do you play games other than chess and chess variants? What are your favourites? And how do you play them - with friends, over the Internet, against a computer?

I enjoy a variety of games. My favorite board games are just about anything from the clever people at Cheapass Games; the games are uniformly well-designed and usually have a very quirky and entertaining premise. Kill Doctor Lucky is one of the best. I play a fair number of CCG's (collectible card games) as well. Mythos (from Chaosium) is my favorite.

My friends and I often get together on Fridays for "Gin and Coffee" -- we go to a coffeehouse and play Gin (or other games) while we drink coffee.

Do you have other hobbies?

I play role-playing games, both table-top and live-action. I enjoy skiing and swimming, and I lift weights when my schedule allows. I read quite a bit of fiction (mostly science-fiction and fantasy), occasionally dabble in poetry and visual art, and am a fairly good cook, when I have someone to cook for.

What do you think of the future of chess? Do you think variants will take over from chess once, or will people always mostly play chess with the FIDE rules, or will they stop playing chess and its variants after a while?

I think people will always play chess, and that most of them will only know FIDE chess. But amongst those who play variants, I think that people will come to see FIDE chess as only a single point in a continuum of chess-like games.

What do you think the role of computers will be for chess in the future?

I think that before long computers will be able to beat any human player in existence, though I don't think that will make the game any less interesting. I think the real value of computers in chess is as a design aid; I hope to see programs that will do things like, for example, calculate piece values for any kind of chess-like game. Computers will also let you play games that are impossible (or at least impractical) with a real gameboard.

Do you have some advice for people that want to design chess variants, or other board games?

I guess the only thing I would say is that if you're going to design something, do it because you are interested in the idea for its own sake. And that playtesting is the best way to find problems.

Do you have an opinion about the other chess variants, submitted to this contest?

Overall, I think there were a lot of very good entries. Thirty-nine is a difficulty number of cells to work with, and I like a lot of the board shapes that the entrants came up with. I really like spIndecision Beryl chess as a translation of regular chess from a binary schema to a sort of "three-halves-ary" schema. It has the same kind of strangeness to it that quantum mechanics has. Four-player Pothole Chess is also pretty cool; I like the dirt devils.

Text of Seth McGinnis and Hans Bodlaender; webpage by Hans Bodlaender.
WWW page created: October 30, 1999. Last modified: November 27, 2000.