Top Chess Game Variants
It’s a tricky thing writing about chess variants if only for the sheer numbers of variants or variations on standard chess that exist today. A great number of these variants have gained in popularity thanks to chess software programs and servers. And the reason is quite obvious too, since with electronic servers, shuffling between different boards/grids as well as playing with different sets of pieces is never a problem. However, avid chess enthusiasts can still play many of these variants manually at some of the dedicated chess clubs and/or tournaments.
In this article, we will list and give brief descriptions of some of the more popular of these variants. If one or more of them capture your attention (which we hope they would!), you can further research the rules, methods, strategies, etc. for that particular variant from appropriate sources.
One of the earliest known predecessors of the standard orthodox chess is Shatranj, a game that developed in Persia from about 7th century AD. Save a few exceptions, the game is otherwise similar to modern chess which is why it still has a huge following among chess hobbyists who like to try their hands at different variations on orthodox chess.
Unlike chess, the game is not played on a checkered board but the grid is the same and so too is the array (only you replace Bishops with Elephants and the Queen is here a counselor or, as they are called by the native players, a fers). The latter can move only to the first diagonal square and the elephant can leap to the second diagonal square each side, but is never allowed to occupy the first diagonal. As for rules, there are no castling options, en passant or two-step forward move for the pawns. Bare Kings and Stalemates are counted as wins and pawns reaching the last rank always get promoted to a counselor/fers. You can play this variant at many popular chess sites.
Properly speaking, this is not really a too popular chess variant (the dissimilarities are many), but we thought we might as well mention this one if only for the pride of place it deserves as the earliest known variant of chess. Believed to have originated in ancient India, this is also the game from which Shatranj had developed. Played on a non-checkered 8X8 grid, the game involves four instead of two players, though one can win individually. There are four identical sets of arrays—colored red, green, yellow and black; and arranged clockwise on the board. The reds play with the yellows and the greens with the blacks. There are many intricate rules as well as different variants (Basic, Modern, and so on) of the game itself.
Come to more recent times, Chess960 is one of the most popular chess variants practiced by recreational players and professionals alike. The moves are the same as in standard chess, but the big difference is that the back row pieces are arranged in a randomized manner (pawns retain their usual places on the board). The idea behind is to break out of the set opining patterns. Although the arrangement is randomized, there are three rules that need to be maintained. These are:
• Each side must have two bishops, one of each color.
• Black and white pieces must mirror each other’s respective positions on the board.
• The kings should always be flanked by two rooks.
Even with these rules, we still get 960 possible combinations. And this will partly explain the game’s huge popularity. This variant is also known as ‘Fischer Random Chess’. A sub-variant spawned of this one is the Double Fischer Random. The rules are the same as in Chess960 only, and significantly enough, white and black pieces don’t mirror each other. Since this means one player may gain undue advantage over the other, the players will normally play parallel games with boards reversed.
In fact, you can gauge the popularity of Chess960 from the fact that many other variants such as Benedict, Alice Chess, Loser’s Chess, Crazy House, Atomic Chess and many more also have their own 960 variants.
4. Atomic Chess
Another popular variant, especially to online chess communities. The game differs significantly from standard chess courtesy its radical (and somewhat bizarre) capture rules. Once you capture a piece, the piece that captures is also taken/captured in its turn! However, it doesn’t end there only. All the pieces standing on the four adjacent squares next to the square on which the original capture was made are removed (they ‘explode’, in atomic chess terminology) as well. So, as you can realize already, you’ll need to be extra cautious when making a capture. Normally, the knights play quite an important part in atomic chess.
5. All Queens
And if you really want to go over-board, try All Queens. The rule is pretty simple—you’ve your king aided by seven queens (!), so no slow moves with knights and so on. If you like ultra-aggressive, this is the game for you!
6. Blindfold and Kriegspiel
Blindfold is a variant where you cannot get to see the actual image of the board but are allowed to see the moves. The idea is that you read the moves and mentally visualize the positions of the pieces on the board. This variant is often practiced by young or budding players as it helps strengthen their understanding of the theoretical and strategic parts of the game.
Kriegspiel is an even more difficult version of Blindfold. In fact, the two games are quite different, but we’ve clubbed them together here for the reason that Kriegspiel was born out of the idea of blindfold chess. In Kriegspiel, you don’t get to see or know your opponent’s moves at all. All you can see are the pieces you’ve captured. As you can imagine, it is logistically difficult to play this game except on a chess site or server. The server will only tell you whether a move you’ve made is legal or illegal; if you’ve been checked and what direction the check comes from; and if any pawn capture is available to you. Overall, quite a difficult and challenging proposition!
7. Fianchetto Chess
Finally, a variant for those who would like to try something different but with minimal tinkering with standard chess rules. In Fianchetto, everything is same as in a regular chess game save that the starting positions of the bishops and rooks are reversed. And there is no castling allowed, and that’s it!
Well, that’s for now. As we had mentioned, chess variants are quite copious in number and as such, the above list is anything but comprehensive. All the same, we presume that the above, at least for the time being, should be a handful for you?
Thomas Shannon received a Masters Degree in Software Engineering from the University of Arizona. Thomas has been working in the software development industry for the past decade. In his spare time, Thomas competes in chess tournaments across the country. At one time, according to FIDE, Thomas was ranked as being one of the Top 20 Chess Players Nationwide.