How to make chess less boring? Learn from Street Fighter

A games designer has used his experience in remixing the best fighting game series of all time to make chess less predictable.

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You might think that there’s not much wrong with chess as a game, considering it’s two and a half thousand years old and just as popular as ever. But - and this is news to me - apparently, at the top end of the game, it’s all become a bit boring. Grandmasters have refined the memorisation of moves to such a degree that 60 percent of games end as a draw. The better you become at chess, the more boring it becomes.

David Sirlin - the man who rebalanced the mechanics of Super Street Fighter 2 Turbo for the HD Remix edition that came out in 2008 - thinks chess could be better. So, as you do, he’s changed the game mechanics and created a game he calls Chess 2: The Sequel. Fighting games and chess have a lot in common, when you think about - a range of characters to choose, each with defined moves and set strengths and weaknesses, some predictable, some not.

Eurogamer has a great feature going in-depth about what Sirlin’s done, but, in short, the key changes are the win conditions (if you get your king over the halfway line you win by 'midline invasion') and the introduction of armies (that is, you can choose between six different combinations of pieces at the start). It’s all about rebalancing the game away from tedious memorisation and towards the fun bit of chess - being surprised by something you didn’t see coming, and having to work out how to respond.

Here’s a snippet from the Eurogamer piece, which you should read in full:

"Midline invasion reduces the draws dramatically, but it also makes the game more climactic," says [games developer Zachary] Burns. "Remember, high-level players will often recognise a specific ending coming together in current chess, and then finish the game at that time. That's not very fun if the game cools down at this strange place, and for amateurs, it adds to that memorisation tax. Midline invasion makes it exciting and interesting up through the very end of the game. A friend of mine who plays chess a lot, he said of Chess 2, 'in this game, the king really deserves their title.' I love that. It's more of an assault, and the king really does earn their place rather than being tucked back until the end of the game, often never to be used."

Next come armies. Six of them, allowing for 21 possible match-ups - and that's before you take into account the variations caused by playing as black or white. Sirlin's work here is dazzling. Alongside the Classic army that remains unchanged, you can choose from the likes of Nemesis, which turns the queen into a piece that cannot capture or be captured except by the enemy king, while pawns get a new nemesis move that allows them to head towards that king wherever they may be, or Empowered, which allows knights, bishops and rooks to gain the powers of other knights, bishops, and rooks whenever they're adjacent to them, but sees the queen downgraded to moving like a king. Elsewhere amongst the line-ups, you can expect to find a teleporting queen, a second king and a whirlwind move, and even a knight that can take its own pieces. Chess 2 is precision-honed but gleefully inventive.

There’s going to be a Chess 2 video game on the Ouya, if you’d prefer that to a real-life board, developed by Burns and his studio Ludeme Games. In the meantime, though, you can download Sirlin’s new rules and give them a go. Although, if Chess 2 is a bit too complex, consider Bobby Fischer's Chess960, a variant he introduced in 1996. The mechanics and pieces are the same, but the positions of the pieces at the start are randomised, making memorised starting moves impossible. It's not as ambitious as Chess 2, but you won't have to consult a rulebook throughout the game.

Humanity may also benefit from a rule change in our never-ending battle with computers for chess supremacy. Scientists found chess a relatively solveable problem as the possible moves in the game reduce in number as the match goes on; now they're trying to beat humans at go, which requires much more human-like judgement and creativity. 

Levon Aronian, a chess grandmaster, playing in London in 2013. (Photo: Getty)

Ian Steadman is a staff science and technology writer at the New Statesman. He is on Twitter as @iansteadman.