How Chess Pieces Actually Behave

I’ve talked before on this blog about how I’ll play games as a quick break between chunks of work. Chess is really good for this, because 3-minute blitz games take approximately five minutes each, so it’s very easy to slip into my schedule. As a result, I have played a stupid amount of chess over the past two months.

Fantasy worldbuilding will sometimes have cultural chess variants where the pieces work the same but have different names. This makes perfect sense. Chess pieces get translated differently in different languages even in the real world. Bishops and rooks in particular tend to get renamed a lot. The rook is a ship in Russia, an elephant in India, a cannon in Bulgaria, and a chariot in Vietnam. The bishop is an elephant in Russia and Vietnam, a camel in India, an officer in Bulgaria, a jester in France, a standard-bearer in Italy, and a hunter in Slovenia. I’m guessing these names are, at least in some of these languages, giving way to “bishop” and “castle” in modern use because that’s what they look like in the Staunton set used by the International Chess Federation, but traditionally Indian chess kings marched into battle with a full menagerie backing up their front line.

When creating fantasy variants, they’re often plainly derived from the Staunton standard we’re all familiar with. At that point, why not just actually use Staunton pieces? Replacing the bishop in particular may be necessary if the setting you’re making a chess set for just doesn’t have bishops, but beyond that, I say either stick to the familiar in order to enhance legibility for the audience or else do it right by choosing new pieces based on their role in the game, not just making very slightly fantastical equivalents to the Staunton set.

For example, if you’re redesigning all of the pieces of your chess set for a D&D-style fantasy world, then your knights should probably be some kind of rogue. Rogues don’t show up in regular chess because they don’t show up on the battlefield. Whoever heard of bringing thieves to war in the real world? But in D&D-style fantasy, this is much less bizarre. A major use of a knight in chess is to jump over the enemy front line, slipping past an otherwise impenetrable pawn wall to sit in enemy territory, surrounded by enemy pieces, and yet not be threatened by any of them. Knights are sneaky.

On the other hand, knights and pawns are the two pieces that basically never get renamed, except in minor variations on whether they’re called “cavalry,” “horses,” or “riders.”

Bishops are very long ranged. They also tend to end up getting names that make them seem like upgraded pawns. Bishops capture the same way pawns do, just at longer range, and bishops blocked in by their own side’s pawns are referred to as “tall pawns” because they don’t do anything a pawn in the same position wouldn’t, guarding the two pawns diagonally in front of them and nothing else (well, they also have the option to retreat, but you usually don’t want to do that). This is why bishops are sometimes called officers, since an officer is a sort of upgraded level 2 infantry, and being some kind of archer would also make sense. In D&D settings specifically, a sorcerer would also make sense, since sorcerers can pop up anywhere, in any class background, so they kind of make sense as an upgraded peasant, and just like a sorcerer, a good bishop has lots of ranged attack options, but a bad bishop (like a Sorcerer with no spells left) is basically indistinguishable from a peasant/pawn. Bishops are also often some kind of animal like a camel or elephant, to go with the knight/horse, so if you have some weird fantasy animal you want to add, like a manticore or something, a bishop is a good piece to do it with.

Rooks are usually associated with something bulky. Elephants, cannons, ships, or heavily armored chariots. Rooks are really good at cleaning up pawns in the later part of the game, when the board is open and the rooks have had a chance to peel themselves out of the corner and develop, which I’m guessing is why they’re usually associated with something big enough to crush a hapless farmer. Some kind of giant or golem would be appropriate, if you want to stick to playable classes in D&D this is a good place to put a tanky Fighter or Barbarian, and you can also just let them be castles.

Queens are almost always either left as queens or replaced with some kind of vizier or prime minister. If you’re not using the Staunton set, you should probably change this one. It’s got some weird gender role baggage, and while it’s not cut-and-dry misogyny (the queen being the most powerful piece on the board – a development that happened after the piece transitioned from being a vizier to being a queen – is a strong counterargument to the idea that Victorian levels of misogyny were the norm back in the medieval era), that, if anything, makes it more annoying to deal with. Cut-and-dry misogyny is, at least, very easy to get across to an audience. The queen is powerful and maneuverable, so this is a great place to put something that is both strong and fast. A wizard makes sense in a setting where wizards are just better than everyone else, but less so in a D&D-style setting with class balance. A dragon or similar super-monster would also work. You can also use the vizier/prime minister, the lieutenant of the king.

Speaking of the king, for the same reason you shouldn’t use the queen unless you’re just using the Staunton set unaltered, you should probably refer to the king as the gender-neutral “sovereign.”

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