Friday, October 12, 2007

Game of the Week: Military Chess

After about half a century of board wargaming, it's easy to forget how ground-breaking Charles Roberts was with his Tactics wargame. His innovative design broke through the chess-like mindset that hamstrung wargame designers up to that point.

Military Chess (1959) a contemporary of Roberts' Tactics design, shows the limits that kept chess-like games from evolving into real wargames as we understand them today. Set on the familiar 64-square battlefield and using abstract capabilities similar to chess, the game isn't much of a military simulation, despite the hype on the box.
It isn't really even a true chess variant, as no piece in the game has the chess knight move, which, being unique to chess, is considered its signature move.

The game board is an 8x8 grid of squares, with an alternating pattern of lighter and darker spaces overlaying a military-style contour map with various military symbols here and there. None of that affects play and is purely decorative. Even the light and dark squares don't serve any game purpose, as there is no diagonal movement or bishop's move in the game.

The two sides are separated by a river that divides the board in two, crossed at four spots by bridges. This gives the game a slight resemblance to Chinese Chess, which also has a water obstacle. Each side also has two minefields with divide its own sector into two parts. The mines obstruct two square boundaries, leaving a couple of passes.

There are 12 plastic pieces on each side showing military figures in the "flats" format that was formerly pretty popular for toy soldiers.
Deployed on the second row, in line with the bridges are four "advance guards" (pawns). These pieces have more movement capability than chess pawns, being allowed to move and capture up to two squares distant forward or sideways, but never to the rear. Like pawns they can be promoted if they make it the 8th row.
Deployed on the first row are more powerful pieces. On each flank (in the chess rook position) are "cannons." These are slow-moving but powerful pieces. They can move just a single space forward, sideways or backwards, but can "fire" up to three spaces distant to eliminate an enemy piece. The only restriction is that they have to be aimed in the proper direction, which takes a move and therefore may give the endangered piece a chance to escape. Alone among the pieces in the game, cannons are allowed to point and fire diagonally, otherwise there is no diagonal movement or capture in the game.
Next to each cannon (in the chess knight position) are "infantrymen." These are fairly weak pieces, with the same 2-square move as the advanced guards, except the infantrymen can also move backwards.
In the middle four squares are the "general" (king) "tank" (rook), "engineer" and "recon."
The engineer (also called a bazooka-man in the rules) and recon (depicted by a jeep) move exactly the same, up to three squares forwards, backwards to the side. This makes them somewhat more powerful than most other pieces, but still much less dynamic than chess bishops or knights. The tank moves like the chess rook, making it the most powerful piece in this game, which lacks a queen-equivalent. The general moves one space like the cannon. The game is won by capturing the enemy general OR advancing your general to row 8.

Overall, the game play is slower than chess, with only one piece per side (the tank) able to traverse the whole board in a single move, compared to five in chess (queen, 2 rooks, 2 bishops). In that way is resembles Chinese Chess a little. Overall it's harder for pieces to support one another, so there's less scope for intricate combinations like chess.

Apparently, despite its patent, the 1959 game is based on an 1880s-era game with the same name and similar pieces. Judging from a photograph of the older game there were fewer pieces, just infantry (6) cavalry (4) and cannons (2). Without a general there must also have been some significant rules differences as well.

All-in-all, there's not much to recommend Military Chess as a game. It's not anymore of a military simulation than regular chess and not as interesting as the parent game. It is of some interest as a collectible.


In order to make the game a true chess variant, it needs a piece with a knight's move. Fortunately a suitable piece is at hand. Give the Jeep (recon) the option of changing direction once during its move (which is otherwise prohibited in the game). This gives it the functional equivalent of a knight's move.

The game as published has no difference between the recon (jeep) and engineer (bazooka-man), which is a missed opportunity. Besides giving the jeep the knight's move, as a further variant give the engineer some special movement powers as well by allowing it to cross minefields or rivers so long as it starts its move adjacent to the obstacle. This gives the piece some engineer-like powers while opening the game up a little more.

With these two variant rules these two pieces gain powers making them more like true chess major pieces instead of slightly souped-up pawns.

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