Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Warmaster Chess 2000, review of the most hated wargame ever

Warmaster Chess 2000 is probably the most despised wargame ever published.

But it's a chess variant, not a wargame, you protest.


Warmaster Chess 2000 was the issue game in Command No. 49. Evidently the wargame planned for that issue fell through, so editor Ty Bomba, in an epic miscalculation, decided to go ahead and publish anyway, relying on Warmaster Chess 2000, which had been planned to be a mere supplementary bonus game, to carry the whole load. To characterize the reactions of the subscribers as negative would put it mildly. Command, which had established itself as the magazine-with-a-wargame-in-it that actually came out on a strict schedule (As opposed to S&T and Counterattack), had seen that reputation seriously damaged in 1998 as cash flow and printer problems disrupted its publication schedule. Undoubtedly this played a role in Bomba's anxiousness to get an issue out.

Cash flow problems are dangerous for any business, but small businesses are especially vulnerable. It's possible that Command wouldn't have recovered in any case, but the timing of the Warmaster Chess debacle could hardly have been worse. Command had burst onto the scene dramatically with a free issue mailed to thousands of wargamers. Many were impressed enough to subscribe starting with issue No. 2, so issue No. 49 represented a decision point for many who had been loyally resubscribing in 6- and 12-issue increments. I'm not aware of any figures being released, but the fact is that Command limped along with a very irregular and sparse publication schedule from that point forward. It finally expired with Issue No. 54 in 2001.

Warmaster Chess 2000 might have found a receptive audience if published in a general interest gaming magazine or among chess players, but a wargame audience expecting a real wargame was appalled.

(Vol. 1) Issue 49

And. in truth, the initial outing in the Warmaster Chess series was pretty lame. The essential feature of the variant was expanding the playing surface four squares in every direction, ending up with a 16 by 16 grid (256 squares of standard chess' 8x8 64-square grid. That's it. Later there were new pieces, discussed below, but the initial offering was simply a bigger board and a few rules for using it. If some of the later ideas had been included off the bat perhaps the game would have had a chance, but I suspect many, if not most subscribers, were so angry that they never even looked at the later iterations of Warmaster Chess.

The four variants presented in the first volume were "Deep Battle," "Mongol," "East Front" and "Victor Charlie."

Deep Battle Chess is merely standard chess with a standard setup in the middle of the expanded board. This naturally creates a more free-wheeling game because the pieces no longer have to wait for pawn development to open up lines of attack.

Mongol Chess is the same, except only one side (the "Mongol") can move in the "outer" board. If it does, it's "Khan" (king) is immobilized as long as any pieces are on the outer board. Pawns are not eligible for promotion in this variant. The idea seems to be to encourage short flanking moves by the Mongol player.

East Front Chess replaces every piece except the king and the pawns with queens. This naturally makes the game even more free-wheeling. Pawns also can't be promoted in this variant. This one is for those players who always want to play with King Tiger tanks in wargames.

Victor Charlie chess takes advantage of the fact the pieces are counters rather than actual chess pieces to introduce a hidden movement variant where all the pieces inverted, but otherwise act normally. Each player sets up in the same spaces as the standard set up, but can vary which piece goes where. There's no "check" or "checkmate" in this variant and players lose when their king is captured.

Interim grade "F" -- Mildly interesting chess variants presented in a completely off-putting way to a wargame audience. Inadequate value. Some of the ideas presented later (see below) should have been included in this initial outing. Doing so might have salvaged something.

Vol. 2 (Issue 50)

This was a supplementary game in Issue 50, which included a real wargame again (the prescient Back to Iraq 2nd ed.)

Each of the subsequent volumes of Warmaster Chess included the expanded map and enough pieces to play all the variants presented in that issue, so there was no need to have the earlier edition. Still, considering the negative reaction that Warmaster Chess had already engendered, it's amazing that Bomba forged ahead with the project.

Volume two introduced 'Wide & Deep Battle Chess" which took the next logical step of simply doubling all the pieces (except the king and queen) and making a bigger chess game that way. Unlike standard chess, the opposing battle lines didn't quite reach the edge of the board, so there was still room for flanking movements and less corresponding need for pawn development.

Vol. 2 also introduced variants adding a couple of new pieces and a few new rules for existing pieces. The new pieces were the "catapult" which operates similarly to the cannon in Chinese chess and the "Longrider" -- a sort of longer-raged knight. Fairly conventional chess variants. The new rules added a "Rook Charges" which allows a rook to move through a friendly pawn (killing it) on its way to make a capture and "Ricochet Bishop" which allows bishops to "ricochet" off the board edge pool-style. Both of these rules are standard chess variants but are useful in the expanded board of Warmaster Chess. The final rule adds additional movement power to the Queen to create a "Princess" "Empress" or "Amazon." The "Princess" moves as either a bishop or a knight and the "Empress" moves as the rook and the knight, both of which actually reduces the power of the queen, especially on the bigger board used in Warmaster. On the other hand, the "Amazon" moves as a Queen but adds the ability to move as a knight, too, creating a very powerful piece.

Second interim grade "D" -- Somewhat more interesting, although not departing from the usual chess variants. If these rules had been included in the initial version maybe people wouldn't have been quite so mad.

Vol. 3 (Issue 51 - real wargame the Fire Next Time)

This version is mostly about adding new pieces and some odd new rules.

The new pieces include the "Wazir/Sapper" which is a somewhat more powerful pawn and mine remover (see below) and the Uhlan, which can move in just one direction like a rook or change facing. Some new counters that are not pieces are "Mountains" which basically create an impassible square and "Land Mines" which create four potentially "mined" squares. each player places four mines (two real and two dummy) and they will destroy any piece that lands on a real mine.

New rules include "Suicide" which allows player once per game to remove one of his own pieces; "Hop-Skip which allows a once-per-game jump by a bishop or rook over another piece and "Atomic Pawn" which allows a once-per-game suicide blast by a pawn that destroys itself and all adjacent pieces. Some folks may find this piece overpowered and distasteful, given the prevalence of suicide bombers today. Fortunately this rule, like all the rules in Warmaster Chess, are completely optional and can be mixed and matched in any way desired.

Finally there is "Mutually Assured Destruction." With this rule each player secretly picks a counter bearing the name of a type of piece (such as Rook). If the opposing player makes a capture with that piece type the player can expend the MAD counter to destroy the capturing piece, too.

This volume also adds three new ways to play Warmaster: Meeting Engagement -- starting at the board edge; Deep Battle Chess Kriegspiel -- using three sets and an umpire for hidden movement; and Deep Battle Bughouse using two sets for team play.

Third Interim Grade "C" -- Finally introducing some worthwhile and interesting variants. this was far too late.

Variants (Issue 52 & 53 which were published jointly)

This final iteration of the Warmaster Chess 2000 series was the star of the bunch, introducing some very interesting variants and new ways to play. If only this had been first ... .

The first variant is called "Chess Battle" which actually isn't a Warmaster Chess variant at all, but a 1933 Soviet chess variant that translated 20th century military units into chess-like pieces. The game includes Infantry, Tank, Field Gun, Machinegun, Cavalry, Fighter-bomber and headquarters pieces. The HQ is basically a chess king. The fighter-bomber (one per side) is a queen with the additional power of being able to jump over one friendly piece per move. Tanks (one per side) are rooks, but can move just 2 squares. Field guns (2 per side) move as kings but can "bombard" an enemy piece up to five squares away so long as there is no intervening piece. Machineguns (2 per side) also move like kings and can also remove an enemy piece by fire like a field gun, except only three squares away. Cavalry (2 per side) is knight-like in its moves, except it can vary the move from 2 to 6 squares. Infantry ( 15 per side) moves like kings.

The second rule section adds an "airpower module" to Warmaster Chess 2000. This adds four F-22 fighters to each side which have tremendous movement abilities, two altituides and the ability to "strike" enemy pieces (except for the king). Regular pieces have the ability to fire "flak" at passing planes with varying chance s of success based on a d6 die roll. Adding planes to the mix changes the entire nature of the game . Basically, the game will hinge on the outcome of the air superiority battle and nothing much is likely to happen until that's determined. If one side achieve air superiority it will have a powerful tool to set up a winning move later on.

The final section adds five more variant pieces to Deep Battle Chess: Air Cavalry; Bulldozer, Grappler, Phalanx and Mimic. The Air Cav piece can move and capture within two squares of its position in varying combinations that can include capturing two pieces in one turn. It's a powerful piece within its limited range. The bulldozer moves like a queen but doesn't capture. Instead it pushes pieces one square, possibly an entire chain of pieces, making it an interesting support piece. The grappler also moves like a Queen but also has no capturing power. Instead, it immobilizes any enemy pieces that start their move net to the grappler. A grappler can be captured by an enemy piece that starts its move more than one square away, though, so it's fairly easy to counter. A Phalanx moves one square forward or sideways, but any distance to the "rear." It's invulnerable to capture from its front. The final new piece is the "Mimic" which copies the move of the last enemy piece moved.

Interim grade: "B" -- This is, by far, the best offering in the series. If it had been first, especially with "Chess Battle" it could have been sold as at least somewhat wargame-related. Instead it was last and I doubt many subscribers gave it a second glance.

Overall grade: "D" -- Despite finishing strong, initial impressions counted the most and Warmaster Chess 2000 has to go down in wargame history as one of its biggest failures. For players willing to give it a fair shot -- and who have an interest in chess variants -- there's some value in the game. For wargamers -- and they were the audience that counted for a wargame magazine -- there's nothing worthwhile and their disappointment and anger is understandable.

1 comment:

  1. As a reformed wargamer, but hopelessly addicted chess player, I found your post made for some interesting reading! I even referenced it in my own chess blog.

    Nice work!