I return to chess and chess-likes every so often. Abstract board games keep my interest in the longhaul though there are sometimes many months that go by between playing them. For the past two years I had been on a Backgammon kick, playing with different friends and my partner and even online. Lately though I've been back on chess, and specifically some of the variants below. Short descriptions and biased anecdotal reviews below.

I'm using the term chess-like facetiously. In the wider world there is a known title "Chess Variant." This is a term for the family of games based on Chess, with different rules variations and sometimes completely different pieces, though often on a standard or enlarged regular gridded chessboard. By the way, one of my favorite chess variant terms is "fairy pieces," the term for a variant chess piece not found in the now-standardized classic chess.

Fairy Chess piece (Gemipedia)

Fairy Chess piece (Wikipedia)

Below I've reviewed modern Chess-likes, as opposed to traditional chess variants. Whereas many chess variants are slight modifications to the game, they often eschew past knowledge, for example by studying openings, but preserve a similar focus on careful and methodical strategy. The chess-likes below I've selected because they more dramatically tend to change the gameplay, reimagining chess in completely new forms, or departing almost completely while retaining a bit of the flavor of chess. If we need a metaphor, and since I'm a puzzle videogame player, let's consider these games to be Broughlikes to Rogue's roguelike, if that metaphor means anything to you, rather than new "traditional oldschool roguelikes." Throwing out tradition while retaining some of that chess strategy flavor, that's perhaps a good way to think of these, though of course there is likely a continuum of games between chess and not-chess!


It's a classic! It's a beautiful strategy game. In high school I read books on various opening and middlegame and even endgame strategies and spent hours refining my game. I still use some of those skills when I play, though I'm quite a bit rusty. I had chess puzzle game books and the like too. I didn't want to spend hours each day for years to continue to improve my game. I started getting more interested in making music, reading and other pursuits. In college I played with friends, and over the years have continued to play the game. I've tried online chess a bit when I was dating someone that was really into it, but now I tend not to play the game anymore. I've kind of lost my taste for it unfortunately. I think its slow deliberate nature was too plodding for me. I turned to speed chess games, which I enjoyed, but rarely have a friend in-person who wants to play this way. I tried it online but didn't enjoy it as much. Occasionally I'll play on my tablet or phone, and I genuinely enjoyed beating a 'young Magnus' in a Magnus chess engine, and took a commemorative polaroid when I beat the chess program of the PDP-12 (from 1969) I think it was at the Living Computers museum in Seattle. Still, chess will always be around, and I'm glad I know how to play, but it's just not a common game for me right now due to its high time commitment. And the desire for finding more casual ways to play are what brought me to these chess-likes...

Knightmare Chess

This is a deck of cards that you use with a traditional chess board and pieces. It's published by Steve Jackson Games, from 1996, and based on an old chess card game variant from France that translates to 'Storm on the Chessboard.' Each player draws a hand of cards that they play along with the standard chess pieces. These cards add new rules, interrupts and transforms or builds fairy chess pieces. Honestly, Knightmare Chess is a chaotic game, possibly the most chaotic two player board game I've played. Just about 15 minutes into a game and I find with my partner the game is careening back and forth between the two of us. There's something satisfying about slapping down a card that cancels your opponents last move, sacrifices one of your pawns to kill a stronger enemy piece, or freeze an opponents piece, or lets you move twice. Then your opponent slaps down a card that reverses yours. Or.....You get the idea. This game has led to a lot of near-shouting when my partner and I play as you sometimes have to interpret rules and see which card cancels out which other which cancels out another, etc etc. It can be a lot of fun, but is kind of the exact opposite of classic chess, which continues at a slow moderate pace. Where that has no hidden information, this is tons of hidden information and randomness.

There are several variations of Knightmare Chess listed in the rules booklet. I have the 2nd edition, which features 2 decks of cards. Rather than the deck-building version where each player builds up a deck to play from, like Magic the Gathering, I tend to play where we have a single deck of cards to draw from and each of us draw to keep 5 cards at the end of each turn. But this may also be why our games veer wildly back and forth. Don't get me wrong: there is plenty of strategy, but things go haywire quickly. I recommend it as a good way to have a high octane game. Games play usually takes us up to two hours, but my partner takes really long turns as they study their cards over and over again, whereas I'm usually ready in a minute, so I'd think a typical game should take about an hour.

By the way, I think the graphics are atrociously bad and missed a great opportunity. Far from being nicely designed like Magic The Gathering or other modern deck-builders, this game has a vague 'dark dungeon' theme: think lightly colored dark lairs and mages and the like, but completely faded out color on the cards. It sort of works to advantage though to hide the at-times grotesque imagery. I think they missed a great opportunity to have images that help make clear the effects of the card. The text is also poorly aligned on some cards. Although this is slightly disappointing, it doesn't overall affect the gameplay so much as we are mostly just reading the text on the cards rather than admiring their design.

Knigtmare Chess (Gemipedia)

Knightmare Chess (Wikipedia)


A recent game, from the past 5 years, described as something of a "Build Your Own Chess piece" game, created by Martin Grider for Adam's Apple Games. I met Martin at Eyeo conference a few years ago while he was seeking crowdfunding for the game. His blog and podcast is a good place to hear him talk about board game design and prototyping. Martin described the game to me and I was hooked. These were originally published online as print and play PDFs you could use online. Then the crowdfunding campaign came, which allowed a more refined designed board, pieces and packaging, and came with an expansion pack. There is also an iOS app to play as well.

Chesstris, Martin Grider's blog

In Thrive each player starts with 5 plain pieces. Each turn you add some pegs to any two of your pieces. These pegs indicate new ways that your piece can jump on the next turn. If you add a peg to the right, you can use that piece to jump to the right. If you add a peg two to the front, it can now jump two spaces ahead. Add one diagonally back left and the piece can move diagonally back left. Each time you add a peg it keeps all the previous pegs, so your pieces get stronger and stronger so to speak. Or more accurately, they get more flexible. Like building a custom pawn-knight-bishop or something like that. Capture an enemy piece by landing on it. Capture enough of your opponent's pieces to get them down to one and you win. Games take about 25 minutes. The Pond Life expansion adds cards, some new gameplay variant rules, including the ability to play multiplayer. Mostly, these didn't capture my attention, and were less elegant than the original rules.

Overall, while Thrive is fun, I haven't stuck with it as much as some of these other Chess-likes. When first playing the game, I loved the concept, and even the feel of the pieces, of plugging in new pegs to alter my pieces felt really good. But at the same time, there does feel like some amount of guesswork as you're learning strategy. A few games in you've got the strategy down somewhat and there's much less strategy than Chess. That's both a good thing, since it makes for a fast game, but also doesn't necessarily reward deeper play as much. Still, a recommended game, good for occasional game nights. While the game ships in a box, the fabric 'board' rolls up and the pieces slip into a bag that comes with the box, so you could make a more portable on-the-go setup, or do without the proper and print out print-and-play versions - which is what I did first to make sure I liked the game enough to want to order it. The theme of lotus flowers is lovely enough, but doesn't have a big impact on the enjoyment of the gameplay, and maybe connotes an idea of zen that isn't quite present in the gameplay.

Thrive (Adam's Apple Games)

Thive Print and Play (for sale)


A Chess-like quite distinct from Chess. And there are two expansions. I have Hive Pocket, same as the original game, but smaller and comes with the expansions. The first obvious distinctions from Chess is that there is no separate board, and the pieces are hexagonal. The first few turns players add pieces to the table connected to one of their previous pieces. As you add more pieces, you are effectively building the board, and no piece is ever allowed to be on its own without touching an adjacent piece.

Like chess, the pieces have distinct moves. The Queen is a bit like Chess's King. It can move one move at a time. There is the ant, which can shoot around the sides of pieces as far as it can go. The grasshopper leaps over a stack of tiles and lands on the opposite side, as long as there are no spaces between tiles, something like a jumping rook. A spider scurries along 3 spaces past other tile-pieces. The beetle moves like a queen in that it only moves along one space, but it is the only piece that can move on top of an adjacent piece, pinning it down (with its pincers?). Expansion pieces include Ladybug, Mosquito and Pillbug. For regular Hive, must buy these separately, but they come with the Pocket travel version of the game, which is the version I own.

To win the game, trap your enemy's Queen by surrounding it completely, with a combination of your own and your opponent's tile pieces. Sounds easy enough, right? And games certainly are fast, usually about 15-20 minutes. Hilariously, as I searched online to confirm this time, I see the gameplay time listed drastically differently, everything from 10-20 minutes in some places to 60-75 minutes elsewhere. Gen42, makers of the game, list the time as 10+ minutes!

Some similarities to chess are that there is no hidden gameplay, no randomness, and there are deeper levels of strategy available to players studying the game. But unlike chess, gameplay is much faster because you have more far-moving pieces than weak ones. It's something like if Chess had more rooks and bishops than pawns. That combined with how you build the board together each time differently means there's not as much of a chance to develop 'openings' as such, and with all pieces touching from the beginning, there's not as much time needed to 'develop' pieces like chess. For these reasons, Hive is a great board game for those seeking a Chess-like experience without some of the bogged-down parts of the traditional game. The feel of the Hive pieces are nice in the hand, and the pocket version packs up small enough to travel well. Highly recommended.

Hive (Gemipedia)

Hive (Wikipedia)


Originally published in the 90s Bosworth is a 2-4 player chess variant. The board is a 6 by 6 grid, without using the 4 corner spaces. A player has 4 spaces next to them on the edge of the board, called a 'home camp.' Each player starts with 4 pawns in their home camp. At the beginning of the game, a deck of cards is shuffled and players draw 4 cards. Each time you move a piece out from your home camp you select a card from your hand to lay down to place in the empty space, then draw a new card for your hand. This is how you get your pieces onto the board and developed. If an opponent captures a piece in someone else's home camp it prevents the other player from being able to bring a new piece onto the board there, which is one particular strategy to follow. The pieces move pretty much the same as chess, with the exception of pawns, which can now move sideways too. Pieces capture like normal but there is no checkmate. Kings can instead just be captured. Kings can also capture one of their own side's pieces. When a player loses their king all of their pieces are removed from the game and the capturing opponent can add a queen to the board. Play proceeds til only one player is left standing.

Gameplay is fairly fast, with games seeming to take about 30 minutes. The smaller board means that capturing comes sooner, and because of this knights, for example, appear even stronger than they are in Chess. The use of cards to determine what pieces you bring out adds just a bit of randomness to the game, which is enough to destabilize things so that one couldn't really prepare openings for example. While the cartoon chess piece cards have replaced the use of physical 3d pieces, I didn't mind as much as I thought I would, once the play got going. This would be a good game to get if you have a small group in mind to play with but didn't mind occasionally playing as a duo if you're looking for chess-like gameplay but a faster game. While the game seems designed for and plays best with 4 players, it can still be fun to play with 2 or even 3.

Bosworth (Gemipedia)

Bosworth (Wikipedia)


This isn't a game so much as a puzzle or teaching/learning tool. Originally created by Martin Gardner in Scientific American in 1962, this is an exercise to understand how we can train machines to play chess. I built my own Hexapawn game following the ideas in the article when I was a child using colored beads and empty matchboxes to build a chess-playing machine.

The main concept is that we have 3 pawns per color on a 3 by 3 (tic-tac-toe) grid. Players alternate turns moving a pawn forward or capturing diagonally. If a player reaches the last row or blocks their opponent from being able to move, they win.

This is designed to be used solo. When you beat the 'computer' player in a game of Hexapawn you remove a bead (or cross out its last move, whatever method you've used to decide the next move), so that it can't make that move the next time it plays. This removes options from the AI's 'game tree' and quickly 'trains' the AI to become a perfect player.

Hexapawn (Gemipedia)

Hexapawn (Wikipedia)

Solitaire chess

Solitaire chess is a collection of chess puzzles on a 4 by 4 grid. You pick a card showing how to set up a few pieces, put those pieces on the small grid board, then proceed to capture chess pieces until only a single one remains. Each move you are required to make a capture. Pawns do not get promoted. There is no check. If more than one piece remains, you lose. If you're ever unable to make a capture, you also lose. The challenges are given ratings from medium to hard, and there are many of them.

There is an iOS app available but I bought the physical version at a thrift store several years ago. Personally, while I enjoy it as a diversion, I'd classify this more like a logic puzzle than a full-on game. I don't get the stimulation that comes from having another player surprise me. I'd say this is my least-played chess-like out of all the ones above that I own.

Solitaire Chess, by Thinkfun games

The Duke

The Duke is a strategy game clearly influenced by Chess where you draw tiles to play. At the end of each turn you flip your tile over to reveal a new fairy piece to play on your next turn. If you land on an opponent piece you capture it. Capture your opponent's duke to win.

There are over a dozen potential pieces to be played, as well as many expansions to add new pieces and rules variations. From my recollection, it has some of the flavor of Thrive with the fairy-piece and randomly popping up new pieces feel of Knightmare Chess. Unfortunantely, I've played this game only once, and and I couldn't get enough flavor from just the single playthrough. Though it seems well-loved online. I'll need to try this one again sometime.

Quick Chess and No Stress Chess

Both of these are promoted as a chess learning aid for kids.

Quick Chess is played on a cut-down chess board 6x5. I played this a few times, over a decade ago, so my memory isn't that fresh. I remember it being a quick chess variant that mostly feels like the 'real game.' My memory may be rusty because in this YouTube tutorial it says the goal is to get a pawn to advance to the 6th rank, or capture all enemy pieces to win. Because this variant isn't that different from Chess, and doesn't offer that much new gameplay I would probably skip this one. No Stress Chess is played on a standard board, but in this game, you draw cards and then play a piece based on a card you play. I've never played, so I have no idea if this is fun for folks with previous chess experience. I can imagine not.

How to play Quick Chess (YouTube)

How to play No Stress Chess (YouTube)

Additional links

Chess Variants are Easy

Chesh, on the iOS app store, by Damian Sommer

5D Chess with Multiverse Time Travel (Gemipedia)

5D Chess with Multiverse Time Travel (Wikipedia)

If you have other chess-likes you recommend, I'd love to hear. I also play a lot of other board games like Wari/Mancala, Backgammon, Senet and others, so may do more posts like this.


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I guess marad is a senet-like?