Sunday, August 21, 2005

Dracula Chess

I recenty noticed that the excellent Chess Variants website appears to be down and likely gone for good. Fortunately it is preserved in the Web Archive. It was never a site I visited often, so I can see why it has likely passed away. But I liked knowing that someone somewhere was collecting variants for our reference.

I have found several chess variants to be fun games to play with my wife or with young relatives from time to time, especially when chess itself would not be a fair contest. My wife is a fairly good chess player for someone who has never read a single chess book, but I can usually spot her Knight and move. In chess variants, though, we are much more evenly matched.

A variant I developed, and which I've tried a few times, I like to call “Dracula Chess.” I had intended to send the idea in to the now defunct Chess Variants site or (in one little weekend fantasy when I first drafted the notes below) try my hand at making some money from it. Since I will likely never do either, I may as well present it here in my chess blog in hopes that someone will take it up and run with it (so long as they promise to send me a free set for my own use.)

“So be it that he has gone elsewhere. Good! It has given us opportunity to cry `check' in some ways in this chess game, which we play for the stake of human souls.”
--Van Helsing in Bram Stoker’s Dracula

Its Origins

After rereading Bram Stoker’s Dracula one summer not long ago, it occurred to me that it might be nice to have a Dracula-themed chess set. I searched around the web to see if someone had created one for me, but no such luck. Of course, Dracula would be the Black pieces (due to the traditional association of Black with Evil) and the main “good” characters of the novel would be the White pieces. It struck me that the main characters of the novel fit rather well into the pieces of a chessboard: for Black, Dracula would be the Queen, his coffin the King, the three evil sisters and Renfield the minor pieces; for White, Van Helsing the Queen, the four young men who assist him could be the minor pieces, and perhaps Mina the King (since it is upon her life or death that the novel hangs). Black pawns could be wolves while White pawns could be crosses. Only the character of Mina’s friend, Lucy, would be difficult to represent, since she moves from being human to vampire in the course of the novel. Perhaps she could be Black’s second Queen? In any event, the Black and White binary of the novel maps perfectly onto the grids of the traditional chessboard.

I started imagining how that would look, with both sides quite different from the standard Staunton pieces. Then it occurred to me that the idea could be taken even further if it became a chess variant where the two armies not only had a different appearance but also different powers. Was it possible to represent ideas from the novel in their moves? And how could both armies differ yet still be relatively equal in powers?

The key insight was recognizing that, within the world of the novel, the forces of good can only triumph by keeping things open, revealed, and mobile while the forces of evil seek repression and secrecy. To triumph against evil, you must act straightforwardly and create a society of social mobility. Vampires, meanwhile, thrive on static social hierarchies based on blood and they move through the world in deceitful and deceptive ways. It struck me that the moves of the Bishop and the Knight in chess, relatively equal yet very different, mimic in some ways this opposition. Bishops love open positions, Knights prefer it closed. Bishops move in straight lines, Knights move in tricky ways. Yet the two pieces are relatively equal in value (depending on the position). What would Dracula Chess be like, then, if most of the forces of evil controlled by Dracula had Knight-like movements while the forces for good had Bishop-like movements? It would make for an interesting and relatively equal but unbalanced game, with much to teach players of traditional chess about the relative value of those two pieces.

The Pieces

Here is how I imagine the pieces and their moves. Each is compared to its equivalent traditional chess piece and stands on the same square occupied by that piece on a traditional chessboard—though that is not essential, it occurs to me, and it is possible that the starting position could be altered to make the game more interesting (exactly how could only be suggested after more experience). The abbreviations (such as C for Coffin) are for recording games and are mere suggestions since they may need to be modified in practice if they prove too unwieldy.

Black Pieces (Vampires or Forces of Darkness)

  • Coffin (C): King: same as traditional King. Appears as Dracula’s coffin. Perhaps it would have enough room to store the Dracula figurine when he is captured or exchanged.
  • Dracula (D): Queen: combines the moves of Rook and Knight. Appears as Dracula. The idea is that when Dracula is removed from the board he can be imagined to be in his coffin, ready to reappear should a pawn be promoted.
  • Second Queen (L): should there appear a second Queen for Black, it would take the form of Mina’s friend, Lucy, as “the Bloufer lady.”
  • King’s Bishop (R): Appears as Renfield. Moves as a Knight but can also move one square at a time diagonally in any direction. I’m not certain that this added move is absolutely necessary, but it does correspond well to Renfield’s struggles to remain human (he represents a bridge between evil and good – Knight and Bishop). It also fits his unique position as Dracula’s right-hand man and assistant. He might be shown with insects and spiders crawling on him.
  • Queen’s Bishop and Knights: All move as Knights and take the form of the three evil sisters. One sister might be made relatively unique so that she could be distinguished as a Bishop for people who want to use the set to play traditional chess.
  • Rooks (T): same as traditional chess, taking the form of a Transylvanian tower.
  • Pawns: Same as traditional pawns, taking the form of either Wolves or Bats. I think Wolves is more in keeping with the novel. But those raised on the Hollywood film versions may find Bats more appealing. They could promote to a Rook, to a full-fledged Vampire (Dracula or his lover), or to the evil sisters (Knight). They could also promote to Renfield, but only if he has been removed from the board.

White Pieces (Humans or Forces of Light)

  • King (M): same moves as traditional King. Appears as Mina.
  • Queen (VH): same moves as traditional Queen, appears as Dr. Van Helsing.
  • Second Queen: if Van Helsing is removed from the board, he should be replaced upon the creation of a new Queen. In those rare instances when a second Queen is called for, it might be a figure composed of all the things that vampires hate, built around a large cross, the sun behind it, and garlic wrapped around the foot of it.
  • Bishops and Knights (JH, JS, QM, and AH): Jonathan Harker (Queen’s Bishop), Dr. John Seward (King’s Bishop), Quincey Morris (King’s Knight), Arthur Holmwood (Queen’s Knight). All move as Bishops. Each piece could have a unique masculine form, with emphasis on the Texas cowboy figure of Quincey, the lab-coated garb of Dr. Seward, the middle-class clerk’s suit of Harker and the facier upper-class tuxedo of Holmwood.
  • Rooks (T): same as traditional Rooks, but taking the shape of church steeples.
  • Pawns: Crosses, same as traditional pawns with same traditional powers of promotion.

Other Rules and Suggestions

  • Black moves first. After all, the forces of good are always reactive. Evil always moves first.
  • All other chess rules (including En Passant captures and castling rules) apply.
  • The board might be white and red or black and red in keeping with the theme of blood in the novel.

Comments on the Moves
I think the advantage of the first move combined with Renfield’s additional power of moving one square diagonally (up to four more squares of mobility than a traditional Knight) would be sufficient to compensate for the latent power of White’s four Bishops. The difference of the Queens—one moving as Bishop and Rook the other as Knight and Rook—seems relatively insignificant, and some have claimed that pieces with these different powers are fully equivalent. But I would probably prefer to have the traditional Queen’s mobility, especially in the ending, so that also seems to justify Black having the first move and a piece with additional powers as compensation.

The four Bishops make a powerful force if well coordinated. I can imagine a triple-battery of two Bishops and the Queen along the long diagonal, for example. So Black does need to have some advantage to make up for that.

Renfield meanwhile would be more powerful in the ending and his powers make some endings more fair. For example, Black would be able to checkmate with Dracula, Renfield, and one evil sister against lone Mina, but in traditional chess two Knights and a King cannot normally checkmate a lone King (except in some positions where the weaker side has an additional pawn).

Suggested Marketing
Though I have found that the game can be played using pieces from two combined chess sets, with some marker on Renfield to distinguish him from a normal Knight, it would be nice to develop the Dracula-themed set as a mass-market item to make the game more enjoyable. I think it could be modestly successful, especially since the pieces could be used to play traditional chess as well. The story of Dracula also maps well onto the story of post-9/11 terrorism, especially given its West vs. East cultural backdrop, so I think it even has a chance to capture the zeitgeist.

There have been some other games with a Dracula theme. There has even been a chess set with Universal Studios monsters (i.e.: Dracula, Frankenstein, the Mummy) arrayed against each other in a rather unimaginative battle of the nightmares, sort of like what Tim Harding was trying to conjure when he named 1.e4 e5 2.Nc3 Nf6 3.Bc4 Nxe4 4.Qh5 etc. the “Frankenstein Dracula Variation of the Vienna.” There was also once a game called “The Fury of Dracula” which was based on Stoker’s novel, but it has nothing to do with chess.

As an aside, one chess variant that conjures with these themes and which I’d especially like to try is Knightmare Chess, where cards that are dawn by both players (and which they can exercise at any turn) introduce additional powers to the pieces in traditional chess.

But the “Dracula Chess” I imagine is very different from these. Perhaps it should be called “Bram Stoker’s Dracula Chess,” though that combination of words might have been copyrighted by the producers of Francis Ford Coppola’s film version. Maybe they would like to pick up the idea an craft pieces after the characters as portrayed in their film?

The Bram Stoker’s Dracula set might be made in hard plastic and come with rules for both traditional and Dracula chess (with an expanded version of the rules I’ve sketched here, offering an interpretive explanation of the game), a copy of the novel (now out of copyright—the cover could depict all the main characters arrayed against each other), the pieces, and a folding black and red board. It would also be possible to have a computer version of the game.

My own limited experience with the game suggests that it is quite playable and perhaps even more complicated than Chess itself in some ways. The game also shares aspects with the perfectly playable variants “Chess with Different Armies,” “Almost Chess” and “Augmented Knights,” but it is not very similar to these games (as they were described on the defunct Chess Variants site).

If you give it a try, let me know what you think. And if you want to try it as a profit venture, let me know. I’m willing to sell any rights I may have at a very reasonable rate. I’d even help write the marketing copy.

Meanwhile, I suggest that if you like to read and play chess, and if you are artistically inclined, you consider inventing a themed chess set or chess variant (or both) to go with your own favorite novel. But to do so you must free your mind from the traditions of themed chess sets. You don't need to elevate an unimportant female character and make her the Queen (as I've often seen with Sherlock Holmes themed sets, where his cleaning lady becomes the most important piece). How about Moby Dick, for instance? The Whale and other sea creatures would be White, of course... Perhaps the whale's Head would be the Queen and his Tail the King... Captain Ahab would be the Black Queen. The ship is the Black King. Harpooners (including Queequeg) as the minor pieces. Ishmael just a lowly pawn... I'll let you imagine the rest....


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dear Mike,

I think that the variant page is still functioning:

I recently submitted a variant of my own, in which draws are impossible (no offers are allowed and moves which result in stalemate are illegal).

Tue Aug 23, 11:14:00 AM EDT  
Blogger Michael Goeller said...

Thanks Devin, I see from the link you give that they are just moving the site and it is only temporarily down because of that.

Wed Aug 24, 09:14:00 AM EDT  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I find your idea very interesting. You may want to try as a place to suggest your variant, as the owner there is open to variant ideas and yours would appeal to him, I think.


Wed Sep 14, 02:40:00 PM EDT  

Post a Comment

<< Home