Jun 17, 2014

A Review of Three-way Chess

"It is well that war is so terrible, lest we should grow too fond of it."
                                             --Robert E. Lee, Battle of Fredericksburg

"You gotta be shittin' me, Joker! You're not a writer! You're a killer!"
                                             --R. Lee Ermey, Full Metal Jacket

commentary by killre

For once, there is no play on words in my title, nor is there any abstract and cryptic metaphor that you would need to be a mind-reader to puzzle out.  Oh, and no, we haven't suddenly become a porn site.  This post is, believe it or not, a review of a board game.

Someone has figured out a way for three people to play chess on the same board at the same time.  It is called 3 Man Chess In the Round, and it is a surprisingly compelling game.

I'd be astonished if you weren't skeptical right about now.  I certainly was.  Your skepticism likely comes from one of two places...

One: You don't like traditional chess to begin with, and are even less interested in some weird variation of it.  So be it.  Some people don't read for pleasure; some people insist baseball is utterly bereft of drama, save when some fast-twitch behemoth crushes a pitch 400 feet or more; some people don't even own a corkscrew, let alone use it; and some people have convinced themselves that chess is the root cause of all migraines.  Have a nice day.

Two: You like traditional chess just fine, and are uninterested in some weird variation of it.  I once thought as you did.  For the most part, I still do.  Some have called chess the greatest board game ever invented.  Not to saturate the page with pixelated praise, but I find it hard to argue against that claim.  The game has come to us through untold centuries, passed from culture to culture to culture, with only a few tweaks along the way.  It may be the very thing for which the adage, "easy to learn; difficult to master," was invented.  Of course, there are those who will tell you it isn't all that easy to learn-- see the previous paragraph.

As indicated, my own initial skepticism grew from the Two.  I know this guy who shares my interest in chess, but while he appreciates the traditional game, he has an oddball sensibility that cannot help being drawn, like a Goth to an black-lit warehouse party, to the dozens of mutations that dozens of somebodies in dozens of somewheres have conjured in an attempt to give the old game a new wrinkle (and, no doubt, give themselves a short-term advantage over their playing partners).  While I find a handful of these aberrations theoretically intriguing, I have consistently been concretely cool to the idea of trying them.

The guy persuaded me to try 3 Man Chess, however, and I'm glad he did.

Here's why...
In its initial, and especially its medial stages, the game takes on a cutthroat, quasi-political aspect-- albeit in a simplified and, at its best, unspoken form.  (Softened as it is, my use of the word "political" will undoubtedly chase some of you away.  You're doing yourself a disservice if you let that happen.)  The political dimension is not required by rule, mind you, so much as it is inherently encouraged by the simple fact that there are three players instead of two, and maneuvering an opponent into an untenable position (even with this game's expanded tactical options) is far more easily done in concert with a third party-- even one you can't entirely trust.  So, tentative and fragile alliances naturally form.  Such a tacit agreement, coalescing early in a contest, might hold between two players until the third is beaten.  It may even survive the occasional strategic backstab.  More likely, though, alliances will shift with the changing tactical picture, or sometimes due to nothing but a whim.  Just because someone is your ally doesn't mean they're not capricious and self-serving, or prone to blunders.

(On that note, a tangent... A few years ago, HBO partnered with Fantasy Flight Games to produce and market a Game of Thrones table game.  Sucker that I am, I paid perfectly good money for that [feces].  I discarded the plastic wrapping and tried to read the rules.  Otherwise, the game is unused.  I strongly suspect you have to be a graduate of Dungeons & Dragons University to even begin to understand it.  Anyone interested in a near-mint set, for cheap, please bang the comments button below.  For those interested in a slightly less dorky and considerably less confusing version of the same game --though sadly without the sigils-- might I suggest 3 Man Chess?)

The new, quasi-political undertone this game fosters is altogether fitting, really.  Chess, after all, is meant to represent War.  War, clinically distilled, is Politics, with Weapons.  (Politics, in turn, is Commerce, with Lawyers.  Knowingly or unknowingly, Warren Zevon was right: it all boils down to lawyers, guns, and money.)  Part of me wants to point out that three-man chess is played on a round board (rather than a square one) and invest that fact with some allegorical significance by noting that the Earth is also round.  However, I am mindful of the fact that those not given to finding greater meaning in lesser details can counter my notion with a simple rhetorical question: "How else you gonna do it?"

Once one player is forced to surrender, the Caesar salad of strategy and politics is put aside and the two remaining opponents can fall with ferocity upon the juicy red meat of the tactical endgame.  As alluded earlier, the larger, circular board affords each player with more moves almost from the outset.  Moreover, those moves have the potential to be more diverse and dynamic.  Once one of the three armies has been reduced to a few scattered remnants who are stripped of their power, and with the two still-active forces having inevitably suffered some attrition along the way, the tactical possibilities seem to increase exponentially.  Lightning-quick, blind-side strikes may lurk for either side.  At the same time, all of the more traditional end-of-game options are preserved.

Very satisfying, both for the traditionalist and the oddball.

P.S.... Bud "I Have Two Quarrels, Because Crossbows
          Do Not, In The End, Shoot Arrows" Selig must go.

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