Everyone should play Chess.
Seriously, everyone. Young, old, smart, dumb, men, women, anyone who identifies as something more fluid than that. Every single human being (and most transhumanist constructs) should be playing Chess right now if they have any interest at all in games. Chess is the ur game. Chess is the beating ancient heart at the centre of game design. It’s like a giant pictograph on the wall of the crumbling temple of game design that pushes it forward and brings back to its beginning. Whether it takes conscious inspiration, or it’s intended to be a response to games that unconsciously draw from the tenets of Chess, every game owes its existence to the original. But that also means Chess is old, and by its nature, a little behind the times. I think Chess can be better, Chess can be more powerful, but first, we all have to play it.
Historians believe Chess was invented in sixth century India, where it was known as chaturaṅga, meaning “four military divisions”. By the 15th century, the game made its way to Europe where it became the game we know today. But the history doesn’t matter so much. Chess is, at its core, a game where two generals sit and try to crush each other. It’s a game where you’re tasked with defeating an army. It’s a game where you have to make spaces dangerous for your opponents by predicting their every move. It’s a game where you take turns to “see the board” and analyze each fight on its own. It’s a game where you have to keep making up long-reaching strategies on the fly. There’s a reason that every game genre has a Chess metaphor somewhere in its initial description, and it’s because Chess is the origin point of game mechanics. Games that have a stronger focus on narrative and exploration may draw less from Chess (a purely mechanical game), but are often created as direct responses to the mechanically-focused games that sprung from the fountain of Chess’s design.
Chess has this metaphor of war under it, but that’s often forgotten. Your “protagonist” is a king, your pawns footsoldiers. Behind your expendable front line lie your heavy hitters- knights and castles and wise advisors. There’s also the Queen, your nuclear option. A high power piece that can do anything the rest of army can do, and then some. Unlike every other piece other than the King though, you only get one. A balance between power and resources, strategy, and quick thinking. It’s game design 101.
But the other thing that Chess forces you to do is to learn a person. Not unlike Poker, Chess gets better the better you are at reading opponents. Unlike Poker, you have all the time in the world to do so, which means it’s a slow thing that often happens over the course of multiple games. Chess played competitively loses a lot of its charm, because you may as well be playing against a computer. It’s a series of codified openings and counterattacks, hundreds of strategies invented by generals before you that you’re meant to study and know like the back of your eyelids. Against a friend, however, it’s a symbiotic learning experience. It’s competitive, but slow enough that it never gets too heated.
Recently, I called Street Fighter an international language. If it makes any sense at all, I feel like Street Fighter is such a commonly played game around the world, and has to be played in such a social context (one on ones among a group of fellow players) that you can pick up a game in any arcade around the world and never be out of your depth. There’s a respect between players, or at the very least, we’d like there to be. The fighting game community isn’t exactly a group of saints by any means, but it’s also not a cesspool. Chess doesn’t have a community though. Sure, there are top Chess players and Chess clubs, but the average person who understands what Chess is is just that- the average person.
Okay, maybe I’m overreaching on that. Chess is often considered to be kind of elitist. It’s a game for “intellectuals” and old people. But that doesn’t mean it’s exclusively a game for smarter-than-thou jerks. Chess is a game that requires strategic thinking and intelligence to win, but so is any strategy game. So is Fire Emblem and Starcraft and Civilization. Chess isn’t an elitist game, in fact, as I’ve said close to a million times already, Chess is the game. It’s not as exciting as most modern action games, sure, but the underlying mechanics and metaphors it presents haven’t gone stale, in fact, they’re arguably more relevant than ever.
Multiplayer game design, traditionally speaking at least, doesn’t have a strong narrative element outside of story games like tabletop RPGs. Board games often have a narrative concept holding them together- Monopoly is about Georgism and the negative impact of private monopoly, Chess is about war- but it’s a loose theme that often gets lost in the fiddly nature of the mechanics. Having physical pieces to move around and thick rulebooks to refer to sort of forces players to focus on the way the pieces and mechanics interact and form a system, rather than thinking about how they relate to the game’s metaphor. That’s not necessarily a bad thing either. Pontificating on the futile nature of war through Chess is something best done on your own time, not while someone else is waiting for you to make a move.
Video games ran with that idea. Games often segregate narrative experiences into a campaign, and very rarely offer justification for their multiplayer modes. Destiny casts PvP as training sessions with fellow Guardians, and Sonic Colours had players race two Sonic robots to test Eggman’s prototype traps for the real deal, but these narrative excuses are few and far between. Portal 2 is one of the few games I can think of where the multiplayer mode has a narrative all to itself, but that’s partially due to its cooperative nature. Competition doesn’t quite breed the pace and patience required to tell a story.
In a board game context, Train comes to mind as a game that marries mechanic and narrative, but Train isn’t meant to be fun. Train’s mechanics feel dreadful and rote, building to the eventual upsetting reveal that you were playing as Nazis during the Holocaust the whole time. Like in the best games, the mechanics are married to the narrative to enhance the message in way only games can accomplish, but the common criticism is that it isn’t fun. It’s distinctly unpleasant to play, and even to hear about for some. But I don’t think mechanic-narrative symbiosis has to be the vegetables of game design. That’s not to say Train is bad, far from it, I just think you can apply its positives to other, less dark game narratives, and we should start with Chess.
It has to start with Chess not just because it’s the first game, or even because it’s the most focused multiplayer game, but because the popularity, simplicity and prevalence of Chess and its themes have the ability to affect us more than any other existing concept in game design. Chess’s symbols and concepts have been applied to at least one piece of media in pretty much every format ever. That central metaphor I mentioned before- a grand war with two all-powerful generals commanding their armies to victory- carries some intense narrative weight once you take the game out of the equation. Chess turned pawns into symbolic puppets, the chessboard into the very image of infinite options, the game itself into the pastime of the educated. Chess itself may not have much in the way of mechanical narrative, but all of its symbols and concepts do. If you take those concepts and bring them back into the game though, you’ll find it all makes sense. If you take those concepts and marry them to mechanics, if you lay your own story over it all, you’ll find a game concept, a set of mechanics, ripe for turning into a narrative.
So if you want to design games, you should probably play Chess. If you like to play games, you should probably play Chess. If you like to think about games, both mechanically and narratively, you should probably play Chess. It’s the oldest game, and while that shouldn’t matter in terms of respectability, it’s the source of all the mechanical concepts we took for granted over the last few decades, and now that we’re finally seeing games that aren’t directly inspired by Chess’s mechanics, it’s time to bring it up to date with modern narrative design. You should play Chess, because together, we can make Chess even better.