|Cost: $10.95 From: Steve Jackson Games: 512-447-7866 Players: 2 Playing Time: 30-60 minutes Type of game: Beer and Pretzels Complexity: 5 Skill level: 5 Reviewed by: Peter Sarrett, Issue 4.2, Winter 1996|
I am not a Chess fan. I've been playing games for as long as I can remember. Literally. My father was my most frequent opponent when I was younger. I made extra cash beating him at Backgammon for a quarter a game, and it wasn't long before he stopped playing Boggle against me. But even though he was a Chess enthusiast, I never took to the game. Frankly, I've always thought it was too much work. To play well you have to think dozens of moves in advance, read endless books on this opening or that midgame... it's all too cerebral for me. I play games because they're fun, but Chess always seemed like work. The best I could manage was Speed Chess, where each player has a time limit for the entire game. The frantic pace made the game fun, and I didn't mind making mistakes because, with the time pressure, I expected to.
So it was with some trepidation that I tried Steve Jackson Games' Knightmare Chess. Billed as "chaos on the chessboard," the game promised to do for Chess what Magic did for cards— inject elements of unpredictability and bizarre effects into an otherwise staid set of equipment.
Knightmare Chess is outstanding. Assuming it missed the deadline for this year's Game of the Year from Games Magazine, I'd rank it as a prime contender for 1997. The ultraslim package consists of a rulesheet and eight tarot-size cards— you've got to supply your own chess set. The cards are gorgeous, each featuring a different painting by Rogerio Vilela in a gothic style which fits nicely.
Essentially, the cards are modifiers to the rules of Chess. The rulesheet offers a number of variations for how to configure the cards, from building decks to multiple sets, but so far I've only used the simplest option— drawing from a common deck. In all cases, each player draws a five card hand. Players may play no more than one card on their own turn and one on their opponent's turn, immediately drawing a replacement.
The effects of the cards are varied and are spelled out on the cards themselves. Each card features a name, a point value (for use in handicapping and building decks, but otherwise with no effect on play), icons denoting which pieces it effects, and text describing the card's effects and when it can be played (before your move, instead of your move, after your move, after your opponent's move, etc.).
The cards vary in power, although of course their usefulness depends on the game situation. A sampling of the effects includes: move your king to any vacant space on the board; destroy the piece you just moved, as well as all pieces in the eight squares adjacent to it; swap the position of one of your pawns with an opponent's; move any piece as if it were a knight... and those are some of the less wild effects!
Some cards produce a continuing effect, such as merging two pieces into one with the combined movement abilities of both, which generally lasts until the end of the game.
I have only three quibbles with the game. The rules use the term "move" to describe both a turn and the actual movement of a piece. This creates ambiguity in the interpretation of some card effects which could have been so simply avoided by using different terms. The text on the cards is rather small, which makes it difficult for players with poorer eyesight to play the game. Since Chess tends to appeal to an older crowd, this is an especially egregious gaffe. Finally, I cannot fathom why they created new symbols to denote the pieces instead of using the instantly familiar universal Chess icons as seen in books and newspapers.
The cards could easily have reduced the game to a random exercise, with the luck of the draw determining the winner rather than savvy gameplay. And though the random element is certainly there, it doesn't overpower. Knightmare Chess plays a lot like Cosmic Encounter. There are relatively few rules, but lots of new ways to break them. The result is an unpredictable game which removes the tedium of standard Chess while preserving plenty of scope for strategic play. Huge thumbs up.