I Was Set Up! ~ How the Board Set Up Came to Be

Today I thought I would talk about how the four player chess set up came to be.

When I first show Four Player Chess a lot of people ask about the board set up, especially the Rooks, Bishops, and Knights.Every time I have to tell them, “There is a reason!” Then without going into all the history of trial and error with different set ups and rules over the decade(s) I like to outline the logistics of it; however, believe it or not the set up that is played by today is basically the same set up I came up with when I first made the idea in 7th grade. Turned out my 12 year old self was on the ball and didn’t even realize it.

Below is a side by side comparison between my younger self’s reasoning when first invented, and my reasoning today as to why I would keep it that way:


The Rook in the corner:

Young Me:
The rook is in the corner because in regular chess, the rook is in the corner. Obviously.

Old(er) Me:
When people sit down to a game they like familiarity. If it is something completely new they might be turned off to it before they can learn how much fun it really is. A mentor of mine taught me that every game needs three things, comfort, surprise, and completion. This satisfied the ‘comfort’ part of the game. Everyone who knows chess knows the rooks always start in the four corners of the board, so when they sit down to play the first time it doesn’t look that scary to learn. Not to mention, it helps with making set up easy to remember.


The Bishops & Knights, and how only half the players get one or the other:

Young Me:

I did think about letting people choose, but that got too complected, and I wanted both sides to have at least 1 Bishop and 1 Knight thus half the players get one, half get the other.

Not-As-Young Me:
Going first in chess isn’t that big of an advantage, the same is true about Bishops vs Knights. There is a reason why they are the same points on the grading scale (three points for each capture). The only difference about them is playing style. Which is ok, that is why if you don’t like Bishops, then sit on the side with the Knight, and vice-versa.

The other trick is that now players are forced to coordinate with each other better. With two Bishops it was very easy to double team. Turns out that although 1 Bishop vs 1 Knight is equal; 2 Bishops vs 2 Knights, Bishops are way better. This is why I changed it so that there is a set assignment of Bishops and Knights: allows people to choose their fancy, and it forces players to work together without 2 Bishops.

If players can’t decide, or placement is random, that is where that 2nd element of every game kicks in: Surprise. Now you have to be proficient in both pieces just in case you don’t get the side you were hoping to play.


King and Queen:

Young Me:

King needs to be far away from everyone, but I need the Rook in the corner, so he will go as far back as he can. And the Queen is way too powerful, so she needs to be 3rd to the corner while another piece blocks her from escaping too early.

Wise-Old(ish) Me:

King needs to be far away from everyone, but I need the Rook in the corner, so he will go as far back as he can. And the Queen is way too powerful, so she needs to be 3rd to the corner while another piece blocks her from being used too early.


Four Pawns facing the opponent’s side:

Young Me:

Need a Pawn in front of each piece. What’s wrong with that?


Today Me:

The Pawns in front of each piece follows the same guidelines from my mentor: Comfort. We are use to Pawns protecting our men. Makes sense.

The reason why there are no Pawns on the side of the army is because it makes the game board way too cluttered. Not to mention makes the game far longer than needs be. The idea is for the game to be fun, and fighting tooth and nail to get through a wall of Pawns isn’t fun (not to my play group at least).
It also opened up for more strategies for the player such as, “Should I open with moving my Pawns, or my Bishop?” Or even if you were the aggressor, “Should I move my Pawn up two this turn just to threaten my opponent’s Pawn? Can he stop me?” Really as a player you want options, the tricky thing about game designing for things like this is as you allow more options for 1 player, you allow them for all players (assuming you are wanting to remain symmetrical).


But why have the armies facing each others sides?:

Young Me:
Where else am I going to put the pieces? Next to each other, or starting on the center of the board?


Just-Having-To-Accept-My-Old-Age Me:
The sides just made the most sense. I tried the idea of putting them all in the corners, but that required the pieces to change how they can move so that way they can just spread out fairly. Also tried putting a player in the middle, but it made it to advantageous for the players along the side to simply rush the middle player. On top of it all, it kept the board’s turn symmetry (besides the Bishop vs Knight), which made it extremely easy to set up. You felt like you were just setting up a regular game with half the army.

Granted, the board could have been set up with both teams starting on the same side and marching forward together, but this way was just so much fun! The idea that the only way a White player would get to the end of the board was by physically ripping through the starting position of a Black player forced the players to concentrate on their defense while also having to focus on keeping the pressure on their opponent which they can take the advantage of. This created a new way of thinking never before in regular two player chess. In two player you just march forward making sure to leave no gaps, and leaving no piece unprotected by another piece. Here you literately start with a two-front war; the exciting part is so does your opponents!

This ensures that every game ends in a memorable explosion of strategy.





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