Throughout this week my mind has wandered to the classic games that we know and love: chess, backgammon, and checkers. As a designer, I had an epiphany around the concept of simplifying the components of a game so that player can focus on what move to make instead of how to play. With each of the three classics, I found that this principle is prevalent and especially with the game of checkers. SoI started reading more and more about this classic game and its variations. So this morning, let me share with you some of the history, variations, and thoughts about the design of checkers.
All of the versions of checkers have some commonalities between them. There are two types of pieces: men and kings. men can be upgraded to kings by moving the man to the opponent’s side of the board. Also, each of these pieces has different movement with men only being able to move forward and kings being able to move both forward and backward. Also, a player wins by either capturing all of the opponent’s pieces or preventing the other player from making any moves. In checkers games, pieces are captured by jumping over a rival’s piece. Finally most forms of checkers are played on an 8x8 or 10x10 board.
Unlike with Chess and Backgammon, the history of checkers is disputed between multiple theories. Some sources claim that checkers was invented in France during 1100s based off of an ancient Egyptian game called Alquerque.From its origins in France, checkers then spread to the rest of Europe and has been prevalent in since the 1500s and became increasingly popular since then especially in the 1800s.
With a long history and a large geographic distribution, it is not surprising that there are a number of interesting variations that have emerged. For today I am going to only talk about a few of the more interesting variations: German Checkers, Hexadame, Turkish Draughts, Tiers, Cats and Birds, and Belgian Checkers. For each variation, I will talk about the unique features of it and a few thoughts I have on it. The differences in these variations can be: the board, if a player must make a capture, the movement the pieces, and initial setup.
In German Checkers, the kings can make a long jump; a capture over a single piece on a diagonal (think of a bishop that captures by jumping). What makes this interesting for me is that the basic rules stay the same but with one change the strategy changes drastically.
Hexadame is a variant where the standard rules of checkers are the same but the board is a hexagonal board of hexes instead of a standard 8x8 chessboard with pieces simply moving to an adjacent space instead of just diagonally. This opens up a wide range of strategies while maintaining the core gameplay of checkers and even simplifying the rules for movement.
Turkish Draughts is another variant but instead of moving diagonally pieces move vertically and horizontally. Also in Turkish Draughts, the setup leaves the rows closest to the players empty so that the pieces are closer to each other (and thus speed up the game). This is an interesting take on the same board and pieces but by changing the movement the dynamics of the game change entirely.
The most complex of the variations I am talking about today is known as Tiers. The basics of Tiers are familiar except with the promotions of pieces. There are a total of 4 promotions that can occur: man to a king, king to triple king, triple king to quad king, and quad king to ultra king. The men and king pieces move similar to American Checkers but the triple king can capture 2 pieces that are next to each other in a single move and over friendly pieces (not capturing them). The quad king has can jump over a blank space while capturing and most bizarre the ultra king makes two moves per turn and can teleport to a blank space (not moving further) and can ‘consume’ an adjacent enemy piece. These promotions can only occur by traversing the board from player’s side to player’s side. While all of this makes the game more complicated, it capitalizes on one of the key objectives players have to promote their pieces and gives interesting moves to explore.
In Cats and Birds, the players are asymmetric in their pieces and goals. Black has one piece (the cat) which operates like a king that can make 2 moves for each turn and wants to capture all of the pieces of white. White, on the other hand, wants to trap the cat and cannot capture. What’s interesting with this variation is that the players and goals are asymmetric leading to interesting insights into asymmetric games.
Belgian Checkers, on the other hand, plays like standard checkers except the point is to lose all of your pieces first and captures are mandatory. This version of checkers is also called Losers Checkers and is an interesting twist on the standard win condition.
In looking at all of these variations, it is interesting to see how by changing a single aspect of the basic game the whole experience can be changed. Overall, my thoughts about checkers are that it has stayed popular for a reason, it is simple to learn. While the strategy is not as deep as chess or Go, the simplicity of the rules, number of different kinds of pieces, and goal all lead to players focusing on playing the game instead of learning how to play it. Each of the variations, (for the most part) adhere to the simple ideas and concepts but instead focus on changing one or two parts allowing for people to easily learn and enjoy these variations. I hope you take some time to look for more variations and them out.
Arnold, Peter. The Book of Games. Chancellor Press, 1992.
Byrd, Ian. “Beyond Checkers.” Byrdseed, 15 Jan. 2018, www.byrdseed.com/beyond-checkers/
“The Checkered History of Checkers.” The Checkered History of Checkers, www.checkershistory.com/