Knightmare Chess

Published by Steve Jackson Games.
Designed by Bruno Faidutti and Pierre Clequin.
Reviewed by Ken Tidwell.

When M. Faidutti set out to design this game, his goal was to create a chaotic, unpredictable, funny game to follow in the footsteps of such classics as Cosmic Encounter and WizWar. Never one to set himself an easy path, he choose as the basis pf his new game that bastion of law and order, Chess. The results are interesting with strong elements from both the strategic/predictable side of gaming and the wild/disorderly side, as well.

Knightmare Chess consists of a set of very nice, full color cards that are meant to be used in conjunction with a chess board and pieces supplied by the players. The game proceeds as for normal, regulation chess - you could even break out the chess clock, if you like - except that each player holds a small hand of these beautiful but chaotic cards. On their turn each player may play one card, on the attack, as it were. Their opponent may respond with a defensive card. Once the effects are resolved both players draw back to a full hand of cards.

Most of the cards allow the chess pieces to move in unusual ways. Some are obvious such as a knight might may move like a bishop for one turn. Others are more obscure such as rotating the pieces at the four corners of the board. Other cards have more permanent effects on the playing pieces such as causing a particular piece to become neutral so that it may be moved by both players in turn. Still other cards affect the board itself such as rotating it.

The artwork on the cards is striking. The images are a bit dark and indistinct but they do succeed in creating an air of comic horror. My one quibble would be that the images do not always match the card upon which they appear in any obvious way.

The game is strange, to say the least. On the one hand, it is still chess and the goal is still to corner the king. This requires a great deal of planning and forethought. The addition of the cards not only makes hash of long term plans, it also makes the attrition rate much higher so that the players have even fewer pieces to work with than usual. Actually getting your opponents king in checkmate is very, very tricky.

So, on the one hand, we have a game that requires as much, perhaps even more, strategic planning as chess. And, on the other hand, we have a nice light farce of a game with the rules, placement, and capabilities of the pieces changing willy nilly.

This conflict has even played itself out in the two editions, one American and the other French. In an attempt to give the player more control, in the American edition the players split the deck of cards then hand pick smaller decks from the cards they've been given. Each card is ranked by strength and the players have a set number of points to spend building their decks. This sort deck building is, according to Richard Garfield, one of the keys to collectable card games and Steve Jackson Games seem to have done an admirable job of co-opting the mechanism for Knightmare Chess. The American edition has also spawned a massive FAQ, a list of commonly asked questions and their answers that seeks to remove the endless ambiquity that is the hallmark of chaotic games. The American edition also emphasizes the rule that the king may not be placed in checkmate by the use of a card.

The French have gone the other way. The designer has discarded the checkmate rule and is highly amused by the FAQ. The luck of the draw determines each player's hand and there is no attempt at deck building.

M. Faidutti contends that his game was just meant to be a bit of fun. And it is. If I had to find a fault with the game it is that there is no attempt to reconcile the strategic game with the chaotic game and the contrast is a bit jarring. Even so, at the end of the day it is a good game and one well worth checking out.

The Game Cabinet - - Ken Tidwell