Tuesday, May 1, 2012

The Articles of Dragon: "Dragonchess"

Issue #100 of Dragon (August 1985) was a milestone for the periodical, as well as for me. For the magazine, it was a portentous number to use as an occasion for celebration. For me, though I didn't know it at the time, it represented the end of an era. The same month that this was released was the last time I attended a "games day" hosted by a public library. It may have even been the last such gathering my local public libraries sponsored, since I don't ever recall hearing of others. Even if it wasn't, I remember well that my last one was a rather underwhelming affair, with far fewer participants than previous ones and most of those who did attend were much younger than I. There weren't nearly as many teenagers, let alone college students or adults, and that disappointed me.

From my perspective, it seemed as if the demographics of the hobby had changed over night and I didn't like the change, especially now that I was one of the "older kids" I looked up to when I was younger. In retrospect, it's obvious to me how hypocritical I was back then, wanting to distance myself from the 10 year-olds clutching their Elmore-covered Basic Sets the way I had done with Sutherland-covered one a mere six years before. But six years is a long time in the life of a child and, as a teenager, I wanted no reminders of my younger self. Thanks goodness that the teenagers of my younger years did not feel the same way!

There was more to it than adolescent snobbery, though. The hobby really did seem to be changing by late 1985 and, while I was still as keenly interested in it as ever, it became much harder to find people with whom to play and, for the most part, the new RPGs coming out held much less appeal to me than those published in the years before. Issue #100 wasn't my last issue of Dragon, but I did let me subscription lapse not long thereafter; it would never again play as central a role in my connection to and understanding of the hobby after that.

The funny thing is that, for all the fanfare surrounding issue #100, it wasn't a particularly memorable issue. The only things I still remember about it are the adventure set in 20th century London and Gary Gygax's article (and accompanying Greyhawk short story) about a chess variant called "dragonchess." Dragonchess is a three-dimensional version of chess, with boards representing the sky, the land, and the underworld. I'd known about 3D chess variants ever since I'd watched Star Trek in reruns in the mid-70s, but this was, I think, the first time I'd ever seen the rules for such a game -- and by Gary Gygax no less! Needless to say I fell completely in love with the idea of playing dragonchess.

There were, of course, two problems with this. First, and perhaps most importantly, I am a terrible chess player. I can barely hold my own in a regular game; learning and mastering a variant that uses three boards at once was almost certainly going to be beyond me. Second, to play dragonchess, one must assemble the boards for oneself and that, too, requires skills I did not possess. This didn't stop me from trying, of course, but I utterly failed to do so. Ultimately, I gave up the idea of having three boards stacked on top of one another and instead opted for having three boards placed side by side. This required me -- and the poor souls I goaded into playing with me -- to keep track of which squares on one board were "over" or "under" others. That was hardly insurmountable but it was nevertheless trying, particularly when one considers how many other aspects of standard chess Gygax changed in his variant.

Dragonchess had a much larger number of pieces -- 42 per side, consisting of 15 different types. Likewise, many of these pieces had unique moves unlike those in standard chess. Furthermore, some pieces behaved differently depending on which board they were currently situated, while others were bound to a single board. The object of dragonchess is the same as regular chess, so that is at least familiar. However, the larger number of pieces and types, not to mention the presence of three dimensions, made it much more difficult to grasp. That's not a criticism of the game itself, which looked like it'd be a lot of fun when played by two opponents who are both skilled at standard chess and well acquainted with the unusual aspects of dragonchess.

Alas, I was neither of those things and, while enthusiastic for the game, I was not very good at teaching its rules to others. Add to it that I didn't have a "proper" board and it's little wonder I never got the chance to play many games of dragonchess. Nowadays, I look back on my efforts with more than a little embarrassment -- the follies of youth! One of several that this issue of Dragon brings to memory.

This is the last installment in "The Articles of Dragon" series. Next week, I'll turn to new but related topic.


  1. I actually built a Dragonchess board out of plexiglass (and contact paper) in my shop class in high school. I never got to play it -- or even acquire all the pieces -- but it sure was fun looking at my (crazy-heavy, expensive) board and imagining.

  2. My old DM constructed a Dragonchess board out of some plexiglass and some three foot long bolts.   

    We played a few times, but like you say it was a hard one to keep track of.  

    With the recent influx of cool and cheap minis I have considered many times making my own.  

    I have tried out various software versions over the years and that is enough to remind me I really don't need to build one.

  3. Congratulations on finishing up your Dragon Article series.  It is quite an accomplishment, and I can say I've enjoyed them.  Looking forward to what comes next.  Dungeon articles? :)



  4. We made three boards out of cardboard, colored the squares appropriately and put them side-by-side.  We never actually played, but we did read the article and move the pieces around to get familiar with how everything was supposed to work.  If we had played, I'm sure luck would have been more important than skill.

  5. Seems like it would be a fascinating game. Back in the "old country" chess is popular, and I recall some variants making use of Chancellors--a piece that moves like a Bishop/Knight (much in the same way the Queen moves like a Bishop/Rook) and the Marshall (a piece that moves like a Rook/Knight), but these variants were never popular for long. Good story. It's enjoyable reading these reminisces. 

  6. I too, am fond of the _idea_ of dragonchess, although it's too expensive and too much trouble to actually _make_ a set.  I seem to remember a later article, a few months along, where they had photos of a set or more which subscribers had made and sent photos in of.

    Of course, now I'm considering building the set out of LEGOs...

  7. Looks like something a group of wizards would've played - preferably with illusions, like a magical version of this "monster chess" seen in Star Wars.

  8. I'm impressed by the images over at BoardGameGeek.


    Would love to play it, but I'm afraid it's not my style enough to make one...

  9. I wrote a Dragonchess computer program for my old Atari (assembly language, so even if I still had it I don't think it would be much use to anyone else). I set the boards up in fullscreen and then set F1, F2, and F3 to switch to the appropriate board instantly (each was saved as a screenshot so there was no redraw time). This made it very easy to grasp the relative positions of the pieces on the boards.

    Played a slow game, though, on 3-ply or more which you absolutely needed to avoid it throwing the dragon at almost every tactical difficulty.

  10. I made a board out of plywood and dowels a few years back, with pieces made of various combinations of small dowels and different sized wooden spools.  My step-daughter and I made it and played it a couple of times, but it was very time consuming and complicated.  I really loved the idea, but it wasn't something I was going to play much.

  11. I have never tried Dragon Chess, and I must say that the number of variations in it intimidate me, and I'm an okay chess player.  I have played some awfully fun chess variants.

    Byzantine chess, played on a round board, is one of my favorites.  I also recently learned how to play Papal Chess, which apparently until 1910 could get a person excommunicated from the Roman Catholic Church.  

  12. I think the only Dragon games my group and I ever played much of were a few games of King of the Tabletop and more games of Clay-o-Rama than we cared to admit.  

    Hmm... I should introduce my kids to Clay-o-Rama.  I bet they'd love it.

  13. Clay-o-Rama was the only mini-game from Dragon that I played more than once - and in grade school, I played it a lot (I loved the additional rules as well).  This game deserves a revival - your kids are going to love it!

  14. Thank you for the 100 Articles of Dragon series James. It's been a great read and chance to revisit articles from my first foray into the hobby.

    Care to hint at what's next? JTAS? Polyhedreon?

  15. Thought folks might want to check out some custom-made DragonChess boards  hand-blown from fused glass:  http://www.acaeum.com/forum/viewtopic.php?f=1&t=3193


  16. I am a little disappointed to see this series of posts end here.  While issue #100 is an obvious symbolic number, as you said, in content it's nothing special.  The definitive end of the Old School Era at TSR came around a year later, with Gygax's ouster.

  17. I made a dragonchess set a while back out of Sculpey: some pictures here:


    It's a grand idea, but apparently Gygax never actually played a game
    before publishing it. It is wildly overcomplicated, and the piece moves
    are unpredictable and unsystematic. I've been working on a similar game,
    that I could use that board with, that would be a much more
    learnable/playable game.

    I think it's a gateway for a lot of us to other chess variants...