Calvin’s Commentaries: CHAK

A fresh take on the birth of chess

Often hobbies evolve to incorporate related activities.

For example, with miniature gaming, many become miniature painters although this writer is not among those, two of our group are rather avid painters.

However, I do like to make games, not ones I create, but simply fashion boards and pieces for games. Usually, the games are out of print or never had a commercial set, so it was a case of necessity.

My most successful effort, or at least the one I like most, is my Arimaa set. While a commercial set was made, when I created mine it was not yet out.

The set creation entailed printed art, carefully cutting out the images, only an inch or so in size, then gluing and sealing on repurposed backgammon stones. The set looks great, at least in my mind.

More on the ‘badgering’ of a game in a bit.

Shifting gears, I recently came upon Chak, a chess variant listed at chessvariants .com

The site is fantastic as a chess variant resource with hundreds of classic and home-build variants detailed and a great resource listing variant pieces too.

The classics – Shogi to Omega chess to Xiangqi and Plunder chess – have commercial sets of course.

The unpublished variants, well players are on their own, although most are not going to want to play more than a few of the offerings.

In my case I like variants that keep the changes simple, with a tweak here or there, Plunder chess is a prime example, or by contrast, a chess variant a designer has taken the time to create from the ground up – Odin’s rune chess and Caissa Britannia examples.

“The game of chess first arose from India (or so the common theory states), from where it evolved into western Chess in Persia where it spread to Europe and developed its modern form,” relates the Chak page created by its designer Daniel Lee. “East Asia has multiple rich forms of chess that offer something new but also infuse their culture into it. Many cultures throughout the world have a chess of their own. However, what about the native peoples of the Americas? Mesoamerica once had great empires. What if they had a chess of their own?

“Chak is a game designed by Couch Tomato in 2021 specifically to answer this hypothetical question. The design philosophy was to start from scratch and use only the common elements from all forms of chess: a king, a rook-type piece, a knight-like piece, and some sort of pawns; the rest would develop organically infusing a specific Mesoamerican culture — in this case, the Maya. For example, for the Maya and other Mesoamerican cultures, the native religion with ritual sacrifice was a fundamental part of society; the concept of an offering to the gods as well as the large temples are a key part of the game.

“The name Chak itself is derived from the Mayan God Chaac, the rain deity who possesses war-like fury. This matches the setting of Chak, which is a battlefield along a river. Finally, two words of warfare in Mayan epics include “Chuc-ah” (capture) and “Ch’ak” (decapitation). In Chak, these are utilized as the win conditions of altar mate, and checkmate, respectively.”

The idea of a rebuild of chess by a different culture intrigued me, although to be fair Chak is generally just pieces with themed names – jaguar, quetzal, and vulture – which have different moves but the general idea of a chess board is copied.

Still, I liked this one.

When I liked Odin’s Rune Chess years ago I made a set out of old scrabble pieces.

The new pieces in Caissa Britannia – dragon, unicorn, and lion – were fashioned out of dollar store toys and chess pieces so I could play the game with my Omega Chess set.

But, when I decided to build a Chak set I returned to the exact method of piece creation used on the Arimaa set years ago. It was tedious work but once started I couldn’t stop working on it. I wanted to finish.

The result is pretty nice, and I do smile at the realization I am likely the only game player in Saskatchewan, likely Canada, with a physical copy of Chak, which is both gratifying for the effort and strange in its reality.

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