Part Five, Conclusion: Improved Playability With Computer Graphic Mediation

Computer graphics allow chesslike games to finally escape the restrictions placed on them by equipment. It's frustrating that most simulations offered so far are simulations of traditional physical equipment. They carry over the limitations of inert pieces of matter!

One such limitation is that physical equipment can't automatically morph into different configurations at the touch of a button. There need not be one opening setup that players are forced to use. They should be given a menu to select the number of squares to a side, and place their own pieces in the starting arrangement of their preference. Some people think 8x8 is too much. Some people would want triagonal movers, while others would not choose it.

Visualize for a moment that the game of space chess is displayed on binocular-vision LCD glasses. The glasses superimpose images onto a transparent view of the wearer's real environment-- not virtual reality, but augmented reality. Imagine also that we have two telemetry gloves. The index finger and thumb are tracked in 3D and 'mouse click' when they touch-- the two fingertips are displayed as two cursors floating in the image. The cube should fill half the visual field, since the user's reach can be transposed on a huge scale, or the user can also change to the size of the pieces and stand inside the cube when desired. Ideally, the glasses would be tracked with telemetry so that the cube would always float in the same space in the user's real environment while the user moved around it. In this mode the whole cube should fit within easy reach, perhaps three feet to a side.

Such input/output hardware for the average non-technical user is probably outside the power of the Free Culture movement to create, but not so of software running on a normal monitor with a mouse. While writing this series I found a free open-source 3D graphics program called Blender3D. It has inspired me with what software might be created without having to wait for some big company to spend millions of dollars.

Since a computer simulation has no gravity, we do not need surfaces on which to rest pieces. Put each piece on an intersection of three translucent lines, one for each dimension. This has better visibility. Grasping and pulling any edge of the cube allows free rotation of the view of the matrix with no positions arbitrarily defined as "up" or "down." If traditionalist players want to use Staunton pieces, the pieces can stay stabilized upright at all times while the playing field rotates around.

Without gravity, there is no reason for pieces to be stable pedestals with radial symmetry along only one axis as they are in 2-D chess. The shapes that represent one-dimensional ranged movers (rook, bishop, queen) could be 3-D stars. The piece is formed of arms extending from the intersection it occupies, and dwindling to tips before reaching adjacent intersections. Each arm points out toward an intersection to which the piece could move if it weren't obstructed. So, a rook looks like a thickening of bright, bold opacity along the three translucent board-lines of its intersection. Arms of bishops and triagonal movers do not lie along the board lines; they reach across the gap toward adjacent line segments and intersections respectively. Pawns are half-spheres. Kings are large spheres. Leaper pieces (there could be four kinds like in Prince) have thinner, threadlike arms, that fork into Y's tipped with spheres.

Some traditional Chess players object when a Chess computer game gives them visual tips-- they feel it's cheating or playing for them. But a game as complex as space chess is difficult enough as it is. Computer visual analysis would merely reduce the burden and allow you to make decisions intuitively. For instance:
  • All pieces glow when under threat.
  • A large crown symbol appears outside the cube when check is given.
  • When a piece is grasped and dragged, the intersections to which it can legally move light up.
  • Moving the mouse onto a piece, without clicking, causes its name and animated graphic description to display in the space on the screen outside the cube. The piece on the board grows without thickening its arms: the arms stretch as far as they can without being blocked, to show all the intersections to which it can legally move.
  • Also, here is an idea for the user to be able to get a quick glance at all the influence extended on the board. At the option of the user, all pieces on the board simultaneously extend their arms/spheres/surfaces as ghostly fogs of color. Since the sides are red and blue, they blend into purple where they cross. This represents threat from the red and blue sides, and varies with intensity based on how many pieces have a line of sight to the intersection.

Only computer graphics let us finally do these things and set chess free.
[livejournal.com profile] spazzim had a great suggestion in the comments to yesterday's installment: It might make a more interesting and difficult game if the two players could choose from a subset of the available pieces. They would each have to have a certain number of each type of nearly equivalent pieces but not necessarily the same pieces as their opponent.

Building and deploying an army and then playing with it is a game called "meta-chess," and David Howe has a great proposal for it at this link on Chessvariants.com. It's not 3D-though. You could do something a little bit similar if both players get the same number of tokens to purchase troops which are priced based on the score given to them by Zillions of Games. On a matrix measuring 8 wide by 8 tall by 8 deep, using the Zillions file for Bornert's "3D8L" game it scores the 3D pieces as follows:
Rook 4Bishop 5Mage 2.5King 4.5
RookBishop 9RookMage 6.5BishopMage 8Queen 11.5
Knight 4.5Jester 3Champion 4General 12

One of the things pointed out in a critique of the construction set idea is that the value of a piece can't be estimated in the abstract since it depends on the situation. This involves today's topic because the size and shape of the board (actually referred to in 3D as the matrix) changes the values of certain pieces. Corners disadvantage rooks, so a tetrahedral matrix as shown here with a lot of corners would advantage bishops against rooks. The longer a matrix is in the longest direction, the more a diagonal or triagonal mover is disadvantaged. Think about how poorly a bishop could perform on a 2-D chessboard measuring 8x4: it could only ever move 4 spaces.

Part Four: The Board, or "Matrix"-- Shelves Are Obsolete

With dozens of pieces, hundreds of spaces, and a thousand lines of attack to pay attention to, many 3D chess games take weeks to finish and sprawl outside the limit of the human mind. 3D8L by Ray Edward Bornert II, although magnificent, is something only a handful of people on the planet would want to play.

He makes several brilliant contributions. One such is the red, blue and green dots in the center of the spaces. These mark the triagonal lines just like a checkerboard lets you see diagonal lines by following one color.

Notice in the photo on that site how far apart the shelves are. It's easier to reach the pieces on a smaller set, such as Raumschach, but a hand must be able to fit between the levels in either case, so vertical diagonals are still out of proportion. As a result, diagonal and triagonal lines of attack are difficult to visualize. But the visual language of almost every 3D chess set so far devised carries over two-dimensional assumptions where they no longer apply.

The radial symmetry of chess pieces owes much to the simplicity of cutting them on a lathe. But we don't need to be limited to that anymore, especially with the pending advent of desktop fabrication in glued starch, plastic resin, paper lamination, or maybe even metal. Radially-symmetrical hats on pedestals of various heights makes perfect visual sense sitting on a table, but 3D is viewed differently. Silhouettes and sizes should be recognizable not just from the side but from above and below. I propose to make pieces a little more spherically symmetrical. But to have a spherically-symmetrical piece atop a stick, on a little base, sitting on a shelf, would miss the whole point.

Shelves are a visual obstruction. What about a set of grid lattices instead? A construction set might be made of cross-shaped building blocks. Spaces could be represented as intersections instead of squares, as in the chesslike game traditional to China. Each intersection piece would be either black or white, shaped like a plus sign with plugs or sockets on the four arms. That has several advantages. By adding pieces, matrices can be made in various sizes. Not only can players see through (if it were made of wire, players could still see through as they can with plexiglas, with less expense) but they can also reach through. Pieces should be short and squat, without pedestals. This way the levels can be spaced close enough together to match the width of a space, so that each space will be a cube. The pieces will have X-shaped slots cut into them, so that they sit on the intersection. A second hat on each piece hangs upside-down like the king on a playing card, symmetrically below the intersection as well as above, except for the deep slots that reach all the way to the midpoint of the piece.

Above all, the number of pieces and the number of board spaces must be limited, not only for ease of reaching into the center of the matrix to move a piece, but for legibility of what's going on in the game. We need a human-sized decision tree. According to Shannon Appelcline, "A lot of cognitive work we've done over the last several decades has shown that the human brain is able to intuitively grasp between 5 and 7 [types of] objects [in a single task] ... whether those be physical objects or decision options." Fortunately, most space chess players would not be terribly concerned with exceeding their intuitive grasp at least a little; if they were they wouldn't be interested to begin with. But I hope the improvements suggested here would put the game within the patience of even more players.

All of this will help intuitive playability, but there's so much farther it can be taken with computers.

Tomorrow: Improved Playability With Computer Graphic Mediation
Yesterday we covered pieces which can go to any space on a one-dimensional path until they meet an obstruction. That's why they're called line movers. If we really wanted to extrapolate Chess faithfully into 3D we would have the ability to cage the King and push him into a corner the way a Rook or Queen can do in chess. In 3D the King can dodge over or under their line of attack. Not so with plane movers, which would be able to go to any space in a 2D plane that they are standing on. But it's just too complex to figure out when such a piece is being obstructed to be any fun to actually play with plane movers, so I won't go into any more detail.

Part Three: Leapers-- More Than One Knight
The Knight How does The Knight move in standard Chess? Go one square orthogonally away from the starting point, and one diagonally away-- it doesn't matter in what order-- and that is a square it can leap to regardless of obstruction. The same is true of a Knight in space chess. Just don't take a triagonal step.
The Champion The Champion uses the other way that a Knight would be able to move, if we didn't know the distinction between diagonal and triagonal: one step orthogonally plus one triagonally.
The Jester The Jester. Move one step diagonally and one triagonally to find a square that The Jester can leap to. It's the weakest of the leapers, only a half point stronger than a pawn.
We could discuss three different compounds of two of the above pieces-- but let's NOT GO THERE. It's kinky enough as it is. And don't even get me started on knight riders-- in 3D that would put me in a seizure. Skip directly to the Queen of Leapers.
The General The General can move as any of the leapers, and Zillions rates it half a point stronger than a Queen. This is a slow but dominating and maneuverable juggernaut.

Which pieces should be chosen in a design of space chess? Perhaps for simplicity's sake it's the ones with the fewest rules about their description. The compound linemovers, (RookBishop, RookMage, and BishopMage) have two rules each. The three basic leapers, however, have two steps each in their description, which the player must hold in the mind. A compound leaper would have four rules to remember. The General and the Queen are simpler to remember than a compound, because of the lack of exceptions to their movement. With a General, just move away any two steps, not in a straight line, and that is a space it can leap to. (An interesting fact is that if you superimpose that box graphic up there of the General on the box graphic of the Queen from yesterday's article, they fill in the space completely without overlapping.)

The Mage which was discussed yesterday is a simple expression of a geometric primitive; but just as worthless as a pawn. This suggests to me that it could effectively take over the pawn's role as a zigzag-moving wall of picket defense. After all, since the Mage needs to use all three dimensions in every move, a board (or in this case, a matrix) that is narrow in even one dimension would restrict its range to that many spaces at most. That leads to the subject of tomorrow's installment.

Tomorrow: The Board or "Matrix"-- Shelves Are Obsolete
To wrap up yesterday's discussion, FIDE Chess is just another variant that happens to have won a monopoly on mindshare, but just because we can change it doesn't mean we want to set out to design a card game involving charades and throwing a ball through a hoop. What are we talking about when we say "chesslike"? It's a radial category, so a game can change a few of the following elements and still be recognizably chesslike. Typically, this category of game has no secret information and no element of chance. It involves players taking turns moving a piece on a lattice of discrete positions such as a grid or honeycomb; each position is occupied by only one piece at a time, each piece occupies only one position at a time. A piece superimposes its position on that of a piece from the opposing team to remove it from the playing area. That's what we're trying to do in 3-D.

Part Two: Which Way Is Diagonal?

Let's go over linemovers. Not all of these necessarily need to be used in the design of space chess. This entry owes much to Gavin and Larry Smith from their description of "Prince." I've also imitated Larry Smith's style of illustration. In these examples, the piece is supposed to be starting at the center of the cube.

How to move Orthogonally in 3D chess You probably know the word diagonal, but its relative, orthogonal, is less familiar. A rook in regular Chess only changes its location along one coordinate, either rank or file. In 3D there is a third dimension along which to move. Notice that the cubes of the spaces touch on the face.
How to move on a diagonal in 3D chess The Bishop in regular Chess changes its location along exactly two coordinates, no more and no less, the same number of spaces for each coordinate. That's the definition of diagonal movement from the standpoint of geometry, and it can apply in 3D. See how the cubes touch on the edge.
How to move Triagonally in 3D chess This is where people become confused about how to move a Bishop in space chess. Should a diagonal move be through the edge of the cube or the corner? It's simpler to keep track of if you keep in mind that a triagonal move changes all three coordinates, no more and no less, the same number of spaces for each coordinate. The confusion stemmed from the fact that the corner is something different from diagonal.
The Rook What we have here are really three different geometric primitives.
The Rook
is easy; it's an orthogonal linemover.
The Bishop The Bishop is a diagonal linemover.
The Mage This piece is not possible in 2D chess. It's been called The Merchant or The Mace, but here I'll refer to a triagonal linemover as:
The Mage and represent it with a crescent moon for purposes of this series. You may have noticed in Chess that a Bishop starting on black or white always stays on that color, which limits it to half the squares on the board. The Mage has that problem, doubled. It can only ever visit one-fourth of the positions in the playing field. The artificial intelligence engine in Zillions of Games scores it as worth about as much as a pawn, which should be taken into account when building an army.
The RookBishop The RookBishop would be a Queen if it were regular chess, but if you are thinking of a piece that can change its location along as many or as few dimensions as desired, like a Queen in FIDE Chess, this doesn't qualify. Moving either orthogonally or diagonally means it can change either one or two coordinates in its position per move, not all three. That's why there exists this set of three pieces, called compounds.
The RookMage The RookMage, for instance, can choose orthogonal or triagonal directions.
The BishopMage The BishopMage has an option of diagonal or triagonal movement. So the three compounds are RookBishop, RookMage and BishopMage.
The Queen The Queen. Now that's what I'm talkin'bout. By changing as many or as few of her coordinates by the same number, this moves in any straight line. If you want, you can call the RookBishop the Queen, and call this the Empress or something. But they are quite different.
The King The King, able to move one step in any direction. This is extremely slippery and difficult to pin down, resulting in a lot of draws in games that are not designed carefully.
The Chess Piece Formerly Known As Prince The Chess Piece Formerly Known As Prince. It can move heterogonally or homogonally. Now appearing as an opening act for Queen, and The King (thankya, thankyaveramuch).
Seriously though, this is a weakened form of the King as a solution to the draw problem. It lacks the ability to take a triagonal step.

I'd like to try playing with a game that has two Princes on each team, and the victory condition is to checkmate either of them, while protecting both of your own. That way the game won't be unearthly long, because checkmate will be easier. For kicks, it would be fun to promote one of them to a King when it makes it to the other side of the board, where it is exposed to risk. A King can bring check on a Prince along a triagonal direction!

Only with the distinction between the three types of movement under our belts can we figure out the Knight.
Tomorrow: Leapers-- Seven Arabian Knights. You have been warned.
This is the beginning of an illustrated series exploring the possibilities of chess in three-dimensions, in preparation for the construction set that I'm sculpting and casting. It will be fun and accessible for the non-specialist, but I advise you to do stretches first for flexibility, or it might hurt when I shove Byzantine shapes through the sphincter of your mind's eye.

1. What This Is & Is Not
2. Which Way Is Diagonal?
3. Leapers: More Than One Knight
4. The Board, or "Matrix": Shelves Are Obsolete
5. Improved Playability With Computer Graphic Mediation

Today's Installment: What This Is & Is Not

This series will explore the potentials of 3D chesslike games. "Chesslike" is a better term for this than "Chess."

"Chess" with a capital C usually refers not to a particular challenge, but to an international community of players who recognize a time-honored set of traditional equipment and rules. Their consensus on an official standardization is very much like spoken language, calendars, or software protocols, in that you have to take it or leave it. Too often the designer of a particular space chess variant will claim they bring the "true," "real" descendant of the game of kings. It's irrelevant, because there is nothing about a mental sport that is somehow inherent to reality. Just because hundreds of millions of people know how to sit down and play it with you does not make it sacred. Attempting to influence a global standard with the invention of one man or woman is a fool's errand for two reasons.

#1. The world ignores marketing hype on the box of an innovative game for the same reasons they ignore or resent a claim of the superiority of Esperanto. "Build a better mousetrap and the world will beat a path to your door" would not hold true if mousetraps were a form of social interaction. You lose the advantage of familiarity; attempting to keep it is a lost cause. That's just as well, because:

#2. It would ruin the game you invent, since what works for a good play experience in 2D does not do so in 3D. The most faithful translations of Chess to 3D are too large to understand, they can take weeks to finish, the King is so mobile it's nearly impossible to bring checkmate, and there are many other flaws.

Don't take an engineering approach to changing hidebound social traditions, and don't take a hidebound traditionalist approach to engineering a tactical challenge. Space chess designers sometimes get confused by the mixture and get the worst of both worlds.

So forget "Chess" with a capital C for a moment. Spare yourself its memorization of book openings that have long since been plumbed dry of creativity. Stray outside the metropolis of those who will play it with you, into the uninhabited, infinite frontier of chess variants. Life rewards the ability to improvise, whereas Chess is a challenge that has essentially been solved for you by centuries of work. Why not judge yourself not on how well you do after years of practice on the same task, but on how well you do the first time in unfamiliar territory?

There are two things I will not do. I will not propose to officiously establish standardized names and shapes for the new pieces. I do have to represent the movements with some kind of symbol, so I'll use names and shapes that I like on an ad-hoc basis, but ignore them if you don't like them. This is why I have abstracted the graphics; just concentrate on the paths they take and call them whatever you want.

Also I will not present a definitive rule set, but what amounts to a tool kit, a beginner's tour of the simplest options made available by 3D. The goal of the modular construction set I'm building out of silicone rubber, casting plastic and wire will be to cook from these ingredients a variety of armies, board sizes, and victory conditions, and sample them with [livejournal.com profile] cdrodeffer and others to see what results.

Tomorrow: Which Way Is Diagonal?
nemorathwald: (Matt 3)
Lost Garden has an article on risk/reward systems in game design theory as applied to the Gameboy DS title "Nintendogs." "If you dig into the game mechanics at an abstract level, it has surprisingly more in common with a RPG than most virtual pet games. Yet hardcore gamers make a snap judgement and instantly assume it must be a Tamagotchi-style game. ... The theoretical designer realizes that a powerup is a powerup whether you call it a 'Quad Damage' or a 'Doggy Brush'."

Similarly, chess can be played with Staunton pieces, or with Civil War soldiers, or cartoon characters; it will still be the exact same game. The Shogi enthusiasts at Marcon strongly disagreed with this when I told them about my Shogi set, but that's because when they say the "game" of Shogi they are referring to a heritage, and a community of people. Strip away whatever differences they would experience between my intuitively-grasped pie-chart graphics and the original Japanese writing and what remains will be the definition of the word "game" used by most of the Chessvariants.com community. There is a difference between the game mechanics and the window-dressing applied to it. A real-time-strategy computer game would be the same "game" even if you take all the soldier illustrations out and replace them with ants, or dinosaurs, or Care Bears, just so long as nothing changes but the graphics.

I've kept that in mind because [livejournal.com profile] cosette_vajean has promised to get me the only thing on my birthday wish list this week: Gameboy DS with "Kirby's Canvas Curse," an innovative platform game which is played by drawing attack paths (OK, they are rainbows, but I will call them "attack paths"), sheilds, bridges, etc. on the screen with a stylus.

An action-platformer game.

Which is operated by drawing. *boggles*

It's like the invention of sliced bread, or the internet.

Also I recently finished last year's birthday present, Shigeru Miyamoto's creative tour-de-force "Pikmin 2" for Gamecube. I have a question about both these games. Why is it that the window-dressing of the only games with ingeniously innovative high-concept game mechanics tends to be so saccharine and infantile, as shown in the recent Penny Arcade webcomic? Why are games with an adult artistic style so derivative? As Tycho lamented, "I am a grown man who draws rainbows."

They're attack paths, dammit.
I plan to go to ConVocation this Saturday to see what's up with that. It led me to recall this old Livejournal entry of mine:

The inventor of Pagan Chess tried to theme this chess variant by making two boards, on one of which, dead pieces continue to operate after being captured. The "pagan" piece can cross between the living and dead boards. The game involves no pentacles, no sun wheels, no obelisks, and no talismans. The pieces are all different types of humans, not spirit quest animal totems as some other chess variants have used. Actual Neopagans would know better than I how well it corresponds to actual paganism, modern or ancient. I don't care whether it does, and I don't think it's seriously intended to, but it leads to questions I find interesting.

Can any variant of chess even potentially be pagan?
1. Liberality: It's a symbolic form of warfare between male monarchies. That's not very fluffy or politically liberal.
2. Polytheism: It was probably at its most popular in an age when "god is on our side" and the divine right of authority figures were prevalent-- not very polytheistic.
3. Nurturing: In chess you start with the army you're given: there's no economics or resource management, which would be more nurturing.
4. Divination: No randomness is created in this game by cards or dice, associated in popular perception with divination.
5. Sex: Nobody has sex in this game, at least not as far as I know.
Does chess represent an oppressive masculinist paradigm of zero-sum authoritarian logocentric determinism? ;^)

Or...
what if all chess has always been pagan? Paganism is involved with ritual... Rituals involve moving around in certain ways... Chess pieces move around in intricate patterns which could be interpreted as drawing symbols on the ground. If rituals really tapped into a spiritual realm, what if you could perform a certain bizarre series of chess moves and accidentally summon a Lovecraftian horror to eat your soul?

Is paganism, as found in the diverse forms of Wicca, Druidism, Shamanism or Asatru, even definable enough to ask these questions in a meaningful way?
nemorathwald: (me Matt)
I'm throwing two parties at my house this weekend. SEMI-abstract gamers is having an all-day prototype playtest on Saturday, and the first M.O.F.O. party is on Sunday. Does anybody local have some folding chairs and tables you could let me borrow?
Today Underworld Comics and Games called me because Bandai sent them a demo kit of Navia Dratp. I was the one they had listed with contact info as that guy who had been nagging them about it for a year before it's release and promising to buy it. Well, they decided not to carry it and to give me the demo kit for free. A couple of months ago,Gamers Conclave in Louisiana contacted me to talk about their demo kit, and from the photos they sent I see that it has two complete starter sets, SRP $60.00. Awesome!
Last night I went to Java Hutt with a childfree who I met on the internet. It was a fascinating and animated conversation about the Universe, the unlikelihood of reincarnation, and the meaning of life, among other topics such as cable TV.

There were fruit-flavored syrups on the list at the coffee shop. This surprised me so I decided to try Grape syrup in my coffee because I love novelty for its own sake. In retrospect it was clearly intended for Italian ice sodas.

I went next door to Library Bookstore and bought Supermen, Tales of the Posthuman Future, by Gardner Dozois because it contains Border Guards by my favorite author, Greg Egan, which I somehow haven't read, and Fossil Games, by Tom Purdom, which is one of my favorite stories. I pinned up Penguicon flyers on all the bulletin boards in downtown Ferndale.

I'm hosting SEMI-Abstract Gamers at my house tonight at 7 to playtest and judge the Piecepack competition. Any games-playing friends are welcome!
nemorathwald: (me Matt)
Friday the gaming group met at my house, and Rachel and my brother Andy joined us. Rachel provided the snackage and as usual went way overboard on buying stuff. But hey, if she's paying for it... such "problems" we should have! Thanks Rach! We played much Navia Dratp, as well as Clans and Hell Rail.
I went to the Michigan Rennaissance Festival Saturday with Rachel and Andy. We sat at a crawl for more than two hours on I-75 which was narrowed to one lane, but when we got there it was fun! I bought a wonderful leather mask.
I hate to admit this, but sometimes fairy princesses kick monster ass. Yesterday, my brother had my back to the wall playing Navia Dratp, all I had left was Navia + Pawn. He had several impressive warriors and I almost conceded. But he didn't notice I collected all the currency in the game. He was going to checkmate me on the next move, when I paid everything to invoke Navia Dratp and that was that. Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned, I guess. These four huge juggernauts surrounded a fairy princess and she blew them away in a single stroke... it was rich, I tell you. I love a game that's full of surprises without resorting to dice.
I'm arranging a gathering of SEMI Abstract Gamers at my house on Saturday to celebrate the official release date of the new commercially-produced chess variant for which I have waited so long. So, I called up Masquerade Games today to see if they could confirm that Navia Dratp would be on their shelves on Saturday. "We just got that in today," she said. "We were wondering what the heck it is." So, I went right over there after work, bought both starter sets and played the game against Rachel. It's as fun and beautifully-crafted as I imagined. Time to update my Navia Dratp page on chessvariants.com!

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