Tag Archives: Chess Variants

Courier Chess, Part II: Modern Variations

Modern Takes on Wider Chess

In my previous post on Courier Chess, we took a look at the classic 12th century game of extended 12×8 Chess, which maintained a player base for hundreds of years before finally being overcome by the modern game. Courier is perhaps a bit deliberately paced compared to the 8×8 game we’re all familiar with, but I maintain that it has a great deal of charm and definite strategic interest.

We also met Courier Spiel, a 19th-century revamp of the classic game that added modern touches like a full-power Queen and double-stepping Pawns:

Note that in the Ai Ai implementation, Courier-Spiel uses more standard promotion rules — Pawns must promote on the last rank to any previously-captured piece of the same colour — rather than the strange triple-backward-hopping rules associated with the historical game. If there is demand I can look into providing the old rules, but frankly I think it makes endgames much slower and more difficult to convert, so I find the modernised promotion rules more enjoyable.

Below I’ll introduce you to a few interesting modern Chess variants that take Courier as a jumping-off point. All of these games are playable in Ai Ai against humans or against the AI. Feel free to give them a try, and let me know in the comments which ones you prefer.

Courier Chess with Alibabas

We’ll start here with a very simple variant — this one is exactly how it sounds: Courier Chess, but with the Alfils swapped for Alibabas. The Alibaba is a compound piece that combines the moves of the Alfil — jumping two squares diagonally — with the Dabbabah, which jumps two squares orthogonally. That gives the piece significantly more power, while still restricting it to a subset of the squares on the board.

I have to say I quite enjoy this simple piece swap; the resulting game is still deliberate and strategic like the original, but the Alibabas are stronger and exert more influence on the game. In the sample game, you can see how they prove very useful in the endgame for Black! I’m a fan of Chess variants with intricate endgame play, and this certainly provides that.

ArchCourier Chess

ArchCourier, invented by Eric Greenwood, is a highly-playable modern take on the Courier experience. Eric went to great trouble to tweak and test the game to ensure the piece mix was suitable and that the initial setup was balanced, and I feel he did a very good job.

Rules-wise the game is easy to grasp — all the familiar pieces from Chess move as in the modern game, including the Queen and Pawns. No castling is allowed. Pawns that reach the far rank must promote to any previously-captured piece of the same colour.

However, four new piece types join the fray in this game that give it a very distinct personality from classic Courier:

  • Centaur: moves as a Knight or a Guard (non-royal King)
  • Squirrel: may jump as a Knight, or jump two squares in any diagonal or orthogonal direction — in other words, it can jump to any square two steps away from its starting point
  • Dragon Horse: moves as a Bishop or steps one square orthogonally
  • Dragon King: moves as a Rook or steps one square diagonally

The Guard parked in front of the King provides useful defensive cover, particularly since there is no castling.

The new pieces are well-suited to this game and to Courier’s distinctive 12×8 board. I’m particularly a fan of the Squirrel, a flexible and fun leaping piece that can crack open some surprising tactical opportunities when used well. The Dragon King and Dragon Horse, which will be familiar to Shogi fans, are helpful additions on this larger board.

Alas, ArchCourier does not seem to have received much attention since its creation, which is unfortunate. I highly recommend it for fans of Courier who want something with a bit more zip, but with no real additional rules overhead to worry about.

Courier de los Combinados

Courier de los Combinados, created by prolific Chess inventor Charles Gilman, is essentially a combination of ancient Courier with Wildebeest Chess, a popular modern variant on an unusual 10×11 board. Wildebeest Chess extended the Royal Game by incorporating new leaping pieces: the Camel, an extended Knight found in the ancient large variant Tamerlane Chess; and the Wildebeest (also known as the Gnu), a combination of Camel and Knight:

Wildebeest Chess (which I’ll cover in a future post) is known for a wide-open style of play, thanks to these long-distance leaping pieces and a fairly empty board compared to standard Chess. Courier de los Combinados goes the opposite direction, packing Courier’s 12×8 board with additional pieces:

Alongside these two Camels and a Wildebeest on each side, the Wazir and Ferz pieces have been doubled up and parked in front of the King, creating an advanced forward line of Pawns. The Alfils are gone entirely, and the Queen is upgraded to its modern power levels. The King may also castle with his Rooks, and Pawns must promote at the last rank to Queen, Wildebeest or Guard.

The play that results is quite interesting; while the initial setup is fairly dense, the long-distance leapers provide some lethal early threats, making the opening surprisingly sharp. In fact, be careful which Pawns you move in the opening, as very quick Wildebeest mates are possible if you open up the wrong squares! Note that in the sample game, an AI vs AI test game, both sides elected to allow the opponent to take a Rook early on; I suspect this is very much not an optimal opening! Clearly I need to do some tweaking to Ai Ai’s engine parameters for this game.

Charles Gilman produced a shocking number of variants during his time on the Chess Variant pages, and was at times criticised for not actually playtesting enough of his games. I can say however that this take on Courier has proven to be quite interesting, and may provide some intriguing challenges for opening theoreticians!

Northern Ecumenical Chess

Here we have another interesting Charles Gilman creation, this time extending Courier’s board to 16×8, or the equivalent of two standard Chess boards laid side-by-side. Northern Ecumenical Chess takes Courier de los Combinados to the next level by adding in compound pieces of the Knight and Camel:

  • Cardinal: moves as a Knight or a Bishop
  • Marshal: moves as a Knight or a Rook
  • Caliph: moves as a Camel or a Bishop
  • Canvasser: moves as a Camel or a Rook

Rules-wise, we have castling in this game (with the Rooks), Pawns may take an initial double step, and must promote to any non-Pawn piece upon reaching the last rank.

I believe this was one of the first games I added to Ai Ai once the Camel compound pieces were available, which tells you something about my opinion of the game. I have a certain fondness for oblong boards in Chess, and going all the way to 16×8 is even more entertaining in my opinion; such boards can be easily constructed by mashing together two standard boards, which is a practical benefit, and the odd shape creates a substantially different feel in play. As you might expect, pieces that can slide horizontally — Rooks, Marshals, Canvassers and Queens — are even more useful here, as they can reposition more easily than the diagonal pieces, which take multiple moves to cross the longer axis of this board. The Knight feels less powerful on a board like this one, given how long it takes to get it to a useful position, but in contrast the Wildebeest is a flexible and dangerous attacker.

All told, I enjoy this variant quite a bit and find it a nice balance between rough-and-tumble tactics and slow-burn positional play. If you fancy experimenting with a very long board and some unusual pieces, I can highly recommend giving this a try.

Other Oblong Oddities: Duke of Rutland’s Chess

As I got into Courier Chess and its variants, I soon discovered that Courier was not the only historical Northern European expanded Chess game on an oblong board. This game was invented by John Manners, the Third Duke of Rutland in 1747, and it managed to have a brief spell of popularity until his death in 1779. The game has languished in obscurity since then, but we still honour the Duke’s creative accomplishment by calling it Duke of Rutland’s Chess.

Rutland’s Chess is an odd game, not just for its unusual board size, but also due to the selection of pieces:

Click on the image of the starting position and you’ll see the strangeness for yourself (note I use the starting setup provided in Jean-Louis Cazaux’s book A World of Chess, rather than the setup on the Chess Variant Pages which is the mirror image of this one). First, we have four Bishops instead of two, and three Knights instead of two, which introduces an unusual imbalance between the minor pieces. Second, we have Dragon Kings present — moving as Rook or King — yet we have no Dragon Horses (Bishop or King). Third, we have a Marshal (Rook + Knight), but no Cardinal (Bishop + Knight).

This strange starting army raises a number of questions. Why are two of the Bishops not Dragon Horses instead? Did the Duke not know about them? If he didn’t, one would expect he would have easily extended the Dragon King’s move to the Bishop and reached the same conclusion anyway, but it seems he didn’t. Why the third Knight? We know that the Cardinal and Marshal (Bishop + Knight and Rook + Knight) were known at least since 1617 in Carrera’s Chess, and a Marshal is present here, so why no Cardinal? I find those oddities a bit fascinating; perhaps we may never know why the Duke made these particular design choices.

All that aside, the resulting game is nevertheless quite entertaining. The extended board is deeper than that of Courier Chess, providing more room for manoeuvre. The Pawns in this game have the option of an initial double- or triple-step as their first move, meaning that the deeper board doesn’t particularly bog down the opening. The presence of the modern Queen, Marshal and Dragon King further open things up, providing opportunities for sharp tactical play. After a few plays one can see why the game found a certain following, at least for a brief time; apparently the legendary Philidor was quite the fan of this game.

Modern Manners

As one might expect, Duke John Manners’ unusual game has provoked some interest in the Chess variant community, and various inventors have tried to resolve the imbalances in the original game’s starting position. A simple and effective example is Modern Manners, coming to us from the ever-prolific Charles Gilman.

Modern Manners uses the same board as Rutland’s Chess (though the image in the linked CVP entry shows a 14×8 board instead, for some reason), but alters the starting setup in the most logical way:

Modern Manners replaces the odd third Knight with a Cardinal (Bishop + Knight), and swaps out two Bishops for two Dragon Kings, giving us a logically complete setup and a slightly increased overall power level. As in Rutland’s Chess, Pawns have the option of an initial triple-step forward, and they may promote to any non-Pawn piece upon reaching the last rank.

I highly recommend this game as a modern alternative to Rutland’s Chess; the new setup is easier to understand and use, and the addition of the Cardinal in particular livens up the tactics even further. Of course you should try Rutland’s innovation first, as you may well find its quirkiness to your liking! Personally I feel these simple changes transform the game into a more engaging and more logical game, and yet it retains the wide-open, fast-paced feel of the original, so I prefer this to Rutland’s effort.

Manners Kamil

Charles Gilman didn’t stop there — on the very same CVP entry you can find Manners Kamil, a 16×8 game that adds two Camels and swaps the Cardinal and Marshal for two Wildebeests:

The lengthened board and altered pieces substantially change the feel of this game. The powerful long-distance attacks of the Cardinal and Marshal are replaced with the airborne threat of the Wildebeests, leading to some tricky tactics in the early stages of the game. In fact I’m slightly uncertain as to whether the game is meant to be played on a 16×10 board; the CVP entry is ambiguous, given that the Modern Manners board is shown as 14×8 despite the clear statement in the text that it uses the Rutland Chess board. The Manners Kamil description states that 2 files are added but does not explicitly mention the board’s depth, so perhaps 16×10 should be used instead of 16×8.

In any case, I will experiment more with Manners Kamil on 16×10 and provide the .mgl file in a future release of Ai Ai. For now I do recommend giving this game a try on 16×8 and seeing how you feel about it. The compressed vertical dimension is somewhat compensated by the reduction in long-range pieces, and on the whole the game still feels fairly open. However, I sense that the player best able to develop their Rooks and Dragon Kings may enjoy a good advantage; without them in play, only the Queen can hold sway over the board’s longer axis.

In my admittedly limited test plays thus far, I sense that the 16×10 version may be slightly better. The open playing area is more reminiscent of Modern Manners and its historical predecessor, and the additional two rows give the opening a bit more room to breathe, while also reducing the early mate threats of the Camels and Wildebeests.

Sneak Preview: Giga Rutland Chess

Here’s a quick sneak peek at one of my own creations — Giga Rutland Chess, a huge expansion of the original’s rather sparse starting position:

An entire extra row of pieces is added to each side, which includes types of pieces completely new to Rutland’s Chess:

  • Gryphon: a bent slider piece that steps one square as a Bishop, then slides any distance as a Rook
  • Rhino: the Gryphon’s counterpart that steps one square as a Rook, then slides any distance as a Bishop
  • Paovao: based on the wonderful Cannon of Xiangqi, this piece must jump over exactly one piece to capture something on the other side
  • Bison: a combination of the Camel and the Zebra, which is another extended Knight that jumps 3 squares outward then 2 squares to either side
  • And more besides!

I won’t go into much detail here because the game is still being tested, but my intent has been to provide a denser, more hectic game on the 14×10 board, and while it may be rather too much for some, I find it enjoyable so far. More to come on this game once it’s finalised.

Alekhine Chess

This game is a bit of a mystery in some ways — despite the name being Alekhine Chess it has nothing to do with the famous Chess player Alekhine. Why is it called Alekhine Chess then, you ask? I have no idea. But that aside, it’s an intense and dramatic variant on a 14×8 board, and a good choice for fans of brutal tactics.

As large variants go, the setup here is pretty simple: all the standard Chess pieces are here, plus an extra Queen, two Marshals, two Cardinals, and an Amazon (Queen + Knight). The presence of all these powerful pieces generates a game of intense tactics; most of the pieces on the board are incredibly mobile, and the Amazon can actually checkmate the enemy King completely on its own, without the help of any other piece!

I must say I was a bit sceptical of this game initially, as the Cardinal, Marshal and Amazon are very common pieces in Chess variants and not that fascinating, and the sheer power density on the board seemed like it might reduce the game to a simplistic slugfest. But in practice, it’s anything but simplistic. The entire game will balance on a knife edge, certainly, and a single blunder could result in a horrendous slaughter, but there’s absolutely room for positional thinking thanks to the large dimensions of the board. As you can see in the GIF, each game of Alekhine is high intensity, and when playing you must get comfortable with being under constant threat at all times! I enjoy this variant a lot, and would be happy to see it gain more traction.

Double Chess

Here we have a game that doesn’t quite fit the mould we’ve established here so far. Double Chess is exactly what it says on the tin: Chess, except doubled! We use a double-length 16×8 board, give each player two full Chess sets for their side (but replace the extra King with a Queen), and off we go:

Now, some may quite rightly take issue with me including this game in a list of Courier-inspired games. Courier, Rutland’s Chess, and the others in this article are full-on extensions of Chess, expanding both the board and the pieces available to each army. Double Chess extends only the board, using only standard pieces. However, in my mind the use of the double board places it in a similar category, if only because of the distinctive feel of playing on these elongated boards. The use of only standard pieces also makes the game extremely easy to play in real life — just buy two cheap tournament Chess sets with those roll-up plastic boards, trim the edges so you can fit the board edges snugly together, plonk your two sets of pieces down, and off you go!

The resulting game is surprisingly different from normal Chess, and of course can run substantially longer. I usually prefer games with new pieces, but this game is one of the few using only the standard army that I find just about as good as the more adventurous designs. Creator David Short also provides some sample games and a fully-commented game to help the beginner, which is fantastic for those looking to give this game a try.

On the whole it’s an excellent game, and well worth your time.

Full Double Chess

Full Double Chess takes the basic idea of Double Chess and extends it, so that the board now includes the compounds of the Knight with the Bishop, Rook and Queen:

Full Double Chess has one immediately obvious deviation from Double Chess — each side has two Kings! Each King can also castle with either the Marshal or Rook on either side, meaning that when implementing this game I had to allow for a huge assortment of possible castling options. Both Kings must be eliminated to win, which is a nice counterbalance to the huge power of the additional Cardinals, Marshals and Amazons on the board. Thanks to the double Kings, the game won’t end immediately after a single blunder — though of course the Amazon could easily checkmate both Kings at once if you’re not careful!

Full Double Chess is quite a fun variation on the oblong Chess theme; the double Kings are an unusual feature that works really well in this context. The additional Knight compound pieces are again not the most exciting pieces, but fit perfectly in this game, and make it easy to introduce this game to someone who may be new to the concept of Chess variants as a whole. I think this game co-exists quite nicely with Double Chess; they play entirely differently and present really divergent takes on the double-board theme. David Short, creator of Double Chess, was rather disparaging of Full Double Chess on the basis of its ‘new fangled’ pieces; however, the added pieces in this game were in fact invented centuries ago, so the only way they could really be ‘new fangled’ is if David is several hundred years old!

My only issue is the name, really. The creator insists the game includes all the compounds of the basic Chess pieces, but we are actually missing Rook + Knight + King and Bishop + Knight + King, which can be seen in Jean-Louis Cazaux’s Very Heavy Chess (more in this game in a future article). In my opinion, a truly ‘Full’ Double Chess perhaps should include those pieces and widen the board even further. Besides that very pedantic gripe, I strongly recommend giving this game a try!

Final Thoughts

I hope you’ve enjoyed these brief introductions to a few games that build on the oblong foundations of the ancient game of Courier Chess. There are more games in this category that I haven’t covered, of course, but I’ve tried to include a good variety of options within Ai Ai that give players some interesting and distinct games of this type.

If you’re new to these types of variants, I’d recommend that you start with the historical games first — Courier Chess, Courier-Spiel and Duke of Rutland’s Chess. These games are very distinct from modern Chess but are easy to pick up and play as a newbie, and they’ll be a nice introduction to the feel of playing on a widened board. From there, you can progress to modern takes on each, with the natural next step from Courier being ArchCourier in my opinion, and of course Modern Manners is the natural follow-up to Rutland’s Chess.

If you want a modern take that diverges further from the Courier model, Double Chess is an excellent and highly accessible double-board game to try out. Alekhine Chess is a good one to try as well, particularly for the tacticians out there. Finally, if you hunger for some new pieces on the longer boards, I can recommend Northern Ecumenical Chess as an enjoyable and balanced double-board game with interesting yet intuitive new pieces.

From here I will move on to some other approaches to large board Chess and give some more comments and reviews on games in these categories. First I plan to cover games that extend the Chess army through compounds of classical pieces, like we saw in Alekhine and Full Double Chess; there are a LOT of games like this however, so I’ll be quite selective in my coverage. I’ll also include some games of mine in this category, which take the compound-piece approach to its logical extreme.

I should mention that in the previous Courier article, I’d promised to provide some detailed commentary on sample games of Courier and Courier-Spiel; unfortunately I have to put this to one side for now, as I did a tonne of work for that post and managed to lose nearly all of it! I do plan to get back to that, but I’ll need to start my analysis again, so it will take some time.

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Courier Chess, Part I: It’s like Chess, but Wider

UPDATE 6 Nov 2021 — Added info and screenshots on playing Courier Chess and Courier-Spiel in Ai Ai.


As some of you may know, I’m a big fan of the large-board variants of Shogi, Japanese Chess.  These enormous games extend Shogi out from its normal 9×9 board with 20 pieces per player, up to Chu Shogi (12×12 with 46 pieces per player) and Dai Shogi (15×15 and 65 pieces per player), then through progressively more enormous boards and armies, all the way out to the ludicrous Taikyoku Shogi (36×36 with 402 pieces per player).  Not all of these games are particularly practical to play, at least not regularly, but the best among them use these large playing surfaces and diverse armies to create gargantuan strategic battles stay thrilling even over the course of hundreds of moves.

Large-Board Chess in History

Of course, Western Chess has a long history of variants.  A number of larger Chess games have been developed over the centuries as well, right from the earliest days of the game.  Shatranj, the ancient Arabic ancestor to Chess, was extended to the 10×10 board back in the 9th century to create Shatranj al-Tamma, or Complete Chess.  Inspired by Shatranj al-Tamma, Turkish Chess fanatics developed a family of enlarged ‘Turkish Great Chess‘ variants, ranging in size from 10×10 boards to 14×14.  Some other variants of Shatranj went off in some remarkably creative directions, such as Tamerlane Chess, where additional citadel squares hang off the 10×11 board and numerous new piece types appear.

At the time these games were invented, the pieces used in Chess were slower than today, with only the Rooks able to move unlimited distances.  That meant that on these larger boards the play tended to be rather slow, and while some may have appreciated the deliberate, strategic flavour this provides, some of these large-board games felt fairly ponderous.  Tamerlane was an exception, however; the piece density on the board was high and the board was shorter vertically as well, meaning that the opposing armies took less time to get into conflict.  The wide variety of pieces in Tamerlane also diversified play and provided some new tactical wrinkles compared to the smaller game.  Atranj and Indian Great Chess are also quite playable, largely because they include some powerful compound pieces (Bishop + Knight, Rook + Knight, Knight + Queen) that can range across the board very quickly and considerably speed up play.

Unfortunately, these more successful large variants still never quite established a significant foothold in the Chess-playing world, and most of these games have since disappeared and are now merely historical curiosities.  Tamerlane is still known to a degree, due to its unique character, but the others are long gone.  Generally speaking, historical large Chess variants came and went fairly quickly; clearly many players desired a larger game given the sheer number of attempts, but few games managed to maintain a following for very long.  Given that even the 10×10 variants had trouble finding players, none of the historical large Chess games were nearly as adventurous as the large Shogis, in terms of size, piece count or rules variation.  I suspect if these enlarged games had taken hold, we may well have seen Chess-based equivalents of the gargantuan Shogis.

Courier Chess

However, there is one large-board Chess variant that did have longevity — Courier Chess.   Courier Chess is believed to have originated around the 12th century, with its first known appearance being a tale written by Wirnt von Gravenburg in 1204 called the Wigalois.  Courier Chess is mentioned regularly in subsequent centuries, mostly in medieval German poetry, but its most famous appearance is in the painting The Chess Players by the Dutch master Lucas van Leyden in 1510:

Lucas_van_Leyden_-_The_Game_of_Chess_-_WGA12919

The gentleman on the left looks a bit chagrined, and he has every right to be — analysing the board position shows that the woman on the right will achieve checkmate in three moves!

Courier Chess -- painting game

As we can see in the painting, Courier Chess is immediately remarkable for its elongated board; the playing area is 12×8 (96 squares).  In order to fill in the 12 ranks in each player’s camp, some additional pieces are added to the lineup as well.  The Courier starting position looks like this:

Courier-Chess-start-pos-alt-01

The starting array for medieval Courier Chess.

Moving along the first rank from left to right, this is the piece lineup: Rook; Knight; Elephant; Courier (Bishop); Sage; King; Queen (Ferz); Fool; then we have the Courier, Elephant, Knight and Rook again.  In keeping with Chess convention, the second rank is filled with Pawns to protect our valuable pieces.

While there are clearly some pieces here that aren’t in the standard medieval Chess lineup, what is most remarkable about the Courier Chess piece assortment is that this game marks the first recorded appearance of the modern Bishop.  This piece actually gives the game its name — what we would call the Bishop is called the Courier here.  At the time, most Chess players would have been playing some medieval variant of Shatranj where Rooks were the only long-range pieces, so having these Couriers slicing diagonally all over this extended board must have been a thrilling change from the standard game.  Confusingly, what I have portrayed here as Elephants were actually called Bishops in the original Courier Chess, but given their moves match the Elephant of Shatranj, I am using that piece instead to prevent any mix-ups with the Courier.

In Courier Chess the most powerful pieces on the board are the long-range Rooks and Bishops, followed by the always-tricky Knight.  From there we have an array of short-range pieces of varying abilities.  This diagram shows the moves of every available piece type — yellow circles indicate a stepping move; red circles indicate spaces where a piece can only capture; solid arrows indicate a sliding move over any number of squares in that direction; and dashed arrows represent leaps directly to the square indicated:

Courier-Chess-moves-01

The pieces in Courier Chess generally follow the conventions of medieval Chess in place at the time:

  • The Pawn moves one square forward only, or may capture an enemy piece diagonally forward to the left or right.  Unlike modern Chess, Pawns only ever move one square — there is no initial double-move available, and therefore there is also no en passant capture rule.  When Pawns reach the opponent’s back rank, they promote to Queen (Ferz).
  • The Sage moves one step to any adjacent square, just like the King, but it’s just a normal piece — no worries about check or checkmate.
  • The Fool moves one step horizontally or vertically only; this move derives from the Shatranj piece called a wazir.
  • The Queen is far, far weaker than the ‘Mad Queen’ we are accustomed to in modern Chess — it moves only one square diagonally.  This move derives from a Shatranj piece called the ferz.
  • The Elephant (which again would have been called the Bishop in the original game) moves as an alfil in Shatranj, a diagonal leap of two squares, jumping over any pieces on the square in between.  The Elephant is thus colourbound — it will only ever be able to visit squares of the same colour it starts on.  In fact, the Elephants may only visit a quarter of the squares on the board!
  • The Knight moves just like in modern Chess — a leap of one square horizontally or vertically, followed by one square diagonally, jumping over any intervening pieces.
  • The Rook moves as in modern Chess as well, sliding any number of squares vertically or horizontally.  Note that there is no castling in Courier Chess.
  • The Courier moves as the modern Bishop, sliding any number of squares diagonally.  Like the Elephant, it is also colourbound, forever stuck on either the light squares or dark squares.

As in modern Chess, the goal is to checkmate the opposing King.  However, we do not know the precise rule for stalemate, where the King is not in check but has no legal moves; given the conventions of Shatranj and medieval Chess we might expect that stalemate in Courier is a loss for the opposing player, rather than a draw as in modern Chess.

Intriguingly, before starting the game both players would traditionally mvoe the A, G and L Pawns forward two squares, then move the Queen up just behind her Pawn.  These special Pawn moves were called ‘joy leaps’ and were not available during the rest of the game; these may well be the first known examples of a double Pawn move in Chess.  Presumably these initial moves were done so as to open up the position from the start and encourage the players to develop their slower-moving pieces.  So, before starting the game proper, the Courier board would look like this:

Courier-Chess-start-pos-medieval-01

Remarkably for a medieval Chess variant on a large board with many slower pieces, in actual play Courier is quite a lively game.  The pre-advanced Pawns mean the Rooks can be developed quickly, despite the lack of castling, and the forward Queen allows some cover for further Pawn advances to attack the centre.  The Knights and Elephants can leap into the action right away, while the Sage and Fool mostly hang back to protect the King from all these spiky Couriers swirling around the board.  A typical game of Courier will generally take longer than a game of Chess, but not as long as you might think; most of my games against the computer last about 60-70 moves per player, as opposed to around 40 for modern Chess.  However, two strong players of near-equal ability could easily end up locking horns for far longer.

Thanks to Courier’s interesting board shape, varied yet easy-to-remember set of pieces, and enjoyable play, the game was able to last for about 600 years in the parts of Germany where it was most popular.  The game did start to die off in the 19th century, however.  At that time, standard Chess had matured essentially into the form we know today, and the fast-paced action and compact game length of the 8×8 Royal Game certainly worked to its advantage.

Courier-Spiel

Despite the increasing dominance of standard Chess, some dedicated fans did want Courier to make a comeback.  In 1821, H.G. Albers of Lüneburg proposed an updated version of Courier Chess, which he dubbed Courier-Spiel (The Courier Game).  Albers cleverly updated the pieces and rules of the game to increase the pace and tactical richness, making it more competitive with standard Chess.

Courier-Spiel updates the classic Courier experience with some more modern rules and more powerful pieces:

Courier-Spiel-start-pos-01

Starting again from the bottom-left corner and moving to the right, this is our new starting lineup: Rook; Knight; Elephant; Bishop; Councillor; King; Queen; Sage; then completing the set with Bishop, Elephant, Knight and Rook once again.  Courier-Spiel thus has some new pieces and some changes to the old ones:

Courier-Spiel-moves-01

The moves of the pieces in Courier-Spiel.

  • Pawns move as in modern Chess — one square forward and capturing on the forward diagonal squares, but they may also take an initial two-step move from their starting square only.  En passant capture is now possible.  Pawns that reach the opponent’s back rank promote in an unusual way — they must sit on the back rank for another two moves, and then finally promote on the third move to any piece from the Pawn’s army that has been previously captured.  If no pieces have been captured from their army yet, then promotion is impossible, and the Pawn must sit on the back rank until a captured piece is available.  We are not entirely sure whether these Pawns are vulnerable while waiting for promotion, but modern players seem to have settled on making them immune to capture until promotion occurs.
  • The Sage moves the same as in Courier Chess — one step to any adjacent square.  The Sage is now next to the Queen rather than the King.
  • The Fool has had a significant upgrade, and now moves like a combination of the King and Knight.  This powerful new piece sits next to the King where the Sage used to be.
  • The Queen is no longer a ferz, but instead functions exactly like a modern powerhouse Chess Queen — moving any number of squares vertically, horizontally or diagonally.
  • The Elephant is stronger too, and now moves as a combination of alfil and ferz — it may move one step diagonally, or leap two squares diagonally.  They are still colourbound like the Elephants in Courier.
  • The King, Knights and Rooks move the same as in Courier Chess.
  • Rules-wise, of course the goal of the game as usual is to checkmate the enemy King.  I have not seen a definitive statement of the stalemate rule, but as far as I am aware modern players have stalemate as a draw in this game.  Courier-Spiel does not use the initial ‘joy leaps’ of the Pawns and Queen that were customary in Courier Chess.

Along with the modernised Pawns, players may now castle in Courier-Spiel.  As in modern Chess, in order to castle the path between the King and the Rook must be clear of any other pieces, and neither piece must have already moved.   Castling may not be done if either the King or the Rook is under attack by an opposing piece, or if any of the intervening squares are under attack.  To castle, the King will move to the C file (if castling with the A-file Rook) or the J file (if castling with the L-file Rook), then the Rook leaps over to the space adjacent to the King on the opposite side:

Courier-Spiel-castling-01

Castling example.

Taking all these adjustments together, Albers did a good job updating Courier for a more modern era.  The increased power of the Elephants, Sage, Fool and particularly the Queen significantly increase the pace of the game.  Tactical exchanges are more frequent than in the original as well.  The addition of castling prevents too many early wins by allowing the King a quick path to safety.  The removal of the initial ‘joy leaps’ of the A, G and L Pawns also allows the King further protection, and avoids a prematurely-developed Queen.  Cleverly, the newfound single-square diagonal move of the Elephant also serves to protect the B and K Pawns, which previously were unprotected and thus vulnerable to early attack in Courier.  Finally, the increased powers of the Sage and Fool provide some strong checkmating powers in the late game, and are also strong defensively, preventing the deadly Queen from completely dominating play.

The glaring flaw in Courier-Spiel is of course the promotion rule, which adds some serious rules complications while also significantly slowing down the process of Pawn promotion.  This leads to some weird pacing in the endgame, where the typical race to promote Pawns becomes a strange, cagey stand-off instead.

However, there is historical precedent here that likely encouraged Albers to adopt this strange promotion method.  In the version of Courier played in Ströbeck, Germany’s famous ‘Chess Village’, the Pawns must go through an odd ritual in order to promote.  Upon reaching the opponent’s back rank, the Pawn would have to make a series of three double-step jumps backward, each one taken on a separate turn (the Pawn’s controlling player did not have to do these jumps immediately or consecutively, but could do them whenever the board situation was convenient).  Pawns making these leaps cannot capture this way, but they can be captured.  After the third backward leap, the Pawn would have returned to its starting square and could then promote immediately into another piece (any piece, not just the Queen).

Given this odd promotion rule was in use in the past, perhaps Albers adopted a version of it to avoid altering the feel of the Courier Chess endgame beyond what Courier fans may have been willing to tolerate?  In any case, I suspect most modern players would prefer to replace these three-turn promotion rules with the simpler method of the original Courier Chess, and just allow Pawns to promote immediately upon reaching the enemy’s back rank.

Playing Courier Chess and Courier-Spiel

While neither of these variants are played widely today, thanks to the internet and powerful Chess-playing engines we need not be short of opponents.  Perhaps the most promising way to find human opponents would be to sign up for an account at the Chess Variant Pages, and then use their Game Courier (how appropriate) Play-By-Email system to invite someone to a game.  Courier Chess has a setup available on Game Courier, and a fair few games have been played, so probably someone will take you up on the offer.  Courier-Spiel has some fans as well.

Since I wrote the first version of this article, I began working with Stephen Tavener on his wonderful Ai Ai general game-playing software.  I work primarily on the Chess/Shogi side of things, and have added many dozens of variants in recent months.  We of course added implementations of Courier Chess and Courier-Spiel, so you may play both these games against AI or human opposition:

As you can see, the piece graphics are slightly different — the Queen and Fool have been replaced with the generic Ferz and Wazir, respectively, but the piece images are schematic and easy to remember.  Subsequently I have added a number of Courier-inspired modern variants to Ai Ai; more on these in a future article!

Alternatively, if you want to play against a tougher AI, you can download WinBoard and play Courier Chess against the FairyMax computer engine.  This is quite an enjoyable way to get to know the game, and FairyMax is a decent opponent.  WinBoard does not appear to have a Courier-Spiel setup available by default, but it is possible to define your own variants.  Winboard supports variants all the way up to Tai Shogi and its 25×25 boards, so feel free to experiment with your own wild expansions of Courier Chess.

If you are looking for a real challenge, download the Fairy-Stockfish engine, which also supports Courier (and you can define Courier-Spiel very easily, check the file ‘variants.ini’ under the ‘src’ folder in the GitHub repository at the link).  Fairy-Stockfish is based on Stockfish, one of the strongest Chess engines on the planet, so it is an absolutely brutal opponent!  Conveniently, Fairy-Stockfish also supports a tonne of other good Chess variants, although due to engine limitations it cannot play any game with a board larger than 12×10 (although this may change further down the line).

For playing Courier Chess on the go, you can grab the Chess Remix app for your Android phone or tablet.  This great little app contains over 100 Chess variants, including many of the major regional and historical ones.  Alongside Courier, Tamerlane Chess, Chu Shog and Dai Shogi are in there, too.  The piece graphics are little pixel-art representations of the moves of each piece, which is probably helpful for some but I personally am not a huge fan of that approach.  As a Shogi purist who loves Japanese calligraphy, playing the Shogi family without the kanji characters feels particularly wrong and gross, but I do enjoy having the ability to play all of these games on the go.  Chess Remix, true to its name, also lets you create your own variants or modify the included ones in all sorts of different ways, so it is a must-have if you enjoy mucking around with Chess.

Screenshot_20210207-113848

Playing Courier Chess against the AI in Chess Remix.

Over-the-board Courier play is a bit more challenging to arrange due to the lack of any 12×8 boards on the market, although some chessboard specialists may be able to make one to order.   There are some occasional reproductions available based on the Courier Chess set depicted in van Leyden’s painting, but these are handmade and the pieces are brass, so they are quite expensive!  A better option may be to buy a couple of inexpensive vinyl or neoprene chess boards, slice one in half and attach it to the other.  For pieces, a couple of regular Chess sets plus some variant pieces would be sufficient.

However, if you are willing to be a bit patient, the Chess Club of Ströbeck is planning to produce a run of Courier Chess boards and pieces sometime in 2021.  The boards will be handmade, and without a doubt these sets will be a fine collector’s item as well as being great for play.

Next moves

The second part of this series will examine some modern extensions of the Courier Chess concept, all of which are available to play in Ai Ai.  I had previously planned to present some analysed games of Courier and Courier-Spiel, but due to a backup mishap I lost the substantial work I’d already done on these.  At some point I’ll do that work again, but for my own sanity I need some time before I dive back into that analysis a second time!

In the meantime, please give Courier Chess and Courier-Spiel a try — in my opinion they are easily among the most interesting historical Chess variants, offering a unique feel and entertaining strategic dilemmas.  Courier’s distinct medieval feel and pacing is surprisingly absorbing, and while the modernised takes on it are probably more polished games, I still find myself returning more often to the 800-year-old original.  Certainly Courier will not appeal to everyone, but I feel every Chess fanatic owes it to themselves to experience this unique offshoot of the medieval game.

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