Zombie Chess

Back in 2008, I wrote this livejournal post about a game that my wife and I came up with, in Kafe Kerouac here in Columbus. Well, we weren’t married then. The post is still there, although the images aren’t; I’ll add them here (sorry for the lo-fi 2008 graphics).

The idea is that White plays with normal chess pieces that move normally, and Black plays with three rows of black pawns that move like pawns … with these exceptions:

  • When Black can take a piece, it must. If there is more than one vulnerable piece, Black can choose which one to take.
  • When Black takes a piece, that piece is not removed from the board, but becomes a new black pawn. So, the taking pawn does not move.
  • When Black gets to the far end of the board (row 1), that piece can advance to wrap around to the near end of the board (row 8). Only Black can wrap around.
  • Black moves one space at a time, even on the first move.
  • White’s rooks cannot take any pieces, and themselves cannot be taken. These are the trucks.

The object for White is to get the white king to the far end of the board (i.e., to escape). The object for Black is to take the white king.

Starting set-up:

Zombie Chess setup

In this example, White opens with a pawn, and then Black opens with an opposing pawn:
Zombie Chess - Zombie Take 1

White moves a second pawn, leaving its first pawn in striking range of Black. Black must take the first pawn, turning it into a zombie pawn:

Zombie Chess - Zombie Take 2

As I said in the livejournal post, things get ugly quickly.

But White can win pretty easily if Black doesn’t support its forward pawns with pawns further back. And if the white queen gets behind all the pawns, it’s over. I would like to revisit this game and see what happens when the black pawns are allowed to move backward as well as forward (but not wrapping around “backward,” i.e., from row 8 to row 1; that would be a massacre).

To play, you need 40 black pawns and the standard 16 white pieces. I would love to make a video game of this, but I would probably mess up the A.I. for White.

My brother Mike suggests some extra rules for Black, to give that player more interesting tactical choices than just a) shambling around, b) maintaining a web of supporting pawns, and c) being forced to take pieces. I think one suggestion was that, if two or more pawns are adjacent to each other in the same file (i.e., if the black pawns are “stacked”), then the forward pawn can move two spaces, not just one. This represents the physical pressure of masses of zombies pushing the crowd forward. I’d like to playtest this, with the possible added rule that three stacked zombies makes the forward one move three spaces, etc.

This is definitely a “slow zombie” game, in the George Romero vein. White’s rooks are like the semi trucks that block off access in Dawn of the Dead, and they give White a fighting chance. White’s knights are effectively helicopters (also seen in Dawn of the Dead). As my wife says, White’s queen is “final girl” (a term coined by folklorist Carol Clover). That means White’s king must be “wounded boyfriend,” basically a stand-in for the whole team escaping to safety.

It would be interesting to make a “fast zombie” variant along the lines of 28 Days Later or World War Z. In such a game, the zombies would move two spaces, and when stacked, three or four spaces. The other rules would stay the same. I think it might be over quickly, unless more white pieces were made invulnerable, or the rooks were allowed to take pawns with impunity. In the 28 Days Later/Walking Dead vein, White’s pieces might be split up and played by two or three players, attacking each other to advance their own piece to safety.

A quick Google search shows there are many other Zombie Chess games out there. A sampling:

  • Board Game Geek shows that in 2010, Justin Egan invented a Zombie Chess that appears to take an approach similar to mine, but using two rows of actual zombie figurines, which is cool. I don’t know the details.
  • A group in Auckland, NZ made a challenging “fast zombie” game with some interesting strategy options. Different and cool.
  • There is also a video game that requires Flash, so I haven’t played it. It may be more like Zombie Checkers.
  • Fantasy Chess also has a zombie-themed variant.

Creators of any of these games, if you’re reading this, I hope I can meet you one day and compare notes!

One thought on “Zombie Chess”

  1. As stated in the livejournal entry, there is also an “Alien” variant: Only White’s pieces on the board, minus the king and queen. In the white queen’s square is the only black piece, a queen that moves like a queen and a knight. White moves first. No wraparound, because you’re all trapped on the board (i.e., the Nostromo). Last side standing wins. Good luck, White.

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