Hey everybody! For those who only started following this blog recently, you may not know that I have been doing a series on the history of game design, where I look at how games have evolved over time. Last year I did an article on Race Games, and another one on War Games. However, the last time I added an entry in this series was last October, so I figured it was time to bring it back.

Unlike the previous articles, I am not going to be looking at an entire genre of games. Instead, I am going to be looking at one game in particular, and how it has evolved and changed over time. The game I am going to be looking at today is one of the most enduring and most studied games of all time – Chess!

In the Beginning

While the exact origins of chess are unknown, the earliest known ancestor of modern chess originated in India in the 6th century. This game, known as Chaturanga, is considered to be the ancestor not only of western chess, but also several other chess-like games around the globe, such as Shogi in Japan or Xiangqi in China. It also shares many recognizable features from these games, such as specialized pieces that represent different military ranks, and an 8 x 8 board.

Chaturanga, which literally means “having four limbs” is a word which was also used to refer to an army, specifically the four divisions of an ancient Indian army. These four divisions were the Elephants, Chariots, Cavalry, and Infantry, each of which are represented by one of the pieces in Chaturanga. The original arrangement of pieces on the board was also based on a military formation that used these four divisions.

chaturangasetupMost of the elements of chess were already found in Chaturanga. The goal was to Checkmate the opponents king, and the starting position on the board was remarkably similar to the starting position for modern chess (at least in the 2 player version). Most of the pieces had similar roles – the king moved the same as a chess king, but without castling, the foot-soldier moved the same as a modern pawn but without the ability to move two squares forward on it’s first move.

However, Chaturanga also had several differences from modern chess. Firstly, the board was not checkered – all squares were the same color. Secondly, certain spaces had special markings on them, although the purpose of these markings is not entirely known. It is possible that these markings actually had no meaning in Chaturanga – the same board was used to play other games as well, so the markings may have had meaning in those games.

It also had some differences as far as the pieces. Chaturanga had no queen piece, but instead had a General which could move 1 square in any diagonal direction. Instead of rooks, it had a piece called the Elephant. There are a number of different possible moves described for the Elephant, and the actual movements for this piece are not entirely known.

The Great Migration

While Chaturanga was developed in India, it did not stay there for long. In the 7th century a version of Chaturanga spread to what was then the Persian Empire. This version came to be known as Shatranj, and was extremely similar to Chaturanga. A few differences include the decision to position the kings in the same file as eachother (resulting in an arrangement that, while more visually symmetrical, is less symmetrical from a gameplay perspective) and solidifying the moves for the Elephant, which could now move 2 spaces diagonally in any direction by hopping over the first spot.

I am also unsure why the elephant is jumping.

This version is also the first to introduce the custom of announcing when the king is in danger (“Shah”, which became “Check”) or when the king cannot escape (“Shah mat”, which became “Checkmate”).


After the Persian Empire was conquered by the Muslims in 651, the game of Shatranj because to spread throughout the Muslim world. It was during this time period that the first scholarly study of the game began to take place. Players began to study opening moves, a topic which is fundamental to modern Chess, although these early studies were more concerned with reaching a particular board state than following a specific sequence of moves.

This time period also led to the creation of Chess problems, which are a type of puzzle in which the player must achieve a goal (usually winning the game) from a predetermined starting position, and with a limited number of moves. This concept of Game Problems has been expanded to other types of games as well, and is a form of puzzle that I am particularly fond of.

Doesn’t look that complicated…

During this time the Muslim world began to analyze the mathematics of the game, including such mathematical puzzles as the Knight’s tour. In this puzzle the Knight must make its way around the board while only touching each square once. While at first glance this problem may appear to be a simple task, it is actually quite complicated and study of this problem has led to a greater understanding of mathematical graph theory.


European Developments

Over time Chess began to spread not only throughout the Muslim world but also into Europe. Once in Europe, Chess began to evolve even further. The piece known as the General or Advisor, which previously could only move 1 square diagonally, began to grow more powerful, and eventually became the modern Queen with the ability to move any number of squares in any direction. Similarly, the Elephant began to morph into what we now call the Bishop, with the power to move diagonally any distance.

By the 15th century, the pieces and moves began to solidify into what we now know today. Around this time other rules changes began to take place. Some of the changes around this time were made to speed up the game, particularly the early stages, as during this time games were known to last for days. Others were made in response to the shifting roles of the Queen and the Bishop. Two of the most impactful changes made during this time were giving pawns the ability to move twice on their first turn, and the creation of castling.

The decision to allow pawns to move two squares on their first move was actually a very controversial one. Doing so allowed players to gain immediate control of the center, opened up movement options for other pieces, and generally allowed the early stages of the game to develop more quickly. However, this change also brought some problems with it.

In addition to opening up the board more quickly, allowing pawns to move twice also increased the possibility of creating passed pawns – pawns that have advanced far enough across the board that they can no longer be captured by another pawn. By skipping a square, the pawn can essentially move past the opposing pawns that would have otherwise been able to capture them, and proceed across the board.

To combat this, the En Passant rule was created. This rule comes into play if a pawn uses a double move to move to a position where it would not normally be captured. In this case, the opposing pawn is allowed to capture as if the pawn had only moved once, which helps counteract some of the negative side-effects of this rules change.

Another special rule created during this time was Castling. Castling is a complicated move that allows both the King and one Rook to move in the same turn, and allows the King to move to a much more secure position. The origins of Castling go back to the move changes with the Queen and Bishop. When these pieces were relatively weak, the King’s position in the center of the board was reasonably safe. Once the pieces adopted their new movements, this was no longer the case. Castling started as a simple hop that allowed the King to move to a more secure position, and evolved to its current form around the 17th century.

The closest I could find to a simple castling diagram

Modern Chess

As the centuries passed, Chess continued to grow in popularity. By the end of the 15th century, scholarly books began to be written about the strategy of playing chess. These books began to analyze the theory of Chess openings as a series of moves, not just a set of strategic positions. They also began to analyze end-game positions and other strategic aspects of the game.

By the 1800’s, competitive Chess tournaments began to show up in Europe. The first major international Chess tournament was held in London in 1855, and was a single-elimination bracketed tournament. The best Chess players from all over Europe came to compete in this tournament, and it sparked a series of changes that would eventually result in modern competitive Chess.

One major change that resulted from this tournament was the idea of timing moves. At the London tournament players had no time limit for making moves, and this resulted in some players taking hours for a single move. After the tournament, a number of solutions were suggested to solve this issue. The most commonly accepted solution was to allow players a certain amount of time for a certain number of moves, and allowing players to extend the time for more moves.

While London was the first major international tournament, it was not the first World Championship. That title belongs to a tournament in 1886 between Wilhelm Steinitz and Johannes Zukertort. This tournament consisted of a single match between the two

He must have been thrilled

competitors, with the winner of the match being the first player to win 10 separate games. After 20 games, Wilhelm Steinitz walked away victorious as the first Chess World Champion.

For the next several decades, World Championships followed a similar structure, and consisted of a single match between the reigning World Champion and a challenger. It wasn’t until 1924 when, after several attempts, an international chess union was finally founded, known as FIDE. In 1945, FIDE began to manage and host regularly scheduled World Chess Championship tournaments, a role that they have continued to hold to this day.

Until Next Week

That is all I have for this week! If you enjoyed this article, please check out the rest of the blog and subscribe on Facebook, Twitter, or here on WordPress so you will always know when I post a new article. If you didn’t, let me know what I can do better in the comments down below. And join me next week for a look at the game design of everybody’s favorite blue hedgehog!



Posted by:Caleb Compton

I am the Head Designer of Rempton Games, and primary writer for the Rempton games blog. I am currently a graduate student in computer science at Kansas State University, and work on game designs every spare moment that I can.

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