Abstracts Get Political: Paco Šako

This is the sort of header I'd expect from a watchmaking company.

Here on Abstracts Get Political, our primary interest is abstract games that make an ideological point despite being, well, abstract games. But we’ve always (both times) looked at games about injury and strife. Suffragetto loosed jiu-jitsu-ing suffragettes upon the police, while Guerrilla Checkers was about — you guessed it — the horrors of modern asymmetrical warfare. Where are the games that give peace a chance?

Look no further than Paco Šako. Even its name carries a message of harmony. After all, it’s Esperanto for “peace chess.” You don’t get much more peaceable than that.

Or do you?


Chess gets huggy.

At first glance, Paco Šako takes that “chess” part literally. You can even play chess with it. Or play Paco Šako with a chess set, if you don’t mind a crowded board that won’t make a lick of sense. Same grid, same pieces, same colors. What’s the difference?

The difference is first hinted at by the pieces themselves. Rather than being perfectly rounded on their base, they’re lopsided and built to be slotted together, almost like a chess set from the other side of the Looking Glass by way of Yin and Yang. Clink two together and you have the spitting image of the world’s most popular icon of Chinese cosmology. Even the topmost portion is set at an angle, evoking arms thrown wide in embrace, or that oh-so-European cheek kiss that sets most Americans to shuddering.

Okay, so the pieces hug each other. Big whoop, right? Except this hug is more than a gimmick. When one piece moves onto another, prompting what chess would call a “capture,” nothing is removed from the board. Instead, the two pieces are merged. A black bishop and a white knight, brought together as a single piece. Two opposing pawns, now locked arm in arm. A deadly queen, paralyzed by her connection to a stunted rook.

Oh ho! Shall we have this dance, Madam?

It’s like some sort of stuffy palace dance.

This can seem counterintuitive, especially for those accustomed to the way a chess board transforms over time. It might seem like it would result in a board perpetually clogged, with its lanes and zones never really thinning out. In vanilla chess the removal of a piece not only robs your opponent of its move; its absence also frees up room to maneuver. Think of your rooks, hemmed into the corner at the outset of every match. To free just one of them requires at least three moves: one to shove the pawn forward, and two more to shuffle to rook forward and then sideways out of the peasant’s shadows. Such maneuvers become easier as the board becomes more open, amplifying the deadliness of any piece that slides.

In Paco Šako, this broadening still occurs — but it’s loaded in the other direction. Rather than making the field deadlier because of increasing negative space alone, the field grows more treacherous as pieces merge and are transformed into the proverbial double-edged sword. If my knight lands on your pawn, I still have a knight and you still have a pawn; but like a quantum experiment gone wrong, they’re superimposed over one another. I can still hop, you can still trundle zombie-like forward. The hangup is that neither of us can simply leave our newfound union. Even if my half of our shared piece could hop straight onto your king and win the match in my favor, I can’t do that. So vigorous is our embrace that I can’t step out of it of my own volition.

But don’t make the mistake of thinking that hugging pieces are mere obstacles. Escape is possible. It only requires an interloper. If I move a third party into our union — a bishop, perhaps — then that bishop takes the place of my previous piece. With that space now occupied by a union, my now-liberated piece is required to take a move of its own. And if it happens to move onto yet another union, the next freed piece must also move.

Here’s an example in which an opponent chains together a few unions and liberations in order to protect her king:

There are two consequences of this transformation.

The first is entirely mechanical, breathing new life into a game that’s been chugging along largely unaltered since its rules solidified in the 15th century. There are, of course, countless variants on chess, from increased player counts and alternate board shapes to the randomized back ranks of Bobby Fischer’s Chess960. Just last week I spent a full hour tinkering with the deconstructions of Pippin Barr’s Chesses. Yet of all the many twists on the formula, Paco Šako has become my most-played variant in years. Maybe that’s because it tickles a different part of the brain, especially once you realize you can create loops where the same union is forged and broken more than once in a single turn. The convolutions of vanilla chess seem staid by comparison.

More important to an article on thematic import, however, is the way Paco Šako feels.

Chess is weird in that regard, appearing themeless only because our culture has internalized it so fully that its movements and messages are expected. Two geniuses rattle off numbers and pieces as they wage a duel nobody understands but them; a peculiar young savant checkmates elderly retirees in the park; espionage directors send encoded messages via a play-by-mail match that’s lasted two decades. Both its overt setting — a medieval line battle — and chess’s themes of sacrifice, intersecting threat, and entrapment are so common that they’re practically cliché.

Paco Šako is alien enough that it feels new all over again. And although entrapment and intersecting threats are still present and accounted for, the fact that no pieces are ever lost or sacrificed, only locked into relationships that are very likely unequal, imbues the whole thing with a very different sort of feeling. Its name speaks volumes, written in a language meant to foster international understanding. It’s also a language that practically nobody speaks. The language of peace, but peace as an ideal, a figment, an unrealized hope.


Attempting to mate with the enemy king.

So, too, it goes in Paco Šako. This might be a tale of love, but it’s a strained sort of love. A message of peace, but a loaded peace. Harmony, but the kind of harmony where people are still people. The game evokes a conversation between two uncertain old friends: affectionate, yes, but also determined to prove that they’ve arrived in the better place after so many years apart. Or a cold war, its participants aware that any direct action will result in the meltdown of the entire world, so they maneuver obliquely, via handshakes and concessions, until one is dominant and the other has crumbled. Or a marriage entered into by earnest but imperfect partners, willing to work together to forge a better life, but still tallying who washes the dishes more often.

In other words, Paco Šako is a game about the realities of peace, the difficulties of harmony, the disconcerting nature of love. Its chained movements speak volumes about how collaboration results in tremendous advantages, even if its collaborators weren’t always completely cheerful about it. When a queen is united with a pawn, it isn’t an unlikely love story, or at least it isn’t only a love story. It’s also a tragedy. The queen, shackled to that shiftless, unambitious pawn. The pawn, dimly aware of how badly it’s resented. If only someone new would come along and let them out of such a joining.

And all that, from a variant on chess.


(If what I’m doing at Space-Biff! is valuable to you in some way, please consider dropping by my Patreon campaign or Ko-fi.)

A complimentary copy was provided.

Posted on August 15, 2019, in Board Game and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 7 Comments.

  1. This review is so good that I had to read it twice. I sincerely hope that Paco-Sako will one day catch on in a big way!

  2. Wow. What a great read! This is just brilliant; way beyond a mere review. Thank you for posting this. Naturally, you’ve also managed to pique my interest in this game.

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