Looney Pyramids, Part Three: Martian Chess


The score isn’t looking so good for Andrew Looney’s Pyramids System. Nomids barely rated. Only half of Ice Duo met the mark. We’re already on the third of four boxes, and I’ve yet to see what the fuss is all about.

Until Martian Chess. This one still doesn’t bother to use the pyramids as more than pretty counters. But the game itself — wow.

Or as my old man would call it, "What art?"

The chess they play on Mars.

Fair warning, I only have beauty shots of Martian Chess.

Don’t be surprised. It’s the sort of game that lends itself to introspective gazes. How else could one capture those monoliths? The contours of that play-space, a compact 8×4 board that’s both crowded and limitless, barely circumscribing those silver towers in all their splendor? Before this latest set offered silver as a possible color, any others would have served. There’s nothing preventing someone from using a hodgepodge from the other sets. That, in its own way, is the appeal of a modular system. The same handful of pieces can produce a gussied-up version of Rock-Paper-Scissors or Treehouse or Twin Win. Even this.

But silver is a nice touch. An otherworldly touch. An appropriate touch, given what the game asks of us. Because while we identify red and yellow and blue and green as designative of player ownership, silver is more agnostic. That’s perfect, because that’s precisely what Martian Chess is all about. Ownership agnosticism.

You don’t own your pieces. Even that phrase is a disruption. “Your” pieces. For Martian Chess to make sense, we need to realign our idea of ownership entirely.

You don’t own any pieces. Only the ground the pieces sit upon.

I feel like a Martian would adjust to our chess faster than we can adjust to theirs.

Chess, but on Mars.

There’s a beautiful moment, early on, when Martian Chess clicks.

It goes like this. Each of the game’s three piece-types has its own move. The little one, the pawn, can step one space diagonally. In the middle is the drone, which can shift one or two spaces forward or side-to-side. The final piece, the big tower, the queen, can slide any distance in any straight line. Your goal, as in terrestrial chess, is to capture opposing pieces. Decades of ingrained behavior take precedence: you prepare a move that, once made, will protect your mover. So you rush forward, capture an enemy piece, and

And now that piece belongs to your opponent.

The trick is that we’re conditioned to protect our pieces in a particular way. The chess way. If I want to move a piece there, then it needs to be protected there, ideally by overlapping zones of control. The pyramids in Martian Chess are perfectly suited for leapfrogging defenses, so that’s what we do. Except you don’t own your pieces, at least not permanently. As soon as your piece lands on the opposing side of the board, it becomes theirs — which means any work done to protect that piece is now wasted. Or worse than wasted, a setup for your opponent to immediately leap that same piece back the way it came to capture the piece ostensibly positioned to defend it.

In other words, rather than defending that piece in its new position, you need to defend against it.

But only because Martians are smarter than us. It's the lower gravity. Nothing innate.

When someone on Mars says “chess,” they mean this chess.

Martian Chess is alien. And it’s never more alien than when you realize you’ve made the same darn Earth Chess move for the third time in a single match, only to watch as the piece you just moved attacks you back. It’s a paradigm shift in miniature. Which is its own message, even a political message if you really want to squint. Challenging our assumptions is hard, paradigms are unbreakable while you’re in them, yadda yadda yadda. That’s all true. What Martian Chess presupposes is… what if it isn’t?

Yeah, I’m teasing. But only half-teasing. Martian Chess isn’t perfect. It’s too liable to stalemates, mostly. And it doesn’t really need to be a “pyramid game.” Oh well. Apart from those quibbles, it’s a solid mind-bender, and it really does pack a minor wallop of a message. This alone makes me glad I took a look at Andrew Looney’s pyramids.


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Posted on March 11, 2021, in Board Game and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 11 Comments.

  1. Nice review. Exactly the kind of reputed elegance I was hoping for from the Looney abstracts (I own this one, unplayed).

    I see there’s a 4-player variant on the Looney site where you just double the board/pieces to a full chess board and everyone gets a quadrant. Feels like that would be a completely different, chaotic game.

  2. You want a great Looney Pyramids abstract, play Pikemen: http://playagaingames.com/games/pikemen/ . A bit familiar (plays on a chessboard), solid strategies and actually uses pyramid properties (size and orientation) in play.

  3. Avian Overlord

    “And it doesn’t really need to be a ‘pyramid game.'”
    Don’t worry, you’ll get to Homeworlds eventually.

  4. Since that other person seems to have forgotten, I’ll get it done

    It’s about the cones

  5. Play Homeworlds. After all this refreshing simplicity : Homeworlds really delivers the goods.

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