TABLE GAME REVIEW: Knightmare Chess

This week on GS Table Games, we enter the macabre world of Knightmare Chess. “Make a move. Play a card. Chess will never be the same!”

Knightmare Chess is an oldie but goody that I rediscovered while trawling through my games box for my local table-top club.

Strictly speaking, it is not a game in its own right, but an expansion set of cards which modify the rules of the classic game. Therefore, in addition to purchasing the boxed set of cards, you’ll need to have a conventional board, playing pieces and at least a basic understanding of how to play Chess. I’d go further and actually say that you will enjoy this variant considerably more if you are not a huge Chess player, because it tosses deep strategy out of the window in favour of chaotic intervention. It’s a whole different way of playing. Like all games that rest heavily on chance, this will delight youngsters (who can finally start beating their siblings and their parents) whilst infuriating long-time players who place a greater value on the psychology and tension of the traditional game. I suppose the target audience would be casual gamers with time to kill and a wry sense of humour.

Personally, I love it.  The game originated in France, where it is called ‘Tempête sur l’échiquier’ aka “Storm On The Board.” I much prefer the Steve Jackson redesign, though.  They have taken the basic concept and given it bite.  Instead of the cartoonish drawings on the French original, we have richly painted images of battle and madness.  Let me show you.


Knightmare Chess 1.2

This combination of the darkly fantastical imagery and the twisted rules that they represent breathe a real life into the stark conflict of the chess board.  Whilst the artist (Rogério Vilela) was ultimately unsatisfied with his work, the style and the atmosphere that they bring to the game is absolutely key to my enjoyment of it.  Instead of a cerebral duel of faceless pieces, the board becomes a George-RR-Martin-styled war – full of tricks, traps and red-handed treachery.  Frankly, I’m amazed they haven’t produced a Game Of Thrones edition of the game.  (Hell, they could push the boat out and produce a special board and set of pieces for it.  I’d fork out for it!)

Enough about the look: let’s talk about how it plays.  The aim of the game remains the same – you need to put your opponent’s King in checkmate.  The pieces all move and capture in the traditional way, but in addition to your move, you may also play a card. These modify the game in a variety of ways.  There are cards which change what your pieces can do, some that enable you to swap pieces around, and there are even a few ‘continuing effect’ cards which can make powerful changes to the board itself.  Adding to the cut and thrust nature of the game is the ability to play a card on your opponent’s turn in order to counteract their card or move. As you can imagine, the power of the cards make them of considerably more value than the simple moves of the chess pieces.

Steve Jackson Games market Knightmare Chess as something of a deck-building game, presumably to encourage people to buy multiple sets.  The strategy, therefore, comes from adapting your deck over multiple games to best counter the strengths of your opponent.  Cards are single use and limited, so they have to be used wisely.  In an unbalanced game, you can even use a handicap on the points available to spend in order to redress the balance.  It’s a strong concept with a lot of flexibility for the games, but this aspect of it gives me a huge headache for a number of reasons.  Firstly, I am absolutely terrible at making decisions.  I don’t want to wade through a deck of cards and choose which ones I want to use in any given game – which leads right on to my next point – the set up becomes a huge time-suck, when all I want to do is play.  Finally, I really don’t have the cash to splash even if I wanted to get duplicate sets, and not enough regular opponents to warrant bothering.  Deck-building is right out for me.  

Thankfully, I can still play the game quite happily because SJG give us alternative ways to play.  These are much quicker to set up and feel a lot more fun to me.  If you want, you can simply shuffle the deck and deal the cards equally between the players, or you can discard a set number of cards each so you never know what cards are in play.  Another way is to use a common deck from which each of you draw, much as in the original Tempête sur l’échiquier.  However you choose to play, the main thing is to enjoy yourself.  The game will only take around half an hour to play, and it’s suitable for anyone over the age of 10.  I’m sure younger players could pick it up easily enough, but it would depend upon their reading ability.  Unfortunately, Knightmare Chess is currently out of print, though you may still find copies in specialist game shops.  If you see a copy going second-hand anywhere I would strongly recommend nabbing it, as well as the expansion set Knightmare Chess 2,which features another 80 cards.  As I understand it, they are all new cards with artwork by the same person, so they can be comfortably mixed in to form one big deck.

Finally, I picked up a traditional chess set from The Works for just £3.99 the other day.  If you fancy starting off with the ‘basics,’ that might be a good place to start.


Rating: 3.5/5
Reviewer: Dion Winton-Polak

Like table-games?  Why not recommend a few for us to try?  You can check out our previous reviews here on the Geek Syndicate.

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