A chess game that makes love not war

Paco Ŝako is a variant of chess by Dutch artist and designer Felix Albers. The basic rules for how the pieces move are the same as for chess, but there are two very distinctive differences: no pieces are ever captured and removed from the board, and two opposite pieces can unite into one piece and move together. With me so far? Good, it gets weirder and very interesting indeed.

Everyone who has ever learnt chess and played with someone better at the game has felt the pain of getting pieces picked off the board one by one, until the bitter end of inescapable checkmate. After all, chess is a game of killing your opponent’s forces and capturing their king. It is war, basically. When Felix, himself a chess player as a teenager, was about to teach his son the game of chess, he was considering alternatives to the war-like nature of chess. The idea developed into Paco Ŝako, a fully fledged new kind of chess game focusing more on collaboration than elimination. I met up with Felix in The Hague to learn the game and this is my review.

How to play and how to win

First things first: if you play games, your first question might be “how do I win?” Yes, despite the more peaceful and collaborative nature of Paco Ŝako, there can be a winner. If at any point one of your pieces is able to connect with the opponents king, it’s game over. So that’s the ultimate goal, but the journey towards that goal is also very important. I get the feeling that Felix thinks the journey is more important.

All your pieces move exactly like normal chess pieces. The magic happens when you would normally capture a piece — instead the two pieces combine with dance-like grace and from here on move together as a union, as one piece with two different qualities. If your half of the union is a knight, then you move it around the board as a knight, and if your opponent’s half is a queen, then he moves it like a queen. Very soon the board looks like the Grand Central Station dancing scene from the film The Fisher King. It is captivating and beautiful. The only way to break a piece away from a union is to replace it with another one of your “free” pieces. The freed piece may now move on its own again, either to an empty spot or even create a new union with another piece — or even break up another union. It is not possible for a union to enter into another union or break up one. The only piece on the board that is not allowed to form a union is the poor king.

Chain reaction

Here we enter completely new territory compared to traditional chess. Since a piece freed from a union is allowed to, if possible, take over another union, it may result in a whole series of moves triggered by the first one, which in Paco Ŝako is called “the chain”. In this was you may position you pieces and unions in such a way that a simple pawn move in one corner of the board may end up “mating” the other side’s king — in one single, sweeping avalanche of a move. This kind of multi-move may scare some chess players, but it really is one of the defining features of Paco Ŝako, and you are constantly looking for the opportunity to create these chains after only a few games.

Kickstarter campaign

That is really all you need to know to play Paco Ŝako — oh, and the specially designed chess pieces, of course. Until 31 August 2017, you can get Paco Ŝako sets and much more by supporting the Kickstarter campaign.

The Kickstarter also offers piece sets in bright colours.

Final thoughts

As a chess player, you should be able to pick up Paco Ŝako in few minutes. The game is a wonderful challenge for the chess brain — everything looks and works so familiar, yet you are in completely uncharted territory. It is exhilarating, exciting and challenging.

If you do not know chess already (if that exists at all), you need to learn both how chess pieces move and then the few simple — but mind-blowing — rules that flavour Paco Ŝako, but it is a small effort, even for children, who may actually even love this game more than the game it derived from.