Tabletop Review: Kaissa

Kaissa
Publisher: Port Kar Industries
Get it Here: Kaissa’s official home page

First a little about me. I have been a scholastic chess coach for 11 years. My teams have won state titles at both the junior high and high school levels, and have placed in national competitions. I have no fewer than four chess boards in my house that get regular use, and four other decorative sets. I know chess.

Kaissa is not chess.

Kaissa‘s instruction manual is, itself, very clear about this point, to their credit. Of course, they do lift an awful lot from chess, not just the square, alternating-color board, not just the movements of six of the nine types of pieces, but also, strangely enough, the name. “Kaissa” was the name of the winner of the first world computer chess championship in 1974, a program written in the Soviet Union in the 1960’s.

In reality, Kaissa is a chess derivative, played on a 10×10 checkered board as opposed to the standard 8×8. It has pieces that perfectly replicate the movement of every chess piece minus the Knight, and the remainder of the pieces have movements very similar, but with shortened range. Instead of checkmating the enemy king, the object is to capture the opponent’s “Home Stone,” a piece that doesn’t start the game on the board, but is placed there sometime in the first 10 moves (not doing so in the allotted time is considered an automatic forfeit).

It is a clever variant, in the same general vein as other variants such as Four-Sided Chess and Plunder Chess, except that Kaissa doesn’t seem to be content being a chess variant. From the game manual:

“As you look over THE GAME, you will notice there are some striking parallels to chess, but that is about as far as it goes.”

(FYI, yes, every time the manual references itself in all caps as THE GAME.)

“During the last couple of world chess championship matches between two ranking world masters, it was quite obvious that chess had finally run its course. It took 32 games of play for one master to better the other. That will never happen with THE GAME. The complex nature and depth of THE GAME, make it close to impossible that any one person will ever be acclaimed master of THE GAME. If and when any such championship matches of THE GAME ever do take place, it will only take one game, to proclaim a master.” [punctuation is correct.]

“There is no way one can improve chess, but you can play something more challenging, more complex, and something far older, THE GAME.”

Okay, so THE MANUAL is claiming that THE GAME will never be drawn. It is also claiming that it is SO complex that “no one person will ever be acclaimed master” of it. Of course, no one person is a master of chess. There are several thousand masters of various levels. Given the politicking and the splinter groups in the world chess community one could even make the case that there isn’t just one world champion either, but that’s splitting hairs.

THE GAME sets up, surprise, very much like a standard chess game, with all of the players’ pieces (minus the aforementioned Home Stone) taking up the back two rows on either side. There are 9 distinct pieces, and almost all of them have distinct moving rules, they are:

The Ubar – The King, except it moves like a traditional chess queen, able to go any number of open spaces forward, backward, sideways, or diagonally. Since the object of the game is to capture the enemy’s Home Stone, and no longer directly involves the forced capture of the enemy monarch (really, how is a rock going to sue for peace?) this frees the King to be the most powerful piece in the army. Of course, while playing I would pretend that my King was Freddie Mercury, just so a Queen would still….oh, never mind.

The Ubara – the Queen. Moves just like her hubby, except she’s limited to a distance of 5 squares in any direction. The rules don’t explicitly say she has to stay three paces behind the Ular, but I think it’s implied.

The Tarnsman – The Knight analog, except that its range has increased from a 2×1 L-shape to a 3×2 L-shape.

The Initiate – The Bishop analog. Moves identically.

The Scribe – like the Initiate, but limited to 5 spaces range.

The Builder – The Rook analog.

The Spearmen – The Pawn analog, except for three things. There are only six per side (as opposed to eight in chess) they can move 1,2, or 3 moves on their first move (to account for the larger board), and … here’s the big one … they don’t promote when they reach the other side of the board. Otherwise, they move forward and capture diagonally forward, just like pawns.

The Riders of High Tharlarion – (Apparently, the flavor text surrounding this game is based on the Gor series of sci-fi novels from John Norman) Moves like the standard chess King, one unobstructed space in any direction.

The Assassin – Moves like a Ubar/Ubara/Rider except it has a range of 2 unobstructed spaces.

The Home Stone – Must be placed on an open space on its player’s back row sometime in the first 10 moves. This placement counts as a full turn. Once placed it can move one space in any direction, like a King or a Rider, but cannot capture other pieces.

The board is set up with Billy and Kate taking the traditional back row-center positions, flanked on either side by (in order from inboards to outboards) the Tarnsmen, Scribes, Builders, and Initiates. The middle six spaces on the second row are occupied by Spearmen, themselves flanked by Riders and Assassins. Just like chess play alternates from one player to the other with no passed moves permitted. Play continues until one player captures the other’s Home Stone, a player resigns, or a draw position is reached.

What? Draws aren’t possible? It says so in THE MANUAL?

I’ll admit that, with the increased number of pieces, draws may be less likely, but they are certainly possible. Removing the pawn … excuse me … Spearman … promoting mechanic means that they can probably be ignored once an endgame is reached, because the Home Stone itself can dodge them quite easily if left to its own devices.

Also dodged easily are the Tarnsmen, whose oversized Knight pattern makes them truly difficult to maneuver around a small space. In fact, in my playtesting I determined that (once the Home Stone had pulled off the extremely tricky maneuver of moving behind the enemy Spearmen) it was impossible for a lone Tarnsman to forcibly win a game – with sufficient skill, the Home Stone could always be kept out of a Tarnsman’s reach.

In fact, the drawing strategy was rather straightforward – trade off at least one color set (light squares or dark squares) of Initiate & Scribe, get Dedede and Amidala, the Riders, and the Assassins off the board, stay on the off-color of the remaining diagonal movers, walk around behind the Spearmen, and play keep away from the Tarnsmen until you can trade them off or you both get bored.

I said it was straightforward. I didn’t say it was easy.

Truth be told, drawing is quite difficult, not just from the sheer number of pieces, but from the sheer unfamiliarity that any new player would have with the dynamics. Chess has several hundred years of accumulated knowledge. Even then draws are rare among beginners. Taking a handful of playtesting games and pronouncing THE MANUAL’s claims true would be foolishness. If it’s still true in world championship games in the year 2511, then they may have basis for such a claim.

To be completely honest, I was somewhat insulted by these claims and some of the other language in THE MA….okay, I’ll stop … the manual. Not just what has already been quoted but other things. Referring to the Ubara as “The Ubar’s woman,” for example. (I feel I should point out that the Gor series is noted [by The Encyclopedia of Fantasy {via Wikipedia}] for, “extremely sexist, sadomasochistic pornography involving the ritual humiliation of women…” The Kansan in me would also like to point out here that John Norman is an alumnus of the University of Nebraska, and take that information however you’d like.) Also, this description of the Spearman’s movement and limitations:

“A Spearman cannot be redeemed for a lost higher piece by advancing him down to your opponent’s first rank. This limits his action and doesn’t create miracles that shouldn’t happen.”

Never mind that chess has no requirement that the piece a pawn is promoted to be one previously lost, or that this mechanic is an incentive to protect your side of the board .. you know … the side nearest the homeland you marched out to battle from. So I guess the lesson from Kaissa is that the plunder of your homeland is okay, so long as the Rock is safe.

Or this, regarding The Initiate:

“the Initiate of THE GAME, is a man wearing robes, his cap has a cross on its top. This man is a high priest, and not to be trusted.”

Now, I realize that I’m obviously bringing a … shall we say … competing worldview into the discussion that really has no place in a game review, but it should be noted that this is the only text, describing any of the game pieces, that makes any pronouncements about the character of said pieces. The Assassins don’t get any moralizing about their role … and they’re ASSASSINS.

All of this left a rather nasty first impression in my mouth, and I’m ashamed to say that it flavored my playtesting for quite a while. I looked for ways to force a draw, attempted to quantify the impotence of the Tarnsman, took undue pleasure in pushing Spearmen to the far rank … where coffee and donuts were waiting for them, apparently.

But a weird thing happened while I was doing this: I started to enjoy it.

I spent time using my working chess knowledge and the unorthodox placement of the bish….Initiates in the corners to work on an opening system that looked very much like some of the more orthodox hypermodern chess openings. I pondered where the power of the Spearmen reached it’s zenith … the fourth rank? Fifth? Seventh? Was there a way to keep the Rock corralled in front of the Spearmen? Can you predict its optimum defensive movements in a way similar to calculating chess endgames? Can you smell what the Rock is cooking?

At the end of all of it I asked my eight year-old son what he thought. He said, “It’s complicated, but fun.”

The increase in the number and type of pieces do make the game more complicated in a basic way, but then the change in the objective from checkmate to capturing simplifies it greatly in another way. Take it from somebody who has to explain what checkmate is to a new group of students every year.

The dynamic is decidedly different. In my limited playtesting, a direct, almost Zulu-like swarming approach never failed. The increase in pieces make this possible, but between two skilled players it would come down to which was most efficient, or maybe such an attack can be buffeted away with proper defense.

One of the most pleasant things about this game is, in fact, that nobody knows what ‘proper defense’ is. Chess has more books written about it than any other game in the world. Kaissa, to my knowledge, has none. It was somewhat exhilarating to think that it was very likely nobody knew how to handle any particular position I was in. If Kaissa takes off and knowledge starts accumulating, that will eventually change, but right now it really had the feeling of Wild West Chess. Developing totally new instincts for each phase of the game became a thrill for me. I’ve played precious little to this point, but I plan to use my review copy (thank you Port Kar) as a tactical instruction tool for my chess students, forcing them to look at something unfamiliar and cope with it.

To be fair, one can achieve many of the same things playing Fischer Random with an orthodox chess set, but even then the middlegame and endgame strategies eventually converge with normal chess. Kaissa may be nothing more than a chess variant, but it’s a fine chess variant. Whether you’re a chess player looking for a distraction that won’t rot your skills, or you’d like to learn chess but are overwhelmed by the established literature, or you just want to be contrarian with your brainy games, Kaissa is a fine option for you.

Just don’t believe everything that you read.

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