I enjoy playing chess. This classic head-to-head is a game I played (and lost) a lot in years gone by. I have played it with my husband in more recent years and find it still stacks up well in the current market. Sometimes though, I want to play a shorter or (dare I say) prettier or even just a different strategic game. This list sets out the games I turn to when I want the strategic thought of chess. However, I just don’t want to play chess.
In today’s classifications, chess is an abstract strategy game. This means a game with very little or no theme where the focus is on the mechanics of a game. These mechanics are often very straightforward with little or no luck or chance. The focus is on one player outmanoeuvring the other player or players to win the game.
Whilst today there are abstract strategy games for more players, the games on this list are ones that are either solely for two players or are best played with two players.
So if you like the head-to-head, strategic nature of chess, I think you will really enjoy these four games.
Onitama is probably the most chess-like game on this list. In Onitama, there is a central board and pieces which can be moved, but only in certain ways. So far so chess-like.
Unlike in chess though, the moves which can be made are not determined by the pieces which you are moving. Instead, each player has two cards dealt face up at the start of the game. With a fifth card placed face up between the players. The cards determine how the pieces can move, with any card able to be used on any piece. Each card has several options on, with both forward and backward movement possible. The card shows a black space for where the piece starts and then several coloured squares, each coloured square shows a place the piece could move to.
Each player has five pieces, a Master and four Students. The aim of the game is either to capture the opponent’s Master or to get your Master to the starting square of the opponent’s Master.
Master Your Feelings
On their turn, players choose a piece to move and then move it to one of the squares highlighted on one of their cards. They then take the card they have used and place it at the side of the board and take the fifth card into their hand. This means that the cards rotate between the players throughout the course of the game. Players have to be careful when using a move as their opponent will then gain the card.
Onitama is a short game, playable in about 15 minutes, but with all the strategic depth of chess. This is a game which rewards players thinking ahead. There is no hidden information, players always know which moves their opponent can make and which card they will receive next. As in chess, this is a head-to-head with players having to make the most of their moves to win.
Hive could be described as chess without a board. There are five different types of hexagonal piece, each of which moves in a unique way.
Ant (blue) - can move any number of spaces in any direction.
Grasshopper (green) - can jump over pieces in a straight line, landing in the first available space in that line.
Spider (brown) - moves three spaces in any direction
Beetle (purple) - can move one space in any direction including on top of other pieces.
Queen Bee (yellow) - can move one space in any direction but cannot move on top of other pieces.
However, whilst there are a variety of moves pieces can make, they can never move in such a way they are no longer connected to the Hive - the interconnected grid of pieces on the table. The aim of the game is to capture your opponent’s Queen Bee, by surrounding it with pieces. These pieces can be either your own or your opponents, and often it is a combination of both.
On a turn, a player can either play a piece into the Hive or, if they have placed their Queen Bee, they can move an already placed piece. The first few turns are made up of players placing pieces to build the Hive. The Queen Bee must be played within the first four turns of the game. With the exception the first turn, players must place new pieces so they are only touching tiles of the player’s colour.
Hive is great when you want a portable version of chess, as the pieces all come with a little travel bag. You do not need a board, only a flat surface and the pieces and you can begin to play.
The game play is like chess with quick changes between offensive and defensive strategy. There is also a build-up of strategic elements, like in chess, as more pieces are placed and can then be moved.
In Santorini, players are attempting to build structures and move their builder to the third floor of a structure in order to win. Whilst Santorini can be played with more than two players, I have included it on my list as this game really sings with two players.
The players each start with two builders which are then placed around the edge of the board. Each turn, the player selects a builder to move and then build. The builder can move or build in any of the eight spaces next to them. A builder can move up one floor on their turn (if they are next to it) but they cannot move anymore. However, builders can build on any floor.
Players can cap off the third floor of a building (if they are next to it on their turn) in order to prevent a builder from reaching this floor. This leads to an intriguing strategic battle, as players are not only competing to build up to the third floor for themselves, they are also trying to cap off buildings to stop the other player. Players also have to decide whether to keep their builders close together and focus on building in one place, or whether to split them up so their opponent has to consider more of the board.
Cap it Off
The game looks good and is very tactile too, with pleasingly chunky building pieces to place each turn. The main building pieces are white with blue roofs, which look very clean and in keeping with the theme.
There is an expansion which comes with the game. This gives the players a special power each to use. If you want a game closer to chess, you should just play with the base game.
Santorini is interesting because it is a 3D abstract strategy game where you have the element of height as well as the basic moves. However, at its heart it has the same push and pull of strategy as chess. The game play is clever, yet simple enough to be easily learnt. Like in chess, you are always thinking about your own strategy but with a very careful eye on what your opponent is doing.
Patchwork is a game in which players are trying to make a patchwork quilt to cover their board. At the start of the game, the different coloured and shaped pieces are spread around the central board and players can start putting together their patchwork. But they can only choose from the three pieces immediately in front of the wooden marker, which can lead to difficult choices.
Each piece of patchwork costs buttons (money) and time and you must pay both of these costs to obtain the piece. Players start the game with five buttons and they can earn more at various points on the central time track. When players take a piece they have to move their marker along the time track the number of spaces indicated on that piece. If they move their piece over a button icon then they can count the number of buttons on their patchwork piece to date and take that many buttons.
However, sometimes players will not have enough buttons to take the pieces in front of them. In that case, they simply have to move their piece along the track until they pass the piece of the other player. They can then take buttons equal to the number of spaces they have moved plus any buttons they earn from passing over button icons.
Players also need to remember that turns do not alternate in Patchwork. It is always the player whose piece is behind on the time track who takes a turn. This means players can sometimes have two or three goes in a row if they choose low time cost pieces.
Of course, all good things must come to an end and there is only a finite amount of time on the time track for players to make their Patchwork. When both players have reached the end of the time track they add up the number of buttons they have, and subtract two buttons for each unfilled space on their board. The player with the most buttons wins.
You may be wondering what a Patchwork has to do with the game of chess. However, there are a lot of strategic decisions wrapped up in this pretty package. Do you go for the high cost item which covers more spaces on your board, but will give your opponent two turns in a row? Or do you take the low value object to take you just past the button icon so you can gather money for the next turn? You also often need to think a couple of turns ahead towards the end of the game, to look at what pieces you may end up with and consider where they will fit.
So next time you think about breaking out your chessboard, you might want to try one of these instead.
Editors note: This blog was originally published on 20/06/2020. Updated on 20/07/2021 to improve the information available.