Takeover Tuesday: The transformation of the chess set

How different cultures impacted the design of the world’s most iconic board game.

Takeover Tuesday

Today marks our first Takeover Tuesday - on the third Tuesday of every month, we’ll be handing over our blog to a member of our team, giving them the opportunity to write about a topic or area they are passionate about. Our first blog in this series has been written by Owen Silcox, one of our graphic designers who loves all things chess.

"Chess is a beautiful game with a fascinating history. I wanted to write the article so I could dig further into the origins of my favourite hobby myself and hopefully inspire one or two people to give it a try now they know a bit more about the game’s cultural history. My friends will tell you how often I manage to drag chess into conversations, so this is just the natural extension of that really. The blog is a very brief summary of the origins of chess and how the game itself as well as the design of the sets has changed as it has been influenced by various cultures. Writing the blog was great fun, after the initial panic of realising I haven’t properly written anything since university. I enjoyed researching everything and learned so much just from fact-checking and following a few rabbit holes online. I’m looking forward to writing more blogs like this in the future." - Owen Silcox

How different cultures impacted the design of the world’s most iconic board game

Chess is recognised as the most popular board game in the world, and its pieces have become iconic symbols in their own right. But chess sets haven’t always been the same. The names and forms of the pieces, the materials, colours and even the rules of the game themselves have shifted and adapted as the game has propagated across the globe. Chess is a fascinating example of how design and culture are always inherently intertwined. This article will explore the journey of the design of the chess set and the development of the game itself, from its origins in India, where elephants leapt across the board, to the game we know today, where the powerful queen dominates.  

Openings

The exact origins of the game are often disputed, but it is commonly agreed that chess originated from India in around 500 A.D. It was supposedly created when a prince was killed in battle, and his brother used an 8x8 board and distinct pieces to explain the unfortunate event to his mother. The game at this point was known as chaturanga. The sets were usually made of ivory, and the pieces consisted of:

  • The king, the most important piece, who’s fate decides the game. This piece is the same in the modern version.
  • The minister, also known as the counsellor or vizier, which would be the queen in the modern game. The minister is much less powerful than the modern queen.
  • The chariot, which would be the rook, or castle, in today’s game.
  • The horse, which we now call the knight.
  • The elephant, which would now be the bishop.
  • The foot soldier, which would be the pawn in modern chess.
One of the earliest extant examples of a chess set in the world
One of the earliest extant examples of a chess set in the world


Early Developments

Chaturanga spread to Persia, which is where the name “chess” was acquired. The word comes from the word “shah”, which means king. After the Islamic conquest of Persia, the game was introduced to the Muslim world. In Islamic culture, producing figures or art that represents living beings is seen as promoting the worship of idols and is prohibited. This heavily impacted the designs of the pieces in chess, as the forms had to be made abstract. This resulted in elegant, curved pieces, often made from bone. Echoes of these subtly designed forms are still seen in modern chess sets today.

Islamic style chess set
Islamic style chess set

When chess spread to China, it took on a form that is vastly different to the modern game. The Chinese placed the often metal or porcelain pieces on the intersections of the lines of the board, rather than inside the squares. This is most likely due to the popularity of another, much older board game, go. This created the game Xiangqi, also known as Chinese chess.

Chinese chess, or Xiangqi
Chinese chess, or Xiangqi

Making Moves in Europe

It was when chess reached Europe via Spain that the rules of chess evolved to resemble the modern game. It was around this time that one of the weakest pieces on the board, the minister, or the advisor, was replaced with the queen. It is said that the induction of the queen was inspired by the rise in strong female leaders across Europe at this time. The introduction of the queen and castling (a move where the king swaps places with a rook to get to a safer position) increased the pace of gameplay, and with it, the game’s popularity.

A historic chess piece
A historic chess piece

The queen wasn’t the only piece impacted by European culture. Europeans were not familiar with elephants, and the stylised animal’s tusks are thought to have resembled a bishop’s outfit, so, disappointingly, the design was reinterpreted. The rook also changed its design for a similar reason. The unfamiliar form of the chariot was replaced with a warrior known as a berserker, sometimes shown to be biting a shield in ferocity. However, the rook was to take on another transformation, this time to resemble a castle. One possible explanation for this was that the castle design was developed in Italy, as the Italian word for fortress is “rocca”, which sounds similar to the original name of the piece.

Development of chess pieces
Development of chess pieces

The Endgame, for Now

As chess gained popularity, more and more designs sprang up, with the trend heading towards more elaborate sets. Some of these sets were designed with such a focus on aesthetics that they were awkward to play with as pieces would often fall over or different pieces would become difficult to distinguish. The Staunton chess set was created in 1849 in response to these issues. It was the first set that was regarded as a standard model, with the pieces designed to be recognisable to players from any cultural background. The Staunton chess set has many variations is still used in official competitions today throughout the world.

Original Staunton chess set
Original Staunton chess set

Online chess has experienced a massive surge in popularity in recent years. With the influx of new chess players who decided to take up the game during the pandemic and the release of the ridiculously stylish Netflix series The Queen’s Gambit, chess suddenly became cool(er). Other variants of chess with tweaked rules are commonly played online, which is perhaps the beginning of the next big shift in the game. Will players in hundreds of years look back at our current version of chess as just a steppingstone to their more advanced game?

The Queen's Gambit, Netflix
The Queen's Gambit, Netflix

In terms of design, the 2D symbols representing the pieces usually prioritise simplicity and clarity, however some websites also add in dynamic animations, adding an exciting new visual element never seen before. Virtual reality has begun enable players to compete online in a more immersive way than ever. Garry Kasparov stated that “chess is a game of unlimited beauty”. With improvements in technology and the culture around the game constantly shifting, chess set design definitely has plenty more beauty to offer us going into the future.

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