I write for The Games Shop, a game retailer in Australia, and on their behalf I got to play ZoxSo at PAX this past August. I was impressed by how cleanly David Weinstock has trimmed down a few of the aspects inherent in chess and added some twists of his own, and I see good things in the future of this game.
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Variations on chess have a robust heritage, from the classic Chinese Chess (Xiangqi) that plays out like the battle of Minas Tirith* to the was-never-supposed-to-be-real 3D chess from Star Trek. But despite countless modifications to add more players, create infinitely looping boards, or add Slurk (that’s a thing.) there are a few constants in the genre, and one in particular I’d like to mention. Most chess variants still require you to capture the opposing king, which inevitably boils each new game down to the same precepts as the classic version.
When I sat down to play ZoxSo I was expecting to follow these precepts, these traditions of defence, assault, and riposte. But then the fellow who was teaching me the game at PAX told me that I could also win by advancing my king to the centre of the board. Sounds simple, doesn’t it? Well it was simple enough to get me trounced on my first play. The addition of that extra victory condition changes the feel of ZoxSo entirely; instead of securing my defences and probing the enemy line as I would in chess, I found myself forming expeditionary forces to escort my precious monarch to his goal. Although ZoxSo was created as a chess variant, I wouldn’t call it chess anymore. It’s just ZoxSo now.
Created in the basement of chess enthusiast David Weinstock, ZoxSo differs from its source material in many other ways. For one thing, players are equipped with only knights, rooks, and a king, respectively known as Ma (horses), Dao (daggers), and the Xing (dragon crown.) All of the pieces move as expected with one unique exception. Each piece can flip over. ZoxSo has two boards, really – one of stone and one of pearls, and while the pieces can move in their typical fashion over stone, when they flip diagonally into the pearly depths they are all reduced to a tentative crawl of one space per turn. Pieces can move immediately after flipping as well, so while playing my mind was filled with images of legendary wushu masters bounding to the tops of rocky crags to immediately cartwheel into vicious assaults on each other. Indeed, high level ZoxSo play is quite a bit like a good kung fu movie, full of combos, counter-attacks, and dodges. Finally, players can overcome their sluggish movement over the pearly road by executing long jumps by lining up their pieces and flinging them over each other. When combined, all this flipping and bounding means that even though this is a game of absolute information with no hand of cards or random dice rolls, you can still be completely surprised by tricky manoeuvring.
With all this talk of knives and horses, mountainous peaks and kung fu adventure, you get a sense that ZoxSo isn’t the most abstract of abstract strategy games. Admittedly the kung fu part is all me, but there is a certain element of flair to the game. With the fantasy art style and coloured board of ZoxSo, Weinstock takes a gamble in potentially isolating the purist crowd of strategy enthusiasts who want nothing more than checkerboards and totemic wooden pieces. The shape of ZoxSo’s pieces are restricted by their need to flip over though, so the glitzy sword-and-sorcery token design actually does a nice job of making what is effectively a poker chip seem both unique and visually compelling.
David Weinstock has been marketing ZoxSo since 2009, attending shows and conventions while hand-crafting the pieces in his workshop. But while ZoxSo is still a thoroughly independent game, its popularity has been growing. Earlier this year, the Dragonflight convention in Bellevue, WA hosted the ZoxSo Open World Championship Tournament. The grand prize? $250 and one of the nicest trophies you’ll ever get for winning a board game tournament. The winner? A man Weinstock taught the rules to a day before the tournament. To me, this illustrates one of the finest points of ZoxSo. It’s a game that can be picked up easily and played with an intuitive strategy that allows even the most inexperienced player to perform as well as their wits will allow them to. Weinstock markets his game as “The New Ancient Game,” and ZoxSo has a feel that certainly ranks it among the classic paragons of abstract strategy.
(*) That was an elephant joke. There are elephants in Chinese Chess.