Monday, May 16, 2011

ZoxSo: The Origin of a Game

What does this have to do with that?

 I'd like to make one thing clear straight away:  I'm deMarcus, and I used to be a genuine "chessaholic."

Don't get me wrong, I still enjoy playing the game a great deal -- speed chess mostly, and fairly regularly -- but just casually.  I also enjoy the occasional chess analysis session with friends.

And I continue to spend considerable time and energy running my longtime chess business, which among other things demands my constant attention as to the design and manufacture of my line of ChessMate pocket and travel chess sets.

Those facts alone should no doubt convince you of a certain level of ongoing devotion that I have for the sport to this day.

However, neither Caissa nor the once irresistibly melodious songs of the chess sirens call to me in quite the overwhelming way that they used to.  And believe me, they certainly used to!

Frankly the change is a welcome relief these days; and to make a long-story-short:  I have "ZoxSo" in large part to thank for it.

ZoxSo: The New Ancient Game
For those of you who have never heard of ZoxSo, it's an abstract strategy board game that I published recently.  But I'm getting a little ahead of myself, so I'll have to backtrack a bit.  I guess that means you can forget about that "long-story-short thing" I said a moment ago.

Looks like this might take awhile.

Okay then, here goes:  As I've already indicated, I used to be a complete and total chess addict.  Although I had sort of learned the rules as a kid, I did not begin playing the game seriously, whatever that means, until quite late in life for a chess player at the ripe old age of sixteen.   The year was 1972, and as I'm sure you're aware there was an extravaganza of a world chess championship match going on in Reykjavik, Iceland at the time.

I became hooked immediately: bait, line, sinker, kitchen sink... kit and caboodle, the whole noodle;  And by that I mean my noodle, my noggin, my brain -- it only wanted to play chess.  Other than girls, the most important thing in the world to me was suddenly chess:  I ate it, I slept it, I drank it, I read it, I played it... boy did I play it:  obsessively, incessantly, literally constantly.

I remember one morning when my Mom came into my room and woke me up to go to school -- I was in high school at the time; and actually come to think about it, this isn't really something that I myself remember happening, 'cause it was my Mom who told me about it later that day -- when she called my name to wake me I apparently sat up in bed quickly, looked her right in the face and said loudly, "Pawn to King Four!" and laid right back down to sleep again.

Over the years I played a lot of chess... speed chess, tournament chess, casual off-hand games of chess, blindfold chess, simultaneous chess, etc., etc., etc.  And, if it was "chessic" in nature then it interested me.  I liked books about chess, stories about chess, chess art, chess openings, chess puzzles, chess boards, chess tables, chess sets, chess history, chess movies; chess, chess and more chess!

So, after plodding along in my actual chess improvement  (through four years of college, making art and getting my BFA degree in Studio Art; oh, did I forget to mention that I was an artist back then?), I eventually became a chess master, obtained a FIDE rating, played even more chess, but then in 1994 I finally gave up playing in organized chess competitions because I was no longer enjoying that aspect of the game.

But I remained an avid chess enthusiast and continued to play lots and lots of speed chess... I was nothing if not rabid about playing speed chess!

"What the heck," you might ask, "has all of this got to do with ZoxSo, anyway?"

Well, I'm glad you asked that, and I'll tell you... eventually I'll tell you:   For all of the years that I've been playing chess -- including way back early-on when I was so intense about it  -- I've always had the same exact feeling when sitting down to play a game.  Well, it was not so much  a feeling as it was a sense that something was missing from this, my very overwhelming obsession.

The only way that I can describe that sense, that feeling of lacking, is like this:

It would usually hit me whenever I would see the chess pieces set up in their starting positions for the umpteenth time at the beginning of a new game; a monotonous thought of "what, this same old position again?" would enter my mind, although only for an instant.  Then of course I would be off again playing, and oblivious once more, swept up as usual in the hypnotizing momentum of another "chessperience," as I like to call it.

I must point out that for me, the essential elements of chess that had captured my heart as an artist -- that had hooked me early on -- were the fantastic tactics and checkmates, the interactive dance of the pieces, and myriad other abstract patterns of play with which I could compose "on-the-fly" in my own games in a way that, in a chess context, would be amazingly beautiful and elegant.

Which of course they were, and are; and not just for me, but for anyone who has ever been that deep into the game.

Actually, what does that have to do with this?

As a matter of fact, for a very long time I was possessed of the notion -- and I assure you that I was not alone among chess players in this -- that if I could somehow distill theoretical truth from the often seemingly chaotic conditions on the chessboard, it would actually mean something in the overall scheme of things.  For me that goal was akin to pursuing truth in quantum physics, or to divining the true nature of existence.

Perhaps you think I'm joking but I'm absolutely not; and unless you've ever been completely and totally captivated by chess then this will probably make no sense to you whatsoever (it is only a game after all, isn't it?).  So if you're some kind of a "normal person," then you're just going to have to take my word for it.  

That dynamic among chess players, one of intense immersion combined with an incredibly powerful urge to compete -- along with the obsessively addictive lure of the game, of course -- truly is the secret of the wellspring that die-hard devotees gather around to drink from on a regular basis.  It is also the essence of the irresistible force that compels chess players to seek accomplishment in the sport, and to continuously engage in playing the game whenever and wherever the opportunity presents itself.

If you ever want to test me on this point, you just go and try to drag any two avid chess players away from even a single game, let alone an entire session in which they're "engulfed" at any given moment.  Yes, I said engulfed and I certainly do mean engulfed!  At any rate, if we suppose that you are somehow remotely successful in getting those players' attention -- and short of any issue as urgent as a fire or an earthquake or a tornado or flood, and even then your odds of dragging them away from the game is going to be no better than 50/50 -- once you have sort of gotten any kind of acknowledgment (probably just an oblivious, uh-huh, what...?), well then, no matter how much you yell and scream and dance around flailing, that game of chess is going to win the moment, I can guarantee you!

In retrospect, I suppose that fleeting feeling I've so often experienced as to the starting formation of the pieces on the board, is anchored in the fact that chess is essentially quite spartan; and that owing to the repetitive minutiae of opening play arising from the initial setup, one can easily fall into playing in "rut-like" fashion at the outset of any given game.

Of course, for serious competitors -- professionals especially -- the almost infinite subtleties of chess opening theory are the "coin-of-the-realm;" their bread and butter as it were.

For mere mortals however -- until that moment when the tactics begin to fly -- starting a game of chess can often be like relating the same story over and over and over again, to an audience that has heard it many times before, and with only the most subtle distinctions noticeable in the telling of it.

Really... the only game in town?

Now, if I could have my say as to how best to start a game of chess, I would much rather be able to begin by placing my King, Queen, Bishops, Rooks, Knights and Pawns in effective positions of my own choosing in alternating fashion one at a time, all the while paying attention to the particular placement of my opponent's pieces as he does the same.

In my humble opinion, such a construct would be vastly preferable to first lining up pieces in rigid order on opposite sides of the sixty-four square battlefield, and then being compelled to venture into the opponent's territory like some crazed maniac scout or risk incursion by the other player's forces.  In this scenario, one is forever condemned to making the best of the same illogical formation game after game; a setup I might add, that has clearly been modeled after obsolete methods of warfare.

But chess falls apart as a game when one tinkers with the starting setup, and that's just the way things are, thank you very much!

However in spite of all this, during the long years chess was for me, "the only game in town."

And then late in the year 2000, long after I had stopped playing chess competitively, I somehow got  the game creation bug, and began working on designing games; specifically, card games and board games.

My earliest forays into this arena were extremely ambitious: they were variations on a massive, multi-player, collectible card, collectible token, and collectible miniatures battle-game based on a grand mythology that I called, "Parchers: The Struggle Across Time."

That mythology is still being written by the way; so please don't ask me when it will be done, I couldn't tell you.  But Parchers, the game itself -- after undergoing many iterations, certain versions of which were not at all practical to play given the average lifespan of most human beings, and all of which remain, to this day, hidden in an archive vault located deep within my vast secret underground fortress -- well, it eventually became "the game that spins-off other games."

My game ChessHeads -- which I published in 2004 -- was one of these spin-off games, and was the first of my original games  to make it into the marketplace.  That game is based on a small sub-set of the Parchers mythology (another story that is yes, you guessed it, still in the works and far from completion) called: "ChessHeads: The Daggerkey of Katahnah."

The cards themselves have developed somewhat of a cult-following in the Pacific Northwest amongst scholastic chess players, but the ChessHeads brand has not yet proven the potential that I believe it has to be a mass market item. Accomplishing that will require a bit of tweaking.

The ChessHeads TCG
 As it was published, ChessHeads is a trading card game designed to be played along with a regular chess set, or with one of my specially designed ChessHeads play mats.  The trading cards allow one to do fantastic things on the board that would never be allowed in a normal game of chess.  It literally turns chess into a kind of fantasy miniatures game; but it also has an extremely high learning curve, a fact which makes the game itself a niche product; for the time being anyway.

 Now here's the beauty part.

"For god's sake deMarcus, will you please get to the point about ZoxSo already?"

Yes I was getting to that, and here it is:  A key element of the ZoxSo game board has its roots in the ChessHeads play mat.  On that playing surface the borders of all of the chessboard squares have been widened into canals, with small jewel-like component images placed at all of the intersecting corners of those squares.

The ChessHeads play mat
In ChessHeads those jewels are called the "intersections," and are used for only two purposes:

1) For placing game stones to mark off quadrant areas for certain card effects; and,

2) For use with a particular card effect whereby a Bishop may leave the normal board grid and enter the grid of "canals," traveling along the edges of the squares and out of harm's way until later entering the normal board again, often with powerful effect.

That idea of overlapping squares and canals suggested to me the idea of pieces simultaneously navigating two separate "universes," each defined by different rules of movement, and with the pieces having the ability to travel across the dimensional boundary at will and behave in each universe according to those rules.

And although that concept was not developed to my satisfaction with ChessHeads, the idea continued to intrigue me during the time I began work on ZoxSo in 2005, and as I published it following several years of intense development and play-testing, and to this day as well.

The New Ancient Game...

To sum up ZoxSo:  It is a two-player abstract strategy game in which the decision matrices are  almost mind-numbingly deep, the play patterns -- as well as the pace -- are quick and exciting, and there so far appear to be no theoretical draws.  In addition, creative and effective decision-making as to where one's pieces begin the game is a key factor for success or failure in ZoxSo.

ZoxSo pieces and partial board view

Here's a free ZoxSo rules PDF from my site.

Although my reasons for beginning this project were many, and aside from endeavoring to make sure the resulting game would be easy to learn as well as fun and exciting for people to play, the primary goals I had in mind during the development of ZoxSo were four-fold:

1) To virtually eliminate non-decisive outcomes, since draws can be quite problematic when it comes to organizing, running, and funding competitive game events;

2) To considerably shorten the length of the playing time as compared with other "abstract passions" such as Chess, Go, Shogi, Xiangqi and others, all the while offering no less options than those games in terms of strategic and tactical richness and depth of play;

3) To make it possible for a player to still win the game even though he might have no other piece than his monarch still remaining on the board;

4) Finally, to offer truly meaningful and creative choices as to where the players' pieces become situated during the beginning of the game.

I am calling ZoxSo, "The New Ancient Game," in part because the board and piece aesthetics have a bit of an "ancient" look and feel to them.  Primarily however, this subtitle for the game suggested itself because I originally conceived of ZoxSo as a kind of evolution from a number of other games that have been played throughout the world over many centuries.

In ZoxSo, the game mechanics themselves borrow from a couple of familiar play patterns, while also adding a healthy complement of original and innovative elements into the mix.

And so now, ZoxSo has captured my imagination:  However, it has done so in a more satisfyingly cerebral and less obsessive way than chess has for so many years.

On a side note:  We are always interested in hearing about players' ideas and experiences related to ZoxSo, as-well-as encouraging and supporting ZoxSo play and events.  If you are interested in forming your own ZoxSo game group, club, running your own ZoxSo tournament or event, or simply getting together with other ZoxSo players, please feel free to contact us by emailing us at: Mindspan Labs.

FYI:  We here at Mindspan Labs are working towards developing a player-base with an eye on organized play; and a ZoxSo app is in the works too; although that will take a bit of time to complete.

 Currently ZoxSo is available online and at a few local game stores in the Pacific Northwest, or rather in the Seattle area, and will hopefully be available from several of the US Hobby Game industry distributors soon for your favorite local game store to acquire.

Please check out "ZoxSo, The New Ancient Game" on at:

Thank you for joining us.

Until next time...

-- deMarcus

1 comment:

  1. Hey David, best ever first post on blogspot! You became a pro in a day. Really like the pictures and the transition from chess to ZoxSo. Will try to learn ZoxSo this year when not wasting sunny days trying to reach 1900 USCF.