Monday, May 7, 2018

"Queen to Queen's Level Two, Mr. Spock."

As a young geek in the '70s and '80s, I desired a handful of impossible things: a robot, a Star Trek communicator, a laser, a computer, my own Millennium Falcon, and a flying car. Today I now possess, in some form, all but one of these treasures: I have a Roomba robot, an iPhone, several lasers (pointers, leveler, etc.), multiple computers, a Millennium Falcon drone (okay, somethings you have to settle on, but still way cool), but alas, not yet the flying car. One object, however, was also a desire of my youth, and was in fact available back then: A three-dimensional chess set from Star Trek!1
The object of my geek desire.

Alas for my young self, though available, the three dimensional chess set was a replica model built by the Franklin Mint (of overpriced collectible plate fame), with gilded pieces and components, and whopping out at way over $200 (back when $100 was closer to $300 in today's dollars). That was too much moolah for a young teen, paper route or no paper route. Plus, I had other things to pay for that seemed of more value (like D&D books, Atari video cartridges, and pizza). So I passed on the gilded glory of that replica set, and played old-fashioned two dimensional chess, like Khan stuck on Ceti Alpha V (or is that VI?).

Warp forward several decades (and several Treks), and I find myself now with a little more ready cash. I also knew that the Franklin Mint was still selling replica sets, so I figured surely the price had dropped (if not for new, at least for used) and maybe I could get one of these beauties, just like Kirk and Spock used to play.

"Computer: Locate a Star Trek three-dimensional chess set," I cried. When the computer ignored me, and the Roomba simply continued to vacuum the floor, I broke down and typed the request into Google.2

When I saw the prices revealed by Google, however, I learned that the value of these things had increased like the warp speed numbers from TOS to TNG. $300 a pop, new or used?!? Who were selling these things, Harry Mudd? I was also astute enough to notice that the sets in question were not actually true replicas of the set from the series, but overly gussied-up "inspired by" designs. Some, still exorbitantly priced, were actually based on a design in The Next Generation series (appreciated, but hardly a nostalgia source). A perusal of reviews indicated that the sets were small, and actually not very well constructed ("flimsy" was one of the reviewer's words).
Yep, sounds like quality Mudd merchandise after all.

On the other hand, I mused, how hard could it be to just build my own? All I needed were some clear flat surfaces and a support structure of some sort.

I began to design. My goal was to create something easy for me to cut (as I told a friend, "I'm no fabricator”), and fashioned out of as many found objects as possible— a "penny project," or at least as close to $20 or less as I could manage.

A lot of math, some failed designs (and a realization that I hadn't needed to do all that math) and a few minor injuries3 later... And voila:
It lives! It lives! MUAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA!


A pine shelf board, left over from an old home project (free!)
Three 5"x5" clear acrylic lids from old square craft containers (had 'em, so free!)
Four 2.5"x2.5" clear plexiglass-style plastic squares from a DYI/hardware store ($3.49)
Four 2.5" hex bolts with hex nuts ($1.20)
Four magnetic "push pins" ($5.99 for 10)
Four small "rare earth" disc magnets (had 'em, so free!)
Transparent inkjet label "paper" ($6.00 for pack of 8 sheets; used 2)
A set of small plastic chess pieces from a dollar store ($1. Duh.)
Mounting putty ($1.89 for 2 oz.; used 1 oz.)
Carpenter's glue (had)
"Super" glue (had)
Paint (had)


Computer (for design and printing)
Power sander (also did a little hand sanding)

Total cash cost to me: $19.59

Eat your heart out, Franklin Mint/Harry Mudd!

What I used the materials for:

Wood: Support and base (cut with a jigsaw)
Acrylic container lids: Three "main boards" attached to support.
Clear plastic squares: Four small, movable "warp boards.”4
Hex bolts and nuts: Posts for warp boards.
Disc magnets: Attach to bottom of warp board posts.
Push pin magnets: Used to hold warp boards to main boards.
Transparent label paper: Chessboard pattern printed on, then applied to clear boards.
Mounting putty: Add weight to chess pieces, provide light tack effect to hold pieces in place.

To answer questions:

The "Cantilever E" design is entirely mine. It allows for a simple build, with no need to drill the plastic, and leaves the playing area uniquely open. Nothing interferes with the line of movement of the pieces or the placement of the moveable "warp boards."

I designed my chess board pattern on my computer (with vertical "sighting marks" for the overlapping ranks), and simply printed it on the labels with my inkjet printer. Easier, cleaner, and much better looking than any hand painting attempt I could have made!

The mounting putty is highly recommended. It has just enough tack to hold the chess pieces to the plastic boards. When someone inevitably bumps the table, I don't get an avalanche of pawns!

The hex bolts are superglued to the chess pattern labels stuck to the underside of the warp boards. I glued the bolt heads to the labels and not the plastic because "super" glue will cloud acrylic, but not the label plastic.

The hex nuts are an attempt to level out the small magnets attached to the bottom of the hex bolts. It turns out that bolt bottoms are not square, but slightly slanted. The nuts help; it's not perfect, but it's close enough.

The magnets are not glued to anything; they're magnets! They are strong enough to grip each other through the hard acrylic, and even hold a full warp board upside down. (If you try this, don't bother with ceramic magnets or magnetic tape: they're much too weak. Use "rare earth" aka "neodymium" magnets. I was lucky to have some on hand.)

The push pins contain rare earth magnets in the base. The plastic heads are easy to grip and remove with one hand, making the warp boards quite simple to move and reattach. The magnets also mean there won't ever be a problem with any plastic prongs or post holes wearing out with use (a potential flaw of the commercial sets). Two minor drawbacks are that the magnets allow the posts to turn if nudged, and a severe jarring motion or bump of the set might cause the posts to fall off altogether. But any turning is easily correctable, and it takes a pretty egregious jolt to knock the posts off; a little care during play should prevent this.

The Rules:

As it turns out, there are truly no "official" rules for Star Trek-style three dimensional chess. The original set was simply a futuristic prop created by art director Walter Jeffries. The actors merely placed and moved the pieces as stage action, with little specific direction, trusting the unusual design to hide the fact they weren't actually following any set of rules.5

Rules can be found all over the web. The most famous are Andrew Bartmeiss's "Federation Standard" rules, which he sells commercially, and on which the Franklin Mint rules are reportedly based. Second are Jen Meder's "Tournament Rules for Three Dimensional Chess." The two systems are quite different; Meder's is simpler, but assumes that pieces block movement through squares directly above or below— one can move a piece to the square, but not past it. It also allows for "virtual squares" that are assumed to occupy the empty gaps between the warp boards. Bartmeiss follows a much stricter movement rule; as I haven't purchased his rules, I can only go from reports and second-hand rewrites, which indicate that his three dimensional movement is highly restricted from level to level. Other rules variants exist as well.

So, given the above, I simply created my own!

I decided that I wanted a free-form, fully three-dimensional game, with a strong intuitive feel, while still very much being chess. So my rules both restrict the pieces to following the physically existing paths on the board, but also allow pieces to move over and under each other (and across levels) quite freely— it’s supposed to be an abstracted, three dimensional space combat game played by Starfleet officers, after all!

I call my rules StarChess, and here they are (PDF file): StarChess Rules by Howard Shirley More Complete StarChess Rules (but without diagrams)
My initial placement rules are based on the layout suggested by Joseph Franz in his classic Star Trek: Starfleet Technical Manual. I think this layout reflects the nature of chess, as it allows the Knights to jump the pawn line, just as in classic chess, and it also allows for a reasonable implementation of the castling move. Other starting positions must necessarily restrict one or the other, if not both.


Thanks are due to Lon Maxwell for helpful advice as well as his offer to help build a larger version (which we will do). Also thanks to to Jen Meder and Andrew Bartmeiss for rules inspiration, to Joseph Franz for revealing that yes, this could be a DIY project, and of course to Walter M. Jeffries, Gene Roddenberry, and the cast and crew of Star Trek for creating a fascinating future.

Live long, and prosper!

Oh, and "Checkmate, Mr. Spock."

Parzival out.


1.)  Back before there was any such designation as "The Original Series," because no one had even thought of anything more.

2.) I suppose I could have asked Siri, but she would have just started giving me directions that for some reason YOU CAN'T TURN OFF UNTIL THE FRICKIN' PHONE BATTERY DIES. And the directions would have been to "Starred Wreck 3 Diamond All Chestnut Street."
So basically, we're still working on the Enterprise computer. Unless this is an episode where it's been hacked.

3.) I originally attempted to cut my own plastic using a box cutter blade to score the plastic and then a sharp downward push to snap the plastic. Hey, it's what Bob Vila recommended. What I got was shattered plastic, a punctured hand, and a directive from She Who Must Be Obeyed that I am forbidden to ever cut plastic again. So I had the store do it for me.

4.) Others refer to these as "attack boards," though as far as I can tell they attack nothing and aren't specifically used for attack, except incidentally. They do, however, change the shape of the game board drastically, and add more levels. Plus, they can carry a piece to new positions beyond the piece's capability to reach. Since these movable mini-levels, in effect, warp the game space, I call them "warp boards." I think that's thoroughly logical and decidedly clever. And of course, you agree.

5.) If you watch the show carefully, you will quickly see that the movements and placements of pieces in the "game" bear little resemblance to chess of any kind, and often make no logical sense. Leonard Nimoy's Spock is ironically the worst at simulating chess game play; he simply picks and places pieces without regard to their long established movement patterns, and declares "check" when nothing is threatening the opposing king by any reasonable stretch. Shatner, on the other hand, does attempt to move the pieces in a chess-like manner, and even creates a plausible "checkmate" position in his scenes.

1 comment:

  1. I had forgotten to include a link to a more detailed explanation of the rules, covering such things as pawn promotion, castling, etc.. You can learn the game easily with just the original diagram set, but hopefully the "More Complete" link will clarify any questions. There aren't any diagrams, but they're still just 2 pages!

    A note on the rules: Yes, you may download and print a copy for your personal use. However, I retain all rights. If you wish to share the rules with others, please do so by providing a link to this blog post, not the rules themselves. THESE RULES ARE FREE AND NO ONE MAY CHARGE FOR THEM WITHOUT MY EXPRESS WRITTEN PERMISSION.

    Also, I claim no rights to Star Trek, etc., etc., or the original prop design or similar derived designs. However, my "cantilever E" chess set design is unique to me, and thus both original to me and ©2018 by Howard Shirley. All rights reserved. "StarChess" is also my unique term and ©2018 by Howard Shirley.

    Other than that, please do share this blog, and let me know what you think of the rules I have offered. I think they are quite robust, challenging, and a darn good game of 3D chess. Do you agree?