The Chess Variant Pages

Check out Marseillais Chess, our featured variant for February, 2024.


Ultima was created by veteran game designer Robert Abbott and published under the title of ? ? ? in Recreational Mathematics Magazine in August 1962. Since it did not yet have a name, the magazine sponsored a contest for naming it, and 'Baroque' was the name selected. But when Abbott later included the game in his 1963 book Abbott's New Card Games, the publisher chose to use the name 'Ultima'. In his 1968 paperback edition, he made a single change to the rules, which limited the number of squares a piece could move: A piece on the Nth rank could move no more than N squares. This rule change did not prove popular, though.

Ultima soon became popular in chess-variant circles and was said to be played even in the Kriegspiel fashion. It was most popular with the postal-chess club NOST (Knights of the Square Table) and its Italian cousin AISE. Both NOST and AISE used the original 1963 rules, which are now considered the norm. Between 1985 and '87, a three-part article on Ultima, written by the leading NOST player, Dr. Paul Yearout, appeared in World Game Review. Robert Abbott later contributed an article in '88, explaining what he considered to be wrong with the game. Yearout and other leading players, however, do not share Abbott's critical views. Both NOST-Algia (NOST's bimonthly bulletin) and Eteroscacco (AISE's newsletter) have published many sample games of Ultima. However, most NOST and AISE records are not available online, because these organizations mostly predated the internet and involved an older generation of players.

In 1998, the Zillions-of-Games program came out, and it included Ultima as one of the games you could play with it right out-of-the-box. Around 2004, Antoine Fourrière programmed Ultima for Game Courier, and in 2023, Fergus Duniho wrote new backwards-compatible code to replace his code. As an online platform, Game Courier has several records of Ultima games available online.


Although most of the pieces in Ultima are different than those found in Chess, it was originally designed to be played with a Chess set. This chart tells what the pieces are and which Chess piece is used to represent each one:

Ultima with Chess pieces
Ultima with Abstract pieces designed for it.

With computer graphics, though, we have not been limited to using the Chess pieces. You may use the buttons above this Interactive Diagram to switch to different piece sets that have been designed or put together with Ultima in mind.

While Interactive Diagrams usually provide useful movement diagrams for pieces, its diagrams are not as useful for pieces that are distinguished mainly by how they capture. However, you will find useful movement diagrams in the Pieces section below, and you can use the Interactive Diagram to play the game.

satellite=ultima files=8 ranks=8 promoZone=0 maxPromote=0 stalemate=win graphicsDir=/graphics.dir/alfaeriePNG/ squareSize=50 graphicsType=png lightShade=#DDDDD0 darkShade=#559933 symmetry=rotate borders=0 firstRank=1 useMarkers=1 newClick=1 trackPieces=6 spell=freeze PincerPawn::mR:pawn:a2-h2 Withdrawer::mocabyafmKdaubyafmK:queen:e1 LongLeaper::mQ(cyafyaf)2cafmQ:knight:b1,g1 Coordinator::mQ:rook:h1 Chameleon:X:mQkK(cyafyaf)2cafmQ:bishop:c1,f1 Immobilizer::mQ:rookinv:a1 King::K:king:d1 royal=7 enableAI=2

King d1; Withdrawer (Queen) e1; Coordinator (Rook) h1; Immobilizer (Inverted rook) a1; Long Leaper (Knight) b1, g1; Chameleon (Bishop) c1, f1; Pawn a2, b2, c2, d2, e2, f2, g2, h2.

King d8; Withdrawer (Queen) e8; Coordinator (Rook) h8; Immobilizer (Inverted rook) a8; Long Leaper (Knight) b8, g8; Chameleon (Bishop) c8, f8; Pawn a7, b7, c7, d7, e7, f7, g7, h7.

The Ultima array differs from the Orthodox array in the following ways:

Whites pieces are, from left to right: Immobilizer, Long Leaper, Chameleon, King, Withdrawer, Chameleon, Long Leaper, Coordinator.


Since most of the pieces in this game capture by means other than displacement, a single diagram may not be enough to indicate how each piece moves and captures. With this in mind, we have a page featuring Animated Ultima Diagrams. But since animated diagrams can be distracting and will be useless in a printed copy of this page, this page will use static diagrams. These diagrams will use the Abstract pieces, which are designed to be distinctive and to represent the powers of the pieces. In case you're unfamiliar with these pieces, a description of each image is provided, as well as a reminder of which Chess piece to use when playing with a Chess set.


The King is the same as it is in Chess.
The Abstract piece shows a semicircle divided by a cross.

The King may move one space in any direction but not into check. Unlike other pieces, it captures by displacement. There is no castling in this game, and unlike other pieces, an immobilized King may not commit suicide, though a player with one may choose to resign instead. When an enemy piece is immobilized by an Immobilizer (described below), it does not threaten the King, and the King may safely move to a space it would otherwise be threatened on. So, when the enemy King is immobilized, a King may even move adjacent to it to check it.


The Queen may be used for the Withdrawer.
The Abstract piece shows some kind of prey animal in flight.

The Withdrawer moves as a Queen without capturing by displacement. So, it can never move to an occupied space. It may capture any adjacent enemy piece by moving directly away from it. So, it captures only one piece at a time.


This diagram shows the legal moves for the Withdrawer on d2. It may capture the Long Leaper on c2, the Chameleon on d1, or the Coordinator on e1. It cannot capture the King or the Pawn.


After moving to g2, the Withdrawer has captured the Long Leaper on c2, because that is the piece it moved directly away from.


A Rook may be used for the Coordinator.
The Abstract piece shows a grid of four squares with two inward arrows and two outward arrows. The two arrows pointing toward each other represent the coordination between the King and the Coordinator. The two outward arrows represent the capture of pieces in the corners of the rectangle formed by the King and Coordinator. It also bears a resemblance to semaphor flags, which are used for signalling at a distance and coordinating activity.

The Coordinator can move as a Queen but only to an empty space. It captures any enemy piece on any corner of the rectangle it forms with its King upon its move. So, to capture a piece, that piece must be on the same rank (or file) as the Coordinator and on the same file (or rank) as the King. This allows the Coordinator to capture two pieces at once. Note that it captures only when moving, and it does not passively capture a piece that moves to one of the corners of the rectangle it forms with the King. Also, when it shares a rank or file with its King, the corners are fully occupied by the King and Coordinator, leaving no corner with an enemy piece to be captured.


This diagram shows the legal moves for the Coordinator on d5. It may capture the Withdrawer on b2 by moving to the b file, the Immobilizer on d2 by moving to another space on the d file, or the Pawn on e7 by moving to the 7th rank. It cannot capture the King, because the two Kings are not on the same rank or file.


After moving to d7, it captures the Immobilizer on d2 and the Pawn on e7. Instead of these two, it could have captured the Withdrawer and the Pawn by moving to b7.


The Pawn is sometimes called a Pincer Pawn, though in Abbott's sources, he just calls it a Pawn.
The Abstract piece shows a puzzle piece shaped to interlock with others of the same design, representing that this piece captures in cooperation with other pieces.

The Pawn moves as a Rook without capturing by displacement. So, it may never move to an occupied space. On reaching its destination, it captures any orthogonally adjacent enemy piece that is adjacent to another of the player's pieces along the same rank or file as it is adjacent with the Pawn. Its squarish shape with the absence of any triangles represents that it moves only orthogonally and not diagonally.

Pawns capture only when they move. They never capture passively. So a piece moving directly between two Pawns is not captured.


This diagram shows the legal moves for the Pawn on b5.


After moving to f5, the Pawn captured the Withdrawer on f4 and the Pawn on g5. It did not capture the Immobilizer on f6, because the piece on its other side did not belong to the same side as the piece that moved.

Long Leaper

The Knight may be used for the Long Leaper.
The Abstract piece looks like a frog, because frogs are known for leaping, and this piece captures in a leap-frog kind of way.

The Long Leaper moves as a Queen without capturing. So, it may never move to an occupied space. To capture pieces, it must leap over them along a single diagonal or orthogonal direction. It may not leap over pieces on the same side, and any enemy piece it leaps over must have an empty space immediately behind it. So, if two pieces lie next to each other along the same path, the Long Leaper may not leap over them.


This shows the legal moves for the Long Leaper at b1. It may capture the pieces in the same file. It may not capture the Withdrawer at a1, because there is no space on the board past it to leap to. It may not capture the Chameleon on g6, because it may not leap over a piece on the same side. It may not capture the Immobilizer on e1 or the King on f1, because it must have an empty space after each piece it leaps over.


After moving to b8, the Long Leaper has captured the Pawn at b2, the Coordinator at b4, and the Chameleon at b7. If it had moved a shorter distance, it would have captured fewer pieces.


An inverted Rook may be used for the Immobilizer.
The Abstract piece shows the arms of a straitjacket across the octagonal shape of a stop sign, as each represents immobility in a different way.

The Immobilizer can move as a Queen without capturing. So, it can never move to an occupied space. Unlike other pieces, Immobilizers cannot capture other pieces at all. Instead, it immobilizes any adjacent piece of the opponent, rendering it completely unable to move or capture. All an immobilized piece may do is commit suicide, which is a self-capture that removes it from the board. This might be done to open up a line of attack. Since a King's suicide would be tantamount to resignation, this should be treated simply as resignation and not as suicide.


This diagram shows the legal moves for the Immobilizer on c5. Since the King is in check from the Withdrawer, the Immobilizer's moves are limited to those that will end the check. Any move next to the Withdrawer will end the check by preventing the Withdrawer from being able to move.


The Bishop may be used for the Chameleon.
The Abstract piece shows a chameleon in the form of the letter C. It contains some holes that will show the color of the space it is on, which is a way of mimicking the color changing ability that inspired the name for this piece.

The Chameleon may move as a Queen without capturing by displacement, and it may use another piece's own powers against it. It will immobilize the opponent's Immobilizer if they are adjacent, and it can capture other pieces of the opponent through their own powers of capture. Since the Chameleon borrows its capturing power from another piece and has no native capturing power of its own, it cannot capture another Chameleon.


This diagram shows the legal moves for the Chameleon on c2.


By moving to c6, the Chameleon has captured the Withdrawer by withdrawing from it, the two Long Leapers by leaping over them, the three Pawns by pinching each one between itself and a Pawn on its own side, and the Coordinator by coordinating with its King.

Limitations on Chameleon captures

Since the Chameleon must move as the piece it is capturing, it cannot capture any enemy piece in this diagram. Since it can only leap over a Long Leaper, it cannot leap over the Withdrawer that stands between it and the Long Leaper on b7, which stops it from moving as far as b7. Likewise, it cannot leap over its own Immobilizer to capture the Long Leaper on d4, though that Long Leaper could capture it if it doesn't move away. Since the Pawn can only move orthogonally, the Chameleon cannot capture the Pawn on a4 by moving diagonally to a3. Since the King moves only one space at a time, the Chameleon cannot check or capture the King from a distance.

Note that the Chameleon can only capture Pawns by moving like a Rook. Chameleons can never capture enemy Chameleons, but they can paralyze an enemy Immobilizer by moving adjacent to it (of course, in that case, the Chameleon itself is also paralyzed).


Ultima is played like Chess with these differences:


Credits and Sources

This page has largely been rewritten and redesigned by Fergus Duniho with both the 1963 and 1968 versions of Abbott's New Card Games available as sources. H. G. Muller designed the original Interactive Diagram that the one on this page is based on. Fergus added some more piece set options, and H. G. made some further modifications. Some text remains from when Hans Bodlaender, David Howe, or John William Brown worked on this page. Hans based early versions of this page on information from Mark-Jason Dominus and Michael Keller, and he provided the same rules then as are provided now. The only difference is that I am now relying on primary sources rather than secondary sources, which lets me authoritively say that the rules on this page are accurate. At the time of revision, Robert Abbott is deceased. So, his only contribution to it is writing the sources used.

The rules on this page follow the 1963 edition. These are the same as those given in the 1968 edition except that the latter adds the rule that a piece can move no more spaces than the number of the rank it is on from the perspective of that player. These rules match those given by David Pritchard in his books The Encyclopedia of Chess Variants and Popular Chess Variants except that in the former, Pritchard omits the rule that stalemating one's opponent also counts as a win.

The Object of the Game

There has been some confusion on what the object of the game is, because each version of the rules also say that the object is to capture the enemy king, and Abbott has said on his page about Ultima puzzles "in Ultima the object is to capture the king, not achieve check mate." The rules published in 1963 and 1968 both say "The object of the game is to capture the enemy king." However, in the following paragraph, they both say, "The game is won when a player achieves checkmate, attacking the enemy king in such a way that it cannot escape capture by the next turn. A player also wins if his opponent is unable to move any of his pieces." Since this is a clear statement in favor of the object being either checkmate or stalemate, and even Chess is sometimes described as having the object of capturing the king, it should be understood that these rules do not make the object capture of the king any more than that is the object in Chess. Abbott's later comment contradicts the rules given in both editions of his book, and it should be understood that he said this within the context of Ultima being made playable for Zillions-of-Games. Ultima is one of the games that comes with Zillions-of-Games out-of-the-box, and as it has been programmed for Zillions, the object is capture of the king rather than checkmate. Notably, it says that it is based on the original rules of the game. Unlike the 1963 and 1968 rules, the original 1962 rules do not make it clear that the game is won through checkmate. So, it's likely that they understood this omission to mean that the object is king-capture rather than checkmate. However, even these rules mention checkmate in passing near the very end. So, it's likely that Zillions got the rules wrong, and Abbott went along with their misinterpretation instead of checking his book and correcting them.

The 'Pure' Rules of Ultima

There is a variant called 'Pure' Rules of Ultima. Despite its name, it is a mutation of Ultima described by a person who learned the game second-hand in 1974, and it is not based on primary sources. It differs from the 1963 rules for Ultima in these respects:

WWW page created: 1995 or 1996. Last modified: 14 October 2023.