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Interview with Peter Aronson, winner of the 44 squares contest

In 2004 a contest to design a chess variant on 44 squares was held. Peter Aronson was the winner of the contest. Here is an email interview with him.
Congratulations with winning both the first prize in the contest to design a chess variant on 44 squares and thank you for letting me have this interview with you.

Can you tell something about yourself: which year were you born, how old are you, where do you live, what is your occupation, etc.?
Actually, my editor's bio does fine here:

Born in Brookline, Massachusetts, USA on April 15th, 1958. Got involved in wargaming in junior high school, started hanging around the MIT Strategic Gaming Association where he was exposed to role playing games as well. Peter got himself a BS in Computer and Information Science from U/Mass at Amherst, and followed it up with a MA in Geography from SUNY Buffalo. While en route to his Ph.D., he stopped to work "a year or two" at ESRI, a company specializing in Geographic Information Systems software. That was in 1982 -- and he's still there, still programming.

Peter lives in Phoenix, Arizona, USA with his wife Casceil, and his children Jenny and Alex.

Do you regularly play chess, e.g., in a club, or by email? How did you learn to play chess? And chess variants - do you regularly play chess variants, and how?

I play a bit of Chess and some of their variants on the web at While I am not currently playing any games on Game Courier, I play an occasional game there as well. I play some of my more experimental (read, not ready for publication) variants by e-mail with Tony Quintanilla and John Lawson.

What are your favourite chess variants?

Hard question. Whatever I just designed, Alice Chess, Wormhole Chess, Chess with Different Armies, It's for the Birds. Of my own games, I'm fond of: Anti-King Chess (both versions), Golem Chess, Gothic Isles Chess, Interweave, Jumping Chess, Lilliputian Monchrome Alice Chess, Mad Elephant Chess, Mulligan Stew Chess, Pachesi, PieceEater Chess, Prisoner's Escape, Rococo, Ruddigore Chess, Separate Realms Chess, Star Pool Chess, Toe-to-Toe Chess, Train Wreck Chess and Transactional Chess.

You are extremely succesfull in the chess variant design contests; your games in this contest received first and fourth place, and in other contests, you also had several successes, including a first place in the 100 squares contest. Can you tell us 'your secret' in why you are so succesfull?

It's rather hard to be sure. I have a background in other types of game design -- in my teens I designed several wargames of the sort with hex grids and piles of counters, several them with fairly inovative features, but I lacked the writing ability to get them to a publishable state. I also gamemastered D&D for years, which also gave me a lot of chances to examine game mechanisms. I also collect books on abstract games, and read them, which has been a valuable source of mechanisms. A programming background hasn't been a bad thing, either.

What is the method you use when designing a chess variant? And how did you come to the design of Prisoners escape, your winning game?

For N-square contests, I usually start with the board, which is how Prisoner's escape started. I fiddled around with some boards until I came up with a 7x6 board with a central extra square on either side. This reminded of the 66-square version of Falcon-Hunter Chess by Karl Schulz as described in Pritchard's Encyclopedia of Chess Variants, which added an extra square at each end of the e-file, where the King started. So I thought about working on a minature version of Falcon-Hunter Chess, but it seemed it would suffer from a lot of the usual problems of small board variants with an opening dominated by exchanges and general drawishness. But I remembered Rapha Betza's proposal in the comment system for what he called Anti-Checkmate Chess, and it occured to me that it would work nicely on the small board, and that the F-H pieces' awkwardness would add tatical interest (I experimented with standard pieces, but they were too strong for the small board). I threw together a ZRF, and started an e-mail game with John Lawson. After the first game, I tweaked the array, and had the finished game, which we played a couple of more times, and which I played with Tony Quintanilla as well, before I published it.

How much do you think the principle of Prisoner's escape depends on the specific 44-square board? Would this be a game that would be well suitable for other board sizes, e.g., a regular 64 squares board?

On a 64 square board, you'd probably want to play Anti-Checkmate Chess, since the strength of the regular pieces match the board size better.

What was your reaction when you learned that you won?

I was pleased.

How do you now look at Prisoner's escape after the contest. If you had to redesign the game, would you do it in the same way? What do you feel yourself are the strong points of this game?

I'm fairly happy with how it turned out. It's strong points? Well, it's a small board game that's actually worth playing, and I haven't come up with many of those!

Do you play games other than chess and chess variants? What are your favourites? And how do you play them - with friends, over the Internet, against a computer?

I play board and card games with my kids, and occasionally my wife. Generally, the kids prefer games with some element of luck since I do too well in abstract strategy games, but we do play Chess once in a while, and my daughter Jenny will occasionally play Fanorona or Pente with me. Strangely enough, the only game of my own design I ever play with my kids is Pachessi. (Well, when the kids were smaller, I did invent a couple of multiplication teaching games for them, but as the kids are 11 and 13, we don't play those anymore.)

Do you have other hobbies or interests?

I write science fiction and fantasy, and even occasionally try to get it published. And I read pratically anything with words on it.

What do you think of the future of chess? Do you think variants will take over from chess once, or will people always mostly play chess with the FIDE rules, or will they stop playing chess and its variants after a while?

Chess has a strong social position in Western society. I don't see Chess variants taking over, or Chess fading away, although professional Chess might have to go through some changes, since it does seem to be reaching a very uninteresting state.

What do you think the role of computers will be for chess in the future?

At some point, cheap computers are going to play Chess better than any human -- it's just a matter of time. This will matter about as much as the fact that cars can drive faster than any human can run.

Do you have some advice for people that want to design chess variants, or other board games?

Read and play! And don't limit yourself to the field in which you are designing, but read about and play other games as well.

Do you have an opinion about the other chess variants, submitted to this contest?

It was a pretty good collection, with a lot of nice games. I was particularly blown away by David Jagger's PiRaTeKnIcS, which I think might have suffered in the voting because it's a game that has to be played to be appreciated.

You are one of the chief editors of the Chess Variant Pages website ( What do you see as the future for this website?

I hang around CVP to see the future of Chess variants -- I wouldn't try to predict it!

Is there some question I didn't ask, but which you would like still to answer?

Not that I can think of!

Thank you very much for the interview!

You're very welcome.

Questions by Hans Bodlaender; answers by Peter Aronson.
WWW page created: February 15, 2005.