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An Interview with James Ernest

Questions for the Wizard

Peter Gelman interviews James Ernest

Tishai is a chess variant played on a 7x7 playing field supplemented by two sideboards. It uses all of the pieces FIDE chess lineup except for the queen and one of the pawns. All of the pieces, however, have different moves than FIDE chess. Most intriguing about the game are its wizards (denoted by bishops). Wizards move like the non-jumping Knights (like the Mao), but gain extra movements through captured pawns. Captured pawns move to the sideboard, which becomes a sort of barometer of wizard movement ability. Thus the wizards start week gain power—a lot of power— as the game progresses. In addition, wizards are cowardly; when captured, they turn into enemy pawns.

Openings move into midgame rapidly, where the wizards prepare to rise and the pawns tremble. With a smaller board, and many middle-strength pieces, games can finish fairly quickly—before your skim latte cools. There are a few other intriguing rules, which you can read in the creator’s own words here.

If you have Zillions of Games, you can download the Tishai module here: Tishai.

Note: if you do play Tishai using Zillions of Games, I find that the computer plays much better as Black than White. As White, it’s a pushover, but Black is crafty.

Tishai’s developers were a couple of adolescents, primarily one named James Ernest. (Note that I was not able to contact the co-creator, John Bollinger.) It almost seems embarrassing as an adult to play a game made by adolescents, but then again, that’s a prejudice irrelevant to the quality of the game.

It may be that youthful creativity account for some of Tishai’s delightful playability, personality, and original tactical contest. It may account for some of the urge to "break up the formality of chess," as James Ernest recounts below. At least, youth liberated the creators’ mind from the need to make a profitable product.

James Ernest: "Feeding pawns to your wizards makes pawns more interesting."

James Ernest is the designer of what must be hundreds of games (or at least enough so that I don’t want to count). He is President of Cheapass Games ( and offers an idiosyncratic brilliancy to many of his game designs, some of which are award-winners, and all of which, I presume, lean toward the unusual. Trying to increase the business of his enterprise, he seems to currently be tweaking much of that talent toward the reasonable goal of makes games that sell. He offers Tishai as one of the many games in the pamphlet, "Chief Herman’s Holiday Fun Pack"; it includes a paper Tishai board. As you can tell from the title of that product, much of Mr. Ernest’s work shows a sense of humor, which is sometimes "wicked", in a manner I associate with the mid-19th century characters with oversized noses.

James Ernest: I haven't talked to John Bollinger since high school, and I honestly have no inkling of how to contact him. It's been a while since I played, so I may be completely in the dark about some of this stuff...

Tell me about the origins of Tishai.

I was in school in St. Louis, MO, probably in about 7th or 8th grade. I was playing in a weekly miniatures games that was a homebrewed combination of several systems. Several friends and I got together on weekends to set up figures in the basement.

I wasn't much into the rules-making of that system, though I did attempt to break the game from time to time. I derived my enjoyment from painting miniatures and from the storytelling aspects of the game. I was the chronicler of the world for more than a year, documenting the battles and making up a lot of my own history. Most gaming sessions began with a reading of the chronicle of the preceding week.

I did a lot of other creative writing in this period, and I was trying to cobble together the story for a fantasy book. It was a terrible book, of course, but it revolved in part around a chesslike game called Tishai (actually, Tishai-Flak, which meant the War of the Sword.) I played a little Chess, though I wasn't in a Chess club. We were also playing Dungeons and Dragons and a slew of other traditional games from time to time.

Did the idea for the story of Tishai develop before or after the specific variant idea, or did they develop together?

They developed together. I needed the events in the book to make sense in the context of the game, so I needed the game rules to work. And considering my job now, it's not too surprising that the game was finished while the book remains unwritten.

There is a tradition of chess-inspired literature, particularly in the mystery genre.  Did a specific fantasy book by a known author help inspire Tishai or the urge to make a variant?  Is there something about chess that implies a story?

Nothing in existing literature was particularly inspirational. Chess has an obvious setting and storyline, and it seemed natural to tie it into a fantasy war story.

What made you discontent with standard chess (if so)?  How did you hear about the idea of a chess variant?  What made you and John Bollinger want to create one?

I don't think anyone had to specifically tell me that you could create a Chess variant... remember, like most gaming groups my set had no qualms about changing game rules to suit our needs. In my fantasy universe, the game of Chess evolved from Tishai. So Tishai was described as a precursor to Chess, and even the rules refer to "modern" Chess as a reference point for people trying to learn the game. In the book, it represented a missing link between the game that exists in the modern world and the actual world events during the period of its origin.

There are actually a couple of things I didn't like about Chess, but mainly I think from a game design standpoint I was just in the mood to create something new. I don't think I really set out to "improve" Chess, as much as to invent a similar game that used some of the same pieces. I think that's why Tishai is so different from most Chess variants; it's only a Chess variant in the loosest sense of the word.

How did you go about the design process?  What did John Bollinger offer to the process and what did you?   Did you have other variants or other games in mind, aside from standard chess, to help with the structure?

The original elements of the game arise from the story of the book. In brief, the kingdom is geographically similar to the board in Tishai; the seat of political power is roughly in the location covered by White's towers and King. A dormant and isolationist culture of wizards rules the mountains on the other side of the board.

During this period of history, the White kingdom is invaded by a race of demons, and the Black and White kingdoms work together to defeat them. That cooperation degenerates into a civil war between both kingdoms after the original war decimates the White side and makes them vulnerable to attack by the Blacks.

The game was written by the White King and supposedly began as an attempt to extrapolate traditional peg solitaire into a two-player game. The board game takes a militaristic turn while the civil war is brewing, and the board comes to mirror the geography of the country (the geography of the Black side is not a symmetrical copy of the White kingdom, but the king designs the game symmetrically in the interest of fairness.)

Specific rules in the game are derived from the storyline. Ostensibly, the civil war is waged over possession of the sword called Tishai, which was the magical weapon used to rout the demons. Whoever controls the sword thinks he can control the kingdom, and the sword is protected by a set of two keeps. This is why the objective of Tishai is to capture two towers, not one King.

John and I worked together to create both the storyline and the game mechanics, and we playtested it regularly. I think I was the driving force behind the game, but as for who contributed which refinements, I couldn't begin to guess. The process certainly taught me a great deal about game balance, design, and story writing. All of which serve me well today.

Tishai has a lot of medium strength pieces.  There are at least 3 each side--1 king, 2 rooks, each with movement up to 3 squares.  Plus, arguably, the "virgin" knight, with his first move double-jump capability, is dangerous enough to rank as medium strength, if limited to defense.  Leaving the wizard out of the discussion for now, Tishai's power structure is more of a trapezoid than a pyramid--there's no queen at the top.  Does that set the game up to a contest of wise sacrifice, trading medium pieces for enemy pawns, in order to feed more pawns to your wizards, and then unleash them? Or in your experience can a strategy be built on the medium pieces?  Perhaps there's a strategy to strike through with them without allowing the release of the enemy wizards?

I'm afraid I don't know enough about the power structure of Chess to analyze the differences as carefully as you have, but I do admit that I was trying to create a more equalized set of pieces by empowering the King and removing the Queen. (There were alternate versions of the game in which one could bring a queen into play through a certain combination of moves on the board, and the Queen was this ultra-powerful piece. But those games became exercises in preventing the super-move, which didn't actually add much to the experience.)

I do think that the mechanic of feeding pawns to your Wizards makes pawns more interesting. I think in Chess you are actually interested in getting rid of your Pawns to open up your other pieces, but in Tishai this has the effect of empowering your opponent's Wizards, so you have to think twice about it. In terms of power balance, I also elevated the Pawns, probably because I was frustrated by their ineffectiveness in Chess.

Tishai's 7x7 board, and somewhat diagonal set up, and lack of much of a no-man's-land between the two sides, seems to set up a counter-clockwise flow of action (assuming the players want to open up the area blocking their wizards and king, which seems to be what I do, at least).  What's the rationale for shrinking the board to 7x7, and setting up the pieces on what might be called a semi-diagonal-reverse facing?  Why did you choose that setup instead of facing them off squarely symmetrical fashion as in standard chess?  Why limit the free space between the sides?

The smaller board and open space let the game start more quickly. I'm sure my original open layout was just an experiment, but I liked the way the game started. You'll notice that the only pieces who can't move on the first turn are the Wizards.

I think the idea of the diagonal opening position came first, followed quickly by the diagonal reverse opening position (as opposed to a mirror image, in which case the layouts would intersect!) I think the reduced board size and piece count was just another experiment, probably designed to make the game shorter. I also think all of these changes were designed to break up the formality of Chess. This game was, as I mentioned, supposed to be a precursor of the modern game of Chess.

The wizards seem to feed on the pawns... is that correct?  Are the wizards evil?  Less morally, did your experience with role playing games help inspire the idea of using captured pawns as a sort of battery of increasing wizard movement power (something along the lines of "hit points")?

Actually, the explanation of using Pawns to empower Wizards is far less sinister. It is assumed that the Pawns are not as loyal to their King as the higher ranking pieces, and that once captured and put under stress, they provide critical information to assist the Wizards in moving better. Wizards in this world are political as well as magical, and in this sense their movements are possibly in the game more abstract than the other pieces. Knowledge gives them power, and captured Pawns give them knowledge.

Wizards are also a bit fickle, which explains why once they are captured they willingly become pawns for the enemy side rather than being removed from the game.

I believe you'd told me you haven't played Tishai in years.  Have you played standard chess more recently and more often than Tishai?

More recently, yes, but not much more often. I have played a few games against my Palm Pilot and lost miserably, to a Chess program that my friends say is easy to beat. Needless to say I'm not too proud of that. But luckily I've learned that the ability to design good games isn't really based on one's ability to win them.

But by any chance, do you have any specific thoughts on strategy you'd like to share?

None come to mind. It's been literally years since I've played.

You wrote, "There are actually a couple of things I didn't like about Chess..."  Would you tell me what you can about things you didn't, perhaps still don't, like about standard Chess?

When I wrote Tishai I wasn't really interested in challenging any of the fundamentals of The Game of Chess. I just wanted to write a similar game that would figure into my fantasy story. A chess-style board game seemed more appropriate for a pseudo-medieval fantasy than a card game or track-style board game, which were basically the other game styles I was familiar with.

Nowadays, given the same parameters, I'd probably invent a whole new kind of game. But I have more experience.

Back then, I guess my least favorite part of Chess was the slow opening and the length of the game. Tishai is more open and faster.

As an adult, what I don't like about Chess is the complete lack of randomness or secret information. I don't enjoy playing a game which is, at least in theory, solvable. I'm also at the point in my Chess game that I know that I'm playing badly but I'm not really what to do about it. This is my least favorite time in the process of learning a game. Sometimes I get over that hump, sometimes I don't.

At the end of the rules you publish in "Chief Herman's Holiday Fun Pack", you write that Tishai "...died the terrible slow death a chess variant deserves."  Aside from self-deprecating humor, or frustration trying to sell the game, what do you mean by this?  Should people stop creating chess variants?  If chess variants had an element of gambling to them, would you like them better?

I don't care if people stop creating Chess variants, but I do get frustrated at the number of games people try to bring to market claiming they are "better than Chess," when they are the same game with a couple of rules changed. Chess variants don't sell well, and it's certainly true that Tishai wasn't a fast mover. Products like "Chess 2" will probably die a long slow death, and their publishers should know better.

As for adding a gambling element, this could mean a couple of things. Do you mean to play the same game for money, or to add randomness to the game? Or both? My blanket answer is no, I wouldn't be more interested in the game. While I often suggest that making a game "for money" makes it more interesting, I'm usually talking about a game that requires no skill, such as Roulette, rather than a game that requires a lot of skill. I'm not inclined to play Chess for money.

If you're talking about a degree of randomness, I'm pretty sure that doesn't interest me either, since there is a copy of Nightmare Chess on my bookshelf that hasn't been opened in four years.

Now I have a couple of pointed questions;  I hope you don't mind.  At the interview posted here, you say that Tishai is "Kind of a mediocre game".  You also say that the only reason you published it was because "I had it."  Why do you dislike this game you created and published?

I dislike it as a product. This discussion of the mechanics has reminded me how I actually do like the game, but I have an obligation to my business to print games that are profitable. When I came up with the Holiday Fun Pack, which was intended to consolidate two dozen of my smaller games into one package, I was actually thrilled to be able to include Tishai. But up until that point Tishai was a very slow seller, which for my business makes it a mediocre game.

In 1997 I was just starting out, and I needed to create a full product line from scratch. A few mediocre games made it into the schedule that year. From a sales perspective, Tishai was one of those.

In the Discover Games interview posted here, you call the name Tishai "ridiculous."  Why didn't you change the name when you first started publishing it?

I stand by the assertion that the name Tishai, which was conceived in high school, is pretty ridiculous. Especially from the standpoint of conveying information about a game product to an unsuspecting public. Of course, there is the argument in marketing that once a nonsense word becomes known, its power as a trademark is stronger (Xerox, Tyvek, Hasbro), but no one is quite sure how to pronounce this.

There are a few random mentions of Tishai fans on the net, and someone coded it for Zillions Of Games.  Can people who like the game convince its primary creator to have a better feeling about the game?

Absolutely. When I make the most disparaging comments about Tishai, Chess variants, and abstract strategy games in general, I'm often just reminding myself to focus on creating the games I can sell. Some of my personal favorite Cheapass Games (Starbase Jeff, Safari Jack, The Very Clever Pipe Game) are either out of print or heading there, because I can't sell as many of these abstract strategy games as I can sell of Kill Doctor Lucky, Give Me The Brain, and Unexploded Cow.

Strangely enough, I am actually working on a line of short-run abstract strategy games right now. I know they don't sell well, but I have figured out a way to print very few of them at a low cost. So perhaps my attitude towards more abstract games is going to soften over the coming year... ;)

Written by Peter Gelman and James Ernest.
WWW page created: July 6, 2002.