A new board game on Kickstarter remixes chess by blending in elements of collectible card games like Magic: The Gathering. It feels both new and familiar, though it likely won’t convert people who don’t like chess or gritty, Lord of the Rings-style fantasy.

People have played chess for hundreds of years. Chess has influenced culture in many ways: from movies like Searching for Bobby Fischer to the infamous match where IBM’s “Deep Blue” AI defeated chess master Garry Kasparov, the basic game’s captured the interest and strategy of millions. Still, there’s no denying the reach of newer games like Magic: The Gathering and Hearthstone, card games which add customization and some elements of chance into the fray. A new game on Kickstarter infuses chess with collectible card games (CCGs), calling it Eternal Kings.

Intelligame received a copy of the game for review, and it surprised me how much Eternal Kings reminded me of my childhood. I loved playing chess when I was young, and I spent hours reading about chess variants, games people created using chess sets and tweaking the basic format. This game fits squarely in that territory: it features customizable armies and special abilities, but its heart is still pure chess. Players take turns maneuvering their cards around the 8×8 grid chess-style, but instead of searching for checkmate, they aim to kill the opponent’s king.

Bring decks, not pieces, to the chessboard

Each player comes to the game with a 16-card army deck which they lay out on the game’s provided mat. These armies aren’t identical, though: each player customizes their armies from a host of army cards. These cards fill the role of chess pieces from pawns to kings, but they also have hit points, attack values, and special “discipline” abilities. Many discipline abilities let you draw from your 16-card ability deck, creating a hand of secret, one-time use powers. Activating ability cards can prevent damage, create special attacks, or equip pieces with new enchantments and equipment. There are two types of abilities in the game: Whitecast, which must be played on your turn, and Redcast, which can play instantly at any time. These mechanics will feel familiar to card game players, but they add a new, intriguing layer on to chess.

Combat decks in Eternal Kings are assembled from the game’s provided set of 128 cards: 64 army cards and 64 ability cards. These cards split into four factions: Intelligence, Agility, Wisdom, and Strength. Players can mix and match these factions CCG-style, creating combos and unique strategies. No matter how good the deck though, there’s still chess at the game’s heart: it takes careful planning to come out the victor.

Experiencing the flow of battle

I got a taste of Eternal Kings this weekend playing a game against a friend. We played with standard decks; I used the yellow Wisdom cards, while she used the blue Intelligence deck. Each faction channels a different strategy according to the manual: Wisdom focuses on “safety and coordination,” while Intelligence relies on “versatility and development.” When moving a card you have the option to flip it, using its “discipline” to trigger abilities. For example, my rooks could move through an allied piece, while her rooks could destroy any enemy piece in a one-square radius. Cards have to be unflipped on a separate turn to ready their abilities again, adding some balance to the game.

After a few turns learning each other’s pieces, our battle flowed like a standard chess game (including my penchant for taking forever to move). Many standard chess tactics still hold up in Eternal Kings, which makes the game feel familiar. Still, there’s something exciting about shielding your queen in ice armor, or imagining your rook as a towering elemental hurling rocks at foes. It’s the kind of customization I think I always wanted in chess, and there’s a lot of potential in tweaking decks and arrangements of armies on the board. It felt like a great fusion of the old and the new, blending an old passion with new energy.

Yep, it’s new, but it’s also still chess

Still, the game won’t be for everyone: the dark, “gritty fantasy”-style art seems to reach out to the Magic: the Gathering crowd more than the Hearthstone crowd, which sets a more intense tone. Chess is already such a serious game that I think lighter art/theming would make Eternal Kings more approachable. Also, EK probably won’t convert anyone who doesn’t like chess already: the heart of the game is the same, turn-based strategy game that’s been around for hundreds of years.

I’d also liked to have seen the units’ health and attack ratings come into play more during our game; most every unit has enough damage to kill all the others on the board. Perhaps units’ stats could change after they’ve “flipped” to use their ability: maybe their health would increase while flipped, making it functionally a standard chess piece, but less prone to death. Having reasons to keep a unit flipped and without its special ability would add an interesting risk-reward dynamic to gameplay.

Overall, Eternal Kings is a fun, portable way to draw folks back into a classic game. There are plenty of ways to strategize and grow in this game: tweaking army units, customizing ability decks, or even just learning better chess strategy. It’s not frequently that I’ve walked into a board game shop and seen people playing chess, but with a game like this out there, there just might be a revival of the old game. You can learn more on Eternal Kings by heading to its Kickstarter page.

NOTE: Intelligame received a free copy of Eternal Kings for review purposes.