The Duke: Chess’s quick-and-dirty cousin


The Duke isn’t a chess knock-off, although it’s definitely chess-inspired. You’ve got a six-by-six grid instead of an eight-by-eight chessboard. You’ve got an assortment of pieces that each have their own rules for movement. There’s a medieval theme, with the brief flavour text in the rules contrasting the elegance of the high court (chess) with the quick-and-dirty power grabs of the duchies. The goal is the same, too — put the other player’s leader, in this case the duke, in check.

Admittedly, that makes it sound a lot like a chess knock-off, but that’s because I haven’t gotten to the good bit yet. Unlike chess, every piece in The Duke has a drawing of a six-by-six grid printed right on it, with a diagram explaining how that piece moves. The ingenious bit is that, after you move the piece, you flip it over to reveal a completely different set of movements. Play it again, and it flips back to the first side.

There’s one other major difference. In The Duke, you start off with only three pieces: The Duke himself and two footmen, who are only moderately more useful than a pawn. On your turn, instead of moving, you can pull a new piece at random out of your satchel and place it on the board next to your duke. If you’re lucky, it could be a wizard, capable of hopping just about anywhere and decimating your opponent’s army. If you’re unlucky — say, if you’re spawning a new piece after your duke has been pushed to the other end of the board — you might end up with a unit that can hardly move at all, more an obstacle than a last-minute saviour.

The random drawing means hardcore chess fans are unlikely to take The Duke overly seriously. Matches can come down to the literal luck of the draw, although a strong player will be able to time their draws to cut down on the risk, and know how to manipulate their opponent’s duke to make drawing new pieces almost impossible.

The flip side of that element of chance, though, is that The Duke is all about thinking on your feet. Launching a serious assault on your opponent means knowing how your pieces’ movement patterns will shift and interact as you send them across the board; planning even a few moves ahead involves plenty of cunning. Each new piece added is another variable, but winning still requires a plan — just a plan that’s loose enough to accommodate change.

As far as abstract strategy games go, the upper tier is unlikely to change any time soon. Chess and Go have earned their places over hundreds or even thousands of years, and The Duke has only been around for one. But it’s a rich tactical game in its own right, an easy-to-grasp two-player game that has the potential to stay fun over years of play. And, thanks to a free online print-and-play version, you can even play it at home before buying the proper box — just head to and try it for yourself.

On a side note, on November 23, Dickens Pub is celebrating the third anniversary of its weekly Gamer Sunday board game night, which actually includes a Duke tournament. Spots for that one are limited, so sign up on their Facebook page if you’re interested. There will be plenty of other events for any gamer who stops by.

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