Sunday, June 14, 2020

Lyra (Revised Rules)

Let me tell you about Martian Cake: Through his telescope, a Martian sees an Earthman approaching in a rocket, and wants to make him feel at home. So he bakes a cake. Unfortunately, all he knows about cake is what he's seen through his telescope, so he substitutes local ingredients. It looks beautiful, but the Earthman is immediately poisoned upon eating it.

That's the design conceit of the game of Lyra. What might Chess look like if it were "re-created" by someone who's had glance at the game, but never learned the rules and doesn't even quite remember what the pieces look like, or even what size the board is? He knows that the pieces move differently from one another, and one piece is more important, but that's about it. As a result, this game is played on a 6x6 board and the movement of every piece has changed (other than the General, which moves as a King).

As might be expected, this isn't "Earth cake" (Chess). However, I'm tweaking the rules as gameplay, and may introduce variants. At the end of the rules pdf I've noted a few that I've tried in playtesting.

UPDATE: In extensive play-testing, the game wound up being too cautious. To fix this, I've added an element of chance using dice. The conceit here is that the game is 'properly' played with actual people who duel on the playing field. While in Chess, the only difference in the strength of the pieces are in their movement, in Lyra, the pieces also differ in their attack strength. Each piece attacks and defends using dice to simulate the uncertainties of hand-to-hand combat. Chess purists probably won't like this borrowing from a Jetan variant, but it honestly makes for a much better game. And if you'd rather play Chess, well... you know where the board is.


Lyra game in progress
"Design conceit" aside, I wrote the game purely because I had built a very beautiful 6x6 physical board and pieces, and just wanted something different to play on it. I made the pieces visually unique because playing it with Chess pieces is mildly confusing (though it can be done).

It's named Lyra merely because I like the name.


You can download the rules here: Lyra-rules.pdf

Each army consists of the following:

  • General. The general moves like a Chess King (one square in any direction). It attacks with a d12 and defends with a d10. It is not obliged to avoid check.
  • Assassin. This moves one square diagonally or horizontally (not forward or back. It attacks with a d10 and defends with a d8. When the Assassin captures another piece, it takes on that piece's movement in addition to its own. A promoted Assassin can jump enemy pieces.
  • Captains.  The Captain moves 1 or 2 squares orthogonally, or 1 square diagonally forward. It may jump friendly pieces (but not enemy pieces). The Captain attacks with a d8 and defends with a d6. A Captain cannot be promoted.
  • Lieutenants. The Lieutenant moves 1 or 2 squares diagonally, or 1 square orthogonally forward or back (not side-to-side). As with the Captain, it may jump friendly pieces (but not enemy pieces). The Lieutenant attacks with a d6 and defends with a d4.
  • Soldiers. The Soldier moves 1 square forward or sideways, and captures the same way. It attacks and defends with a d4. Upon reaching the back rank, the Soldier is promoted to Lieutenant.
To deal with attack and defense, each player should have one each of the following dice: d4, d6, d8, d10, and d12. It's best if these are colored dark and light, similar to the playing pieces. Combat is as follows:
  1. The attacking player threatens an opposing piece.
  2. The players choose the appropriate dice as described above and roll simultaneously.
  3. If the attacker's roll is higher, the defending piece is removed. Otherwise, it's a 'push', no one wins, the pieces stay where they are, and the attacker's turn is over. (You may think that the attacker's piece should be removed if the defender's roll is higher, but playtesting shows that it's enough of a penalty that the attacker has effectively wasted a turn on the attack. I've seen the defender ignore several failed attacks in order to strengthen his position. It's a big advantage.)


The game itself has some interesting features:
  • The Assassin piece takes on the movement of the last piece it captured in addition to its own. It's helpful to place the captured piece at the side of the board to remember this.
  • Soldiers do not move or capture like pawns. There is no choice in promotion... Soldiers always promote to Lieutenant. It's helpful to make a couple of extra Lieutenants when building a set to allow for this.
  • Officers (Lieutenants and Captains -- and Assassins who have captured either of them) can step over friendly pieces. 
  • The pieces are designed to have weak spots. Proper play should find and exploit them.
The most important thing to remember is that this is not Chess. Very little of what you know about Chess is going to help you here, beyond some very general rules of thumb such as maximizing your mobility and keeping pieces defended. In particular, there is no onus whatsoever for a player to announce check.  There is no checkmate here, as a General can fight himself out of a trap that in Chess would be absolutely hopeless. It's a fight to the death, and in combat the General is the strongest man on the board.

There are two basic strategies that can prove effective. The first is to take advantage of the leaping ability of your officers to get them onto the field quickly. This allows you to clear some room to allow Soldiers to promote to Lieutenants in the endgame. The second is to use your Soldier early, holding back higher ranking officers for the endgame. Even though a Soldier is relatively weak in battle, it does stand a good chance against a Lieutenant, and has a better-than-nothing chance against any other piece. In either strategy, you'll probably find your Lyran General much more active than a Chess King would be. Because of his combat strength, you may find it advantageous to get him into striking distance when threatened by an officer.

With Lyra's smaller board, the pieces engage much more quickly than in Chess, so there is no en-passant. Also, since officers can step over friendly pieces at any time, there is no castling, and nothing like a Knight. And since movement is generally limited to a maximum of two steps, you won't generally find a lot of back-field infiltration in this game. It's very much a field of battle with a definite front. When played without dice, since the pieces are more similar in strength than in Chess, a game tends to be either cautious dancing or a bloodbath. In other words, without the dice it's a fairly boring game and draws are common. With dice, it's a nail-biter.

When playing with dice, you'll find aggressive play is rewarded. Your pieces are stronger when attacking. Although a General greatly outmatches a Soldier (d10 to d4), it's possible for the Soldier to prevail. An attacking Assassin is on equal footing with a General (d10 to d10). Nevertheless, it's possible to lose the game due to chance, even if your strategy is perfect. Stuff like that happens in war. For best results, you'll want to cherish your high-ranking officers to give yourself the best chance of delivering a finishing stroke.


As for equipment, you can play it just fine on a chessboard. Just set the knights aside and ignore the outer ranks and files of the board. But if you'd like to make a set like mine for yourself, I'm not going to pretend this was difficult. I cut a 12 x 12" inch sheet of plywood, glued some 2" tiles (from Home Depot) onto it, and then grouted it as you would a floor. I affixed it to a 12 x 12" picture frame in place of the glass and backing. The pieces are made from bits of craft wood that I got from Hobby Lobby: balls, eggs, doll pin stands, and screw-hole caps. The dice can be gotten from any gaming or hobby store or online.

Or, you could play against a computer using Zillions of Games. Here's the file containing the game: []. Keep in mind that you'll need a copy of Zillions of Games to run it. Registration is only about 25 bucks and for that you get, as the name implies, a potentially unlimited supply of boardgames, card games, and puzzles.

When I first conceived of the game, I created the ruleset for Zillions. It actually plays a decent game, albeit without dice, and follows all the basic rules, including the wonky captures of the Assassin piece, and the fact that officers can jump over friendly pieces. I'm currently working on a version that includes the new combat rules with dice. This is a little tricky in Zillions, as it doesn't natively implement dice or math, so I may do it in Ludii instead (or as well). In addition to handling a more robust set of ludemes than Zillions, Ludii is free. And being Java-based, it can run on any platform.

A nice box (and dice!) completes the set!
These are the dice you'll need.


If you have Zillions of Games, you might try my other games for it:
  • Jedi Chess pits a powerful Sith Lord and his apprentice against the Jedi Order. The Apprentice moves like a Chess Queen; the Sith Lord combines the moves of the Chess Queen and the Knight.
Jedi Chess
  • A variant of Jedi Chess (found in the same file) called Rebel Chess pits the Emperor and his new apprentice, Darth Vader, against an army of familiar freedom fighters. Vader moves as a Queen. The Emperor's power is waning: here he combines the moves of the Chess King and Knight.
Rebel Chess variant
  • Qui-Vive challenges you to place five pieces in any of the following arrangements: V, +, X, /, \, ̶, or |. It's harder than it sounds, because the computer is doing the same thing, and it's very good at setting two different patterns at the same time. I would say Zillions plays this at expert level. Of course, you can choose to dumb it down.
Qui Vive

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