Board & Digital Games Comparison: Chess & Total War Series


  Recreational activities have abetted civil interest in war for centuries; allowing participation of the principles and stratagems for both casual curiosity and professional exercise. Possibly the oldest known variety of the many interpretations, known as chess harks back to an Indian ancestor of approximately 280 AD named Chatrang and shatranj in Old Persian and Arabic respectively. The game gradually proliferated its way throughout the Western world via the middle east over a slew of centuries. The rules were modified only slightly yet the pieces underwent a transformation to better conform to the norms of Western cultures. [1]

   With the advent of digital games, a genre relating to warfare was inevitable. There have been many interpretations over the last handful of decades, each contributing tropes and conventions of their own. In Creative Assembly’s Total War series of games, the player is given complete control of a variable number of different units, each with its own strength, weaknesses and capabilities. The series places heavy emphasis on fidelity of the physical battles in real-time, whilst also supporting a related turn-based aspect in a campaign mode. For the purposes of this exercise, the 2013 entry into the series Rome 2 will be used as example material. [2] [4]


  Chess is a means to simulate warfare in the ancient world and despite persisting in practice into the modern era and beyond, the pieces still hold hints as to their origins. The pieces of the precursor games would appear entirely recognizable to a world so familiar with the identity of the Western set. In the Hindi game Shatranj, each piece was representative of a specific unit of actual warfare and modelled to match – a camel piece to represent a unit of camel cavalry for example. Multiple iterations later however, the camel or oont became known as the Bishop, yet the a trace of the original is still present in the piece. The bulbous head signifying the hump of the camel. A more obvious example would be the Knight, which was of course representative of a unit of horse and included a complete body model in Shatranj. Likewise, the Total War games depict single units distinctly, albeit without resorting to a sole figurehead and representing numbers visibly.[1] [5]

  Each unique piece has different capabilities and functions on the board, mirroring strengths and weaknesses of units in reality and incidentally reflected in the Total War series. Knights have a greater potential of movement per turn in comparison to pawns (Sainik or foot soldiers) and are able to flank opponents by circumnavigating formations. [1]

  The position of the pieces at the beginning of a game imitates reality, with the pawns in front formation, cavalry units on the flanks and the commanding pieces in the centre. In the Total War games, the player is encouraged likewise to adopt the use of actual strategies of the period; arranging infantry in columns, either to guard flanks or hold the centre, ranged units set out in front for skirmishing, cavalry on the wings to intercept opposing lighter units, et cetera. [4]

  Units in the Total War series are capable of performing special abilities, designed to compliment each unit’s individual facets. Armoured legionaries in the Rome 2 edition can form a testudo or tortoise formation, locking shields and increasing resistance to projectiles but impeding movement speed. Similarly, certain pieces on a chessboard can be utilized to enact a, often once-per-piece, action; exempli gratia, pawns may move forward two squares from their initial position, the parallel to charge abilities of spear units in Rome 2 wherein the unit increases its movement speed for a duration. Pieces in chess may be taken in a similar manner to the mechanics in the Total War games and removed from play. In the Total War games however, a unit may be defeated and wiped out wholly or routed through loss of morale. Units may also garner experience in mid-battle, effectively levelling up. This mechanic exists in chess, where should a pawn reach the opposite side of the board it may be upgraded to a different piece. [3] [4]


  The majority of disparities between the two emerge from the rift between the two mediums and their inherent drawbacks. There exist no managerial AI systems in analogue chess to monitor variables, qualifiers and other properties required to expedite more complex mechanics that are prevalent in digital mediums. Total War games utilize an intricate system of statistics for each unit, which are taken into calculation when two opposing forces engage in combat. A single unit may not necessarily engage another single unit; oftentimes whole armies devolve into a flurred melee, creating exponential equations for the intermediary system to process in order for a victor to emerge. In chess, there is no formal means of engagement. Pieces may sit in proximity of one another, guarding or threatening respectively but should one piece take another under the regulation of normal gameplay, it’s unequivocal. [3] [4] [6]

  Another key difference is the temporal genre. The vast majority of board games, particularly strategy games, are limited to a turn-based system. It promotes equal opportunity for each player as the alternative would prove chaotic at best with no easy means of ensuring a structured environment for play. [3]

 Battles in the Total War series not only take place in a real-time strategy infrastructure, but also in arenas designed to emulate the immutably capricious nature of terrain in staged conflict. One force may bare down on another from a hill, giving the first the advantage of the high ground. A single faction’s force may even be outnumbered by two or more opposing forces, presenting a variable state of difficulty which is also absent from conventional chess. [4] [6]

  The most important piece in chess and Total War games is the King and general respectively. However, whilst a chess game is concluded with the effective capture of the King via a state known as checkmate, a battle in the Total War games does not end should a general on either side die. Instead, the morale of the force in question takes a considerable hit. This further leads to myriad conclusions for any single battle. Achieving checkmate is an ultimatum for the game, no matter how hard won. A pyrrhic victory in Rome 2 can prove the undoing of further battles due to the casualties sustained, thus sometimes suffering defeat through a called withdraw is a viable tactic. [3] [4] [6]


[1] Chess News. 2014. Hindi and the origins of chess. [Online]. [Accessed 29/10/2015]. Available from:

[2] PCGames. 2013. Rome 2 release date set for ‘late 2013’. [Online]. [Accessed 01/11/2015] Available from:

[3] Chess Variants. 1996. The Rules of Chess. [Online]. [Accessed 29/10/2015] Available from:

[4] Game Pressure. 2014. Total War: Rome II Game Guide. [Online]. [Accessed 29/10/2015] Available from:

[5] Ancient Chess. 2006. An Illustrated History of Chess. [Online]. [Accessed 29/10/2015] Available from:

[6] McCoy, J. and Mateas, M. 2008. An Integrated Agent for Playing Real-Time Strategy Games. [Online]. [Accessed 01/11/2015] Available from:


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