We use chess to hone strategy and decision-making skills, train leaders, and sharpen mental reasoning.
It has simple rules, but becoming a chess master takes a lifetime. To truly excel, you need to do more than memorize some tips and tricks. You need to change how you think, anticipate your opponent’s moves, and look far into the future to plan your approach.
If you love this kind of strategic challenge, you’re not limited to chess.
There are dozens of games out there like chess – ancient and modern. These will get the gears in your brain turning as you try to strategically outmaneuver your opponent.
In this article, we’ll look at some of the most popular alternatives to chess.
Board Games Similar to Chess
1. Go (Weiqi)
As much as 4000 years old, the game of Go (also called Weiqi) comes from East Asia and is considered the world’s first board game. It’s played in Korea, China, and Japan. It took hold in Japan during the Hei’an period and became even more popular with the rise of the Samurai class.
The game gained a special status during the Tokugawa period. The government set up special schools to encourage players, and professional go players emerged.
Go is a strategy game that pits two players against each other to surround the most space. Rulers and leaders played it (like chess) to strengthen their strategic decision-making.
The game gained a special status during the Tokugawa period. The government set up special schools to encourage players, and professional go players emerged
Go is played on a board (goban) with 19 vertical lines and 19 horizontal lines, with 181 black and 180 white flat stones, called go-ishi. You place the stones on the intersections between lines. The goal is to surround your opponent’s pieces while avoiding being surrounded yourself.
A highly complex game, Go takes a lifetime to master, but it is much easier to play now that it has been ported onto computers. You can easily set up a Go game and play against an AI, or find other Go players online to test your skills against.
A Japanese variation on the classical Chinese game, xiangqi, Shogi is a complicated strategy game. It is very similar to chess, with some important differences that define it strategically.
Like chess, it is a game of two players who take turns moving pieces that represent troops in battle, with the goal of capturing the opposing king. Each player makes one move at a time along a grid. Some of the pieces are nearly identical to chess and move in similar ways, while others are completely different.
If you take a look at a Shogi board, one of the first differences you’ll notice is that the pieces are not differentiated by color, but by orientation. You can tell which pieces belong to whom based on the direction they face on the board, rather than their color.
If you’re not familiar with Chinese/Japanese characters, you will need to memorize the differences between a few of them so that you can tell the pieces apart. The hanzi/kanji marked on each piece tells you what it is.
For example, there is a character that means “Kei-Ma”, or “knight”. Unless you learn what the characters mean, you’ll be lost.
In Shogi, each piece can be “promoted” to a better piece with greater abilities. Also, each turn, a player can choose to move an existing piece, or return a piece to the board that was lost. This gives the game an entirely different strategic dimension than chess.
Azul is a complex strategy game that is played by two players on a grid – but it is much more beautiful than your average chess board.
Azul is a tile game in which you compete to create the most beautiful mosaic. It is based on a type of medieval ceramic tile art called azulejos. It also includes a built-in story: you are trying to create the perfect design for the palace of King Manuel I.
You won’t be judged on aesthetics though – you get points for each tile you place, and the player with the highest tally wins.
Azul is a gorgeous game from an artistic standpoint, and it’s not lacking in strategic gameplay either. Like chess, it is almost infinitely re-playable, with tons of possible variations. It doesn’t have a battleground, capture-the-king format, but that’s a positive thing for many people.
4. 3D Chess
If you have played chess and you’re bored with it (yawn), you might be ready for 3D chess.
Yes, it’s a real thing.
Although “playing 3D chess” has recently become a popular expression that suggests a “next level” approach to politics, business, marketing, or war, it has been around since the early 20th century. Ferdinand Maack invented Raumschach, or space chess, in 1907. The currently established rules were written in 1976 by Andrew Bartmess.
You’ll need a different chess board to play 3D chess. It includes options to move above and below, as well as in all of the ways you can traditionally move in chess. This added layer of complexity makes 3D chess less intuitive and more mind-bending to play, but it doesn’t necessarily make it a better game.
This is a game about controlling the board and beating your enemy, but somehow it feels a lot more peaceful than some of the other chess-like games. Maybe it is the fact that it’s all about trees and plants?
In photosynthesis, you are in competition with your opponent to grow the most trees and plants in a forest. You’ll need to take into account the position of the sun, the weather, and the seasons in order to place the correct trees in the right places and win the game. An expansion was released in 2021 that allows you to grow under the moonlight as well.
If you’re a fan of 1×1 strategy games, but you’re not as attached to the battle aesthetic, Photosynthesis is a beautiful and engaging game that will keep you strategizing for a long time.
6. Dead of Winter: A Crossroads Game
A dark, survival strategy game that puts players into a bleak world where they need to cooperate while also trying to stay alive themselves. Although there are numerous expansion packs and add-ons, you can get the full experience from the base game.
2-5 players each command a ragtag band of survivors. Alliances can form and be broken, and the game can end with everyone winning, or no one winning. Pressures and conflicts from the external world and from within your own group are the constant challenges you work against in this game.
You are trying to cooperate to meet a victory condition that benefits everyone. However, you also have a secret personal goal that could compromise the alliance.
There is plenty of strategy and complexity to Dead of Winter. It is like chess in that you need to be very careful about the short and long game you are playing. That is where the similarities stop.
With more players and different possible outcomes, this is not a straightforward “capture the king” game. Instead, it is an imaginative game that almost evokes tabletop RPGs.
A chess-like game published in the 3M Bookshelf series, Ploy is like a 1960’s futurist’s idea of what chess could be. With a box covered in “futuristic” art from the 1960s and pieces that look like flying saucers, Ploy is a game that functions similarly to chess, but makes some key gameplay tweaks.
Ploy can be played by 2-4 players.
The goal is to capture your opponent’s “commander”, which you can do by moving your pawns in the direction they are facing. The strategy lies in deciding when to move a piece, and when to spend your turn rotating.
A strategy game where you build the board as you progress, Hive is a game about trapping your opponent’s queen bee.
It’s a game that appears simple but has some hidden layers of complexity. Without a board to place pieces on, the game starts when the first piece is laid.
The pieces are not removed or eliminated, and there is no need to lay all of the tiles to win the game. The goal is to surround your opponent’s queen while avoiding being surrounded, yourself.
Hive is played with 11 black and 11 white tiles, between 2 people. Each tile signifies an insect with a way of moving. Like chess, it’s straightforward but not simple, and you’ll find yourself playing again and again to try new strategies.
Looking at it, you might think this game is an ancient Japanese tradition. Actually, it was released in 2014. The vintage art complements simple but elegant game mechanics, and forms a strategy game that also allows you to be creative and imaginative.
Onitama is like chess, but if the pawns had superpowers.
Your pieces are laid out on a small board similar to a chess board, but instead of their movements being pre-determined, you draw cards to see which powers your pawns can use. You win by taking your opponent’s main pawn, or moving onto their starting square.
This ancient game is related to other variations of Chess, including Go, Shogi, and Chaturanji. It is most popular in China, but is played across East Asia, especially in Vietnam, where it is called “cờ tướng” or “general chess.”
It puts 2 players against each other in battle, with the goal of capturing the opponent’s king. Like in Go, it is played at the intersections of lines rather than inside squares. One player uses black pieces and one uses white pieces.
The differences are significant, too. In Xiangqi, there are different pieces than in chess. This includes a cannon that is required to jump to capture a piece and generals that can’t face each other directly in battle.
There are also special sections of the board called “river” and “palace”, where the movements of certain units are sped up or slowed down.
11. 7 Wonders
This strategy game is about controlling nations, but the vantage point is construction rather than war.
In 7 wonders, you take over a country with the goal of creating its special wonder to share with the world. Like chess, it involves long-term thinking and tactics, but unlike chess, it is a game that involves a lot of roleplaying as well.
With individual boards, decks of cards, and tokens, there is a lot more going on here than a simple chess board. The gaming experience is intended to be richer and more imaginative, rather than a pure challenge.
7 wonders is best played with 3 or more players, although it is technically possible with 2.
12. Blokus Duo
With a board of square tiles and black and white pieces, Blokus Duo is recognizably a successor to checkers and chess. It also owes a little bit to dominoes.
It pits 2 players, black and white, against each other to fill up the board with tiles. Each piece has to touch another piece of the same color, but only at the corners.
Many of the games that are compared to chess take a while to learn and master, and have a bit of a learning curve. This is true of the ancient games that are similar to chess, as well as most of the modern board games that try to recreate that level of complexity.
The great thing about Blokus Duo is that you can learn how to play in about 1 minute, and it’s easy to play with children as young as 7. At the same time, you’ll never get bored! There are plenty of strategies to use here and no matter who you are playing with, you’ll need to turn the gears in your brain to win.
13. Tafl Games
The Scandinavian equivalents of chess – Hnefetafl, Tablut and other variations on a single game that can be collectively called “tafl games” – fell out of popularity in recent centuries but are experiencing a resurgence. The rules have been retranslated and verified, and versions of the game have been made available online.
Tafl games represent the same kind of conflict that chess does – a battle, where the goal is to overwhelm and conquer your enemy. However, while chess imagines two armies clashing on a neutral battlefield, Tafl games are about a siege.
One player is the attacker, and the other is the defender. The defenders are called “the Swedes” and the attackers are called the “Muscovites” (after the city of Moscow, in Russia). The Swedes win if their king escapes to the border of the map, and the Muscovites win if they capture the king.
The game is played on a 9×9 grid that was traditionally embroidered on a reindeer pelt.
The rules for tafl games are still disputed and can vary depending on who is in charge, but the resurgence continues to gain popularity. It is now possible to play Hnefetafl, Tablut, and other variations online, and a Hnefetafl tournament was held in England in 2017.
If chess is a simplified game about the strategy of a single battle, Risk is a simplified game about a world war.
In Risk, you choose a color to represent your “empire” and start from a single country, with the goal of dominating the world. The more countries you occupy, the more you are able to draft troops to help you defeat your enemies and expand.
Battles are decided by a dice-roll, according to the number of troops. When the game includes more than 2 players, there are frequently alliances that are made and broken.
A complex game with many strategic elements, Risk is a logical successor to chess, and represents a more modern and complex war game.
At the same time, Risk is a game that tends to sprawl and involve so many decisions, strategies, and tactics that it’s harder to find the mathematical beauty in a good game. Victory is often the result of a good strategy, and more than a little luck. While you can play a game of chess in less than an hour, completing a full Risk campaign often takes many hours.