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Paco Ŝako—Chess Killer?

Paco Ŝako, AKA “Peace Chess”, has been flying under the radar since 2017, but it’s about time we gave this Chess-based game a closer look.

Designer Felix Albers has created a game of Chess that eliminates capturing opponent’s pieces. Instead of a war, players are in a dance, and the first to win the heart of the opposing king by dancing with him wins the game. Instead of capturing pieces, when you move a piece onto the same square as an opponent’s piece, they create a union and merge into one new piece. Either player can move this union according to the movement rules of the piece they have in it. For instance, if Chris moves her pawn onto Marty’s bishop (using the same rules as a normal capture in Chess), Chris can move that piece in later turns as if a pawn would move, and Marty can move it like a bishop.

Paco Ŝako is not the first time someone has come up with a new variation on the old classic. Fairy Chess is a term given to any Chess puzzle that has rules, pieces, or a board that differ from orthodox Chess, and it has been in use since 1914. Chess variants include 3-D Chess (and its many types), Global Chess (played on two circular boards connected like gears, each representing one half of a globe), Hexagonal Chess, Three-player Chess, Nightmare Chess (which introduces a card deck to the game)… The list goes on and on. Chess itself is a variant of the original Indian game, Chaturanga. Paco Ŝako (pronounced PAH-tso SHA-ko—it’s in Esperanto) is simply following a long tradition of giving Chess new life.

So how does the game actually play?

Every piece in the game follows the same rules as in regular Chess with some notable exceptions. First, in orthodox Chess, players must announce when they place an opponent in check, but that is not true in Paco Ŝaco (you’ll see why in a moment). Checkmate is also not how you win—you must actually create a union with the opposing king. In Paco Ŝako, “check” is called “Ŝako” and “checkmate” is called “Paco.” Of course, it’s quite possible a player may be mistaken when declaring Paco, which is why you must physically create the union to win.

There are other changes to the rules, particularly involving Chess’ “special” moves. Promoting a pawn, for instance, happens regardless of who brought the pawn to their opponent’s home row. It can be quite strategic to unite a pawn with a powerful piece just to prevent the other player from bringing that piece near their home row. Pawns also retain their 2-move special ability whenever they move from either of your home rows (because now it is quite possible for a pawn to be moved backwards). This likewise alters “en passsant”, the oft-forgotten rule that allows a pawn to capture an opponent’s pawn as it makes a 2-square move (it used to require white pawns to be on row 5 and black pawns to be on row 4, but now rows 6 and 3 work if the opposing pawn is starting its move on rows 8 or 1 respectively).

But I’m sure you’re more interested in the juicy unions and how they work. For starters, each piece is leaning in a certain direction, and their base is one half of a ying-yang, so when you complete the ying-yang, the two leaning pieces actually look like they are dancing. It’s a nice touch that makes the game more enjoyable.

Unions have special rules that seem simple, but can boggle the mind of a new player. You cannot, for instance, just take a piece out of a union. Instead, you can sort of “change dance partners” by bringing a solo piece to that union. This bumps your other piece out of the union, letting the new one replace it. The old piece, now without a partner, gets to make an immediate, legal move. For instance, if I use a bishop to replace my knight in a union, the knight continues the move. Here is where things start to get tricky.

In Paco Ŝako, there’s nothing preventing the piece you just bumped out of a union from joining another union. This bumps your piece out of that union and lets it continue with a legal move. You can cause massive chain reactions this way. I played a game once where I had 8 moves in a single turn because of a chain reaction. This is why you do not have to declare Ŝako, because it can be incredibly hard to see every possibility—you might not even realize until later that you have placed their king in Ŝako. It’s also why you must unite with the opponent’s king, because you might think you have them in Paco only to discover they had a crafty way out of it.

But this presents some interesting scenarios. Unions are not able to take other pieces. That means that a union on its own cannot touch the opposing king or take a piece threatening yours. Once a union has been made, that union will remain in some form or another until the game ends. This completely changes end-game. Traditionally, end-game occurs when most attack pieces have been removed and the kings start moving around the board. In Paco Ŝako, the board is still populated with pieces, they’re just in unions. So end-game for Paco Ŝako is more about setting up chain reactions in an effort to unite with the opposing king.

“Draw” has changed as well. In traditional Chess, there are 5 different kinds of draws. 1) A player who is not in check but has no legal move (because you cannot put your king into check) can declare Stalemate. 2) The 50-Move rule states that a player may declare a draw if 50 turns have passed without any pieces being captured or pawns being moved. 3) The Threefold Repetition rule states that if a board is ever in the exact same state (all the pieces in the same places) three times in a game, it is a draw. 4) The Insufficient Material rule states that if neither player has enough pieces to place the opposing king in checkmate, the game ends in a draw. 5) Finally, of course, a player may, at any time, offer a draw, and if taken, the game is a draw via Mutual Agreement.

In Paco Ŝako, though it is theoretically possible, creating a condition where a player has no legal moves is improbable, and since you play until the opposing king is taken, it is legal to move your king into check, so Stalemate is not likely to happen. The 50-Move rule and Threefold Repetition rule remain, but keep in mind which piece is in which union. Insufficient Material, however, changes. Since you can knock a piece free from a union, you should almost always be able to get to enough pieces to take the opponent’s king. There is only one situation in which Insufficient Material is still valid, and that is when every piece on the board, except for the kings, is in a union. In this case, the only piece that can unite with your opponent’s king is your king. Even then, I’m not entirely certain that this ends the game in a draw—would the player whose king that makes the final move into a union with the other king win? And, of course, Mutual Agreement is always permissible.

To give an idea of how crazy it is, this is a 5-move chain for the win:

Paco Ŝako has only been around for 6 years, but it has a growing community of dedicated players. There are clubs to join and you can play it online. Let me know if Paco Ŝako is a Chess killer for you in the comments below.

About the Author
Spencer was born in California and has since moved and lived all over the country before settling in the South Bend, Indiana area with his wife and children. He is a writer currently working on his second novel as well as a co-host on Board Game Rundown. His interests are multitudinous and include brewing beer, voice acting, playing guitar, backpacking, and, of course, playing board games.

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