by Benedikt Rosenau.


A different way of capture
Column Checkers is based on a different way of capture than Checkers. In Column Checkers capture means indeed capture, not annihilation: all captured pieces remain on the board at all times. If a man captures another man, the capturing man completes his jump as usual, but the captured man is taken along underneath it. This way, a stack of two men of different colors is formed. It moves and captures as one piece and is controlled by the player who owns the topmost man. If a stack is jumped by an opponent's piece (man or stack), the capture always involves only the topmost man. Single men are simply stacks of height one, and the same rules apply to them.

A fundamental consequence
The six column checkers variants covered in this essay are vastly different games, yet they have one common feature embedded in the mechanics: in all games, whenever a single man is captured, the number of pieces on the board decreases by one. Since there is no way to increase the number of pieces, all games are always 'moving upwards', that is towards less but higher pieces.

Piece composition in Bashni and Lasca
In Bashni and Lasca, if the topmost piece of a stack belongs to White, then it will have one of the following two compositions:

  • Either all men in the stack belong to White ...
  • ... or there are two layers in the stack, the upper layer belonging to White, and the lower layer to Black.

white columnsHere are some of the ways a white piece may look in Bashni or Lasca. By the nature of the capturing mechanism, prisoners will always be under a cap of the opponent's men or kings, never in between them. The four pieces on the left move and capture as a man, because there's a man on top. The three pieces on the right have a king on top and thus may move and capture as kings.
Left to right we see a single man, a single man with three prisoners, three men with one prisoner, two men and a king with four prisoners, a king, a king with two prisoners and a king with five prisoners, one of them a king.
Now, imagine there is a stack with several captured black pieces. By the rule above, it is topped by one or several white pieces. If these white pieces are captured, a stack consisting entirely of black men emerges.

An example
Have a look at the following opening in Bashni, the Russian mother of all column checkers games. Its structure is based on Shashki, Russian Checkers, where backwards capture by pieces is allowed. Capture is obligatory, but majority capture does not precede.
Sorry, you need a Java enabled browser to view the Bashni Player! In the final position Black has a stack of 4. A stack of 4 has to be captured 4 times before it is eliminated. This will matter strategically as well as tactically.

Generally speaking, a stack of 4 is stronger than 4 single men or even two stacks of 2, so Black has got an advantage.

As the example shows, it is often advantageous to feed several of one’s own men to a not too strong stack of the opponent and then capture the top layer of the stack. The techniques for feeding come from give-away Checkers, those for capturing from standard Checkers. This gives column checkers a Janus face. Material advantage is measured in terms of the composition of pieces rather than their number.

Another important feature is, in the words of David Pritchard, “a sudden reversal of fortunes”. Even in a overwhelmingly superior situation, careless play may provoke a surprising blow that seemingly comes out of nowhere. If you're the victim, remember that it might work for you as well, in that very game. In other words, do not resign a column checkers game as long as there is an ever so faint chance of survival. And if you have the better position, calmly eliminate all risks.

Two column checkers variant feature promotion, Bashni and Lasca. If a stack reaches the back row, then only the topmost man is promoted to a king. Kings, whether single or topping a stack, are captured exactly the same way as men. A captured king moves as king to its place at the bottom of the capturing stack, just as an ordinary man.

Game technical and practical consequences
  • Kings are represented as a distinct piece that can be recognized as such, whether single, or on top of a stack, or inside a stack.
  • Basically all games allow jumping a piece more than once, going roundabout. In games that know precedence of majority capture, this may even determine whether a capture should be made clockwise or anti-clockwise. In Lasca (where only kings can go roundabout) there is no concensus regarding this rule.
  • The applets shows stacks in Bashni and Lasca as actual stacks, with kings marked as such on top as well as on the side. Stapeldammen, Emergo and Grabber have no promotion and thus a simpler array of piece composition. Here we've chosen for a numerical representation as the one below.

Sorry, you need a Java enabled browser to view the Emergo Player! Here's an example of the precedence of majority capture, as well as roundabout capture, using the Emergo applet. It is not a game position (because then white would have to enter a man).

Pieces in Emergo may move in any direction and there is no promotion.

White moves fe4 and black must take the majority capture hd4x after which white, also under the obligation of majority capture, must capture clockwise.
Anti-clockwise capture would end on the square of origin and bring only four men. As it is the move ends on c4: white liberates a piece of two and captures five men under a cap of three.

Column Checkers origine, as said, is the Russian Game of Bashni which is just 'Shashki columnified'. The alternate Russian name Stolbovye Shashki (Column Shashki) expresses just that. The column checkers approach can be applied to about any form of Checkers. And the resulting game will usually be well worth delving into. We will address 6 variants: Bashni, Lasca, Stapeldammen, Emergo and its hexversion, and Grabber.

Bashni
The Russian word Bashni or Bashnya (Towers) refers to the oldest column checkers game and the ancestor of all modern stacking games that are based on the implied method of capture. According to Russian sources, Bashni appeared in the Saint Petersburg region two hundred years ago. Its first written reference comes from a letter of the Checkers historian David Ivanovich Sargin to the Chess master Chigorin in 1885. The letter famously states that the combinations of Bashni are so complex that it is difficult to work them out even in correspondence play.

The beginner will feel the same if he is trying to calculate moves in a game of Bashni. Bashni offers an explosion in tactics compared to its ancestor. However, important patterns in combinations will appear quickly, that once understood, will help to cut many a Gordian knot.

A guiding observation is that Bashni games do not last longer than Shashki games, although all pieces remain in play and pieces can be subject to multiple captures during a game. A reason for this is that there are far more captures in Bashni than in Shashki. Especially, multiple captures feature more prominently. This also means that there are more forced moves in a Bashni game. Both players will make more sacrifices than in Shashki because they see or hope that sacrifices will be only temporary. This feature gives Bashni its typical sharp and aggressive gameplay.

However, most highly tactical games need an overarching strategy because one just cannot do all calculations and there is more to the game in the first place. Bashni is no different. A good approach for the game, especially for the first moves, is to adopt a defensive strategy. One should keep one’s own back row intact and attempt to make the one or other important backwards capture, because the resulting stack will be less exposed for some time.

As already mentioned, a stack is stronger than the same number of single men. However, depending on position, there may be a tipping point: a stack can grow too tall, especially in Stapeldammen but to a degree in all variants. Tall stacks by their very existence mean reduced mobility.

The wild combinations of Bashni may give the opponent the chance for promotion quicker than expected. A king is stronger than a man. However, kings are easier to feed, and if the stack gets lost due to a capture, a very strong stack for the opponent may result. Brute force goes a long way in figuring out the tactics, but it takes experience and creativity to deal with a Bashni position.

Lasca
Lasca is a column checkers game designed by the then Chess World Champion Emanuel Lasker. The patent was filed in 1911. Lasker held English Draughts in high esteem, After being introduced to Bashni in Russia, he designed Lasca to be column checkers with English Draughts as a substrate - Column Draughts, so to speak. The other important feature of Lasca is that it is played on a 7x7-board, as shown on the left.

The general remarks given in the chapters about column checkers and Bashni appply to Lasca, too. However, there is much less space in the opening, which affects the game in a negative way. The following game gives an illustration:

Sorry, you need a Java enabled browser to view the Lasca Player!
Note the overwhelming numbers of forced moves for Black. The crammed board may allow the side with initiative to set up long combinations. The small board, the high proportion of forcing moves, and the low branching factor in general would make tournament Lasca dependent on opening books. If the game goes beyond the opening, the remaining stacks may be too vulnerable to do anything constructive with them. Any combination might give the opponent a piece strong enough to dwarf any advantage gained from it. Draws are the most likely results of such games.

Other positions may emerge in which a defining feature of Lasca will show, namely that stacks without a king on top, cannot capture backwards. So a piece the top man of which is captured, cannot capture back unless the second man of its cap is also a king, liberated by that very capture. In other words, the makeup of a stack becomes a decisive factor. In these positions, usually one manoeuvres a lot to achieve promotion and to get kings on the tops of one’s own stacks. If such a king is captured, further maneuvring to the same effect may ensue. These kinds of Lasca games can be quite drawn out. Ten or more promotions during a game are not an exception.

Lasca is not exactly a bad game. The small board strongly shapes the game and moves its gameplay closer to that of Fanorona. Bashni is the strategically and tactically richer game. However, Lasca introduced column checkers to a larger Western audience.
Games from the checkers family usually feature a small branching factor (ten or less mostly). Given their tactical nature and the many forced moves, opening books, as far as they exist, play an important role. With a broad player base, they may eventually become more important than individual skill. In Lasca, with its narrow opening alleys, they already are.

Stapeldammen
Stapeldammen, as the name indicates, is a column checkers variant from the Netherlands. It is played on a 8x8 or 10x10 board. Little is known about its origins. The game dates back to the 1960s at least, but it may be much older indeed. The rules set column checkers on top of a substrate of International Draughts. A reminder: precedence of majority capture is one of the implied features. There is one special rule: no promotion. Pieces reaching the back row stay there, unless they are forced to capture backwards from there, during the course of the game.

Forced progress in combination with the no promotion rule entails that there are no draws in Stappeldammen. That is a defining feature, only shared with Grabber. Stacks on the back row may look ugly, but they are not entirely out of play. Combinations may rage over the full board and give new life to these stacks. Another important feature is that tall stacks can be an even more serious waste of mobility than in other games. If a player can sacrifice three or four man to park a really big piece of his opponent on his own front row, effectively immobilizing it, he will hardly hesitate to do so.

Emergo
Bashni, Lasca, Stapeldammen and Grabber all set column checkers on a substrate of a known game. Emergo does not. Emergo started unfolding itself when Ed van Zon showed Christian Freeling the beauty of Stapeldammen and Christian Freeling got the impression that there was another, potentially better game hidden inside. He felt that an initial setup, a direction of play and promotion were features referring to one another, but were not inherent in the basic game principle. Occam's Razor if you like.
That basic principle is the interaction of a decreasing number of ever higher stacks that always start out at their strongest, but are ever weakening by involvement in captures. A dance of fighting columns leading to its own conclusion by their steady growth and shifting composition alone.
A continuously decreasing number of guards capping a continuously increasing number of prisoners will eventually make any strong piece a liability with too many prisoners and too few guards.
So he felt that the game should start with an empty board, a pit rather than a track, and the men would be entered one by one with capture still having priority over entering.

A technical problem appeared. At face value, a player could at an early stage start feeding an opponent's man, later potentially freeing that stack with an overwhelming advantage. After some meditation, a solution in form of rule in the opening protocol appeared: one may not enter a man in such a way that it can be captured, unless the opponent has just attacked one of one’s own pieces on the board – meaning that the opponent would have to capture on his next move anyway. If this sounds complicated, there is an easy version: in the entering stage you may not 'feed', unless you're being attacked. This rule fits the mechanism like a glove.

The full rules can be found here. Important aspects of the rules are: the game consists of the opening in which pieces are entered, and the main game. During the opening, no movement without capture is allowed. Capture takes precedence over entering, and majority capture is a must at all stages of the game, including the main game. At the end of the opening, one player may hold more than one remaining men in his reserve. These men are entered in one move as a stack called the 'shadowpiece'. Then movement starts. A man can move on an empty field in any of the four directions. The goal is to capture all stacks of the opponent. Blocking (stalemate) is not a win, but a draw.

Important strategic tips: the opening is a most important phase of the game. Ideal play is still open to research, there are important guidelines however: it is an advantage to be the first one to move after the opening. Hence, White should refrain from capture. When White captures, he cannot enter, and after that the initiative after the opening falls to Black. Instead, he should try to lay out a feeding pattern for the main game Black, on the other hand, may try to attack and capture White’s stones in order to throw a monkey wrench into the feeding lines.
Another benefit is that Black may gain a shadowpiece, i.e. a stack without having to feed and capture in the first place. A bad mistake for either player is to attack the opponent just before his last opening move. The opponent will be allowed to place his last piece on any field that is good for him, and one’s next move will be the forced capture, passing the initiative to the opponent.

Emergo differs considerably from other forms of column checkers. Majority capture is a tactical motive shaping many combinations. Tall stacks are less likely to backfire than in other games because not only is stalemate rated as a draw, but movement is not restricted to one direction, which gives them more freedom to manoeuvre.

Hexmergo
Hexmergo was the obvious transfer of Emergo to a hexagonal board. The game is somewhat flawed by its own combinatorial richness, which gives the first player to move after the entering stage a winning strategy in correspondence games. Trial and error will more often than not result in finding a knock-out combination right from that point onwards. And clever play by white in the entering stage will usually result in securing the first move after the entering stage.
At the same time it must be said that white has less of an advantage in over the board play because the advantage relies on trial and error. In live play it is easy to see the beginning of a combination, up to and including a sub-goal such as liberating a particular piece if need be, but it may be very difficult if not impossible to read it through to the end.

Grabber
Initial positionGrabber is the column checkers version of a traditional Hawaiian game called Konane. Konane is arguably a draughts variant, but with a shift in emphasis regarding the object. Sure, a player wins if he captures all the opponent's men, but that hardly ever happens. The prime object is to leave the opponent without a legal move. 'Columnified' the game transforms flawlessly into Grabber.


Comparison
Bashni is the oldest game with the biggest playerbase. Yet, it is hardly known outside Russia and the former Soviet zone of influence.

Lasca is the best known game in the West, due to the fame of its inventor. The reduced board and crammed play interact rather deplorably with the column checkers mechanism, which puts it apart from other games in the family.

Stappeldamen is obscure even in its home country, but a far better game than would be apparent at first glance, and very different from Bashni and Lasca in terms of strategy. Where a large stack in those games is usually strong, in Stapeldammen one must be alert at all times, lest the piece is parked out of play on the backrow by the opponent, at the cost of a few men.

Emergo is the odd one out in the present company in that it is not based on a checkers variant, and the least likely to ever suffer from opening books. Using Occam's Razor it does away with an initial position, a direction of play and promotion, making it the most 'pure' columns game, with an opening protocol that fits flawlessly. By the same token it takes much of what is specific for 'checkers' out of column checkers, turning it into an omni-directional pit rather than a track.

That is also true for Grabber. But like its parent game Konane, it's more of a 'combinatorial quicky'. Despite that characterization both are not nearly as rich in combinations as the other members of their respective families, and games are considarably shorter. In fact, that's part of the fun. Because of the low branching factor a good program will probably beat human players at both, even without the programmer making a meal of it.