by Benedikt Rosenau.

Draughts is the youngest major game family. The game itself spread over Europe in the course of two, maybe three centuries, and in that process many local variants formed. These variants quickly became the games of the people, a position once held by games of the Morris family. The status of Checkers has been challenged only after cheap Chess sets came available.

At first sight, one might believe that the many Checkers variants are a tribute to human playfulness. Variants exist for variety’s sake and nothing else. We will argue that this is not the case. If we look at the traditional variants, we can observe a pattern. Let's assume that Checkers basically took off on an 8x8 board using only half the fields on a diagonally connected grid. The split in two branches had led to this 'European game', that may or may not have featured backward capture and long range kings.
The above assumption is a simplification of sorts, but it helps to show the point. Some patterns in a landscape are seen more clearly if you look down from a greater distance. Other arguments for the development of Checkers variants may give another view, but most likely not an altogether different one.

Here's a summary of some variant ideas, starting from the most basic one:

Here, kings are short range, and men do not capture backwards. Checkers is a slow game, yet has one of the smallest drawing margins in endgames. Even endgames between solitary kings may be won. If 'accelerated' Checkers variants turn out to be drawish, there must be other reasons for that.

The presumed source of all 'diagonal' variants
With 12 men each on a diagonally connected grid with 32 fields, long range kings make tactics more exciting, especially in combination with backwards capture. But the playground for such tactics, especially on a diagonal grid where the board does not align with the direction of capture, soon was felt to be too crammed. As shown in Draughts Dissected, the diagonal grid significantly reduces the range of multiple captures, so the game most likely evolved to the 10x10 board under the pressure of these very tactics. At the same time, as shown elsewhere in this essay, long range kings and the diagonal grid of European Checkers lead to a drawish endgame: if the opponent manages to get a king, one needs at least three kings and in most cases even four to win. It is not entirely clear if the promotion within a capture as in Russian Checkers, the so called 'flying king', makes the game significantly more decisive, but it does certainly not address the problem in any fundamental way.

Demoted kings
Demoting kings may seem surprising if one is used to full fledged long range kings. However, I have a game with demoted kings as a personal background, and for me long range kings looked strange and complicated when I first encountered them. In any case, the idea has come up in such geographically distant regions as Germany and Thailand. The point of a demoted king is simple: two kings versus one is a win.

Demoted kings have been taken to various levels:

  • A king may only move to a square immediately behind the piece captured (Thailand, Greece, Germany).
  • A king captures as in International Checkers, but it must end the move on the square immediately behind the last piece captured.
  • In Killer Draughts a king captures as in International Checkers, but it must end the move on the square immediately behind the last piece captured, if and only if that piece is also a king.
  • A king captures as in International Checkers, but it must end the move on the square immediately behind the last piece captured, if there are only kings on the board.

In a way, this looks promising, because it becomes less and less intrusive. However, the rules are progressively more complicated and the overall impression is that demotion feels like a band aid.

When we look beyond Draughts games with enforced progress, we see that the idea appeared in orthogonal variants, too. Greek Checkers is Turkish Draughts with demoted kings. While that is not needed to win endgames with two kings versus one, the demotion makes endgames with king and men versus king more decisive.

Reversal to a doublegrid game
We've pointed out the largely unobserved transition of draughts from the 'doublegrid' Alquerque games to the 'singlegrid' offspring of the European and Turkish line in the split in two branches. At the time there would have been no evolutionary pressure on draughts, because it was in a general state of transition, with draws being the least of the problems considered. The the emergence of Frisian Draughts was a case of 'too much too soon', even for the Frisians, but the direction in which it points - a return to doublegrid games - serves the arguments presented here excellently.

Larger boards
Moving from the 8x8 board to 10x10 (International Draughts) or even 12x12 (Malaysia, Sri Lanka, Canada) makes it easier to gain a winning advantage. With 30 men each, you are more likely to get three men or kings more in the endgame than it is with 12 men each.

Vacant back row
Seemingly in contradiction with the above, Turkish Draughts, with in its wake Armenian, has at some point shedded its back row. They would be the only games to develop this particular feature. The question is: why? We can only speculate, but with sideways movement and a full 24 men army on an 8x8 board, you can play quite a game before even thinking of leaving the back row. So reason suggests that the measure was taken not so much to make the game more decisive, but to speed up the decision by supporting breakthrough to the back rank as a guiding strategy. Remember a king is much stronger in an orthogonal game: two kings suffice to capture a lone one in Turkish and Armenian.
Later derivatives like Croda and Dameo have forced progress and are less in need of 'speeding up' by leaving the back row vacant.

Untouchable kings
In Italian Draughts, only a king may capture a king. When you get a king and the opponent does not manage to get one himself, he is in trouble. Granted, there are some more rules making the tactics even trickier, but the game itself is more decisive.

Modified game goal
In Turkish Draughts, while two kings can capture a lone king, one king cannot win against a lone man. Sometimes the convention is used to declare it a win. By the same token, three kings cannot, as a rule, capture a lone king in International and Russian Draughts. Therefore the Ghanese speed hybrid Damii simply declares that a player down to his last piece has lost. That piece may well be a king that has a winning endgame against two men.
This way to bend the means to serve the end interferes deplorably with aesthetics, but the purpose couldn't be clearer: preventing draws.
A more recent variant addresses the drawing problem in a similar but more elegant way: by making a back-up goal. In a variant called 'Lombok dammen' that is sometimes played in the Netherlands and presumably originated in the time the Dutch ruled the current day Indonesia, the player who is first to promote a man to king will from that point onwards win, unless he loses. In consequence a 'draw' doesn't exist.
The same can be said of Konane. It 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 into Grabber.

Inverted game goal
'Give away play' exists in every culture where there are traditional variants with enforced progress. With long range kings, the drawing margin drops to 1% among experienced players, maybe even less. Yet there's something counterintuitive about 'suicide checkers' that prevents these games from being played on a significant scale.

Recent variants
Another approach is not having promotion in the first place. This idea isn't new of course or the question whether or not Alquerque did have promotion wouldn't have existed. Ossetian Draughts is a traditional that has remained close to its ancestry. It has no compulsory capture and no promotion, and since it has forced progress there can be no cycles, so it cannot end in a draw.

In the realm of column checkers, neither Stappeldammen nor Emergo feature promotion. Stapeldammen does have an initial position and a forwards direction of movement, but the absence of promotion makes that columns reaching the backrow have to sit it out, unless they are forced to make a backwards capture that brings them back 'in the field'. Emergo has no initial position and no restrictions regarding direction in the first place. It is a pit rather than a track.
It is noteworthy that Stapeldammen has no cycles and consequently cannot end in a draw. Emergo has no kings either, but that's because all men are 'kings'.

The most important 'moderns' to address the problem are Hexdame, Croda and Dameo. Christian Freeling didn't invent Hexdame to that effect, but the game did turn out to have a smaller margin of draws just the same. The late Ljuban Dedić however, a mathematics professor at the University of Split and a former national champion International Draughts of the former republic of Yugoslavia, set out specifically to address the problem. And he perfectly succeeded: Croda has the same basic structure as International Draughts, but without the problematic margin of draws. Dameo, though further accelerating the game by the introduction of linear movement, does not improve on that particular aspect. Nor does it have to.

The above shows that there was a lot of evolutionary pressure on Draughts. And the resulting variants indicate the direction into which it tried to move has always been towards less draws. We do not say that each and every variant serves this purpose. Yet, it should be clear that the majority of variants exist for this reason. And we think that this result of our inquiry is as simple as it is meaningful.

We have not listed the drawbacks of the particular variants. Let it be enough to say that they exist and that this lends credibility to our thesis that Draughts tried to move in a direction with less draws. For this purpose, the players even accepted shortcomings. There are lessons to be learned from Checkers and International Draughts in this regard: neither beautiful decisive endgames nor breathtaking combinations are enough to make a game as a whole decisive. Looking at the history of variants worldwide, we see that two things must have happened: people have come up with ideas aiming at reducing the number of draws and players eventually adapted to these games, in favor of the variants that preceeded them.

To put the above in perspective, Checkers, in almost all of its variants, is a great game. One might well argue that the increasing number of draws with advanced skill does not matter much for the the many people who play at a more modest level and yet enjoy it. A great game doesn't necessarily have to be a great sport weapon. But if it claims to be one, it should be able to deliver. In that regard Checkers and Draughts have become questionable.