Updated: Jun 10
Shift is a game of constantly changing strategy where you have to check to bet! Combining elements of chess and poker, you must capture your opponent’s King while protecting your own, as you and your opponent change the movement patterns of your pieces every turn. A betting game of bluffing and strategy, Shift is a game you can print and play.
First, print the materials, and cut the cards and pieces out. Get poker chips. If you don’t have cardstock to print on, I recommend printing on regular paper, then putting the cards in card sleeves, with a playing card in each to support it. Trim the board.
Shuffle the cards, and give each player an equal number of chips. Place the pieces in the configuration in the diagram below. The first player deals three cards to each player.
Each round of play begins with an ante. The objective is to capture your opponent’s king. You capture a piece by moving on top of it, like chess.
During a player’s turn, the player must move, then play a card, in that order. However, the first turn of a round, both players skip moving, as neither player has yet played a card. Until you play a card defining how a type of piece moves, you cannot move that piece. The king is an exception, however. Your king can move like a king in chess - one square in any direction.
Your cards determine how your pieces move. When you play a card on your side of the board, you play it into one of three slots - changing how every piece of that type moves. Here’s the board after a hypothetical first move from each player.
For each card, imagine the circle is the piece you are moving - the arrows and X’s define where it can move. Below is a quick breakdown of each type of card:
Play continues, each player first moving a piece, then playing a card. You can choose to play a card on top of another card on your side.
When you put your opponent into check (in the chess sense of the word), you can either bet, or check (in the poker sense of the word). If you bet, your opponent either has to call, raise, or fold. You can bet every time you put your opponent into check, either by moving a piece, or by playing a card.
Once both players have used all three cards in their hand, the first player deals both players another three cards, and another round of betting occurs, with the first player leading. Play continues until either player folds, or puts their opponent into checkmate. The winning player gets the pot, and play continues until either player runs out of chips.
Combining poker and chess was a unique and fun design challenge! Shift can be difficult to keep track of, with the movement rules changing every single turn, it was very important to me that I keep the cognitive load to a minimum. While designing this game, I would make design decisions that seemed potentially fun, then roll them back because the rules were difficult to communicate to a new player, or slowed the gameplay to a crawl. Some examples of this:
Symmetrical Cards: You may have noticed each card is completely symmetrical along the vertical axis - so that if they’re played “upside-down” they show exactly the same movement rule. This was intentional - the few times I deviated from this, the gameplay slowed down as players tried to optimize the orientation of their hand every turn (it was like each player was now holding up to six cards in their hand, instead of three).
Powerful, Weak Cards: Initially, I assumed I would have every movement pattern from chess represented, along with a lot of other ones! As I playtested the game, however, I quickly discovered that some cards were either overpowered, or completely useless in this setup. Cards that had only one direction, or had really limited moves were ignored or played grudgingly. And the “queen” card? Whoever got the queen card won the game every time. I tested and removed over a hundred other cards before landing on the fifty card deck included with this version.
Number of Types of Pieces: Though I began with four types, I whittled it down to three piece types. The amount of information to track was too much, and people stopped playing the game strategically.
Board Size: You’ll notice the board is an unusual size - 5 x 5 is an unusual choice. I started designing this game on a traditional 8x8 board, but there was a problem of symmetry with an even number of rows/columns. Then, I tried a 5 x 9 board, but the asymmetry didn’t make the game more interesting. The 5 x 5 board makes for rapid, simple rounds that facilitate betting.
I was so happy to have this opportunity to work on such an interesting challenge. As a game designer, I love working in abstract strategy, and poker and chess both mean a lot to me. Some of my best memories growing up were with the friends I made in chess club in middle and high school. And as someone who’s moved a lot over the years, Poker has always been the perfect ice-breaker in my life. Though I’ve never been a serious poker player, I’ve never moved anywhere that I couldn’t find five or six people willing to share a night around a table with me, and it’s certainly helped me find and keep lasting friendships.
One of the things I most love about both Poker and Chess - variants! There’s tons of different ways to play both of these games. If you come up with another variant, comment below - I’d love to add new ways to play!
If you’re not interested in betting, you can play Shift without any betting at all! Exchange the 5 x 5 board for a 7 x 7 board, set up in this configuration:
Play the game as before, but each turn now ends with each player drawing from the deck. Move, play card, then draw.
This is the exact same game as Shift, but you play cards on your opponent's side of the board, instead of your own. This makes the game a little less serious strategically, but I find it a fun twist!
Instead of each player having a hand of cards, keep a row of community cards next to the deck, that players choose from instead of playing a card from their hand.
Although time is up on the PokerStars challenge to find the intersection of Poker and Chess, there are some polish and alternate ideas to help extend this game!
Balance: Although I've done a lot of playtesting here at the NYU Game Center, I am sure there's more balance work to be done! This deck of 50 cards has proven fun in the dozens of games played with different iterations of the rules, but that doesn't mean there isn't a combinatorial or balance issue (or issues) that would need to be addressed. If you download and play this game yourself, please comment with any ideas or suggestions you have!
Transparent Cards: An idea I'm really excited about is adding transparent cards to the game - instead of replacing the previous card with a new one, you'd be building up a set of moves for each piece, adding to it step by step. It would lead to completely different play - I’m excited to prototype some versions and test them out!
Visual Design: I’m happy with the design steps I’ve been able to accomplish so far - however I’d love to create three dimensional pieces, and create a more cohesive visual design - particularly with the cards. Some of the visual artists here at the NYU Game Center have given me great ideas of how to re-work this game, and I’d love an excuse to break out the laser engraving machines and three-dimensional printers we have on hand.