The Staunton chess set has been the worldwide standard for the game for more than 160 years. Named after English chess master Howard Staunton, who signed and numbered the first 500 sets, these are generally the same pieces you, me, and Bobby Fischer grew up playing with. And it’s probable that the next generation of chess novices and geniuses will be reared on them as well. That is, unless some other design comes along to replace it.
In all likelihood, Skyline Chess won't replace the Staunton set. But it's a nice contemporary complement if you like a design that's a little less 1840s on your table. The project reconceives the board as a site for modern urban conflict, its pieces based on architectural landmarks of the world’s great cities. Only a London set is available for the Kickstarter launch, but makers Chris Prosser and Ian Flood promise many more are to follow.
Naturally, the idea came to the London-based architects and friends when they were playing a game. "We often play chess in the evenings, and our discussions tend to focus around architecture and design," they tell Co.Design. Noting the ubiquity of the Staunton pieces, they thought it would be fun to introduce some new characters. From there, the pair made the link from stylized combat to jostling skyline fairly easily. The exact translation from chessman to buildings fell more or less into place.
The duo 3-D printed an iteration that cast their city’s most famous buildings as stand-ins for the familiar Staunton crew. The lowly pawn is represented by the humble terraced house that still accounts for much of central London’s low-rise housing stock. The rook assumes the form of a Big Ben; the bishop is the bulging Gherkin tower by Foster + Partners. The sleek and domineering profile of Renzo Piano’s Shard was a natural fit for the queen. Canary Wharf is the king, with a mighty presence.
The most radical metamorphosis occurs in the knight, for which the designers chose to drop the equine identity to reveal skeletal remains arranged in the shape of the London Eye. That translation, say Prosser and Flood, was the most challenging of the set to get right. They cite the knight’s traditional role of “seeing the whole board” as the rationale behind the design—after all, there’s no better view of the whole of London than from the Eye.
Of course, the architectural sites on the chess board will vary from edition to edition and city to city. But London presented the designers with the opportunity to explore the peculiar layered and often hierarchical landscape of their home city. "Part of London's intrigue lies in its density, and the point at which the city meets dwelling is a fine and often blurred line," they explain. "So when a pawn, or a terraced house, is about to take another more powerful piece, it speaks loudly both in terms of urbanization."
If the project’s Kickstarter reaches its £25,000 goal, the team will roll out the London set, as well as move ahead with New York and Paris versions. The ultimate goal though is to take the game global: “Why not play your home city against that of your friends or family; London vs. Paris, New York vs. Rome, Dubai vs. Shanghai?”