Disegno #26

Chess on Earth by Daniel Weil for Owl & Dog Playbooks


28 August 2020

Playbooks In the 6th or 7th century CE, a game called chaturaṅga began to be played in India. Its name translates as “four divisions”, referencing the infantry, cavalry, elephantry and chariotry sectors of the military at that time. Chaturaṅga pitted two armies against each other and played out through a strategic series of moves intended to exploit the enemy’s weaknesses. “Historically, chess must be classed as a game of war,” wrote historian Harold James Ruthven Murray in his 1913 text A History of Chess.

Certainly, this status was recognised by the Persians, who quickly adopted the game to teach young princes and nobles military strategies. It was then “handed on by the Persians to the Muslim world, and finally borrowed from Islam by Christian Europe,” explains Murray. During the 9th century, Europeans further codified the game, tweaking the rules such that the queen and bishops were more powerful, thereby evolving it into the modern version of chess that we play today.

Daniel Weil, a partner at Pentagram since 1992, says he is fascinated by this social history of chess that has its “origins in warfare and court”. His recent project Chess on Earth, a storybook-cum-flatpack-chess-set, departs from this violent history and introduces young children to the game through playful anthropomorphic characters representing day and night (rather than black and white). “First to move will be the day,/ then the night will join the play,” reads the book, which is written entirely in rhyme.

The design of each chess piece was inspired by geographical landmarks – the Earth King, the Moon Queen, the Mountain Rook, the River Knight, the Waterfall Bishop and the Tree Pawn – which were selected for how they embodied the movements of their corresponding piece, guiding children on how to manoeuvre through the game. “The River Knight flows left or right,” writes Weil. “It springs over tops on its watery flight.”

“It’s a not very coded message about peace on earth,” Weil acknowledges of his decision to strip away some of chess’s martial origins and install natural features in their place. He hopes that by getting four- to six-year-olds involved in the “wonderfully social and friendly activity” of chess, he can also get them thinking more about nature and our relationship with it – and less about warfare.