Death Chess – the long version

I have a confession – I am a nerd and yet, terrible at Chess. Anybody with a slight bit of strategy will crush others. There has never been a “pickup” game of Chess. But would you play a game of Chess that has random chance built into game play, effectively disrupting almost all typical strategies? That’s what we have created and we call it – Death Chess. Scroll to the bottom for how to play!

About four years ago, we introduced a Middle School Club that was for students interested in Making, Coding and Design. At the time, we were pushing these initiatives and we all know Middle Schoolers are infinitely more creative than the average adult. We had about 11 students and dubbed ourselves Maker Team X on the basis of… it sounds really cool. As part of this club, we decided that we would let students drive their learning and pick what project they wanted to work on for the year.

The Origin Story.

  • Every day, last period is a study hall. Some have work to complete but most don’t and either goof off or are bored
  • We wanted more engagement with the Middle School – easiest to start small
  • We saw lack of creativity in the upper grades and wanted to jumpstart process, leading to more innovative students

So far, it has been successful beyond our wildest dreams. Last year we focused on innovation with them, spending a lot of time on how to be creative and they really took it and ran.

Lessons Learned

There were so many lessons that came out of this experience, it is hard to track them all. There are the obvious hard skills – coding, woodworking, making, problem solving, tool trainings. But the real lessons were in the soft skills. Teamwork, collaboration, communication, ideating, creativity, confidence in one’s ideas, learning strengths and weaknesses – these all came out in such an organic and wonderful way. For instance, when deciding a project to work on, there was one voice out of the group that kept being a “naysayer” but really was the voice of reason in reigning everybody in on the project scope. Typically in a class like this, the naysayer is shunned by the rest of the group as being a downer and not fun. But we were able to instead raise this student to the Chief of the project. Instead of ignoring him and going with the consensus, I made it clear that this student was going to be incredibly vital in being the check to our power, just like in government. Soon, the others started asking him “ Do you think we could ______?” and he was much more involved in the process because he felt included.
We also decided to split the group up into individual teams with individual tasks that would break up the project into workable components. This has direct correlation with real world employment and was one of the best ideas. If one team failed, the entire project would be a bust. To help facilitate this, we made each team come up with their own project breakdown of tasks they would need to accomplish and possible obstacles. Then, we had regular check ins among the teams with a quick debrief at the start of class.  Before any work took place, they had to present the idea to the others and get confirmation. What was so powerful is this was a chance for the teams to showoff what they had done and receive constructive feedback. The communication was such a key element but was not a chore.

So, what is it and how does it work? We used the following:

  • An Arduino Mega
  • A Big Red Dome Pushbutton from Sparkfun
  • A LED lit toggle switch from Sparkfun
  • 4 RGB LEDs
  • 2 blue LEDs
  • A sheet of plexiglass
  • Acrylic paint
  • Sand paper or hand sander
  • A metric ton of patience

We built a wooden frame 2″ tall so we could put the LEDs lower. Built the top out of plexiglass, sanded it all by hand and then painted the squares on. The 4 center squares, also known as the “power squares” all have an RGB LED under them. There are also two blue squares that are teleport squares. See image below


At the start of your turn, you press the big red button, this randomizes the color under the 4 power squares. There are 4 possible outcomes:

  • No color – play as normal
  • Red – lava, your piece is automatically wiped
  • Green – that piece is safe for the turn, but also cannot be moved (Applies to opponents pieces too)
  • Blue – teleport squares. These only stay open for 6 seconds, rushing strategists to choose.



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