A History of Three-Dimensional Chess

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If there are two things we love talking about here at Geek & Sundry, it’s Star Trek and tabletop gaming. We get to combine those two things in every episode of Shield of Tomorrow, but we also get excited when they combine in unusual ways. Tri-dimensional chess has been around the Star Trek universe since the beginning. It appeared in the second pilot episode “Where No Man Has Gone Before” as well as episodes of The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine and Enterprise.  3D-chess an iconic element of the show that, like so many other parts of Star Trek lore, has a basis in the real world that was then shaped by the fans and writers into its own unique thing.


Legendary German chess master Lionel Kieseritzky is credited with the first three-dimensional chess design in 1851. Kubikschach was a standard 8×8 chessboard featuring 8 layers. Each layer was designated with a Greek symbol to allow for moves between levels to be called and annotated. This massive board offered 512 spaces for chess masterminds to battle upon and is considered one of the largest chess boards in existence. The space confounded lesser players for years until inventor Ferdinand Maack refined the idea in 1907. He wanted a game that reflected modern warfare where enemies could attack from the air and the sea. He also started with an 8x8x8 playing field, but his game Raumschach ended up with a 5x5x5 playing space. It also added two pawns for each player and a special piece called a unicorn. The unicorn moves triagonally, like a bishop, but up and down between boards.

The Star Trek variant sadly has no war unicorn pieces. It was created by mashing up 3D Checkers and 3D Tic-Tac-Toe sets available to the props department. The board shares the 64 squares of a regular chess board broken up into different planes and sized. One thing the game didn’t have during production were rules. Sharp-eyed fans will notice that the pieces and even the game boards aren’t consistent in the scenes where the game is played. The first rules came out in Franz Joseph’s semi-canon work Star Trek Star Fleet Technical Manual with further refinements by Andrew Bartmoss that remain available on Charles Roth’s website.


Star Trek’s 3D-chess has expanded beyond the show into the greater pop culture landscape. 3D-chess apps can be found for smartphones and computers. TV shows from Batman to The Big Bang Theory have featured their characters playing it, with the intergalactic pranksters even parodying the game as tri-dimensional Scrabble. Most recently, “playing three-dimensional chess” has entered the pop culture lexicon to mean understanding an issue on a level that far outweighs an opponent. 3d-chess was around before Star Trek, but without the power of a pop-culture phenomenon behind, it might still just be a game for inventors.

Where are you playing Star Trek AdventuresTell us in the comments! And be sure to tune into our Star Trek RPG show,  Shield of Tomorrow on Geek & Sundry  Twitch and  Alpha every Friday starting at 4 PM PT, followed by our aftershow on Alpha, Behind The Shield, where the crew discusses the episode and other Star Trek topics.

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Images Credits: Wikipedia, CBS 

Rob Wieland is an author, game designer and professional nerd. He’s worked on dozens of different tabletop games ranging from Star Wars and Firefly to his own creations like CAMELOT Trigger. He can be hired as a professional  Dungeon Master for in-person or remote games. His Twitter is  here. You can watch him livestream RPGs  here. His meat body can be found in scenic Milwaukee, WI.

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