Old Game, New Tricks - Two Inventive Twists on Chess

By Mark Robinson 01 Nov 2016 5

Developers are always attempting to find new ways to put a spin on classic games. Tetris has had a thousand ports over the years, usually to enhance graphics and add multiplayer features, but the Nintendo 64 is home to two games: Wetrix and Tetrisphere, that both dragged the 2D puzzler hurtling into the third dimension, and twisted the rules and original objective.

For smaller development teams, simple card games like Solitaire have become a breeding ground for different approaches to the standard formula – especially on iOS and Android (just type solitaire into your app store and see for yourself).

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Another classic game that has seen adaptations to the original formula is chess. Chess is a timeless game, having been around for over a thousand years. It is pure mano a mano combat for the bedroom programmers of the world, and as a video game experience has been around since the 70s.

With iterations appearing on just about every home computer and console to date, from Nintendo’s Wii all the way back to the ZX Spectrum; today the mobile market is over-saturated with poorly designed, buggy, cheap renditions that are littered with ads and clearly made with a quick buck in mind. There do exist solid versions though; VooFoo Studios’ Pure Chess, originally created for the PlayStation Vita and PlayStation 3 was ported to iOS and Android, plus the classic Chess engine HIARCS is also available – even if it is a little crude looking by today’s standards.

With any of these games you pretty much know what to expect going in, and recent iterations have only served to add bells and whistles to dress up the experience or at the very least add online multiplayer, giving you the chance to test your skills worldwide.

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But now we have two games that are looking to deconstruct the core fundamentals of chess to create something new in its place. In the red corner, first, from Zach Gage comes Really Bad Chess. Zach Gage is the man behind Spelltower, and had a hand in creating Ridiculous Fishing so he comes with a solid reputation. On the surface, Really Bad Chess looks as crude and poorly put together as the many, many free chess apps available out there, but look a little closer and you realise it is attempting something rather novel.

Instead of starting off with your usual pieces in their traditional places, the game calculates an algorithm dependent on your ranking and will generate a board accordingly. On a lower ranking this means starting out with more queens, rooks, bishops, etc. and on a higher ranking you better make sure you know how to get the best out of those pawns. This means a radical overhaul on how you might typically play chess. Early sessions will be laughably easy with five queens at your disposal; I did not feel the usual sense of failure losing even two of them, as the odds were stacked so high in my favour. Soon enough, though, the pressure begins to stack up, and latter stages are utterly brutal. You can use undo tokens if you make a mistake, but these are limited in supply.

Really Bad Chess is a dumb game, both in its production and core mechanic. In Gage’s own words he has “ripped out the core of chess”, but by doing so he has made an experience  that – at least to begin with – is approachable to those who have never even seen a chessboard. Instead of tangling and dumbing down the AI, novices can start off overpowered and learn the nuances of each piece, allowing themselves to get ready for the big step up when they feel comfortable.

Four modes exist currently that include daily and weekly challenges, both ranked and freeplay. Ranked is where the crux of the gameplay takes place, as you look to progress over a number of increasingly difficult boards. Daily and weekly challenges are self-explanatory, except the difficulty is ramped up. The goal is to win in as few moves as possible, with a global leader board available to see how you fare against others.

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Next, in the blue corner comes Moveless Chess by Beavl. Originally created as a Ludum Dare project, this reinvention of chess acts more like a puzzle game, with a pre-arranged board and static pieces fixed in place. Instead of moving pieces, you attempt to checkmate the king by transforming them into what is required – so you might have a pawn that needs to become a rook, or a knight that needs to be a bishop. These cost action points, with a pawn worth one point, the knight and bishop worth three, the rook worth five and the queen worth nine – matching the relative value system for you chess nerds out there.

You have a small set amount of points per level; going around transforming everything on the board is not an option. To make things a little more problematic your opponent is not restricted by movement; plotting your next great attack is useless if a rook comes flying across the board and checkmates your king (and that will happen).

Of the two games Moveless Chess will be the one to succeed in bending your brain. It kind of behaves like a turn-based RPG by limiting your actions from move to move, but there is a lack of consequence for failing to finish a level – you just keep going till you get it right through sheer brute force, so it loses a little in attempting to keep the stakes raised. There is a timer, forcing you to watch an ad or wait several minutes to begin again, but the puzzles are not long enough for this ever to become anything other than a mild inconvenience.

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Its retro-pixel look is visually pleasing, and the faux-medieval soundtrack fits the aesthetics well enough. The game only has the one mechanic, though, and whilst interesting and executed as well as it can be, it quickly wears out its welcome, but for a few morning commutes and considering it is free the recommendation is still there.

Both games are free to download; Moveless Chess has a single IAP to remove the timer and ads, as does Really Bad Chess except you can also buy undo tokens for $0.99.

Of the two, expect Really Bad Chess to keep you going for longer due to its replayabilty. It is unique to see someone take a game solely based on skill and throw in a dose of luck to the proceedings, but the game gets a lot of its charm from this. I have not touched chess since I was in my teens, but here I have found a solid reintroduction that genuinely has its hooks in deep. It forces a more aggressive and quicker style of play that makes Really Bad Chess rather quite good.

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