App version: 2.47
Device: iPad 3rd gen
Operating system: iOS 9.1
A good looking app that caters well for the casual user but won’t satisfy the more demanding chess player due to lack of features.
Mastersoft Chess is available on both android and apple platforms. There are three versions. The Pro, is the senior edition with enhanced graphical capabilities and separate ‘paid for’ and free releases of the app. The free version is not limited in any way but is supported by adverts. This review is of the ‘paid for’ version (ie not the Pro release).
It is important to credit the developer and note that Mastersoft Chess is a universal app meaning you don’t have to buy separate versions if you want to use it on a phone and tablet device on the same platform (eg iPod and iPad). This is very welcome from a user perspective.
The first thing to note even before downloading the app is that Mastersoft Chess promotes itself heavily on the basis that it uses a chess engine that came 4th in the World Micro Computer Chess competition.
On the face of it, this is great news. The engine must be a top strength opponent then?.. Well, the engine used is a version of Gromit Chess and yes, it is quite true that it achieved that 4th place position. Unfortunately, what the app developer fails to mention is that this tournament was held in 2001… an aeon ago in the world of computer chess. It’s as if you were being told England were the world cup winners on buying an England football shirt (maybe we can dream!). I have a particular gripe with sloppy and/or misleading promotional material and this is a poor example which should be corrected.
Nevertheless, despite this the chess engine is indeed a good one – with an established track record over a long period. Indeed Gromit has evolved over time and various incarnations and the engine author’s latest offering – called Ginkgo – is currently one of the top engines in terms of strength. It is not clear which engine version this app uses, but certainly if the latter then this would be something to mention in the marketing material!
However, in terms of core strength, the existing engine at its maximum level (the app includes an elo rating scheme – more of this below) will be more than adequate for all but titled chess players.
Let’s start with features relating to actual game play.
Mastersoft Chess scores well with the inclusion of an elo rating function which allows the user to play the engine at selected elo ratings and also has a separate rating feature. The app will keep track of your elo over the games you play and visually graph your progress and also provide some rudimentary statistics about the games you have played. A good rating feature is important for a chess playing app. It gives an opportunity for the user to track his/her progress and can also maintain interest over the longer term by stimulating an element of competitiveness. ( I will reach and beat this app at 1700 elo!)
The user may select the engine to play at one of a large number of different strength levels. These range from 800 elo (beginner) to 2780 (Super Grandmaster). Whilst on the face of it, this appears to be very appealing, the practical application is maybe less so. The elo settings increase in steps of just 20 elo. This really is a spurious and unrealistic level of accuracy. Why? well because in practical play it is very difficult for the non-expert player to be able to distinguish a difference of 20 elo and it is even harder to program a chess engine to this level of accuracy, let alone throughout the ability range from beginner to Grandmaster. In short, the elo rating scale should be taken with a healthy pinch of salt.
There is also some doubt about the accuracy of some of the individual levels – for example the lowest level (800) ostensibly that of a beginner plays rather too strongly which is likely to demotivate players of this ability. It is noticeable that even at these lower rating levels the engine still uses an opening book and plays recognised opening moves. Use of an opening book at ‘beginner’ type levels can result in unrealistic game play if not specially adapted or better still removed. In this case, for example, the engine knows the main line of the Ruy Lopez rather too well for a player of 800 elo rating.
The app isn’t really suited for anything other than casual play. There are too many features lacking for the more experienced or dedicated player. This includes the lack of an analysis function (for example in reviewing games and/or positions). This is disappointing as the engine does offer analysis of its own thinking when playing a game.
The app only allows play against the engine at the specified elo ratings. There are no time control based options (for example, game in 5 minutes or 10 seconds a move – the latter was certainly available in earlier versions of Mastersoft Chess). This isn’t really a problem for the casual or hobby player but it does mean that the user has no control over the engine’s thinking time at the higher strength levels.
So if you want to test your mettle at the top level 2780 (World Championship contender) or test the engine against another chess engine, you can expect the app to take around 30 seconds for each move. The thinking time per move becomes noticeable from above 2200 elo, so whilst irritating, this shouldn’t be a real problem for the average user. ‘Hard core’ users should also note that there is no ability to tinker with the engine settings, for example by altering book openings or style of play etc.
There is one particularly disappointing omission to note relating to practical game play and this is the absence of a resign or offer draw feature. Additionally, whilst there are save and load options, these can only be used directly from within the app. There is no import or export facility for either games or positions – meaning that these can not be shared or transferred for use in other applications.
However, Mastersoft Chess does have some good features. There is a very easy to use training mode which at the tap of an icon, will result in the engine either suggesting potential move options or warning of possible threats – these are highlighted visually on the board by either green or red arrows respectively. There are also additional play options namely the ability to play another human (ie 2 player option) and on-line play via connection to the game centre. In terms of the latter option, I have never succeeded in finding an opponent on-line (maybe I’m just unlucky!). So if you are just interested in internet chess there are other apps that cater for this type of play far better.
Practicality of use and presentation
The design and layout of the app is generally good and easy to use. A variety of game control icons are readily accessible from the main playing screen. These are clearly identifiable below the chessboard – see below – and are those likely to be most commonly used when playing a casual game.
The app has probably one of the widest selections of board and piece options available. Helpfully these are pre-prepared in the form of a number of pre-defined skins, many of which have well matched piece and board combinations. This saves the user searching for their own though of course this is also possible for those wanting added variety.
There are certainly some visually attractive combinations including several well designed 3d sets (3D piece sets are notoriously difficult to show sufficiently clearly for practical use). Quantity of available options does not necessarily mean quality and several designs appear to have been included for ‘show’ and are unsuited to playing a game. However, despite this there should be enough choice to offer at least several that the user can happily and easily use.
Within the settings menu heading, there is also a range of options to tailor the look and feel of the game. For example, a simple coach option that flags up when you are in check, (but surprisingly not when you blunder a piece away!), speed of piece animation, and a toggle to display of captured pieces.
There are a few practical niggles with the app which become apparent with use:
- The app uses clocks to record move times but these are redundant not only as there are no time-based levels to play the engine against but also as they only record the time taken for a particular move (ie they don’t show cumulative time, which might be useful for seeing how long a user has taken for the whole game)
- There is one frustrating design omission – the inability to use the app in landscape view, the user is restricted to a portrait view like it or not!
- The sound option doesn’t seem to work (at least on my device I have never heard any sounds – and yes the sound option has been enabled and volume turned up!)
- When saving a game, it would be helpful if the elo setting was automatically included in the game data field – to save the user having to remember and enter it
None of these are ‘deal-breakers’ in their own right but if fixed would improve enjoyment.
Developer support for this app has traditionally been good with frequent updates. Feedback is actively invited and easy to give from within the app. which is always good to see from a user perspective. The app includes an easily accessible help file with detailed instruction manual. However, the bad news is that this is out of date (issued in 2009), and for example references features no longer available. The manual also makes no reference to users of the equivalent android app (I know as I also have the android app and it is the same manual!) . This really should be updated.
- Universal app
- Effective design and layout
- Variety of board/piece skins
- Rating system enables user to track progress
- Misleading engine advertising
- Unrealistic granularity of elo settings (20 elo gaps)
- Inability to import/export positions and games
- No time control based game options
- Lack of draw and resign feature
- Out of date instruction manual
These are my thoughts; if you have used this app what do you think…..?