Mastersoft Chess

Mastersoft chessReview details:                                                                           
App version:  2.47
Device:  iPad 3rd gen
Operating system: iOS 9.1


Summary:

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 Mastersoft_maincapabilities 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.


Strength

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.

Features

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 Mastersoft ratinghas 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 veryMastersoft coach 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.

Mastersoft options

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 combinationsMastersoft_Staunton_3d 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

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.


Overall

Likes:

  • Universal app
  • Effective design and layout
  • Variety of board/piece skins
  • Rating system enables user to track progress

Dislikes:

  • 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…..?

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Chess Diags

chess diagsReview details:
App version:  3.0
Device:  Nexus 7
Operating system: 5.1.1

Summary

A fun and addictive app with a good and broad range of chess problems, with scope to develop your own.  

Chess Diags is a free app (thankfully unsupported by advertising) developed by Olivier Levitt. The app is simple – there is no chess engine to play against – just a large repository of chess problems for the user to solve. Studying and solving chess problems is a great way to improve chess ability particularly for example in developing concentration and recognising patterns and themes.

Features

The app includes 3 separate folders or repositories of problems – in total there are over 1,800 different problems. Each individual problem is identified as a mate in x moves, so it is clear what you are looking for.

Once an invidiual problem is selected, a chessboard with the relevant position is shown and the user is invited to make a move. The user can then play out the position, and will then be told of their success or failure. It is easy to keep track of which problems have been solved – these are marked with a gold star and be removed from the list if so wished.

Mate in 2 _chess_diagsSo what of the problems?  There is a good mix to suit all levels of ability. These include a specific repository (folder) for beginners which are all mate in 1. A separate repository includes over 1,400 problems ranging from mate in 2, all the way up to mate in 10 for expert players. This graduated approach to difficulty is also very good for assessing progress.

Sample problem – White to mate in 2 – what’s the move?* (answer at the bottom)

A nice touch is that the problems in the main repository folder (called repositort_chess diagsWtharvey) are all taken from actual games and so do not feel contrived or otherwise artifical, which can sometimes be the case with certain problem sets. However, this does highlight a gap in that there is no ability to copy the position to the clipboard, or extract the full game to review and use or study in another application.

Sample extract – Wtharvey repository

Individual respositories can be updated from within the app (ie further problems downloaded from various websites) though it is not clear how often (if at all) these are refreshed.

chess diags options
The app has a limited feature set – the main one being the ability to create your own problems (there is a specific repository for your creations – this is empty to start with). Disappointingly, the advertised ability to upload and share your problems with other app users no longer seems to work. Users are also told that self created problem respositories is a feature still being developed).

 

 

(extract – Settings menu)


Practical useability and presentation

It is important to note that the app includes no instructions or guidance on usage. However, the app is very easy to navigate and use. Repositiories are changed with a simple left or right swipe. The Settings menu is largely self explanatory though some guidance on how to add material from other sources (Add a source) is needed to be able to use this particular option. Setting up and saving your own problems is similarly not difficult with individual pieces removed or added by touch.

The board and piece options are a little disappointing. There are two choices, though neither make for easy use, especially for extended periods. The options are:

  • light chessboard (where there is insufficient contrast between the light and dark squares); or
  • standard chessboard (where the dark brown squares clash with visually the black pieces (see picture above)

Developer support

Sadly the app hasn’t been regularly updated and the current version dates from January 2003. This might explain why certain features such as uploading user creation no longer seem to work. But equally certain aspects of the app seem unfinished (for example a message says that self created problem respositories is still being developed).

Overall


Likes:

  • Free and ad-free
  • Large number of interesting and fun chess problems
  • Ability to self-generate problems
  • Simple and easy to use


Dislikes:

  • No recent updates
  • Upload and user sharing  option no longer working
  • Inability to copy and paste positions to clipboard
  • Board and piece options available
  • No instructions

These are my thoughts; if you have used this app what do you think…..?

(* Answer to the chess problem: 1 Rf6 Bxf6  2 Nxf6++ )

 

Komodo Chess Legends

Komodo chess legendsReview details:                                                                           
App version:  1.9
Device:  Ipod Touch 4th ed
Operating system: ios 6.1.6

Summary:

Use of a top quality chess engine fails to make up for shortcomings in practical use; a disappointing and frustrating experience that is best avoided.

This app (formerly known as Chess Legends) is available in both a free (Lite) and paid for version (costing £2.99/$2.99). This review is of the full version. In marketing itself the app places great store on its use of the Komodo chess engine which is among the two strongest currently available (as at Autumn 2015).

Strength

The app uses version 4.0 of the Komodo chess engine which although relatively old is still far more powerful than almost all others. So the app should play strongly…and it does. As such, and without artificial weakening the engine will play far better than anyone likely to be using it. The app recognises this and helpfully includes four different strength options ranging from ‘Easy’ to ‘Grandmaster’. However, the artifical weakening algorithm appears dubious as there seems to be little practical difference in any of the levels. In short ‘Easy’ is far from it, and as such it is likely to be a frustrating experience for the majority of potential users.

Other major issues include the fact that there is virtually no variation to the engines opening play (whatever strength level is selected) – essentially it appears to have no opening book of moves. Not only is this unrealistic in practice but also the lack of variation (unless the user keeps changing their opening play) is likely to mean that games will quickly become boring. Additionally irrespective of the strength setting the engine always responds instantaneously with its move, giving the user no thinking time which again is unrealistic behaviour from an opponent.

Features

Range of features is not a strength of this app. At the outset there are three options two of which appear to be the same ‘Play Friend’ and ‘Pass’N’Play, The former is in fact locked and a dialogue box states this will be for on-line play in a future edition.

Assuming you do want to play the computer, after selecting the desired strength (referred to above), there is a pleasing range of time controls available. These include sudden death (ie Game in x minutes), an incremental Fischer option (Game in x with y seconds increment) and interestingly a classic option which enables a variety of different time settings to be set (a traditional option for tournament play). Some further good news is the option to resign a game (particularly useful bearing in mind that Komodo is the opponent!).

There is the ability to save and load games (though rather annoyingly when loading a saved game it opens at the end of the game and there is no button to return it to the start without successively pressing the undo button).

The use of the Komodo name may be a good marketing tool but with this strength of engine the primary use is likely to be for analysis purposes, both of whole games and specific positions. It is very surprising then that the app includes no analysis feature at all, nor can the engine’s thinking even be seen during normal game play. This is a totally wasted opportunity, given Komodo is strong enough for its evaluation of a position to be both value and interest.

Practicality of use and presentation

The app is poorly designed with apparent little thought for the user experience. In terms of app navigation the biggest drawback lies in the fact that access to the settings and options that are available is not possible from the main menu screen. This means the user can only make changes during a game at the risk of disrupting their thinking and wasting their own clock time. Available options are accessed via a small triangular button to the right of the board.Komodo features

The default board colour (a garish green) and piece set isn’t particularly clear and the combination may not make for an enjoyable long term playing experience – the associated text for move notation and clock times is extremely small particularly so on a phone or ipod touch.

Komodo optionsThere is a small range of alternative options, if not in the chess pieces then in the board colours. Unfortunately the alternatives are perhaps even worse including lurid shades of red and blue.

A range of dialogue boxes pop up during mid-game to inform the user about check, but it is unnecessary and also annoying to tell this to the user when it is the user giving check (presumably this was their intention!). There appears to be no way to disable this practice.

Developer support

Basic instructions are included within the app (as a separate menu option) though even these are not easy to navigate (for example it is not clear which arrow bar to use when scrolling through the different pages – hint it is the white one!)

Updates to this app have been periodic over several years. Whilst this is a good thing, it is disappointing that none of the glaring weaknesses identified have been addressed in any of the new releases to date.

Overall

Likes:

  • Use of the Komodo chess engine
  • Wide range of different time controls

Dislikes:

  • Lack of variation in opening play
  • Ineffective engine weakening on easier levels
  • Lack of features including analysis function
  • Inability to change options/settings outside of a game
  • Poor visual experience

These are my thoughts; if you have used this app what do you think…..?

Senior Chess

senior-chessReview details:
App version:  1.79
Device:  Nexus 7
Operating system: 5.1.1


Summary

A well developed and supported app that whilst lacking a little polish is easy to use and reasonably featured.


The first thing to note about Senior Chess is that it is one of those rarities – a free app that is not supported (or more often overwhelmed) by advertising. This doesn’t mean to say it is any less a quality product – far from it – and kudos and thanks are due to the developer as a result.

Playing strength

In this case the developer is Leen Ammeraal known and respected in the computer chess community as author of the strong (in human terms) ‘Queen’ chess engine. It is not a surprise then that Senior Chess plays a strong game of chess and will provide more than a stiff challenge to the average user or even club player. This has been recognised in recent versions with the introduction of an interesting strength limiting option in the form of a ‘possibly weak moves’ level. This allows the user to choose the proportion of moves the engine makes that are deliberately weaker than normal. Artificially weakening a strong engine is a notoriously difficult exercise to do well and sadly Senior Chess doesn’t quite manage to pull it off.

The problem is that choosing a percentage figure for weak moves say ‘1 in every 5 moves’ (ie 20%) means you end up expecting and looking for a mistake at particular intervals which doesn’t make for a realistic challenge. In fact you often don’t have to look too hard as the weak move can be an outright blunder which makes the overall game play too variable – it feels unrealistic to have a run of good moves and general play followed by an obviously weak move at periodic intervals.

As an example, as shown in the image, using the ‘1 weak in 1o moves ‘setting (ie 10%) – on move 3 Senior Chess played the inexplicable

Senior chess weak move  3…Nd5??

So whilst the novice player may be well catered for by this option (by opting for a high percentage of weak moves) it is this type of game play which makes Senior Chess perhaps less appealing for the average player who conversely finds the time based levels of play too challenging.

Features

Senior Chess options menuSenior Chess has all the key features you would expect in a decent chess playing app. These include:

 

  • loading and saving a chess game
  • setting up/editing a chess position
  • saving  and loading positions (in FEN format) and also copying to/pasting from clipboard
  • 2 player mode (allowing for human v human play)

Whilst there may not be the breadth of options available with some other chess playing apps there are a couple of interesting and valuable features worth noting. These are:

  1. Senior Chess’s abililty to access 5 men endgame tablebase support (this essentially means the app can play all positions with 5 or fewer pieces on the board perfectly). This is particularly useful when setting up positions to practice your endgame technique (for example to test if you can checkmate a lone king with a bishop and knight)
  2. The option to load and play out a range of established test positions (currently 400) to see if you can find the winning move or line; this again is a great way 0f learning and improving your chess.

However, on the downside there are some surprising omissions which potentially impact on enjoyment from a playing perspective.

Senior Chess time controls

Notably, the range of time controls is rather limited, the user being restricted to selecting different move based thinking times – from instant play to 60 seconds per move (there is also an infinite time option). Certainly, the inclusion of some sudden death options (eg Game in 5 minutes etc) or  incremental time controls (eg  3 min + 2 seconds) would be welcome. Additionally, for practical game play, a resign and draw option really is a ‘must have’ feature, and it is one that Senior Chess currently lacks.


Practical use and presentation

Ease of use is an area of strength for this app. It has been well designed with the options clearly thought out and identified. This is shown in the use of simple option descriptions – for example ‘Go (machine to move)’ How easy to use an app’s ‘set up a chess position’ feature (in Senior Chess this is ‘Edit Mode’) is, is often a good test. Here Senior Chess makes this is a simple exercise, from the initial dialogue box asking if you want to start with an empty board.

Senior Chess feels a little less polished in terms of presentation than some other apps. The size of the move notation and engine output text is rather small (the latter can’t be turned off, an important option if you don’t want to see how you’re doing against the engine) and the game sounds don’t feel easy on the ear and risk starting to grate after a time. Fortunately these can be turned off. A bigger potential issue lies in the fact that there is no choice about the board and pieces. Whilst the given options are clear and easy to view, some opportunity to change the visual layout would be a good option to offer some variety now and again and help maintain interest. For example, a full screen or ‘big board’ option would certainly be useful when using Senior Chess on a phone.

Developer support

Lastly but by no means least, developer support for an app is of course an important criterion. In this respect, Senior Chess is well served. The developer has provided detailed guidance on using the app notably including several youtube presentations. There is a history of regular updates and bug fixes and at the time of writing the app is in active development.

Overall

Likes:

  • Free and ad-free
  • Active developer with regular updates
  • Ablity to give stronger players a good game
  • Access to endgame database
  • Simple and easy to use interface and options
  • Playing out test positions/puzzles

Dislikes:

  • Unrealistic weakening mode
  • Limited choice of time controls
  • Lack of board and piece options

These are my thoughts; if you have used this app what do you think…..?