App version: 1.9
Device: Ipod Touch 4th ed
Operating system: ios 6.1.6
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).
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.
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.
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.
There 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.
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.
- Use of the Komodo chess engine
- Wide range of different time controls
- 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…..?