My Chess Puzzles

my-chess-puzzleReview details:
App version: 1.0.3
Device:  Samsung S4 Mini
Operating system: 4.4.2


Summary:

A promising but currently frustrating app which is let down by the visual experience and puzzle quality. Not as much fun as it should be.

My Chess Puzzles is a relatively new free android app from the Turkish developer OBSS Mobile which produces a range of mainly card games and utility apps.

mcp1

What’s wrong here?

It is a simple app and essentially does exactly ‘what it says on the tin’ – in that the user is given chess puzzles which need to be solved by finding a forced checkmate in a known chosen given number of moves.

 

There are options ranging from mate in 2 all the way to mate in 10. When selected, the user is then presented with a range of positions of that type which he/she must then play out against a virtual opponent to find the mate. The level of difficulty increases as the puzzles are solved. Scores are given out of a maximum of 10 for each solution depending on the number of mistakes (incorrect moves) made in finding the solution. The competitive user can rate themselves online against others using the Google Play Leaderboard system (not tested as part of this review).

Puzzle based apps live or die by the number and quality mcp-levelsof the chess problems they offer. In particular:

  • Is the bank of puzzles sufficiently large enough so you are not seeing the same ones cropping up over and over again?
  • Do the puzzles feel ‘natural’ and not artificially composed?
  • Are the puzzles of the right level of difficulty – not too hard to be dispiriting but hard enough to be a good challenge?

My Chess Puzzles scores well in terms of variety. The puzzle bank is vast – the developer claims (and I have no reason to doubt it) that there are at least 10,000 different puzzles. Certainly in my use to date, I’ve not seen any duplicates which can’t be said for certain similar apps.

The app fares less  in terms of puzzle ‘naturalness’. This is disappointing as the developer mcp_4-rooksstates in the Play Store description that puzzles ‘were either taken from actual games or are compositions inspired by actual games’.  I can only wonder about which games these were. Rather too often the user is faced with a chess position with an unrealistic number of pieces of the same type – for instance four rooks of the same colour.

Sadly this also contributes to some of the solutions being rather artificial also for example in the following position (with the four rooks) the solution is .

1 – h8/Q+  Rf6
2 – Qf6+    Re5
3 – Qe5+   Rd4
4 – Qd4+   Rb2
5 – Qb2++

Yes, the difficulty is about right for a starter mate in 5 but the lack of realism makes for a less rewarding experience. Aside from this issue, the individual difficulty levels do seem to be generally well calibrated, becoming more challenging as the user progresses.

Presentation and useability

My Chess Puzzles is a simple app and very straightforward to use. However, this doesn’t make it easy to use. One of the biggest drawbacks in practical use is the default piece set used. The pieces are not clear or easy to distinguish particularly when there are more than a few on the board. This makes the puzzles more difficult than they should be and certainly less enjoyable to solve. Worse still the user isn’t given any choice about the piece set – only the default is available. The app would certainly be improved by giving the user some choice about the visual experience.

There is one further specific visual issue that can’t be overlooked. The chess board is mcp-optionsincorrectly displayed – the bottom right square should always be light coloured! Oddly this doesn’t happen all the time or for all puzzles but sadly the fact it does, risks damaging the credibility of the app. My Chess Puzzles doesn’t deserve this and the good news is that it should be easy to correct.

The app hasn’t got, and doesn’t really need a wide range of options. The key elements that might be expected are here – including take back move and hint options. There is also a toggle for sound effects (for piece moves) and for the less experienced user, a helpful legal move indicator, which shows visually which squares the chosen piece can move to.

Developer support

The developer has an easily accessible website which includes full contact details, in addition to the usual email address, there is a phone number and a physical address  which may be useful if you happen to be visiting Istanbul (wish I were!). At the time of review the app has had little feedback at the PlayStore (the scores are reassuringly positive) so it is too early to see how responsive the developer is to user feedback.


Overall

Likes:

  • Free and ad-free
  • Simple to use and nicely designed
  • Good range of puzzles and nicely pitched levels of difficulty


Dislikes: 

  • Chess pieces are not easy or comfortable to view
  • No variety of piece sets or board themes/colours
  • Some puzzles are very unnatural
  • The chessboard is set up wrongly!

 

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Acid Ape Chess

Acid Ape logo
Review details:

App version: Beta 11.2
Device:  Samsung S4 Mini
Operating system: 4.4.2

Summary:

A high quality feature rich app which is both well designed and produced and also well supported. It is a ‘must have’ app for the advanced chess user, especially as it is free. Casual players will be better served by other chess apps. 

AAC gameAcid Ape Chess is an app for android devices from the Belgian developer Acid Ape Studios. The app is still technically in beta stage which may explain why it is free, unsupported by adverts and with no annoying in-app purchases. However, don’t let the app’s idiosyncratic name or beta status fool you – it is a fully operational and sophisticated app aimed squarely at the serious chess user. The developer is extremely generous in offering it to users for free. Given the quality of Acid Ape Chess it really is a ‘must have’ for the advanced user.

Features

Acid Ape Chess is one of the most advanced chess apps in terms of the number and breadth of features available – it is an app with all the ‘bells and whistles’. It is difficult to know where to start but perhaps easiest to say what it doesn’t do.

Well, strangely, it doesn’t play chess itself directly. So the issue of strength of chess play is not strictly relevant as the app has no native (inbuilt) engine. Rather it acts more as a chess gui. This has two specific benefits:

  1. you can choose your own engine  – the app comes with three engines (Arasan, ChenAAC engines and Scorpio) all of which are reliable and well-known. But you can also easily install any other compatiable engine (both UCI and CECP / winboard protocols are catered for as is the Open Exchange format to give maximum flexibility). A comprehensive archive of free engines is available to download from here.
  2. hardcore enthusiasts can set engines to play against each other to test relative strengths (though be warned – this does tend to drain the battery!)

Depending on the individual engine, for the hardened user it is also possible to edit/tweak various settings typically including hash size, skill level, and number of cores used etc.

Practical game play is very well catered for with the ability to play blindfold games (a little AAC_game_screenfrustrating due to the temperamental voice recognition entry system), Chess 960 (where an engine is able to) and also interestingly simultaneous games so you can mimic the exhibitions of the top players! Games can be played using sudden death (ie game in x minutes) or Fischer time controls (ie base time plus increment per move) though perhaps a little surprisingly, move based time controls (eg 40 moves in 1 hour etc) are not catered for. Games are automatically saved for future reference and there is a good range of file management options accessible via the Database icon. This enables different pgn database files to be loaded and also individual pgn files to be externally shared and copied and pasted from the clipboard. The simple ability to easily transfer games between different chess apps via the clipboard is a surprising omission in many chess apps.

If you get bored with engine play Acid Ape Chess also acts as a client interface for major online chess servers, FICS and ICC. Functionality is generally good with most key actions AAC FICS gamereadily available from within the app. However, the ability to filter game search is currently an omission (I want to easily be able to specify the strength of opponent when looking for a game!). But it should be said there is also access to console mode so more experienced users can manage their use of FICS directly via the standard FICS commands

In addition to practical game play, Acid Ape Chess offers the user other possibilities. There are a suite of options for setting up, editing (via standard FEN notation) and analysing chess positions. Interestingly, these handle both Chess 960 as well as traditional chess positions.  There is also a dedicated tactical puzzles mode with 3 separate selection files with a total of 900 separate puzzles. These offer a good challenge for the experienced player and require you to solve the winning line move by move (hints are available and there is ready access to engine analysis for study purposes if needed). The puzzles are taken from real games and a nice touch is that the player details are also included. For added flexibility the user is able to also import puzzle collections and there are many freely available on the web.

In keeping with its aim to focus on the more specialist user,  Acid Ape Chess includes some more niche features which may be of real value to those who can take advantage of them. In particular, two worth mentioning are that the app offers:

  • connectivity with the DGT electronic chess board  via ‘bluetooth’ enabling games to be played directly on the lovely DGT wooden board for a more natural chess experience (sadly your reviewer can’t test this, not having access to a DGT board)
  • automatic integration of online Syzygy endgame tablebases (for up to 6 men)  which is invaluable for endgame analysis and practice (the benefit here is that mobile devices don’t have the storage capacity needed for the 6 men bases)

Practical use and presentation

Sadly it is all too common for apps with multiple features to be overly difficult and complex to use due to poor design. There is nothing more frustrating for a user than having a wide range of options if they can’t easily find or remember how to use them! This is not the case with Acid Ape Chess and the developer has clearly thought hard about the useability issues during app development.

AAC main screenAll the main features are available from a single well designed home screen  which is split into four theme areas:

  • Game (including engine play, puzzles and file management functions)
  • Position (setting up, analysing and playing )
  • Online play – covering FICS and ICC use.
  • Settings – including special features, engine management and options for making changes to visual aspects

Cleverly, all the sub-options for each theme are also directly available from the home screen by clicking on a small double arrow icon to the right of each theme area.

Navigation around the app is also straightforward.  A simple swipe system allows the user to move between different sections of the app which appear as separate open ‘multi-page’ windows – these can also be quickly accessed as a drop down list from a button on each screen. This means for example there is the potential to have several games open simultaneously and to switch between them for example when watching online and analysing.

AAC clocksThere are many simple and thoughtful touches to help the user – this includes the use of large digital clocks which is very helpful when playing blitz games either online or against an installed engine. The clocks don’t have to be visible if they are too distracting for you and the user can simply swipe again to display other relevant information such as a list of moves of the game etc.

Often the benefits of the design features only become apparent through more regular use. As a practical example, keeping a finger on the arrow keys speeds up the time control minute and second counters – important for setting up anything longer than AAC colour schemea blitz game quickly. In terms of customisation, a recent update to Acid Ape Chess has also introduced a good range of different board colours and styles together with several different pieces types to add some variation to the visual playing experience.

Notwithstanding all the positive aspects, I have one just one relatively minor gripe. When wanting a simple no frills game ‘mano a mano’ against an engine it would be nice to be able to play with just the board alone visible (preferably against a dark background) – ie  with reduced/no other information visible  – just the board – so I could fully concentrate on the game. Visually this might also give the impression of a bigger board as it can sometimes feel a little too small, for example when the oversize clocks are also displayed. The text font size is also rather small.

In addition to being well designed the app is also technically well produced. For such a sophisticated app (and notwithstanding its beta status) it proves reassuringly stable. This is not to say that it hasn’t crashed on rare occasions. But it is important to note that Acid Ape Chess is dependent on the chess engines the user installs into it – not all of which are necessarily 100% reliable or have the same features and options. And this is not always immediately clear. If problems are experienced, consider first if these occur when particular engines are being used. Also users may see a warning notification of high CPU usage and noticeable battery draining; in this case check whether engines have been left running and/or the relevant engine settings in use (eg number of cores used etc).

Developer support

At the time of review, Acid Ape Chess is being regularly updated (two releases have been made during the writing of this review!). Indeed the developer has announced plans for an even shorter release cycle. The good news is that the updates have been meaningful, improving functionality rather than simply fixing bugs.

Very pleasingly, the high quality of the app is equally matched by  the quality of the developer’s support of it.The developer is easily contactable via the app’s play store page and responsive to feedback as evidenced by the replies left to reviewers’ feedback.

Importantly, an active twitter account @AcidApeStudios is also maintained for news, feedback and support which is well worth a follow. (I’m always surprised more developers don’t use social media presence to promote and support their apps – maybe I’m following the wrong accounts!). As a last point, surprisingly there isn’t a support contact/feedback option within the app itself and this might be something worth considering in a future update.

 
Overall

Likes:

  • Free and ad-free
  • Range of features and options are second to none
  • Ability to use a wide range of different chess engines
  • Tactical puzzles
  • Design and  ease of use


Dislikes: 

There are no real dislikes to this app – the app of course is not perfect and there are still a few tweaks and suggestions for improvement that could be made (not strong or significant enough to be a dislike!). These are outlined on the relevant section of the developer notes  page

 

Chess Rating

chessrating
Review details:

App version: 2.6
Device:  Samsung S4 Mini
Operating system: 4.4.2

Summary

A fun and useful app if not taken too seriously which has great potential but is currently let down by some simple issues relating to basic useability

Chess Rating is a free android app from Oliver Kertesz which pleasingly is also free from any advertising. The app has a long history and is based on code originally developed at the time of the millenium before subsequently being ported to android.

chess_rating_2As the app’s name suggests it is a rating tool offering the user an elo rating based on the results of completing 16 separate test positions. In each position the user has up to 60 seconds to select the best move and has up to 4 separate attempts to find it. Once completed, based on some unspecified method, the app calculates an estimated elo performance rating  for the full test.

The positions are selected at random from a database and vary in difficulty; the degree of challenge being apparently influenced by the user’s previous results.  There is a reasonable balance of positions between the various game stages, though most would be classed as from the middle game. More importantly perhaps, none appear to be overtly contrived or otherwise unnatural. The main issue with the positions is that there are really too few of them. The current database has only 369 positions at the time of review. It doesn’t take many separate tests before you see the same position appearing. This obviously has the tendency to exaggerate the elo rating achieved!

There is good news in that the latest app version now has the ability to update additional positions from the internet. However, don’t expect rapid growth here. The user is only able to update the database once a week and in the words of the developer …’the number of positions is slowly growing over time’.

Chess playing software has traditionally found it very difficult to mimic specific elo ratings accurately and believably. So the acid test for this app is of course – is it any good?  –  are the elo ratings produced a believeable measure of performance?

The answer to some extent lies in the eye of the user. A glance at the app reviews on the chess rating _eloPlay Store suggests opinion is mixed with as many users recognising the elo grades they achieve as think they are way over or under inflated. In my case the individual scores have varied significantly – running two tests one after the other – I achieved a rating of 1639 followed by a rating of 1900 both of which are above my current genuine playing strength. Refreshingly, the developer himself makes no excessive claims about accuracy, advising users ‘don’t take this too seriously…. but it should be roughly correct’.

So really, it is for the reader/user to best judge for themselves about the accuracy. Setting aside an argument about the actual ratings I suspect the best measure is a self comparison with repeated use over time. In reality though the app is probably best enjoyed and appreciated when simply used essentially as a collection of fun chess problems to solve. A kop out by the reviewer? ….maybe! 🙂

Practical use and presentation

The app doesn’t have many options or features.  The user can vary the board colour scheme with a selection of 5 different choices and also decide whether to have co-ordinates app has a number of options. There is no ability to change the piece types. Fortunately the default choice have clear and well defined pieces and they don’t get in the way of trying solve the chess positions.

chess rating_options‘Always flip board’ is probably the most important feature, which I expect most users would want as a default as it is the most natural setting. Selecting this ensures that the side to move (ie the user) always plays from the bottom without having to worry about the board orientation irrespective of whether it is white or black to play.

So far so good in terms of the app’s useability. But unfortunately. the app has a number of annoying aspects, which affect its use and enjoyment. In truth none of these are ‘mission critical’ in their own right but together do leave a feeling of dissatisfaction. Specific issues include:

  • when selecting a move, the move actually isn’t played on the board, it is signified by chess rating 1highlighting the relevant squares alone – if I make a move, I want to see it!
  • the timing bar which indicates how much time is left to consider a move is not the clearest. Yes it changes colour , turning from green to yellow to red as time reduces but it is not the easiest to see even on a tablet. Surely a countdown timer and perhaps even an audible warning sound would be clearer?
  • the user’s move choices which are indicated beneath the chessboard are just too small to read
  • whilst solutions are given, if the correct move is not identified with any of the four choices, there is no explanation or indication for why it is the best move. This is a particular problem as the app has no save position option so you can’t go back and review or study a solution during a test.

Developer support

The app is supported by a dedicated website which includes clear instructions about how to use the app with helpful screenshots. Interestingly there is also background to the app’s development, and a log of the changes in each version. Contact details for the developer are readily available and he has also responded specifically to a number of Play Store reviews, although none recently.

The app has been regularly updated, the current version dating from February 2016.

Likes:

  • Free and ad-free
  • Regular updates over the long term
  • Good visual experience (choice of pieces and board colours)
  • Ability to update the position database


Dislikes:

  • Limited number of positions (now and in the foreseeable future given speed of growth to date)
  • Inability to save or export positions for later review (and no explanation to solutions)
  • Barriers to useability – use of small text, unclear countdown indicator etc)

 

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

Chess Openings Explorer

chess openings explorerReview details:
App version: 1.10.1
Device:  Samsung S4 Mini
Operating system: 4.4.2

Summary

A useful tool for the casual player wanting to improve their opening play but the serious user and stronger player is likely to be disappointed

Chess Openings Explorer is a free android app developed by Anton Duzenko which is free to download and notably also free from any advertising

The app is an analysis tool which enables  chess openings to be studied in two ways by using:

  • information from a database of opening moves which is drawn from the results of a large pool of games;
  • an integrated chess engine to provide detailed analysis of specific positions and the option to play out games from openings of the user’ choice.

A database of moves with associated frequencies of wins/draws/losses is a commonly used format in established chess database applications. The Openings Explorer uses the normal approach of displaying the results in a ‘tree’ of the individual moves from the current board position. This is an effective approach as it enables the user to quickly see which are the most frequently played moves from a given position and what the also which produces the best results.

Features

The underlying database is perhaps the most important feature of an app dedicated to chess openings analysis. Such an app lives or dies by the quality of the games the database uses; so how does Explorer do in this area? Let’s take a look…

COEThe database of games is literally massive – using 2.3 million games played on the Free internet Chess Server (FICS). This means that the database is large enough to provide a sufficient coverage of openings to a reasonable depth – it also means that (other things being equal) results are more meaningful – in reviewing a potential move I would be more comfortable with the conclusions from 100 games than say 10. The quantity of games certainly allows trends to be identified and enables different moves to be more easily compared.

However, the database size is not all good news; it brings both practical and usability drawbacks:

The vast number of games means that the app size is huge – the developer recommends at least 770Mb of free space  – so if your device doesn’t have external memory the app may well be a ‘no-no’ to start with. Additionally, the developer also indicates there are potential problems regarding external storage for non-Samsung users

There is a trade off between quantity and quality. The larger the pool of games used the lower the average quality of the games will be. Put simply, there won’t be 2.3 million games from Magnus Carlsen or Gary Kasparov. As an example, in my own games database of over 4 million games –  only some 60,000 were played by players who both had ratings of over 2600 (ie Super-GM). The reality is that many of the FICS games are of very low quality. They are often at blitz time controls between weak players with many poor moves. This obviously impacts on the reliability of the assessments of individual opening moves COE_Grobwithin the app. As an illustration, there are at least 30 games of the following:

1 – g4 e5
2 – f3 or f4

Of course, this is a terrible opening in it’s own right leading to the quickest possible loss by checkmate – what is worse is that of these 30 games only twice was the immediately winning move 2..Qh4++ played! Equally, it is not hard to find opening moves which drop whole pieces. So, the app isn’t likely to inspire the confidence of the serious openings student or stronger player. However, for the casual or weaker player the quality of the games arguably doesn’t matter so much as they are far more likely to be facing non-optimal moves in the games they play.

The other big disappointment regarding the database lies in the fact that there is no option to change it and load in your own games database. This inflexibility means that you can’t rectify any of the quality issues identified above nor for example use a specific subset of games to practice a particular opening in-depth (eg import a database of solely Budapest Gambit games between Master strength players).

There is however good news with the inclusion of a chess engine which can be used to play and analysis openings which can be used to play a full game. The engine  ‘Cuckhoo Chess‘ by the respected programmer Peter Österlund, whilst not being of top strength is still a good one. It feels appropriate and well-matched to the app given the type of player it is likely to appeal to and sufficient for the needs of the user.

Practical use and presentation

COE_menuThe app is relatively simple and easy to use. There are few options and those that are available are easily accessible from a single menu bar. These are practical including the ability ot rotate the board, return to the start position or use the engine

Entering moves is straightforward, simply by tapping the relevant board squares which are highlighted for clarity and there is a back button to return to the previous position.

Visually, the app looks attractive. Although there are no means to alter the chess board or piece type, the options selected are well chosen and make for pleasant viewing. The evaluations for individual moves for the side to move are shown using separate percentages for win (displayed in green) and losses (in red) together with the number of games where that move was played.

Whilst the user experience is generally positive, it must be noted that the app does lack a COE Settingslittle polish. The purpose of the app’s settings are not immediately obvious (none are explained) and indeed on discovery several appear rather pointless (‘Hide ActionBar’ – why would the user want a title bar displaying the app name taking up screen room anyway!?). There are a few more detailed specific comments regarding use and presentation on the developer page.

Developer support

The app has been actively developed with regular updates, the current version dates from June 2015. The app appears well supported. The developer invites feedback and has responded to user feedback left at the Play Store which is always a good sign. It is also clear that user comments have been addressed in subsequent releases.

Whilst it is not a complex app and users of other chess opening apps will no doubt be familiar with the app’s layout and approach, the absence of any simple instructions on the Play Store page or within the app itself is an omission that should be corrected to help beginners and new users.

Overall


Likes:

  • Free and ad-free
  • Large database of games
  • Inclusion of good chess engine for self-analysis


Dislikes:

  • Size of games database sacrifices quality
  • Inability to import/load alternative database
  • Settings are not explained and add little benefit

 

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

Chess Genius

ChessGeniusReview details:                                                                           
App version:  2.6.4
Device:  Samsung S4 Mini
Operating system: 4.4.2

Summary:

A real quality app – polished and well designed, it is both strong and simple to use. Highly recommended.  

Chess Genius is available on Android devices as a universal app – meaning you don’t have to buy separate versions for your phone and tablets. It is also available for the iOS platform for both iPad and iPhone.

CG1The wide accessibility of Chess Genius is a postive feature – it can be used on older android devices (from 2.1 onwards) and this is also the case for the Apple version (usable on iOS 6.0 and above).  It is also worth mentioning that there are versions for other platforms including Windows phone and also for other (generally older) hardware including Palm and PC.

The app is available in Lite and full versions. The Lite version restricts the function of some elements after a certain time (for example the playing level reverts to Easy  mode after 20 moves). This review is of the full version of Chess Genius and costs £3.00 from Google Play Store or direct from the developer.

The developer of Chess Genius is Richard Lang. To the chess computer fanatic he will need no further introduction. For younger readers and everyone else, he was arguably the premier chess programmer of the decade from the mid 1980’s onwards. Lang won a record 10 chess computer world championships in this period with various incarantions of Chess Genius and its predecessor Psion Chess. His engines were incorporated into engine modules that powered the top of the range Mephisto dedicated chess computers of the 1980’s and early 1990’s. And it was his software which famously first beat Gary Kasparov in a serious game – the first realisation for many that human dominance in matters of chess strength was ending.

In short, the app’s developer has a long and established track record in delivering quality chess software. This app continues this reputation and should be a ‘must-have’ in your folder of chess apps.

Strength and playability

Chess Genius is a small compact app and feels well suited to a handheld device no doubt benefiting from Lang’s experiences of engine development with the memory restricted hardware of the 1980s.  In truth it is not the strongest chess engine – you can find an excellent rating list of chess engine apps here – If you want the maximum possible strength in your pocket or are interested in cutting edge position or game analysis you should look elsewhere (namely Stockfish and Komodo). But if you’re not a ‘serious power user’ and not of GM strength you won’t need to worry as you won’t notice in practice.

From the perspective of a player of average strength (probably 1300-1400 elo) I enjoy playing Chess Genius greatly and find it a well matched opponent between the Easy levels CG44 and 6 depending how I’m feeling. The games are both challenging and enjoyable and importantly feel realistic for my level of ability. The app shows no tendency for playing strong moves interspersed by an obviously weaker move or worse still downright blunders. In short it feels a natural game. For newer players, the easiest level (0) is indeed relatively easy – not random play but often ‘reasonable’ looking albeit meaningless moves interspersed with a smattering of gross blunders.

There are a good range of playing levels and time controls available. These start with 12 easy levels (which get progressively harder offering a good way for the user to monitor progress as they move up the levels). There are then 11 harder levels where the engine will move after a given amount of time (from instantly to a move every 3 minutes). In addition there is a healthy mix of options for sudden death games (ie Game in x minutes). These range from ‘bullet’ time control (1 minute) all the way up to Game in 2 hours. Whilst the number of playing levels is varied and numerous, they are all pre-defined and it would be a useful feature if the user could set their own preferred controls, for example via a dialogue box. Similarly, the option of Fischer (increment) or tourament style time controls (eg 40 moves in 40 minutes etc) would also be a welcome addition.

However, there is one surprising and disappointing omission in an app of this quality. Chess Genius doesn’t have any resign or draw function. This means that the user is forced to play out won games to the end to ‘win properly’ or make arbitrary decisions about the results of some games (for example assessing draws in certain positions) – neither which feels a satisfactory experience. (Of course it is not a problem – if the user wants to resign – the game can just be saved with 0-1 or 1-0 score but at least in this case it is the player that has decided!).

Features

It is important to bear in mind that Chess Genius does not try to be an ‘all-singing and all dancing app’. There is no online play, no puzzles or similar functions but these don’t feel to be omissions or oversights in the app. Chess Genius is just here to play chess and it has all the key features that would be expected in a serious chess playing app. For influencing strength, computer thinking whilst it is the user’s move (the so called ‘permanent brain’ option) can be enabled – this will make the engine play better. For more advanced users, the hash table settings can also be tinkered with.

CG_displayIn terms of practical game play there are a good range of simple but useful options which can be easily configured. This includes the ability to show available legal moves or highlight the last move played and also full flexibility about what engine analysis is shown. Helpfully the name of the opening played with ECO code is also shown.

Chess Genius has a database feature which offers a good and clear means for saving, storing and managing games. This includes basic database mainipulation namely creating, renaming switching between and deleting them. There are no advanced options such as any method of sorting games or looking for particular positions but this doesn’t feel a gap – the app just does what it needs to do. As the standard PGN format is used you can open pretty much any database of your choice. There is also a separate possibility to use the clipboard to either import or export individual games to or from other apps.

The only real weakness with Chess Genius’s file management capabilities is the lack of information displayed about any game that is loaded from a database. Once a game is loaded it is not possible to identify the individual players or to review any annotation or analysis when playing or stepping through the moves of the loaded game.

There is a tutor mode aimed at new or weaker players. Chess Genius will flag up to the user any bad moves played using a dialogue box, though unhelpfully it won’t give any guidance as to why it is a bad move. This is problematical on the lower ‘Easy’ levels as the bad move is not always immediately punished by the engine so the user is none the wiser about the mistake.

Practicality of use and presentation

CG_menuChess Genius is a well designed and presented chess app. It is a pleasure to use and is easy for the user to find his or her way about. The options and features are both intuitive and simple to select and importantly the app doesn’t feel cluttered or confused. There is a single menu of options which can be accessed from either left or right of the screen. The database options can easily by accessed via individual buttons on a single sub-menu and copying and pasting to the clipboard is also a single button from the main menu. It is all very straightforward which adds to the app’s enjoyability.

The app’s presentational aspects are also impressive. Visually, the boards and piece sets are clear and appealing and easy to view. Importantly, there is also an ample choice of display options which include 10 different piece sets and sizes, 7 board colours and also different selections for board style and background. In short there is plenty of variation to prevent the user getting bored and also crucially there are no gimmicky choices. (Some of the board colours are a little bright though!).

Chess Genius also has a particularly good design feature, which is often neglected in otherCG_landscape chess apps, in allowing the user to alter the size of the board. The options thoughtfully include a welcome ‘big board’ style which is very useful for mobile phone users together with the ability to rotate the screen.

Developer support

The app is well supported by the developer. There is a dedicated and informative website. This includes detailed instructions on how to use the app, a feature list and also FAQ. Importantly, the developer is also readily contactable via the site and invites user feedback.

Chess Genius is a mature app so frequent updates are perhaps not to be expected or indeed necessary. There have have been periodic releases and when these have occured they have included notable developments for example the most recent version in 2014 made significant improvements to the graphics and interface. It is very welcome to note that the developer has committed to give purchasers free life time updates (ie you won’t need to buy a new version) though this also maybe indicates the app is close to its ‘final’ version.

Overall

Likes:

  • Universal app with free updates
  • Suitable for older operating systems (android 2.1 and iOS 6.0)
  • Top quality engine
  • Clean and effective design and layout
  • Variety of board/piece skins
  • Big board option – ideal for phone users

Dislikes:

  • No draw or resign feature
  • Lack of information on loading games from the database
  • Tutor mode could be more informative

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

*UPDATE* – August 2016
Version 3 of Chess Genius was released in late July followed by a number of subsequent minor bug fixes. The new update made a number of changes and improvements to the app. Probably the most important (and notable) has been a weclome extension to the range of time controls available. This addresses a weakness in the original review. The app now allows the user to selects numbers of moves and minutes and also the option of time increments per move (the so called Fischer time control). Sadly, the other ‘Dislikes’ above have not yet been addressed and the absence of a draw or resign option still feels a big omission in an app of this quality.

 

 

 

Napo Chess

NapoChessReview details:                                                                           
App version:  0.7.7.1 (1 Jan 16)
Device:  Nexus 7
Operating system: 5.1.1


Summary:

An enjoyable and very simple no frills game of chess for the casual player but the functionality of online and database features is rather too basic for more serious use. 

NapoChess_2DNapo Chess is an Android only app from the developer Cronoscopium. It has been released in both Lite (free) and full versions. The latter is available for a small cost (£1.17 at the time of writing). The only difference is that the full version has 10 levels of play compared to 8 in the Lite version – these nominally being the two strongest levels of play. This review is of the Lite version.

The app is a simple chess playing application with some additional basic functionality including the ability to play on-line and review and play through a small database of games.

Strength

The app’s chess playing abilities seem generally well fitted and appropriate to the simple nature of the app. There are 8 levels of strength though rather unhelpfully there is no descriptive indication within the app about the estimated ability of each level.

diagram001

(A) – (nb not app image)

From testing, Level 1 is probably too advanced for the beginner (it is not clear if this is the objective). It offers perhaps a rather unrealistic style of play alternating between reasonable or even in some cases good moves to down right blunders. As an example, Level 1 reached the following position (A) as black after move 9 as has at least one International Master! The app’s opening book is quite small but switching it off altogether at the lower levels might help generate more realistic game play.

To get a better illustration of the app’s ability and playing style at Level 1, here is the pgn of a win it scored against the Hiarcs iOS app set at 1200 elo. (Hiarcs is generally considered to have one of the better and more accurate elo rating systems). With the above link you can also see and review some sample games played at different levels to give you a feel of the app’s broader play. From these and other games, I would estimate the top free level (level 8) to play at about the strength of an average club player (say 1500-1600 elo). So the majority of likely app users should find a reasonable opponent but stronger players probably won’t find it challenging. (Please remember the app’s full version has 2 further levels which may well be stronger than the Lite version tested).

Features

Napo Chess is enjoyable for what it is – a simple chess playing app. Don’t expect ‘bells and whistles’ because there aren’t any. However there are a few things worth noting. Practical game play has been made easier and more enjoyable by the inclusion of helpful and NapoChess_statisticssimple features such as a highlighting legal moves option and sound to signify when the engine moves. Additionally, the app has a statistics feature which keeps a record of the user’s score against each of the individual levels of play in the form of wins/draws and losses. This also includes an estimated elo grade which is a helpful feature for keeping track of progress and may have particular appeal to the competitively minded.

However, there are still a number of basic practical additions that would enhance a typical user’s playing experience. For example:

  • although there are clocks for each colour to record total time, there is no way to influence the time that the engine spends thinking. There are no timed levels of play or ‘move now’ feature to halt thinking. This is probably more important for the more difficult levels where the engine thinks for longer. (As a guide the average move time on the higher levels is around 15-25 seconds per move)
  • The user can resign or abort a game but there is no ability for the engine to resign. It isn’t generally difficult to program in to the engine, and would help to avoid the tedious situation where the user is forced to play out totally won games. The opportuntiy to accept and offer draws would also be similarly useful.

The app doesn’t just allow you to play chess against the engine. It has a 2 player game option and also includes an on-line play mode and game database option (comprising 910 games at the time of this review).  However, the very basic nature of many of these features make them difficult to use practically. In particular:

  • Online play – there is no ability to influence or control the game parameters; the user can’t choose the opponent or length of game. More than once I connected and found myself playing a 10 minute game when I just wanted a casual blitz game to pass a couple of minutes. Similarly if you already have a FICS account, the app doesn’t allow you to sign-in. Essentially, the user has only ‘Guest’ access rights but without the ability to challenge or accept opponents.

NapoChess_database

  • Game database – The user is only able to load and ‘step through’ and review single games at a time. There is no opportunity to be able to easily see which games are in the database without clicking through them all individually. The games are ordered by ECO classification; this might be useful if you are interested in a particular opening but isn’t much good if you want to see how many (if any) of Karpov’s games there are. Essentially there is no way to sort or manipulate the database.  As such as the database feature is only good for playing through individual games, but as the app has no engine analysis feature, it is likely to be of limited benefit to the typical user.

Practicality of use and presentation

Napo Chess is very simple to use. The controls are generally intutive and available choices clearly identified by either menu buttons or relevant graphical icons. The only exception to this, perhaps is the game database screen where the instinct is to press the highlighted game but this doesn’t actually open the game and there is no opportunity to move through the games by swiping.

The app doesn’t have a lot of choice or flexibility regarding presentation and layout. There are no options over board colours or piece sets. However, unusually the app does include the choice of a 3d view as an alternative to the traditional 2d view. NapoChess_3dIt is the 3d option which is a particular highlight of the app.  The smoothness of control and flexibility of the view in terms of rotation and degree of viewing angle is most impressive and one of the best I have seen. It is actually quite fun just playing with the orientation of the 3d board itself! The only criticism with the 3d usage is perhaps the sensitivity of the controls and also the choice of piece colours which are a somewhat dull an unnatural colour. Whilst there is no opportunity to vary the 2d view the board colours and piece types are well chosen and comfortable to view.

Developer support

A real positive is that the app is in active development with a history of regular releases. The developer has indicated that this will remain the case and it is an app worth both keeping an eye on and also supporting. With some further work it has the potential for inclusion in the chess enthusiast’s ‘keep me’ pile.

 

Overall

Likes:

  • Free and ad-free
  • Simple to use
  • Reasonable challenge for the average player
  • 3d board
  • Active developer and regular updates

Dislikes:

  • Easiest level isn’t that easy
  • Limited practical use of the database
  • Lack of control over online play options

 

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

 

Chess Endgames

Chess EndgamesReview details:                                                                           
App version:  1.2
Device:  Samsung S4 Mini
Operating system: 4.4.2

Summary

A potentially useful way to practice your endgames but let down by a poor user experience. Not currently a ‘keep me’.

Chess Endgames is a free android app developed by Complete Think. It is supported by banner advertising. There appears to be no ‘paid for’ version, so no way to use the app without viewing the adverts.

Features

Practising endgames is often said to be one of the best ways to improve your chess strength. This simple app is therefore well targeted as it offers the user the opportunity to test their technique by playing out a range of common endgame positions against an unidentified computer opponent.

There are a decent number of types of endgame position to practice. These include:

  • various piece combinations against a lone king, from  (Q+K v K), (B+Kn+K v K) to (P+K v K)
  • Queen against individual minor piece, and Queen against pawn on 7th rank
  • Rook against minor piece (eg R+K v B+K), and rook with minor piece (eg R+Kn+B v R+K)

Interestingly, there are also a selection of well known endgame studies, to test yourself with; these include for example, the Lucena and Philidor positions (the app mispells the latter!) .

For further variation, there is a custom build mode which allows the user chess_endgames_customto set up positions of their own choosing. Strangely, for an app focused on endgames the custom mode includes an option to reset pieces to the start position and play a game of chess. Be warned though, that the app’s engine isn’t capable of playing a proper full game as it doesn’t understand the concept of castling.

Whilst undeniably useful to play through endgame positions, the app is disappointing as a practical learning tool and herein lies its biggest weakness. Some key drawbacks are that:

  1. There is no guidance or explanation about any of the positions in terms of what the goal or objective is. In most cases this be should be obvious to the average user, certainly for the simpler positions, for example R+K v K, though this is not always the case. As an illustration, should the user be playing for a win or a draw in the Philidor position? – the app doesn’t make it clear. The lack of explanation is a real potential barrier for less experienced users and also seems at odds with the inclusion of a large number of very simple positions (including the ridiculously simple Q+Q+K v K).
  2. There is only very rudimentary information displayed to tell the user how they are doing. The information that is available – a cumulative record of wins / draws and losses and the number of moves and half moves taken per position – don’t really mean anything in isolation. For example, the number of moves would indeed be important, if each position had a target maximum number of moves to achieve checkmate; without it, it doesn’t really matter.
  3. There is no detail about the engine the user is playing against. How strong is it? Can it be relied upon to play the best defensive moves? In short, can you learn from using it?  (In practice, testing shows the engine does appear to play most endings pretty well though it doesn’t always play them perfectly – ie it doesn’t utilise revelant endgame tablebases)
  4. All positions must be played as white – there are no defensive ‘backs to the wall’ type of positions to practice as black.

Practical useability and presentation

The app’s practical useability could be best described as a bit of a ‘curates egg’ – a mixture of good and bad points.

Let’s start with the positives. The style and colour of the board and piece chess_endgamescombination are generally well selected. They are not unpleasant to view or use. This is good as the app includes no options to change the appearance; some variability even if limited, is always welcome from a user perspective as it helps to keep an app fresh and also maintain long term interest.

The app’s design and layout is less good; the current choice makes for uncomfortable regular use on a phone. In particular the board occupies only a relatively small portion of the screen, which means making moves is more difficult than it should be. More than once I had to use the ‘undo’ option to correct a move to the wrong square, as a result of the ‘fat finger’ problem. The layout could be improved and the board size enlarged by, for example, using menu headings instead of having the options to the side of the playing area. The existing design choice means that the options are harder to select. It may also explain why the app can only be used in landscape mode which is a frustrating restriction when playing on a phone.

Regular use of the app shows up some further disappointing glitches with the overall production quality, none of which should be too difficult to resolve. For example, testing K+P v K in custom mode after switching to a new position – I have been presented with a board with just two kings available, worse still moving on to the next position also brings up another KvK  position! Other examples of quality issues are highlighted elsewhere in this review.

There is one very practical ‘useability’ issue with the app that can’t be overlooked. It is extremely resource intensive in terms of its CPU, memory and crucially battery use. Any prolonged activity will noticeably drain your device unless operated with a charger and also certainly ‘warm’ it up.

Developer support

The Play Store description includes a brief narrative of the app’s purpose. The app itself includes a help menu option though this doesn’t seem to function – nothing happens when it is selected – and it is therefore not very helpful! There is no invitation from within the app to offer feedback or otherwise contact the developer.

Chess Endgames feels an app in the relatively early stages of development. It was last updated in September 2015 and hopefully there will be further releases with improvements. In summary it shows good potential but there are currently better apps to practice your endgames with.

Overall


Likes:

  • Free
  • Range of available positions


Dislikes:

  • No ad-free version
  • Help mode doesn’t work
  • General lack of instructions/guidance
  • Board size and design layout
  • Battery and resource intensive

 

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