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

 

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AA Chess

AA chess1

Review details:
App version: 1.3
Device:  iPad 3
Operating system: iOS 9.3.1


Summary:

A simple app which has a few rough edges but offers a fun game of chess for the casual user

The developer of AA Chess (kargeor apps) makes the impressive claim in the app description that …‘AA Chess is the best FREE Chess app for the iPad, iPhone and iPod touch!’. Given the developer hasn’t got an established reputation in the field of chess software, it was a claim I was eager to test!

Leaving aside the key chess considerations for a moment, my initial impressions of the app were favourable. The developer deserves kudos to start with as the app is totally free being unsupported by adverts (frequent or otherwise), nor does it have any in-app purchase options.

Let’s cut to the chase … AA is a plain and simple chess app, without bells and whistles aimed squarely at the casual player AA chess splashscreen The app offers the ability to play chess in three ways:

  • against an in-built (unnamed) engine on one of three different strength levels,
  • online via Game Centre connection (not tested in this review);
  • in free play mode (effectively ‘pass and play’ against another human).

The most noteworthy feature of AA Chess is the presentation and display. The app has a 3d option which mimics playing on a table against a seated opponent (or rather empty chair against the cpu). 3d chess visuals are very hard to pull off well in terms of practical usability. In this case AA Chess makes a reasonable attempt – the graphics look quite impressive, certainly in the case of the main 3d piece set, which are clearly AA chess main 3ddistinguishable. The one area where clarity could be improved is perhaps in having a greater contrast between the black pieces and dark squares.

The user has some control over the view and with a finger can easily rotate the board a full 360 degrees to see the board from either side’s perspective. Disappointingly, however, there is no control over the vertical plain, so the user can’t alter the viewing angle or change the height . This is an important omission for a 3d board option as users are likely to have different preferences as to what angles give the clearest view of the pieces.

AA chess bq

Queen or bishop?

This weakness is particularly evident if the alternative 3d piece set is selected as it is pretty much impossible to distinguish a number of the different piece types from each other making the game uncomfortably and unnecessarily difficult to play. Adding to the confusion, although it is displayed in 3d the option is actually labelled as 2D-B.

 

Strength

Absolute strength isn’t likely to be a key issue for an app aimed at casual users. A range of levels with clearly distinguishable chess abilities and a focus at the novice/weaker end is generally the most important feature.  In this regard AA Chess is quite successful. There are three levels of play intuitively named as ‘Easy’, ‘Normal’ and ‘Hard’.

Using my stock engine opponent ‘Hiarcs’ which is considered to have reasonably accurate human elo playing level, I tested the app’s various skill levels. The ‘Hard’ level plays to a AA chess 2dreasonable club level standard  (about 1600-1700 level per Hiarcs elo) which seems well suited to the casual nature of the app. The ‘Easy’ level is indeed clearly weaker. However, whilst it lost a test game in 6 moves, it still probably plays a little too strongly for a novice level – for example it was able to beat Hiarcs at its 1000 elo level.

The AA Chess engine has a rather engaging and enjoyable playing style. It is fun to play and the obvious weaknesses feel quite endearing – for example, the engine has a noticeable desire to move its king towards the corner of the board (g1 or g8 square) in the early phases of an endgame. You can see a sample of games played by AA Chess for this review here.

Given the many chess apps available it is not that uncommon to find those including chess engines that are ‘bug ridden’ and which won’t play a legal game. In this case, it is worth noting that AA Chess has no problems in this regard and will play a valid game consistently obeying the rules of chess in full.

Features and practicality of use

AA Chess is a very simple. There is only the minimum range of basic functions required to AA chess optionsplay a game of chess. This includes the ability to take back moves and toggle app sounds on or off. There is also a  highlight previous move option which for some unknown reason uses a very distracting red colour to illuminate the relevant ‘to’ and ‘from’ squares. In terms of the information displayed during a game this is limited to a count of the number of moves played which rather oddly is the total game moves (ie including both white and black). Given its simplicity it would be disappointing if the app was not easy to use. In this case AA Chess doesn’t disappoint and the user can navigate between a range of simple menu options which are clearly labelled and also from an accessibility perspective, helpfully shown in a reasonable font size.

A final option perhaps worth highlighting which may appeal to users of social media is the ability to directly post (tweet) your game result to your twitter account. The app’s default text (below) can fortunately be edited should you wish to publicise your result!

AA chess socmed

Summary

So does AA Chess live up to its claim of being ‘the best FREE Chess app for the iPad, iPhone and iPod touch!’ – well no it doesn’t but it’s not bad for a casual game and there are plenty of apps that are worse.


Overall

Likes:

  • Free and ad-free
  • Enjoyable and well suited engine for the average player
  • 3d visuals
  • Simple and easy to use


Dislikes:

  • Overhead 3D piece option is unusable
  • No vertical roatation in 3d mode
  • Easy level is a little too difficult

Chess apps we’ve loved and lost…

Chess apps are added to the various app stores on a daily basis – the better known ones often announced and promoted through chess forums and social media (I plead guilty!). At the same time with less or no fanfare, there are chess apps being withdrawn from these stores and being lost to the community. They sink into obscurity, losing any profile they had, with potential users unaware of the enjoyment they are missing. Some are indeed ‘treasures’. This short blog celebrates a few of these ‘zombie’ apps that are sadly no longer generally available but fortunately still live on at least on my trusty old iPod Touch.

A1 Chess (iOS)

A1 chess_logoA1 Chess was an inexpensive app developed by Andrew Short and released in 2009. A very simple app with no bells and whistles it just played a game of chess (what more is really needed!?). The app’s appeal lay in its simplicity, elegant design and visual appeal. There were no clocks, minimal settings and users options. The board theme and chess piece selections (there was only one!) combined clearly and well and made for a very easy and pleasurable playing experience even on a phone or iPod Touch.

A1 Chess simply offered 10 levels of play ranging from Learner (Level 1) to World Champion (Level 10) with an average of  3 minutes per move. The system of simple A1 chessnamed levels encouraged the user to improve through the stages (for example level 5 was ‘Intermediate’ and Level 7 was ‘club player’). Playing strength wasn’t bad at all and certainly catered for the vast majority of players. The invidual levels were reasonably accurately described  – my experience was that level 5 – Intermediate –  probably played around 1400-1500 elo, though ‘World Champion’ play at level 10 may have been a little optimistic.

The only real downside with the app, related to the gameplay and this was the absence of an opening book. This of course meant less variety in games which was a little disappointing, and I ended up always expecting my Queens Gambit to be Accepted (as you can see from the image above!)

What happened next?

A1 Chess sadly disappeared from the app store some time ago for unknown reasons. The author Andrew Short is still actively inolved in app development releasing a number of non-chess related apps for Far Stars Games.

Touch Chess (iOS)

Touch Chess logoThis app was released in 2012 by 2DEngine a small independent game developer based in the United States. At its heart it featured the Faile ‘open source’ chess engine – which is of medium strength in the context of other chess engines but certainly strong enough in absolute terms for the vast majority of human players.

Touch Chess was a well designed and presented app with a good range of Touch Chess_introfeatures. A particular feature of the app were the large icon buttons and menu bar titles which made the app very accessible and easy to navigate around. In terms of playing options, whilst these were limited, Touch Chess had the unusual but interesting feature of having difficulty settings solely based on fixed and selective search depths. These ranged from the simplest 1/1 ply to the hardest level 4/8 ply (ie 4 ply minimum but 8 ply maximum search), though in reality there never felt to be that much difference between the individual levels.

There were a range of ways to alter the playing experience Touch Chessincluding different board themes including a not too unreasonable 3d chess set (though the dark pieces were perhaps a little too dark). A further plus was that Touch Chess included a nice range of separate pgn databases for the user to explore and play through. These were based on the games of well known current and former players but also very usefully included a range of different themes covering tactical minatures, chess traps and common checkmating patterns.

What happened next?

Development of Touch Chess ceased and the app was withdrawn for unknown reasons. However in May 2015 the developer 2DEngine in celebration of releasing a new app, generously made the Windows version of Touch Chess available for free and it remains available from their website.

Deep Green Chess (iOS)

DGC_logoThis is a bit of a cheat – Deep Green Chess is still very much alive and well on the iTunes app store. I lament here the loss of the free (Lite) version of the app – important in my view as the app at £5.99 is relatively expensive for a chess app and for a punt in to the unknown if you’re not familiar with it.

Actually, Deep Green Chess developed by Joachim Bondo and released by Cocoa Stuff has a long pedigree being originally available for the Apple Newton in the 1990s. The Lite version was a generous offer as the only difference from the full version was the inability to save games (not a particular hardship for the casual player).

DPCDeep Green Chess is not a complex or sophisticated app in terms of features and options – it is essentially just a game of chess with the ability also to set up and play a game from different positions. No, the app’s particular appeal is that it is one of the most beautifully crafted and designed chess apps available. It is very simple and straightforward to use. The board and piece set are attractive, the respective colours are well chosen and visually a game on a phone or ipod is both easy and enjoyable to play. Unusually for a chess app which has sound, in the case of Deep Green Chess these complement the app rather than detract from it – there are a range of well matched soft clicks, whirrs and ticks for associated elements of the game (eg gentle ticking for when the user requests the engine for a hint). The user also even has the choice to seeing the engine visually ‘thinking’ about its move!

There are a 10 playing levels which amusingly at the lower levels show the Deep Green_thinking]engine having differing levels of ‘concentration’ (eg level 1 plays at 1 second/move with 25% concentration). The maxium level is only 30 seconds thinking per move at full concentration. The vast majority of chess strengths should be suitably catered for by the apps various levels. The app isn’t aimed at the power or sophisticated user – there is no ability to influence playing style and there are no means of analysis other than a simple hint move – but Deep Green makes a great choice for a quick casual fun game fof chess – And what more do you really need!?

What happened next?

The Lite version was discontinued in 2011 in the words of the developer because “The difference between Lite and the paid version (Lite doesn’t save games between app launches) has been practically eliminated by iOS 4.0’s multitasking.”

Fritz (iOS)

Fritz_coverMany of the long established and well known computer chess brands including the likes of Shredder, Hiarcs and Chess Genius are represented in the app market as are a host of top engines (Komodo Stockfish et al) but one of the biggest brands is missing as a native app….. where is Fritz??

Well, there was indeed once a dedicated Fritz  app. Originally released on the iOS platform in early 2009 by Gammick Entertainment (under license from Chessbase) whilst no longer at the app store it still remains available for other devices

This blog celebrates the chess apps loved and lost but in truth Fritz doesn’t fall into this category – it was not much loved by me. Perhaps this was due to the expectations associated with the use of the ‘Fritz’ name. In short, the app was a general disappointment.

Yes, Fritz was generally well featured in terms of actual game play for example in terms of Fritz_1choice of time controls and options to influence the engine’s willingness to resign or accept draws. But the app was not particularly intuitive to use and felt too gimmicky. It had terrible music and sound options which were harsh to the ear and really grated. If I want to listen to music when I play then let me pick a tune from my own music library not your awful attempt at jazz or electronica! At least these options could be disabled.

Particularly disappointing was the engine itself – it was weaker than anticipated. There was some debate about whether indeed the Fritz engine was powering the app. (Implementations of the ‘Fritz’ brand on other devices have actually used different engines). Certainly Fritz  performed poorly in my own testing against other well-known strong chess apps. The app also had a tendency use its time very poorly and lost frequently due to running out of time. For the enthusiast there was also no ability to multi-task either so engine v engine testing was problematical.

What happened next?

It is not clear when or why the Fritz app was withdrawn. Chessbase the publisher of Fritz subsequently released its own Chessbase database app on both android and apple platforms. In 2015 the Fritz engine (in its Deep Fritz 14 incarnation) became available for use via an update to this app.

 

SmallFish

smallfishReview details:
App version:  9.4.1
Device:  iPad 3
Operating system: iOS 9.2

Summary

A well crafted and presented app offering unparalled chess strength but a less than fulfilling playing experience for the average user.

SFSmallFish is available for both iPad and iPhone/Pod devices and is developed by Ted Wong who has released several other chess playing apps, including the related SmallChess. SmallFish incorporates the renowned Stockfish chess engine but sets out to improve the standalone Stockfish app with additional features and usability.

It is important to note that SmallFish is a totally free app and does not rely on any advertising or in-app payments; this is very welcome for users and is to the great credit of the developer (as of course the original ‘open source’ Stockfish developers also).

Strength and playability

There is little doubt, if you want to enjoy the feeling of having the strongest dedicated chess app in your pocket or palm, you won’t find better than SmallFish. Why? It’s becuase the app includes the latest official release of Stockfish (7.0) which is currently the strongest mobile chess engine available.

In itself the strongest engine isn’t any real use for practical game play – Stockfish even on a mobile device is more than a match for the best human players. The more important question is how effectively it can be ‘dumbed’ down to provide a reasonable challenge to players of different strengths. This is a notoriously difficult thing to achieve and can often be harder the stronger the engine is to start with.

The good news is that SmallFish has a range of playing levels helpfully split into different SmallFish_eloelo bands with narrative descriptions. These start at beginner (100-500 elo) and progress to World Champion (2700-3300). For example, the user can play against the engine at 1100-1200 elo which equates to the level of a casual player.

However, the bad news is that the elo calibration is fairly inaccurate. The engine tends to play significantly more strongly than the setting selected.  You can see a sample of SmallFish games played against differing opponents here to show this in practice. As an estimate the difference can be up to several hundred elo points. The problem is that inaccurate ratings give users a frustrating and negative experience. It is not good for a 1400 elo player’s ego to regularly be losing to a 1100-1200 opponent! The app as it stands is not suitable for beginners as it plays too strongly and unrealistically for the weaker levels in particular.

Leaving aside the issue of the accuracy of the levels, the other playing related options are pretty good:

  • There is enough variety in the available time controls which include sudden death, fischer and seconds per move levels.
  • Game and individual move analysis is where the strength of the chess engine really comes into play; SmallFish enables the analysis time per move to be preselected with differing levels of detail.
  • For experienced or ‘hard core users’, there are a range of technical options to alter the engine’s playing style and various engine parameters, thoughtfully guidance is provided to explain most if not all available ‘tweaks’.

Features

SmallFish includes all the standard features that might be expected in a high end chess playing app.

Input and output options are generally well catered  – for example in addition to ‘Save’ and ‘Load’ options there is the ability to export games via email and share positions using social media. However, one noticeable gap in this area is the lack of a facility to copy and paste games or positions to the clipboard for use in other apps.

SF online store
A nice touch is the inclusion of an on-line store. Normally these words in an app menu equate to opportunities for securing revenue through the dreaded ‘in-app purchase’ . But here the developer must be congratulated – the store offers the user totally free additional content in the form of downloads of a range of chess game collections, grouped by well known players, tournaments and well-known individual games- a nice touch indeed and one that would be even better with further content.

Practicality of use and presentation

SmallFish is a well designed and produced app and it is clear that the developer has put a lot of thought in to its development. App control is managed simply by four menu headings at the bottom of the screen which are logically described. In  more advanced chess apps menu options can become confusing and over involved. This isn’t the case with SmallFish and the options menu, though having plentiful sub menu headings doesn’t leave the user with a feeling of being ‘lost’ in the app.

There are also simple helpful features to help with general navigation and use. Two examples in particular worth highlighting include:

  • arrow bars in the bottom corners of the screen which are always visible allowing theSF_image user to quickly move back and forth through the individual moves of a game.
  • a graph to visually represent changes in the evaluation or score during the game. This allows the user to quickly pick out any pivotal stages of a game – tapping the evaluation ‘spike’ takes you to the relevant move in the game.

There are enough visual choices available for even the most demanding of users – namely

SmallFish_colour_optionsover 30 piece types and 13 different colour schemes. Yes, there a few of wacky and unusable combinations but more than enough attractive options to maintain interest and variety. A nice feature is that individual choices can be viewed directly from the menu so the user can quickly cycle through selections without leaving the menu.

Notwithstanding the generally positive experience with practical  use, there are a number of small but detailed improvements that could be made – you can find these specific suggestions on the developer page.  One omission that needs to be flagged up is the absence of a screen rotation option; it’s landscape only I’m afraid.

Developer support

If all app developers were as responsive, engaging and communicative as the developer of Smallfish, users would have little to complain about! User support is a strong point; the app has detailed guidance integrated within it and this includes some of the more technical aspects of the engine.

The developer positively encourages feedback and is happy to engage with users to make further improvements. A welcome but seemingly still relatively unusual option for app developers, is the use of active twitter account (@SCChess) to provide an addiitonal means of contacting and engaging with the developer. SmallFish has remained in active development over several years with regular updates (another is due shortly!). There is no suggestion this is likely to change in the short term so users have plenty to look forward to!

Overall

Likes:

  • Free and ad-free (including online store material)
  • Top strength engine
  • Clean and effective design and layout
  • Variety of board/piece skins
  • Developer support

Dislikes:

  • Inaccurate rating calibration
  • Inability to copy and paste games/positions via clipboard
  • No screen rotation

 

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…..?

 

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…..?