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 At the same time with less or no fanfare, there are chess apps being withdrawn from these stores and being lost to the community.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.

 

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What makes a ‘keep-me’ chess app?

There are literally hundreds of chess apps for both android and apple platforms, far too many to keep and use regularly on your chosen device. So what separates the ‘keep-me’ chess app from the ‘delete-me’?

For my first non-app specific review, I’ve been thinking about the things that I look for in a chess app. To set my views in context, I’ll start by saying I’m a longstanding and enthusiastic chess player, who has never been as good as he thought should be, and who has to face the crushing reality that he will really only ever be a woodpusher of average strength (1200-1400 elo) – does this sound familiar!?

First things first – If I’m downloading a chess app I just want to play a fun game of chess as easily as possible with a challenging and realistic opponent. With this in mind my thoughts primarily relate to apps that play chess rather than some other chess aspect, such as database managment or chess problems.

So what do I want?

Realistic and well matched opponent

I enjoy playing chess – it’s why I want a chess app! I’m not the strongest player so don’t need or want an engine that is going to humilate me at every opportunity. Generally it is much harder to ‘dumb’ down a really strong engine than to use a ‘weaker’ engine; so the app doesn’t need to have the strongest available engine. If I want to analyse a game or position I will use a dedicated app for this such as Analyze this! or a recognised top strength chess engine. The engine needs to play realistically for my level of strength with an engaging style of play – I don’t want an opponent who plays like a GM for a period and then suddenly blunders a piece away or makes totally inexplicable or unexpected moves. Similarly, I certainly do want the engine to use an opening book but it needs to be appropriate to the level I’m playing at – a chess novice or beginner is unlikely to have an in-depth book knowledge!  Apps that score well in the playability area include ChessAI and Chess Genius.

Good range of chess ‘skins’….

Just like the next person I like a bit of variety to avoid getting bored. So in my chess apps I like to see a few different chess piece sets – nothing fancy, the usual favourites will do Merida, Alpha or Leipzig for example. The same applies to chessboard colours and styles – it doesn’t take many of of each these options to give the user a really good selection to suit their particular taste on any given day. Even better are the apps that have thoughtfully pre-selected a set of well matched skins for me to choose from.

…. but no gimmicks!

I’m not a young kid! – I don’t want overly brightly coloured boards which distract me from my game. Nor do I want pieces which are so fancy or poorly designed you can’t tell which piece is which! I don’t want a 3d board (and certainly not on a phone) unless it is designed exceptionally well and clearly (which is very hard). Spark Chess, tchess Pro (iOS) and perhaps the emerging Napo Chess come to mind as notable exceptions.

Big Board option 

For use on a phone particularly, the combination of ‘fat fingeritis’ and poor eyesight makes the option to vary (and increase) the size of the chess board a ‘must’ have feature. Developers need to make the visual aspects as clear and easy to use for the user as possible. A full (or near full) screen chessboard also allows the user the ability to just play a game without the clutter or distraction of analysis, game moves etc.

Simple interface and menu structure

This doesn’t mean the app needs to have a limited number of features, but some thought behind how the user is going to navigate around the app is essential. As I get older, I can’t be bothered to dive around to find features and functions that don’t sit logically together. I also don’t want to spend time ‘re-learning’ where everything is if I’ve not used the app for a while. A sophisticated and well-featured app doesn’t mean it can’t be well designed and easy to use. Some good examples of apps that get this right include tchess Pro , Chess Genius and Deep Green Chess (iOS).

A well supported app with an active developer

I suspect chess apps have the potential to attract a more passionate following than perhaps most other types of app. Developers shouldn’t underestimate the importance of looking after their users or take them for granted. I can forgive and tolerate pretty much the worst of bugs if a developer is pro-active in wanting to receive and respond to feedback to improve their app. Developers that don’t acknowledge or welcome user views, show no interest in correcting obvious weaknesses or progressing ‘unfinished’ apps will get me hitting ‘delete’. After all, if the developer isn’t bothered about their app then why should I be?

Of course it’s not just about correcting bugs. Simple things like clear and easy to understand instructions and readily available contact details give users a strong flavour of a developer’s approach to customer care.  I’ve found that many chess app developers are actually pretty good in supporting their users. Some recent examples that come to mind include the developers of SmallChess (iOS) and Napo Chess.

Summary

For this user, an app needs to be well designed, simple to use and fun to play. This doesn’t mean it has to be a basic or limited in features in any way. However, focusing on extending the range of features to the detriment of usability is likely to result in the declining use of an app.

 

These are my thoughts; what do you think is important in a chess app? …..