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
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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.

 

Chess Openings Pro

Chess openingsReview details:
App version: 4.1.1
Device:  iPad 3
Operating system: iOS 9.3.1

Summary:

A well designed and valuable tool for club players wanting to brush up on their general opening play though it may be somewhat limited for more in-depth study of particular openings 

Chess Openings Pro is an iOS app from Tom Ashmore for use on tablet and mobile devices.The Pro version of the app, as it’s name suggests the fully featured edition and costs £2.99. There is a free trial ‘Lite’ version (Chess Openings Explorer) which has some important restrictions which are outlined where relevant in this review. It is also worth saying, don’t confuse the Lite version of this app with the similarly named android app (reviewed here). They are developed by different people and are independent apps.

COE_mainChess Openings Pro as its name suggests, is a tool for exploring and learning about the chess openings. The app enables openings to be studied in a range of different ways several ways; it does this primarily in two ways 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 (w/d/l) is a commonly used format in established chess database applications. The app is not particualy innovative in that it uses the well established approach of  visually representing opening move choices in the form of a ‘tree’ of individual moves from the current board position. These moves are shown with associated ‘performance’ information relating to the move such as the number of times it has been played, and the scores in terms of game outcomes (For example 50% of games playing the move from this position where won by white… etc).  But it ain’t broke don’t fix it – 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

An app dedicated to chess openings is only really as good as the database it uses. The volume and quality of the games are key factors to consider:

  • too few games and the database is too small to give sufficient information about individual moves or coverage of opening moves. (for example you can’t conclude much if there are only the results of says 5 games from the current position!)
  • if the database is made up of games between weak players or games played at very fast time controls (eg bullet or blitz) the quality of the moves played will generally be low and the results in terms of the game outcomes (w/d/l) will be similarly impacted (garbage in garbage out)

COEPro2Chess Openings Pro stacks up pretty well in terms of its database. The Pro version uses over 1.9 million ‘high level’ games. Whilst ‘high level’ is not defined, at least the importance of quality is recognised and the volume is good enough that it doesn’t feel that positions are reached too quickly where there are no games left . (Note the database in the Lite version is a third of the size). One specific feature which is rare to find in this type of app but which would be valuable is the ability for the user to import their own database of games to use for the move tree – this would allow the user to make their own choice  (for example using only games played between players above 2500 elo etc) – sadly Chess Openings Pro doesn’t give the user this option either.

The Pro version (but not Lite) helpfully includes an engine to provide analysis in positions where there isCOE_engine_output no tree available. This is a valuable feature allowing for independent study particularly in less popular lines, where for example the opening tree may run out of games only a few moves in. The user can play the opening against the engine or use it to analyse specific positions. The engine analysis is clear and includes all key information such as evaluation, suggested move and optimal line of play (principal variation). It’s not all good news though as there are a number of niggles that if resolved would increase the app’s practical use. For example:

  • there’s no option to set or influence the analysis time  – a best move will be suggested or played at a certain fixed 12 ply depth  (analysis will however continue beyond this if play option is disabled as in the image above)
  • there is no multi-pv option available, which is an important  feature for analysis purposes (multi-pv allows an engine to analyse and display more than one move at a time – for example the best two or three moves in the current position). This is helpful for example when trying to assess the merits of different possible moves
  • the engine used isn’t identified so it is difficult for the user to gauge the quality of the analysis and how much reliance to place on it

CEOpro3

The app has a range of additional learning features which are of varying practical use. Probably the most significant of these is the quiz mode where the user can test their openings knowledge by answering a range of multiple choice questions. These can be selected based on your own preferred openings (which can be saved separately) or randomly generated.

The quiz mode is a fun and potentially useful exercise  and a % score is awarded at the end of the test. However, some of the answers and comments appear rather contrived and/or inappropriate – for example it makes little sense to tell me I have chosen the least popular move if all 5 moves available have only been reached in a total of 7 games! In reality,  I suspect the real benefit to this option will lie in testing yourself against your own preferred openings rather than the classic quiz which throws an apparently random assortment of openign positions at you.

There is also an Opening of the Day option, which on selection presents what appears to be a random opening position with associated database analysis. And that’s about it. In short it’s not clear what the point of this specific option is other than perhaps to introduce users to new openings.

Taken together it is likely these features could leave the user with a rather dissatisfied feeling  – whilst it may be interesting to see a broad range of opening positions and also be useful to develop some broad awareness – the reality is I’m not likely to be playing or facing many of these openings. I suspect the average player will be wanting to develop an in-depth knowledge of a much narrower range of openings. For example,  if I only play d4 and have the caro-kann as my defence of choice as black to e4 then I’m not interested in the complexities of the Sicilian or Ruy Lopez. Of course the opposite could be argued also and the app may be useful in stimulating the user to find and try out new, perhaps even ‘offbeat’ openings and variations.

Practical use and presentation

COEpro4
The app is well designed and easy to use. All options are clearly identified and accessible from a single screen. Additionally, the app’s chess engine can easily be engaged at any point by a simple swipe. The developer has clearly given useability some thought and this is shown in several small but nice touches. This includes for example use of a small coloured pawn to clearly indicate which side the engine thinks is ahead and an ‘Opening Book’ option  which allows the user to access and set up the board with any opening and variation however obscure, at the touch of a button.

Visually the app is appealing having a clean and uncluttered appearance. The chessboard and pieces are clear and easy to view – no awkward colour clashes of garish colours. The only slight disappointment is that there is no ability to alter the default options to add some variety.

Developer support

Chess Openings Pro is an app that is in active development with a history of regular releases. Updates have provided bug fixes and improved functionality. The developer is available via an email address which is readily available either from the app store or within the app itself. Whilst easy to use, the app also has an element of built in support, via a simple help button, which covers the basic operation of the app.

Overall

Likes:

  • Simple to use
  • Good visual presentation
  • Large database of games
  • Inclusion of chess engine for self-analysis

Dislikes:

  • Inability to import/load alternative database
  • Engine used is not identified
  • Opening of the Day seems a bit pointless

 

There are some additional more detailed notes about this app in the Developer notes section.

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

 

 

 

 

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…..

 

Tiger Knight Patrol

Tiger PatrolReview details:                                                                           
App version:  1.0.4
Device:  iPod Touch 4th ed
Operating system: iOS 6.1.6

Summary

A rather basic take on the Knight’s Tour puzzle; simple and fun though probably in small doses.

Tiger Knight Patrol is a free app (without advertising) by the developed JAGS (Japan Art Gear Systems) development team. It is available for both iPod and iPad devices though on the latter critical bugs render the app pretty much unplayable.

Knight Patrol is a chess puzzle game based on the well-known Knights Tour problem ; the Knights Tour itself being an illustration of a more general mathematical problem.

Knights-Tour-Animation.gif

Knight’s Tour on 5×5 board (image from wikipedia)

The idea is refreshingly simple – to conduct Knight moves around all the 64 squares of a chessboard in such a way that the same square isn’t visited twice and that no squares are missed.

This app includes the Knights Tour problem of the traditional 8 x 8 square chessboard but adds the twist in that it offers different board layout sizes and designs.

Knight Patrol_1The app itself is very easy to use – it is a question of simply just tapping a square to start – the app will then show the available moves in a different colour (yellow). All subsequent moves are made by tapping the square of your choice. The app will keep a record as you progress of  the number of different squares visited. If you go wrong or want to try a different route, there is also an ‘undo’ option and the puzzle can be started afresh with  a ‘Reset’ option.

Knight Patrol_2The app offers a total of 20 different layouts to solve. These seem well thought out in terms of the variety of difficulty, starting from a very simple 3 x 3 square board to a cross or heart shaped 10  x 10 sized chessboard. A good design feature lies in the fact that whilst it is natural to progress up the individual puzzles in order of difficulty, the user isn’t forced to solve a particular puzzle before moving on to another one. The downside here is that if you are taking the layouts ‘in order’ you will be moving on to an even harder test – not very encouraging if you are struggling with the easier one!

Herein lies the main drawback of the app  – this being that there are no solutions or more importantly hints available. It means that if you get stuck on a particular board (as I was for a long time on the 5 x 6 board) then you really are stuck and as a result it is much easier to lose interest in the app. Having had this app myself for several years, I find I play it actively for short periods but then quickly give up frustrated returning to it probably several months later (after I have forgotten my frustration!).

It is also easy to think of some additional features that would benefit the app. In particular, the ability for users to design their own boards would add even greater choice and add longer term interest. (This would perhaps add a little complexity to the app in needing to check that designs still enabled valid tours of the board!).

On the tested device (iPod touch) the app works perfectly with no obvious sign of bugs or other errors. Sadly, the same experience can’t be said for use on an iPad. Tiger Patrol was obviously not developed with this platform in mind, and the app will totally freeze on completion of a particular puzzle or when the game history is cleared (‘initialization’ option selected).

Developer support

Support for the user is not a strong  feature of the app. The app is not difficult to use, and this probably explains why the developer hasn’t really bothered with any instructions. There is no guidance included within the app, nor is the iTunes app narrative very descriptive. The developer advertises support via a weblink but frustratingly – unless you are a student of Japanese – will be of little practical use. So there doesn’t seem much opportunity for offering feedback to aid for further development.

This is probably just as well as the bad news is that the app appears to be pretty much dead at the time of this review – it hasn’t been updated since February 2011. However, JAGS does have quite a number of live apps on the iTunes store some of which have been released or updated more recently than Knight Patrol, so there may still be hope. However, the lack of support for the iPad and correction of basic flaws is particularly disappointing.

Overall


Likes:

  • Free and ad-free
  • Can be used on older devices (requires only ios 3.1.3 and above)
  • Simple and easy to use
  • Good range of different board sizes and types


Dislikes:

  • No solutions or hints to puzzles
  • Lack of developer interest and update
  • Unusable on the iPad

 

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

Opening Tree

Opening treeReview details:                                                                           
App version:  1.2
Device:  Ipod Touch 4th ed
Operating system: ios 6.1.6

Summary

A potentially useful tool for learning about chess openings but rather limited and let down by a small database. Design and layout makes use on a mobile device difficult.

Opening Tree is a free app from Michael Adams who is responsible for a range of chess related apps and software. It is also available for the Ipad and includes an inapp purchase giving the user added features, in this case the ability to edit, score moves and make notes. This review is of the free version (ie without the additional purchase option).

Features

Opening Tree is an analysis tool which enables you to study chess openings in two ways, using either:

  1. information from a database of opening moves which itself is drawn from the results of a large pool of games; or
  2. a chess engine to provide detailed analysis of specific positions

Opening tree_3The database of moves with associated frequencies of wins/draws/losses is very helpful and is a commonly used format in established chess database applications. It enables the user to quickly see which are the most frequent moves from a given position and also which produces the best results. As a small improvement, in addition to W/D/L information the % score for each move would also be helpful to more clearly identify the relative success of each move.

The quality of the database of opening moves used is crucial for this to be a useful tool for analysis. In this regard the Opening Tree app is somewhat disappointing. The size of the database used is relatively small, (due to memory constraints on the ipod?). This means that it doesn’t take very many moves, even in the more popular openings before there are either no more or too few results to be meaningful. As an example, if you want to study the Budapest Gambit (1 d4 Nf6 2 c4 e5) you’ll find the database has the results of just 33 games after only the 2nd move. The other drawback is that there is no information included within the app to help assess the quality of the games used to build the database. For example, games where both players are rated above say 2500 elo might be considered a better reference source than where the minimum rating was 2000 elo.

The inclusion of a chess engine to provide analysis of potential moves is Opening tree analysisalso a good feature. This enables the user to check and assess possible opening lines and counter moves. The chess engine included with the app is Crafty 23.4 – a longstanding and well-respected engine, which happens to be one of my favourites. Whilst Crafty is certainly strong enough for this purpose for the average app user, I can’t help thinking that most knowledgeable users would prefer one or more of the top strength engines that are freely available (for example Stockfish) for analysis purposes. Sadly, Crafty is not one of these.

There are additional analyis features. An in app purchase allows you to assess and record particular moves by using different colours to signify good and bad moves and you are also able to make notes about speciifc moves. The review didn’t test this functionality.

However, it is after a while of using the app that some of the weaknesses with the concept begin to become apparent. Yes, it provides a good way of reviewing and assessing opening lines but it is rather limited in how this can be achieved. The app has a lack of accompanying features that would be helpful for studying purposes. For example, the app doesn’t actually let you play or practice any opening  – the engine is only available as an analysis tool and not a playing partner.

Learning and user edited work on opening lines can’t be exported for use in other apps, nor can the learning be utilised in any other practical way by the app. For example, the app doesn’t allow the user to generate an opening book from their research to use either in the app or another alternative program or app. So there is no direct way to use the app to play against or test your own research and pet lines, you will need to fire up and another chess app.

The user can import their own PGN files of games into the app either via email or ITunes file sharing. However, due to technical constraints (essentially catering for the needs of older devices) only small files of no more than 500 games can be handled. On the Ipod once a PGN file is loaded it is a terribly fiddly and frustrating job to ‘step’ through the moves of a game to be able to compare them to the database. This is down to the size of the controls more of which below. I found myself veering between stepping forward and backwards too often for comfort.

In summary, in considering the combination of features and flexibility I was left with the feeling that a dedicated chess database app might not be a better option.

Practical use and presentation

Opening tree_mainThe first thing that’s obvious when using this app on a mobile device is how small the chessboard is. The board takes up just over half of the screen size and means that not only is it potentially difficult to view but that the dreaded ‘fat finger’ problem is likely to come into play. The result is that if you want to enter moves manually (rather than via tapping the particular move from the movelist) the size of the individual squares makes it tricky to tap the correct piece. There feels to be areas of wasted space on either side of the board (maybe the arrow keys could be located here?) and there is no option for resizing the board. Neither is there any potential for screen rotation, and I wonder if landscape format would be better at least on an ipod (this is available on the iPad version).

These issues combine to leave a feeling that the design of the screen layout for the ipod/iphone user at least, could be better.Opening tree_options

However, although size and layout can’t be altered, there are opportunities for tailoring the presentation. Within the ‘Settings’ option there are a range of easily accessible options for changing various visual aspects. These include a good range of different chessboard colours, background colours and at least two chess piece sets. Refreshingly (unlike some other apps) the choices are between well-designed and respected piece sets which are both very clear and comfortable to use.

Developer support

The app description on the ITunes store is failry descriptive in terms of the app’s features and operation. This is supplemented by some specific notes of instruction on selecting relevant options; in particular when loading a pgn file for the first time. The developer has also included a change-log on his website together with contact details for support.

To date the app has had only one update since its original release, this being a year since the writing of this review. As such it doesn’t appear to be in active development. However, the author has released and/or updated other chess apps in the intervening period, so it is too early to conclude that the app is dead.

Overall


Likes:

  • Free and ad-free
  • Inclusion of chess engine for self-analysis
  • Good choice of visual options
  • Simple and easy to use


Dislikes:

  • Chessboard is too small to view/use comfortably
  • Small size of database of opening moves
  • Uses a relatively ‘weak’ chess engine
  • No recent updates

 

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…..?