My Chess Puzzles

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


Summary:

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

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

mcp1

What’s wrong here?

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Presentation and useability

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

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

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

Developer support

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


Overall

Likes:

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


Dislikes: 

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

 

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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…..?

Lomonosov Tablebases

lomonosov_7Review details:                                                                           
App version:  10 December 2015 release
Device:  Samsung S4 Mini
Operating system: 4.4.2

Summary:

An excellent learning tool and an essential app for those keen on developing their endgame skills.

The Lomonosov Tablebases app (also known as ‘7-piece chess endgame training’) is produced by Chess King a well known publisher of chess training software mainly for the PC environment.  The app is available only on the Android platform. It is currently free though I suspect in the longer term may not be so given the only other access to these tablesbases is via a PC and requires the purchase of specific chess software. The app is supported by advertising but this is actually surprisingly unobtrusive with only a small banner advert display when using a particular feature (Position mode) – as shown in the first image below.

A word about tablebases

It is often said that to improve chess strength, the most effective use of your time is that spent on studying endgames. Quite simply, this is the app to have if you’re serious about learning and improving this phase of your chess game.

So what is so special about the app? Well it is the only one which uses the famous Lomonosov Endgame tablebases. Endgame tablebases effectively enable perfect play when only a few chess pieces remain on the board.This is possible as with few pieces from all the potential positions available the game outcome can be calculated and the result determined as a win, loss or draw. (They are actually developed by a technique known as ‘retrograde anlaysis‘ – ie from the end position backwards).

The first tablebases were of a 3 man variety (ie two kings and one other piece) and these were calculated as early as 1970. Since this time as computing power has increased, the number of pieces has also increased, to 4 men through 5, 6 and since 2012 now 7 men tablebases. This 7 piece version was calculated on the Lomonosov Supercomputer and the results of the phenomenal calculations required take up to 100TB of diskspace of storage.

The app enables the user to access the knowledge from the huge database of results and use the fact that it plays relevant postions perfectly as a valuable tool for training and analysis.

Features

The Lomonosov app has developed significantly in terms of available features since it was first released. The current version provides a comprehensive range of useful tools for both learning and anlysis purposes.

LomTB_pos

The first likely to be encountered is the ‘Position’ feature – this allows the user to set up  any position on the chess board (with 7 or fewer pieces) and be instantly informed whether with best play the side to move has a forced win/loss or draw. Not only this, but for each of the possible initial moves for the side to move, the game result is displayed. For example, in the image to the right, the display (Ne8  38) indicates playing the knight to square e8 leads to a win (with best play!) in 38 moves. The optimal move or moves if more than one, will be suggested by the app visually on the board by a coloured arrow pointing to the relevant square. (The image also shows the impact of the app’s advertising – this is the only feature/screen which displays an advert).

To practice your technique you can play the app’s inbuilt engine from any position you choose to set up, the tablebases keep a record of the game outcome with perfect play. In this way, you can keep a real time view of how you are playing the endgame, for example if following your move a tablebase win suddenly becomes only a draw, then the optimal move has been missed. It is also important to note that the list of moves played is LomTb_moveretained and can be viewed at the touch of a button and subsequently saved or exported for use or viewing in another chess app. Thoughtfully, the developer has given the user the option of whether or not to display the game outcome in each of the app’s modes (position, play and training). This means you can play or test ‘blind’ and then just use the app to review how you did afterwards.

The app’s other key feature is the inclusion of a range of endgame lessons or exercises for the user to solve by playing out the position against the app’s chess engine LomTB_lessonsusing the endgame tablebases. There are currently over 350 separate positions helpfully collated into different themes – these include for example, pure pawn endings, and promotion and mating amongst others (see image on the right). Each theme has a range of sub-themes, so in the pure pawn endings there are separate tests for K and Pawn v K (KPk), King and Pawn v King and Pawn (KPkp) etc.

The individual exercises have a target number of moves to achieve the desired objective for example, – take a maximum of 17 moves in a position which is a mate in 10 moves with best play. The level of difficulty is graded into estimated ELO ratings which steadily climb in degree of challenge as you progress through the individual positions. These range from 1200 ELO all the way up to a supposed 2900 ELO which is your rating for achieving a mate in 120 moves within a maximum of 200 moves with a sole queen against 3 bishops and a knight!

LomTB_testjpgThe exercises seem reasonably well calibrated in terms of increasing ELO and difficulty. This gives the app a rather addictive touch as it is very easy to find yourself progressing as far and as fast as you can up the ELO scale. At the end of each exercise the user has the option of trying again or reviewing the model answer (Demo mode) which can be stepped through move by move with full details of the tablebase results.

As shown in the image to the left, using Demo mode, I found I made a ‘mistake’ in playing a6 (shown to me in red) rather than the optimal b4 move (in green). In this case it was not a crucial error as the tablebase shows playing a6 is mate in 17 only one move more than b4 (mate in 16).

An important feature also incorporated is the ability to transfer positions and games to and from the app. This is a particularly helpful facility for example, if you want to use the app to study an endgame taken from a database of games stored elsewhere or maybe analyse the end of a live game broadcast over the internet. Both import and export options are easily and accurately accomplished and use standard file pgn and epd file formats. There is also the ability to save favourite positions in both formats within the app.

The app also includes an opportunity to sign up and log-in to an on-line community (administered by the Chess-OK shop) which allows viewing of positions shared by other users and access to additional statistical data. Registration is only likely to appeal to a narrower base of ‘power’ users and this feature isn’t included as part of this review.

Practicality of use and presentation

The app is generally well laid out and easy to navigate. The main options are clearly labelled and readily accessible via a menu buttom at the top left of the screen.  Additional specific options relating to the importing and exporting of positions and games (described above) are accessed via a similar menu button in the top right corner. Again options are clearly described and the relevant actions are easily performed.

The one small glitch with this app lies in its ease of use, particularly for the inexperienced or infrequent user. In particular the position feature can be somewhat confusing at the outset simply due to the number of icons on LomTb_coloursscreen. Not all of theses icons are immediately obvious in terms of their purpose and some also look rather small to those using the app on a phone. In mitigation, once used for a while and when the user gains familiarity with operating the app, these issues become less of a problem. There is also a very good illustrative manual that can be referred to if necessary (see below).

There are a variety of options to customize the look and feel of  the playing surface. This includes the inclusion of two pieces themes – both perfectly clear and usable, and at least thirteen board themes offering differing colour options. These are attractive and again all perfectly usable which is not always the case with some other chess apps.


Developer support

A detailed and comprehensive explanation of an app’s features on the google play store is always an encouraging sign and this particular app doesn’t disappoint in this regard.

In addition Lomonosov Tablebases app also has a high quality instruction manual ; in fact it is one of the best I’ve seen accompany any app, chess related or otherwise. It explains the potentially complex features and operation clearly with the aid of screenshots which also are helpfully labelled numerically.

The app itself and manual also provide for easy ways to give feedback to the developer. From other experience, (not relating to this app) I have found this particular developer to be receptive and responsive to suggestions and comments.

The app has been updated several times in its relatively short life already – including during the writing of this review – and is anticipated to be developed further.

In summary, a well produced and valuable app for the chess enthusiast.

 

Overall

Likes:

  • Free app
  • Use of 7 men endgame tablebases
  • Graded endgame tests to solve
  • Ability to import/export positions
  • Instruction manual

Dislikes:

  • Can take a while to get used to some of the controls

 

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

Chess Diags

chess diagsReview details:
App version:  3.0
Device:  Nexus 7
Operating system: 5.1.1

Summary

A fun and addictive app with a good and broad range of chess problems, with scope to develop your own.  

Chess Diags is a free app (thankfully unsupported by advertising) developed by Olivier Levitt. The app is simple – there is no chess engine to play against – just a large repository of chess problems for the user to solve. Studying and solving chess problems is a great way to improve chess ability particularly for example in developing concentration and recognising patterns and themes.

Features

The app includes 3 separate folders or repositories of problems – in total there are over 1,800 different problems. Each individual problem is identified as a mate in x moves, so it is clear what you are looking for.

Once an invidiual problem is selected, a chessboard with the relevant position is shown and the user is invited to make a move. The user can then play out the position, and will then be told of their success or failure. It is easy to keep track of which problems have been solved – these are marked with a gold star and be removed from the list if so wished.

Mate in 2 _chess_diagsSo what of the problems?  There is a good mix to suit all levels of ability. These include a specific repository (folder) for beginners which are all mate in 1. A separate repository includes over 1,400 problems ranging from mate in 2, all the way up to mate in 10 for expert players. This graduated approach to difficulty is also very good for assessing progress.

Sample problem – White to mate in 2 – what’s the move?* (answer at the bottom)

A nice touch is that the problems in the main repository folder (called repositort_chess diagsWtharvey) are all taken from actual games and so do not feel contrived or otherwise artifical, which can sometimes be the case with certain problem sets. However, this does highlight a gap in that there is no ability to copy the position to the clipboard, or extract the full game to review and use or study in another application.

Sample extract – Wtharvey repository

Individual respositories can be updated from within the app (ie further problems downloaded from various websites) though it is not clear how often (if at all) these are refreshed.

chess diags options
The app has a limited feature set – the main one being the ability to create your own problems (there is a specific repository for your creations – this is empty to start with). Disappointingly, the advertised ability to upload and share your problems with other app users no longer seems to work. Users are also told that self created problem respositories is a feature still being developed).

 

 

(extract – Settings menu)


Practical useability and presentation

It is important to note that the app includes no instructions or guidance on usage. However, the app is very easy to navigate and use. Repositiories are changed with a simple left or right swipe. The Settings menu is largely self explanatory though some guidance on how to add material from other sources (Add a source) is needed to be able to use this particular option. Setting up and saving your own problems is similarly not difficult with individual pieces removed or added by touch.

The board and piece options are a little disappointing. There are two choices, though neither make for easy use, especially for extended periods. The options are:

  • light chessboard (where there is insufficient contrast between the light and dark squares); or
  • standard chessboard (where the dark brown squares clash with visually the black pieces (see picture above)

Developer support

Sadly the app hasn’t been regularly updated and the current version dates from January 2003. This might explain why certain features such as uploading user creation no longer seem to work. But equally certain aspects of the app seem unfinished (for example a message says that self created problem respositories is still being developed).

Overall


Likes:

  • Free and ad-free
  • Large number of interesting and fun chess problems
  • Ability to self-generate problems
  • Simple and easy to use


Dislikes:

  • No recent updates
  • Upload and user sharing  option no longer working
  • Inability to copy and paste positions to clipboard
  • Board and piece options available
  • No instructions

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

(* Answer to the chess problem: 1 Rf6 Bxf6  2 Nxf6++ )