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…..

 

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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? …..

Chess Genius

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

Summary:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Strength and playability

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

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

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

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

Features

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

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

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

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

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

Practicality of use and presentation

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

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

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

Developer support

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

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

Overall

Likes:

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

Dislikes:

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

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

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

 

 

 

Napo Chess

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


Summary:

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

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

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

Strength

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

diagram001

(A) – (nb not app image)

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

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

Features

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

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

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

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

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

NapoChess_database

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

Practicality of use and presentation

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

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

Developer support

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

 

Overall

Likes:

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

Dislikes:

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

 

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

 

Chess Endgames

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

Summary

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

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

Features

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Practical useability and presentation

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

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

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

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

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

Developer support

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

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

Overall


Likes:

  • Free
  • Range of available positions


Dislikes:

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

 

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

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…..?