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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Acid Ape Chess

Acid Ape logo
Review details:

App version: Beta 11.2
Device:  Samsung S4 Mini
Operating system: 4.4.2

Summary:

A high quality feature rich app which is both well designed and produced and also well supported. It is a ‘must have’ app for the advanced chess user, especially as it is free. Casual players will be better served by other chess apps. 

AAC gameAcid Ape Chess is an app for android devices from the Belgian developer Acid Ape Studios. The app is still technically in beta stage which may explain why it is free, unsupported by adverts and with no annoying in-app purchases. However, don’t let the app’s idiosyncratic name or beta status fool you – it is a fully operational and sophisticated app aimed squarely at the serious chess user. The developer is extremely generous in offering it to users for free. Given the quality of Acid Ape Chess it really is a ‘must have’ for the advanced user.

Features

Acid Ape Chess is one of the most advanced chess apps in terms of the number and breadth of features available – it is an app with all the ‘bells and whistles’. It is difficult to know where to start but perhaps easiest to say what it doesn’t do.

Well, strangely, it doesn’t play chess itself directly. So the issue of strength of chess play is not strictly relevant as the app has no native (inbuilt) engine. Rather it acts more as a chess gui. This has two specific benefits:

  1. you can choose your own engine  – the app comes with three engines (Arasan, ChenAAC engines and Scorpio) all of which are reliable and well-known. But you can also easily install any other compatiable engine (both UCI and CECP / winboard protocols are catered for as is the Open Exchange format to give maximum flexibility). A comprehensive archive of free engines is available to download from here.
  2. hardcore enthusiasts can set engines to play against each other to test relative strengths (though be warned – this does tend to drain the battery!)

Depending on the individual engine, for the hardened user it is also possible to edit/tweak various settings typically including hash size, skill level, and number of cores used etc.

Practical game play is very well catered for with the ability to play blindfold games (a little AAC_game_screenfrustrating due to the temperamental voice recognition entry system), Chess 960 (where an engine is able to) and also interestingly simultaneous games so you can mimic the exhibitions of the top players! Games can be played using sudden death (ie game in x minutes) or Fischer time controls (ie base time plus increment per move) though perhaps a little surprisingly, move based time controls (eg 40 moves in 1 hour etc) are not catered for. Games are automatically saved for future reference and there is a good range of file management options accessible via the Database icon. This enables different pgn database files to be loaded and also individual pgn files to be externally shared and copied and pasted from the clipboard. The simple ability to easily transfer games between different chess apps via the clipboard is a surprising omission in many chess apps.

If you get bored with engine play Acid Ape Chess also acts as a client interface for major online chess servers, FICS and ICC. Functionality is generally good with most key actions AAC FICS gamereadily available from within the app. However, the ability to filter game search is currently an omission (I want to easily be able to specify the strength of opponent when looking for a game!). But it should be said there is also access to console mode so more experienced users can manage their use of FICS directly via the standard FICS commands

In addition to practical game play, Acid Ape Chess offers the user other possibilities. There are a suite of options for setting up, editing (via standard FEN notation) and analysing chess positions. Interestingly, these handle both Chess 960 as well as traditional chess positions.  There is also a dedicated tactical puzzles mode with 3 separate selection files with a total of 900 separate puzzles. These offer a good challenge for the experienced player and require you to solve the winning line move by move (hints are available and there is ready access to engine analysis for study purposes if needed). The puzzles are taken from real games and a nice touch is that the player details are also included. For added flexibility the user is able to also import puzzle collections and there are many freely available on the web.

In keeping with its aim to focus on the more specialist user,  Acid Ape Chess includes some more niche features which may be of real value to those who can take advantage of them. In particular, two worth mentioning are that the app offers:

  • connectivity with the DGT electronic chess board  via ‘bluetooth’ enabling games to be played directly on the lovely DGT wooden board for a more natural chess experience (sadly your reviewer can’t test this, not having access to a DGT board)
  • automatic integration of online Syzygy endgame tablebases (for up to 6 men)  which is invaluable for endgame analysis and practice (the benefit here is that mobile devices don’t have the storage capacity needed for the 6 men bases)

Practical use and presentation

Sadly it is all too common for apps with multiple features to be overly difficult and complex to use due to poor design. There is nothing more frustrating for a user than having a wide range of options if they can’t easily find or remember how to use them! This is not the case with Acid Ape Chess and the developer has clearly thought hard about the useability issues during app development.

AAC main screenAll the main features are available from a single well designed home screen  which is split into four theme areas:

  • Game (including engine play, puzzles and file management functions)
  • Position (setting up, analysing and playing )
  • Online play – covering FICS and ICC use.
  • Settings – including special features, engine management and options for making changes to visual aspects

Cleverly, all the sub-options for each theme are also directly available from the home screen by clicking on a small double arrow icon to the right of each theme area.

Navigation around the app is also straightforward.  A simple swipe system allows the user to move between different sections of the app which appear as separate open ‘multi-page’ windows – these can also be quickly accessed as a drop down list from a button on each screen. This means for example there is the potential to have several games open simultaneously and to switch between them for example when watching online and analysing.

AAC clocksThere are many simple and thoughtful touches to help the user – this includes the use of large digital clocks which is very helpful when playing blitz games either online or against an installed engine. The clocks don’t have to be visible if they are too distracting for you and the user can simply swipe again to display other relevant information such as a list of moves of the game etc.

Often the benefits of the design features only become apparent through more regular use. As a practical example, keeping a finger on the arrow keys speeds up the time control minute and second counters – important for setting up anything longer than AAC colour schemea blitz game quickly. In terms of customisation, a recent update to Acid Ape Chess has also introduced a good range of different board colours and styles together with several different pieces types to add some variation to the visual playing experience.

Notwithstanding all the positive aspects, I have one just one relatively minor gripe. When wanting a simple no frills game ‘mano a mano’ against an engine it would be nice to be able to play with just the board alone visible (preferably against a dark background) – ie  with reduced/no other information visible  – just the board – so I could fully concentrate on the game. Visually this might also give the impression of a bigger board as it can sometimes feel a little too small, for example when the oversize clocks are also displayed. The text font size is also rather small.

In addition to being well designed the app is also technically well produced. For such a sophisticated app (and notwithstanding its beta status) it proves reassuringly stable. This is not to say that it hasn’t crashed on rare occasions. But it is important to note that Acid Ape Chess is dependent on the chess engines the user installs into it – not all of which are necessarily 100% reliable or have the same features and options. And this is not always immediately clear. If problems are experienced, consider first if these occur when particular engines are being used. Also users may see a warning notification of high CPU usage and noticeable battery draining; in this case check whether engines have been left running and/or the relevant engine settings in use (eg number of cores used etc).

Developer support

At the time of review, Acid Ape Chess is being regularly updated (two releases have been made during the writing of this review!). Indeed the developer has announced plans for an even shorter release cycle. The good news is that the updates have been meaningful, improving functionality rather than simply fixing bugs.

Very pleasingly, the high quality of the app is equally matched by  the quality of the developer’s support of it.The developer is easily contactable via the app’s play store page and responsive to feedback as evidenced by the replies left to reviewers’ feedback.

Importantly, an active twitter account @AcidApeStudios is also maintained for news, feedback and support which is well worth a follow. (I’m always surprised more developers don’t use social media presence to promote and support their apps – maybe I’m following the wrong accounts!). As a last point, surprisingly there isn’t a support contact/feedback option within the app itself and this might be something worth considering in a future update.

 
Overall

Likes:

  • Free and ad-free
  • Range of features and options are second to none
  • Ability to use a wide range of different chess engines
  • Tactical puzzles
  • Design and  ease of use


Dislikes: 

There are no real dislikes to this app – the app of course is not perfect and there are still a few tweaks and suggestions for improvement that could be made (not strong or significant enough to be a dislike!). These are outlined on the relevant section of the developer notes  page

 

AA Chess

AA chess1

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


Summary:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

AA chess bq

Queen or bishop?

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

 

Strength

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

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

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

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

Features and practicality of use

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

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

AA chess socmed

Summary

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


Overall

Likes:

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


Dislikes:

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

Chess Rating

chessrating
Review details:

App version: 2.6
Device:  Samsung S4 Mini
Operating system: 4.4.2

Summary

A fun and useful app if not taken too seriously which has great potential but is currently let down by some simple issues relating to basic useability

Chess Rating is a free android app from Oliver Kertesz which pleasingly is also free from any advertising. The app has a long history and is based on code originally developed at the time of the millenium before subsequently being ported to android.

chess_rating_2As the app’s name suggests it is a rating tool offering the user an elo rating based on the results of completing 16 separate test positions. In each position the user has up to 60 seconds to select the best move and has up to 4 separate attempts to find it. Once completed, based on some unspecified method, the app calculates an estimated elo performance rating  for the full test.

The positions are selected at random from a database and vary in difficulty; the degree of challenge being apparently influenced by the user’s previous results.  There is a reasonable balance of positions between the various game stages, though most would be classed as from the middle game. More importantly perhaps, none appear to be overtly contrived or otherwise unnatural. The main issue with the positions is that there are really too few of them. The current database has only 369 positions at the time of review. It doesn’t take many separate tests before you see the same position appearing. This obviously has the tendency to exaggerate the elo rating achieved!

There is good news in that the latest app version now has the ability to update additional positions from the internet. However, don’t expect rapid growth here. The user is only able to update the database once a week and in the words of the developer …’the number of positions is slowly growing over time’.

Chess playing software has traditionally found it very difficult to mimic specific elo ratings accurately and believably. So the acid test for this app is of course – is it any good?  –  are the elo ratings produced a believeable measure of performance?

The answer to some extent lies in the eye of the user. A glance at the app reviews on the chess rating _eloPlay Store suggests opinion is mixed with as many users recognising the elo grades they achieve as think they are way over or under inflated. In my case the individual scores have varied significantly – running two tests one after the other – I achieved a rating of 1639 followed by a rating of 1900 both of which are above my current genuine playing strength. Refreshingly, the developer himself makes no excessive claims about accuracy, advising users ‘don’t take this too seriously…. but it should be roughly correct’.

So really, it is for the reader/user to best judge for themselves about the accuracy. Setting aside an argument about the actual ratings I suspect the best measure is a self comparison with repeated use over time. In reality though the app is probably best enjoyed and appreciated when simply used essentially as a collection of fun chess problems to solve. A kop out by the reviewer? ….maybe! 🙂

Practical use and presentation

The app doesn’t have many options or features.  The user can vary the board colour scheme with a selection of 5 different choices and also decide whether to have co-ordinates app has a number of options. There is no ability to change the piece types. Fortunately the default choice have clear and well defined pieces and they don’t get in the way of trying solve the chess positions.

chess rating_options‘Always flip board’ is probably the most important feature, which I expect most users would want as a default as it is the most natural setting. Selecting this ensures that the side to move (ie the user) always plays from the bottom without having to worry about the board orientation irrespective of whether it is white or black to play.

So far so good in terms of the app’s useability. But unfortunately. the app has a number of annoying aspects, which affect its use and enjoyment. In truth none of these are ‘mission critical’ in their own right but together do leave a feeling of dissatisfaction. Specific issues include:

  • when selecting a move, the move actually isn’t played on the board, it is signified by chess rating 1highlighting the relevant squares alone – if I make a move, I want to see it!
  • the timing bar which indicates how much time is left to consider a move is not the clearest. Yes it changes colour , turning from green to yellow to red as time reduces but it is not the easiest to see even on a tablet. Surely a countdown timer and perhaps even an audible warning sound would be clearer?
  • the user’s move choices which are indicated beneath the chessboard are just too small to read
  • whilst solutions are given, if the correct move is not identified with any of the four choices, there is no explanation or indication for why it is the best move. This is a particular problem as the app has no save position option so you can’t go back and review or study a solution during a test.

Developer support

The app is supported by a dedicated website which includes clear instructions about how to use the app with helpful screenshots. Interestingly there is also background to the app’s development, and a log of the changes in each version. Contact details for the developer are readily available and he has also responded specifically to a number of Play Store reviews, although none recently.

The app has been regularly updated, the current version dating from February 2016.

Likes:

  • Free and ad-free
  • Regular updates over the long term
  • Good visual experience (choice of pieces and board colours)
  • Ability to update the position database


Dislikes:

  • Limited number of positions (now and in the foreseeable future given speed of growth to date)
  • Inability to save or export positions for later review (and no explanation to solutions)
  • Barriers to useability – use of small text, unclear countdown indicator etc)

 

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

Chess Openings Explorer

chess openings explorerReview details:
App version: 1.10.1
Device:  Samsung S4 Mini
Operating system: 4.4.2

Summary

A useful tool for the casual player wanting to improve their opening play but the serious user and stronger player is likely to be disappointed

Chess Openings Explorer is a free android app developed by Anton Duzenko which is free to download and notably also free from any advertising

The app is an analysis tool which enables  chess openings to be studied in two ways by 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 is a commonly used format in established chess database applications. The Openings Explorer uses the normal approach of displaying the results in a ‘tree’ of the individual moves from the current board position. 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

The underlying database is perhaps the most important feature of an app dedicated to chess openings analysis. Such an app lives or dies by the quality of the games the database uses; so how does Explorer do in this area? Let’s take a look…

COEThe database of games is literally massive – using 2.3 million games played on the Free internet Chess Server (FICS). This means that the database is large enough to provide a sufficient coverage of openings to a reasonable depth – it also means that (other things being equal) results are more meaningful – in reviewing a potential move I would be more comfortable with the conclusions from 100 games than say 10. The quantity of games certainly allows trends to be identified and enables different moves to be more easily compared.

However, the database size is not all good news; it brings both practical and usability drawbacks:

The vast number of games means that the app size is huge – the developer recommends at least 770Mb of free space  – so if your device doesn’t have external memory the app may well be a ‘no-no’ to start with. Additionally, the developer also indicates there are potential problems regarding external storage for non-Samsung users

There is a trade off between quantity and quality. The larger the pool of games used the lower the average quality of the games will be. Put simply, there won’t be 2.3 million games from Magnus Carlsen or Gary Kasparov. As an example, in my own games database of over 4 million games –  only some 60,000 were played by players who both had ratings of over 2600 (ie Super-GM). The reality is that many of the FICS games are of very low quality. They are often at blitz time controls between weak players with many poor moves. This obviously impacts on the reliability of the assessments of individual opening moves COE_Grobwithin the app. As an illustration, there are at least 30 games of the following:

1 – g4 e5
2 – f3 or f4

Of course, this is a terrible opening in it’s own right leading to the quickest possible loss by checkmate – what is worse is that of these 30 games only twice was the immediately winning move 2..Qh4++ played! Equally, it is not hard to find opening moves which drop whole pieces. So, the app isn’t likely to inspire the confidence of the serious openings student or stronger player. However, for the casual or weaker player the quality of the games arguably doesn’t matter so much as they are far more likely to be facing non-optimal moves in the games they play.

The other big disappointment regarding the database lies in the fact that there is no option to change it and load in your own games database. This inflexibility means that you can’t rectify any of the quality issues identified above nor for example use a specific subset of games to practice a particular opening in-depth (eg import a database of solely Budapest Gambit games between Master strength players).

There is however good news with the inclusion of a chess engine which can be used to play and analysis openings which can be used to play a full game. The engine  ‘Cuckhoo Chess‘ by the respected programmer Peter Österlund, whilst not being of top strength is still a good one. It feels appropriate and well-matched to the app given the type of player it is likely to appeal to and sufficient for the needs of the user.

Practical use and presentation

COE_menuThe app is relatively simple and easy to use. There are few options and those that are available are easily accessible from a single menu bar. These are practical including the ability ot rotate the board, return to the start position or use the engine

Entering moves is straightforward, simply by tapping the relevant board squares which are highlighted for clarity and there is a back button to return to the previous position.

Visually, the app looks attractive. Although there are no means to alter the chess board or piece type, the options selected are well chosen and make for pleasant viewing. The evaluations for individual moves for the side to move are shown using separate percentages for win (displayed in green) and losses (in red) together with the number of games where that move was played.

Whilst the user experience is generally positive, it must be noted that the app does lack a COE Settingslittle polish. The purpose of the app’s settings are not immediately obvious (none are explained) and indeed on discovery several appear rather pointless (‘Hide ActionBar’ – why would the user want a title bar displaying the app name taking up screen room anyway!?). There are a few more detailed specific comments regarding use and presentation on the developer page.

Developer support

The app has been actively developed with regular updates, the current version dates from June 2015. The app appears well supported. The developer invites feedback and has responded to user feedback left at the Play Store which is always a good sign. It is also clear that user comments have been addressed in subsequent releases.

Whilst it is not a complex app and users of other chess opening apps will no doubt be familiar with the app’s layout and approach, the absence of any simple instructions on the Play Store page or within the app itself is an omission that should be corrected to help beginners and new users.

Overall


Likes:

  • Free and ad-free
  • Large database of games
  • Inclusion of good chess engine for self-analysis


Dislikes:

  • Size of games database sacrifices quality
  • Inability to import/load alternative database
  • Settings are not explained and add little benefit

 

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…..

 

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…..?