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

 

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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…..?

Senior Chess

senior-chessReview details:
App version:  1.79
Device:  Nexus 7
Operating system: 5.1.1


Summary

A well developed and supported app that whilst lacking a little polish is easy to use and reasonably featured.


The first thing to note about Senior Chess is that it is one of those rarities – a free app that is not supported (or more often overwhelmed) by advertising. This doesn’t mean to say it is any less a quality product – far from it – and kudos and thanks are due to the developer as a result.

Playing strength

In this case the developer is Leen Ammeraal known and respected in the computer chess community as author of the strong (in human terms) ‘Queen’ chess engine. It is not a surprise then that Senior Chess plays a strong game of chess and will provide more than a stiff challenge to the average user or even club player. This has been recognised in recent versions with the introduction of an interesting strength limiting option in the form of a ‘possibly weak moves’ level. This allows the user to choose the proportion of moves the engine makes that are deliberately weaker than normal. Artificially weakening a strong engine is a notoriously difficult exercise to do well and sadly Senior Chess doesn’t quite manage to pull it off.

The problem is that choosing a percentage figure for weak moves say ‘1 in every 5 moves’ (ie 20%) means you end up expecting and looking for a mistake at particular intervals which doesn’t make for a realistic challenge. In fact you often don’t have to look too hard as the weak move can be an outright blunder which makes the overall game play too variable – it feels unrealistic to have a run of good moves and general play followed by an obviously weak move at periodic intervals.

As an example, as shown in the image, using the ‘1 weak in 1o moves ‘setting (ie 10%) – on move 3 Senior Chess played the inexplicable

Senior chess weak move  3…Nd5??

So whilst the novice player may be well catered for by this option (by opting for a high percentage of weak moves) it is this type of game play which makes Senior Chess perhaps less appealing for the average player who conversely finds the time based levels of play too challenging.

Features

Senior Chess options menuSenior Chess has all the key features you would expect in a decent chess playing app. These include:

 

  • loading and saving a chess game
  • setting up/editing a chess position
  • saving  and loading positions (in FEN format) and also copying to/pasting from clipboard
  • 2 player mode (allowing for human v human play)

Whilst there may not be the breadth of options available with some other chess playing apps there are a couple of interesting and valuable features worth noting. These are:

  1. Senior Chess’s abililty to access 5 men endgame tablebase support (this essentially means the app can play all positions with 5 or fewer pieces on the board perfectly). This is particularly useful when setting up positions to practice your endgame technique (for example to test if you can checkmate a lone king with a bishop and knight)
  2. The option to load and play out a range of established test positions (currently 400) to see if you can find the winning move or line; this again is a great way 0f learning and improving your chess.

However, on the downside there are some surprising omissions which potentially impact on enjoyment from a playing perspective.

Senior Chess time controls

Notably, the range of time controls is rather limited, the user being restricted to selecting different move based thinking times – from instant play to 60 seconds per move (there is also an infinite time option). Certainly, the inclusion of some sudden death options (eg Game in 5 minutes etc) or  incremental time controls (eg  3 min + 2 seconds) would be welcome. Additionally, for practical game play, a resign and draw option really is a ‘must have’ feature, and it is one that Senior Chess currently lacks.


Practical use and presentation

Ease of use is an area of strength for this app. It has been well designed with the options clearly thought out and identified. This is shown in the use of simple option descriptions – for example ‘Go (machine to move)’ How easy to use an app’s ‘set up a chess position’ feature (in Senior Chess this is ‘Edit Mode’) is, is often a good test. Here Senior Chess makes this is a simple exercise, from the initial dialogue box asking if you want to start with an empty board.

Senior Chess feels a little less polished in terms of presentation than some other apps. The size of the move notation and engine output text is rather small (the latter can’t be turned off, an important option if you don’t want to see how you’re doing against the engine) and the game sounds don’t feel easy on the ear and risk starting to grate after a time. Fortunately these can be turned off. A bigger potential issue lies in the fact that there is no choice about the board and pieces. Whilst the given options are clear and easy to view, some opportunity to change the visual layout would be a good option to offer some variety now and again and help maintain interest. For example, a full screen or ‘big board’ option would certainly be useful when using Senior Chess on a phone.

Developer support

Lastly but by no means least, developer support for an app is of course an important criterion. In this respect, Senior Chess is well served. The developer has provided detailed guidance on using the app notably including several youtube presentations. There is a history of regular updates and bug fixes and at the time of writing the app is in active development.

Overall

Likes:

  • Free and ad-free
  • Active developer with regular updates
  • Ablity to give stronger players a good game
  • Access to endgame database
  • Simple and easy to use interface and options
  • Playing out test positions/puzzles

Dislikes:

  • Unrealistic weakening mode
  • Limited choice of time controls
  • Lack of board and piece options

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