AA Chess

AA chess1

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


Summary:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

AA chess bq

Queen or bishop?

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

 

Strength

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

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

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

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

Features and practicality of use

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

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

AA chess socmed

Summary

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


Overall

Likes:

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


Dislikes:

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

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

Summary:

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

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

COE_mainChess Openings Pro as its name suggests, is a tool for exploring and learning about the chess openings. The app enables openings to be studied in a range of different ways several ways; it does this primarily in two ways using:

  • information from a database of opening moves which is drawn from the results of a large pool of games;
  • an integrated chess engine to provide detailed analysis of specific positions and the option to play out games from openings of the user’ choice.

A database of moves with associated frequencies of wins/draws/losses (w/d/l) is a commonly used format in established chess database applications. The app is not particualy innovative in that it uses the well established approach of  visually representing opening move choices in the form of a ‘tree’ of individual moves from the current board position. These moves are shown with associated ‘performance’ information relating to the move such as the number of times it has been played, and the scores in terms of game outcomes (For example 50% of games playing the move from this position where won by white… etc).  But it ain’t broke don’t fix it – this is an effective approach as it enables the user to quickly see which are the most frequently played moves from a given position and what the also which produces the best results.

Features

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

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

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

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

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

CEOpro3

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

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

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

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

Practical use and presentation

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

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

Developer support

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

Overall

Likes:

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

Dislikes:

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

 

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

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

 

 

 

 

SmallFish

smallfishReview details:
App version:  9.4.1
Device:  iPad 3
Operating system: iOS 9.2

Summary

A well crafted and presented app offering unparalled chess strength but a less than fulfilling playing experience for the average user.

SFSmallFish is available for both iPad and iPhone/Pod devices and is developed by Ted Wong who has released several other chess playing apps, including the related SmallChess. SmallFish incorporates the renowned Stockfish chess engine but sets out to improve the standalone Stockfish app with additional features and usability.

It is important to note that SmallFish is a totally free app and does not rely on any advertising or in-app payments; this is very welcome for users and is to the great credit of the developer (as of course the original ‘open source’ Stockfish developers also).

Strength and playability

There is little doubt, if you want to enjoy the feeling of having the strongest dedicated chess app in your pocket or palm, you won’t find better than SmallFish. Why? It’s becuase the app includes the latest official release of Stockfish (7.0) which is currently the strongest mobile chess engine available.

In itself the strongest engine isn’t any real use for practical game play – Stockfish even on a mobile device is more than a match for the best human players. The more important question is how effectively it can be ‘dumbed’ down to provide a reasonable challenge to players of different strengths. This is a notoriously difficult thing to achieve and can often be harder the stronger the engine is to start with.

The good news is that SmallFish has a range of playing levels helpfully split into different SmallFish_eloelo bands with narrative descriptions. These start at beginner (100-500 elo) and progress to World Champion (2700-3300). For example, the user can play against the engine at 1100-1200 elo which equates to the level of a casual player.

However, the bad news is that the elo calibration is fairly inaccurate. The engine tends to play significantly more strongly than the setting selected.  You can see a sample of SmallFish games played against differing opponents here to show this in practice. As an estimate the difference can be up to several hundred elo points. The problem is that inaccurate ratings give users a frustrating and negative experience. It is not good for a 1400 elo player’s ego to regularly be losing to a 1100-1200 opponent! The app as it stands is not suitable for beginners as it plays too strongly and unrealistically for the weaker levels in particular.

Leaving aside the issue of the accuracy of the levels, the other playing related options are pretty good:

  • There is enough variety in the available time controls which include sudden death, fischer and seconds per move levels.
  • Game and individual move analysis is where the strength of the chess engine really comes into play; SmallFish enables the analysis time per move to be preselected with differing levels of detail.
  • For experienced or ‘hard core users’, there are a range of technical options to alter the engine’s playing style and various engine parameters, thoughtfully guidance is provided to explain most if not all available ‘tweaks’.

Features

SmallFish includes all the standard features that might be expected in a high end chess playing app.

Input and output options are generally well catered  – for example in addition to ‘Save’ and ‘Load’ options there is the ability to export games via email and share positions using social media. However, one noticeable gap in this area is the lack of a facility to copy and paste games or positions to the clipboard for use in other apps.

SF online store
A nice touch is the inclusion of an on-line store. Normally these words in an app menu equate to opportunities for securing revenue through the dreaded ‘in-app purchase’ . But here the developer must be congratulated – the store offers the user totally free additional content in the form of downloads of a range of chess game collections, grouped by well known players, tournaments and well-known individual games- a nice touch indeed and one that would be even better with further content.

Practicality of use and presentation

SmallFish is a well designed and produced app and it is clear that the developer has put a lot of thought in to its development. App control is managed simply by four menu headings at the bottom of the screen which are logically described. In  more advanced chess apps menu options can become confusing and over involved. This isn’t the case with SmallFish and the options menu, though having plentiful sub menu headings doesn’t leave the user with a feeling of being ‘lost’ in the app.

There are also simple helpful features to help with general navigation and use. Two examples in particular worth highlighting include:

  • arrow bars in the bottom corners of the screen which are always visible allowing theSF_image user to quickly move back and forth through the individual moves of a game.
  • a graph to visually represent changes in the evaluation or score during the game. This allows the user to quickly pick out any pivotal stages of a game – tapping the evaluation ‘spike’ takes you to the relevant move in the game.

There are enough visual choices available for even the most demanding of users – namely

SmallFish_colour_optionsover 30 piece types and 13 different colour schemes. Yes, there a few of wacky and unusable combinations but more than enough attractive options to maintain interest and variety. A nice feature is that individual choices can be viewed directly from the menu so the user can quickly cycle through selections without leaving the menu.

Notwithstanding the generally positive experience with practical  use, there are a number of small but detailed improvements that could be made – you can find these specific suggestions on the developer page.  One omission that needs to be flagged up is the absence of a screen rotation option; it’s landscape only I’m afraid.

Developer support

If all app developers were as responsive, engaging and communicative as the developer of Smallfish, users would have little to complain about! User support is a strong point; the app has detailed guidance integrated within it and this includes some of the more technical aspects of the engine.

The developer positively encourages feedback and is happy to engage with users to make further improvements. A welcome but seemingly still relatively unusual option for app developers, is the use of active twitter account (@SCChess) to provide an addiitonal means of contacting and engaging with the developer. SmallFish has remained in active development over several years with regular updates (another is due shortly!). There is no suggestion this is likely to change in the short term so users have plenty to look forward to!

Overall

Likes:

  • Free and ad-free (including online store material)
  • Top strength engine
  • Clean and effective design and layout
  • Variety of board/piece skins
  • Developer support

Dislikes:

  • Inaccurate rating calibration
  • Inability to copy and paste games/positions via clipboard
  • No screen rotation

 

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

 

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.

 

 

 

Mastersoft Chess

Mastersoft chessReview details:                                                                           
App version:  2.47
Device:  iPad 3rd gen
Operating system: iOS 9.1


Summary:

A good looking app that caters well for the casual user but won’t satisfy the more demanding chess player due to lack of features.  

Mastersoft Chess is available on both android and apple platforms. There are three versions. The Pro, is the senior edition with enhanced graphical Mastersoft_maincapabilities and separate ‘paid for’ and free releases of the app. The free version is not limited in any way but is supported by adverts. This review is of the ‘paid for’ version (ie not the Pro release).

It is important to credit the developer and note that Mastersoft Chess is a universal app meaning you don’t have to buy separate versions if you want to use it on a phone and tablet device on the same platform (eg iPod and iPad). This is very welcome from a user perspective.


Strength

The first thing to note even before downloading the app is that Mastersoft Chess promotes itself heavily on the basis that it uses a chess engine that came 4th in the World Micro Computer Chess competition.

On the face of it, this is great news. The engine must be a top strength opponent then?.. Well, the engine used is a version of Gromit Chess and yes, it is quite true that it achieved that 4th place position. Unfortunately, what the app developer fails to mention is that this tournament was held in 2001… an aeon ago in the world of computer chess. It’s as if you were being told England were the world cup winners on buying an England football shirt (maybe we can dream!). I have a particular gripe with sloppy and/or misleading promotional material and this is a poor example which should be corrected.

Nevertheless, despite this the chess engine is indeed a good one – with an established track record over a long period. Indeed Gromit has evolved over time and various incarnations and the engine author’s latest offering – called Ginkgo – is currently one of the top engines in terms of strength. It is not clear which engine version this app uses, but certainly if the latter then this would be something to mention in the marketing material!

However, in terms of core strength, the existing engine at its maximum level (the app includes an elo rating scheme – more of this below) will be more than adequate for all but titled chess players.

Features

Let’s start with features relating to actual game play.

Mastersoft Chess scores well with the inclusion of an elo rating function which allows the user to play the engine at selected elo ratings and also Mastersoft ratinghas a separate rating feature. The app will keep track of your elo over the games you play and visually graph your progress and also provide some rudimentary statistics about the games you have played. A good rating feature is important for a chess playing app. It gives an opportunity for the user to track his/her progress and can also maintain interest over the longer term by stimulating an element of competitiveness. ( I will reach and beat this app at 1700 elo!)

The user may select the engine to play at one of a large number of different strength levels. These range from 800 elo (beginner) to 2780 (Super Grandmaster). Whilst on the face of it, this appears to be very appealing, the practical application is maybe less so. The elo settings increase in steps of just 20 elo. This really is a spurious and unrealistic level of accuracy. Why? well because in practical play it is very difficult for the non-expert player to be able to distinguish a difference of 20 elo and it is even harder to program a chess engine to this level of accuracy, let alone throughout the ability range from beginner to Grandmaster. In short, the elo rating scale should be taken with a healthy pinch of salt.

There is also some doubt about the accuracy of some of the individual levels – for example the lowest level (800) ostensibly that of a beginner plays rather too strongly which is likely to demotivate players of this ability. It is noticeable that even at these lower rating levels the engine still uses an opening book and plays recognised opening moves. Use of an opening book at ‘beginner’ type levels can result in unrealistic game play if not specially adapted or better still removed. In this case, for example, the engine knows the main line of the Ruy Lopez rather too well for a player of 800 elo rating.

The app isn’t really suited for anything other than casual play. There are too many features lacking for the more experienced or dedicated player. This includes the lack of an analysis function (for example in reviewing games and/or positions). This is disappointing as the engine does offer analysis of its own thinking when playing a game. 

The app only allows play against the engine at the specified elo ratings. There are no time control based options (for example, game in 5 minutes or 10 seconds a move – the latter was certainly available in earlier versions of Mastersoft Chess). This isn’t really a problem for the casual or hobby player but it does mean that the user has no control over the engine’s thinking time at the higher strength levels.

So if you want to test your mettle at the top level 2780 (World Championship contender) or test the engine against another chess engine, you can expect the app to take around 30 seconds for each move. The thinking time per move becomes noticeable from above 2200 elo, so whilst irritating, this shouldn’t be a real problem for the average user. ‘Hard core’ users should also note that there is no ability to tinker with the engine settings, for example by altering book openings or style of play etc.

There is one particularly disappointing omission to note relating to practical game play and this is the absence of a resign or offer draw feature. Additionally, whilst there are save and load options, these can only be used directly from within the app. There is no import or export facility for either games or positions – meaning that these can not be shared or transferred for use in other applications.

However, Mastersoft Chess does have some good features. There is a veryMastersoft coach easy to use training mode which at the tap of an icon, will result in the engine either suggesting potential move options or warning of possible threats – these are highlighted visually on the board by either green or red arrows respectively. There are also additional play options namely the ability to play another human (ie 2 player option) and on-line play via connection to the game centre. In terms of the latter option, I have never succeeded in finding an opponent on-line (maybe I’m just unlucky!). So if you are just interested in internet chess there are other apps that cater for this type of play far better.

Practicality of use and presentation

The design and layout of the app is generally good and easy to use.  A variety of game control icons are readily accessible from the main playing screen. These are clearly identifiable below the chessboard – see below – and are those likely to be most commonly used when playing a casual game.

Mastersoft options

The app has probably one of the widest selections of board and piece options available. Helpfully these are pre-prepared in the form of a number of pre-defined skins, many of which have well matched piece and board combinations. This saves the user searching for their own though of course this is also possible for those wanting added variety.

There are certainly some visually attractive combinationsMastersoft_Staunton_3d including several well designed 3d sets (3D piece sets are notoriously difficult to show sufficiently clearly for practical use). Quantity of available options does not necessarily mean quality and several designs appear to have been included for ‘show’ and are unsuited to playing a game. However, despite this there should be enough choice to offer at least several that the user can happily and easily use.

Within the settings menu heading, there is also a range of options to tailor the look and feel of the game. For example, a simple coach option that flags up when you are in check, (but surprisingly not when you blunder a piece away!), speed of piece animation, and a toggle to display of captured pieces.

There are a few practical niggles with the app which become apparent with use:

  • The app uses clocks to record move times but these are redundant not only as there are no time-based levels to play the engine against but also as they only record the time taken for a particular move (ie they don’t show cumulative time, which might be useful for seeing how long  a user has taken for the whole game)
  • There is one frustrating design omission – the inability to use the app in landscape view, the user is restricted to a portrait view like it or not!
  • The sound option doesn’t seem to work (at least on my device I have never heard any sounds – and yes the sound option has been enabled and volume turned up!)
  • When saving a game, it would be helpful if the elo setting was automatically included in the game data field – to save the user having to remember and enter it

None of these are ‘deal-breakers’ in their own right but if fixed would improve enjoyment.

Developer support

Developer support for this app has traditionally been good with frequent updates. Feedback is actively invited and easy to give from within the app. which is always good to see from a user perspective. The app includes an easily accessible help file with detailed instruction manual. However, the bad news is that this is out of date (issued in 2009), and for example references features no longer available. The manual also makes no reference to users of the equivalent android app (I know as I also have the android app and it is the same manual!) . This really should be updated.


Overall

Likes:

  • Universal app
  • Effective design and layout
  • Variety of board/piece skins
  • Rating system enables user to track progress

Dislikes:

  • Misleading engine advertising
  • Unrealistic granularity of elo settings (20 elo gaps)
  • Inability to import/export positions and games
  • No time control based game options
  • Lack of draw and resign feature
  • Out of date instruction manual

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