In case you hadn't heard a while back, there's a sequel to Chess in the works. On whose authority can someone make a sequel to Chess? Well, that's the thing. It's really just up to whether has the gumption to take the authority. And while the natural reaction is a "Hmph", and perhaps a "Who does this guy think he is?", I gave the new Chess a go while speaking to its developer - and it's actually pretty damn good.
It feels weird even saying "the new Chess". It's been around for so long, and I've played it all my life. It seems like a game that had reached its end point, when everyone just accepts it, and perhaps stays willfully ignorant of its flaws. But it does have flaws. And when respected game designer David Sirlin set out to make it, he specifically wanted to fix the reliance on book-memorised openings and stalemates.
A quote from Chess legend Bobby Fischer goes something like:
“I’m finished with the old chess because it’s all just a lot of book and memorization”
How’s the old saying go… What if the best Chess player in the world was born, but never played Chess because by that time Chess was irrelevant?
Sirlin was out to make a good game first, and “save Chess” second. But when Zachary Burns of Ludeme Games (pronounced "Loo-deem"), a long-time fan of Sirlin’s, played the game, he couldn’t help but want to make the digital version of it. That was the beginning of what’s now looking to be one of the best looking games on the OUYA, as a timed exclusive until it comes out on other platforms.
The new Chess has some rules that seem quite out there, at first. But that might be because it’s hard to imagine Chess changing. My first time playing Chess 2, I had to come to grips with the Halfline Invasion rule. If a player brings their king beyond the halfway mark, it’s an instant win. Sound easy? It’s actually a self-balancing rule. The closer you move to the halfway point, the more likely squares are to be in check -- both because it’s closer to enemy pieces, and because your opponent can see you doing it. And as the match goes on, and pieces are eliminated, the Halfline Invasion becomes easier -- reducing stalemates.
“There are all sorts of advantages in Chess,” says Burns. “There’s control of space, there’s tempo, there’s mobility. There’s the amount of pieces. Moving a king closer to the halfway line is a different kind of progress. As is the new resource, stones.”
Stones are from a new “duel” system that allows a piece being captured to also eliminate its attacker. This was the second big hurdle I had to get past in my understanding of the game, and this was a little tougher. Players start with three stones, and gain a stone every time they take a pawn. If your piece is taken and you decide to duel, players enter a hidden bid of stones -- if the defender’s is bigger, both pieces are removed.
This allows players to decide how important pieces are to their strategy. How much do I need that piece for what I have planned? Is this a worth sacrifice? Clever players will bait enemies into bidding more stones than necessary, so they can dominate in the later conflicts. After a handful of games, I’d come around to really liking the duelling system, and the ability to place a certain weight on a particular conflict. As before, it’s a self-balancing rule -- put together a few good moves in the early game, but were perhaps a bit stone-happy? That’s going to cost you later.
“It’s not rock/paper/scissors, it’s not gambling. It’s a reasoned evaluation of the situation,” says Burns. “The defender wins on a tie, so if I spend an extra stone, that’s the only condition that I can get a piece. It’s an exchange. A trade -- which is actually what Chess is all about. It makes you think about the future. Maybe this piece isn’t worth much now, but with some stones, later on I could press an advantage.”
My sparring partner in Chess 2 up until this point had been former GameArena editor Joab Gilroy. But for the next step, I had a few humbling games against Zachary Burns. At this point, the game has been updated to include what many will find the hardest rule to get their head around: asymmetrical armies. And Burns believes it’s the very fact that people can’t fully grasp it that makes it so appealing.
“That reduces the amount that you can rely on book-memorised openings, which is one of the objectives of the game. You can’t remember all the moves from all the different matchups available, so you’re forced to think about things.”
Each army has strengths and weaknesses. The Reaper army has a queen that can teleport almost anywhere to capture pieces, but the similarly teleporting rooks can’t capture anything. The Animals army features a bishop that returns to its origin point after attacking, and rooks that trample across anything in a three-square line (including allies). The Nemesis army has a queen that can’t be captured but can’t capture, and pawns that can always move one square closer to the king.
They all have a function. While the Nemesis army excels at putting kings in checkmate, the Reaper army is purpose-built for a Halfline Invasion. If there were any feature that critics would point at to say the game goes “too far”, this is it -- but like every other element of Chess 2, I slowly came around to the game’s way of thinking. Army asymmetry means at times, you’re playing different games. And additional strategy comes from making someone play your game.
If you think about what a good sequel should do, Chess 2 seems less like a marketing gimmick, and more like a bona fide sequel to one of our culture’s most celebrated games. A good sequel should maintain what made the original so good, and add to it. And the more time I put into Chess 2, the more I’m convinced it does that. Less emphasis on memorisation, and more on thinking, and planning ahead. More getting inside your opponent’s head. If I could sum it up in one line, it’s that Chess 2 is more like Chess than Chess. That’s a good sequel.
“There are all these accepted proverbs in Chess, like ‘Don’t bring your queen out too early,’” says Burns. “Why? Because if you do, she can be harassed, and you’ll end up wasting turns to bring her back to safety. Chess 2 makes you think about the ‘why’ in all these proverbs. You can no longer rely on accepted wisdom like ‘Control the middle.’”
The design of Chess 2 is sorted. Graphically, it looks great, with a nifty feature that seamlessly transforms everything into 2D when the camera is positioned just right. All that’s left is its business model -- and the OUYA is all about experimenting with business models.
“It’s basically like an arcade, except you start with a bag of free coins,” says Burns. “You start out with about 30 games to play online. If you’re playing less than that, it means you don’t love the game. If you’re playing more than that, you probably should pay it forward at that point.”
There won’t be any pay-to-win, or benefits for liking them on Facebook. But after those initial free coins, it will cost money to play in the arcade of Chess 2.
“The only thing I care about in this model is that you want to play the game a lot. It aligns developer and player incentives. I don’t know if that’s going to pan out for me, money-wise. I hope so. OUYA is a great place to experiment with these kinds of things. That’s one of the advantages of having a small userbase. I don’t have to release to 100,000 people on the same day. I don’t know if my servers can even handle 100,000 people. I have no way of even testing that, I don’t want an EA like disaster. But OUYA gives me a great place to test the waters, and see what I need to be prepared for, so I can iron out the wrinkles.”
The cheapest option is currently $1.99 USD for 120 “crowns” which is a lot of Chess 2. Next is $4.99 USD for 400, and it goes up from there, with a bonus for first-time buyers. There are currently no plans for a “lifetime” option, but there are options for amounts of tokens that the vast majority of people will never get through. It’s an interesting take on free-to-play, and that’s part of what indie is all about. In the end, the OUYA marketplace will be the judge -- and later, whatever other platforms it comes out on afterwards. Calling it OUYA's killer app is possibly too big a call to make, but what’s more certain is that Chess fans will love Chess 2 after they give it a chance.
Our thanks to Zachary Burns for taking the time to speak with us and play a few games of Chess 2. You can expect the game on OUYA in January 2014, and later on other platforms.