January 21, 2014 6:00 AM | Lena LeRay
Chess 2: The Sequel is now available for OUYA, thanks to Ludeme Games. Chess 2 was designed to shake up traditional chess while leaving a lot of its core strategic decision making intact. It's not exactly a new game, having been publicly available from Sirlin Games as a print-and-play variant that works with any standard chess set since 2010, but this digitized console version offers a lot of value over playing with a regular chessboard and pieces.
The rules for Chess 2 basically differ from normal chess in three ways. The first is the addition of an extra win condition, which is to get one's king past the midline of the board. That's it. If you can get your king halfway across the board, you win. This does not replace checkmate as a win condition; the normal rules of chess still apply in that regard. It does, however, encourage players to move their king out earlier and be more aggressive than defensive in general.
Second, a dueling component is added to captures. Each player starts the game with three dueling stones, gaining one more stone with the capture of every enemy pawn (up to a maximum of six). When a player's opponent moves to capture a piece, the defending player may opt to initiate a duel, secretly bidding some of their stones against their opponent. The defender is always captured, but if the defending player bids more stones than their opponent does, the attacking piece is also removed from the board.
Lastly, five new army types are introduced on top of the classic army, making a total of six armies for players to choose from and introducing asymmetry into the game. Each army type has some pieces with modified rules to give it a different sort of strategy, a different feel, that lends itself better to certain play styles. All of the modified armies are internally well balanced, having every improvement offset by some disadvantage. In the Empowered army, for example, knights, rooks, and bishops have improved mobility when they work together, but the queen's movement is reduced to that of a king to balance it out. Externally, the armies also seem to be pretty well balanced, though the asymmetry does mean that some matchups favor one side over the other. Both players get to choose their army types in secret, though, which eliminates the ability to choose an army to counter the opponent's choice.
The best thing about the modified armies, though, is that it's very easy to remember what all of the modified pieces can and can't do. One of the easiest to remember is the Reaper army, which has modified rooks and a modified queen. The queen, now called the reaper, can teleport to any square on the board except those in the back row and she can't capture the enemy king. The rooks are now called ghosts and can teleport anywhere they want but can't capture or be captured, serving only as roadblocks. And that's all there is to that army.
All of these changes, taken together, serve to mix up opening moves and make the end game more active, putting more focus on the kind of action commonly seen in the middle phase of a traditional chess game. Chess purists who love high level play and all the jockeying for position at the beginning and end of a chess game may not like that aspect of Chess 2. The game does a fantastic job of preserving the need to weigh the value of pieces and make trade offs, however. Is the opponent's modified bishop more valuable than one's own? Then maybe it's worth losing an extra piece or spending a lot of dueling stones to take it out.
Overall, the gameplay has been changed up well enough to make it worth a try for people who never liked chess in the first place. Most chess players should find Chess 2 to be a nice change of pace, and even for people who still prefer traditional chess, the changes in strategy should make for good variety and mental exercise. The question then becomes: if the game rules are available for free download and can be played with a regular chess set, why get this video game version?
There are a few good reasons to get the digitized version of Chess 2. One is common to all digital renditions of board games, which is that the computer helps you remember all the rules. Chess 2's modifications to the rules of chess are easy to remember, but they are still more complicated than traditional chess. It is nice to have the computer automatically take care of adding dueling stones when taking a pawn, for example, or to remind a player using the TwoKings army that they get a second move with one of their two kings before the turn ends.
The graphics are also an excellent reason to get this version, which is uncharacteristic of me to say. Good graphics do not a good game make, but in this case a lot of care has gone into making the graphics a key part of the interface for both the 2D and 3D chess sets. Each of the five modified armies' special pieces have obvious visual indicators to set them apart from the chess pieces on which they are based without being so changed that the base piece is unrecognizable. How different a modified piece looks from its base piece is dependent on how much its capabilities differ from that of the base piece. Each army's special pieces also look like they belong together as a cohesive visual unit while still matching the Classic army set whose pieces make up the rest of the army. This makes it incredibly easy to remember which army one is playing and which army the opponent is playing, as well as which pieces to be aware of.
Developer Zac Burns told IndieGames that another reason so much care went into the design of the pieces is because so many serious chess players can't stand playing with 3D chess sets in games. A lot of work went into studying real, physical chess set designs as part of the process of making the pieces, and more work went into studying things like light refraction and color theory in the hopes that subtle touches like realistic shadows would make the 3D pieces more desirable. For players who don't want to use them, though, swapping to the 2D pieces is as easy as changing the camera angle to look at the board from directly above. The transition is smooth, with the 3D pieces shrinking into nothingness to be replaced by the 2D ones. Like their 3D counterparts, special pieces are represented with themed special icons.
The biggest contribution of the OUYA version of Chess 2, however, is online play. Want to play a game right this second, but don't have anyone to play with? Play an online match. Currently, the only option is to play against an opponent chosen by the matchmaking system based on a hidden elo rating, but a correspondence system based on the idea of play-by-mail is in the works. When asked about the addition of a friends list and the ability to choose opponents, Burns said that right now the OUYA doesn't have a native friends list system and that since one is supposed to be on its way, he'd rather not create his own system now. As an indie developer, he doesn't feel that spending the time and energy on that only to face integration problems down the line is worth it. He'd rather get a community formed so he can find out how they want him to improve the game going forward.
Chess 2 also has local play options, of course. It supports both human vs. human and human vs. computer matches. Both of these local play options cost nothing, being completely free with the download of the game, but online play requires users to spend an in-game currency called crowns. At 8 crowns per game, the download comes with enough for 30 games. If one assumes that games take 30 minutes on average, that's 15 hours of gameplay right there, plus the free local play. Players who like the game can buy more crowns in packages starting at $1.99 for 120 crowns, with a special one-time option of $5.99 for 720 crowns. That's a lot of play time, making it a very cost-effective purchase.
The presence of a purchasable currency has garnered some criticism because of the free-to-play stigma, but Chess 2 is really more of a pay-to-play game which has free elements. The free download comes with plenty of value and the ability to really evaluate the game, after which players can purchase more game time at reasonable prices without any recurring payments. I think the only real downside to this monetization model is that it means there can only be one account per OUYA. If a family of players with different levels of skill all play on the same account, the matchmaking system won't do them much good.
There are a couple of things about online play to be aware of, one of which is that all online games are timed. This is a good thing in that a player can't walk away from a match upon finding him or herself in a losing position to try and force their opponent to resign. Less skilled players, however, may find themselves running out of time. It uses a Fischer time system in which players start with 25 minutes, then get 15 more seconds added to their clocks at the beginning of each turn. There is no way to customize the timer. The other thing is that there is currently no way to communicate with your opponent. The only option the OUYA offers is a software keyboard, which Burns didn't feel was a good option. So for now, at least, the opponent has neither face nor voice.
On the accessibility front, Chess 2 does a great job. Nothing is indicated by sound only, though the hearing-impaired will miss out on Dmitriy Lukyanov's lovely classical piano playing, and the only thing where color alone is used as an indicator is black vs. white. If someone has trouble seeing contrast, they can just swap to the 2D view for stark piece differences. Some disabled players may need to avoid the timed online matches, but they should be able to play local matches without difficulty.
Chess 2: The Sequel is not a replacement for traditional chess. It takes modern game design and applies it to the classic game, creating something new with the potential to appeal to a wide variety of people. Whether you like chess or not, this game is worth a try. Although the rules are freely available, this digital version from Ludeme Games does a great job of creating a virtual arena in which to play. Like all OUYA games, it is free to download and try, and although it will be OUYA exclusive for a while, the developer plans to make it available on other platforms in the future.