Chess is garbage. At a certain point, it becomes precanned openings and strategies- playing a game you read in a book until the point where it finally diverges. Nothing unexpected, nothing surprising, from the first e2-e4 to the moment you realize checkmate is a handful of moves away, and unavoidable. Victory may be a question of player skill, but enjoyment is not- regardless of ability, so much of chess is just going through the motions. Chess wasn’t a bad game at the outset, but it’s been more than five hundred years since the game became its modern form, with relatively few changes since. Any game with such strict limitations could be fully understood in that amount of time, and so I mean no disrespect when I say that I’m pretty much done with chess.
Honestly, I don’t think I’ll ever play chess again- and it used to be something I quite enjoyed. But now I can’t see any context in which I wouldn’t just rather play Chess 2.
If that intro seems a little melodramatic, forgive me- but that’s just how excited I am to have a game that is chess, and yet fixes basically every problem I had with chess. Chess 2 is the product of David Sirlin’s mind, (in)famous game designer who cut his teeth with Capcom fighting game design, and then moved on to creating board games and more. After he designed the rules for Chess 2, he allied with Zac Burns of Ludeme Games to produce a game that would be to Chess 2 as Chessmaster was to the original chess. The game is debuting on Ouya today, but Ben and I were fortunate enough to be granted a preview build for demo purposes on PC which was pretty fully featured.
From a rules perspective, though, what is Chess 2? It’s a sequel for chess built to hold all that you love about the original, and more. All the rules from the first, classic game are here, but with some additions. There is a new victory condition- midline invasion. If you can move your king across the halfway point on the board, you win. What this means in practical terms is that you are never out of the game. No matter how badly battered you are, you can always go for the hail mary victory, and stalemates are very nearly a thing of the past (the rules do still allow for them, but they just don’t happen in reality). At my skill level, they come up a little too frequently, however- if it doesn’t become less prevalent at greater levels of experience, perhaps the line should be advanced forward one or something.
The other big game changer to the core rules is dueling. You start the game with three tokens, and any time one of your pieces is captured, you have the option of challenging with capture with a duel. You wager either zero, one, or two tokens, secretly, and then both players reveal how many they wagered at once. If the initiator of the duel wins, both pieces in question are removed. If the defender wins, the game proceeds normally. There are additional details on this rule to punish people who duel excessively or unnecessarily, but the end result is the ability to contest key moments in the game, and shift the momentum in an instant. The power of taking out an opponent’s queen for free without it even costing you a move is impossible to overstate.
These rules alone would be enough to change the game dramatically, but they’re just the start. The biggest change is that there are six armies in the game- six different sets of rules as to how your pieces function. Explaining them all would be an article unto itself, but there is a classic option, and options focused on shifting your army’s strength to different ends- be it an omnipresent queen that can attack almost any spot on the board, pieces that can empower each other by standing next to each other, pawns with added mobility, two kings with enhanced power that rip through the battlefield, or the indescribable Wild army with changes to half the pieces. It says something about the game’s balance when the one that includes a teleporting queen that can capture anywhere it wants is probably the weakest one. There might be a little work left to do in making them all even, but they’re all fun to play, distinct, and certainly not weak.
That’s the greatest part, though. The Immortal Game is getting changes, and if more are necessary, they will happen. It doesn’t have to be treated as so sacred that it’s untouchable. We can improve it, we can develop it. That’s the best way to keep a game “immortal”- to never let it sit still and stagnate. So for any doubts I have about the overuse of midline invasion, or the relative balance of the Reaper army, what’s there is far more engaging and entertaining than chess, and any problems it has can be fixed. That’s the greatest gift David Sirlin could have given this chess fan.
Chess 2 can be played with just a chess set, a few rules sheets, and some tokens, but if you want to play it over the internet you’ll face difficulty. The main issue is the dueling- it relies in simultaneously revealing the two player’s wagers, and there’s just no good way to do that. Along with other little hassles, it’s also just nice to have a video game version, finding opponents for you, ranking you, and informing you of illegal moves, which are much harder to keep track of with all the new ways pieces can move.
To that end, Chess 2 on the Ouya is a beautiful video version of this great game. The pieces are all beautifully rendered, with different models for the different armies. The freely rotating camera allows you to see the board from any angle, and if you move the camera directly overhead it seamlessly shifts to a 2D version of the board. It’s visually appealing, the sound design is crisp, and even though the version we played on PC was a fairly quick port of the Ouya code, there wasn’t a bug to be seen. Whole, whole, wholeheartedly recommended.
Adding a “win” line for the king, various sets of armies and a dueling system might sound like it’s desecrating the storied cathedral of chess, but Chess 2 is more renovation than devastation. In addition to giving veterans all new methods to claim victory, it allows my unorthodox playing style to shine once more. No longer confined by a structure thoroughly mined of all its secrets, I can catch opponents by surprise (often with brute force movements) and stand toe-to-toe with even the most tactically-minded strategies. There isn’t a moment mired by boredom or hopelessness; each move feels more crucial than ever before, and matches never overstay their welcome.
It should be noted that the Ouya version offers an unusual way to pay for the game; instead of buying the game outright, you pay $6 for a set number of “crowns,” or coins used every time you want to play online. I’m always skeptical of any modern payment system that harkens back to the days of the coin-op arcade, but putting it through the wringer squashed any fears. For $6, you get 90 matches. While Chess 2 runs at a faster pace than the average game of chess, you likely won’t burn through the 90 matches at an unreasonable pace. I’d still prefer to pay for the game outright, but their model doesn’t feel exploitative or unfair, especially since it’s completely free to play against a human in the same room (assuming you own two controllers).
It takes a lot of gusto to call yourself the sequel to chess, but Chess 2 earns its bravado by breathing life into a game that went stale ages ago. It even made me care about chess, which is a feat in itself. Just don’t expect me to start studying Karpov vs. Kasparov.