Review: Chess 2 The Sequel

Many high level players of chess, after a while, start to not like chess. After playing a game so much, studying it so intently, and letting it fill your life, for many the flaws become blinding. I suppose there are some that would say chess has no flaws. It is a board game, after all, so no part of it can objectively be called a mistake. Board games don’t have bugs, they don’t have stability issues. If a board game has a problem, it is because something about how it plays is not fun or interesting, and that’s always up to opinion. Still, pros and even mildly dedicated fans of the game realize after a span that there are some things about how it plays that really irk them.

For some, that is the beginning and end of it. “Man, this part of the game isn’t great. That’s a bummer. Oh well.” From there you either shrug and keep playing, or decide to stop playing because the flaws bother you too much. That was how it was for me- I’m not a pro, in fact I’m not even good, but I spent enough time enjoying and thinking about chess that the shortcomings I perceived bugged the hell out of me. But for some, there is a third option- fix the game. Change the things you think are wrong, and create a chess variant.

There is a proud tradition of this among dedicated players. The legendary Bobby Fisher invented Chess960, in which the first row of pieces has randomized placement at the start of the game. With a possible nine hundred and sixty starting positions (hence the name), it livens up the early game by making rote opening strategies an impossibility. Grandmaster Pal Benko suggested Pre-Chess in 1978, where before the game starts, the players take turns setting up starting positions, as one might in a turn-based tactics video game. Dunsany’s Chess by Lord Edward Plunkett of Dunsany changes the pieces on the board to make the game asymmetrical. There are variants with new boards, with more than two players (Bughouse is pretty awesome), or that allow players to take multiple moves in one turn. The chess community has never really united behind any one variant, however. None of the alternatives seemed a clear, all-around improvement over the original.

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Enter game designer David Sirlin, famous for his work on Street Fighter’s competitive balance. Teaming with programmer Zachary Burns of Ludeme Games, he designed a chess variant that wasn’t just a novelty spin-off- it was actually meant to supercede chess. Giving it the cocksure name Chess 2: The Sequel only made it clearer that it was supposed to be better than chess, not just different. After creating the rules, Chess 2 for Ouya was made as the first video game adaptation. At that time, Ben and I were given preview copies that ran on PC- they were far from optimized, but it gave us a great opportunity to give the game a spin, and write about it. We were enthralled.

As of today, Chess 2 has been updated and released on Steam, and we (mostly I) have been playing the review copy for days now. Everything we said earlier is true now- the rules Sirlin has created are fantastic. The new victory condition and the dueling system add strategies and considerations to a game that has grown stale, and the six selectable armies allow for an incredible, exciting possibility space. I still have some concerns that the balance might not be on point- the Reaper army has glaring shortcomings, and the Two Kings army is possibly a little too powerful. Sirlin and Burns are keeping a close eye on the statistics, though, and are ready and willing to adjust the balance should it prove troublesome… which it very well might not be. My observations are that of a relatively unskilled player- who knows what amazing strategies will be discovered for Reaper, or to counter Two Kings? It’s such a young game with incredible potential, and that’s massively exciting.

The graphics are beautiful and expressive, quickly communicating the differences between the armies while remaining elegant. The music is tasteful, classic, and relaxing- the perfect tunes for a chess hall. Online play has been nothing but smooth in the few games I’ve played, and a Correspondence (aka play by mail) mode added since we played the Ouya version makes it even easier to find and play matches with friends.

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However. I hate to even have to write this, but feature-wise, the game is bizarrely lacking. There is no option to play against a selected user- when you choose to play Online, it immediately says “Searching” and finds a random player who is also searching for you to play against. There is no way, in a live game or in correspondence, to challenge a friend to a match. The only way we managed it is by both queueing for matchmaking at the same time… and that only worked because we were playing before the game was actually out. Once it is publicly available, this method for finding your friends won’t work- and you shouldn’t have to resort to it anyway.

There is no option for playing a local match- you can’t start a game and then switch off with someone in the same room. The menus, both in-game and on the title screen, lack any manner of options. You cannot go fullscreen without using a system-level shortcut, you cannot adjust the volume on the music or sound effects, and you cannot adjust resolution or graphics. The bot for practice matches is essentially cannon fodder- if you play a classic chess army versus a classic chess army, it does fine, but if you mix it up with one of the new armies the AI simply cannot cope, and falls to pieces. You are rated as you win and lose matches online, but there is no way to check what your rating is without pulling up a game you’re already in. You can’t chat with an opponent, via voice or text. They’re just a name next to a ranking, for you to stare at as you wait for them to move.

Those are the things I would expect from a chess game, and they just aren’t there. Niceties like adjustable difficulty for AI, alternate models for the pieces, different boards, better instruction on strategy- these are things titles like Chessmaster will include, and I certainly wouldn’t mind them here, but they aren’t really necessary. They are frills, and as long as the core set of features is there, you don’t really need them. But… the core set isn’t there. I have never played a chess game where I couldn’t play with a friend in the same room before, and I am baffled as to its absence. The inability to challenge a friend online is also problematic. Chess 2 is a fantastic game, but you’re going to have trouble playing it with the people you want to play with as is.

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When we played the Ouya version (jury-rigged for PC) last year, we had a great time with it, and any weirdness with matchmaking and a lack of configurable options wasn’t a big deal. After all, it was just a preview build- stuff like that comes later, and if the game came to PC (which we expected it would) missing features would be added before launch. It felt unreasonable to expect their presence in a build that wasn’t even designed for computers. It’s nearly a year later, though, and the PC build is out… and it is incredibly similar to the build we played back in October. The addition of the correspondence mode isn’t to be understated, and the resolution being bumped up to 1080p is wonderful (though you can’t capitalize on it, since you can’t resize the window). Certainly a great deal of work was done to add system stability. But other than those additions, and the removal of Ouya button prompts from the UI, it seems like no work was done to accommodate this game for the PC. In a Steam game, you’d expect the ability to use the Steam Overlay to challenge a friend. You’d expect adjustable graphical settings. Their absence in a PC port is conspicuous, and disappointing.

I think Chess 2 is the bee’s knees. It’s an incredibly deep and exciting game that removes some of chess’s stuffiness, adds a level of creativity and a greater possibility space, and encourages interesting interactions among players. For fans of the board game’s rules,  This Steam release is the only way you can, and the game is so fun that you probably should. But setting aside the rules and the presentation, this game feels startlingly incomplete. It’s quite barebones, and at a $25 price tag, you’d expect a lot more for your money. I am hopeful that these essential features will be added in the future, but for now, I’d wait for a sale.The moments that made me love chess were sitting across the table from friends and family, pondering my next joke as much as my next move. Chess 2: The Sequel doesn’t allow for that possibility at all, and this failure lets down the whole of an otherwise delightful work.

 

Two review codes of Chess 2: The Sequel were provided to Scanline Media by Ludeme Games.