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Chess 2: The Debunkening
by John Bell on 02/06/14 06:56:00 am

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.

 

Why I'm taking the time to debunk Chess 2

As a Chess instructor, I'd hate to see people that are interested in Chess dismiss it in favor of Chess 2.There's such a wide world of Chess that's interesting and stimulating and I assure you that you don't have to have an IQ of a billion to enjoy it. There seems to be a lot of chess-bashing going on surrounding Chess 2, and I hope to convince you that Chess 2 is not a suitable replacement for Chess, or a suitable companion to Chess, or that it should have any association with Chess whatsoever.

There are a few out of context statistics, quotes, and interpretations that Ludume Games makes about Chess that prey on people's insecurities and misunderstandings about Chess that I hope to correct. There are also a considerable amount of problems with Chess 2 's design that I'd also like to review.

I have no personal malice toward David Sirlin (Chess 2's designer, best known for being the lead designer of Super Street Fighter HD Remix) or Ludume Games (they've been kind enough to talk to me via Twitter), I'm just standing up for what I believe in and calling a spade a spade. Chess 2 is totally bogus, here's why...

Stereotypes about Chess

There's a certain aesthetic  to chess; sort of like how reading glasses or an English accent makes someone seem smarter. You could imagine how impressed people are when they see an Englishman with reading glasses playing Chess! He could be a total dumbass but as long as he has poor eyesight, was born in a certain place, and is pushing pieces around a Chess board we all think he's a genius. It's absurd of course, it's just a knee-jerk reaction people have about Chess.

Because of this (arguably positive) stereotype of Chess players, people perceive that Chess is an elevated thing outside of their reach (which is actually kinda sad) so it's logical that there's some sour grapes there. Some people don't know much about Chess other than its for "smart people". Intimidated by that kind of reputation, a lot of people just don't bother with Chess because they don't think it's for them.

What's troubling about the statements made by Ludume games when referring to Chess is that it engenders hostility towards Chess. I doubt that was their intention, but it is indeed the effect. Instead of saying "I don't like Chess because it makes me feel dumb" (which isn't how you should feel about Chess) or "I find Chess intimidating" (again, you shouldn't) it seems that Ludume games has fostered an environment where saying "I don't like Chess because it's all about memorization, and there are too many draws" is a convenient scapegoat to reroute people's insecurities about Chess, however unjustified they may be.

Chess is just like any other competitive activity; if you enjoy it and practice you'll get better at it. 10% inspiration 90% perspiration as the old saying goes. If it's one thing that you should take away from this article is to not be afraid of Chess! Just play it, and if you enjoy it, you can keep playing and you'll get better at it. Yes it's just that simple. I highly recommend Chess.com for those who are looking to just play some quick games of Chess (I recommend 5 min blitz games). As a point of disclosure, I have no professional relationship with Chess.com. So go play some Chess damn it!

Draw Partner!

An issue Ludeme Games has really labored to point out is that Chess is full of draws at the highest level of play. This is absolutely true, more than 60% of Master level games end in a draw. I'm in no way trying to say that Chess doesn't have lots of draws at the Grand Master level. What I'm saying is that you're not a Grandmaster.

Let's just pretend that draws are always bad (they're not), this 60% draw statistic still only applies to Grandmaster level play. One could look at high level Chess and conclude that it's plagued by all these horrible draws. Even so, not playing Chess because of high level draws would be like saying "I should stop playing Baseball with my buddies on the weekends because if I got into the National League I might get traded and I wouldn't want to move". While moving to a new city may be a problem for professional athletes, it doesn't apply to regular guys that want to just want to some Baseball. You shouldn't play Baseball because you might have to move, and you shouldn't play chess because 60% of Grandmaster games end in a draw. This type of logic is the bedrock of Chess 2's design. As a point of reference, of the over 100 blitz matches I played in January, 2% ended in a draw.

Draws aren't always bad in the game of Chess. For those not familiar, in Chess a win is worth 1 point to the winner, and a loss is 0 points to the loser. A draw is 0.5 points to both players. Obviously getting 0.5 point is better than 0, so it's a well known strategy to try to "play for a draw" when a player doesn't have much of a chance of winning. That being said, I can attest to how good it feels when you're down a lot of material (material is just a fancy way of saying pieces) and to snatch victory out of my opponents hands by turning the game into a draw. It takes a lot of self control too; it's very easy to just give up when you're behind, playing to a draw really gives a losing player something to hope for. Fear of being drawn when you're ahead is also something a player that's winning has to watch out for. See how a chance of a draw kinda makes the game more interesting?

There are also what are known as drawn positions. Put simply, it's a position in the game where neither player is able to make progress. This usually occurs in the endgame (endgame is a term to describe when there are only a few pieces left on the board). In a drawn position the two players will usually agree upon a draw since there isn't any viable moves for either player. This type of draw Chess 2 does indeed fix; by having the King midline rule it could turn a drawn position into a race to the midline. Of course, just like most of what Chess 2 addresses, drawn positions aren't something you're going to run into often (like 2 knights vs a king or something). If anyone can honestly say that they liked Chess but stopped playing because their games always ended in drawn positions I'd sure like to meet them. (Protip: they don't exist).

So why are there so many draws in high level Chess? One reason is that in tournaments players that are ahead in points can simply draw their remaining games and still get 1st place. The arithmetic is pretty simple, if you need 1 point to win a tournament and have 3 games left, you could draw all 3 games and still have 0.5 points extra. A  big contributing factor to the number of draws in Chess tournaments is the points system (more details about that in the "If Chess Where an Esport" section). It's worth mentioning that tournament scoring systems aren't something the regular player has to be concerned about.

Are there other types of draws I could be covering in this article? Yes, but I think you get my point.

If Chess Where an Esport

In David's Sirlin's video where he talks about the problems with Chess, he makes this statement:

"Let's say that I came up with a completely new game, like a new e-sport or something. And I told you when experts played this game they draw more than 60% of the time. So more than 60% of time neither player would win after playing the game that took like an hour to play. That would be a major problem. And that's a problem Chess actually has."

Being mindful to not put words in David Sirlin's mouth, what I think he is implying is that the presence of so many draws at the highest level of play is evidence of a design flaw with Chess, since it's a "major problem". What I think he's driving at is that any modern competitive game that ended in so many draws wouldn't be viable. David Sirlin is not alone in criticizing all the draws in tournament level Chess.

After the Candidates' Matches in Kazan ended in over 90% draws, Grandmaster Susan Polgar (who also was a commentator at the World Chess Championship 2013 in Chennai) wrote an article on her blog discussing it:

"The fans can say all they want but if a player can win $5,000, $10,000, or more by accepting a draw versus getting a few hundred bucks or even nothing if they lose, almost every professional player will take the draw. Their number one obligation is to themselves and their families, not to the fans or sponsors since there is usually none in these tournaments (in the United States)."

Again, I'm in no way saying that draws aren't an issue, they're hotly debated in the Chess community. As GM Susan Polgar explains, a lot of it comes down to how the tournaments are structured, particularly the money. There are plenty of other reasons too, but you get the idea.

So I guess the goal of Chess 2 is to just sidestep the whole issue by "designing out" draws altogether. It would seem that if the issue was with draws, that it would be more logical to just develop a new system to officiate chess tournaments that helps to reduce the number of draws (which is something I think David Sirlin would excel at). Instead we have Chess 2, a totally new game. Practical it is not.

Just in case you forgot, you don't play Chess professionally, so none of these problems apply to you.

You Gotta be like Johnny Mnemonic

Another major perceived flaw with Chess is that there's too much memorization involved which diminishes creative strategic thought. Players can just memorize openings (a predetermined set of moves at the beginning of the game) and enjoy an advantage for the remainder of the game.

There's a big difference between memorization and understanding. Any of us could memorize large set of abstract data if we really needed to. You can easily speak the Dutch language by memorizing phrases phonetically, but that doesn't mean you're fluent in Dutch. You might be able to order something at a restaurant in the Netherlands with memorization, but good luck working as a waiter. So no, Chess isn't all about memorization, but that's not to say that memorization isn't part of the game (just as it would be in learning Dutch).

Since Ludume Games has cited the teachings of International Master Jeremy Silman (namely Silman's Imbalances) as a resource for the development of Chess 2, it's only fitting I quote him from an article he wrote about the memorization debate:

" - reciting memorized lists of chess priorities is not only useless (past the training wheels stage), it actually prevents you from focusing on the limitless beauty that’s dangling right before your eyes."

So it would seem that Silman's opinions are not in step with the creators' of Chess 2's goals. I'm sure I'm missing some of the finer points about memorization, but I forget what they are.

It's Alive! It's Alive!

Zachary Burns, founder of Ludume Games correctly points out in a interview with Eurogamer that Chess has undergone lots of changes in the past.

"If you look at Chess history, Chess has actually changed a lot over the years. It's continually been updated to adapt for the current needs of the people playing it."

He goes on to discuss some of the changes of Chess over the centuries like double pawn movement (pawns can move 2 spaces if they haven't moved before, it wasn't always that way) and increasing the range of bishops. The forerunner to the modern Bishop was the "Alfil" (meaning elephant, not to be confused with the elephant rook in the Chess 2 animal army) that was only able to move 2 squares diagonally while being able to hop over pieces (like a modern knight can). Now Bishops' movement is just diagonal for as many unoccupied squares the player wishes. The queen also used to be the "Vizier" a high-ranking adviser, (like Jafar from Aladdin, he was a Vizier). The Vizier moved just like the king does today: any direction, but only 1 square at a time. All these old pieces are pretty interesting, sort of like a graveyard of Chess warriors past.

Once you take into account all these "legacy" type pieces, it becomes obvious that they where the inspiration for characteristics we find in the new armies of Chess 2. A sort of patchwork of reanimated pieces stitched together like Frankenstein (or Dr. Frankenstein's monster if you wanna get technical about it).

The best analogy I can offer is that the changes that have occurred in Chess worked sort of like how changes to the English language work; over a long span of time and to meet the changing trends of a community of English speakers. A good example would be the world "selfie" (to describe a self portrait). It just emerged organically out of the English language recently so it hasn't been around that long. That's actually pretty interesting.

Chess 2 did not organically emerge out of the Chess community to suit the needs of Grandmasters (I'd be hard pressed to find a Grandmaster that's ever even heard of it) so to pretend otherwise is just wishful thinking. The title itself is dubious enough, but just because a few (admittedly smart) designers cracked a few books about Chess and concocted their own version of it doesn't mean it's a normal progression of the game. Just like if you developed your own version of English in isolation and called it "English 2" it wouldn't come into real usage because the community of English speakers wouldn't embrace it as they did the word selfie.

Chess 2's new rules are best described in one word: Contrived.

Searching for Bobby Fischer Quotes

Displayed prominently on Ludume Game's site, and cited in articles about Chess 2 is a quote by former world champion Bobby Fischer that reads

"I’m finished with the old chess because it’s all just a lot of book and memorization"

While there's been mention of Bobby Fischer's "Fischer Random" variant (which I highly recommend)  in interviews, there's no acknowledgement of it on the site. Fischer Random has been cited as a source of inspiration for Chess 2 but ironically there's no back rank randomization in Chess 2 which is the primary feature of Fischer's variant. There's another quote by Fischer that is relevant here:

"I love chess, and I didn't invent Fischerandom Chess to destroy Chess. I invented Fischerandom Chess to keep Chess going. Because I consider the old Chess is dying, it really is dead. A lot of people come up with other rules of Chess-type games, with 10x8 boards, new pieces, and all kinds of things. I'm really not interested in that. I want to keep the old Chess flavor. I want to keep the old Chess game. But just making a change so the starting positions are mixed, so it's not degenerated down to memorization and prearrangement like it is today."

After reading the quote, it's pretty safe to say that Bobby Fischer would never endorse Chess 2. It's in very bad taste to use his out of context statements to peddle Chess 2. While it would of been convenient for me to omit the first 3 sentences to better suit my paradigm, I left them in to demonstrate some intellectual honesty. While I'm limited to my own understanding of the man, I'm certain Fischer wouldn't discourage beginners from enjoying Chess as a pastime. Obviously beginners and intermediates aren't going to be memorizing  openings to the point of ruining the game (most of us couldn't if we tried). In my opinion I'm sure he was referring to Grandmaster level play, but only the departed Bobby Fischer knows for sure. He was far less ambiguous about his stance on other variants, which would include Chess 2. He had no interest in them.

If you don't want to learn opening lines, Fischer Random is your game. Check it out, it's very easy to understand and set up. It was also designed by a Grandmaster and a genius, so if we are to believe that Chess is riddled with problems, Fischer Random would be the fix, not Chess 2. Not by a long shot.

-The Debunkening-

There can be only one!

So, I've talked about all the problems surrounding Chess 2, but what about the game itself? Is it fun? Am I just some grumpy old man afraid of change? Could it be that I just can't wrap my mind around a masterfully balanced game and I'm just too set in my ways to acknowledge it? No, no, and no (and no).

This section of the article gets more technical; defining each Chess term would turn this already lengthy article into a massive tomb, but I'll do my best to just speak plainly if I can. I'm also going to speak more frankly since this the real nuts a bolts of the game.

After playing 23 games of Chess 2, I can say that the biggest problems are the midline rule and dueling. Which is to say, you know, the game.

I'm having... trouble

Did you ever watch Robocop 2? Remember the part where they gave him 300 prime directives and he freaks out because it's too much to deal with? That's what's going to happen to you when you first play Chess 2. There are 6 different armies, and each army has its own characteristics for a lot of the pieces, then the concept of dueling, the midline, Ghost Rooks, Tiger Bishops, and a partridge in a pear tree. Usually a Chess variant changes a few things about chess (like how Fischer Random changes the placement of the back row). Chess 2 is quite verbose in how many rules it has. I guess those supposed Chess brainiacs I keep hearing about can deal with all these rules, but for the rest of us the "pick up and play" factor is non-existent.

Touchdowns at the Midline

If you can get your king across the middle of the board (known as the midline) you win.  This is one of the primary features of Chess 2.

When I thought about the midline rule before playing Chess 2 I thought it would be tough to get the king across the board because he'd be susceptible to checkmate. I was wrong. It's actually pretty easy to mobilize your king and avoid checkmate since he isn't against the side of the board or boxed in by other pieces. The first few moves of a game can be committed to moving a pawn out of the kings way, then immediately moving the king off the back rank and towards the midline. Once a player has  their king out early they can easily hide behind the advanced pawn and break in the direction opposite of what can be defended.

Games are often over before they even start. This creates a situation where piece development isn't terribly important. Why bother with getting all your pieces involved when all you need is the king? No matter what, having the king out early ensures that the threat of a midline win is always looming over the game. It's also very easy to forget this rule, a lot of games where lost just because the other player forgot about the midline or tried to focus on other targets or objectives.

After just a few moves players are fighting over the midline. Checkmates are rare, the midline becomes everything. Endgames are almost nonexistent since the moment that pieces are cleared off the board the king can usually just waltz across the midline. There's very little time to really establish anything. Sure you might be able to teleport a Reaper Queen out to the midline to defend, but now your queen is out where it can be attacked. It's very easy to dislodge a piece that's trying to defend the midline with pawns since it only takes one move to challenge a midline defender.

It all adds up to a riot of wacky pieces all piling up on the 4th and 5th ranks until somebody forgets one of the billion new rules and one of the kings gets across the board.

Tyrant's Opening

1. e4 e5

2. Ke2 Bd6

3. Kd3 Nc6

4. Kc4

In this position, even though its black's move he has already lost the game. Black can see the threat of a midline invasion, but there's nothing he can do about it. Oh the humanity! There's no way to prevent the white king from crossing the midline on his next move. Black can't defend all the 5th rank squares (d5,c5,& b5) that the king can go to. No army can: Classic, Nemesis, Empowered, Reaper, Animals (technically the bishop couldn't move that far in animals, but if he was on d6 it wouldn't make a difference), and 2 Kings are all powerless in this position. If you're thinking the 2 kings army has a shot, sorry, but even if black had 4 king moves in a row it wouldn't change the outcome.

This loss for black occurs after only 4 moves in the game! In regular Chess there's what's known as the "Scholar's Mate" which can be performed in 4 moves to get a checkmate, but if you see your opponent positioning his pieces that way you can easily stop it. After playing just 6 games it took me about 5 minutes to develop this Chess 2 Puzzle (there's more about puzzles in the dueling section). You don't have to be Chess wiz to work this out, just look at it. White just pulled his king out and ran for the border and won.

There are ways that most of the armies could defend against the Tyrant's opening, but this demonstrates the importance of getting the king out early. It's fundamental to the game; king development is a big part of Chess 2, which just creates a ton of pressure early on, sucking the fun out of what used to be an enjoyable game.

The Armies

In all fairness I've only played maybe 3 or 4 games with each army, but there are so many combinations to consider! If this where a video game spending 10 hours would be enough to know if it was good or not, but in the world of Chess that's not a lot of time. There's only so much time I can commit to playing Chess 2 for the purposes of this article. That's what's tough: it's easy to say I don't understand the nuisance of Chess 2 because I haven't committed the time to it, but come on, be realistic. It's hard enough just to find people to play Chess 2 with me!

I tried to get another Chess instructor to play it with me be he looked pretty shocked that the rules where more than one page. I sheepishly put the papers away and we just played Chess. He might of been up for a variant, but Chess 2 is pretty overwhelming in that regard. I'd like to thank my brother Conor for taking the time to play Chess 2 with me.

Anyways here's a quick breakdown of each of the armies. I've matched each army with a Street Fighter character just to have a little fun with it.

Classic: Why would you play with this one? All you get is Castling. It's as close to regular Chess as you're gonna get. The classic army is like the Ryu of Chess 2, except imagine Ryu without Hadokens, Hurricane Kicks, or Shoryukens.

Nemesis: This is a pretty weak army since pawn movement is stunted. It would seem that the Queen might be good at defending the midline, but since she can't capture pieces it's easy to just play interference with pawns. Having the pawns be able to move towards the king doesn't seem to yield any real advantage. If your opponent plays the Tyrant's Opening you'll be hard pressed to defend against it. The Nemesis Army is the Dan of Chess 2, he has some merit, but he's kinda silly to pick since there's better choices.

Empowered: This one is the most fun to play with. The best part about it is being able to move your bishops out early, and being able to get bishops on the same colored squares to form otherwise impossible batteries. At first blush it would seem that being able to develop rooks early would be desirable, but rooks become nice targets to the opposition early on . Doing tactics with pieces that have inherited traits isn't too feasible since the pieces have be next to each other to keep their abilities. Usually trait-borrowing isn't a factor mid-game, it isn't something that you can really build long term plans with. Most tactics utilizing the unique abilities are 1-ply, although it's possible to do 3-ply if you have a piece land on a square that allows it to inherit another trait, but it's a moot point if your opponent decides to rid you of it via dueling (more about dueling later). The Empowered Army is the Seth of Chess 2: He has a mishmash of different powers which is pretty sweet, but it isn't exactly original.

Reaper: By far the strongest, the ghost rooks are ideal for creating a shield behind which the king can maneuver to get to the midline. The teleporting queen is very effective at clearing out the rest of the pieces that might interfere with getting the king to the midline. Also, your opponent can never have an undefended piece...ever. That's a pretty big advantage. It's very difficult to get the initiative when playing against the Reaper Army. The Reaper Army also has the best defense against the Tyrant's Opening since you can teleport a ghost rook to block the king's progress. Having pieces "teleport" is reminiscent of the Bug House variant. The Reaper Army is the Morrigan of Chess 2; An undead vixen that flies across the board dominating everything and has 2 Renfield helpers to boot. Okay Morrigan isn't from Street Fighter but close enough.

Two Kings: This one is also interesting, but it's actually pretty easy to find yourself in check since you have 2 kings. The 2 kings are almost unstoppable due to the whirlwind attack, which I presume is inspired by Atomic Chess. Once you have one king past the midline (and lets face it you will since you have 2 kings) it can easily stifle development for the opposition, giving the 2nd king plenty of time to get across the midline. The Two Kings is like the Gen of Chess 2: The 2 stances are technically strong but every time you try it you just get your ass kicked and then you just go back to another fighter that isn't so unwieldy.

Animals: In theory being able to take your own pieces might be of tactical value, but in practice you're just handing stones (stones for dueling that is)  to your opponent while destroying your own material. The Tiger Bishop's trait of having to return to a square it attacked from is troubling since it can create unintended discovered attacks. Speaking of discovered attacks, you don't really get to have them with the Animals since the elephant rook & tiger bishop range is stunted. Having to sacrifice a pawn in the name of developing an elephant rook doesn't yield much advantage since the elephant rook's range is so limited, which is a problem compounded by not being able to control its rampage movement. The Animals Army is clearly the Blanka of Chess 2, but imagine that all of his spinning attacks where gone and all he could do is electrocute you, and when he does his own health bar goes down too.

Mirror Matches:

Things actually become far more enjoyable with mirror matches (when each player has the same army). It takes a lot of the problems out of Chess 2, since it becomes more symmetrical and starts to resemble chess a bit more. I know one of Chess 2's goals was asymmetric play, but it just isn't enjoyable since it losing to an opponent always feels like the game's fault since you can't use the same tactics that he can. Having to envision what the opposition is going to do is far harder since you have to consider a whole other set of pieces. It might seem interesting on paper but in reality it just creates tons of blunders on both sides. With a mirror match the problems are diminished, if only the dueling mechanic was removed I daresay it would even be enjoyable since it would just be a variant. If the mirror matches showed me anything it's that combining all these different armies together just creates too many problems.

Army round up:

So, those are the armies. Like the legacy pieces discussed earlier (in the "It's Alive!" section), they're all actually very interesting. An eclectic menagerie of something old and something new. They're kinda like how the Romans used to throw lions, buffalos, bears, and elephants in the coliseum together just to see what the hell would happen. Man those fights must of been some crazy shit to see. Unlike the Romans however, you take the role of the animal. Can a bear kick a tiger's ass? Would elephants reign supreme? Are the buffalos the crazy fighters we didn't count on?

As intriguing as it all may be, the real question is are they evenly matched? Highly doubtful, but it's hard to say conclusively. If I had to choose a favorite my money would be on the Reaper Army for sure.

Dueling:

First and foremost the entire art of Chess puzzle creation and solving isn't something that Chess 2 can support because of dueling. Since there's no way to know if the player will initiate a duel and win your attacking piece (at least in the theoretical space of a Chess puzzle), there's no way to create any puzzles for Chess 2 that involve capturing a piece whatsoever. Chess puzzles are important to strategic and tactical thought. In fact they're vital, and Chess 2 can't support them. I would consider this a fatal flaw.

Seeing past the massive puzzle issue, in conjunction with the midline rule, dueling is another core feature of Chess 2. Part of me wants to analyze it more, but in the matches I played my opponent rarely wanted to duel, and neither did I. It's just totally tacked on and has nothing to do with what's going on in the game really. Imagine Ken & Ryu both doing super moves at the same time, but to determine who's attack gets priority  they bust out some stones to figure it out.

Even if we where to use dueling more, the fundamental problem with it is that it cripples any hopes of making long term plans. It's hard to engage in analytical thought when there's no way of avoiding capture via dueling (similar to the reason why puzzles can't be created). In theory it might make a player more creative to be unsure about the future of his piece, but in practice it sabotages any mode of thought outside the 1-ply realm.

Dueling is tough to analyze, but for most of the games I played it was hard to remember that this mechanic even existed. Since you can only have up to 2 stones in use during dueling, there isn't much depth there. If it was increased by a factor of 10 and you could have up to 20 stones it might be able to more accurately reflect a pieces value. If a queen captures anything and is challenged, the attacking player is going to use 2 stones if they have them. Why wouldn't they? In general players always want to hold onto their attacking pieces. It's hard to feel like you made a mistake when you lose an attacking piece to such a contrived system. Winning a piece via dueling is like winning a match of Street Fighter by playing footsies, sure it worked but it's cheap as hell.

A Variant of a Variant

Taking everything into consideration, the best way to try and salvage Chess 2 is to just remove the dueling mechanic (I tried it for a few matches, it makes things SO much better) and just stick with mirror matches, things start to be reigned into the realm of tolerable, dare I say pleasant. Sadly, that's not the case.

All analogue

I've just been playing the tabletop version of Chess 2 from the printed rules. Not owning an Ouya, it's possible I'm missing a few points they might make about the game (I'm aware that there's a store with micro transactions, but I'm not even going to open that can of worms). I can't imagine playing Chess 2 with a controller would be that enjoyable, but that's pure conjecture. From what I've gleaned from let's play videos is that Chess 2 presents itself as something for the intellectual, because why else would classical music be playing in the background? You're playing Chess right? So obviously you're smart. If you're not wearing a monocle and sipping champagne in your smoking jacket you're doing it wrong.

 The list goes on and on

In fear of beating a dead horse, there's so much more I could be talking about. Like how it would be impossible to teach Chess 2 to kids, or how there's no official notation system (and even if there was you'd have to print up new notation pads specifically for Chess 2 since regular ones are too small), how to determine who picks what army first in local games to avoid predatory match selection. The fact that stalemate positions are just regarded as a loss for the sake of saying its dealt with. Or how loss of pieces via dueling can create unintended discovered attacks. Or how there's tons of other Chess variants that address everything Chess 2 tries in vain to accomplish. Or that no legit Chess masters where involved in designing it. But I think you get the idea.

-Endgame-

Taking a step back

As you might of guessed, I'm not crazy about Chess 2, but I don't have any burning rage towards it exactly. It demonstrates a sophomoric understanding of Chess. If it was just some random variant that didn't have any of the illogical criticisms of Chess and was just called "Sirlin's Chess" I wouldn't have given it a second thought. Making a lopsided Chess variant is hardly a crime.

What's most egregious about Chess 2 is how it goes out of its way to bash Chess in an attempt to justify its existence. That needs to stop. Once the chess hating stops, then maybe the Chess 2 healing can begin.

What I see in Chess 2 is the beginnings of a game, but not a complete one. If the idea of it being a Chess variant was abandoned and Ludume Games just focused on symmetrical play systems, removed the dueling mechanic,  swapped out the artwork and music for something more exciting than static Chess pieces they might have something pretty interesting. Why it doesn't try emulate the memorable battles of Battle Chess I'll never know.

There has to be something that can be done to convert Chess 2 to a more viable game, but as it stands now Chess 2 is just a lame duck game that hangs awkwardly in a nebulous void of its own contrivances. I'd hate to see a good codebase and designer go to waste.

Good sportsmanship

Part of me feels bad about picking on Chess 2 and David Sirlin, I'm sure he and Ludume games had only the best intentions, but since he took all the credit for Chess 2's design all the blame falls squarely on his shoulders. Not a position I'm envious of. Sorry man, but it had to happen for the good of Chess.

The goal of this article wasn't to bash Chess 2; that was just a necessary evil. The goal of this article is to repair the misconceptions it fostered, and to stand up for something I believe is important. Chess.

Putting all the pieces back in the box

There's been some wrong-doing in how Chess 2 was marketed, how it tried to belittle Chess, but worst of all how its scaring people away from Chess, which as a chess instructor I can't stomach. When Kotaku Australia says that Chess is irrelevant and states

"It seems like a game that had reached its end point, when everyone just accepts it, and perhaps stays willfully ignorant of its flaws."

I knew I had to speak up.

Chess is something that can really strengthen your analytical thought, teach patience, and prioritization. Chess enriches the lives of people all across the globe regardless of their standing in society. With the new World Champion Magnus Carlsen electrifying the world of chess at age of 23, there is no reason to think that Chess is dead or that it should just be dismissed as something for old stuffy academics. Nothing could be further from the truth.

I'd just like to say that I urge anyone curious about Chess 2 to just go play some regular Chess instead! Go! Do it!

-John Bell


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Comments


David Sirlin
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"Is a game different from chess ok? A chess tutor deeply invested in chess weighs in."

Lots and lots of words at the start that seem to apologize for draws. When a game has draws at the highest level, yeah that is a problem. It's better to fix it than not. Saying amateurs aren't affected isn't an actual defense. Even then, you'd still want to fix it rather than not. This shouldn't even be a point of argument, I mean of course it would be nice to fix this problem, and fix is systemically through rule changes. It's not something that can be adequately addressed through tournament rules of original chess as claimed here. Even if that were possible, which I don't think it is, having such a clean way as the midline rule to address it seems great.

Midline. This is one of the only substantive criticisms in this entire post. So you're claiming midline happens "too much." I don't know about that. Or even what too much would mean. There's two ways to win the game, so either is valid. Even if one is more frequent than the other, that seems conceptually fine. It's a plus rather than a minus that memorized end games just don't happen because of the existence of this rule, yet this post frames it as a negative.

Ad hominem fallacy. I actually *don't* mean against me. I know that phrase is usually used to describe personal attacks, though I don't mean that. This type of fallacy deals with where an idea came from rather than the substance of the idea. If we want to figure out if Chess 2 is a good game or bad game, we need to look at Chess 2 itself. For example, the criticisms about "too many wins by midline" *are* about Chess 2 itself. But there's also a bunch of stuff in here about whether some certain grandmaster helped, whether Bobby Fischer would like it, and specifically if it originated organically from the chess community or not. None of that matters even the slightest bit in judging the quality of the game. If it appeared by magic, and it's good, then it's good. There's just no need to mention that sort of thing. And incidentally, there seems to be a misunderstanding why Fischer is even mentioned in connection to any of this. It's *only* too illustrate that the game shifted toward an extremely high amount of memorization.

Some notes on memorization. Saying chess is "ALL about memorization" is pretty strawman. "All" meaning there is no other component at all? I don't think anyone is making that argument, not me or Fischer anyway. And saying that memorizing isn't understanding is not much of a point either. Yeah they aren't the same. If you had lots of memorization skill and zero understanding, you probably are not going to be a good player. That's a great proof that the game isn't 100% memorization, which debunks that same strawman argument that no one made. The thing is, even though memorization isn't understanding...it sure is pretty important. Uncomfortably too much important for many, including Fischer and myself.

Elegance of the armies. Your criticism here seems way overstated. In some other chess variants with many fairy pieces, I find it very hard to keep track of what's what. Chess 2 has very few changes to each army and the same basic setup of pieces, specifically so it's easy to remember. Like "oh the pawns army has different pawns, and also one other thing different."

Army balance. WOW. This is the most incredible part of this entire post. Just a reminder on my background here, that I was a Street Fighter tournament player (many different versions of the game, all with different balance), and that I've dealt with balancing numerous other games, such as Puzzle Fighter, Yomi, Kongai, Puzzle Strike, etc. There are common things that come up in balance feedback, including this big red flag: strong, confident claims about balance from people who can't possibly know the answer yet. There is *no way* you can determine that this army is clearly the best or whatever in a handful of games. That you claim to know this is deeply troubling. It indicates you kind of don't know what your'e talking about on the subject of balance. Also here's an interesting tidbit. Most inexperienced players claim that Reaper is the strongest army, then most experienced players say that Reaper is the *weakest* army. Anyway, making such a confident statement about any of that is a red flag I've seen many times. This kind of confidence in claims can only come after a community of experts has played a game A LOT. Only then do you develop standard tactics, a metagame, the counter-measures to those tactics, the nuances that can shift advantage at some critical points.

To take a step back from all this, it seems the actual core issue is you don't like anyone "bashing" chess. Chess is not immune to criticism though. It's possible that these things are both true: chess is a good game and chess has some issues. I think both those are true. Pointing out those issues shouldn't be classified as "bashing" or else it wouldn't be possible to iterate on ideas and come up with new ideas that address old issues. It's inherently part of the design process to identify issues and "lots of draws" and "quite a lot of memorization" are *valid* issues to bring up. People deeply invested in a thing being a certain way often see this as "bashing" though, so I understand. But I also deal with identifying issues and iterating on designs every day so reclassifying the common process of identifying areas of improvement as "bashing" is somewhat alien to me.

Charles Geringer
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"If we want to figure out if Chess 2 is a good game or bad game, we need to look at Chess 2 itself."

While this is true in itself, I also think that when judging a sequel, it is valid to compare it to the previous game. How it evolves from the previous one.

If Street fighter 5 was a very good beat'em up game, instead of a fighting game, saying that a bit of the essence fot the game was lost would be a valid criticism, even though the game itself is very good.

That way, if he feels the ideas are "tacked on" rather than seeming to be a natural evolution of the game, I think that is a valid criticism, as long as you are using the name of the original, and my impression from Chees 2's marketing was that it was being marketed as an IMPROVEMENT over chess, which makes comparison other than the game itself valid.

You could have named Chess 2 itīs own name and say that it is inspired by chess, but I think that when you decided to use the name "chess 2" you left yourself open to some form of critiscism besides looking at the "game itself"

Other than that, really well written response.

Charles Geringer
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"ALL about memorization" is pretty strawman. "All" meaning there is no other component at all? I don't think anyone is making that argument, not me or Fischer anyway"

Well, considering fischers quote is "I’m finished with the old chess because it’s ALL just a lot of book and memorization", and that quote is used to promote the game, it is very easy to think that is indeed the argument being made, at least as far as marketing goes.

David Sirlin
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Oh I forgot to mention how bizarre it is say it's a FATAL FLAW that dueling means not having chess puzzles. That's some pretty tortured logic there. Maximizing a game to be the best it can be while you're actually playing it should far outweigh any concern about its alternate use as a source of puzzles. It's sort of a dressed up way of saying you really want the game as solvable and non-interactive as possible and that knowing what the opponent will do MUST count for nothing or else it's a disaster. It's just a very strange way of thinking when you're doing anything other than maximizing the actual gameplay experience itself. I'm surprised to see the puzzles count for anything regarding the quality of a multiplayer competitive game. The complaint here claims that single player puzzles count not just for "something" but for "everything" because it's supposedly a "fatal flaw" to not have them.

And by the way, Ludeme Games is working on releasing a new Chess 2 puzzle literally every day, as far as I know.

John Bell
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Some people are able to accept criticism gracefully. Others feel the need to write lengthy responses in defense of their own work since they feel it's beyond reproach. It's hypocritical to point out the flaws of chess, but not allow someone to point out the flaws of chess 2.

Charles Geringer
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While I do not agree with a lot in your post, it is written in a intelligent and clear manner. Specifically the part about the Draws being generated due to the way scoring works in championships, rather than due to the rules themselves(A championship format where a draw counts as a defeat for both might be an interesting way to test that?) is a really interesting point, and really well made, in my opinion.

the point that new player shoudnīt let chess' reputation intimidate them, and shoud give it a try is also well made.

This reply however is silly and has no merit whatsoever. Point and counterpoint is how discussion work. How opinions, and logic process advance. The idea that replying to a criticism is ungraceful is ridiculous.

Sirlins response shows that he read your post, took the time to understand it, and the time to reply in a well thought and mostly courteous manner(maybe not so much in parts like the first sentence and game-balance issue rebuttal).

Your reply gives me the impression you canīt defend yourself from his criticism, or that you did not give him the courtesy he gave you. If you had nothing to add to the discussion you could have remained quiet. instead you insulted him, which is irrelevant and actually detracts from the discussion.

Your post gave me a good impression of yourself, and made me look forward to future articles of yours. This last reply lowered it.

John Bell
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Shoot, I thought I was being classy! I wasn't eager to enter a debate with somebody so bias. I might as well discuss the health effects of smoking with a tobacco lobbyist. Going into a point-by-point debate just isn't going to be productive, but that doesn't mean I'm unable to defend what I wrote. Most of what David Sirlin's response consisted of is selective memory and posturing.

The article wasn't written so I could change David Sirlin's mind about Chess, it was written to tell people not to be afraid of Chess, and that Chess 2 is not something they should be playing instead. Debating David Sirlin isn't the goal here.

Honestly I'm kinda shocked he'd write such a response. Most reviewers don't have to debate the production staff of a game when they write an unfavorable review. The point of the reply was to highlight that Sirlin is being unprofessional when he attacks his critics.

Anyways, I hope you don't think TOO much less of me Charles! Thanks for reading!

Charles Geringer
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"Honestly I'm kinda shocked he'd write such a response. Most reviewers don't have to debate the production staff of a game when they write an unfavorable review."

True, but I think that sometimes it woud be beneficial. Sean Lindskog for example make a good counter point to a critic that I would like to see answered and reevaluated, because I think it is well-made:

t astounded me that he didn't try (or at least discuss) the difficulty options before bashing the game's difficulty.

"http://www.gamasutra.com/blogs/SeanLindskog/20131022/202856/On_To
talbiscuits_quotDay_One_Garrys_Incident_Incidentquot__an_Indie_De
v_Perspective.php?print=1"

Also a lot of public debates arenīt simply about the participants trying to convince each other, but are also about the audience.

In my case, I think that his counter point about game balance is worth looking into.

Game balance is difficulty, and there are many examples in asymmetrical games, of a particular side/character/army, seeming unfairly powerful for people new to the game, but seeming balanced or weak to most experienced players.

And no, I donīt Too less of you, I still look forward to reading more from you.

Two questions I would like to ask:

1: If you were to tackle the problems of too much "memorization and Books", and too many draws, via creating a variant, how would you go about it?

To some people,(including me) asymmetry in games is very interesting, specially if the players can still fight mirror matches if they want to(Bagh-Chal, Warhammer, and Starcraft are interesting examples of asymmetry, though only the later two allow for mirror matches).

How would you inject asymmetry in chess?

John Bell
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Debates usually involve 2 people that agreed to a debate. Sirlin wants a debate to distract readers from the facts. His motives are a bit questionable.

If it's one thing I'm guilty of it's not being an expert in Chess 2. Anybody can make a game that's hard to review by burying the game in rules and combinations, but that doesn't mean its a good game. I could make a game that takes 100 hours to complete, and accuse anyone that didn't play all 100 hours that they didn't really understand my game. A very convenient argument indeed! Are the different armies balanced in chess 2? It's tough to know for a fact, so I'm limited to my experience. From that experience, I can say "no".

To answer your two questions:

1. If I where to recommend a variant that deals with memorization it would be Fischer Random.

2. If asymmetrical play is what you're after, I'd recommend Bagh-Chal. It isn't a chess variant but it is a very interesting game that has asymmetrical play.

Introducing asymmetrical gameplay into Chess isn't something I'd ever really do, so its tough to answer how I'd do it. If anything I'd just make a new game that incorporates some of the concepts from chess. If it's one thing that Chess 2 shows us is that altering an existing game just for the sake of altering it isn't the best way to build a fun experience. I'd start with "what makes chess fun?" and go from there.

David Sirlin
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Ok let's deconstruct that rhetoric. First, you used a false dichotomy. The two categories you created were:

1) People who accept criticism gracefully
2) People who write lengthy responses to their own work since they feel it's beyond reproach.

Surely you can see the error there. You invented a framework that claims I can either not respond, or that I've committed wrongdoing if I do respond. Actually, it's fine for me or anyone to respond to your post. It's fine for me to have pointed out problems with chess. It's fine for you to have pointed out problems with chess 2. It's just that the problems you pointed out with chess 2 didn't really add up, as I already explained at some length.

What you said about draws doesn't make sense (fixing them is actually better than not), what you said about where the game came from is irrelevant, what you said about lack of puzzles doesn't make sense (optimizing for actual gameplay trumps any of that), what you said about the elegance of the armies doesn't really make sense (very few changes per side). And what you said about balance—definitive confident statements that can't possibly have that level of confidence—doesn't make sense.

I'm as free to point that out as you are free to make the statements. I don't know where you're getting the idea that any of this can't be criticized. Everything can be including chess, chess 2, your post, and my post. Bringing up issues with chess isn't "bashing." Bringing up issues with your post isn't "not being graceful." It's just straightforwardly pointing out problems.

Charles Geringer
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The point about the "pick up and play" element being lacking in chess 2 is well made, however I woud liek to poitn out, that both myself and all the people I know(admittedly anecdotal experience, and thus may not reflect the greater reality). Learned chess from someone else who already played chess. And the standard way we learned was a few rules a ta time, just a few pieces, and them when we understood those pieces new ones were introduced, and so on, until we were introduced to all rules.

Therefore, while I agree that the pick-up and play factor in chess 2 is lacking when compared to chess, I donīt really think it is that relevant, since when a person decides to learn chess 2(As a tabletop game, donīt know much about the electronic version), they can learn by being introduced to the rules slowly(e.g.:play a few games only with the midline rule added, only playing in different armies, after the new player is comfortable with all the rules in classic army only games, maybe even using your suggestion of sticking with mirror matches without dueling for a while))


John Bell
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You make a valid point Charles! I agree that even though it takes a while, Chess 2 can certainly be learned with enough time. Usually though, you can teach someone the rules of chess in an hour or two and then they can go play some chess unaided. Sure they probably aren't going to play great, but they're building some confidence with chess.

With Chess 2 you could teach them a set of pieces, but then if they go and try to play on their own they'll just encounter pieces that have no understanding of. They have to understand all the sets to play normally. It's just so much more complex and time consuming.

Since puzzles can't be used to teach chess 2, and there's no real body of work of advanced chess 2 tactics (at least that I'm aware of), its anybody's guess as to how somebody that loved chess 2 would proceed to becoming a Grandmaster.


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