The long-awaited sequel to chess is finally here. We've only been waiting one and a half thousand years
Chess 2: The Sequel is presented as the next step in the evolution of chess. This is not a joke. In fact it´s so not a joke that the developer has already had to reiterate so several times; aside from the title, of course, which is self-admittedly "a bit of a joke." When you´re trying to improve a game which is almost two thousand years old, showing that you genuinely mean business could prove quite challenging. Nevertheless, it seems that Ludeme Games are happy to dance precariously somewhere around the idea of comedy while strenuously maintaining a straight face.
There are a couple of things which are somewhat dubious about Ludeme´s proposal to begin with. First of all is the idea that chess needs improvement. The game is currently played regularly by an estimated 600 million people worldwide - about 100 million more than the number of active accounts on Facebook. Blizzard wouldn´t dare squeak about a WOW 2, and they´re sitting on a measly 8 million subs. Secondly, what credentials do Ludeme have which enable them to perform the task at hand? Lead developer David Sirlin was apparently responsible for balancing Super Street Fighter II Turbo HD Remix. That may sound quite impressive, but it doesn´t really mean anything in relation to chess. Finally is the assumption that such an improvement need be realised through a computer game. To their credit, Ludeme have made the Chess 2 rules available for download online, and you can play with a standard chess set. But then what exactly do you get for buying the game? In particular, one with a launch price of $24.99.
Taking down the AI requires very little thought
Several key changes have been made to the way chess functions. Firstly, victory can now be achieved by having your king cross the middle of the board - this is called midline invasion. Secondly, when one of your pieces is captured you can now choose to initiate a duel. Duelling uses a system of tokens. The cost of initiating a duel depends on the rank of the attacking and defending piece. Once a duel has been initiated, both players have to bid a number of tokens. If the defending player outbids the attacking player then both pieces are removed from the game, instead of the attacking piece remaining on the board as per normal.
On top of that, there are six different specialised armies which players can select before starting a game. Each player's selection is independent of the other, and therefore offers the possibility of asymmetric play; where one player's army is different to the other. Each army has its own strengths and weaknesses. One such army, called two kings, replaces the king and the queen with two pieces called warrior kings. They can each be placed in check and checkmated. After any normal move is made, the player can optionally choose to additionally move one of his warrior kings as well. In order to win by midline invasion, both kings must cross the midline. They can also perform a special whirlwind attack which destroys all touching pieces, including the player's own.
Another set, called empowered, allows the rook, knight and bishop to transfer their movement abilities to each other when they are touching. This means that if you have these units lined up in a row of three then they will all be able to move as if they were a queen with the ability to also move like a knight. The queen unit in the empowered army set has been replaced by a unit which can only move like a king, and therefore is less valuable.
There's nothing at fault with the visuals
Other armies include one which allows pawns to move one space towards the enemy king, one which has teleporting and invincible units, and one which has completely replaced the knight, rook and bishops with more powerful but shorter ranged units.
There are two methods of starting games against other players. One is to play a live game, which presumably matches you up spontaneously against other players waiting for a game and sets a short game timer such that the game must be played out there and then. Unfortunately, I wasn't able to find anyone else playing so there's little to say about that. The other method is to start a correspondence game. The advantage to this is that you can start a game, and then come back a day later and find that someone has accepted it and has made their first move. This is the kind of match which can be played over a period of days with a long turn timer. There are no customisation options offered, so you can't change the timings, you can't limit a game to certain armies, and you can't turn off the duelling mechanic.
It's incredibly difficult to offer a comprehensive judgement on the rule set of a new chess variant. Initially, I was somewhat revolted at the idea of twisting the rules of chess - and I'm far from a chess fanatic. However, I have to admit that I can see that these new rules have some potential. The games are fun to play, although for an amateur the task of weighing up all the new strategic considerations almost seems intimidating compared to a game of old school chess. One of the things which these alterations were designed to address is the complaint chess has become more about memorisation than strategic improvisation. Such a thing may well be true for grandmasters, but for us laymen who barely have a vague recollection of the Roy Lopez, it is still a game which requires turn by turn contemplation.
Ultimately, the discussion on whether the new rules themselves are any good is one which must be left for another day and, indeed, someone with the level of mastery required of both chess and Chess 2 in order to make a detailed ruling. My suspicion is that the rules have some merit as a chess variant, much in the way that Fischer's Chess 960 and the hundreds of other chess variants in existence do.
The different armies allow for some curious possibilities. Like this peculiar checkmate caused by the rampaging elephant piece
Where I can make a complete judgement is not on the quality of Chess 2 as a rule set, but as a video game. Aside from some fairly pleasing visuals, music and sound, Chess 2 is inferior to almost any major computer chess game in the last fifteen years. To start with, there're no settings at all, so if you don't like the classical music playlist which the designers have chosen to run constantly in the background - tough luck. The AI is so hideously bad at the game that I'm tempted to think it's just a random number generator which some rudimentary knowledge of openings thrown in. Playing games with the AI is not at all beneficial or enjoyable, except for learning the very basic mechanics of the game.
CHESS 2: THE SEQUEL VERDICT
Given the price tag, I have to seriously question what this game offers. It seems like the greater part of the work went into designing the rules, which can be downloaded for free. The adjustments are certainly intriguing, but there’s absolutely no good reason to recommend Chess 2 as a videogame. A challenging AI opponent and some self-evident customisation options may have gone a long way towards making this a decent game.
TOP GAME MOMENT
Playing with the new rules is, at least, intriguing.