Really Bad Chess: A Window into the Web of Game Mechanics

Where to download:

l know that everyone and their brother has been talking about Really Bad Chess since its release, however there is good reason for it. It’s deceptively simple in premise, engaging, and is one of the few F2P app games out there that doesn’t constantly come up with new ways to dive into your wallet.

But more importantly it shows how tightly woven the mechanics in games are. Even for timeless titles such as chess.

I remember during a Game Studies course (yes, Game Studies is an academic field of study!) my professor had us dedicate a couple of classes to a similar game that also bends the rules of chess: Knightmare Chess. In Knightmare Chess you play with a deck of cards alongside the chess board. These cards can change a multitude of rules in how traditional chess is played: from allowing pawns to capture pieces in front of them instead of just diagonally, to changing how pieces move, alongside various other effects. The result is an even harrier battle of wits that keeps you on your toes. Not only are you trying to anticipate your opponent’s next move, but now you also have to read into what strategies and cards they might employ to get around the game’s original rules.

One of our assignments for that particular class was to create a single Knightmare Chess card of our own to be used in a class match. What started as a simple and quick homework assignment actually ended up raising several questions among everyone. We were allowed to go in any direction we wanted and change any rule we wanted, but that openness made us look over all of the mechanics in regular chess with suddenly keen eyes. We had to worry about game balance (was the card we were making overpowered?), whether the card would be useful in all stages of play (vs only be feasible during the early game), among several other things.

The general takeaway from that assignment was even if you change one tiny mechanic in a game (say, allowing a pawn to capture pieces in front of them for example), you change how the entire game works as a whole. You give it a completely different pacing and open the door to new strategies while closing others. In some cases you can transform your project into a completely different game entirely, thus giving it a new life.

Really Bad Chess runs with this idea by being far more simplistic than Knightmare Chess. Rather than implement multiple rule changes Zach Gage instead only introduces three mechanics:

  1. The pieces the players start with are completely random.
  2. Pieces can start on any square on your side of the board.
  3. You can undo your previous move so long as you have an undo available.

That’s it. All pieces move the same as they would in traditional chess. All pieces capture the same as they would in traditional chess. Yet despite the above changes being so simple and small in comparison to the overall game, they still create a completely different environment that forces the player to get creative. Where your king is placed determines the formations you’ll make. The pieces on either side of the board immediately determines the types of strategies open to you. The enemy has three queen pieces and over half of yours are pawns? Well, surrender now or make it work!

I want to take a moment to iterate out how serious this point actually is. Often after games go into beta phases or are released we see gaming communities demand that certain mechanics be changed. Or not understand why something so simple as [xyz] can’t be changed within 24 hours. All of the above is why: every single rule implemented in a game, any game, contributes to the overall piece and in turn interacts with all of the other rules. Game mechanics are essentially like a giant spider web: snip one thread or change its path and it affects all of the others. If something as simple as randomizing pieces in chess can completely change the nature of the game, imagine dealing with these sorts of mechanic switches in games like the Elder Scrolls series or Overwatch.

That doesn’t mean that change is impossible. In fact publishers tend to use the above logic as an excuse to deny making critically needed changes to a project. However for both developers and consumers alike it’s very important that we remember just how vital every mechanic introduced into a game is (or should be). Games like Knightmare Chess and Really Bad Chess serve as humble reminders of this.

How the app works.

As for Really Bad Chess itself the game starts off relatively easy in the lower ranks by granting you better pieces to use compared to the AI. However that doesn’t guarantee you a victory. If you’re new (or just bad) at chess the AI shows off that it’s still possible to beat an opponent with lesser pieces through the use of good strategy (or your opponent’s lack thereof). As you get higher in ranks the app proceeds to turn the tables and stack the AI with better pieces than you, challenging you to do the same: beat the odds with clever thinking rather than the brute force better pieces provide.

The result is something akin to the Dark Souls franchise: you’re faced with challenges that on the surface seem impossible to beat, when in reality you can achieve victory by hanging back and taking the time to go over your options. Really Bad Chess also heavily encourages that players make use of the undo action as they experiment with strategies, and does so with such a positive voice that you don’t feel guilty at all for doing so.

Which is something that shouldn’t be overlooked. The instructions written throughout the game are in an optimistic light and have a touch of humor. You don’t feel bad for failing a match or for undoing a move. Instead you’re encouraged to simply try again until you get the hang of things, which is something that’s sorely missing in a vast area of gaming. Especially mobile titles. These days developers make grinding so immense or make combat so competitive that it doesn’t leave room for experimentation. Instead people flock to web guides to see what the meta build is or the most profitable/efficient path is and follow that.

In mobile apps in particular said experimentation can block progress for months on an account, or even require a purchase to set a player back on track. This trend will only continue to grow worse the more mobile games (particularly gacha games) make it nearly impossible to start over accounts or re-roll for good starts.

This is why Really Bad Chess is a welcome addition to the app store. It’s a no frills, no fuss challenge that lets us give our minds a work out without having to fear failure.

How much does it really cost to play Really Bad Chess?

The main menu.
The main menu.

Part of what makes Really Bad Chess a nice break from the typical app store shenanigans is that it’s very straight forward in how much it will cost you. The game is free so long as you don’t want to challenge other players and don’t mind viewing ads after every match. For people who want to avoid ads and unlock multiplayer, the game will cost a one time purchase of $2.99 .

Beyond that the only real cash shop offerings are to purchase more undo actions, which run at essentially a dollar per 100 undo’s. This renders every undo at a penny each. If you don’t want to pay for them you can watch an ad instead to earn them.

In a game where you’re trying to get to the skill level where you don’t need undo’s, I think this is perfectly reasonable. Not to mention if you decide to unlock the game’s full features you’ll be given 100 to start with anyway. The pricing feels more than fair in this day and age where the bare minimum in app games seems to be $3-$5 for some kind of pixel or service that’s only one time use.

Don’t get me wrong: Gage’s stance on encouraging experimentation and undoing moves does softly advertise this feature and is banking that people will make use of it during their early progress. However given how easy it is to earn undo points it doesn’t feel overly aggressive .

Final Verdict: definitely worth playing if you’re looking for a challenge.

Between the game’s honesty with its costs, the sheer challenge the game provides, and the optimistic tone that gives it a unique voice: Really Bad Chess is a game worth picking up. Yes the ads can be annoying, but they can be removed with a fairly priced purchase that offers other incentives on top of it. Is it a bit sleazy to hide 1v1 mode behind that purchase? I will admit that I find it rather unfair, however the game clearly advertises that its purpose is to pin you against a grueling AI. I have the feeling that multiplayer might have been an afterthought.

That doesn’t make it right, but the rest of the game is done well enough that I haven’t really felt a need for multiplayer. It almost feels like a single player game that had online multiplayer tagged on purely because “all games need multiplayer” these days.

With all of that said and done, if you’re looking for a strategy game that doesn’t bother with the bullshit most app games meddle with, Really Bad Chess is probably what you’re looking for.