Last night, during a small window of down time (the first in almost a week), I fired up Freeverse‘s entirely free yet thoroughly gorgeous Big Bang Chess. Now, it should be stated right up front that I’m not really a fan of chess. Oh, sure, Game of Kings and all that, but generally I find it to be an almost even mixture of boredom and frustration. The latter is particularly true because I’m just not very good at the game. There’s too much going on, and I have to juggle too many things that might or might not happen, for it to be much fun for me.
But I was looking to keep myself occupied for a few minutes, and I have very few games installed on the laptop, so Big Bang Chess got the nod. I immediately cranked the AI setting all the way over to the left (thus elevating fast thinking above smart thinking) and started playing. As I blew through a few quick matches, it occurred to me that there are a few things that a computer chess game could do to make me more interested.
- Human-like turn lengths for the AI.
One of the things that most often frustrates me about computer chess is that the AI will make a move within seconds of my making a move. More often, it will do so immediately. Then I sit there, thinking my slow organic thoughts, feeling vaguely stupid for being such a slowpoke even though I know there’s no direct comparison. Eventually, I make a move. Instantly, the computer makes its move. My first reaction is, “That was awfully quick. Was he waiting for the move I just made? Did I just walk into a trap? What am I missing?” And then I go hunting around the board, not sure where to look, not sure that there’s even anything to see.
I’m aware that the computer needs only a fraction of a second to run through possible moves and pick one. If it’s a really advanced system, it may take 20 or 30 seconds as it looks five moves ahead. If the computer took a human amount of time before moving, say a few minutes, I’d feel more at ease. Yes, I know that means having the computer pick a move and then do absolutely nothing for a few minutes. I don’t care. This is purely a matter of acting in a manner that makes me more comfortable, and therefore more likely to enjoy the entire process. The UI could have a “go ahead and move” button tucked away in a corner for me to use if I ever got tired of waiting.
I realized this was what I wanted when I asked myself why I was setting the AI to be quick at the expense of being smart. Aside from making it more likely that I’d win, I realized it was because I felt like if the computer was going to move at a speed that, subjectively, seemed reckless and devoid of consideration, then its moves should reflect that. And they do. But even if I set the AI to be as smart as possible, it’s still going to seem to me like it’s moving without putting much thought into its game.
So put up a picture of an opponent who looks around the board, holds a chin in his or her hand as if pondering deep thoughts, leans back in reflection, and generally acts like it’s still thinking even though it picked a move three minutes ago. It will make the game more enjoyable.
- An option to show all of the squares that any enemy piece can reach.
Part of my problem in chess is that I don’t have the patience to figure out whether a given square I’m considering occupying (or piece I’m thinking about taking) is already covered. That’s largely due to all the possible ways a square can be covered. Is there a knight within striking distance? Can a bishop jump over from the other side of the board? And so on. It isn’t that I can’t manage this mental feat. It’s just that I have little interest in doing so for every single last square that interests me, turn after turn. So if a game tinted all enemy-reachable squares red, for example, I’d have a much better grasp of the strategic situation.
This would obviously be an option in the preferences, albeit one I’d never disable. Having a similar “tint all squares my pieces can reach” option would be cool, too. It would be even better if the amount of tinting of a square was based on the number of pieces that could move to it.
This kind of visualization would keep me from making stupid mistakes, and mean a lot less use of the “Undo move” option. Who knows? Maybe with enough play in that mode, I’d eventually reach the point where I didn’t need the help.
- The ability to somehow create variant games.
Back in high school, I was a member of the chess club, mostly because a lot of my friends were members. Also because I still bought into the idea that the really smart people played chess, and I wanted to be really smart. We had a few variant games that I remember fondly, and it would be fun to have them reborn. My favorite was Nuclear Chess. In that one, any piece could instead of moving choose to self-detonate, destroying itself and any pieces in adjacent squares. (Of course, if you did that with your King, you lost the game—unless you took out the opposing King, in which case it was a tie.) And then there was Thermonuclear Chess, where any piece could make a normal move and then immediately detonate.
They were quick games. Lots of fun, too. The nature of the game changes dramatically when you have to make sure an opposing piece can’t just plow into your pawn line and immediately detonate, thus wiping out your King in the process.
Anyway, I’m not entirely sure how one could open up a chess game’s architecture to allow the creation of variants like that, but I’d love to see it happen.
Just some random thoughts on a game I don’t really like. If you want to talk Checkers, though…