Is Battle Vs Chess finally the revision of the dusty old board game that has been so desperately needed for so many years? Can we at last see the embellishments the franchise has been longing for, for over 3,000 years? Perhaps today is that day, with the game now out on Steam. I've taken a look to see how the game has finally pulled itself out of the dark ages.
The title certainly reads a little strangely. But in the end, it couldn't really be more appropriate. Battle Vs. Chess is, on the surface - and indeed in practice - a chess simulator. And then it adds some new things. For instance, it echoes that greatest example of the genre, National Lampoon's Chess Maniac 5 Billion And 1, with animated battles between the pieces as they take each other off the board. And all in all, it seems to do chess. I mean, I have no idea if it's actually good at chess, because I have the chess skills of roadkill. The only method I have for any notion of success is to give each of my pieces a unique personality, and then have them discuss tactics and play out soap opera scenes in an effort to put off my opponent. That doesn't work against a computer. But this seems to have all sorts of chessy notation everywhere, and it sure has heck beat me, even when I was following the tips it was giving me. (Bastard.) And then IT GETS WEIRD.
Before we get to the strangest options, let's first step out of Skirmish, and get into the Battlegrounds Mode. The first of two ways to play is Duel, in which you play the usual chess rules, except taking a piece switches into the barest bones of a rhythm response idea. Arrows drop from the top of a column, and you have to press the corresponding key as they pass a circle. Do well, and you'll successfully take the piece you were after. Do badly, and your piece moves back to where it was and you effectively miss your turn. Which is, of course, insane.
It gets even sillier when it's the computer trying to take one of your pieces, and you can defend against it. Winning, which is relatively easy despite the arrows occasionally gathering some decent pace, means you get to have as many goes in a row as you win for. So want to take your opponent's queen? Line up your bishop in her path, defend against her attack, and then take her. Genius. These sections play out in a cute (if crude) fighting game setting, two energy bars atop the screen, with animations playing out attacks. It's properly silly in concept, utterly daft in a chess setting, and best of all, delivered with a perfectly straight face. And that's the most sensible mode.
The second Battlegrounds choice is the excitingly named Slasher. I'm fairly sure this is the first time the word "slasher" has been associated with chess, unless there's an excellent scandal about a player who would wee during tournaments that I've somehow missed. In this mode, as above, all is normal until you take a piece. At this point, well, I think only the in-game instructions can do this justice (all sic):
"You control one piece supported by several chessmen while the opponent also has a number of combatants (depending on the piece and its current HP). The goal is to destroy all enemies. The character you control may move, make quick attack, strong attack, block and dodge.
When you deal damage, your rage gauge fills. When it is full you can perform an unavoidable Strong Attack.
When your character kills an enemy, its HP is recovered by small amount. Pay attention, that the HP recovered in Battle Mode doesn't carry over to the Chess Mode. So the piece may not end the battle with more HP that it had at the beginning."
It's even weirder than that sounds. It's an extremely frantic mode in which you're trying to control a character in a 3D fight, awkwardly using keyboard controls, while the AI is in charge of both the enemy and the rest of your team, pretty much deciding the battle around you. As you confusedly stumble around trying to hit something, you pause and think about the great and noble ancient game, and how many hundreds of generations before you have locked intellects to compete across this chequered board.
For years, Jim and I have been documenting the possibility of Chess II in as many publications and places as is humanly possible. Battle Vs. Chess manages to out-deliver anything we could have hoped for. It really is Battling versus Chess, as the latter ludicrously loses any semblance of purpose to the former. But it sure freshens up the concept! It's berserk. And it has options for even weirder chess, even in the standard Skirmish mode.
You can choose to have your pieces begin on the board in a random starting arrangement in those first two rows. You can even hand-select where they're placed across the first three rows. Another mode called Madness starts the pieces literally anywhere on the board, scattered completely at random, because that's what chess was waiting for! And that's not it. There's also Recruit. Again, I'll let the game explain in exactly its words:
"Recruit Placement: No more than 16 pieces for each player. Each player gets random number and type of pieces, according to their value for the overal value of 39 points (Queen - 9 points, Rook - 5, Bishop - 3, Knight - 3, Pawn - 1, King has no value and is always present). The king is placed in the corner, major pieces by his side, starting from more valuable to less valuable, the pawns are places in the second rank starting from the King's corner."
And as if that weren't enough, there's Recruit Madness, which gives you a random number of pieces, and random types, adding up to those 39 points, placed on the board at random. It's chess as chess inventor, Dr Benjamin Chess, always intended it to be, if only he hadn't died shortly before his crucial second revision. I've not even mentioned the Campaign modes, one for Order, one for Chaos (the correct names for the white and black pieces, as any chessmaster will know), in which chess mini-game puzzles must be completed in order. Or if the narrative there is too gripping, there's a bunch of minigame collections as well.
This lunacy is on Steam now, currently discounted from £16 to £12 until Thursday. If you're ready to move up to the next level of chess, beyond what I will now call Classic Chess (or perhaps just Old Chess), then NOW IS YOUR TIME.