Last summer, game designer Zach Gage — best known for mobile titles like Spelltower and Ridiculous FIshing — went for a walk with a friend, and eventually the discussion turned to chess. His friend had recently taken up the game and become quite proficient, whereas Gage was never able to get into it, despite multiple attempts. This gulf in skill and experience meant that the two couldn’t play together in a meaningful way; if they tried, Gage would get crushed, and the match wouldn’t be much fun. So he decided to fix the problem.
Today sees the launch of Really Bad Chess on iOS. The game features all of the same pieces and rules as standard chess, but switches things up by giving you a different set of pieces every time you play. And it’s this steady dose of randomness that makes it much more accessible than the game it’s based on — making it perfect for a novice like Gage. “This could be perceived as an affront to chess,” he says. “Because what I’ve really done is I’ve ripped out the core of chess.”
That core of chess is built on being fair and balanced. Every time you play a standard chess match, you know what to expect. Both players start with the same pieces, and they’re in the same place every time. Really Bad Chess changes this by completely randomizing what pieces both sides get. You could have a second row that has three knights and a queen in addition to some pawns. Or maybe you have a couple extra rooks. Your opponent will have something completely different.
This setup not only makes the game different each time you play, but it’s also a clever way of dealing with difficulty. When you play Really Bad Chess, you always play against the same artificial intelligence. It doesn’t get smarter or faster the further you progress. Instead, as you move up in rank, the quality of the pieces you get changes. In the beginning you will have much better pieces than the AI, improving your chances at winning. But as you get better and win matches, the balance starts to shift in the other direction.
The result is a game that’s much faster and more offensive than standard chess, but also one that’s more approachable. Whereas high-level chess requires the memorization of moves and patterns, Really Bad Chess encourages experimentation. When you have a half-dozen knights instead of two, it doesn’t matter as much if you lose a few, so you can be more aggressive with how you use them.
It’s not the same as playing chess, and Really Bad Chess doesn’t explicitly teach you the rules of the game or how the pieces work. Yet, in spite of this, after playing Really Bad Chess for the past week, I’ve found myself with a much better understanding of the game, and how the various pieces interact with each other. “The thing that’s weird about Really Bad Chess is that at the beginning it feels neat and strange and weird,” says Gage, “but by the end of the game you really just feel like you’re playing chess.”
Really Bad Chess is far from the first variant of the classic board game. In 1996 legendary chess champion Bobby Fischer aimed to add a small amount of randomization into the mix by changing the order of the back row in Chess960 (there are 960 possible variations, hence the name), while 2014’s Chess 2: the Sequel featured multiple armies and new end games. More recently, the glitchy mobile game Chesh took the basic premise of chess, and completely randomized virtually every element with hundreds of new pieces and behaviors.
All of these variants are trying to solve the same problem: chess is a partially solved game, which makes it less about skill and improvisation, and more about memorizing existing strategies. It’s also what makes it nearly impossible for a beginner to have a chance against an experienced player. For Gage, one of the ways to solve that problem was to make Really Bad Chess a bit like poker.
“I think one of the most amazing things about poker is how a beginner can sit down at a poker table with a bunch of people who have been playing poker for years, and in many cases ends up winning because they get lucky and the other players don’t understand how to play against somebody with their mindset,” he says. “Poker has this really strong concept of beginner’s luck built into it, but chess doesn’t have that. And I think it’s probably because there’s no luck involved in chess.”
This isn’t the first time that Gage has explored a classic game in an attempt to create something new. Last year, he released Sage Solitaire, which turned the ubiquitous card game into something faster, more strategic, and better suited for playing on your phone. But as a game designer, chess always held a special place for Gage — yet he could never get into it, despite multiple attempts over the years. “Every time that I actually start [to learn chess] it’s such a miserable experience,” he says. “I never liked playing chess, but I did like the idea of chess.”
Really Bad Chess was built using a preexisting AI originally programmed in the 1960s, which Gage purchased for around $25 in the asset store for the Unity game engine. It’s a far cry from the ultra-advanced AlphaGo, the Google-backed AI that defeated world champion Go player Lee Se-dol earlier this year. The AI in Really Bad Chess doesn’t learn as you play against it, and it doesn’t have an extensive internal database of chess strategies to draw from. Instead, it simply reacts to what’s on the board — which turns out to be a perfect fit for a game where the board is different every time. “In some ways it’s actually required that this AI is very old,” says Gage.
The name Really Bad Chess, meanwhile, has multiple meanings. It was originally suggested as a joke, but as Gage continued to work on his idea, it became more and more apt. For one thing, it’s a game designed in large part for people who are really bad at chess, serving as an entry point that allows them to better appreciate the game. But Really Bad Chess is also a game that might not sit well with purists. “If you look at this game and you try to appreciate it in the way that you’d appreciate chess, it’s really bad,” says Gage. “It’s a stupid game. But if you look at it from other contexts it becomes a lot more interesting.”
For me, it’s been a learning tool. While I’m still a low-ranked player, I continue to find myself understanding the game and its strategies better the more I play. I started out randomly moving pieces, but now it feels like I’m doing it with a purpose. The same has been true for Gage. Despite developing his own chess game over the past year, it wasn’t until this past weekend that he played through an entire game of standard chess in its entirety. As luck would have it, he went up against the same friend who inspired the concept for Really Bad Chess, the one whose skill level created a seemingly insurmountable gulf between the two players.
“I beat him,” says Gage.