The ancient game of chess has appeared on almost every electronic device with a screen, and the iPhone is no exception. There are several chess games on the App Store, but Versus Chess is the first to deliver online play. This game’s online functionality makes it easy to find games against real human opponents. However, it lacks many basic features we’ve come to expect from commercial chess applications, and it’s too expensive, considering how limited it is.
Versus Chess is purely an online experience, even if you’re playing against one of the game’s AI bots; if you’re not connected to the internet, you can’t play, period, which could ruin the experience for iPod Touch players or those in remote areas. There are two ways to get into a game: “Instant Match” and “Find Opponent.” The first option will try to find you a suitable opponent and drop you right into a game, while the second allows you to choose your opponent.
When you first venture online, you are assigned a rating of 1200, and as you win, lose or draw games against human opponents, your rating is adjusted accordingly. The interface is clean and functional: human and bots are listed by name and rating, and your record against them appears if the two of you have played before. We had little trouble finding a game most hours of the day, although it was rare to see more than one or two human players waiting for a game at any given time.
We also noted that the bots were relatively challenging–to the point that a true novice might have trouble finding a suitable opponent. The bots are advertised as having “CXR” ratings around 1000, but they seem to play closer to a 1100 or 1200 ELO rating (the international standard for measuring chess skill), meaning that they play like moderately skilled amateurs. The bots are a welcome addition, but their relatively narrow difficulty range makes them seem somewhat prefunctory.
Every game in Versus Chess is played on a clock, as in a game of speed chess. The game clock is a numberless status bar, without any reference to the actual number of minutes and seconds remaining; this display does the job, but it may turn off players used to dealing with a real clock. Each player has approximately 7 minutes to complete all of his or her moves, or they lose the game. In addition, a player cannot take more than a minute for any given move without forfeiting–a harsh but effective solution for dealing with disconnected games. Unfortunately, these settings are not adjustable, which will be a deal-killer for any player who does not like playing speed chess on a short clock. On a few occasions, we found a good, competitive game spoiled by a race to beat the clock.
Clock customization is just one of many options conspicuously absent in Versus Chess. For instance, your personal appearance is limited to your name. There is no way to see your performance history, your win/loss record, or saved notations of your games. You can’t communicate with your opponent at all, including to ask for a draw or a rematch. While the built-in 2D board looks fine, having some control over the its appearance would be a nice addition. The touch interface does require some precision, as there’s no way to undo a mistaken piece placement.
Some of Versus Chess’s omissions may have been planned in the name of simplicity–but they make the final product a little too skimpy for our taste. There is certainly value to be had in playing human opponents in real time, but you will be paying a large premium for it. If you are looking for a fully-featured chess experience, there are better options available.