Three quick Chess-related links

Hipsta Chez
Is there room for more than one chess-based puzzle game in the app store? Of course there is! I just discovered the TouchArcade post about Hipsta Chez (front-page, no less… it was posted over a week ago, I could easily have missed this!) Hipsta Chez is game in the same family tree as Fuzzle, LinkLines, Gems 3D, etc.. only the twist is that the pieces are chess pieces, and move accordingly. I have only played the first game mode, and only one game so far, but it took over an hour, and I am now 18th on the Game Center leaderboard for that game mode. You can check out a promo video, but I think it’s definitely worth picking up. Hats off to Vasiliy Popov, who appears to be the app’s creator/developer.

I am not 100% sure how I came across this blog post by one of the developers of Chess@Home, but if it’s to be believed, a few weekends ago, (at Node Knockout, a node.js 48 hour programming competition), a team of four guys created a distributed chess AI using javascript. They’re calling it Chess@Home. The blog post is pretty fascinating.

The forthcoming Octagon Theory app
I read about The Octagon Theory over at my reliable iphone board game blog on BGG. I’m not 100% sure this is chess-related, because I haven’t played the game yet, but it’s an abstract strategy game for the iphone anyway. One of the more interesting things is that they’re soliciting developers to create AI for the thing. I’m tempted to sign up, as that sort of thing is always fun (and I’ve been meaning to learn some lua) for AGES), but there are so many of my own games to work on… we’ll see.

Game Design, and the Search for Emergent Complexity

Elegance in Game Design
Wikipedia says elegance is “the attribute of being unusually effective and simple”. I think the word “effective” here is very important. Essentially, if a strategic game is our goal, the more strategy we can create with the fewer (and thus more “effective”) rules, the more elegant the game design. Obviously, fewer rules equals a simpler design. Thus a simple game with complex strategy is elegant.

When I say a video game is elegant, (or board game, or a piece of art, or music), I actually mean it is deceptively complex. It may seem simple, either through simple rules, or simplicity of design, but through the interactions of those, it turns out to have some hidden complexity. For example, the rules for chess are fairly simple, a child can learn them, but the strategy that emerges from these rules is incredibly complex and there have been literally hundreds of books written about it.

When I play board games or video games, I have always appreciated this simplicity that leads to complexity. So far, even without necessarily thinking about these concepts explicitly, I have also attempted to incorporate elegance into my own game designs.

Emergent Complexity vs Rules Complexity
There is a whole camp of board games that doesn’t even attempt simplicity. If you’ve played a lot of board games, you probably know what I mean, rule books that are 20 pages long are not all that uncommon. I would generally have called them ‘ameritrash’ before today, (although the term is stupid for many reasons, not the least of which is that not all games with that monkier come from america) but then I read the board game geek page on ameritrash, and realized that I’ve been thinking of that term slightly differently from its commonly accepted use. The wiki page emphasizes the importance of theme in these games, and luck. It’s probably the luck I have a problem with, though that is not in opposition to simplicity and emergent complexity.

Anyway, let it suffice to say that there are a whole crap ton of games out there with what I’ll call now ‘rules complexity’, by which I mean that the game is complex, but that complexity comes more from complicated rules than elegance of design.

360iDev Game Jam
This last week I had the pleasure of attending the 360iDev Game Jam, where I designed and spent approximately eleven hours creating an iPad game I call ColorWheel. I had a simple design, one that I do hope will turn out to allow for some complex strategy when it’s all said and done. In case you haven’t visited the site yet, here is the description I wrote for the game:

Essentially, this is a two-player game, so you play on one side or the other. On your side are six fairly large buttons, one for each color. The colors that are situated across from one another are opposites (in the standard color wheel, google for “color wheel” if you don’t know what I mean), and they cancel each other out when they contact. You press a button, to select a color, and then touch in any of the six rows to “send” a piece down that row. The gameboard is only 6×6, so it’ll fill up pretty fast. Right now I’m thinking two game modes, both limited to 100 moves, or “sends” of pieces across the board. Mode 1 will be “real time”, where you are basically sending blocks as fast as you can to out-race/color match your opponent. Mode 2 will be “turn based”, where you make a move, then your opponent makes a move. When the 100 moves are over, whichever side has the least pieces on it is the victor’s.

I actually think the jury is still out on whether this game will have emergent complexity. There are a lot of choices at any given time (well, 36, I guess–maybe that’s not so many), but the problem as I see it is that for every move you make, your opponent has exactly one move that will counter it. The game, especially in a turn-by-turn mode, could easily stalemate. I haven’t really thought of a good “fix” for that problem… then again, it was made in a night.

iCade Review / Thoughts

I got my iCade last weekend, and am extremely pleased with its design and functionality so far.


  • Aesthetics: Let’s face it, I wanted this in large part so that I could have a super-sweet looking iPad stand. This delivered in spades. I had a game party on Monday, and everyone commented on it. People couldn’t keep their hands off my joystick!
  • Ease-of-use: After one minor assembly SNAFU (I tightened a screw too hard, and cracked the plastic in a place that — so far — hasn’t had any repercussions), the iCade was super easy to set up and get running. There are really nice instructions for turning on bluetooth and pairing the iCade on the bottom of the “lid” that doubles as the top of the box. So you can’t really loose ’em!
  • Design: Do I acknowledge that it is dumb to play any games on the iCade in landscape mode? Yes. Am I glad they designed a slot/tray so it would be easy to do? HELL YES. Would I have preferred to plug the iCade in and have it charge my iPad while I’m using it? Yes. Was it “good enough” that they included a sweet little hole so you can run a cable up through the back and charge with your existing hardware? Yeah. (Would I have paid more for built-in charging? Probably not.)


  • Bluetooth: Perhaps the most annoying thing about the iCade is that it pretends to be a bluetooth keyboard. This means that, when you’ve got it paired, if you bring up a text dialog in ANY application, the iPad thinks you have a connected keyboard, and doesn’t give you a software keyboard. It’s possible there is a setting or something to disable this helpful lack of functionality, but I haven’t found it yet if there is. This is extremely annoying, as a LOT of apps require text-input at some point, and of course web-browsing is neigh-impossible. Most notably, searching the app store and finding additional apps that support the iCade, while the iCade is paired, is an impossibility.
  • The Atari App UI: While not a beef with the hardware per-say, the Atari app could really use some help when it comes to user-interface. For whatever reason, there is really no on-screen help when you are using the iCade in the Atari app. It mostly “just works”, but you do need to refer to the included sheet of controls for specific games. (There are 99 of them, after all, you can hardly be expected to remember which ones use which buttons!)
  • The Atari App Screen Real Estate: The Atari games I’ve played so far generally take up a little over half of the iPad’s screen real estate. The other half of the screen was used for the on-screen controls, (which handily disappear when you start using the iCade). Unfortunately, when that happens, the game-portion of the screen doesn’t expand to take up the rest of the iPad! So you end up playing the games on about half of the iPad. This is a terrible waste of space, and just feels wrong. I have some hope for this, as I’ll mention below…

So, given that I only just got my iCade, of course it is revealed today that Atari is working on an arcade joystick of its own. (I read this first at TouchArcade, although it was also widely reported elsewhere.)

One of the most interesting things about this announcement to me is the included image (lifted from the announcement link at the time of this writing). Notably, the image differs from the one that Touch Arcade (presumably) lifted from the site earlier today in the following ways:

  • The “Available soon!” text is now followed by logos for Target, ToysRus, and Walmart. This could mean a lot of things, but to me it means: a) these will be highly visible to the public, and widely available and b) there have been lots of deals already made behind the scenes, which could mean that “soon” really does mean soon.
  • The “Made for iPad” logo sends some serious credibility to this image, it’s lifted straight from Apple’s marketing materials, so unless there is funny-business going on here, this is officially licensed Apple Hardware. Is Apple finally beginning to sanction gaming peripherals? I sure hope so, and would absolutely love to see more like this in the marketplace.
  • To the right of the “Made for iPad” logo is some text that reads: “The first Atari controller for the iPad using the 30-pin connector, as it was meant to be.” This has a couple of possible negative implications: a) that (unless there is something clever going on that we can’t see in the hardware) this joystick will only function in portrait mode, and b) that it’s possible Atari could opt to phase-out support for the iCade in favor of their own hardware. I really hope the latter isn’t true, but who knows. I don’t know the extent of their partnership with ThinkGeek.

One observation based on the image that was also possible earlier today: In the screenshot, the game (which appears to be Centipede, although it’s lacking some visual elements, so is obviously doctored) takes up the full real-estate of the screen. This gives me hope that the Atari app could possibly learn to re-size when a joystick is present. I hope that’s true, as it would be sweet.

Almost a year ago, I wrote about iPhone control pads. It’s interesting to me that of those I covered, only one (AFAIK) has really seen a commercial release, and it’s definitely not licensed Apple hardware. The iPad has not been around all that long, yet we have at least two commercial products vying for attention, one of which claims to be official. iOS gaming has come a long way, baby.