Chess Battle

Chess Battle is our take on fast chess for mobile devices!

Chess Battle started being developed by Mgaia Studio, a brazilian indie game company, in 2015.

The game can be found now in thoughts and prayers. 



this game started being developed around 2015, i think, because we saw that in the AppStore and Play Store there was a niche for chess-like games. games like "MicRogue", which have chess-like characters movements, or "Really Bad Chess", which was a huge success back in the days, were some of our inspirations to try a chess-like game of our own.

but then, the company had to put effort in different projects, putting this project on hold or virtually being cancelled.


-game designer
-2d artist + animations + vfx
-made in Unity
-inbuilt level tools


i worked as the game designer and artist. i also made the animations and visual effects for many elements in the game.

the original art concepts and additional art were made by mr. boleto.

_process: research

here i'll talk about how we came up with the design and the research, and share some reflections behind it.

this project started with the goal of making a chess-like game combined with a turn based tactics game - e.g. final fantasy tactics, xcom, civilization. during that time the "MicRogue" was our main reference. we made different prototypes trying to combine chess with rogue-like, tactics-like, stealth-like. and some of the ideas could have had a future, but they were a little slow for what we wanted.

through the initial prototypes, some important findings came along. at first glance, it may look easy to combine chess with turn based tactics. both are turn based, they have grids where the pieces occupy spaces, and thematically too, it is very suggestible that these two genres can merge. chess has a horse piece that could be a paladin, or a bishop that could be a priest, and so forth. easy merge, right? but not really.

the problem of trying to combine tactics games with chess is that moving on a tactics board and attacking are two different things. while in chess to move and to attack is the same.

think about this: when you want to take the enemy position in the xcom series with a melee character, first: the character moves to the neighboring house to the enemy position. second: it performs the attack using action points. third: if it hits (probably not), the damage happens, and if it is enough damage it destroys the enemy piece. fourth: depending on how the action points constitute moving and attacking, it can either move again and move to the defeated enemy position or wait for the next turn to do so.

in chess if you want to take an enemy position, well, you just need to move the piece there. whereas the piece can do this. there are no life points, hit chance, or any extra system besides how the pieces move. this simplicity in the move/attack is what creates the depth of chess. and precisely because to move is to attack, in chess every piece casts an influential zone over its possible next move. thereby creating a territory by the assemblage on all the influential zones of all the pieces. if you want to get philosophical on this topic/matter, read: "The Smooth and the Striated" chapter. 

so, what happens if we try to combine both movements? does the pawn piece attacks another piece, hit it one time, and then go back to the initial position? like bouncing? ok. but what if it was the bishop piece that moved all the board? would it bounce back to the initial position or the neighbor possible position? or an even worse case: the knight piece. would it fall back to its initial position, making it virtually impossible to be hit back? or would it fall in an arbitrary - if possible -  neighbor position, making it impossible for the knight to hit again?

of course, these different problems is only relevant if you want to combine the most of the chess genre with a similar looking genre. the MicRogue broke the move and attack from the chess, in such a way that you needed to find a way to move through the level. and another very recent, but good example of combining chess with rogue like games is "Pawnbarian". it is not a coincidence that both games use single player characters, because if you are interested in just one aspect of chess, like the displacement of the pieces, both references can satisfy your chess needs. i would say that even the puzzle situations in might be enough for you. but if it is another aspect you like, for instance: how one can position all the pieces together to enforce specific answers from the opponent, or in other words, how one can shape the territory of the board, then the game we made here is what you are looking for.


_process: design

knowing that it would be in the territory aspect that we would focus our design, we defined our mobile constraints, usability for mobile and fast gameplay loop.

hence, a smaller board: besides the pawn pieces, we have just one unity of each piece. thereby removing 3 columns, and 2 rows on the middle of the board, making it faster for the players to engage in combat against each other.

in addition to the smaller board, we put a time limit for the matches. limited rounds and rounds with limited time. this reinforces the players to engage in combat. and also oblige them to play faster, with less time to think many turns in advance. however with the smaller board, the players have less objects to pay attention to.

now. how do we address this territory matter?

first, we make the turns to be simultaneous. we break a turn into two phases: command phase - when players choose the piece and their movement. and action phase - where the previous selected command will happen.
this is very important. not only does it bring some freshness to chess like "Really Bad Chess", but it tackles the territory permanence directly.

how? because the move dynamics in chess work like this: when the game starts, the territory is cast one house further from the pawn pieces. as the pieces move on the board, eventually it will open space for more pieces, for instance: the bishop piece to make a move. this bishop piece could potentially attack all the houses diagonally to the house where the bishop piece was first found. any opponent's piece that moves to a house that the bishop can reach, is under attack. the strength of the casted zone is proportionally to how many pieces are needed to make sure that the player can hold a specific house.

that translates to: if the opponent aims to capture a piece of yours, then they must evaluate: first- if that piece is under the attacking range of another pieces of the opponent. second- if the piece is in attacking range, is the trade then worth the value of the piece -e.g. a bishop is less valuable than the queen, because the queen has more movement flexibility. third- if this trade is worth it, in order to destabilize the opponent's territory in another place on the board.

when the turn is simultaneous both players make their move in a board on a previous configuration of the moving phase. therefore the board/match analysis is greatly impacted, because when a player tries to capture a piece, this piece won't necessarily be there anymore. not only is your chess skill measured by how many turns in advance you can predict, now there is a short term gamble factor. therefore the territory composed by each piece will, for a brief moment, have its borders suspended.

short but obvious: our approach removes the chess winning disparity between white and blacks pieces. white pieces have a slightly bigger winning percentage. as white go first black pieces are likely to reply to white moves, instead of setting the pace. 



this simultaneity creates three problems right away: 1. what happens when two pieces land on the same house? and 2. what happens if a player decides to always move the same piece? 3. there is no checkmate in our game.

the first problem is solved using a known chess knowledge, the material value of a piece. in chess the order of the most valuable piece to the less valuable is: the queen, then the rook, then the bishop and knight, and finally the pawn. these values helps the player to evaluate how to make an exchange, and are tied to pieces. the value is relative, of course, and depends on the configuration of the board. in our game we use this metric, not only to give score for each piece captured, but also to evaluate when two pieces fall in the same house. the most valuable survive, and if they have the same value, both are destroyed.

as simultaneous moves create a dynamic where, if a player chooses to always move the same piece, it can become virtually impossible to catch this piece, as it is always moving. the second problem is solved after a piece is moved, by the piece exhausting itself, and therefore needing one full turn to pass, to be able to move again.

the third problem is solved in three ways. in traditional chess there is no capture of the king. the opponent's king must be put in the position of checkmate to lose the game. checkmate means the king must be under attack - or under the cast zone of another enemy piece - and whatever move the king makes, it will still be under attack. in our version, this is very unlikely to happen, so, the first way to solve this is: you must capture the king. the second way is: the king loses to all pieces if it falls in the same house together with another piece. the third way of winning is: we use the value of the pieces to make a score. when the rounds come to zero, if no kings were captured, whoever got more points wins. this of course permits the players to draw matches, but drawing matches is less likely than letting virtually two kings pieces moving eternally on the board. and the game having different ways to end, it also contributes to have fast matches for mobiles.  


we saw that it would be exactly in this simultaneity and territory aspect that we could create a funnier chess variation, through the design different mechanics for different classes in our game.

first, it is important to understand that a balanced game is very hard to make and also very rare to find. chess itself is not balanced. even though it provides both players with exactly the same pieces and the same amount of pieces. but the fact that one player goes first is enough to create a small advantage.

so, it wasn't necessary for our design to have a strong balance, but to be fun and to make sense with the other underlying dynamics of the game.

i'll cover two classes that we design here:


the first class would be the human class. it was our vanilla version with the addition of a hold mechanic.
the hold mechanic allows the player to skip the turn without any penalties. therefore allowing the opponent to take initiative to react it. in traditional chess, now and then, the player finds itself in a position where any move would be a bad move. this situation also happens in our game, and sometimes it is better to wait see what the opponent will do.

this hold idea came from a dynamic that emerged from our own playtest. as mentioned, now and then, the players find themselves in a situation where not making a move is the best option. and because we have the time limit in the rounds, when the timer reaches zero and if you haven't made a move, your turn is skipped. therefore, sometimes it was better just to wait for the turn to finish than choosing a move.

then, if you don't make a movement in the action phase, besides not moving the piece, you also get a punishment. we didn't set on what the best punishment would be though. maybe score punishment, maybe losing another action round, maybe three strike policy. we would need more playtests to find a suitable punishment.

anyway, this make room for the vanilla class to have its own mechanic, a skip button that can be used strategically.


the second class was the undead class.

this class would have a passive ability. remember the matter about territory? this class would be designed around it. what we made was that when you move a piece and it goes into sleep mode, the piece also becomes ethereal. when the piece is on the ethereal state, it is not able to be captured, but it also loses the possibility of being used as protection for other pieces behind it. thematically, the territory is also half alive. the ethereal piece does occupy a place, but does not cast its influence. this allows for a very aggressive gameplay. the undead piece can't move to protect another one of its own pieces, and it can open room for better pieces to attack very fast.

this mechanics is complicated to balance, that's true, and therefore our last implementation was that just the pawn that could go into ethereal mode. however, my notes say that the best balance for it would be that the piece would only become ethereal when it didn't capture any other pieces.

these two classes have different play strategies, one allows for a more defensive gameplay, the other for a totally aggressive one.



i think there was a lot of learning in reworking a game like chess, - game design wise. to see the underlying dynamics that are not necessarily visible nor described by the rules of the game is hard task.

if you think about other games you will easily find a lot of similarities with chess. a lot of civilization franchise use the same notions of territory - on purpose or not - found in chess. i heard from a good professor of mine, that chess is the most violent game of all. while it doesn't hold any graphic violence, you learn to see your pieces only as resources. human resources. a good game that came out not long ago, where the core mechanics are similar to chess, is "Darkest Dungeon". the only infinite material in darkest dungeon is the endless characters that come to die in a very punitive game.

a lot of other crafts reinterpret great and famous works. maybe we should try to do design, re design, and invert on top of classics as well.

thank you for reading :)

marcel barboza

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