How Chess Heroes Teaches Chess
LET'S TALK ABOUT CHESS!
To start with, we think there are two types of chess cultures: tournament chess and casual chess.
Tournament chess requires a heavy investment of time and practice. Players memorize openings and patterns, study famous games, and play in high-pressure environments, with every turn counted by a clock.
There is an amazing, vibrant community of dedicated tournament chess players, and tons of resources for people moving in that direction.
Would they enjoy Chess Heroes? We think so! But we're really aiming at another kind of chess player altogether.
Chess Heroes is about chess for normal folks: people who set up a chess board, plan a few moves ahead, move some pieces around, and just have fun.
We are taking this approach because we are game designers, first and foremost, who create products that people enjoy playing. Games, with their constant feedback and player progression models, are great at teaching systems, whether it’s the advance of civilization or a candy-crushing puzzle. Put that together with the rules of chess, and that presents a unique opportunity to bring it all together.
In other words, we are using modern game design techniques to teach something very old, but still very, very good.
CHESS IS BEAUTIFULLY DESIGNED
In my mind, three things distinguish chess from many modern games:
- No randomness (such as dice rolls)
- No hidden information (such as cards)
- No information to keep track of (such as points)
It also has very few “special rules” for pieces, making it “lightweight” from a rules perspective.
With all of these supposed limitations, the game has persevered for ages... though it has changed a few times over the centuries. I believe this has to do with human beings and our passion for patterns. If you just randomly place pieces on a chess board, the mind immediately starts scanning for attack opportunities and weak defenses. (human beings are pretty neat that way)
That’s one reason why I believe chess is a beautiful game: complex patterns emerge from the basic movement profiles of the pieces. Even at rest, there’s something compelling about it.
And when it’s in motion, when you observe a player’s actions over the course of the game, something else emerges: a persona. The person you’re playing could seem weak, scatterbrained, strong, smart, oblivious, sneaky, cunning, and more… all in the same game! It’s truly a stage for dramatic performance of the self.
Incredibly, I know this is just scratching the surface. The people who play tournament chess love to tell me that! But Chess Heroes is not designed to create tournament chess players. It’s designed to get more people playing chess!
So how do we do that?
A KING WITH NO ARMY
We begin with a King who wakes up alone, in the middle of an empty courtyard, and is totally clueless as to why.
This sets up the story behind our campaign, in which the player helps the King get his pieces back.
The campaign arc lets us introduce each piece on its own, allowing players to learn about the game in incremental stages. It also provides a natural sense of progression as the player moves the King further along the map, slowly revealing the rather unexpected story behind the army’s disappearance.
ONE PIECE AT A TIME
Our approach is grounded in three modern game design techniques:
- Use a narrative to keep people’s attention.
- Use a variety of bite-sized challenges to keep people engaged.
- Rate players on their performance using a three-tier system (e.g. gold, silver, bronze). Let players move forward by reaching the lowest tier, but give them rewards for scoring higher.
If you search for “teaching chess to kids” on Google, you’ll find a lot of material that suggests focusing on individual pieces first. There are even resources on creating mini games that kids might enjoy!
So we believe we have the right idea: keep it simple, make it fun, make it educational, and make them want to come back.
As the King moves forward, he encounters Challenges that the player must help him overcome. Beating these Challenges is crucial to helping him get his pieces back. This is also the core content we started this Kickstarter for, so that we can take the time that’s necessary to test it thoroughly before releasing it to the world.
During development of the prototype, we established a number of “design pillars” that we rely on to guide us. To check if a Challenge meets our criteria, it must “rest on” most of those pillars to be considered in spec. Some of those pillars include:
- Pieces always move according to the rules
- Teach one new concept at a time
- Provide opportunity to use previously learned concepts
- Use well-designed achievement levels to make it fun for players to challenge themselves
- Ensure that there are multiple, viable strategies when possible
- Creating highly visible opening opportunities that will trap the player if taken (teaching the concept of predicting the opponent’s move)
We are also creating a “toolbox” of win conditions (such as “capture all of the opponent’s pawns”) and alternative tiles (like “Pits” that can be jumped over, but not landed on) that add much-needed variety to the game, creating a sense of discovery with every new Challenge.
SOMETIMES, WE DO IT DIFFERENTLY!
We get into a lot of discussions with passionate chess fans and teachers, and sometimes there is a difference of opinion. I’d like to talk about one examples that might help illustrate our approach, which, if boiled down to a sentence, is that “fun comes first."
EXAMPLE: HOW WE HANDLE STALEMATE
In chess, if a player is not in check, but also has no legal moves, that is called Stalemate. It is considered a draw, neither a win or a loss.
In Chess Heroes Challenges and Puzzle Battles, if the player maneuvers the enemy into a position where it has no legal moves, then that is a victory (albeit of the lowest tier). (when playing standard chess, normal rules apply)
This is because novice players feel like they have trapped and outsmarted the computer opponent… a good feeling for a novice! So when they see the Stalemate screen come up, they are deflated and discouraged. This works against our goals of keeping them engaged and learning more.
We do want them to master the concept, so we entice them to try it again by offering in-game rewards for better performance. But if we lose them as a player, we’ve failed.
So for all of you wonderful chess fans raising this concern: thank you for sharing it with us. I hope this explains our approach well.
(You also might be curious to know that Stalemate has, at various times through history, been considered a victory! There are even people in the chess world who argue it should no longer be a draw. This isn’t to say we’re "right;" more like chess rules are not written in stone.)
CHECK US OUT SOMETIME!
We hope this has gotten you more interested in Chess Heroes! If you haven’t tried our prototype yet, you can find a link down below. If you haven’t backed us already, please do so if you can. And please share our campaign on Facebook and Twitter. Thank you!