While we can’t say that we’ve been anxiously waiting for iPod versions of chess or backgammon to play, we have to give Gameloft credit where credit is due: by iPod game standards, the company’s new Chess & Backgammon Classics ($5) is a legitimately good attempt to bring both titles into a pocket-sized format. Thanks to a nicely designed graphics engine, fine music, and some surprising options, Chess & Backgammon Classics offers more than might have been expected from pocket-sized renditions of its titles, though it’s not as flashy or frill-loaded as some of the best table game remakes we’ve been playing for years. [Updated July 23, 2008: We have added a new section to this February 6, 2008 review with information on the iPhone/iPod touch version of Chess & Backgammon Classics, as well as updated rating information. Please see the end of this review for the new details.]
Unlike past chess-alikes such as Battle Chess and Archon, Gameloft’s presentation of the 600-year-old chess game is almost completely straightforward: this is a simple one- or two-player game of strategy, with no added action, special rule, or dynamic graphical flourish. You’re presented with a standard board, two control options (scrolling or 8-direction tapping), and nine skill levels ranging from “Monkey” to “Master.” The “beginner” level is actually number four out of nine, and not especially difficult for someone who has played a few games of chess, but you can go easier or much harder if you want, and also limit the computer’s thinking time to 1 second, 5 seconds, or infinite to further expand or contract its strategic options. Gameloft also includes a tutorial system, a two-player hand-off mode, the ability to watch 22 classic chess games, and a 10-challenge Quiz mode which isn’t especially compelling, presenting you with the choice of moves to satisfy simple puzzles.
Backgammon, a 250-year old two-player dice rolling and checker-moving board game, benefits here from a little extra gameplay spice.
In addition to “Quick Game,” tutorial, and “2-Player Hotseat” modes, it includes two progressive tournament modes—“Main Tournament” and “Side Events”—where you actually need to earn money in your choice of three side events before entering one of three difficulty levels of tournament play. Unlike the chess half of the title, which is more of a no-stakes single game experience, backgammon’s tournament modes have the ability to keep you playing in order to achieve performance objectives, assuming that you need the incentive. On the flip side, Gameloft’s tutorial doesn’t do a great job of actually explaining backgammon to novices, so first-time players may never find themselves immersed enough to continue playing.
Play modes aside, the most significant addition to both Chess Classics and Backgammon Classics is Gameloft’s three-dimensional graphics engine, which offers a surprising amount of user viewing customization. First, each game presents its board from a standard forced 3-D perspective, providing you with the option to instead view it from a traditional overhead 2-D vantage point if you prefer. But if you stick to 3-D, you’re actually able to rotate the board to your choice of angles on a static plane—it can’t be tilted—and you’ll see major differences depending on which of many themed skins you pick for the board, its pieces, and the background.
Chess gets “classic wood,” “mechanical,” “Bauhaus,” “glass,” “marble,” “metal” and “tribal” boards, while Backgammon has “classic wood,” “magnetic,” “vintage,” “mechano,” “elegant leather” and “fancy leather” options.
These aren’t just color swaps; glass pieces look glassy and wood ones look wooden, with Bauhaus chess pieces having completely different shapes from the tribal ones. To render all of these pieces differently, and more or less properly, in 3-D takes a lot more work than Apple’s similar reskinning options in the iPod card game Klondike—we’re impressed that Gameloft bothered to take the time to do this. There’s also nice, gentle accompanying music that plays during each of the games if you don’t want to listen to your own iPod tracks while you’re strategizing.
On one hand, Gameloft’s graphics engine alone does more with these titles than was strictly necessary to win over hard core chess or backgammon fans, and small additional touches—such as the ability to spin the Click Wheel to shake the dice cup in backgammon, and the optional presence of tiny opening move markers in chess—make both games a little more interesting than they might have been in a less thoughtfully developed title. But to be totally honest, table games such as chess have been remade more or less every year for the past 25, and more than occasionally presented with a vitality or dynamic spin that’s not present here. Gameloft’s boards may rotate occasionally at your will, but they don’t turn, zoom, or pan to highlight big moves, and there’s nothing here save tutorials to win over a new generation of players. We’ve had more fun playing both games on other platforms; this presentation is better than textbook, but other than its skinnability, not more compelling.
Chess & Backgammon Classics lives up to its name: Gameloft’s renditions of both chess and backgammon are, in fact, true to the classic table games, and thanks to nice graphics, sounds, and computer opponents, you can enjoy both titles as they were originally meant to be experienced—perhaps a little better.