Reviewed: January 26, 2005
Released: December 1, 2004
Back when I was a hopeless grade-school nerd, I fell in love with Chess. The game absolutely fascinated me for both its simple rules and possible complexity. I remember checking books out from the school library, challenging classmates to after-school matches, looking at the board at home and dreaming of being the next Bobby Fischer.
But after awhile I grew tired of studying dusty strategy books and stopped playing regularly. Ever since, I have been the guy who never fails to step on his bishop at the most critical time, costing me the match. Fortunately for the next generation of wannabe grand masters, there is the Learn to Play Chess with Fritz and Chesster series to keep chess training fun and lively. Learn to Play Chess is produced by Viva Media and uses the same chess engines as the top-selling Fritz Chess series.
Learn to Play Chess 2 (Chess in the Black Castle) is the sequel to last year’s award-winning chess tutorial. This title assumes you already know the basic moves, but that’s about all you need to know to get started. This is one of the best children’s chess games I have ever played, and even as a 30-year-old I learned quite a few new moves.
The game uses an entertaining Saturday morning cartoon style to teach what many kids might see as either boring or frustrating chess strategies. As Fritz and his cousin Bianca, you must rescue your beloved chess coach Chesster the Rat who has been kidnapped by the evil King Black.
Along the way, players get a chance to learn the following:
Learn to Play Chess 2 opens with King Black kidnapping Chesster the rat right before the big championship game. Laughing maniacally, King Black announces that if Chesster doesn’t show up to defend his grand master title, then the lord of Blackness becomes the realm’s greatest chess champion by default. Fortunately, Chesster’s star pupils Fritz and Bianca come to the rescue, infiltrating the Black Castle’s deepest dungeons to free their beloved master.
King Black has devised a fiendishly simple way to trap his victims while at the same time travel where he pleases in his citadel. The castle’s elevator tests a person’s “Chess IQ” before letting them travel to the next level. Only the best chess masters have enough knowledge of the game to power the elevator up from the dungeons to the top floor. King Black has even seen to it that the elevator’s controls are out of the reach of poor little Chesster. But since he’s an arrogant animated villain, King Black never suspects Fritz and Bianca will be able to learn enough about chess to escape the castle and foil his fiendish plot.
Did I mention King Black has also left his whacky collection of chess machines around the castle for you to play with? Fritz and Bianca increase their chess IQs by performing drills on these machines, which in turn unlocks more levels of the castle to explore. Chesster is always there to provide straight-to-the-point advice on how to open a game, develop attacks and finish a winner.
The designers came up with quite a few original ideas for the different chess drills. Among King Black’s machines are the check-o-matic, which measures how fast you can put a king in checkmate, and the Enigmatic, a code breaking machine that teaches you how to read chess notations. In one drill, you learn to “fork” two different pieces with your knight, just like you would a juicy piece of meat. Your opponent will only be able to move one piece away, leaving the other to be captured. Another drill features a race between your king and a pawn, testing to see if you can catch that rascally pawn before it reaches the end of the board and becomes a queen. Then there’s “spooky chess,” a game of concentration where all the pieces are covered in ghost shrouds and you need to remember where pieces are positioned.
These drills are well-thought out and challenging. The lessons are well-explained and easy enough for children as young as 8 or 9 to understand. That being said, the timed trials are tough enough to give the high school chess team a run for their money. You even get the pride of posting your best times or scores, hopefully beating King Black’s score. At any time you can exit out of the tutorials and play chess games against the computer, which shows no mercy just because this is a kid’s title. Fortunately, you are allowed to take back moves or ask the computer for advice.
The only drawback to Learn to Play Chess 2 is its reliance on lame arcade games to provide a break from the tutorials. These mini-games, which are all thinly-veiled versions of Atari classics such as Circus or Space Invaders, seem completely unnecessary. I understand giving students a breather, but kids are most likely going to turn off the PC and boot up Legend of Zelda on the Game Cube if they need a time-out.
The game relies on no-frills graphics that remind me of a Rocky and Bullwinkle episode. The figures are all simply drawn and decorated in a bright water-color style. Even the chess pieces resemble a child’s stick drawings. Don’t mistake simple for boring, though. King Black’s castle is delightfully bizarre, as his chess machines all seem to have whirling heads and levers, whistles and flashing lights. The Silly-O-Matic, which teaches you what not to do, sticks its large tongue out when you approach it. Where the graphics really shine is in how lessons are well-illustrated. Important squares and pieces are highlighted, and Chesster clearly shows you where you need to move. For example, when teaching you the “bulls head” opening, a snorting bull appears on the board. You just have to play “connect the dots” by moving your bishops out as the horns, your rooks on the back rank as the nostrils, etc.
With bare minimum system requirements, the game’s animations will run smoothly on even way out-of-date computers.
All the voice acting in Learn to Play Chess is well-done. Chesster has a slight New York accent but still talks like a wise and kindly mentor. Fritz and Bianca are good-intentioned if somewhat cheeky while going through the chess drills. Some of the drills feature King Clever Clogs and King Dimwit, which is always good for some humor as the idiotic King Dimwit muddles his way through a game as Clever Clogs quips, “that last move wasn’t very clever, yet I’ll carry on as I always do.” The star of the show is King Black, who likes to scream “stop touching my Meglo-Matic, you snot-nosed kids!” in a sharp British accent over the castle’s loud speaker.
As I mentioned about the graphics, the verbal lessons are very understandable.
The $30 price may be a little steep for educational software, but Learn to Play Chess 2 is a good buy for young chess-players learning to improve their game. If you want to introduce a child to the game of chess for the first time, it’s best to start with the first Learn to Play Chess. On the other hand, if your kid has played some games and is looking to get better, this game can help them grow quite a bit. Parents who are interested in chess but have little formal training might be surprised on how much there is to learn.
The game seems to offer about 10-12 hours of straight tutorial game play, though you can always go back to some of the drills and try to improve your score. That’s before factoring in the endless numbers of full-length chess games you can play. The box recommends ages 8 and up, but my recommendation is this game is more suited to the 10-12 year-olds. Younger children may not understand all the concepts, and teenagers will probably be put off by the cute style. That really is too bad, because some of the drills would be great for aspiring high school chess champs to try.
My most memorable chess experience was checkmating one of the top jocks who thought he could best me over the chess board as easily as he trounced me on the basketball court. (I remember him overturning the game and chasing me out of the room, but the thrill of victory was worth it.) Learn to Play Chess 2 gives young players all the tools they need to compete in friendly games or aspire to higher levels of greatness. The drills are both simple to understand yet a challenge to actually work through. The story-line is simple but entertaining and the underlying chess engine has all the power that the top chess minds have come to expect from the Fritz name.
If you’re looking for a way to fuel your son’s or daughter’s interest in the game of kings, picking up Learn to Play Chess 2 is a very good move.