How do you market a new PC chess program? Chess is chess, and today's programs are all powerful enough to defeat anyone below the level of grandmaster, so the only means by which a publisher can differentiate a new chess offering is in the bells and whistles. While others try to provide every feature imaginable for every level of player, Hoyle Majestic Chess focuses on those new to the game, and it features a fun and innovative way to learn how to play chess.
There are certain features that you expect in any modern chess program, such as a strong but adjustable AI, a wide variety of 3D chess boards and pieces, online play, and some type of teaching tutorial. Majestic Chess delivers, to various degrees, on all of these. You can play on top-down 2D boards, fully 3D boards, and fixed-perspective boards (2.5D). You choose from a variety of piece sets, with around eight selections per board style; while not the plethora of choices some programs offer, all of the pieces offered here are actually usable (many fanciful offerings in other chess games are good for screenshots but little else). The 3D boards are rather unattractive and pixilated, but the fixed-perspective boards provide an attractive 'faux 3D' alternative. The fixed-perspective board options are chosen by selecting 'scenes,' which are environments such as a temple with light flowing in through stained-glass windows, the ruins of a coliseum, or a D&D-style dungeon. Overall, Majestic Chess provides graphics that are pleasing, interesting, and conducive to play.
We've come a long way since the days in which the measure of a chess game was whether the AI could put up a decent fight against a moderately skilled player. As in most PC chess games, the AI in Majestic Chess can be set to levels that will provide a serious challenge to any amateur. Playing levels for the AI are set by selecting one of 24 computer opponents. While this is far fewer AI personalities than offered in other chess games, such as Chessmaster 9000, eight more opponents can be unlocked in the 'adventure' portion of the game. The computer opponents' skill levels range from the total klutz, appropriate for chess neophytes, to virtual masters for the masochistic chess aficionado. You can also create new AI players with the custom personality creation module; however, it is limited in the options available for creating a wide range of AI players that truly feel different in playing style (rather than just playing strength). Also, there's no way to set up an in-game tournament involving you and the AI players.
If you prefer the challenge and unpredictability of a human opponent, you can use Majestic Chess' online mode. When we checked the multiplayer server on a weekend, there were only a few players online; however, the game has only been on store shelves for about two weeks. Online play offers few frills, but the basics (such as chat, setting the game-timer options, challenging a player to a game, and actual gameplay) work as advertised.
Majestic Chess' strengths and weaknesses become obvious once you get past the standard chess play features. It is clearly not targeted at serious players, nor at those who need a chess program for study purposes or tournament preparation. There are no database functions, which are customary in most programs. While other chess programs now come standard with hundreds of annotated historical games, an excellent resource for any player wanting to both improve and study the styles of past masters, only a dozen annotated historic games are included here. You can watch the AI 'thinking' in an optional window, and the natural-language 'advice' function is as good as or better than that in any other chess program, but there's no true analysis mode available. In short, if you're a moderate-to-good player looking for serious study tools, you should be looking elsewhere, such as Fritz 8 (or Chessmaster 9000 if you want a more mass-market package).
So who is Majestic Chess' target audience? The answer becomes clear when you explore the heart of the program, the chess adventure. Majestic Chess is focused on taking the apprentice by the hand and gently and pleasurably introducing him or her to the rules and gameplay of chess. The chess adventure is an innovative chess tutorial in the form of a story-driven adventure game. You are placed on a series of quests, traveling across maps that gradually reveal themselves as you successfully complete each challenge. A trip to a castle may provide a basic tutorial on how certain pieces move. Armed with this knowledge you will be sent on a quest whose success depends on passing a series of tests based on the lessons you've just been given. Complete this quest and you'll be rewarded with chess pieces (which can be added to your "army" and used in later contests), artifacts to aid you in later challenges, and gold. The further you advance in the adventure, the more advanced the tutorials and the subsequent challenges get. While the adventure module appears geared toward kids, this is a great way for anyone to learn to play chess. The tutorials and tests themselves aren't really that different from tutorials you may see in other programs, but the lighthearted and whimsical quest format ties everything together and provides an enjoyable motivator to move to just one more lesson and challenge in order to advance the story. By the time you finish the entire chess adventure, you'll be well grounded in the basics of the game and able to give the lower-level AI players a good run for their money.
Majestic Chess doesn't have 100 different chess boards or Lord of the Rings or Star Wars chess sets. It doesn't offer you a couple of hundred opposing AI personalities. There are no database functions, nor deep analysis modes. But with the chess adventure, Majestic Chess does offer the best way to introduce any kid (or adult who would prefer lessons presented in an unorthodox and enjoyable manner) to the game of chess.