Valar Gūrēñis: Chess & Oculus VR

By Josh Brown 26 Jul 2017 0

Chess has always eluded me as a game. Knowing full-well it's essentially the precursor to every strategy game in existence, I did take an interest during my final years of Primary School. Sadly, I realised that its rules just weren't planning on sticking around in my skull long enough for me to be any good at it.

I'd enlisted a couple of classroom acquaintances to show me the ropes. The teachers would rarely let me tutor kids in the fine-art of say, Yu-Gi-Oh or Magic during break time, but these two had a free pass to play with an out-of-place Simpsons Chessboard whenever lessons weren't in full swing. I was regarded as the best Yu-Gi-Oh player in a school that had wholly embraced the popular card game, so why couldn't I apply the lessons learned to one of the world's oldest strategy game? It also meant that I'd have a good enough reason to use my aunt's beautiful glass chess set.

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It didn't last long, however... Whether down to their inability to teach well or my attention span getting the better of me (again), even the idea of Marge murdering Homer couldn't hold me long enough to memorise how each piece should move across the board. I left primary school adamant on taking my card-game legacy with me; while chess was just an afterthought.

Then I found out about VR-title Dungeon Chess. With similar card games focusing on virtual monsters popping out of a playing field and the first Harry Potter movie showing me how amazing Wizard Chess could be, the prospect of achieving similar results through today's VR achievements made me think. Coupled with a sharp sale on the Oculus Rift hardware and its intuitive Touch controllers, I couldn't help but buy into the teething tech.  I thought that maybe this could be how I finally learn to play - sat on a virtual chair, in a room adorned with classic fantasy maps with pieces that attack each other with magic and the graceful kick of a flaming horse.

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It wasn't exactly the Wizard Chess I was hoping for - but leaning in to get a closer look felt cool nonetheless. Tilting my neck ever so slightly to go through each of the game's options, I came to a stark realisation. Dungeon Chess couldn't teach me how to play chess at all. There was no tutorial. But with two 'Coming Soon' tabs making me think a training mode might arrive in the future, I came across my potential saving grace - move history. My idea was that if I jumped into a 'Difficulty 1' AI game and mimicked my opponent’s moves; I'd slowly learn how each unit acts and, eventually, play my own game.

Maybe I read too much into the word 'Dungeon' here, but Dungeon Chess itself seems to merely relate to the style of the pieces on the board rather than the environment itself. Spread across the white and black square were sword-wielding foot soldiers, a beast hunched over with a big axe, the aforementioned flaming horse and a King who already seemed dead, floating above the rest with a jagged claymore that would probably split a man in two. They certainly seemed like something you'd see in your typical RPG dungeon, but the VR world I'd dropped into was little more than the Yawning Portal tavern of D&D fame.

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Half-remembered starting moves left me wide-open to lose many units, but seeing a pawn turn to cut down a horse gave me encouragement to keep pressing on. To learn how each unit would deliver swift justice as I was marched my army to an early grave. Pawns slashed at each other, another flaming-horse Knight kicked my Queen into oblivion and my King just inched across the board in every direction while the opposing Queen - a floating eyeball with many flailing appendages - caught me off-guard by constantly traversing most of the board in a single move. Now I know why it's considered the strongest unit in the game. I also now know why Queen Elizabeth keeps touring the world at the ripe old age of 95. May the best queen win, Liz.

It was relatively clear from the get-go that I was going to have a hard time with this whole process. Dungeon Chess wasn't going to show me the ropes and let me win like a father would his 4-year old kid. I had to earn my stripes. I brought a chair into the 'play area', lined it up to the position of the in-game seating arrangement and spent a couple of minutes pressing buttons with my index finger to calibrate a seating position relative to my in-game counterpart. I was now sat down, leaning forward and staring at my foe ready to at least topple the first difficulty level. Maybe.

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My enemy was a bizarre levitating head that seemed to be constantly questioning my every action with a permanently raised eyebrow. But I wouldn't let it intimidate me. Heck, I actually wanted it to berate me; to spur me into wanting to kick its ass both physically and mentally.  I tried again, and again as I fell for the same old traps.

But I was getting there. By around game 6 I was making it into what I'd personally call 'Late game'. The point where I was down to 2-3 pieces while my opponent had maybe 4-5. Not the best situation, but it boiled down to me chasing the opposing King around the board with both my own and my last surviving Rook (that eyeball became my best friend). Eventually, I thought I had it trapped and I thought I was just one step away from victory. If I could move my Rook and bait the King into dealing with the issue, I could tackle it head-on with my King's blazing hammer of doom. It didn't work.

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The next game, I lost my Bishop in two moves flat. Thinking it to be a rookie mistake, my confidence was shot. I knew I needed as many high-ranking units as possible to keep things going, and losing one so soon wasn't going to cut it. I hit the reset button yet again.

After another game, 'Victory' finally flew onto the screen, with fireworks lightly adoring my virtual environment. I'd won! And with a surprising amount of units still left on the board. It wasn't a particularly clean victory, but I'd achieved it with the strategy that got me close just a few games before. I'd essentially snookered the opponent with Pawns, sacrificing my front-line infantry to deal with theirs, while my King, who would usually be cowering behind the rest, dove head-first into battle to play mind games with the other. Their remaining Rook didn't know what to do; but mine did. It's hardly an achievement, but using Dungeon Chess as an aid to finally learn the basics of a game so essentially to western strategy gaming. Admittedly, any other chess video game could have done the same; but when you're given the opportunity to learn something old in something very new, it's an offer that's hard to pass up.

While It would have been nice for some bearded magician to teleport in and show me the ropes, I feel like figuring it out for myself was part of why I kept pushing for the goal. How many times have you skipped a tutorial in a video game? We've all done it. But here, it's a skill relevant to a game spanning over a thousand years old. Dungeon Chess has reassured me that VR doesn't have to be about high-action experiences and nausea-inducing events. They can be relaxing, quiet and thought-provoking.

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