Xbox One, PC, Xbox Series X|S
December 5, 2023
Chess – you may have heard of it. Tracing back hundreds and hundreds of years, chess has captured the imaginations of millions of people with its simple yet remarkably complex mechanics. Chessarama is the latest in a long line of games that takes elements of chess and tries to transform them into a new experience, leveraging the rules of this ancient game to make you think differently about it. It promises 8 original puzzle and strategy games, challenges, and unlockables – but does it all add up to a brilliant move, or a blunder?
Chessarama comes to us from Brazilian indie studio Minimol Games, a developer that clearly has an affinity for chess. They’ve created several chess-based puzzle games before this, but Chessarama is their biggest project to date. The bulk of the game lies in its Campaign mode, where you play through four sets of handcrafted puzzles, each focused on a different concept of chess. There are also the Battle modes, which are competitive games based on the corresponding campaign puzzles.
The name ‘Chessarama’ comes from the diorama style that makes up the bulk of the game – each puzzle is presented as its own little self-contained world. It’s a smart decision that really works for this genre, and makes the visuals feel polished and delightful. Tractors roll past to harvest crops, leaves flutter down from unseen trees above, birds chirp on stone doorways – all framing each puzzle on its chessboard-esque setup. These lovingly crafted snapshots make each setup feel like part of a bigger picture, and when you’re staring at a puzzle for a while, you really appreciate the effort that went into it. There’s even a few easter eggs to find along the way.
Unfortunately, the same attention to detail doesn’t apply to the sound design. The music in these puzzles is something you’re going to hear again and again while you work through each of the campaign modes. Chessarama’s tracks feel reminiscent of a lot of royalty-free music found in ads – they’re lacking character, and feel much more like an afterthought than the visual design. While the music isn’t awful, I admittedly found myself muting it after a while in each level as it looped, and it feels like a missed opportunity to elevate the game’s style.
Campaign for my real friends
The four campaign puzzles are the beating heart of this game, with each themed around a different chess concept. The mode you begin with, Farm Life, is by far the least inventive of the four. It’s a pretty basic mode based on the Knight’s Tour problem (where you have to visit every square of a chessboard using a knight exactly once). This is still a joy to tackle though, with a gorgeous farm aesthetic and smart puzzles that ramp up the complexity as you play through. As mentioned before, this is true for all of the modes here – the visual design makes these puzzles feel alive in an engaging and delightful way.
The Street Soccer mode is where Chessarama’s inventiveness really starts to shine. Here you need to line up your pieces using their attack range to create a chain from a starting piece to inside the soccer goal. It’s fantastic. It feels fresh, strange, and exciting – especially when they start adding in cones that block your way, and challenges requiring you to use different sets of pieces. Unfortunately, just as the puzzles were getting really good here, they ran out. I was left wanting much, much more – but that speaks to the fun of the design here.
In Lady Ronin, you play as a single Queen who must eliminate all the pieces in a level by picking them off one by one when they aren’t protected. It’s all about maneuvering yourself and finding the weakness in the positioning of the enemy pieces. There are some deceptively tricky puzzles in this set, and probably the strongest ones of the game – especially when you start tackling the optional challenges. There were a few that felt genuinely impossible at first, only for that ‘aha’ moment to strike and crack the whole thing wide open. It’s the same thing you feel in chess when you suddenly find a great move you had overlooked, and the game is doing a brilliant job here of repackaging that experience in a way that feels fresh.
The final campaign mode, Dragon Slayers, is all about escorting a pawn to the end of the board so that it can destroy a dragon’s heart by promoting it into a Queen (just like in regular chess, you know?). Each time you move the pawn, the dragon attacks, destroying any pieces that aren’t protected by another piece – your job is to use the other pieces to ensure the pawn can reach the end of the board safely. It’s not as memorable as Lady Ronin or Street Soccer, and requires a bit too much busy work as you shuffle the pieces around between pawn moves, but it still has some great puzzles. By default, you’re shown a little cinematic of the dragon flying down and attacking the board every time you move the pawn. It was cute for about two levels, and then became infuriating, grinding the pace of the game to a screeching halt. Thankfully there’s a setting to turn this off, and you’ll want to be using that sooner rather than later.
The design of the optional challenges is what really elevates the puzzles here. Through the new requirements they impose, they force you to rethink your approach to solving each problem, sometimes in pretty dramatic ways. There are some levels that let you complete all the challenges at once, but sometimes they’re designed to oppose each other – meaning multiple approaches are required to finish them all. It prevents you from the kind of perfectionist mindset that puzzle games can be prone to, and it strikes a great balance that never makes these feel annoying.
“The visual design makes these puzzles feel alive in an engaging and delightful way.”
The puzzles do a fantastic job of teaching you real chess concepts as you work through them. Seeing available moves with your pieces; quickly ascertaining which pieces can see each other; finding the weakness in your opponent’s position; protecting a pawn as you escort it down the board. These all come into play in a chess game, and you’re learning to look for them as you complete each puzzle. But you never feel like you’re learning – you’re just solving each problem as it’s presented.
With that said, if you’re brand new to chess then you’ll need to learn some basics online before jumping into this game. There’s no basic tutorial on offer to teach you how each piece moves or the rules of chess. Further, the tutorial process for each puzzle doesn’t quite hit the mark, often completely skipping important aspects of the puzzles that you have to look up in the game’s codex. It’s unfortunate because the puzzles themselves do a good job of introducing elements slowly as they go, but if you’re making players do a tutorial before starting a puzzle, they shouldn’t have to look up how certain rules work.
The game weaves in a sense of progression by having you unlock the game modes as you go, as well as titles that display on your profile. You also unlock the differently themed chess pieces by completing challenges in the campaign modes – but you can’t play with these in chess matches. To do that, you have to beat all the challenges in the respective Battle mode (more on that later). So the other ones that you unlock can only be looked at in a menu, which doesn’t exactly feel like a great reward. The piece designs are fun, but they aren’t that fun. There are also daily and weekly challenges, but these feel pretty tacked-on and don’t add much depth to the experience. They almost feel added out of obligation, from the idea that every game must have some kind of live service element – it sours the experience a bit in a way that’s completely unnecessary.
Gotta capture ‘em all
The battle modes are a fun addition to the core puzzles, but they’re nothing to write home about. Each campaign puzzle gets a corresponding battle mode, essentially a competitive version of the concept behind the puzzle, as well as a set of challenges to complete. Complete them all and you unlock the pieces for use in the Chess Match mode. These are much less inventive than the puzzles though, and don’t offer much to hook you past completing the challenges for each one. Perhaps the exception to this is Pawn Mania, which includes non-standard chess pieces like the Camel (essentially a knight on steroids). This is fun to play around with but not enough to make it particularly compelling.
There’s also the aforementioned Chess Match mode where you can play a full game of regular chess, but it’s extremely lackluster. As soon as you’ve selected the pieces you want to play with, it throws you into a matchmaking screen that you can’t cancel out of – with no prior indication that you’re about to be playing online. There’s only a single time control, too, which is five minutes plus five seconds (meaning that you start with five minutes on the clock, and you gain five seconds with each move). Thankfully every time I played it matched me with a pretty obvious bot, but there’s no way to just choose to play against a computer opponent. It’s bizarre that a game entirely themed around chess would include such a flawed implementation of what it’s all about.
- Some great, inventive puzzles
- Charming design
- Teaches you chess concepts as you play
- A fun sense of progression
- Some modes lack depth and don't quite reach their potential
- Sound design is underwhelming
- Lackluster chess mode
Chessarama delivers some great puzzle design, with delightful visuals and inventive ways of teaching you chess concepts as you play. It’s missing the attention to detail that could make it really shine, but it’s a charming package that’s easy to recommend for anyone who enjoys chess puzzles or who is interested in learning more about the game. Just don’t expect it to replace your chess.com subscription.