Two great armies, equal in size and strength, stare across the field at each other. One dark, one white, both committed to the destruction of the other. Then the advance begins, soldiers charging towards the foe - many will die in defence of their king. As the battle rages and the brave warriors fall, he who shows the greater tactical cunning will emerge the victor.
I'm not going to bother explaining the rules of chess. Anyone who knows doesn't need me to and anyone who doesn't would benefit far more from a good book on the subject. So I'm going to assume you're all familiar with the pieces and their moves and so on, and skip straight to how Mini-Chess is different. Actually, that's pretty easy - the clue is in the name. It's a smaller version of chess. Each side has only one of each of the major pieces - rook, knight, bishop, queen and king - and a row of five pawns before them. The board itself is also smaller - a mere six ranks instead of eight, and only five files.
Avid chess players may reason this makes for very different strategy, and they'd be right. There are some concessions to the smaller size - for instance, pawns cannot move two places on their first go as there isn't the room for it, and there is no castling. The lack of space to develop makes games much faster, much more condensed, very different. One of the minor oddities for chess fans is that the two opposing bishops are on different colour squares, and will thus never meet.
You command your army via the mouse, clicking on a piece to select it and clicking on a suitable square to place it (putting it back again allows you to change your mind). The possible moves available to you are highlighted. There are options to play as black or white and you can also change the style, the difficulty and the rules - bored of standard chess rules? Try playing Makruk or Shatranj, two Eastern variants (note that many options are only available in the full version, and are locked in the demo).
Graphics are clear and bright, with the traditional pieces easy to distinguish. The four styles affect both the background image and the board/pieces - I particularly like the bottlecaps, though the ones with dots on them take a little getting used to. I would have quite liked to be able to change the two aspects independently, however. Piece movement is clear and easy and taken pieces disappear in a puff of dust.
Sound is minimal, as you'd expect in a board game like this, with only piece movement effects. There are no warning signals for being in check; indeed, no warning at all - unlike most chess games you are entirely able to put your king in check and a king can be taken much like any other piece, bringing the game to a sudden end! Music consists of a single backing track that repeats endlessly, but can be switched off in the options. It's not a bad track, but seems rather incongruous to the game it accompanies.
Easy to operate, Mini-Chess is highly playable. There's a range of difficulty levels and a two-player option, which is also useful if you want to familiarise yourself with the way the pieces move. A range of fascinating facts appears at the bottom of the screen regarding the history and study of chess and its variants, which is a nice touch. The different moves that each of the pieces can perform are also listed in the tutorial, though I would have preferred it if these had been divided up according to the variant rather than all lumped together. The bishop and queen, for instance, have very different moves under different rules.
The biggest drawback I found was with the lack of strategy advice. As a chess player myself I was already aware of how to play the standard rules and soon began adapting to the smaller board, but had no strategic knowledge of the other variants. New players to chess will struggle with that mode too. Some general hints and tips in the game help would be beneficial here, especially given the lack of Mini-Chess strategy books generally available. A more alarming concern was the number of times the program shut down on me, though whether this is a reaction to my aging desktop machine or a hiccup in Torque Game Builder I am not so sure.
This is overall an interesting and well constructed game, if a little basic in scope. While I cannot vouch for the long term appeal, this will prove an interesting diversion for chess fans everywhere.
Keywords: mini chess review, xenoclone reviews, xenoclone games, mini chess scores, pc game reviews, indie game reviews, independent gaming.