I’ve been playing a lot of Zach Gage’s Really Bad Chess in the past week, and I find myself very fascinated by its use of theming.
Gage goes to great lengths to reinforce the “Really Bad” theme. Some examples:
- The Title
- Marketing text like “A definitely balanced game.” and “For everyone who quit playing chess”
- Quotes from Gage ranging from “This could be perceived as an affront to chess” to “It’s a stupid game”.
- An art style that goes beyond minimalistic; it looks like placeholder art that never got replaced.
- Somewhat awkward UI layout (examples: awkward line breaks in the title, no visual priority in coloring/shading)
It’s sort of sneaky and unassuming, but I think this theming accomplishes a few key things for the game.
The Impact of “Really Bad” Theming
1. It’s Inviting to “Really Bad” Players
To start with, the theme lends a helping hand to anyone who feels like they are “really bad” at chess. Chess is so embedded in our culture that it’s hard to make it to adulthood without playing a few games. And since Chess skill is often perceived as an indicator of intelligence, it follows that players who struggle might feel bad about their ability on a personal level.
…which is a bit sad, because who can blame anyone for stopping at one of Chess’s huge learning spikes, particularly the ones that involve lots of memorization? Or for being discouraged by crippling defeats, which is common with such potentially wide skill gaps? Players have no reason to feel bad, because their struggle often stems from inherent flaws in Chess itself rather than incompetence.
But the frustration is there, and Gage’s theming capitalizes on it to great effect to create an “us vs. them” feeling.
2. Players Are More Forgiving of “Really Bad” Flaws
Like any Chess variant, it’s impossible not to compare and contrast to the original subject matter. How could anyone compete with such a monumental game? But here the “Really Bad” theme offers a bit of humility – which in turn makes players more forgiving of the game’s flaws. Compare that to David Sirlin’s naming of Chess 2, which I wouldn’t call arrogant but certainly elicits a different emotional response.
A little more subtly, the “Really Bad” theme calls attention to its randomness as a direct counter to Chess’s near-perfect balance. In an era where many gamers still see luck as the opposite of skill, and designers regularly underestimate and misuse randomness (see: No Man’s Sky), it’s no wonder that randomness gets a bad rep.
The designer in me hates this misconception, but I can’t help but be impressed at how Really Bad Chess leverages it. It seems to apply imply “randomness indeed makes this game worse than the original chess, but that’s okay because we’re all in on the joke”.
3. It’s Not Bad At All!
Underneath it all, perhaps what makes the “Really Bad” theme so clever is that ironically, there is nothing really bad about the game at all. It’s not without flaws: the AI is painfully slow, the blue bar is confusing, and there could be better messaging for your turn state. But counter to the theme’s suggestion, the use of randomness in Really Bad Chess is exactly what makes it so damn good.
Really Bad Chess’s randomness does a great job of eliminating the reliance on book learning and putting the focus back on emergent strategy. But what really makes it shine is the rubberbanding system in Ranked mode, which determines your piece distribution. For example since I am hovering around Rank 75, I can expect lots of horses, a few bishops and/or Rooks, and maybe 1 Queen (and I can expect my AI opponent to have at least 2 Queens). It’s just enough of a constraint to prevent the game from feeling too random. And when combined with the promise of a static AI level, the result is a systemic learning that does for my Chess fatigue what Spelunky did for my platformer fatigue.
Of course none of that systemic depth comes from the theming. But when the press says things like “Who knows, that’s the point of Really Bad Chess, it throws out the balance in the game for random chaos!”, I get the impression that maybe the depth is sneakily slipping its way in for some players… just under the cover of its “Really Bad” Theming.
I think the major takeaway here for designers is to not underestimate the power of theming.
Really Bad Chess is not the first Chess variant to randomize pieces. It may not even be the first to combine randomization with rubberband ranking. But its unique theming invites players of all skill levels, highlights its randomization in a fun lighthearted way, and cleverly hides a strong focused design with satisfying depth.
It’s the combination of strong gameplay and intelligent theming that makes it worthy of some extra attention in my opinion, regardless of how much of its success might be attributed to outside factors (such as Gage’s existing reputation and network).
And nothing makes me happier than a great design getting love. So I wish it the best!