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The Queen’s Gambit Chess review: Brings the motivation, but can it make a master?

Netflix’s newest game introduces an old game to a new fanbase

I had few expectations of The Queen’s Gambit Chess when I entered Rockwater’s studio in Liverpool, England. For people who are into chess, we all know there is, the most common app that people use to play against others. I was curious as to why anyone would want to download and play a chess game, when there is already a perfect free-to-play website.

The answer is that most people don’t know how to play chess, and if you don’t know how to play, jumping in with the experts on is certainly not going to help things. The Queen’s Gambit Chess lets you start off at one of three levels. Novice will teach you what each piece does, all the way down to how to set up the board. Intermediate starts assuming that you know that, and moves on to the techniques needed to win a game. Finally, Expert assumes you know exactly what you’re doing and will teach you the sorts of moves the pros do.

The Queen's Gambit Chess gameplay screenshot

At the Novice level, you'll learn the basics of how each piece moves.

I think this is a good way to do it, but it could do with more explanation and nuance. You unlock lessons as you go through, but you need to finish the last lesson to move on. It won’t take long to complete each one, but if you move onto another technique you know it could be quite tiresome. Except, of course, that each lesson has been gamified each step of the way. The way that each lesson is set out, is like a puzzle that gets you looking at how each piece moves, but also pushes you to keep improving.

It’s not surprising that Rockwater knows how to light up the gamer part of my brain. It’s what the studio excels at, and from talking to them it is also what they are truly passionate about. The developers clearly know what to do when it comes to teaching people and encouraging them to play chess.

What surprised me the most about The Queen’s Gambit Chess was how incredible the AI is. I know the basics of chess – like how each piece moves, and how you win – but not anything beyond this. I set Shaibel’s AI down to novice play, and went off. When I say basics, I mean it. I don’t know the correct way to open a game outside of moving the pawns.

The Queen's Gambit Chess

The Queen’s Gambit Chess offers plenty of lessons and puzzles to hone your skills.

I started off moving a few pawns, and the game kept telling me that I was being an idiot. Feedback was telling me my moves were rubbish before Beth stepped in to offer her help. In the same way she does in the show, she’ll look up to the ceiling and recommend the best move to play. Following her lead, I suddenly started snowballing, taking piece after piece, and entering an end game.

It never felt like Shaibel was giving it to me, and he happily took my pieces throughout and punished me for poor moves. I faltered again, failing to get checkmate, where Beth helped out, allowing me to win. And I came out of the game not only pleased with the victory but with the knowledge that I need to learn more about openings and checkmate.

If The Queen’s Gambit inspired you to pick up chess then this is the perfect game for you. The team has paid attention to even the tiniest details, recreating rooms and chess sets exactly as they were in the show. While it has a clearly cartoony artstyle, there are details like the way the dust falls across the board that add an extra layer.

But most of all it’s the options that let The Queen’s Gambit Chess shine. You can toggle markers that show you where to move and when you’re in danger, and there are accessibility options for color blindness which aren’t perfect but serviceable. You can modify every part of the game, such as whether to play in 2D or 3D, and there are extra bonuses for series fans in unlockable postcards and sets.

Just like learning any new and difficult skill, playing The Queen’s Gambit Chess will require motivation. As Duolingo has motivated language learners to keep playing through gamification, this could do the same for chess. However, the comparison to Duolingo is apt, as it could suffer the same weaknesses. Anyone who has had a month-long streak on Duolingo will know that you can kill it on the app, and you will still be completely useless at the language in real life.

The Queen’s Gambit Chess does its best to motivate you to play chess, and to keep playing chess. But whether this will transfer to real life, where Beth’s vision and markers on the board don’t exist is hard to see. However, it will certainly make you feel like a genius even when starting out, and that is as much as you can ask for a chess app.

Score: 7/10

  • Gameplay: 7/10
  • AI: 10/10
  • Sound: 6/10
  • Visuals: 7/10

Version tested: Mobile (Android & iPhone)

The Queen’s Gambit Chess technical breakdown

I tested this on the iPhone’s provided by the developer, and my own Android, which is a few years old. The size of the app has been kept tight, so that it won’t be clogging up all of your memory. However, it does still suffer from the lag in certain menus, which is unfortunately normal for most mobile games. I didn’t find a difference in performance between the iPhone and Android, and it shouldn’t impact play and enjoyment too much