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A narrative chess puzzle, August 8, 2022
(I beta tested this game, so this is more a series of impressions than a full review – and full disclosure, I don’t even get to the game until paragraph six, so it’s not even short)
I’ve enjoyed seeing other folks sharing their histories with chess as part of their reviews of You Won’t Get Her Back, so here goes with mine. As a nerdy kid, I was course into chess: before the internet and the long tail all nerdy kids were pretty much into the same five things, plus whatever you randomly stumbled across in thrift store-used bins or bootleg tapes from a friend with relatives in Japan. And so since chess was part of the package, so I was in the chess club in middle school.
This basically just meant that during lunch periods, I’d play chess against other kids, and occasionally Mr. Young, the teacher who ran chess club. He was a short, powerfully-built ex-player for the Israeli national soccer team – with some level of celebrity, we kids were dimly aware, though now that Wikipedia is a thing I can confirm he was definitely the real deal – who now coached sports classes in a suburban New York school. In retrospect, he was straight out of a Philip Roth novel, though that wasn’t one of my main reference points as a 12 year old. Anyway every once in a while he’d play against one of us, and he didn’t hold back in the slightest, chortling with demoniacal glee as he slashed a queen into the back ranks or wove an ineluctable web of pawns to pin down a free-floating rook.
There was one time, though, when I was playing him, and playing the game of my life – I mean I don’t remember it in any detail, but I must have been, because I actually made it to the endgame with him, and in better position. What I do remember is that I had a bishop in reserve, that once I got it out from behind a yet-unmoved pawn, I’d be able to set up long-range checks that would let me clean up his remaining pieces, probably advance that pawn, and finally, finally win against Mr. Young.
Then he giggled, and somehow took the pawn with one of his that was next to it, putting my king in check while he off-handedly told me about the en passant rule. That was pretty much the last time I enjoyed a game of chess – something about the idea that there was this secret, hidden rule to the game that nobody had ever bothered to explain to me, just lurking until it was sprung like a trap to deny me this one moment of glory, profoundly offended my sense of fair play
Years later, I became a lawyer, an irony that I’m only now noticing.
If this has anything to do with You Won’t Get Her Back – and it doesn’t, that was just an incredibly self-indulgent lead-in, sorry Andrew – I repeat, if I were to try to reverse-engineer some relevance to the actual game I’m theoretically reviewing, it would be to say that I came to it with a predisposition to dislike gimmicks in chess, and it must be confessed that this chess puzzle in parser form has even more of a gimmick to it than the author’s previous games in this genre. Those – Fourbyfourian Quarryin’ and Fivebyfivia Delenda Est (best title of 2021) – involved placing different pieces on a shrunk-down chess board to set up a favorable endgame scenario. Here, we’ve got a straight chess puzzle, like you read in the newspaper, with the player’s actions actually moving the pieces and the opponent moving their pieces in turn – and it all hinges on pawn promotion. Despite that predisposition, though, I really dug YWGHB.
Partially this is due to the narrative content of the game, because it’s not just a dry exercise in piece manipulation. The setup involves the white player being down to just one pawn and their king (the player character), partially because the king couldn’t bear to see any harm come to his wife (the queen) and played too conservatively. Black has their king and a rook, so definitely has the advantage, but of course there’s a chance to succeed, as your king sets his sights on getting his pawn to the enemy’s back rank and promoting it to bring back his queen (thus the title). The writing takes this situation seriously, which I found surprisingly effective – I was definitely motivated to win not just because I wanted to solve the puzzle, but because I wanted to reunite these lovers cruelly torn apart by war.
Still, the game is 99% chess, and the other takeaway from the above story is that I haven’t played the game even semi-seriously in 30 years, so I pretty much suck at it. As a result, my progress through YWGHB primarily involved trial-and-error bashing as I got to the right solution after trying pretty much every incorrect one I could think of. Thankfully, even this rock-stupid way to play is still satisfying, because much as you accumulate knowledge through your failures, you also get a bit of fun ending text describing how you’ve fouled things up, and also get an achievement for your trouble. I’d like to tell you that I’m annoyed by achievement mechanics and how ridiculous it is that we’ve gamified our games. But I’m not made of stone, achievements are fun, and there are a ton of them here so even if winning felt beyond my grasp much of the time, I could at least try to lose in ever-more-exotic ways.
I won’t say too much about the solution, except that it does involve a really cool aha moment, so I can see why Schultz was motivated to implement this puzzle, specifically, in IF – plus it doesn’t require too much chess knowledge to hit on the answer, and the game does a good job of providing a few nudges after the obvious moves fail. There’s also an included walkthrough if the going gets too tough, alongside the author’s characteristically-extensive help and meta commands to orient the player (I realize I also haven’t yet mentioned that the chessboard is fully implemented in ASCII art).
I suppose there are expert chess players for whom YWGHB will be too lightweight to be enjoyable, as they just buzz-saw through the puzzle with their superior knowledge. Similarly, as someone’s first introduction to chess, it’s likely too punishing, with that damned rook jumping on the slightest misstep and resetting things back to the beginning – one critique might be that stalemate doesn’t feel much better than a loss, which may be true in the land of chess puzzles but maybe makes less sense given the conceit that this game is a war between countries, where the difference matters a lot. For folks with some experience of chess but who don’t solve the thing as soon as they look at it, though, I think this is a satisfying puzzle to chew on, with really robust implementation and some nice narrative grace notes.