In 2017 Naval Siani, an indie dev working at a startup in Bangalore, asked the question: “What if you took chess and made an online version that used half the board?”
The question gave birth to halfchess.com which some started playing, following a Netflix binge of The Queens Gambit. The spectacularly successful TV series on the streaming service had topped the viewership charts and resulted in a surge of interest in the game of chess. Back in November 2020, NPR reported rocketing sales of chess sets across all manners of online real estate from eBay to Amazon following the release of the show. It was the perfect storm, many around the world were grounded at home because of the Pandemic and there was little to do but explore passions rediscovered which ranged from online language classes, crafts, baking, and chess.
In his talk given in London at a small developer conference, Siani talks about the importance of play in society, and the impact that a game can have in rural locations. The example he cites is that of a village in Kerala, where there has previously been a history of alcohol abuse. Largely due to the fact that there was little to do by way of entertainment. The discovery of chess led to more and more of the community playing and ultimately, Naval credits serious societal behaviour change due to the 8×8 board game.
Siani built the Minimal Viable Product as a mod for the Open source chess engine, P4WN. Admittedly Siani states that the game is not deep mind, and he wanted to create a simple version of chess for those that enjoyed the game but were not grandmasters. Rather players on the game enjoy fast-paced chess, something not synonymous with chess games unless you were watching professionals play at a Simul (the term used to describe an exceptional player take on multiple opponents at the same time). Siani’s audience got a kick out of the game as it still let people win from time to time. He built the original version using Cordoba and then React Native (Sorry hard to nerd out there for a second) and used some Google components such as Firebase (database). Siani managed to keep the stack as slim as possible. Rather unsurprisingly for a technologist, he found marketing the game a lot harder than building it.
“Taking it to market involves spending money and there is even now limited monitisation for the game”.
Ultimately he hopes that the game will help people get better at chess and the latest release contains the ability to be added to the waitlist for online chess classes. While Siani has no immediate plans to start a studio and is gainfully employed at the YC startup lantern.so, he does hope to continue to make more indie titles.
The game has since been redesigned for Facebook Messenger and Naval is patiently waiting to launch it for fans in 2021. Get ready for your “READY PLAYER ONE” moment on Halfchess coming soon to Facebook Messenger.