Code Name S.T.E.A.M. creates a knife edge multiplayer challenge for families with as much to commend it as Chess. Fighting talk I know, but this 3DS game made me reconsider how I see (and limit) video games in the home.
While few have ambitions for their children to get really good at video games, parents will often encourage progeny to develop Chess playing smarts. The ancient turn-based strategy brings with it a sense of intelligence and culture. Patience, cunning, sacrifice, compromise and forward-planning are just a few of the perceived character-building benefits.
Perhaps in years to come Call of Duty and Mario Kart will be seen in the same light, as aspirational mind and character-developing pursuits rather than entertaining wastes of time. That not yet being the case, I've been encouraging my boys to spend time playing Chess (alongside their video game fun).
It had been slow going, but this week I've repeatedly come down in the morning to find them risen early to get in some Chess before school. Asking what was behind this change of heart, I was told that they wanted "to get ready for playing Steam on Saturday". By this they meant their weekend screen time with Code Name S.T.E.A.M. on the 3DS.
I'd been working through the main campaign for review, but they really clicked with the local multiplayer. You need two copies of the game and two 3DS consoles, but then you have one of the best turn-based multiplayer challenges I've encountered.
It's here that many of the slightly maligned game-play features really come to life. Take for example the ability to rewind movement. In the hands of younger players this makes perfect sense. I'm all for them learning from their mistakes, but being able to understand these mistakes is more important.
On easy (the rewind option is removed on harder difficulty) you can plot out your movement around the map before committing to a course of action. I remember this forming a key part of my Advance Wars strategy, although admittedly without the fog of war benefits you have here, and the kids soon made the most of it too. It's a feature they like so much that they've incorporated it into their Chess game, allowing each other to undo a move if unforeseen carnage takes place (read: they lose their Queen).
The similarities continue with their growing appreciation of each character. As I've been encouraging them in their Chess play, they put the different S.T.E.A.M. units to specific use in their advancement through a level. Some are initially overlooked only to be discovered useful at a later level while others remain "get-the-job-done" favourites throughout.
Discovering the ability to customise both the equipment and alternate weapons for each unit has also increased their attention to each different role — with complex hand-drawn charts to work out the ideal combos.
Then there's the time limit that takes multiplayer Code Name S.T.E.A.M. into speed Chess territory. Here they are encouraged to think and act swiftly as well as strategically. This keeps the game moving along quickly and ensures fewer moments waiting for an opponent to calculate a move (which still lags a little on the single player even with the recent patch).
Again these elements of the video game have fed back into week day Chess sessions. A stop-clock has now been ordered to add the time-limits and they've started making better use of the time waiting for each other to move to plan their next action.
It's been a happy back-and-forth between board and video game, for me as well as for them. In fact, when they recently asked why they could play Chess whenever they wanted but not the video game, I wasn't entirely clear why I still held the distinction.
Certainly Code Name S.T.E.A.M. has improved their Chess playing, as I discovered the other day. Happily working my usual Chess plan of attrition I swiftly moved in to take my son's Bishop after his errant move. The error turned out to be mine as he swiftly took my Queen having sacrificed the other piece.
It's a two-way street, though - Chess playing has also improved their S.T.E.A.M. strategy. To hear my 7-year-old talk about his opening, middle and end game - not to mention pins, batteries, decoys and deflections while playing the 3DS - is a little freaky. This Chess vernacular is more than veneer with his application of threats, exchanges and double attacks translating well to the video game. Perhaps the biggest testament here is this new pursuit changing his YouTube viewing habits (surely the modern litmus test for any new idea) from Stampy to Chess tutorials.
It all makes me wonder, did parents of Chess players limit their time when the game was first invented in 1475, wishing their children would invest time in more productive pursuits? Similarly, perhaps I need to reconsider the lines of limitation I've created for my children's leisure time. Until I figure that out, I'm happy to see both Chess and Code Name S.T.E.A.M. as a substantial part of my children's game-playing education.