Play This Tonight A lovingly crafted treasure chest of some of the best tabletop and video games on the internet. 2021-05-31T23:20:07Z Dan McAlister Part Time UFO 2019-07-16T23:28:29Z <p>Many games, classic and modern are empowerment fantasies, putting the player in the role of a capable hero shouldering a mighty responsibility. I love that! Empowerment is a comforting, familiar fantasy. But what I admire about Part Time UFO is that it isn’t interested in empowerment. Rather, it makes you feel different, and finds joy in the mundane. The world won’t be saved for your involvement, but it will be made better. One odd job at a time.</p> <p><img src="" alt="Part time UFO reading a magazine in its apartment." title="The dog is optional, if you could ever say that." /></p> <p>Available Here: <a href="">iOS</a>, <a href=";hl=en_US">Android</a></p> <h2 id="what-is-it%3F">What Is It?</h2> <p>In Part Time UFO you’re an extraterrestrial performing manual labor. You fly in your diminutive saucer, using a claw reminiscent of carnival crane games to pick up and stack objects in a wide variety of freelance gigs on a strange planet: <em>Earth</em>.</p> <p>The gigs are varied and imaginative. In one level you’re sea fishing, in another you’re assembling a salad as ingredients speed by on a conveyor belt. It’s not enough to simply transport these goods; you usually need to pile them in specific configurations. The pieces aren’t designed to fit together neatly, and your structures will teeter and sway as you race to pile on more salad ingredients, machine components, small rodents, or whatever the game throws your way. Part Time UFO excels in building novel challenges for your ship’s simple capabilities, and whether you’re helping at a secret lab or at the circus, the game finds a balance between absurd situations and logical problem-solving.</p> <h2 id="why-i-love-it.">Why I Love It.</h2> <p>Part Time UFO is joyfully tactile mobile game. Action is simple. and the flying is smooth, but every time you grab something, you get a real sense of weight as your ship pitches and tilts to accommodate. This dulls your precision, but gives the game a delightful physicality.</p> <p>I also dig the supportive atmosphere. All of the characters you help are rooting for you, and it makes for a lovely, laid back play experience. Excitement derives from trying to do your best in adverse circumstances, not from adversarial characters. It can be tough to try to reassemble wobbly museum sculptures or stack fidgety cheerleaders in a pyramid, but quick levels means mistakes give way to iteration and improvement. If you don’t do well the first time, the game and its characters never stop supporting you, and they’re positively jubilant when you’re successful. Part Time UFO is a game that values sincere effort and a job well done.</p> <p><img src="" alt="A stack of cheerleaders making a lopsided pyramid. An man is stabilizing the center, looking uncomfortable. " title="You stack all kinds of things." /></p> <h2 id="your-first-game.">Your First Game.</h2> <p>In the game’s first level, you’re helping a farmer re-load his truck after his produce spilled onto the road. The game will spell out the basic actions you’ll need to take. But when you finish the level, you’ll see that the level has three bonus challenges: to put the oranges back in a basket, to place the produce boxes face up, and to finish within the time limit.</p> <p>Every level has three goals, but until you feel confident with the games controls, maybe just focus on one of them. Part Time UFO is generous with it’s progression: you never have to get everything done. Just do your best, and tackle the challenges that appeal to you.</p> <h2 id="going-further.">Going Further.</h2> <p>Self expression in games is usually precise, like assembling an outfit or choosing abilities to improve your character. Self expression in Part Time UFO lies in the attempt at greatness, and you’ll probably fall short as you careen across the stage, balancing trajectory with a heavy load. But thanks to the light, happy scenario and joy in movement, you’ll have fun regardless.</p> <p>Every level you finish gives you the opportunity to snap a picture of your handiwork. Have fun with it! Build precarious structures, treat it like an art project. Pass your phone around and let friends take a shot, and see how people approach the same challenge differently. Appreciate the job well done, because when you’re helping others, it’s always a job worth doing.</p> Stuart Urback Pocket Run Pool 2019-08-27T05:16:59Z <p>If you spend more than 5 minutes with me you'll probably discover me flipping a pen in my hand, absentmindedly clicking a clicker, or twirling my wedding ring on my finger. I might be addicted to fiddling with objects; I even love the sound of a book page turning. One of the reasons I love phone games, is because of the inventive ways designers use the limits of the phone to create immersive experiences.</p> <p>When people talk about realism in digital spaces, they often attribute this to a visual - 3 dimensional - rendering of reality. The closer the visuals are to “real life”, the more immersive the game will be. But there are other ways of generating feedback, and creating joy, with digital games. Small phone games don’t immediately have the benefit of beautifully displaying those visuals.</p> <p>Because phone games often lack the same tactility that the physical world presents as well as being unable to display a photo-realistic simulation, designers have to get creative with how they manage that feedback. Zach Gage’s Pocket Run Pool is one of my favorite examples of a game that uses tactile and auditory feedback to create a sense of immersion.</p> <h2 id="why-i-love-pocket-run-pool">Why I Love Pocket Run Pool</h2> <p><img src="" alt="" /></p> <p>Pocket Run Pool uses generous interface elements, sharp audio/haptic feedback, and a clever interface trick to reinforce the concept that you are “playing pool”.</p> <p>When you fire the cue stick (the stick that hits the ball), you don't just tap a button, instead, when you go to hit the cue, you pull the cue back, and then flick it forward, hitting the cue in real life. And, there's the benefit that how hard you swipe impacts how hard the cue ball will hit the cue. It would have been possible to recreate this with a simple tap, but dragging your finger down across the screen and then flicking it back up, mimics the motion of pulling the cue stick back and then pushing it forward.</p> <p>Because the game gives you clear feedback, even hitting the ball feels right, and sinking a ball (putting it in the proper pocket) is gratifying. After you flick to move the cue stick, you will hear the cue stick hitting the cue ball, the cue ball colliding with other balls, and finally a higher pitch beep, notifying you you were successful, followed by the thunk (and a phone vibration), suggesting the ball has fallen into the pocket.</p> <p>The game also has a generosity with its UI elements. When you rotate the cue stick to aim, a large set of circular arrows appear to let you know which direction you are rotating in (which can be surprisingly challenging to remember on a phone). And when you do line it up, there’s a literal line that extends from the cue ball, to where it’s going to end up. It’s easy to imagine how this game could have withheld that information to “reward skilled players”, but the game is still suitably challenging, and the extra help made me feel secure.</p> <h2 id="your-first-game">Your First Game</h2> <p>The goal of Pocket Run Pool is to get the highest possible score. Each time you sink a ball, you’ll score a point by combining the number on the ball, with the multiplier on the pocket (10x, 8x, 6x, 4x, 2x, 1x). So a 4-ball going in the 10x pocket would be worth 40 points.</p> <p>While the highest possible score is 800 points, don’t try to worry much about that your first time through. I found the game sufficiently challenging just to make it to the end without running out of lives. (Each time you fail to pocket a ball in a shot, you lose one of your 3 starting lives, once you’re out, you run ends).</p> <p>When I played Pocket Run Pool the first time, I went out of my way to make sure to pocket the 8 ball last. (In many traditional games of pool, if you pocket the 8-ball before the end of the game, you lose). I’m happy to report that this was not the case. When you sink the 8-ball, the location of the multipliers on each pocket gets randomized, so if you were setting something up, that might get thwarted. It keeps the risk of the 8-ball, as it can screw up a perfect run, but without the punishment of ending the game.</p> <h2 id="going-further">Going Further</h2> <p>Pocket Run Pool has a ton of extra play styles that you can explore even after you have beaten the main game. However, I think this is an interesting place to talk about how the game makes money and adds replayability. Where Candy Crush creates a crafted but randomized level system and then adds the concept of lives (eventually you run out and have to wait for your set to replenish, or buy more), Pocket Run Pool allows you to play the base/randomized game forever. Instead, it offers two other play options, one of which that requires &quot;buy-ins&quot;.</p> <p>The paid mode, High Stake Pool, has a buy-in, similar to the concept of gambling. You start with 10,000 coins (which you can buy in sets for 99 cents per set). Each buy-in has a minimum of 1000 coins. However, you can increase the buy-in to increase the potential payout. The higher the wager, the larger the potential payout. There are also different &quot;challenges&quot; thrown in which increase the payout, like no lives, or different sized balls. What's so neat about this is if you want an extra challenge, you can play for a while before having to put money in, but if you win you might make coins on the game, and thus extend the amount of time you have to play before putting money in (or watching an ad). Thus, it's using randomized reward sets (the &quot;payout&quot;) to make it less likely that you'll have to pay money.</p> <p>One of the coolest parts about Pocket Run Pool is that all of the elements of the game, from the design, to the mechanics, to how the game makes money are thoughtfully laid out for the player. It’s one of the reasons I’m quick to recommend this game to anyone who’s looking for a new, fun experience.</p> Dan McAlister Fingle 2019-10-10T00:49:05Z <p><em>Fingle</em> is a tablet game that reaches out of the device to make you uncomfortable.</p> <p>Available: <a href="">iPad</a></p> <h2 id="what-is-it%3F">What Is It?</h2> <p>The easy comparison is <em>Twister,</em> a party game about tangled bodies. Players take turns maneuvering their hands and feet to randomly assigned positions that tangle players up amongst themselves. <em>Twister</em> was invented in the 60s, and has been delightfully inappropriate for decades. But now we have computers, smartphones, tablets. Can this new-age technology also be used innapropriately? Enter <em>Fingle.</em></p> <p><img src="" alt="Image of game space, depicting white and yellow targets on a retro 70's background." title="Fingle's Game View" /></p> <p>Each level of <em>Fingle</em> contains two sets of target icons, one for each player. The goal of the game is for each player to keep their fingertips touching all of their targets; if you maintain that contact for several seconds, you’ll advance to the next level. While <em>Twister</em> is concluded with the players’ inevitable failure, progression through <em>Fingle</em> is predicated on the players’ cooperation and success.</p> <p>There are three complicating factors:</p> <ol> <li>The targets intermingle, so your fingers will often be interlaced.</li> <li>The targets move. Your fingers, and those of the other player, will touch, collide, stroke.</li> <li>The game is <em>very suggestive.</em></li> </ol> <h2 id="why-i-love-it.">Why I Love It.</h2> <p><em>Fingle</em> has an opinionated, inappropriate presence that most games lack, and it starts with the aesthetic. <em>Fingle</em> goes in hard on a sultry, unconcerned 70s vibe. The game’s backgrounds are warm geometrics, overlapping circles and angular patterns. The oranges and yellows are textured, evoking shag carpet or old construction paper, dappled and crinkled with time. The instrumentation is sparse, repetitive, and feels very human. The strumming bass and heartbeat cowbells are imperfect, like gutsy amateurs at an open-mic. Modern music repeats because sound loops are optimized and purpose-driven; when this music repeats, it sounds like an amateur band limited by repertoire, buoyed on swagger rather than skillful play. It’s fabulous.</p> <p><em>Fingle’s</em> personality is amplified by the way it’s play escapes the confines of your device. Most digital games center actions taken within the screen. Mario leaps and Pac-Man chomps, all at the press of a button or nudge of an arcade stick. These games allow players to inhabit digital bodies and play out fantasies of being someone else for a while. <em>Fingle</em>, like other physical movement games (<em>Twister, Just Dance,</em> etc.) creates its play in real space, forcing the players to be <em>more</em> aware of themselves, not less. <em>Fingle’s</em> game space is the table or carpet you’ve set your device on, and it turns its attention on your clumsy, real self. And have I mentioned that <em>Fingle</em> has an inappropriate personality?</p> <p>While <em>Twister</em> may create tension amongst players by putting them in awkward positions, <em>Fingle</em> does the same while commenting, suggesting, coloring the experience. <em>Twister</em> maintains a thin layer of deniability. “It’s just colored dots and wholesome fun,” it pleads, in the strained voice of a people-pleaser. <em>Fingle</em> makes subtext explicit and colored. It says “SWEET RUBBIN’” when you beat a level.</p> <p><img src="" alt="Three in game tips are displayed. They read, &quot;If your fingers don't bend that way, try bending your mind instead. Scientific fact: 83% of our Fingle statistics have been made up, especially this one. Reading this gives you the perfect time to practice your sexy look. " title="The game has many helpful tips." /></p> <p>By being commanding, suggestive, and overt, <em>Fingle</em> leaves the iPad and controls the space around it. It’s digital <em>Twister</em> with flirty cheering and a disregard for pretense. I love it.</p> <h2 id="your-first-game.">Your First Game.</h2> <p><em>Fingle</em> is not a trust-building game. This is a game that centers physical contact with you and another person. This contact is limited to the hands, and can be interpreted differently based on your relationship. It can be funny and absurd, it can be suggestive and sexual. This is a game that should be played by people who already trust each other and are open with each other. Ensure you and your player 2 know what the game is, and set expectations for beginning and ending play.</p> <h2 id="going-further.">Going Further.</h2> <p>Have fun with it! Pull it out at parties, or on a date night. Play without talking. Play it in private and public spaces, see how that changes the experience. It has some holiday themed levels, so space your <em>Fingle</em>-ing throughout the year. Or, don’t. <em>Fingle</em> may be loud and opinionated, but you can’t let it tell you want to do about everything. <em>Fingle</em> it out for yourself.</p> <p><img src="" alt="Image of victory screen that reads &quot;Oooh...Nice!&quot;" title="Thanks for cheering me on, Fingle!" /></p> Dan McAlister Octodad: Dadliest Catch 2019-11-06T00:50:25Z <p><em>Octodad: Dadliest Catch</em> evokes humor and heart by taking an absurd scenario seriously.</p> <p>Available: <a href="">PC</a>, <a href="">iOS</a>, <a href=";hl=en_US">Android</a>, <a href="">Xbox</a>, <a href="">Playstation</a>, <a href="">Switch</a></p> <h2 id="what-is-it%3F">What Is It?</h2> <p><em>Octodad: Dadliest Catch</em> is an octopus simulator that is also a dad simulator. You play as Octodad, an octopus who has somehow concealed his cephalopod identity from his human wife and inexplicably human children. Most of the game plays over the course of a single day spent with your family, where you must work to pass yourself off as human while you perform mundane tasks.</p> <p><img src="" alt="Image of Octodad getting married. " /></p> <p><em>Octodad</em> finds play in everyday scenarios that most take for granted. Repeating our rituals day to day, they become second nature and rote, like how when you’ve driven to work so often, you no longer remember the trip. But as an octopus, gangly and clumsy, these simple motions become harrowing. You have to fulfill your role as a dad while concealing your octopus identity from strangers and loved ones; make too many mistakes, knock over too many cereal boxes in the grocery store, and you’ll be exposed for the fraud you are.</p> <h2 id="why-i-love-it.">Why I Love It.</h2> <p>What makes Octodad so special is in how it overcomplicates the basic actions we take for granted to evoke feelings of otherness and paranoia. The early scenarios are common family experiences, like making coffee and mowing the lawn. But because moving even one arm requires two thumb sticks and a button, you have to approach your interactions delicately. It’s easy to swing a tentacle wildly out of place, and difficult to swerve it back in before anyone notices.</p> <p><img src="" alt="Octodad walking across a living room, while his daughter asks &quot;Dad where do rainbows come from?&quot;" /></p> <p>By making its controls so complex and sensitive sensitive, it draws your attention to the simplest actions we take for granted and creates inevitable self-consciousness in those actions. And since your awareness of your own clumsy body is so heightened, it follows that others must be so focused on you too, right? Right?</p> <p>It’s a silly mechanic, but the game embraces its weird side without flinching. Rather than make constant jokes about the absurdity of the scenario, <em>Octodad</em> is all-in on its own fiction. This gives the game a real sincerity, and its play evokes a near-physical feeling of self-consciousness.</p> <h2 id="your-first-game.">Your First Game.</h2> <p><em>Octodad</em> is pretty forgiving at the outset. The first few rooms of the tutorial are bereft of witnesses, so take the opportunity to practice your movement, which includes walking with your definitely-human legs and manipulating objects with your of-course-they’re-human arms. That said, don’t feel you need to spend forever perfecting your locomotion. The game is short enough to be completed in a sitting, and the challenge never veers to close to the impossible.</p> <h2 id="going-further.">Going Further.</h2> <p>Playing <em>Octodad</em> brought to mind my own lived feelings of sticking out or embarrassing myself. For all the silliness of its premise, it rang true enough that it spoke to me.</p> <p>But maybe that’s not how you’ll feel. Maybe for you, it’ll be ridiculous, or whimsical. Or maybe you’ll put yourself fully into the game, trying to be this octopus dad, and maybe you’ll feel something more sincere. Or maybe, you’ll feel nothing.</p> <p>Don’t try to act or feel in a way so intentionally, not when playing this. Being self-conscious is different from being self-aware. Have your own experience, rather than one similar to what I’ve detailed. You probably don’t stand out as much as you think.</p> Stuart Urback Celeste: Pop Culture Marvel 2019-11-18T20:59:51Z <p>Talking about resonance can be challenging. Often it gets used in the place of “good”. It’s easy to fall back into substituting resonance for a simple “I liked that”. But it’s also possible for something to be resonant even if you don’t like it. Something can hit at your soul, even if you wish it didn’t. It’s when a single concept is expressed simultaneously through multiple mediums that something clicks inside your brain so you can “just” understand what’s going on. Resonance is also a groove. And grooves are good because you can go fast in them, but they also lock you into a single lane.</p> <p>In her May 2012 essay, “The Narrative Gift as Moral Conundrum”, Ursula K Le Guin wrestles with the concept around a banal story, well told and its relationship to a powerful story, simply told. “Seldom if ever I have seen the power of pure story over mind, emotion, and artistic integrity so clearly shown.” p76, <em>No Time To Spare</em>. Le Guin makes the point that competent plot cannot overcome a plot which has artistic meaning. It is easy to put most pop culture into that bucket: a strong narrative but having little artistic merit.</p> <p><em>Celeste</em> feels like that type of pop culture. It hints at deep themes, without engaging them fully. It talks about mental health and personal doubt, but it doesn’t challenge the player (either with its narrative or its gameplay) to reconsider preconceived notions. <em>Celeste</em> climbs through the well worn groove of the hero’s journey, through doubt, guidance, to overcome the challenges put before them. So it would be easy to fault <em>Celeste</em> for its failure to push further into the depths of human experience.</p> <p>According to Ian Bogost what makes games special is that they take “ground” (things we take for granted) and bring them into the foreground. In <em>Celeste</em>’s case, the “ground” would be the player’s ability to move through physical space. Especially for myself, as an able-bodied person, it is easy to take for granted my ability to move from point a to point b, whereas my ability to overcome my mental challenges - social anxiety, self-doubt, uncertainty - are challenges I often find insurmountable. By foregrounding the challenge of moving through space, and then mapping the mental challenges to the physical ones, <em>Celeste</em> forces the player to at least consider mental and physical challenges similarly.</p> <p>Each of the individual components are so well polished that it’s hard not to appreciate the thought and care that went into it. At the same time, as a result, there are moments when there aren’t risks or leaps of understanding, or moments when the game tries something that might not work. Each of the components works well together.</p> <p>The impetus for this article came from another article written on this website, about <em>Gris</em>. <a href="">In it, Stacy explores how <em>Gris</em> impacted her on a personal level.</a> Her discussion of <em>Gris</em> reminded me of my own time with <em>Celeste</em>, which is surprising, because <em>Celeste</em> and <em>Gris</em> feel like they are opposite ends of the spectrum. As it’s described, <em>Gris</em> is mostly experiential, there aren’t many challenges to sort through or skills to check at each stage of the game. <em>Celeste</em> resides at the opposite end of the mechanical spectrum because each section of the game requires new skills to learn in order to progress. Each section focuses around a particular theme and challenges the player to understand core concepts to progress.</p> <p><em>Celeste</em>, like <em>Gris</em>, has a competent story, and the themes that <em>Celeste</em> deals with, of personal exploration manifested as outward challenges, mirrors many of the same themes that <em>Gris</em> deals with. <em>Celeste</em>’s story maps onto conquering one’s demons through self-actualization by overcoming the physical challenges on the mountain. But, because Celeste is so up front about that challenge being rather close to a trope, and because the rest of the mechanics are so well tuned, it feels sincere rather than pasted on.</p> <p>The music in <em>Celeste</em>, like the story, maps to each of the moments and the themes in the game. As I tensed up to encounter a challenging sequence of jumps, the music would tense with me. As I climbed higher and felt ever more competent, the music’s beats felt boundless and full of energy. It was hard to tell if my emotional states were a result of the music or if the music happened to mirror my emotional state.</p> <p>As a player, every time I figured out how to press the buttons in the correct sequence to jump safely to the other side of the level, I felt a wave of accomplishment. As I progressed through <em>Celeste</em>, I felt myself building up a vocabulary of understanding how to exist in the game. I gained an ability to jump and double jump. I built the understanding of how to time the platforms as they flung me across the screen, or the golden feather as it gave me freedom to move how I pleased but would run out before I wanted it to.</p> <p>The relationship between each of the bosses that <em>Celeste</em> encounters (her shadow, the inn-keeper), provide a nice mental model for the mechanical challenges I faced as a player. For, example, <em>Celeste</em>’s shadow will mimic all of your actions as you move across the screen, meaning crossing paths with a location you’ve gone before is difficult. So, taking your time or pausing on a difficult jump were impossible, the game forces you to keep moving, and as a result increases the tension. At the same time, the music would morph into a rapid staccato of intense beats, amping up the anxiety I felt internally.</p> <p>That connection between the music, the story, and the gameplay helped <em>Celeste</em> hit home for me in a way that other games had not. <em>Celeste</em> was the first time I felt like the character on the screen reflected back personal struggles I encountered (and still encounter), and so it holds a special place in my heart. I didn’t just feel like the character was an avatar, I felt like I was a conduit for that character to help accomplish her goals.</p> <p>While <em>Celeste</em> didn’t force me to reconsider my previously held beliefs, its combination of music, mechanics, and story left me uplifted and empowered. I finished my time with the game feeling similar to how I feel when I leave a Star Wars film - ready to take on the world.</p> <p><em>Celeste is a 2018 release from Matt Makes Games (now called EXOK games), I played it on the Nintendo Switch.</em></p> Stuart Urback Card of Darkness: A Solitaire-y RPG 2020-03-28T05:54:18Z <p><img src="" alt="Card of Darkness Title Screen - An image of the adventurer in front of a multi-colored rainbow with cards and characters surrounding them" title="Title Screen" /></p> <p>Zach Gage is one of my favorite active game designers. Whenever he releases something, it’s an immediate purchase for me. His games typically play around with a familiar gaming concept like solitaire or chess and adding his own signature twist to it. Combine that with the Pendleton Ward, creator of <em>Adventure Time</em>, and my expectations were through the roof.</p> <p><em>Card of Darkness</em> did not let me down. As a mash-up between Solitaire and an RPG, it pulls Solitaire up a level in complexity for additional challenge (and adds some fantasy elements), and makes RPGs more approachable and short.</p> <p>In <em>Card of Darkness</em>, each level you try to clear a path from your side of the grid to the other side of the grid, by picking up cards representing equipment, potions, and enemies. Each time you pick up a card it will either deal you damage if it's an enemy, heal you if it's a potion, or equip if it's a weapon (weapons help prevent you from taking damage when you pick up an enemy). Any time you start a stack, you have to clear it before you can exit the level.</p> <p><img src="" alt="Character at the start of the level with the first row revealed but subsequent rows hidden" title="Example of the Start of a Level" /></p> <h1 id="why-i-love-it">Why I Love It</h1> <p>In order to explain why I love <em>Card of Darkness</em> so much, I'm going to have to get a little bit technical, and talk about the difference between rules and algorithms.</p> <p>A rule is something that dictates what you are allowed to do. An example of this might be in chess, a knight can only move in an L-shape.</p> <p>An algorithm, is a decision that an AI makes in response to an action you take. An example of this might be a chess AI deciding to capture your pawn with its knight.</p> <p>A traditional Solitaire game is mostly rules, an algorithm (the deck shuffle), will pick the order cards are dealt, but the game is about the player's ability to follow rules to put them into the correct order. A typical RPG is mostly algorithms, it's about the players ability to exploit the algorithm's weaknesses in order to advance. However, the algorithms that underly most RPGs can make them highly unapproachable, because they can take hours of trial and error to learn.</p> <p><img src="" alt="character with the weapon equipped facing an incomplete gameboard" title="Character with Weapon Equipped - Level Incomplete" /></p> <p>By bringing a lot of the concepts of RPGs - enemies with different abilities, power ups, and potions - into the concept of a solitaire game (a deck that get shuffled), <em>Card of Darkness</em> simplifies the concepts of an RPG - swords are cool, enemies are dangerous - into a format that is understandable, and where replays don't feel bad. If you lose a level, the computer &quot;shuffles the deck&quot; again for you when you restart, so you can attempt it again with a totally fresh perspective.</p> <h1 id="getting-started">Getting Started</h1> <p>The game starts you out by quickly walking you through the rules, the goal is to clear a path in the form of piles of cards between you and the end of a level. There are 8 worlds with about 6 or so levels on each. A level can be completed in about 5-10 minutes.</p> <p>Because each level is so quick, I'd encourage you to take risks and experiment with different strategies. Try clearing out a bunch of different piles to rack up gold, or sticking to only the safe path to see what works best for you. Because rounds are so quick, experimentation is fun and doesn't feel like a penalty when you get something wrong.</p> <p><img src="" alt="image of the game board depicting the path being clear from the player to the end of the level" title="Path Clear!" /></p> <h1 id="going-further">Going Further</h1> <p>Card of Darkness has an ending, which is a fact I really appreciate in the era of games that never end. It was nice to be able to see a game through to the end without feeling like I had to replay a level multiple times to get there. Each new different section has a different set of concepts that expanded my perspective on the game.</p> <p>If at the end of the game, you’re excited about playing more card games on iOS (or Android), you’re in luck! I’d highly recommend classics like Card Thief, Meteorfall, and another Gage classic, FlipFlop Solitaire.</p> Dan McAlister Steam Remote Play Together 2020-05-05T18:18:33Z <p><img src="" alt="Screenshot of Overcooked! Chefs preparing food on a wooden ship. " title="Working together is good for your mental health." /></p> <p>Social distancing is an important tool for fighting the Covid-19 pandemic, but it’s costly for our emotional wellbeing. I'm introverted enough to schedule alone-time into my calendar, but I still need <em>some</em> social interaction, at least some of the time. But when we can't meet up in person, when we can't grab a coffee, or go see a movie, what do we do? How can we take time to intentionally connect with others?</p> <p>Online gaming, at first, seems like a natural solution. Games give people something to do together, and the activity creates something to talk about when your life may feel increasingly static and uneventful. But there are also significant barriers to online gaming:</p> <ol> <li>Does everyone own the same game?</li> <li>If not, it it reasonable for them to buy something they may not enjoy?</li> <li>Does the game support online multiplayer?</li> <li>Does everyone have compatible technology to run the same game?</li> </ol> <p><a href="">Remote Play Together</a> is a new technology for the Steam game client that provides an answer to these problems. It’s not perfect, but as long as you understand its limitations and quirks it can be a valuable tool for socializing in scary times.</p> <h2 id="what-is-it%3F">What Is It?</h2> <p>Released in November 2019 for Steam (a game storefront and hub for PC, Mac, and Linux), Remote Play Together is service that facilitates online multiplayer in a unique way. For most online games, players all have to own a copy of the game, and that game needs to be designed for online play. But Remote Play Together works a little differently.</p> <p>For Remote Play Together, only one person (the host) needs a copy of the game, and the game needs to be designed for local (non-online) multiplayer. The host boots up the game, selects players from their Steam Friends List to play with, and Steam sends those players a live video stream of the game running on the host computer. Any player inputs, whether keyboard, mouse, or controller, are sent to the host computer, and the game runs as if everyone is in the same room, playing on the same device. And because other players are receiving a video stream rather than running the actual game, it doesn't matter if the game was designed for their system. If they have a computer that can download the Steam Client, they can join and they can play.</p> <p>I recently started playing <em>Lovers In A Dangerous Spacetime</em> with a friend who lives on the other side of the country. <em>Lovers</em> was designed as a local-only multiplayer game, and she doesn't have a copy anyway, but Remote Play Together solved both of these problems. However, the technology isn't without its quirks.</p> <h2 id="what-are-its-limitations%3F">What Are Its Limitations?</h2> <p><img src="" alt="Screenshot of Lovers In A Dangerous Spacetime. Cute animals back up as reactor explodes. " title="It's a useful technology, but not a flawless one." /></p> <p>Remote Play Together is essentially a video stream from the host computer to your friends' devices, and like any video stream, lag and stuttering are a risk. Most of my games have been stable, but your group's internet connection is going to be a factor in how playable your game is.</p> <p>Player controls can be another issue. Local multiplayer is usually designed for controllers rather than keyboards, and Remote Play Together doesn't change that. It interprets all keyboard and mouse input as coming from the same computer, so 4 players on keyboards is going to confuse the system. You'll have the best experience if every player connects their own game controller, or at the very least, if only one person uses the keyboard and mouse.</p> <p>Finally, only Steam games work with Remote Play Together, and even then not every game on Steam is compatible with this new technology. You can check the <a href="">list of compatible games,</a> or use the filter options in your Steam library to find compatible games you already own.</p> <h2 id="getting-started">Getting Started</h2> <p>If you don't already have Steam, <a href="">download the client,</a> set up an account, and add people to your friends list. Then check out the list of compatible games and find one that appeals to you and your friends.</p> <p>For cooperative action, I recommend <em><a href="">Lovers In A Dangerous Spacetime,</a></em> or <em><a href="">Overcooked.</a></em> If you're playing with people who don't have their own controllers, <em><a href="">Jamestown+</a></em> is an arcade-style shooter that allows for multiple players on the same keyboard. And if you want something that can accommodate big groups, the <em><a href="">Jackbox Party Pack</a></em> series is a good pick, and one that can be played over most video conferencing services as well as Steam.</p> <p>And if this service doesn't fit your needs, look at games that are free to play and available on a variety of platforms, like <em><a href="">Fortnite</a></em> or <em><a href="">Hearthstone.</a></em> These are difficult times, but there are options out there for setting up a social gaming group. Talk to your friends, and find out which option is best for you. But most of all? Make sure you keep talking to your friends.</p> Stuart Urback Sagrada: A Dice Game 2020-05-25T17:50:14Z <h1 id="what-is-it%3F">What is it?</h1> <p>Sagrada is a board game and mobile app about building beautiful stained glass windows by placing colored dice in a 4x5 grid. Between two and four players can play the base game, but up to six can play with the expansion, and the digital game works for single player games. Each round, the group rolls dice, and then takes turns picking the dice to place on their grids. Dice placement must follow two simple rules: 1. Dice must be placed so that they’re connected to a die that’s already been placed. 2. Dice cannot be placed adjacent to a die of the same color or number.</p> <p><img src="" alt="sagrada primary menu with tutorial, local, and online options" title="Sagrada Welcome Screen" /></p> <p>You will score at the end of the game based on a variety of criteria, having rows or columns of different numbers or colors, counts of dice of a certain color, or pairs of certain numbers (i.e. groups of 1 + 2). The puzzle of the game is trying to maximize your score based on the limited amount of information in front of you. Conceptually the game is relaxing as you are limited by the moves you can take (it is impossible to impact your opponents' boards), and the only real tension is in which dice will get rolled and whether or not an opponent will snatch a die you wanted away from you.</p> <h1 id="the-physical-game">The Physical Game</h1> <p>The first time I played Sagrada using real dice and cardboard. I found myself enjoying the game conceptually but disappointed by its execution. The components were small, the dice were smaller than your average 6 sided die (probably to save on cost and space), but it resulted in making it hard to manipulate the pieces into their proper orientation, and all too easy to accidentally bump or drop a die into the wrong configuration.</p> <p>With some games, waiting between turns can be a lot of fun. You can smack talk your opposition. try to figure out how you might respond, or enjoy discussing an interesting concept related to the game. In Sagada, with all of the pieces laid out, there was no suspense to see what other players had built (or any visceral reaction from seeing it).</p> <p>In Sagrada, you needed enough focus to pay attention to your board, but there was little reason to pay attention to what anyone else was doing. It felt like the board game equivalent of people at a table staring at their phones. The turns in Sagrada are fast, but feel like they dragged forever. Because when a new round started, it was pretty easy to pick out which two dice you would want to place, you could rank them and then wait to take your turn.</p> <p>Each time I would go to the game store, I found myself considering it, but never making the purchase. It was hard to imagine a situation where I would play the game, at least, not, until the digital game released.</p> <h1 id="the-digital-game">The Digital Game</h1> <p>The digital version of Sagrada feels more like a puzzle than a game. Playing the game digitally against other players feels less like a battle of wits, and more like sudoku or a crossword puzzle. The game’s layout, a 4x5 grid, feels like it was built for a phone screen, and the concepts are displayed across the screen in a way that presents the important information at the point that I care about them. The illustrations that explain the rules are tappable to open up a card that explains the specific rules.</p> <p><img src="" alt="Hovering the rules gives you further details about how the game works." title="Rules Pop Up" /></p> <p>The campaign version is also quite clever. Sagrada has an additional twist, different “expert” level grids that further constrain the colors or the numbers that can be placed on certain squares. The campaign takes each of these grids and asks players to complete them against the computer opponents. It adds a fun level of progression and novelty to a game that might have limited replayability otherwise, and has kept me coming back for a quick play when I’m in the mood to solve a puzzle.</p> <p><img src="" alt="screen to pick a campaign game, with the layout puzzle being displayed." title="Campaign select screen" /></p> <p>The asynchronous mode was also delightful. For some digital board games, the asynchronous nature can be a challenge, having to re-orient yourself to the state of the game each time the app opens up, can suck a lot of the fun out of an experience. But for Sagrada, because I didn't have to care about what other players were doing on their turns, I was free to enjoy it as is, focusing on me and my stained-glass window. Both the AI games, which I was able to complete in 5 minutes, or the online multiplayer, felt more like playing Sudoku, or The NYT Crossword, which I was quite ok with.</p> <h1 id="accessibility-notes">Accessibility Notes</h1> <p>It feels important to note that Sagrada, as a game about colors, is likely going to be challenging for players who are color blind, though it seems like there are some<a href="">hacks you could use to make it work</a>. The physical game doesn’t have any accessibility enhancements, but the app does have a “color blind” mode in settings that adds some texture to the colors, but the textures seemed to be pretty small to me.</p> <p><img src="" alt="Sagrada Game with Accessible Colors Turned on (patterns on the colors)" title="Accessibility On" /></p> <p>The game also has a confusing system for naming, where they call different numbers “shades” of a color. So a Blue - 1 is a different “shade” than Blue - 6. While I understand the desire for thematic consistency, such a naming convention is likely to compound any issues players might have understanding the game.</p> <h1 id="going-further">Going Further</h1> <p>It's possible that there's a deeper level of strategy to Sagrada that I didn't capture, or a challenging multiplayer scene that I didn't interact with. But for me, enjoying a modestly taxing puzzle for the 5 minutes before bed has been a peaceful way to wind down in the evenings.</p> <p><img src="" alt="fireworks shooting out from the dice grid to signify the game has ended" title="End Game Screen" /></p> <p>If you love puzzle games, like I do, I'd recommend the NYT Crossword (which is available via subscription ~$20 a year). Their Daily Mini is one of my favorite ways to spend 1-5 minutes and you get the benefit of the warmth of supporting great journalism with your money. If you're looking for something more math-focused I might recommend the small mobile game<a href=""></a> Turning (available on <a href="">Web</a>, <a href="">iOS</a>, and <a href=";hl=en_US">Android</a>) or the two-player card game Lost Cities (available digitally or physically).</p> Dan McAlister Pilediver Review: Donut County 2020-10-11T01:56:28Z <p><img src="" alt="A bird on a motor scooter looking at a small hole in the ground. The words &quot;Donut County&quot; arc across the image." /></p> <p>Score: 3/5</p> <p>Available: <a href="">iOS</a>, <a href="">Mac App Store</a>, <a href="">Steam</a>, <a href="">PlayStation 4</a>, <a href="">Switch</a>, <a href="">Xbox One</a></p> <p><em><a href="">Donut County</a></em> is a game about rummaging through other people’s junk, so it’s fitting that its main character, BK, is a raccoon. He works for a donut shop, a shop that does delivery. But BK isn’t sending out crullers. Instead, he uses a tablet app to open a small hole on the customer’s property. Then he ransacks the place.</p> <p>As the player, you control these seemingly bottomless holes through BK’s tablet. When you first “deliver” a hole to an unsuspecting customer, it’s minuscule and inoffensive. You direct it across the ground, sweeping it underneath bookshelves and chicken coops, but it’s too small to be disruptive; at most you might jostle a chair leg or spook a pet dog, but the scene will remain largely undisturbed.</p> <p>Then you find a tennis ball, or a wad of paper, or a small plant. Skip the large stuff, and you’ll find smaller detritus that drops away into the dark below. And each time you do, the hole pops open a little wider.</p> <p>Moving on, you’ll find that your “donut” can accommodate increasingly large objects. Books, tires, birdcages. That stool looks like it can fit, even with the person sitting on top. You’ll eventually swallow up boulders, trees, pottery studios and homes, as small scale rummaging turns into total property obliteration.</p> <p><img src="" alt="A hole growing bigger, knocking over tables and smashing pots." /></p> <p>Believe it or not, BK’s “work” is not universally appreciated, and the job of explaining that to him falls on his friend Mira. Mira shares a lot of similarities with BK: they both work at the same donut shop, neither shows much enthusiasm for the job, and they’re both quick to laugh, at least over text. But Mira is not a raccoon, nor are the dozen or so townspeople who begin the game in a dark pit “nine hundred ninety-nine feet” below town. Now, how do you think they get there?</p> <p>In dialogue that plays out in this abyss, we see Mira and the townspeople confront BK over his actions. But BK always deflects: that wasn’t me, I was just doing my job, maybe we’re all better off in a dark pit (I’m writing this in 2020, so that last one is pretty understandable). And each conversation is followed by a flashback, a playable level of what happened, of how exactly BK destroyed that person’s life.</p> <p><img src="" alt="BK surrounded by the townspeople. BK says &quot;I'M the victim!!!&quot;" /></p> <p>But for all the conflict and objections raised in the dialogue scenes, there’s no real tension to the gameplay sections of stealing people’s stuff. The rummaging of <em>Donut County</em> is enjoyable; I had fun sifting through belongings, popping up refuse, knocking over benches stacked with clay pots and watching them smack the ground and shatter. But there’s also little to stop you, or push back against you. Mira wants BK to recognize how much he’s hurt others, but the main gameplay scenes don’t reflect this viewpoint. The characters rarely signal annoyance, despair, or much of anything as their belongings are seized and destroyed. They’ll stare blankly as a growing, ominous pit swallows up their car and sofa, and only express mild surprise as they themselves topple into the unknown.</p> <p>These scenes of rummaging feel grounded in BK’s perspective that he’s <em>doing nothing wrong,</em> so it makes sense that he believes in his innocence. Meanwhile, Mira’s forceful pushback represents the game’s story at its best; she’s upset with him not because he’s terrible (he’s pretty terrible, though), but because they’re <em>friends,</em> and she wants him to be better. At the very least, she wants him to understand and acknowledge the harm he’s inflicted on everyone else. These scenes are written with a kind of furious, exasperated compassion. We see Mira lash out, wanting to hurt BK in the same way he’s hurt others, but it’s couched in a concealed sadness. Why is this so hard for BK to understand?</p> <p>I’ll remember their dynamic more than I’ll remember the property destruction, because the scenes of rummaging and stealing mostly lack the tension that makes BK and Mira’s relationship so interesting. Like I said, the knocking things over, breaking things, stealing things, that’s all fun! But without a counterbalancing force, or a citizenry that push back on what you’re doing, the gameplay is more of an amusing procedure than the chaotic mischief I had expected.</p> <p><em>Donut County</em> shifts toward the end of the game, introducing an antagonism in its gameplay through characters that <em>do</em> mind you stealing their things, and they act accordingly. The final levels show what the game could have been, and it’s much better for it. But for most of the game’s brief runtime (just over 2 hours), <em>Donut County</em> is an undemanding and enjoyable hangout. I had fun, but I also wish the game took more after Mira than BK.</p> <p><img src="" alt="Cars drive off of a backed up highway and into a massive hole." /></p> <p><em>Pilediver is a review series where I play through the many, many games in my backlog. Thank you for reading.</em></p> Stuart Urback Apple Arcade, 1 Year In 2020-10-20T04:26:19Z <p>On <a href="">a recent episode</a> of <em>The Vergecast</em>, Apple Arcade was compared derisively to other game subscription services like Google Stadia or Amazon Luna. I initially reacted to this with frustration. Not because Apple deserves any level of protection, but because Apple Arcade represents an interesting niche that’s focused on making premium games for mobile, arguably the largest gaming platform in the world, accessible to a wide swath of people.</p> <p>Roughly <a href="">728 million iPhones have been sold worldwide</a>. Compare this to the best-selling game console of all time, the Playstation 2, clocking in at <a href="">155 million</a>. The reach of the iPhone alone means that the types of people who will be exposed to Apple Arcade will be much broader than a service like Microsoft Gamepass. For me to give a recommendation to subscribe to Apple Arcade to the audience of Play This Tonight, it’s not enough that there will be some good options, the service, like a Netflix or a YouTube, should either provide games that are worth a $5 a month subscription or provide a clear avenue for players to find their next game. As much as I love <em>Card of Darkness</em> (a premier game on Apple Arcade that I would have happily paid $10 for it), I would not recommend it for $5 a month.</p> <p>One year in, even with the incredible catalog of games, Apple Arcade seems fairly listless. Other articles have mentioned <a href="">similar concerns</a> and even Apple has seemed to <a href="">reconsider the way it handles</a> new games on the platform. Aside from a couple of nice articles from <a href="">CNET</a> and <a href="">Kotaku</a>, or recurring posts on <a href="">Touch Arcade</a> or <a href="">9to5 Mac</a> Apple Arcade isn’t discussed much either on the popular sites or among my work and friend groups. Reflecting further, I realized as much as I love the service, I haven’t recommended it to anyone I know, and I recommend a lot of games to people. I could list 10 amazing games on the service off the top of my head but I never recommend anyone subscribe to it.</p> <p>So, I wanted to take some time to think about why I don’t recommend Apple Arcade, and what it would take for me to want to. What follows is a (likely too in-depth) interrogation of my up and down relationship with Apple Arcade in the context of 2020, a year of anti-trust, streaming wars, and coronavirus turmoil.</p> <h2 id="what-i-love-about-it">What I Love About It</h2> <p>Apple Arcade launched with a stunning array of titles. I specifically remember two jumping out to me. One was <em>Card of Darkness</em> by <a href="">Zach Gage</a> and <em>Cardpocalypse</em> by Gambrinous games, whose previous title, <em>Guild of Dungeoneering</em> was a personal favorite I often found myself coming back to. I also remember being surprised by the amount of big names, like Konami attached to the launch. The types of game on Apple Arcade, are the types of games that I enjoy in general, on the gaming platform I use the most (my iPhone). These small, pocketable games that I can play in 5-10 minutes because I’m too often distracted (or now stressed) to escape for much longer.</p> <p>Friends are often surprised that someone who spends so much time thinking about game design would prefer small games. Games like <em>Card of Darkness</em> (a solitaire <a href="">“roguelike”</a>), or <em>Pinball Wizard</em> (a cute take on a pinball game), <em>Over The Alps</em> (a beautiful choose your own adventure), <em>Assemble With Care</em> (a new game by the makers of <em>Monument Valley</em>) or <em>Dear Reader</em> (a fun word puzzler), to just mention a few. I probably would have paid $5 for each of these, and to get all of them for a monthly subscription felt luxurious. Small games are like poetry to me, the focus on mechanics hides a depth that draws me in. The thought of a game platform dedicated to premium mobile games, with Apple’s backing had the allure of legitimating and expanding the types of games I love to a broader audience.</p> <h2 id="the-world-as-it-is">The World As It Is</h2> <p>Up to this point last year, iOS had simultaneously been one of the most profitable platform for premium games, but those same games had seen declining revenue for a fair amount of time. There are plenty of reasons this could be. Potential causes point to Apple’s method of highlighting games, Apple demonetizing affiliate links, discovery of new games on the App Store had been plummeting for some time. Arcade appeared to be an opportunity to reverse some of those trends and hopefully also lead to a newly flourishing indie scene.</p> <p>It’s impossible to disentangle that context from the walled garden Apple created. For example, a large majority of Apple’s services revenue actually comes from in-app purchases on games like <em>Candy Crush</em> or <em>Clash of Clans</em>. There’s a mismatch between the needs of a giant like Apple and the needs of the apps who happen to live within its walls.</p> <p>Apple does not make it easy to create a game streaming or game subscription service on its platform. While one does exist, <a href="">Game Club</a>, it relies on pre-existing iPhone games updated for newer versions of iOS. Furthermore, Apple treats games qualitatively different from other types of content. Apple has gone on record, <a href="">clarifying that the way that “streaming services”</a> can get on the App Store. It’s possible that anti-trust concerns could in fact prevent Apple from making improvements. It’s important to mention here that there is another game subscription service on the app store, called Game Club. While content like music (Spotify), books (Audible/Kindle), TV (Netflix) might not be purchased through iOS, you can load them all from a single app. Even while Apple Arcade has an incredible number of games, it comes with the recognition that Apple has made it hard for other potential gaming services to exist.</p> <h2 id="why-i-don%E2%80%99t-recommend-it-(and-some-recommendations-to-change-that)">Why I Don’t Recommend It (and some recommendations to change that)</h2> <p>Apple launched Apple Arcade right before the start of what is sometimes referred to as the streaming wars, where every imaginable company seemed to try to launch a service to host video content for a monthly subscription (here’s looking at you <em>Quibi</em>). Other gaming streaming services have also launched, like Microsoft xCloud, Google Stadia or Amazon Luna. Most of the value of the game streaming is from being able to offload the processing power for <strong>huge</strong> titles onto Google’s or Microsoft’s or Amazon’s server, so that you can play on your cheap device. Previous gaming subscriptions Xbox Gamepass or Playstation Plus seemed designed to get you to take advantage of the console you already owned. Apple Arcade felt different in that it was a subscription aimed at games designed <strong>for</strong> your phone, rather than merely being playable <strong>on</strong> your phone.</p> <h3 id="a-confusing-catalog">A Confusing Catalog</h3> <p>While a plethora of amazing, accessible games is perfect for someone like me, it’s less perfect for people who might not stay up to date on the new and upcoming titles and so would not know what game they want to play next. Sites like this one, Touch Arcade, or Polygon might give recommendations, but that requires subscribes to be looking at those sites, and for those sites to regularly feature games from Apple Arcade. This is the part where the popularity of Netflix/HBO Max/Amazon Prime come into play. Most sites will regularly feature articles reviewing recent releases and also write lists of shows leaving and joining the various services. Without this boost, Apple Arcade has to do more work on its own to make sure that the right subscribers are discovering the content that matches their needs.</p> <p>This dichotomy between how Apple treats something like Games compared to something like TV becomes apparent when you compare Apple’s TV app to the Arcade section of the App Store. Navigating to the TV app, TV episodes and Movies (TV+ or otherwise) are displayed with large photos, detailed information, and the episode options. There’s bonus content, cast &amp; crew, and a how to watch section. Continue scrolling there’s an about section with further details about the show. Looking at the Arcade section, games are treated more like basic apps. There is update information, reviews, and a description of the game, with maybe some details about a recent update. This is unsurprising though, in that <a href="">same article by the verge</a>, Apple makes it clear that they view streaming services like Netflix and Spotify, fundamentally different from Apps like Games. It’s my opinion that this perspective is fundamentally misguided and narrow, and has the potential to hold gaming back on the platform, both in how it’s limited as a service, and in how Apple unwittingly downplays games as a form of creative expression.</p> <p>The Arcade section, as it currently exists is too cluttered, and individual game pages aren’t designed to help me, as a user make better decisions. For example, the fact that Apple still has a review section on their games in Arcade makes little sense. What happens if a game gets rated 2 stars? Would they intend to take it off the platform altogether? How would that help me as a subscriber determine whether I would want to play it? Reviews might be defensible on an App Store (where users are a trying to make a purchase decision), but the presumption should be that the content in a subscription is good, and if it’s not (for you) that probably means that someone else appreciates it in a way you haven’t thought of before.</p> <p>Compare this to a service like Netflix or YouTube. When I log into that app I have a series of curated channels that I have access to, can search through, and have recommendations for interesting sets of potential shows/movies that match trends or similar viewing patterns. In Netflix’s these aren’t standard “Comedy” or “Drama”. They’re specific, like “Comedies with a Strong Female Lead” or “Witty British Dramas”. They both suggest something qualitative about the shows, and give me nudges for what to watch next. In Youtube’s case (algorithm aside), I can subscribe to channels that I find interesting.</p> <h3 id="opportunity%3A-a-structured-catalog-experience">Opportunity: A Structured Catalog Experience</h3> <p>Firstly, I think Apple should treat Arcade like a stand-alone app outside the App Store. I suspect the reason they do not is that allowing purchases from other places beyond the App Store would get it in trouble with anti-trust regulation, but that’s an Apple problem, not a user problem. Having a centralized place to go to when I’m looking for an “Apple Arcade” experience would go a long way towards treating the games and the service like a first class citizen.</p> <p>Secondly, I think Apple should improve the visual treatment of the section (or this fictional new app I’m making up), to look a lot more like their TV app. They could feature Metacritic reviews, Twitch/YouTube/Facebook streams if they exist, and highlights from recent content updates, or daily puzzles for that particular game. There are so many ways to experience games, and limiting the interaction to “download or not”, from my perspective, destroys a lot of the magic of browsing through the interface.</p> <p>Finally, and again, this strains at the realm of “things Apple would reasonably do” they could deepen the integration between the Arcade service and the available games. Allowing players to jump into specific parts of games from the Arcade app would reduce the number of screens and swipes subscribers have to take from their service, into their gaming experience. Whether that would be new content like a Telltale experience, or a multiplayer game, being able to access content directly would build a lot of goodwill.</p> <p>On a personal level, though, how would I feel if Apple introduced these changes without making other changes in the broader App Store? To be honest, it would feel pretty slimy, and be a clear indicator that Apple was using its leverage over the App Store to further provide services that competitors could not keep up with. The solution? Open the App Store up to other game streaming services. Even if they won’t let other App Stores in their walled garden, letting other streaming services would create real competition without blatantly challenging their profit.</p> <h3 id="collaborative-play">Collaborative Play</h3> <p>Another important part of subscription services is the value they add to people’s relationships with their close friends or their community. Events like Game of Thrones felt like a cultural moment, where you wanted to be a part of understanding what was going on. For one-off content, like most of the games we recommend here, this is absolutely not an expectation. But as a game subscription service, I have expectations for a broader range of potential offerings. Arcade has definitely added options that speak to this: <em>LEGO Brawls</em>, <em>Crossy Road Castle</em>, and <em>Butter Royale</em> are all playable multiplayer games.</p> <p>But for a service like Apple Arcade, especially one that I’m playing on my phone a lot, not offering asynchronous multiplayer games surprises me. Even a service like the New York Times Crossword puzzle (a $20 a year subscription) feels like it is designed more for collaborative play. The nature of the puzzles lend themselves more towards sharing or bragging when I find a word or a solution that was particularly difficult. Arcade has few games like this that are easier to share with other people, and even fewer that I would ask friends to play with me.</p> <p>For example, Apple has a “Share with family” section that gives step-by-step instructions on how to set up family sharing so other members of my family have access to Apple Arcade. It even lists a few great games to share. But what it doesn’t do is tell me why I would want to share those specific games with my family or friends.</p> <h3 id="opportunity%3A-sharing-the-moment">Opportunity: Sharing the Moment</h3> <p>Simply put, multiplayer games like this on Arcade would make recommendations easier to give. Multiplayer games are experiences that bring people closer together, and provide a clear reason to stay signed up because you can play them over and over. The “regular” iOS App Store already has a rapidly expanding set of games dedicated to board game ports. Steam is throwing a “Tabletop festival” next week to celebrate this growing segment of gaming. Board games have a bunch of great qualities that would appear to make them a good fit for a platform like Apple Arcade. The metaphor of a touchscreen maps on to a lot of the actions that players make, they’re easy to pick up and put down (turns are often fairly short), and you play with multiple people, potentially even family (with the family share feature!).</p> <p>The other component piece that other subscription services (<a href="">especially Netflix</a>) have invested in is making their content easily meme-able. This is a bit more “company centric” as a strategy to increase the “reach” of its “content”. But I also think it speaks to both a human need, and the cultural moment to at least make some content on the platform shareable. Other game specific streaming services, like Stadia have sharing with Youtube built in, Luna will have a Twitch integration, and xCloud will at the very least have the benefit that it will have a lot of big games that people will likely want to stream.</p> <p>I think Google Stadia’s concept of <a href="">share links</a> could be extrapolated by Apple to create some neat opportunities. It would be neat in a game like <em>What the Golf</em> to be able to get a share code for a specific puzzle I’ve solved to try to challenge my friends with it. This is an implementation that Zach Gage’s <em>Good Sudoku</em> handles exceptionally well, and creating a consistent UX pattern and developer API could help something like this take off.</p> <h3 id="human-focus">Human Focus</h3> <p>The final frustration I have, is at the heart of a lot of my frustrations with how people tend to talk about games in general. This is not a problem that’s unique to Apple. People who make games are under-appreciated relative to other forms of art. There are podcasts like <a href="">Humans Who Make Games</a> do a great job peeling back behind the curtain, and Apple Arcade’s initial launch had quite a number of developer interviews. But, for a company like Apple that seems to love espousing all the amazing things you can do on its platform, Apple Arcade spends next to no time talking up a large majority of its absolutely incredible designers and design studio list.</p> <p>When Apple Arcade was announced I remember being absolutely floored by the list of design studios who were joining the platform. Apple did a great job <strong>during the announcement video</strong> highlighting the people behind the games. But it mostly stopped after that. By contrast, Netflix has an entire Youtube channel dedicated to highlighting stand-up comedians, often people I’ve never heard of. Apple itself even creates editorial content for featured games and apps that it’s trying to sell you on the App store. The most I’ve been able to find for Apple Arcade is the <a href="">Twitter account</a> which will occasionally tweet out an upcoming or newly released title. This isn’t just a problem for the industry or the service, it’s also a problem for the subscribers. People are naturally less interested in things they don’t understand or can’t connect to. It’s frustrating to hear about how Apple is disappointed with the lack of engagement in the games without seeing much investment from Apple selling the value of these games to potential subscribers.</p> <p>While I might sign onto Apple TV+ and immediately recognize Jason Sudeikis in Ted Lasso. I would have no clue that Card of Darkness is made by a prolific App Developer Zach Gage who has made a plethora of iOS games like Flip Flop Solitaire, Good Sudoku, and Pocket Run Pool that are easy to learn like Flip Flop Solitaire. It would be pretty hard to figure out that something like Assemble With Care was designed by the same studio who made Monument Valley (who Apple has even featured!).</p> <h3 id="opportunity%3A-highlight-the-creatives">Opportunity: Highlight The Creatives</h3> <p>This one seems like the biggest no-brainer to me. Reduce the clutter on the Arcade section of the store, make it look more like the TV app, and highlight the work of the creatives who make the games. Feature photos of the designers, tell stories about how they came up with the games, and instead of highlighting reviews or bug updates, display in-depth walkthroughs or verified reviews from sites like Metacritic, or interviews. Specifically feature the daily run (a clickable link to get into it from the App’s page would be sweet). Apple already does some of this on their “Featured” page in the App Store, but doubling down further on Apple Arcade would literally show people the value of the service by talking up their designers, artists, programmers, etc.</p> <p>While a feature list is a bit of a tall ask, and mostly comes from my perspective, the types of information that is currently displayed on the Arcade section of the App store does not do enough to make the games human and relatable. Apple has a real opportunity here, not because women or people older than 30 don’t play console games, but because there are a lot more people who own iPhones, and a lot more people who might be interested in that service, if they knew more about the games and the people within it.</p> <h2 id="questions-going-forward">Questions Going Forward</h2> <p>I’ve outlined what I would like to see to start recommending Apple Arcade to people, but there are some other questions I’m curious about moving forward. Here are some of them, in no special order.</p> <p>How will Arcade manage differentiating kid’s games? Given the games that were demoed at the initial launch, one of the main value propositions would appear to be parents being able to hand over their phone or iPad and have a stable of cheap (subscription) games that don’t open their kids up to accidentally making massive freemium purchases. Managing both children’s content in addition to content aimed at others is a challenge that it would be nice to see fully addressed. It’s easy to envision them living in a different section, like Arcade for Kids, though that’s clearly not the approach at the moment. This is something that services like Netflix and Youtube have had to deal with.</p> <p>How will Arcade handle cross-play? Apple’s cross-system saves are impressive, with the asterisk that because Apple only allows you to play on their devices. A number of the Arcade games have felt trapped by this dichotomy. Games like Card of Darkness are available on Mac but were clearly designed for iPhone, whereas something like Exit the Gungeon is basically unplayable on a phone (unless you have a controller), while it’s a good match for Mac gaming. The big question I have there is will iCloud saves continue to be a focus for the service, or will they lean more heavily into mobile gaming?</p> <p>Will Apple look to develop or purchase studios like Google and Microsoft have done or will it continue working with indies? Since Apple Arcade launched there have been a number of titles that felt like they might be great fits for the program. One of my greatest disappointments about iOS is the sheer volume of games that make it to Nintendo Switch and Steam, but that very reasonably do not end up on iOS simply because they don’t make any money on the platform. Apple Arcade seemed like a great opportunity to bring games like <em>The Solitaire Conspiracy</em> or <em>Carto</em> that from my perspective would seem to be good fits for the platform but would otherwise not likely make it over. The idealist in me would like to believe, Apple could find a happy medium between partnering with these studios to bring their games to iOS, without gobbling them up like Microsoft and Google.</p> <h2 id="conclusion">Conclusion</h2> <p>Scrolling down to the “Coming Soon” section and seeing unexpected titles like <em>South of the Circle</em> and <em>Reigns Beyond</em> sets me alight with wonder and possibility of the experiences that might await. It seems like the trend towards subscription services as the primary way we access works of art (especially for games and movies/tv) is only going to accelerate moving forward. Their eclectic catalog is a great place to start, but if Apple is sincere about <a href="">investing $500 billion into the platform</a>, it should also invest some of that into the infrastructure to make Apple Arcade a service rather than just a collection of great games.</p> <p>The concept of Apple Arcade speaks to me directly, and I am hopeful that in the future we’ll be able to talk about the new games and episodes coming this month to Apple Arcade (or another mobile first streaming platform). I’m hopeful that with the right amount of effort it can become a premium service like GamePass that expands the world of premium and artistic games to a broader audience. Until improvements are made, I won’t be the one recommending it, but I will be sitting down and enjoying <em>A Monster’s Expedition</em> or <em>The Last Campfire</em>.</p> Stuart Urback Lonely Mountains Downhill, A Sublime Ride 2020-10-26T06:47:49Z <h2 id="enter-lonely-mountains">Enter Lonely Mountains</h2> <p><em>Lonely Mountains</em> is a game about downhill mountain biking. Developed by Megagon Industries and released in 2019, available on Switch, Xbox, PlayStation and PC. You are a rider on a bike, at the top of a mountain, and your goal is to get down it quickly and with as few crashes as possible. You have to learn how to brake, turn, drift, jump, and avoid obstacles to get to the bottom. There are checkpoints on the way down which you will restart at anytime you crash. Often you are trying to complete an objective like minimizing crashes or getting down the mountain as fast as possible.</p> <p>The focus of <em>Lonely Mountain</em> is on the player’s ability to navigate the different challenges on your way down the mountain. There isn’t a lot of content that you might find in other games like enemies, puzzles, or a randomized path. The rewards for a successful run are minimal, besides unlocking new bikes and new routes. Once you’ve seen the challenges on one mountain, you have a good sense of the types of challenges you’ll see throughout the rest of the game. And yet, <em>Lonely Mountain</em> shines as an experience because of the quality of the challenge and the excess of game-feel.</p> <h2 id="going-downhill">Going Downhill</h2> <p><img src="" alt="A player on a bike going through a checkpoint" title="Checkpoint" /></p> <p>There are some clever, subtle designs that highlight how <em>Downhill</em> helps players achieve game-feel, without pushing them over the edge to get there. When you first encounter a new course on a mountain (i.e. “explorer” mode), it’s pretty much all guardrails. There are no objectives or achievements to unlock. There are roughly 7 gates (save checkpoints) per course that you have to cross to unlock the next set of goals for the course, but no time limits to encounter. This sets up a sort of exploratory mode for the player, where you can make your way down the mountain, trying new things out, but with the main goal of getting a feel for the course. It’s also not so exploratory that someone like me (who likes guardrails) gets lost.</p> <p>Once you’ve completed that, the next set of “beginner” goals are typically speed and crash based. You have to make it to the bottom of the mountain within a certain amount of time, and (hopefully) having crashed fewer than 13-20 times (depending on the course). This is an increased challenge, but one that feels doable. One of the things I noticed is how early in the course I would try to play perfectly, aiming to collect both rewards (for both time and speed), but usually about halfway through I would fail one of them. Rather than being disappointed, I would feel freed to throw all my effort into the other goal. For example, if I ran over my crash limit, I would throw myself down the course with wild abandon, not caring about how many times I fell to my doom. The “expert” challenges are an extension of “beginner” but with harder goals and a twist (like a combination of crash maximum and time limit). The final “free rider” challenge is always to go down the mountain in one go, without any crashes. And to be frank, I’ve never once tried these. Subsequent paths and new mountains have opened up quickly enough that I’m able to play at the pace I want to, without having to push so hard out of necessity. I’m able to tune my challenge to the extent I want, without feeling like I’m cheating myself of an experience.</p> <p>There are other small touches that make the game seem to sing as well. The sounds of birds chirping and water running in the background is soothing. The giant red cubes that come spilling out of the rider when they crash are cringe inducing but funny, in that kind of knee-jerk reaction you make seeing a funny YouTube video. The haptic feedback on the controller creates a tactile experience and provides useful information. These small but positive experiences add up to a game that feels like it cares about your big and small emotions, but without forcing you into a mood.</p> <h2 id="this-flow-thing">This Flow Thing</h2> <p><img src="" alt="A player drifting with dirt colored voxels spitting out of the back tire." title="Drifting" /></p> <p>The sparsity of <em>Lonely Mountains</em> does a good job of reinforcing the fact that I was alone, playing a video game. And in the year 2020, where social/political unrest run rampant and a pandemic is completely out of control, being alone playing a video game (a game that reminded me I was alone), feels indulgent and almost pointless.</p> <p>This reminded me of Tevis Thompson’s <a href="">the worst games of 2018</a>. In his review of <a href="">Dead Cells</a>, he talks about the relationship between that game’s content and being challenged in the world.</p> <blockquote> <p>We still care too much about game-feel. See Destiny. See also Celeste. There’s something icky about the way game critics fetishize it. That luscious feedback, that perfect extension of your will, that zone you wish to stay in forever. Gross.<br /> While <em>Lonely Mountains</em> is a different from a game like Dead Cell’s in the sparse lack of content, the focus on game-feel is similar. Was I also fetishizing game-feel as an escape?</p> </blockquote> <p>For those that might not know, game-feel is a somewhat insider term that references the relationship between the UI of a video game and your ability as a player to use that UI to do what you accomplish, as popularized in a book <a href="">Game Feel by Steve Swink</a>. Games with strong game-feel will tend to feel like you can play the game as though it was an extension of your mind. The translation from thought to action is near instantaneous. What Film Critic Hulk called when “games match our expectations and move at the speed of our intentions.” For me, <em>Downhill</em>’s feedback, sound, and visuals hit all the right notes of achieving perfect game-feel, but it also seemed to connect with something deeper. But what differentiates it from <em>Dead Cells</em> or <em>Destiny</em> or other games that Tevis argues fetishize game-feel?</p> <h2 id="the-feel-of-it">The Feel Of It</h2> <p>I played baseball for most of my childhood. Occasionally I touched something approaching decent (until high school), and I enjoyed it quite a bit because doing the basic motions of baseball are fun. Tracking a ball into your glove until you hear it pop and feel your hands close around the glove. When I pitched, I even enjoyed the “look back”; going into my windup on the mound, and turning my head to look back at the runner on second base. But nothing could quite compare to the feel of throwing a baseball.</p> <p>The literal motion of my arm through the air. Feeling my muscles tense and release as I executed a series of motions to get the ball where I wanted it to go as fast as possible. Feeling the grip of my fingers across the seams of the ball. This all might seem silly, but to me, it’s a physical equivalent of the feel of a response UI on a computer screen, or sounds and haptic feedback when executing a move. That sum of sensory feedback feels good. We don’t really call these things game-feel when they involve sports, but it’s the same general principle.</p> <h2 id="doing-stuff-is-hard">Doing Stuff is Hard</h2> <p><img src="" alt="A player and bike being thrown into the rocks with red voxels spilling everywhere." title="Crashing" /></p> <p>One was the act of doing the thing, and two was the act of learning to do the thing well. Doing something a lot means a lot of failure. As a pitcher in high school, I would throw the ball to a place I didn’t exactly intend. It’s a reminder that getting our bodies to do a specific thing we want is not automatic. In fact, it is frequently difficult. I cannot tell you how many times after practice I would go home with a sore arm, or end a game disappointed with the results. But I will also never forget the time I worked with my pitching coach to get the correct shoulder motion to increase the velocity of the ball when I threw it.</p> <p>I think <em>Lonely Mountains</em> is fun for the same reason I think sports is fun, for the same reason I think other pursuits like knitting, or piano are fun. Learning control over different physical motions is a skill, and it’s something that is easy to forget has to be practiced. But it’s that practice we can develop new skills through understanding the way our bodies work and the way they relate to the world. It’s what Ian Bogost calls an inversion of the ground, which is what makes games fun. It’s the feel, the relationship between our actions and our senses that guides us to helping understand what we are capable of. I could not exactly tell you the physical motions I’m going through when I throw a baseball or when I’m careening down a mountain in <em>Downhill</em>, but I can easily feel my way through it.</p> <p>I've never mountain biked, and I don't intend to. But the game connected with me, and specifically with the part of me that used to play baseball. The motions of going through the same section of a mountain course over and over again reminded me of times with my pitching coach, learning how to throw the ball faster. It felt right. It felt like I unlocked an understanding about myself.</p> <h2 id="the-value-of-repetition-and-flow">The Value of Repetition and Flow</h2> <p>It’s certainly easy to fetishize the game-feel of a game like <em>Lonely Mountains: Downhill</em>, but the emphasis on practice and failure creates a tangible connection with the physical world (in this case my hands and the controller) that is a real skill I developed. The feel for the game that I developed — that I earned — is one that helps me unlock periods of respite, or deeper thought while I’m playing the game, away from the concerns of the current scene. These weren’t mere escapes, but opportunities for me to reconnect and ground myself.</p> <p>When Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi popularized the concept of flow in his book <em>Flow</em>, he kicked off a design trend where you could theoretically “keep players in a perfect state of flow” by constantly incrementally ratcheting up challenges over time. As long as the challenges get slightly harder over time, at roughly the same rate that a player gets more skilled the player will create an addictive but enjoyable play pattern. By managing these in correct increments, the player of a game could theoretically never be bored or never be too challenged. But these hide an underlying reality that the player is on an escalator and the game won’t let them off.</p> <p>I don’t think it’s helpful to aspire to being in a perfect state of flow. Even though the challenges that help us achieve flow also prevent us from experiencing it in the present, it’s the tension between the failure and the success that makes the result of a game rewarding. Crashing 53 times in a single segment in <em>Lonely Mountains</em> is not mindless. But the skills I won as a result of those failures makes the flow I experience on a perfect run that much more sublime. Tevis Thompson’s article argues that the fetishization of the game-feel is the issue, but I would argue that the feel isn’t the problem; it’s that systems that are designed to prevent failure from happening (or from happening for too long) cheapen our relationship to success we might find.</p> <p>This is where the sparsity of <em>Lonely Mountains</em> shines. Rather than helping you over the next turn, it lets you fail over and over again. Instead, its generosity lies in the tight feedback loops (the longest segments of a route on a mountain are less than 1 minute), and challenges that players tune to their level of comfort on a mountain. Because of the skill development, failure, and occasional moments of sublime success, playing <em>Lonely Mountains</em> felt similar to playing baseball for me. For this reason, it’s a shining example of how games can feel tactile, real, and grounded.</p> Dan McAlister Pilediver Review: Dead Space Extraction 2020-10-30T02:57:57Z <p><img src="" alt="A necromorph facing down the player." /></p> <p>Score: 2/5</p> <p>Platforms: Wii, PS3</p> <p><em>Dead Space: Extraction</em> is an action-horror game originally released for the Wii and later polished up for a PS3 port. It’s a prequel to the original <em>Dead Space,</em> but it has a major gameplay difference from its predecessor. The original <em>Dead Space</em> is a free roaming shooter where you explore a spaceship and get in firefights with zombie-like “necromorphs.” <em>Dead Space: Extraction</em> shares the space-bound setting, but takes the exploration out of it; it’s a rail shooter. Think <em>House of the Dead</em>, <em>Timesplitters</em>, or any cabinet at the arcade where you point a plastic gun at the screen. The game controls the player’s movement through a shooting gallery, while the player points the gun (or in my case, the Wii remote) and pulls the trigger.</p> <p>I’m fond of rail shooters because they offer an interesting challenge: design by subtraction. As necromorphs barrel down a hallway at you, you no longer have the options of scrambling for cover, performing evasive maneuvers, or making a tactical retreat. You’re locked in place, but does that have to mean you have fewer choices? Is it the same shooter gameplay, but less? <em>Dead Space: Extraction</em> makes some novel adjustments to the rail shooter genre, changes that seem designed to take up the challenge of deepening what some might see as a simplistic kind of game. The ideas are mostly good, but the execution is mostly not.</p> <p>The game starts with something not usually found in arcade-inspired games: a good deal of narrative. The story starts after the discovery of a “marker,” a kind of twisted obsidian structure with strange markings, glowing red lights, and a bad vibe. These things are viewed differently depending on whether you’re a cultist who worships them as sacred relics, or a rational observer who looks at sinister glowing sculptures and assumes they occur naturally and are not a big deal. But personal perspective ends up not mattering so much when the marker starts emitting signals that zombify dead bodies. After that, everyone’s pretty equally done for.</p> <p>The game’s ten levels shift the player between different point-of-view characters, most of whom are part of a core team of survivors. They’re all flat archetypes: McNeill (good cop) is there to be inoffensive. Weller (gruff cop) is there to tell Lexine “Sorry, sweetheart, but you can’t come with us ” so that McNeill can stick up for her. Lexine (“sweetheart”) is love-interested in McNeill. As for Eckhardt (company executive), I jotted down “definitely evil” as soon as we met and I never needed to update my notes on him after that. There are some other figures who drift into the plot as needed, but they’re all cannon fodder, usually dispatched within minutes of arriving. It conditioned me not to emotionally invest in any “new friends”, and to not be scared for them either. When a fresh character’s head rolled past me in a later chapter, I just laughed.</p> <p><img src="" alt="Lexine telling the other characters “Would you two stop arguing for God’s sakes?”" title="They’re not a fun group." /></p> <p>While the details of the story are uninteresting, the execution holds a lot of promise. The game’s camera, rather than scanning smoothly like a classic rail shooter or Disneyland automoton attraction, mimics a terrified human motion. It bobs to accommodate a strained, rapid breath. It looks forward, then snaps back; what was that darting shadow? A necromorph knocks your character to the ground, creating something rare in a game, an upward perspective from a flat back. In a story bereft of interest, the camera operator is giving their all.</p> <p>The player-controlled mechanics also introduce a lot of possibility, but are underutilized. My favorite of these is the glow worm, a luminescent stick used to explore dark passageways (and presumably space-raves, which are not present in this title). Give the Wii remote a shake, and your glow worm lights up the dark, revealing surroundings and potential enemies, if only for thirty seconds or so. But here’s the catch: if you’re shaking the Wii remote, you’re not pointing it at the screen. If enemies are advancing on you in the dark, are you better off shooting blindly, or charging your light while the unknown creeps ever closer? It’s a great question for the game to ask the player, but <em>Extraction</em> only asked it of me once, in the penultimate level. That was the only time an encounter in the dark lasted long enough that my light went out, making me revisit that decision again and again while wondering how many more necromorphs were still coming around the corner. Every other time I needed to use the glow worm, enemies attacked me in more considerate ones and twos.</p> <p><em>Extraction</em> shows plenty more ingenuity for mechanics, but the implementation never matches up to the idea. Telekinesis lets you pick up objects from the environment to pitch at enemies, but ammo pickups for your weapons are so generous that it’s rarely worth the effort. A dismemberment system places emphasis on shooting limbs off of zombies, opening up possibilities for creative play. But shooting a zombie’s legs out quickly becomes second nature, and zombies aren’t thrilling when they have to slowly pull themselves along the ground and you have a machine gun. Each weapon has an “alt-fire” mode that creates a different effect when you turn the Wii remote sideways, but the default mode is always more versatile and more than sufficient.</p> <p>Some of these problems might not exist on the harder difficulty levels. The game gives you two options for difficulty at the beginning, “Normal” and “Hard,” and locks off two more challenging options until after you beat the game. It’s likely that playing on “Impossible” forces you to conserve ammo, use more telekinesis, or be more precise when de-limbing a necromorph, but I’ll never know. Gating off higher difficulty levels only encourages replays when the first experience was engaging. Mine wasn’t.</p> <p>The updates that <em>Dead Space: Extraction</em> brings to the rail shooter formula are well meaning, but their execution is too flawed, bogging down the experience at best and undercutting the strengths of the genre at worst. The time spent on a story that doesn’t work is a drag. The amount of power granted to the player sucks any fear or excitement out of being locked on a space ship full of zombies. Every gameplay option, be it glow worms or dismemberment, quickly becomes automatic. None of the innovations here do much to create interesting player choice.</p> <p>There’s a lot here that could work if applied differently. It’s a pile of limbs, twitching on the floor. Maybe in a different game they could pull themselves into a more compelling shape, either exciting or terrifying. But today, in this game, they don’t amount to enough.</p> <p><em>Pilediver is a review series where I play through the many, many games in my backlog. Thank you for reading.</em></p> Stuart Urback Good Job! is a Great Game 2020-11-24T05:06:31Z!-is-a-great-game/ <p>On paper, <em>Good Job!</em> should not be fun. A game about completing menial labor around a corporate office: plugging in wi-fi outlets, cleaning up spills, arranging furniture is not the stuff that streams are made of. In fact, it’s easy to imagine a pandemic-free world where <em>Good Job!</em> is relegated to the bin of indies with interesting ideas but not much longevity. But this game was perfect for a moment when lockdowns became the norm and the sense of normality slipped away. It’s a perfect fit of comfortable puzzles, awkward hilarity, wrapped up in an undercurrent of “rage against the system” that matched my emotional state at the time. As a result, it managed to become one of the few games I would complete in 2020.</p> <p><img src="" alt="Basic office space with color coded floors, chairs, and desks." title="Menial Office Task" /></p> <p><em>Good Job!</em> was designed by Paladin Studios and published in Spring 2020 by Nintendo exclusively for the Nintendo Switch. It is (roughly speaking) an isometric puzzle game where the player completes 4 or 5 puzzles per level, with 9 levels in total. Each level is a floor on a small skyscraper and the player is almost literally “climbing the corporate ladder”. It’s a game where the puzzles, theme, and humor combine into a package worth more than the sum of each part.</p> <h2 id="what-is-it%3F">What Is It?</h2> <p>While <em>Good Job!</em> is ostensibly a simple game about mundane tasks, the fun lies in the chaos it allows you to play with. For example, in some scenarios you will need to position moveable Wi-Fi into the right spaces so that everyone in a room has access. This is constrained by the number of carts, the location of the plugs that you will have to plug in, and the location of the workers. But you can solve this puzzle any number of different ways. For example, you could simply position the carts in the exact locations so that they would reach people, only to realize that the electric cords don’t quite reach. You could then see the Wi-Fi repeaters nearby, reposition them neatly, and complete the task- easy-peasy.</p> <p>But, instead of noticing the repeaters, you might continue tugging at the cord, hoping, like one does when one tries to install electronic equipment, that physical reality will bend to your will. As you vainly pull them to their limits, you might casually hit the A-button to drop the cord, rather than walk it back to the socket. Instead of dropping to the ground, or gracefully retracting into the socket, the now taut cord will flail around the room, shattering potted plants, knocking over water coolers, and potentially even destroying some walls.</p> <p>You might decide that this is unacceptable, and restart the level. Or, instead, upon seeing just how flexible the game world is to possibilities, you might go down a different path. You experiment, realizing you can push your coworkers around in chairs, instead of bringing the Wi-Fi to them, you bring them to the Wi-Fi. Your goal is efficiency, so you push them in chairs and then fling the rolling chairs to the correct section of the room where you’ve set up the router.</p> <p><img src="" alt="A Bunch of workers stacked on top of each other getting wifi" title="Stacked Wifi" /></p> <p><em>Ok so I didn't quite get all 30, but I got close.</em></p> <p>This captures the brilliance of <em>Good Job!</em>. Succeed or fail, the game rewards and encourages you to think about clever ways to solve problems and lets you indulge in the chaos we all sometimes feel like creating when we’re hemmed in by arcane rules and restrictions. In doing so, it gives players a sense of control over an environment where they rarely feel empowered, a corporate office. When I was sitting in my house, for the 16th hour of the day because I was unable to go into work, the release I felt from that game was immeasurable. It was so freeing.</p> <p>The game evokes feelings of the banality of an office with its water coolers, fake potted plants, plain art and utilitarian equipment, and then lets you tear it apart. It also allows for whimsy with fun uniforms that you can collect along the way. And at the end of each level it gives you the <a href="">highest score of one of three categories (per Destructoid)</a>, the quickest completion time, the fewest items broken, or the total cost of items broken (less cost is better).</p> <p><img src="" alt="Man with hands behind head with office in the background. Checkmark with a B ranking." title="Good Job! Rating" /></p> <h2 id="why-it-works">Why It Works</h2> <p>While in the strictest sense <em>Good Job!</em> is a puzzle game, I wouldn’t recommend it to fans of the genre, or recommend people who hate puzzles to stay away from it. For most the levels, there aren’t “puzzles” to unlock or deeper understandings about the system/world to tap into. Instead of teaching you specific concepts, the game gives you a basic goal and then a lot of space to accomplish it however your heart desires. It’s that constrained freedom that spoke to me. The task was narrow enough for my brain to have something specific to latch onto, but the possibility space was so wide that I could let go and try whatever random thought popped into my head.</p> <p><img src="" alt="A purple office has shattered bots, a giant spherical bolder next to a serene waterfall." title="Destroyed Meditation Center" /></p> <p><em>And here's me destroying a meditation center.</em></p> <p>The game effectively uses physical comedy. From the flailing electric cords, to the gelatinous cube that wobbles and knocks over items as you drag it through a science lab, to the vacuum that quickly picks up speed until it’s dragging you around the office until you let go. <em>Good Job!</em> seems to understand what it’s aiming for and rewards you in those moments. Most of the humor comes from the fact that doing that thing is <strong>awkward</strong>. Sofas have to be pulled through tiny doorways; a giant pink cubic blob has to be dragged across a lab; weird pink goo has to be pressure washed off the floor.</p> <p>There was this one moment moving a couch through an office that felt too real. I had successfully dragged the couch to the correct room, but because the angle wasn’t <em>quite</em> right, the couch didn’t simply slide into the room. It got stuck. Rather than stopping to consider my options I tried to wiggle, squirm, and bump my controller to get my character to magically slide the couch into the room. It was reminiscent of all the times in my life, in the non-digital world, I had encountered this exact situation (moving in, moving out, getting new furniture). But rather than give up or pause to reconsider the situation, my next thought my was “What if I just break the wall?”. The game managed to capture the desperate frustration of the moment, but also to let me escape into a fantasy land where causing wanton destruction was in fact a <strong>very valid</strong> way to complete my desired objective.</p> <p>The game is also quite generous, and there are few moments where I found myself unsure of what to do next, or confused about where a missing piece might be. There aren’t hidden unlocks or secret tunnels to find, just a series of brightly colored markers to complete, with some modest logic in between. And, if you find yourself in a position where your character is physically stuck, there’s a helpful “reset player” option in the menu, which will reset your location to the start of the level, but won’t erase any of your progress. In addition, there’s no penalty from falling from great heights. It’s a small thing, but it suggests the developers knew what mattered most to the game, and that specific physical reality was (correctly) not a part of it.</p> <h2 id="when-you-should-play-this-game">When You Should Play This Game</h2> <p>If you own a Nintendo Switch, the answer is: “Right now!”. The game is so comfortable and comforting, even as you cause wanton destruction of an office building. The game has enough content to keep you entertained, but not so much content that you’re bored before the end.</p> <p><img src="" alt="Red background with image of entire office layout, excited man with A rating and score information to the right." title="Good Job! with A grade." /></p> <p>If you’ve completed this game and are looking for the next adventure, there are two games that jump to mind. One is the aforementioned <em>Untitled Goose Game</em> which is equally cheeky, but with more of a stealth bent. If co-operative puzzle solving is more your speed <em>Human Fall Flat</em> is a great time either online or couch co-op, with similar hi-jinks and physical humor.</p> Stuart Urback Why Do People Buy Monopoly? 2020-12-06T17:49:30Z <p><em>Monopoly</em> feels ubiquitous; it’s as visible in living rooms as chess sets are in hotel lobbies. While the game might be everywhere, it’s striking how most conversations revolve around having to play with family or friends — the stretches of boredom, the randomness. Which led me to the question, do people actually enjoy playing? <em>Monopoly</em> isn’t on the cusp of becoming a major e-sport (<em>Magic the Gathering)</em> and it does not have a major motion picture being developed for it (<em>Catan</em>), yet it still has the cultural power as “that game everyone plays with family”. As pop culture moves towards a greater appreciation of indie and more complex titles, <em>Monopoly</em> persists.</p> <p><img src="" alt="Monopoly app board with two dice in the center" title="Monopoly Board and Dice" /></p> <p>People tend to assume I don’t recommend <em>Monopoly</em> because I dislike it, or think it’s bad but it’s simpler than that: I don’t recommend it because I don’t think people will enjoy it. But <em>Monopoly</em> holds a soft spot in my heart. It was one of the first games I tried convincing my family to create a regular game night to play. It was one of the first games I formally studied in college, for a class on American consumer culture. I even designed a drinking game on top of it during my senior year of college.</p> <p>While <em>Monopoly</em> hasn’t been around for the centuries or millennia of other games like Cribbage, Hearts, or Chess, it has been around for a long time, long enough to span multiple generations and become a tradition. As the story goes, it started life as The Landlord’s game by Elizabeth Magie in 1904, an example of the dangers of capitalism. The goal was to convince people that the dangers of land ownership were real, but the excitement of the design won out. Playing at being a capitalist was just too fun. It was purchased by the Parker Brothers in 1935 and caught on during the Great Depression as families were looking for an escape out of their dire situation. If you’d like to learn more, I’d highly recommend 99 Percent Invisible’s <a href="">The Landlord’s Game</a> episode or <a href="" title="Monopoly: the World’s Most Famous Game">Monopoly: The World’s Most Famous Game</a> by Philip Orbanes.</p> <p>It would be easy to equate the success with the weight of the world’s largest toy and game company — <em>Hasbro</em> — putting so much marketing effort behind it, but that would understate <em>Monopoly</em>’s power as a concept and some hidden lessons behind its design success as a game. I’m going to explore themes that explain why <em>Monopoly</em> has managed to be such a success and recommend smaller games that can be found on Amazon for $35 (though I encourage you to purchase them from a local game store!) that fill a similar niche.</p> <h2 id="playing-a-monopoly-feels-like-being-a-capitalist">Playing a Monopoly Feels Like Being A Capitalist</h2> <p>If you look at <em>Monopoly</em> primarily as a competitive economic experience where people are matching wits to try to destroy each other, the randomness and length feel crushing and un-fun. But <em>Monopoly</em> gets played because play-acting as a real estate capitalist is fun. Throughout the game players get to wheel and deal with high stakes trades, experience the whims of the chances of the market (the roll of the dice), and feel the thrill of victory and defeat is a compelling story. Compared to other, more modern experiences, with mathematical precision and balance, where each player decision leads to success or defeat, <em>Monopoly</em> is looser, more random, but still very fun.</p> <p><img src="" alt="Race car with 200 monopoly money below it" title="Getting Paid" /></p> <p>It might sound trivial, but the act of counting money is a fun part of what it means to play <em>Monopoly</em>. Most modern games have shrunk this role by counting in units of 1, 3, and 5. <em>Monopoly</em> goes big, with $100 and $500 bills. Making change, exchanging cash for that property card, organizing your cash into the right denominations was fun. There was even a version of <em>Monopoly</em> that used a credit card swipe mechanism to track money instead of the cash. While that might seem like a potential efficiency win, I suspect it was more about cashing in on that feeling of the swipe and “cha-ching” moment to reinforce the feeling of being a big spender.</p> <p>The next step from cruising around town and buying stuff is trading it with your competitors. Trading in <em>Monopoly</em> is the real heart of the game. Trying to convince your fellow players to give you the deal you want is the path to collecting your just-desserts. It’s interesting from a design perspective that this core is so hidden. In more modern games, like even <em>Catan</em>, the trading is explicit (it’s even possible in that game to trade directly with the bank). While this makes it less likely players will trade, it also means people who choose to trade are doing so because they want to be there, and the stakes are higher as a result.</p> <p>It’s a game about accumulating stuff. The goals are visceral and accessible: bankrupt your opponents by having more stuff than them. You do that by exchanging money for property, and then for house and hotels. The more property, houses, and hotels you have, the morel likely your opponent is to go bankrupt when they land on your space. Many board games, especially modern ones, are fairly abstract: players compete by trying to score the most points. In <em>Monopoly</em> the components which represent your score also relate to the character you’re playing. (quick aside, I really don’t understand how houses <strong>upgrade</strong> into hotels, unless we’re talking about an <em>Airbnb</em> situation here)</p> <p><em>Monopoly</em> is impressive because playing to feel like a capitalist and playing to win are one and the same. If you’re looking for games that feel like building, trading, or dealing with property, you can’t go wrong with <em><a href=";keywords=Welcome+To...&amp;qid=1607277072&amp;sr=8-1">Welcome To...</a></em>, <em><a href=";keywords=Bohnanza&amp;qid=1607277096&amp;sr=8-2">Bohnanza</a></em>, <em><a href=";dchild=1&amp;keywords=for+sale+board+game&amp;qid=1607277119&amp;sprefix=For+Sale%2Caps%2C251&amp;sr=8-5">For Sale</a></em>, or <em><a href=";keywords=Bargain+quest&amp;qid=1607277142&amp;sr=8-1">Bargain Quest</a></em>. <em>Welcome To...</em> is a game about building your own suburban paradise, but the real benefit is that any number of players can play, and features no direct interaction, so it’s great for large numbers of players and playing remotely. <em>Bohnanza</em> is a zany (it’s about bean farming), the core mechanic is fun, and you’ll find yourself trading over and over again as you try to craft that perfect bean farm. If you especially enjoy the auction phase in <em>Monopoly</em>, I would recommend <em>For Sale!</em>, it’s a quick game for 3-6 players about flipping houses. Finally, if you’re looking for something a bit more challenging, in <em>Bargain Quest</em> you are the shopkeeper, selling heroes with the equipment and spells they need and then sending them off to their doom.</p> <h2 id="it-reinvents-itself">It Reinvents Itself</h2> <p>While it might seem like <em>Monopoly</em> is always <strong>only</strong> the game it’s always been, this isn’t an entirely complete picture. The brand <em>Monopoly</em> has expanded through the years to include a variety of different spinoffs, both in theme and content. Most obviously there have been plenty of crossovers, from a <em>Nintendo Monopoly</em> to an <em>Avenger’s Monopoly</em> and even a <em>Bass Fishing Monopoly</em> variant, but while different versions have come and gone, the core rules remain the same.</p> <p>Since 1990, and accelerating more recently <em>Hasbro</em> has released additional variants that tweak the game to target new players or different experiences. This would seem to correspond with the increase and explosion of new hobbyist style games in the United States. In 1990, <em>Monopoly Junior</em> simplified the amounts and the property ownership so that kids as young as five could play. In 2006, the <em>Mega Edition</em> incorporated the concept of a speed dice to move play along more quickly and in 2007 <em>Electronic Banking</em> introduced the concept of credit cards to track money instead of cash, keeping the money management aesthetic with the swipe of a credit card. More recent games have transitioned away from the “last person standing” to a race to the most number of points, mimicking other hobbyist style “euro games”. There’s also <em>Monopoly Cheaters</em> from 2018 which encourages cheating, in a clear nod from designers to the experience that many players have. This is not a comprehensive list, but gets at the idea that a lot of effort has been put into keeping <em>Monopoly</em> current. It’s not just a matter of spending marketing money or getting the best slot on the shelf on a <em>Target</em>.</p> <p>There have also been games that have different mechanics with similar theming. <em>Monopoly Deal</em>, a small card game spin-off, is one of my favorite casual games to play (it’s easy, fun and only takes about 10 minutes for 4 players). And <em>Monopoly Tycoon</em> was one of my favorite video games growing up (I still wish it would get remastered, so I could play it again). It was a real-time strategy game about trying to develop property on a busy street block.</p> <p>It’s easy to assume that <em>Monopoly</em> is a force of nature, and that due to its market dominance but a lot of effort goes into reinventing even standard games. I used to assume that not much effort went into companies like <em>Hasbro</em> when they produced their games. But a lot of design talent gets built up by these companies, even if the focus is ultimately on creating tweaks and nudges rather than bold re-imaginations.</p> <p>If you’re interested in trying a new twist on a classic, recently games like Sudoku and Hearts have experienced a resurgence in popularity. For Sudoku, the popular video <a href="">Miracle Sudoku</a> spread around the internet capturing the simplicity and joy of deductive problem-solving. The channel, <em><a href="">Cracking the Cryptic</a></em> has published a series of apps like <em><a href="">Miracle Sudoku</a></em> or <em><a href="">Chess Sudoku</a></em> which are modern twists on the traditional puzzle. Zach Gage created his take on the game, focusing more on teachability and UX with <em><a href="">Good Sudoku</a></em>. In the board games, <em><a href=";keywords=The+crew&amp;qid=1607277274&amp;sr=8-1">The Crew</a></em> and <em><a href=";keywords=Fox+in+the+forest&amp;qid=1607277300&amp;sr=8-1">Fox in the Forest</a></em> are both innovative takes on the traditional card game of hearts. Traditional games with twists are a good way to explore new concepts while being relatable enough for new players to understand them.</p> <h2 id="it's-a-flexible-canvas">It's a Flexible Canvas</h2> <p>Most people are actually playing some part of <em>Monopoly</em> <a href=";">”wrong”</a>. Giving away free money on the “Free Parking” corner space, or ignoring the “auction rule” for unsold properties are two of the most common, but there are <a href="">many, many more</a>. At first my perspective on this was surprise and understanding. Obviously people hate this game, they’ve been playing it wrong! Or, clearly this is a design flaw if people don’t even know how to play the game. But on further reflection, I actually think this sort of variability is what makes <em>Monopoly</em> so resilient.</p> <p>Playing the rules correctly changes the shape of the game, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it would be better. In many modern games there is more precision about what happens and when, which leaves less for a players' imagination to tweak and change the game. One of the areas I notice introducing hobbyist games to friends is how bad it can feel to realize you’ve gotten a rule wrong the entire game: it can make you feel like the result of the game is a mirage.</p> <p><em>Monopoly</em>’s emphasis on the activity of playing <strong>as</strong> a capitalist rather than a specific ruleset means that it can withstand more mistakes and issues. As long as you’ve got the feel right, the rest of the game will come along with it. In some ways this makes <em>Monopoly</em> feel more like a “Game System” or a set of pieces on which multiple different types of games can be played, like a standard 52 card deck. The components are so attractive and fun to toy with that they’ll find themselves incorporated in other games or mashed up in new ways.</p> <p>Games that are flexible and give a wide berth for players to experiment and do what they want can be hard to find, especially on the indie scene. A lot of these games feel pretty strongly designed because designers want to give you a specific experience. While <em><a href=";aaxitk=6TL.jqnyK3V.oUO0uwsYRQ&amp;hsa_cr_id=3779166900401&amp;pd_rd_r=f816fff0-67e0-4f1e-8e5a-988cf0eda59d&amp;pd_rd_w=xoTYk&amp;pd_rd_wg=icofy&amp;ref_=sbx_be_s_sparkle_td_asin_1_img">Dungeons and Dragons</a></em> can feel hard to get into, it can be cheap if you know a DM, and the game truly lets you explore whatever elements you feel like. Other games like <em><a href=";keywords=Monikers&amp;qid=1607277357&amp;sr=8-1">Monikers</a></em> (also called <em>The Fishbowl</em> game) can be structured and changed how you see fit. The reason I'm a fan of the paid version of <em>Monikers</em>, is having cards and concepts pre-written (with helpful examples) is a good way to make sure everyone can pick things they know. <em><a href=";keywords=Wavelength&amp;qid=1607277377&amp;sr=8-1">Wavelength</a></em> is theoretically a competitive game, but the most fun I’ve had has been treating it as a collaborative or cooperative experience.</p> <h2 id="in-conclusion">In Conclusion</h2> <p><em>Monopoly</em> is a flawed giant. It’s certainly propped up by the weight of history and a large multi-national corporation’s marketing, but it also has a number of intrinsic qualities that make it a sticky game, likely to be remembered (and passed down) even if it’s not a game that crafts incredible stories or strategic experiences. <em>Monopoly</em> is a great example of the depth and breadth that games have to offer, of the challenges that games have that are unique to the medium, and the opportunity for shared cultural experiences to evolve even as they remain similar to experiences.</p> <p><img src="" alt="The top left corner of the board, with the T-Rex, the Dog, and the Battleship" title="Movin' Along" /></p> <h4 id="one-more-thing">One more thing</h4> <p>If you made your way through this article and felt like it was missing the “screw over your friends and family” element, I have just the game for you. I even wrote about it on this site! It’s called <em><a href=";keywords=Cockroach+poker&amp;qid=1607277414&amp;sr=8-4">Cockroach Poker</a></em>, and it’s the perfect distillation of a gotcha game into a 40 card deck.</p> Rebeca Hulme Forbidden Island 2020-12-13T01:21:23Z <h2 id="why-i-love-it.">Why I Love It.</h2> <p>As an artist, I am drawn to board games with beautiful illustrations or creative mechanisms.  I confess that I have fallen prey to &quot;judging a game by its cover art&quot; more times than I care to comfortably admit.  As a traveler and dreamer, I seek games that teleport me into a new place or encapsulate that feeling of discovery.  During this season of isolation, with clipped wings, I have regained a newfound respect for the collaborative tabletop game Forbidden Island and the way it perfectly merges these elements of creativity and exploration into a treasure-seeking adventure.</p> <p>Forbidden Island is set on an island that, according to legend, belonged to an &quot;ancient mystical empire known as the Archeans... the Archeans possessed the ability to control the Earth's core elements - fire, wind, water, and earth.&quot;  In order to protect these elemental treasures, the Archeans stowed them away on a secluded island that was designed to sink if anyone ever attempted to claim them.  Your mission, as a team, is to collect all four treasures and escape the island before you sink into a watery grave.  If that doesn't sound like a socially responsible adventure waiting to happen, I don't know what is!</p> <p>Each turn, players can take up to three actions; they can move to an adjacent landmark tile on the island, &quot;shore up&quot; a flooded tile to prevent it from being washed away completely, give a treasure card to a teammate, or capture an element by safely delivering four matching treasure cards to the appropriate landmark.  Each elemental treasure has two corresponding landmarks, but your team must be wary that the flood waters don't wipe away any last chances for survival!  To conclude a turn, players draw two new cards from the treasure deck and then watch with horror as the flood waters slowly creep into new terrain - sending the next player into a frenzy of self (ahem... team) preservation.</p> <p>In full disclosure, this game was not love at first sight.  My introduction to Forbidden Island came during an impromptu game night with some college friends when I was in the prime of my independence, and the slow pace of collaboration struck an unnatural chord.  However, the richness of C.B. Canga's artwork (and the eerie similarity between the illustrated Observatory tile and my fond memories of our campus observatory) was enough to convince me to add it to my shelf.  Over the years, I've even grown to enjoy the community building aspect of this game as players work together to make it off the island alive.</p> <p><img src="" alt="Observatory Card in the foreground with the game board in the background on a wooden table." title="Observatory Card" /></p> <h2 id="what-is-it%3F">What Is It?</h2> <p>Let's talk about game mechanics.  Besides the artwork that deserves endless praise, Forbidden Island is a master at setting up unique player experiences with every game.  The island is created with 24 landmark tiles that are randomly placed at set-up, ensuring players always have a different path to success.  On top of that, each player is assigned a random adventurer ability: pilot, explorer, diver, navigator, messenger, or engineer.  As the Diver or Pilot, players have access to parts of the island that become estranged through flooding.  The Explorer, with his keen sense of adventure, has the ability to move diagonally rather than following the straight trails of other team members. While some of these roles may significantly increase your odds of escaping the island as a hero of history, players can still expect to be caught off guard by a number of other rapidly changing factors, such as the randomization of the treasure and flood decks and the sudden appearances of &quot;Water Level Rises&quot; cards.  These fateful cards make their show stopping appearance at the least opportune time - perhaps when you are trying to bail out your only means of escape or when you are frantically trekking across the island to claim a treasure from the last remaining collection spot - and unless you've been hoarding sandbags, they may mean losing another breathtaking landmark on the increasingly diminishing island.</p> <p><img src="" alt="A top down view of the entire gameboard with each of the main components on either side. Some of the tiles have been flipped over." title="The Entire Game Board" /></p> <p>Your team dynamic also greatly influences your success rate, and open communication becomes crucial for survival.  Unlike some other cooperative games, this game is unique in its division of tasks and responsibilities.  For example, you may decide to collect the fire element while a teammate chases after the wind.   However, you aren't fighting an uphill battle alone, and mirroring the best versions of life, you are always invited to reach out to teammates for helping hands or to reevaluate shifting priorities.  The success or failure of a mission does not fall on one person's shoulders, and as someone who can become easily discouraged in situations where I'm not contributing equally, the ability to share that responsibility is comforting.</p> <h2 id="your-first-game.">Your First Game.</h2> <p>Matt Leacock did a fantastic job mimicking the panic of rising water tables by flooding the island in stages.  When the low spots of the island begin sinking, you have the opportunity to rush into action saving as many landmarks from watery ruin as possible.  Each turn, as you draw flood cards corresponding to the number on the Water Level table, you flip over landmark tiles to show which areas are slowly filling with water.  At first, the flooding seems manageable.  You can hustle over to the landmark and &quot;shore it up,&quot; rescuing it from complete oblivion for the time being.  Water is a force to reckon though, and parts of the island that were previously susceptible to flooding often become the first to completely disappear.   As game play progresses, the pace of flooding gains momentum.  You then have to make critical decisions about which tiles to save.  While you may decide to simply prioritize the treasure tiles and the Fool's Landing launch pad, you will quickly realize that you need a larger vision to be successful in this game.  Forbidden Island is a balance of priorities, communication, and action - all critical skills that can be transferred to real world situations.</p> <p><img src="" alt="A top down view of the components of the game. Includes the tiles, flood counter, player cards, and card deck." title="Overview of the Components" /></p> <h2 id="going-further.">Going Further.</h2> <p>Feel free to experiment with strategy.  Averaging 30 minutes, this game tends to run on the shorter side  for a collaborative game and offers the opportunity to put various tactics to the test without becoming overwhelming.  Explore different difficulty levels and player numbers.  Get lost in the artwork  - especially during this time when imagination and creativity have become such important coping mechanisms to many of us.  Forbidden Island is both a visually and mentally satisfying journey encouraging real life skill development.  If you're feeling inspired, venture into another kingdom created by Matt Leacock and C.B. Canga.  Forbidden Desert and Forbidden Sky endure constant comparison to Forbidden Island, and even though I cannot yet vouch for Matt Leacock's more recent games, you may decide to brave a step there on your own.</p> Stuart Urback Carto: Game of 2020 2020-12-19T19:10:48Z <p>After much cajoling and recommending, I finally watched <em>Schitt’s Creek</em> this summer. Once I got past my struggle with watching people in awkward situations, what stuck out to me was how the show handled relationships. While it poked fun at the challenges of having wealth and losing it, it treated the relationships between characters sincerely. The problems that arose were caused by the falability of humans, the poor habits arising out of wealth, and miscommunication from cultural misunderstandings. It felt humane.</p> <p><img src="" alt="" title="Carto Title Screen" /></p> <p><em>Carto</em> felt the same. This is an achievement for a 2d puzzler, putting it alongside <em>Journey</em> or <em>Thomas Was Alone</em> in its focus on relationships at the center of the story. The game tells the story of a young girl named Carto who gets separated from her grandmother on a grand adventure when a storm collides with their airship. Carto has to travel through many foreign lands and cultures to find her way back to her grandmother.</p> <h2 id="the-mechanics">The Mechanics</h2> <p><em>Carto</em>, the game, accomplishes this through a tile laying mechanic similar to the one found in the board game <em>Carcassonne</em>. The only rule is that tiles have to be matched against tiles with similar edges: water to water, grass to grass, road to road, etc. As you walk around the different domains you’ll discover more tiles to lay down that will move the story forward. Most of the puzzles in the game require manipulating the tiles in unexpected ways to unlock new areas, or combining them in a specific pattern. This will unlock new tiles or reveal new characters. It’s hard to go into too much detail here without spoiling them, but I found them enjoyable and novel to discover.</p> <p><img src="" alt="" title="Example of the Carto Screen" /></p> <p>I only found myself on Google once to get an answer I needed. I appreciated that the game was not here to make me overcome a daunting task, or unlock a specially hidden combination in order to continue the story. Solving the small puzzles made me feel smart in a warm-fuzzy sort of way instead of a conqueror of the world sort of way. And that felt right for the aesthetic of the game.</p> <p><em>Carto</em> managed to fit a lot of story into the actions I took as a player. I remember trekking across the desert, sliding around the ice caps, and jumping up down and around a volcano because the ways I manipulated the tiles matched the aesthetic of the location. It reminded me of <em>Breath of the Wild</em>, where the vast open spaces aligned with the melodies and the mechanics to reinforce the wistfulness and the feelings of emptiness. For <em>Carto</em>, the tiles, fun writing, and mechanic reinforced playfulness, adventure, and community.</p> <h2 id="the-story-of-the-game">The Story of the Game</h2> <p>What’s great about the story of <em>Carto</em> is that it doesn’t have the main character face an evil character who’s trying to take her new friends or her grandmother away. There’s no apocalypse, conquering, or drama to be found, just a problem to solve. She meets a challenge that is familiar and mundane (a storm) and she has to work with other people to overcome it. That doesn’t make the puzzles any easier, but it centers the story with more grounding. The different people she meets help her on her quest, exploring the world, but she (and you as the player), must solve the puzzles on her/your own to progress.</p> <p><img src="" alt="" title="Some Carto Dialogue" /></p> <p>There's nowhere more clear with this than the first world, where you learn your soon to be friend is about to be sent away due to a tradition to explore and find a new home. She will never see her family again and is sad about this. A lot of the dialogue with her is about coming to terms with this fact, but without the angst of a typical “rebelling against and modifying tradition” or the shattered family trope with fighting or yelling. There is frustration, but everyone is open about their sadness and hope. As a result it's calm and uplifting even with a melancholy undercurrent.</p> <p>There’s a mirroring here of the real world pandemic I suppose. The virus isn’t something to conquer or defeat. Even if we end up eradicating it, it won’t be through battle or capture. It will be because countless people cooperated and worked together to solve problems to produce vaccines that eliminate it. Obviously Carto’s challenge is much less severe, but the severity of staying home, of not seeing friends isn’t in a contest to win, it’s in mental perseverance and discipline instead of outward conquest. So <em>Carto</em>’s focus on an external challenge with communal support (support that in the real world has been stripped by the pandemic) felt similar in the problem but comforting in the warmth of interpersonal experiences that aren’t accessible at the moment.</p> <h3 id="wrapping-it-up">Wrapping it Up</h3> <p>This is a small spoiler, but there's a moment at the end that speaks to the cleverness of the design. As you get ready to wrap up your journey, the game asks you to revisit each space and “finish” the map, connecting all of the tiles in that space into a single unit. This isn't a hard problem as there are limitless combinations. But this small ask reminds you of the places you've been, and literally closes the loop on what the puzzles pieces you've been using into a single “place”. It was a short walk down memory lane that made me smile.</p> <p>In a year that was oppressive, disconnected, and sometimes prone to despair, Carto was thoughtful, humane, connecting disparate elements of what I love about storytelling, human connection, and puzzle design. It's available for PC, PS4, and Nintendo Switch. It's one of the few games I don't think there's a type for. You should go buy it and have fun on an adventure.</p> Stuart Urback Best Games of 2020 2020-12-19T19:16:09Z <p>Coming into 2020 I assumed that one of my preferred social activities — tabletop games — would be pretty insulated from any societal catastrophe, given its small footprint and lack of electrical requirement. Yikes was that wrong. The legacy game I had been playing with friends was put on hold. What happened was an experience in pragmatism. I focused on games that brought my closer together with friends, digitally. I played more digital board games this year than any year previous: starting with <em>Istanbul</em> over my birthday, <em>Jackbox</em> with coworkers in April and May, and <em>Fall Guys</em>, <em>Root</em>, and <em>Scythe</em> closer to the end of the year. The pandemic forced me to stop and reflect on what I wanted from games instead of chasing a new mechanic.</p> <p>I spent a lot more time watching movies, especially mainstream ones. I watched the <em>Mission Impossible</em> series, most of the Ghibli films, and rewatched <em>Avatar: the Last Airbender</em>. Content that was easy to consume became helpful because my attention span decreased dramatically from the stress and the stress of dealing with a new living situation. Large, sprawling games that I was already disinclined to play became unapproachable, and medium length titles that I could schedule time for became distant.</p> <p>At the same time, I felt like I should accomplish so much more, now that I wasn’t bound by all these social obligations. That didn’t pan out. While I might have had more time, adjusting to a new reality at work and home and trying to drag myself away from the news left little effort towards personal achievement. But the reflection, and the new perspective, gave me an opportunity to rethink how I thought about the world and what sort of media I value. The conclusion I came to is: I hadn’t given enough direct feedback, I overvalued big progress and undervalued iterative change, and that my personal perspective was too informed by defensiveness and not by opportunity.</p> <p>I’d like to think my favorite games this year reflect that. They probably don’t. But, as the author of this piece, I get to define the types of games I enjoy and then explain why the games I pick fit that. The theme that I felt most notable from all of these games is how they forced me to rethink how I thought about the world and spent time with other people. The other main criteria I used was playing enough of something to have an interesting opinion. Games like <em>Last Campfire</em> and <em>A Monster’s Expedition</em> have a beautiful art style and got me to start playing, but I hadn’t gone far enough to feel they impacted my year. It is a bit of a high bar to clear but deeper understandings feel like a core theme. This kept another Apple Arcade title <em>Crossy Castle</em> off my list. It’s a snappy implementation of a platformer (I appreciated that it was playable in portrait mode on my phone), but it stayed within well worn territory that experiences like Super Mario have already led.</p> <p>The games I picked are ones that shaped the way I thought about the world in 2020, that uniquely responded to the demands of my life, and that represent directions for design and publishing that I hope to see more of in the future.</p> <h2 id="honorable-mention">Honorable Mention</h2> <p>I want to call out five games that didn’t hit every note, but are worth taking a look at. I might talk about them more in the future</p> <p>They’re either games that I felt I would never put in the top-5, but wanted to call out for their impact, or games that I felt were <em>this close</em> to being a game of the year for me, except for a lack of a play time, or a couple of small disconnects.</p> <p><em>Tussie Mussie</em> was a re-introduction to the tiny game format that Button Shy games develops, where rules for a game made up of 18 cards fits into a wallet sized containers. That it happens to be a drafting theme and by one of the most famous board game designers of the last 5 years didn’t hurt either.</p> <p><em>World Next Door</em> was one of the first games I played this year. It’s an interesting take on the “Match-3” genre (Bejeweled, Candy Crush) that expanded the themes into a narrative format rather than leaning into the procedural “high score” goals that are typical of the genre.</p> <p><em>The Solitaire Conspiracy</em> is a late entry by Bithell games, in their shorts line. The shorts line is cheaper, smaller games that put a high level of polish on games that are playable in 5 or so hours. It’s an interesting take on solitaire where the face cards have powers, but sometimes those powers hurt you instead of help you. The twist for face cards to have special powers was an energizing change, but I found myself avoiding all of the “negative” specials. This made me feel like I was able to avoid a decent chunk of the game.</p> <p><em>Before We Leave</em> is an inviting take on the civ-building genre. The art style feels similar to Pixar, with big round worlds built up of hexagonal tiles. I appreciated that the interface options which helped me maintain control and focus (a typical reason I give up on the civ genre rather quickly). I dropped it because it required a bit more time than I could give but I look forward to picking it back up in 2020.</p> <p><em>For the King</em> is the closest thing to a popcorn game on this list, but as a tactical strategy game, I appreciated that the exploration was exciting, and the fights were quick. One of my biggest frustration with most tactics games (like Pokémon) is that fights can drag on, and strategy depth is just confusing enough to require more time than I’m willing to put in. It delivered a pleasurable, if unchallenging experience.</p> <h1 id="5.-fall-guys">5. Fall Guys</h1> <p><img src="" alt="" title="Falling Fall Guy" /></p> <p>Certain games are games you can carry a conversation while enjoying. In baseball vernacular, it’s what you’d call a pastime. <em>Falls Guys</em> is a pastime for me. It’s a game where you control a bean character/person through an obstacle course (think Wipeout meets American Ninja Warrior). Starting with 60 competitors, you either race to the finish or try to be the last one(s) standing. Each level waves of opponents are eliminated until only 1 player remains.</p> <p>Mechanically, it feels almost possible to play <em>Fall Guys</em> with only two commands: move and jump. Before I figured out the controls I was mostly limited to those anyway. There are some occasions where you’re have to dive or cling to a wall, though those come up less frequently. Its simplicity means it’s easy to learn, but there are enough moves that you can develop skill while you play. Dan, my frequent playing collaborator is much more adept with controls so he often makes it into later rounds while I failed early and often.</p> <p><img src="" alt="" title="Fall Guys Running" /></p> <p>Even when losing, <em>Fall Guys</em> is a fun game to spectate and play with friends. It’s easy enough to have idle conversations while the game is ongoing. Playing the game meant staying in touch and forming new, fun memories while talking about how our weeks went.</p> <p>I would like to see more battle royale games with concepts outside of shooting. This is where the success of games like <em>Fortnite</em> has a positive impact on the overall industry. Because <em>Epic</em>, the makes of <em>Fortnite</em>, also own <em>Unreal Engine</em> (a premier game engine), many of the toolsets used to create royale games have become accessible to teams with fewer resources. But <em>Fall Guys</em> simplicity masks design complexity that isn’t obvious to see. Games that might be fun in person can drag or feel unfair against an anonymous (if adorable) hoard of enemies. Finding an engaging combination of speed, multi-player elimination, and skill seems like a fun area for future games to explore.</p> <p><img src="" alt="" title="Overview of the Course" /></p> <p>Playing over the summer, when online games were the main ways I interacted with friends, <em>Fall Guys</em> presented a genuine way for me to connect. It's complex and active enough to be engaging but not so complex as to become a game of silent intensity, without discussion or chatter.</p> <h1 id="4.-wavelength">4. Wavelength</h1> <p><img src="" alt="" title="Wavelength, Screen Closed" /></p> <p>In a pandemic-free world, <em>Wavelength</em> might have been my game of the year. It was the first game I brought with me to a company retreat. I played it again a month later at a going away party. Each time it brought hilarity and insight. It was a game that held up even though we would play for hours each time.</p> <p>For a party game, <em>Wavelength</em> is surprisingly hard to explain. It has a similar structure as <em>Charades</em> where one player knows a secret (in this case the location on a dial). Everyone gets to see the words representing either end of that spectrum (let’s say hot on one end, cold on the other). Then the clue-giver has to give a single concept (without explaining themselves), that will get their team to turn the dial toward the right spot.</p> <p>This might be easy if the secret is towards one end or the other. You might say sauna, if it’s on the hot side, or igloo if it’s on the cold side. But what if it’s on the 60% hot. What do you say then? You might say “lukewarm coffee” but will players think that’s actually 60% cold, instead? The uncertainty leads to deep conversations about how players see the world, and the reveal at the end of the round ends with drama as the screen is flipped back to show whether guessers were wrong or right.</p> <p><img src="" alt="" title="Wavelength, Screen Opened" /></p> <p>The other thing that surprised me about <em>Wavelength</em> was how often we’d ditch the rules and play collaboratively, taking turns trying to get the group to guess, rather than competing in teams. I usually dislike “conversation starter” type games immensely, because I think they’re feeble attempts at faking social interaction without a lot of support from the “game” in terms of how that’s supposed to happen. <em>Wavelength</em> is the right amount of structure (it’s clear what the clue-giver is supposed to do, and what the clue-guessers are supposed to do), with uncertainty (who knows what anyone else is thinking) to bring excitement and insight.</p> <h1 id="3.-good-sudoku">3. Good Sudoku</h1> <p><em>Good Sudoku</em> almost didn’t make the list. It’s a re-imagining of Sudoku by Zach Gage and Jack Schlesinger. It contains a lot of UI and UX tweaks that make it easier to see some of the core concepts of Sudoku. At the bottom of the screen there is a number pad and some notation options. The notation options allow you to mark, highlight, or cross out numbers on the grid. If you tap on a number by itself, it will shade the other areas of the board, illuminating patterns more easily.</p> <p><img src="" alt="Good Sudoku board in yellow, with #2 selected, some are crossed out, some numbers are selected." title="Good Sudoku Display" /></p> <p>I’ve had an off-and-on relationship with this game. When it was released over the summer I played it non-stop. The combination of new notation system, haptic feedback when it auto-filled a space, and the bright colors made me feel fast while playing the game. It’s take on teaching the rules helped me learn new concepts and got me excited about a world of Sudoku puzzles I hadn’t thought of before.</p> <p>As a design enthusiast, I found it exciting because it felt like a different experience without changing the rules of the game. It opened up a concept to how different UI and feedback transform a player’s experience. I also appreciated that they had daily challenges, and that those challenges use the same system that the <em>New York Times Crossword</em> uses (each day Monday to Sunday gets harder).</p> <p>I gave up the game after I felt like I’d hit a wall. I knew all of the somewhat nuanced problem solving techniques, but was struggling to see anything new. That’s when I realized that I was playing games for time rather than the enjoyment of solving the puzzle. It felt rote because I could go through all my techniques but would get stuck and was unsure how to think creatively. I came back to it this month, and still find myself enjoying the daily challenges but sticking away from the other formats. It’s fun for a 5-10 minute puzzle.</p> <p>Calling this game “flawed genuis” feels a bit over the top, but that’s where I’m at with it. The concepts it introduces change the game of Sudoku to feel more electric and high-powered. They also push Sudoku into a different experience with the puzzle that feels slightly more formulaic and less free. It reminds me of the relationship between becoming an expert and being blind to a beginner’s mindset. <em>Good Sudoku</em> is incredible because it gives you all of the possibilities of being an expert, off the bat, but it also locks you into that expert way of thinking, without necessarily developing it on your own.</p> <p>For the moments when I felt stressed and trapped, when I wanted <strong>anything else</strong> to think about, it was there with a puzzle, and helping hand to solve it. I appreciate the energy and the concepts so much that it overcomes the flaws but it might be the type of game that you enjoy for a few days and put down, rather than the one that you build into your life. I’ll keep it around because I wonder if there’s maybe an update that’ll unlock that next level for me to push, advance, and get faster at solving puzzles.</p> <h1 id="2.-lonely-mountains%3A-downhill">2. Lonely Mountains: Downhill</h1> <p><img src="" alt="Crossing the checkpoint of a downhill ride with a personal best time displaying." title="Lonely Mountains: Downhill" /></p> <p>I wrote an entire review of this, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise that <em>Lonely Mountains</em> made it almost to the peak, as it were. It’s a great game. <a href="">Go read the review</a>. Listening to podcasts while playing this game became an important part of my daily routine for a few months. The game gave me the opportunity to develop a skill, riding down the mountain. It did so through precise feedback that helped me learn and grow in its systems while my brain pondered and turned thoughts over. The game’s rigorous implementation of feedback created an immersive experience.</p> <p>But I realized that anything I took away from the game would be the result of my own actions. As Ian Bogost says in <a href="">Shit Crayons</a>, humans are capable of spinning endless situations into positives, but it doesn’t make the situations themselves any better. It would be easy to read this as a critique of <em>Lonely Mountains</em>, that I believe the game would be better if it had tried to find a mirror for me to look at. That’s not my intent. The technical brilliance in <em>Lonely Mountains</em> is meditative rather than transformative. In 2020 I looked for something more. I looked to a game that tried to imagine a better world.</p> <p><a href="">That game is <em>Carto</em>.</a></p> Stuart Urback Dicey Dungeons: A Roll-icking Adventure 2021-01-03T17:32:21Z <p>In <em>Dicey Dungeons</em> you play as one of six heroes who have been turned into dice by an evil game show host, Lady Luck. You battle your way through a game show in order to earn your escape, or so you think. The game is cheerful and cartoonish, with bright colors, big, graphic characters, and snappy one liners. The aesthetic persists through the game mechanics, which are based around equipment you collect and the dice you “roll” to activate them.</p> <p><img src="" alt="The thief is in the top right on a stage with a spotlight on him, lady luck in the bottom left taunts him." title="Lady Luck taunts the Thief." /></p> <p><em>Dicey Dungeons</em> has a deceptively simple design. Each turn you roll dice and use them to activate equipment, damaging your enemies. Some equipment deal damage based on the number of pips on the dice, others require even/odd numbers on the dice, and apply status effects. There is a clear cause and effect between the equipment you use and the damage you deal to each enemy which made <em>Dicey Dungeons</em> easy for me to pick up. This initially led me to assume that the design under the hood was equally straightforward, but as the designer Terry Cavanaugh detailed <a href="">in a blog post</a>, there’s a lot of complex work going on just beneath the surface. This is a consistent theme in the game, rule complexity is hidden so that the player can feel the flow.</p> <p>The challenge of the game comes from picking the combination of equipment to battle with. Players will find some equipment in chests which they can get to after defeating monsters, some will be found in “carts” either in exchange for money or for other equipment they own. Getting these decisions right feels like the key to winning the game: pick the wrong equipment and even the best rolls won’t save you.</p> <h2 id="the-delight-of-the-dice">The Delight of The Dice</h2> <p>Where other games hide the math behind damage calculation, <em>Dicey</em> builds the entire game around showing players how damage is calculated. Character health levels are counted in the 10s (except for the final boss), and most attack values are between 1 and 6, the values found on the dice you roll. The transparency makes the game feel more approachable than other rogue likes. You don’t have to spend a lot of time figuring out what the underlying system is doing, and the system is simple enough that you can reason about it in your head.</p> <p><img src="" alt="The robot, in the lower left corner, battles the pirate, in the upper right. The robot's equipment are on display." title="Battle Screen" /></p> <p>For many rogue likes the procedure of the world is designed and then players combine objects to exploit and create new possibilities no one imagined. Dicey Dungeons feels more deterministic and more authored than other rogue-like games. While the pathways are semi-random and the equipment you will find is randomized, there are a set number of levels you can reach, and certain classes of characters that you will meet on each floor. The “combo potential” of equipment interaction is limited by the number of dice you roll per turn. While this might limit the depth of the game, it also means there’s fewer unknowns to catch you by surprise, making the game overall feel more approachable. Instead, fun is unlocking new content and seeing what tweaks and twists the designer has laid out for the player. The tweaks and variations behind each door are the heart of the game’s depth.</p> <h2 id="gentle-exploration">Gentle Exploration</h2> <p>Part of the fun of playing a rogue-like is in building an understanding of how the world works. For example, in <em>Spelunky HD</em> you could try to steal something from the shop-keeper only to learn that the shopkeeper will try to run you down and kill you if you do. This form of exploration is fun, it encourages players to try stuff out, but also can hide a lot of the depth of games from players who don’t think of experiments to try. I’ve found confronting many different axes of uncertainty to be a barrier to my enjoyment of these games. By narrowing the types of exploration, <em>Dicey Dungeons</em> left me more free to fully explore the combinations the equipment and player powers have to offer.</p> <p><em>Dicey Dungeons</em> simplifies exploration by focusing on a discrete set of variables: how the different equipment interact with the dice roles and player powers to create strategy. The run lengths are short, so it’s easy to try out a set of equipment and then learn why they don’t work, only to immediately restart. And the reward for leveling is an increased number of dice, which means that as a run continues it’s <strong>more</strong> likely that your equipment will do what you want. This creates a tight feedback loop where a player tries to see how different pieces of equipment work together, loses quickly for negative feedback, or is rewards by getting to do more of the same thing they already enjoyed.</p> <p>The reward structure also sets up a clever inversion during the harder levels (doors 4-6). Rather than only increasing your rewards, the game will start making it harder on you as you go further, potentially by adding tricky rules or by reducing your health as you gain levels. By this point though, I felt comfortable enough with the character, having a deep understanding of the equipment I preferred, to overcome the challenges the game threw at me, which increased my feelings of success. This is where the authored approach truly shined, it felt like the game had built me up by giving me support as I learned the character, and then turned the game upside down on me right when I was ready for a deeper challenge. I felt successful the whole way through.</p> <h2 id="the-long-and-the-short-of-it">The Long and the Short of It</h2> <p>The downside to this authored approach is that when I get stuck on a level, the challenges can feel arbitrary and painful. I found myself wondering if forcing the player to go through so many different concepts (battling with each character at least once, and winning with one character at least 6 times) create a barrier to the types of exploration that Dicey Dungeons tries to encourage? Completing a single round of <em>Dicey Dungeons_is simple (about 30-40) minutes, but completing the entire game is an investment. This is the biggest barrier to the game, and it’s possible to imagine that it could dissuade some people from playing the game altogether. Terry Cavanaugh, the designer, even contemplated as much on twitter. He said he felt like _Dicey Dungeons</em> <a href="">is too long</a>. In short, there’s a lot of game to get through, to get to the content. For a game that’s otherwise so approachable, the time investment to get satisfying results could be a turnoff.</p> <p><img src="" alt="The episode select screen with 6 doors is displayed. The second door from the left is highlighted." title="Episode Select Screen" /></p> <p>I prefer <em>Dicey Dungeons</em> to most other roguelikes because the time to complete a single “run” (the level or campaign in the game) is 30 minutes, instead of the more typical hour or so. Compare this to <em>Slay the Spire</em>, one of the gold standards of the genre, where a successful run can take an hour or more. But in order to understand where <em>Dicey Dungeons</em> trips it’s important to talk about the motivations that games set-up their players with in playing. Film Crit Hulk, a popular film (and sometimes game) critic, has a good heuristic for different types of games. He groups them into roughly one of two categories: “flow” games, like <em>Assassin’s Creed</em> and “learning” games, like <em>Slay the Spire</em>. In flow games, the goal is to successfully engage the player while delivering content and mastery at well timed intervals to make the player feel and improve in line the content they’re delivering (often in this case story beats). Learning games are more about the system itself, playing is a means to deeper understanding of the system.</p> <p><em>Dicey Dungeons</em> lives somewhere in the middle of the two. <em>Dicey Dungeons</em> is a learning game in the sense that you are trying to learn how to work well with each character in order to complete a run. It is likely that you will fail as you learn which equipment work best, and which upgrades to use. As you fail you will get better at making decisions for each character. But it’s also a flow game in the sense that each new character is an exciting piece of content, and each piece of content is not so complex to operate that there’s a lot of excitement to fully exploring the possibilities of operating them. I found most of the excitement was in being given a new concept or idea to play with, rather than in a deeper understanding I got from thinking about the rules of the game in a new way.</p> <p>Flow games can trip over themselves when story becomes locked behind challenges that require repetition to overcome. I believe the main reason for this is the overjustification effect. Overjustification is the concept that external rewards reduce intrinsic motivation to complete tasks. In this example, narrative (the game show) or content (new characters or challenges) are the external rewards and the joy of playing a mechanic is the internal motivation. Flow games often rely on the designers to fine tune those moments where players might get stuck and offer them a helping hand. This might come in the form of (sticking 5 shovels around an island to make sure you find 1 in the case of <em>A Short Hike</em>), or taking control of the camera to point the player directly at the thing they need to see. But a learning game like <em>Dice Dungeons</em> doesn’t have this same control because the designer can’t “know” at any moment where the player might be.</p> <p><img src="" alt="A display of the level 2 screen with enemies, cart, and healing." title="Level 2 Screen" /></p> <p>When <em>Dicey Dungeons</em> is successful the hybrid of the two feels exhilarating. Winning a run after 3-5 attempts has all the exhilaration of a learning game, because I figured out the right combination of equipment and strategies to win, and also because I know I’m getting a new character, new challenge, new equipment to experiment with. The combination feels like a burst of energy. But it can start to feel like a slog when I’m torn between wanting to know what happens next but also need to focus on learning about the game so I can beat it. And because the mechanics are more authored, I felt less like I’m missing some underlying mathematical concept, and more like the arbitrary way a particular level was designed hurts. I found myself wishing the path to unlocking the story were easier, so I could spend more time picking the game up to explore new concepts rather than being driven by a desire to unlock the final character or the end of the game. It’s hard to focus on the joy of a single run when there’s a payoff waiting (the final boss) that you know you have to get to.</p> <p>Games like <em>Super Mario Odyssey</em> have managed this by reducing the requirement to unlock new levels or new story to a small percent of the total content of the game and then designing the areas so that the players want to come back for more. I think <em>Dicey Dungeons</em> is a strong enough game to have done the same, and I found myself wondering why I needed to beat every character 6 times to unlock the final boss. I would’ve happily continued playing through unlocked levels even after, because the novelty of each new experience was so inviting. But after grinding through the game in 2019, I was so exhausted that it wasn’t until it came out for the Switch that I picked it back up. There’s nothing wrong with a player deciding to put down a game before it’s done, and even if you played each character once, I would still recommend this game. But games should also afford players to end at their pace without making them feel like they’re breaking the logic or the narrative of the game.</p> <h2 id="unequivocally%3A-you-should-try-it">Unequivocally: You Should Try It</h2> <p><img src="" alt="The warrior is highlighted on the character select screen. A description is to its left. Episodes completed and remaining to the right. Above are the selection options for different characters." title="Character Select Screen: Warrior" /></p> <p>I still happily completed every level in <em>Dicey Dungeons</em>, and I picked the game up again when it came out on Switch because it brought me joy. Given that I tend to drop most games before experiencing more than half the content (the aforementioned <em>Slay the Spire</em> and <em>Super Mario: Odyssey</em> come to mind here), completing all of the challenges and defeating the boss represents an achievement for me. And it wasn’t because I felt like I had to, to experience the story: the game brought me novelty, excitement, and learning each time I played. There’s something inspiring to play through the results of a game designer experimenting with multiple different ways to twist and tweak a simple concepts: dice rolling. The love put into the design is easy to see as you play the game. The game also has a vibrant modification culture which the designer supports and encourages. Due to the restrictions of consoles, modifications are only accessible on PC, but if you have the PC variant I’d encourage you try to out the <a href="">MegaQuest</a> if you’re looking for more to play. <em>Dicey Dungeons</em> continues to feel like an exciting and welcoming possibility space that I expect to play off and on for quite some time.</p> Stuart Urback Food Chain Island: Survival of the Solitaire 2021-01-11T02:37:54Z <h1 id="food-chain-island">Food Chain Island</h1> <p><em>Food Chain Island</em>, published by Button Shy games, is a solitaire game in their series of wallet-sized games. All games in the series come in the same container, a plastic wallet. It’s an interesting concept that’s attracted quite a few big names in the design space. This game, designed by Scott Almes (creator of the Tiny... series) is an solitaire contribution to the Button Shy series.</p> <p><img src="" alt="On the left, 2 blue cards representing the sea creatures. On the right 16 cards in a 4x4 grid representing the land creatures." title="The Food Chain Island Board" /></p> <p>The game consists of dealing all 16 cards (numbered 0 to 15) into a 4x4 grid, face up. The goal of the game is for the player to get the laid out cards from 16 individual piles into 3 or fewer stacks. The rules are simple. Each turn the player stacks cards with larger numbers on top of adjacent cards with smaller numbers. The game calls this eating. But there’s a twist, cards may only eat cards that are up to 3 smaller than them. This means a 12 can eat a 11, 10 or 9, but not an 8 or smaller. This restriction turns the obvious “most to least” strategy into a careful set of steps to puzzle over. There’s one more twist to help and challenge players. Each card has a special ability which must activate after a card eats.</p> <h2 id="solitaire-v.-single-player">Solitaire v. Single Player</h2> <p>Single player games are in the middle of a renaissance. It started a couple of years ago, but has picked up in popularity as the pandemic wears on. Because war games have no hidden information they’ve been some of the first games to feature solo modes. Economic games, with indirect competition, often have single player variants. Players in these try to score a high score rather than out-score an opponent. But the smaller sub-genre, solitaire games, has seen less exploration. At first I hesitated to differentiate solitaire and solo games. I thought solitaire (or solitary) was another way of describing a single person playing a game. I learned that solitaire describes stacking and arranging a deck of shuffle cards. The distinction between solo games and solitaire games, therefor, seems important.</p> <p><img src="" alt="The 3 card is displayed. It is a mouse eating an ant. The ability text reads &quot;Move on animal 1-2 spaces&quot;." title="A single land creature." /></p> <p>Solo games, especially modern ones, contain interlocking systems. Solitaire games has a single system which governs arranging cards. A solo variant of Wingspan (a popular birding board game) has resources like eggs, food, and bird cards which restrict and inform the player’s actions. Food Chain Island has a single system, the cards in the 4x4 grid. These cards both restrict and provide the player with opportunity. Solitaire designs have to be more economical with their resources. At the same time, my expectations for the game are smaller. I’m not looking for a set-up, building tension, or a payoff. Instead, I look for a single question which presents new opportunities with each shuffle. For Food Chain Island the question is, “how can you stack the cards from a 4x4 grid into a single pile?”.</p> <h2 id="solitary-innovation">Solitary Innovation</h2> <p>Algorithmic exploration feels like a domain owned by computers. Food Chain Island proves this isn’t the case. It uses the stacking mechanism and shuffle to hide and open up new possibilities with each play. It feels like there has been an explosion of takes on solitaire in the digital space. In the last five years games like Solitaire Conspiracy, Flip Flop Solitaire, and Ancient Enemy have come out. But there hasn’t been the same investigation by prominent indie designers in the physical world. I think this has to do with the constraints of each medium. Because of Microsoft Windows, lots of people have experience playing solitaire on their computers. And computers can introduce opportunities to tweak the format. This includes adding a story, special powers, or different combinations of suits/colors. In the physical world, competition is fiercer. Solitaire games have to contend with shelf presence and component costs. This is where concept of wallet games works to the solitaire format’s advantage. 18 cards that fit in the size of a wallet evokes a feeling of ease and portability.</p> <p>That’s what makes the innovation of Food Chain Island so enjoyable. The stacking mechanic is useful in two different ways. First, because cards get covered up as they get “eaten” the complexity of the game decreases over time. Second, it creates a tension in losing the ability to use a power as it’s covered up.Really wanted the bat’s swap ability? Well I guess you can’t eat it with the snake then. Maybe next time.</p> <p>Two of my favorite sequences are what I call “the pile-on” and “the checkers” maneuver. The “pile on” involves a stack surrounded by four other cards. The sequence of numbers means that you are able to eat the center card with each of the surrounding ones. This leaves one remaining. The “checkers” maneuver involves taking a single card and eating three smaller cards. Both are satisfying because they are hard to pull off and also eliminate many piles from the board.</p> <p><img src="" alt="5 land creatures are arranged in a &quot;plus&quot; shape where 4 creatures are adjacent to the central one." title="The pile on" /></p> <p><img src="" alt="Five land creatures are arranged in 2 rows with 4 cards on the top row, and 1 card on the bottom row to the far right. They are ordered 7, 6, 5, 4 on the top. 3 on the bottom." title="A &quot;checker&quot;s set up." /></p> <p>The other challenge solitaire games have is their direct competition with digital games. Playing alone means competing against a phone game, a computer game, a Nintendo Switch game, or even twitter. Because Food Chain Island is only 16 cards to shuffle and deal it’s easy to start a game. The lack of friction brings it to the table when other more involved games might stay on the shelf.</p> <h2 id="permission-to-cheat%3F">Permission To Cheat?</h2> <p>One part of Food Chain Island tripped me up, the sea creatures. These are two ”extra” cards which you can discard to shift cards on the 4x4 grid into better positions. They end up as sort of “get out of jail free” cards to escape board states where you’re stuck. At first I felt like these were an unnecessary addition, a cheat tacked onto the game.</p> <p>After playing with them for a while I realized that they solved a core problem of puzzle games. When you play Klondike solitaire and get stuck the solution is to shuffle and start over. This isn’t terrible, but becomes a rough experience if it happens often. Sea creatures create an outlet to push players beyond stuck points. This in turn allows more experimentation and learning about the game. This got me thinking about permission structures in single player games.</p> <p>When I play solo games I notice that I will often give myself leeway to “bend” the rules. Often this means interpreting the rules of a card in the most generous possible way. However I won‘t allow myself to rearrange the board at will, that feels like cheating. If I’ve gotten into a situation where I can’t use a generous reading of the rules to get out, that’s it the game’s over. How and where we’re stretch the rules is anachronistic but often rather inflexible. That inflexibility can present problems for game designers trying to create enjoyable games. A common example I imagine is a crossword puzzle that’s abandoned because a puzzler can’t find the right word. That person might have been able to solve the rest of the puzzle, but that gap became a sticking point. The sea creatures give permission to break the flow of the game without feeling like failure.</p> <p>Even though the sea creatures feel discordant, (sea creatures helping land creatures eat one another, really?) they serve a larger structure to help the player progress their skill in the game. As I continued to play the game, I noticed myself playing with the sea creatures less and less. I had gotten better at the game. These affordances feel like an exciting area for game designers to play with. How can we create training wheels that players can choose when they put on and take off?</p> <h2 id="there%E2%80%99s-a-world-to-explore">There’s a World to Explore</h2> <p>Manipulating physical cards adds a delightful tactile sensation to the entire experience that great digital solitaire experiences can’t compare to. Food Chain Island is a refreshing game to play and think about. The thing that strikes me most is how it makes the concept of card based solitaire feel really open for exploration. There’s an expansion with air creatures coming out early this year and I can’t wait to see where it goes next.</p> Stuart Urback The Best Sudoku 2021-01-17T20:18:16Z <h2 id="intro">Intro</h2> <p>Two things happened within quick succession for me last summer: Zach Gage released his new app <em>Good Sudoku</em> and I discovered the Miracle Sudoku YouTube clip which swept the internet. What I did not expect to happen was having my preconceptions about the relationship between puzzles, games, and user design altered.</p> <p>I enjoy puzzle games quite a bit. There’s something about the discrete beginning and end that makes them approachable. There’s a definitive end that I’m aiming at, when the puzzle is filled out. At the same time, the creativity contained within these discrete spaces feels expansive and wondrous. 2020 was primed to be a sudoku year, and Cracking the Cryptic and Good Sudoku came into my life at just the right time. I can’t remember which came first: <em>Good Sudoku</em> or the <em>Miracle Sudoku</em>. In my mind <em>Good Sudoku</em> is where the story starts, so that’s where I’ll begin.</p> <h2 id="that%E2%80%99s-some-good-sudoku">That’s Some Good Sudoku</h2> <p>My initial reaction to <em>Good Sudoku</em> was interest and elation. As one comentor on Twitter noted, “It feels like a Sudoku stim pack for my brain”. I played <em>Good Sudoku</em> non-stop for close to the month after it first released. I was insatiable. I felt like a door had unlocked in my brain about looking at Sudoku that made the game fun. The UI on <em>Good Sudoku</em> was snappy and easy to use, and the combination of hints and concept explainers. It felt like all of the best parts of modern video games and app design had been put into the app. There are certain phone apps and games where the UI feels so correct, that using it feels as simple as working with pen and paper. <em>Good Sudoku</em> felt that way for me.</p> <h2 id="the-design">The Design</h2> <p>There’s a few key pieces of UX that Good Sudoku does really well, that differentiate it from other games. The notation system for <em>Good Sudoku</em> is inspired, and it makes it easy to think about, see, and represent my thoughts on the game screen.</p> <p><img src="" alt="A good sudoku house with regular, bold, and crossed out notations." title="Good Sudoku Notation" /></p> <p>There are three main ways to note items in <em>Good Sudoku</em>: note a number in a box, bold the number, cross out the number. Each of these representations feels at once easy to understand, but also extends the metaphor of paper, so that using it is also easy. It makes working across the board fluid. Filling out the squares and seeing each of the potential spots is quick. It means you can get to the crunchy parts of the game, and hopefully solve them.</p> <p>In addition to the notation system, there are three other default elements that add juice to the game. In the “good” and “arcade” modes, if you’ve filled in a square in a house (one of the nine primary squares that makes up a board) and that means another square has an available spot to fill with only 1 remaining notation, it will fill it in for you, and give a delightful little haptic tap as it does so. This feels like some combination of the cards falling down in solitaire, combined with the cha-ching! of a cash register that feels wonderful, while also cleaning up a lot of busy work.</p> <p>If you don’t have any square selected and you tap on a number on the dial pad, it will light up the available zones, so you can make matches or eliminate spots with a sort of birds eye view.. Finally, when you tap into a square the default is to only let you click on the remaining accessible buttons based on what exists within the same row, column, and house. All of these add up to clearing a lot of drift away from the game to focus on the hard problems of solving the game.</p> <p>In an <a href="">interview</a> on <em>Eggplant: The Secret Life of Games</em>, Zach Gage talks a lot about how <em>Good Sudoku</em> feels informed by recent roguelike games. It’s programmatically designed based on mathematical concepts. The puzzles are picked based on programmatic difficulty ratings. Thereis a set of principles that you can learn that will improve your ability to succeed at the game. What <em>Good Sudoku</em> does so excellently is take core design principles to the notation pieces of Sudoku and port them over to the digital format. It really is just <strong>way better</strong> than the million other Sudoku apps you can find on iOS.</p> <h2 id="the-pros-and-cons-of-instrumentalization">The Pros and Cons of Instrumentalization</h2> <p><em>Good Sudoku</em> has the crucial realization that the UX of sudoku defines the user’s experience. In fact, the different game modes even speak to this. The dailies, three separate daily puzzles, are defined by their different notation and feedback mechanisms, even though they’re all roughly the same difficulty level. Arcade mode uses hearts, and will immediately penalize a player for failing to place the right number. Good mode will not penalize a player for an incorrect placement, giving the player more control. Classic mode, which strips away all of the notation, highlighting, and haptics, mimics playing on paper.</p> <p>The speaks to feedback being a core challenge that newer players have with puzzles: feedback doesn’t come until the end of the game. <em>Good Sudoku</em> introduces view modes (seeing what rows and columns have eliminated from numbers), and feedback mechanisms that tells players whether or not they’re on the right path. Getting started with <em>Good Sudoku</em> is a breeze. It alleviated a lot of the principle reasons I struggled getting into sudoku from the start. But after I internalized the techniques, I hit a wall. Without warning, the game got less engaging. I found myself going back to it less and less, usually only for the dailies. The game dragged.</p> <p>I noticed I cared more and more about the speed I executed moves and I felt increasingly limited by my inability to find Y-wings and X-wings. The games somehow felt boring because I would quickly solve the first half a puzzle and then insurmountable when I couldn’t get any further. So I stopped. The conclusion I came to is that <em>Good Sudoku</em> ends up as an exercise in pattern matching (searching for the right tool and deploying it), than the feeling of experimentation and discovery I appreciate about puzzles. I learned all the core concepts but I didn’t feel like I deployed them in interesting ways, more that I was hunting and pecking for the “right” thing to do.</p> <p><img src="" alt="A screenhsot of good sudoku with 6 highlighted." title="An Example of a Highlighted Six" /></p> <p>It’s important to note, here, that there are a number of settings that can be customized and turned off, here. It’s possible to turn every game into a “Classic” edition but I’m analyzing the game from the default perspective as I think it’s the most productive to discuss design intent.</p> <p>This brings me back to the initial reaction to the concept of <em>Good Sudoku</em> as a “stim pack for your brain”, with the benefits and challenges that come with it. It reminds me a lot of an <a href="">article in The Atlantic</a> about how one of the principle challenges of AI is that it clears up a lot of low hanging fruit which only leaves the stressful elements left for humans to deal with. That’s how Good Sudoku feels to me. It lets me fly further and faster at Sudoku than I could otherwise. But it also makes me choose between flying fast or sipping my coffee. Some of the fun of puzzle games is actually the ritual of filling out the boxes and making the little marks.</p> <p>An example of this is in the display system which will highlight available boxes when you select a number on the dial pad. This is helpful when setting up the puzzle, making it clear where certain numbers block out rows and columns. This turns the start of most games into highlighting each number, blocking out the rows and columns where they couldn’t exist, and then starting the game from there. Which got me thinking about automation: if the computer is showing me this, why couldn’t it just <strong>do</strong> this for me too? Extending this question further, which my brain has a tendency to do too much, makes me question just how much of this experience is being driven by my own choices, and just how much is me playing along with the constraints of what the machine allows me to do.</p> <p>That’s probably part of the reason I enjoy the Classic experience so much more. Without any of the helpers, it’s not just that there’s no machine assist, it’s that I am the machine making the operations, and those set of operations are fun, even if they are menial. Some of the fun of sudoku is the human limitations. This is a common theme of video games generally, the tension between authored experiences and human fallibility. A lot of what constitutes UX is giving players nudges to <strong>see</strong> the thing they need to see so they can move on to the next level.</p> <p>This isn't to say this makes <em>Good Sudoku</em> worse, or that I don't think you should play the game. It’s too easy (and not my intent) to extend my argument into a place where any approachability or accessibility features would &quot;destroy&quot; the &quot;intent&quot; of the puzzle. Far from it. Without <em>Good Sudoku</em> I would not have even gotten back into sudoku puzzle solving at all. It’s more the elemental challenge of how can you tune these experience to be supportive without making the success a player achieves a fiction. It’s also the tension of cleaning up enough low hanging fruit so that players can understand the core concept of the puzzle but while also leaving enough potentially obvious answers that players can continue to feel successful along the way. I appreciate where <em>Good Sudoku</em> lands, but it makes it harder to become a long term game for me.</p> <h2 id="let%E2%80%99s-get-cracking">Let’s Get Cracking</h2> <p>If <em>Good Sudoku</em> rekindled my interest in sudoku and puzzles, <em>Cracking the Cryptic</em> launched it into near earth orbit. <em>Cracking the Cryptic</em> is a YouTube channel, Patreon, Discord, and series of apps/games based around puzzle solving and especially math games like Sudoku. It caught on May 2020 when the <a href="">Miracle Sudoku</a> clip blew up over the internet. The <em>Cracking the Cryptic</em> releases a YouTube clip once or twice a day where you get to watch a professional puzzle solver solve a mind bending challenge. Learning about the patterns that other people use to solve problems invigorates me. And the hosts on the channel are so delighted and enthusiastic about the design of the puzzles brings a Great British Bake-off sort of feel to it.</p> <p>If <em>Good Sudoku</em> takes a lot of modern commercial game design concepts and applies them to the puzzle, <em>Cracking the Cryptic</em> appreciates the design concepts of the rules of sudoku. How “setters” can use rules and clever number placement to give the smallest possible number of starting clues to unfold an entire puzzle. There are also a number of iOS/Android/PC games that take different twists on the sudoku format and pull them into interactive forms. These include Chess Sudoku, which adds chess moves to sudoku blocking; killer sudoku, which adds special boxes that restrict numbers based on sum, among others.</p> <p><img src="" alt="The Chess Sudoku Screen with 9 Highlighted in the 3rd house (top left)." title="The Chess Sudoku Screen with 9 Highlighted" /></p> <p>Comparing the applications to <em>Good Sudoku</em> is somewhat unfair. From a pure UX perspective, <em>Cracking the Cryptic</em> is much less friendly than <em>Good Sudoku</em>. There’s the base challenge that the targets for selecting numbers are small and in a row, so it’s easy to hit the wrong number accidentally. The two numeric notation systems aren’t well explained and don’t play well with one another. I figured out the best way to use them by watching the YouTube channel.</p> <p><img src="" alt="A house is shown with the side-by-side notation and positional notation displayed." title="The two types of notation are incompatible" /></p> <p>The hint system feels like it’s from a decade ago, compared to <em>Good Sudoku</em>’s. Ask for a hint in <em>Chess Sudoku</em> (the game I’m playing at the moment) and a text box will pop up with a series of potential explanations. This might be helpful at the start of the game but will become unusable if you’ve taken a different path through the system. The hint system in <em>Good Sudoku</em> uses machine learning to figure out where you’re at, your path to the solution, and then gives you a single technique (along with an explainer) to keep you moving down the puzzle. The hint system in <em>Good Sudoku</em> is absolute magic.</p> <p>There are also some highlighting tweaks that I appreciate. For one, when I select a number, it will highlight the associated notations in boxes for me. This helps me see the board when it gets filled up without making it blindingly obvious where a row or column elimination might be, so I still get to feel smart when I make a simple discovery. It also allows you to highlight multiple boxes and then shows you the set of boxes that are covered up by both. This is helpful for seeing combinations that might be unlocked at harder parts in the game.</p> <p><img src="" alt="The 7 is highlighted. Squares with 7s are orange and squares with the 7 noted are yellow." title="An example of highlighting with Chess Sudoku" /></p> <p>For all the gaps and inconsistencies , I’ve spent more time playing <em>Chess Sudoku</em> than I’ve spent playing <em>Good Sudoku</em> in the last month. The counterpoint to the challenges with <em>Chess Sudoku</em>’s notation system is that because it isn’t opinionated it feels more like a set of coloring tools that I can use however I want. This is inefficient for a beginner, who likely wants to be told the most efficient way to use notations, but is somewhat freeing where I’m at, when I want to experiment with how I think about the game. Part of the fun of these apps is in the “playing along”, or getting the opportunity to use similar techniques that you see the hosts of <em>Cracking the Cryptic</em> play in the games that you play. Playing with the associated apps feels fun because of their connection to the YouTube channel, and I’m not sure I would enjoy them as much without it.</p> <h2 id="the-strength-of-interpretation">The Strength of Interpretation</h2> <p>It would be easy enough to turn this critique into the four or five things that I think both apps do well that I wish I could mash together into a super app, but I don’t think that’s a particularly helpful perspective. The beauty of playing with each is in seeing how different UI implementations can lead to such divergent play experiences.</p> <p>For example, Zach Gage was very public about the fact that he struggled with sudoku and found most of the app implementations hard to understand. The app he designed is clearly framed around this perspective. It cares a lot about getting me to understand the core of the game and what to think about when I’m looking at it. There’s a scoring system that’s clearly there to reinforce the good habits I’m building, and the daily games are structured very similarly to NYT Crossword mashed up with a roguelike. Each day of the week the challenge of the game ramps up until Sunday when it feels nearly impossible. The game also ranks me. It’s built a lot around trying to build enjoyment and a small community around figuring out what the exciting element of sudoku is.</p> <p>The <em>Cracking the Cryptic</em> apps pre-supposes excitement about sudoku. I think if I tried to start with these apps I would’ve bounced off and not picked them up again. The apps are more about a play on a specific variant of the game and the interesting combinations when thinking about it. In that light, the plethora of notation devices feels like a way to explore and experiment on the sudoku board however you like, rather than guide you towards a solution.</p> <p>For my journey into the world of sudoku, it was the combination of both apps, and the YouTube channel that expanded how I think about framing and solving these mathematical puzzles. I don’t think just watching the Cracking the Cryptic channel would have got me there. A lot of the concepts I didn’t grasp, and the extra games didn’t feel like much fun when I didn’t have the full context. <em>Good Sudoku</em> feels like a focused version of the game. Playing and comparing each of them expanded my viewpoint as a designer and a problem solver.</p> <p>I played each of them on iOS:</p> <p><em>Good Sudoku</em>: <a href=""></a><br /> <em>Chess Sudoku</em>: <a href=""></a></p> Stuart Urback Golf Peaks: A Lovely Puzzle 2021-01-24T23:21:30Z <p>Some games do something small are large that’s worthy of repetition. Some games tell an incredible story. And some games just hit all of the right notes. <em>Golf Peaks</em> is one of those games. If I had any experience with golf there are any number of clever puns or jokes I could make. Alas, I do not. But the rough contours of <em>Golf Peaks</em> line up with my understanding of golf, which provides an easy metaphor to slip into and understand the game.</p> <p>There are some games that ignite my curiosity, where I want to figure out what secrets they have to unlock. There are other games that feature intriguing mechanics that I want to emulate or explore. There’s nothing ground breaking about <em>Golf Peaks</em> and that’s one of the things I most love about it. It doesn’t ask much of me, so the moments of delight it gives feel especially nice.</p> <h2 id="the-playground">The Playground</h2> <p>It’s easy to talk about the concrete elements of design. It’s fun to point out how the UX for the game lends itself to easy use and understanding. How the metaphors of golf work surprisingly well. But it’s easy to overlook the physicality of the work. The space looks like a playground. At once small and approachable and durable. I can imagine myself running around and bouncing off the walls. This sets a playful tone for my experience and means the game feels expansive in my mind.</p> <p><img src="" alt="A golf peaks board in the center of the screen. Mostly tan tiles with slopes towards the bottom, and a cliff on either side." title="A Golf Peaks Board" /></p> <p>The goal is to get the golf ball from your starting spot into the hole. Each round you have a number of cards to use to do so. Once your cards run out the round ends. This way, the number of cards represents a sort of &quot;par&quot; number. You succeed if you are under or at par.</p> <p>Each card represents a type of movement the ball can make, either straight through a tile, like a putt, or over a tile, like a chip shot. You are also given cards which represent a combination of the two, breaking the metaphor slightly but no less easy to understand. Each movement also has a number next two it, representing the number of spaces it will move. For example, a straight arrow with a 3 means you will move the ball 3 spaces across the terrain. When you pick a card, you can also pick one of four directions to “hit” the ball, so you have some choice in how the card gets utilized even after you pick it.</p> <p>Each course also has different terrain which will change how the ball moves. There’s the basic grass terrain which the ball will move through at the expected clip, if you pick a 3 and putt across grass, the ball will move 3 spaces. Other terrain which will show up like sand, which stops the movement of the ball, ice which keeps the ball moving, or water which resets the ball to the last safe tile it touched. The combination of the tiles and the cards creates your “lay” for the puzzle determining how you will have to maneuver to shape the game.</p> <p><img src="" alt="A close-up view of a golfball on a single sand tile, surrounded by clay and quicksand." title="The golf ball on a sand tile" /></p> <p>The grids are laid out like checkerboards, usually no more than 8x8 (I didn’t check every puzzle), but sometimes small, or strangely shaped. There might be spots missing that you have to avoid. There are also different levels of the terrain, so you might try to navigate the ball up or down the course, and that navigation might require moving up or down, and the terrain adjustment is sometimes smooth and sometimes not.</p> <h2 id="what%E2%80%99s-in-the-cards%3F">What’s in the Cards?</h2> <p>Cards in a golf game seems like a strange combination. The concept of “cards” as a game design tool is in vogue right now. It’s not hard to see why, cards are recognizable to a broad spectrum of people, regardless of how many (or few) games they play. Cards also come preloaded with concepts that are recognizable. We shuffle them, draw them into our hand, and discard them to name a few. Used well, a card can communicate a lot of information about how the player is supposed to behave.</p> <p><img src="" alt="The golf peaks card at the bottom of the screen. There are four cards. From left to right 1 putt, 1 chip, 3 chip, 1 chip + 1 putt" title="The Golf Peaks Cards" /></p> <p>At the same time, cards are often over utilized. It’s easy enough to make anything a card, especially digitally. <em>Golf Peaks</em> does not fall into this trap. The metaphor of the card works well to explain how the game functions and communicate its limits. Firstly, you are “dealt” a card of hands at the start of every puzzle. This is what you have to work with. Every time you play a card that “discards” that card for the puzzle, meaning you can’t use it again. And as I mentioned earlier, the cards themselves are discrete, each card represents a specific pattern you activate as a player. As you play cards to move your options become restricted.</p> <p>Thinking about these as cards also help you with another metaphor in the UI, they come sorted. The potential cards (actions) you can play are ordered by their number (low to high, left to right) and then sorted by their respective types (putt, wedge, wedge + putt). This adds up to create a UI that is cohesive and easy to scan.</p> <h2 id="exploration-over-deduction">Exploration over Deduction</h2> <p>The other delightful part about <em>Golf Peaks</em> is that it’s a puzzle game about exploration instead of abstraction. A lot of puzzle games, <a href="">like Sudoku</a>, build towards an idea of understanding an underlying concept. While you are playing the game you're building a skill to read the game board to see solutions that are more complex and nuanced.</p> <p><em>Golf Peaks</em> doesn't ask this of me. It prefers exploration over deduction. Rather than penalizing a player for an incorrect move, it provides a helpful rewind and restart button. There are few cards (typically around 5 but no more than 10) which means trying out different combinations of movements is quick. This means I spend less energy trying to build a picture in my head and more time selecting moves and trying them out. It's less brain burning and more guess and check.</p> <p><img src="" alt="The 4th level of Golf peaks, there is a 3x4 grid of levels to select, 12 in total." title="The Golf Peaks Menu" /></p> <p>This means it's possible to &quot;brute force&quot; the game by trying every possible combination to find the solution. But that requires enough effort that it wouldn't be that much fun. It's the type of design problem I appreciate the authors didn't spend time trying to solve. If I want to brute force it, that's a personal choice I can make.</p> <p>The game still manages to include moments of inversion, where I'll find myself using a card in a way I didn't expect or ignoring a tile I thought might be central to solving the puzzle. The game ends up mimicking a lot of what you do on the phone: tap, swipe, swipe, tap. As you work out a successful path through the maze. But unlike the mindless swiping you might do as you casually browse different websites, this swiping is thoughtful. You are trying to chart a path from one end to the other. The tapping and swiping feels meditative.</p> <h2 id="final-thoughts">Final Thoughts</h2> <p>For $2.99 this game is worth your time. It's available for most platforms so you can probably find it on one where you're going to play it. The game is so gentle, it does a good job of explaining concepts like new tile pieces. This means it's approachable for players who don't spend much time around puzzle games. There is also enough content for seasoned puzzle solvers to enjoy the twists and turns.</p> <p>The word lovely keeps coming back to mind when I think about <em>Golf Peaks</em>. The art style, the design of the puzzle, and the clever use of UI elements combines to create an experience that is delicate and refreshing. I recommend this to puzzle lovers and game players of all stripes.</p> Stuart Urback Modern Art: A Game of Art and Commerce 2021-01-31T19:01:13Z <p>I love board games but I don't play a ton of them. Getting together with friends to play looks something like playing a game or two after work or getting together for a couple of hours on a weekend. I try to find a few, streamlined games that are quick to learn and pack a punch in terms of experience instead of chasing all of the new hotness or finding expansive experiences. This means games like <em>Modern Art</em> spend more time at the table than a beautiful and complex game like <em>Root</em>.</p> <p><img src="" alt="The Modern Art Box Cover" title="The Modern Art Box Cover" /></p> <p><em>Modern Art</em>, the game I'm talking about today, streamlines the auction mechanic to its purest form. Each player takes on the role of a curator for a famous museum (with a generic name) trying to collect modern paintings. This metaphor doesn't quite hold up as you spend more focus selling art than you do collecting it, but it sets the mood and theme. Each round players take turns auctioning different pieces of art by one of five modern artists. The goal of the game is to sell each piece of art for the highest amount possible by manipulating the market so that the artists you collect are the most popular and thus the most valuable.</p> <h2 id="interlocking-pieces">Interlocking Pieces</h2> <p>Reiner Knizia is one of the most prolific and famous game designers, with hundreds of published works. While he has many clunkers, the sheer number of hits speaks to his prodigious ability. The hallmarks of his designs are his use of economic systems and the way he uses multiple systems to interlock and create a dynamic experience that any on their own could not manage.</p> <p>This is the opposite of a game like <em><a href="">Food Chain Island</a></em> where there is a single system representing all that is possible. There are two primary focuses in <em>Modern Art</em>. First, the auction system determines how much money you spend to purchase pieces of art. Second, the value system that determines how much the art you sell is worth. Each on their own is unimpressive. Together they are spectacular.</p> <p>There are four different types of auctions (Open, One Offer, Hidden, and Fixed Price). Technically there is a fifth, but it amounts to auctioning 2 pieces of art off instead of 1, so it’s a level of intrigue I’ll let you discover on your own. Each type of auction is straightforward and easy to understand, adding variety without much complexity.</p> <p><img src="" alt="The text has the &quot;Price Tag&quot; auction and the art is by Ramon Martins, titled Tete." title="An example art border." /></p> <p>In the single bid scenario, you go around in a circle once, with each player either raising the previous bid or stepping out of the bid, ending with the player who called the auction. Each player has time to think or gracefully bow out, and the person who played the card is in full control of the situation.</p> <p>In the hidden bid scenario, everyone selects an amount of money, hides it in their hand, and then reveals it all at once. The highest bidder pays the cash and takes the art. Once again it’s a discrete, single bid. You decide the amount you’re willing to pay, and you put it in.</p> <p>In the fixed price bid situation, the auctioneer names a price. Then each person goes around the circle and decides to buy it or not. If they agree to pay the money, they pay the auctioneer and get the piece, no one else has an opportunity. This one also has a number of guardrails here for the auctioneer. If they’re nervous about what amount to spend, they can choose the highest reasonable number they would be comfortable putting down. Or, they can risk it and try to see how much money they can wrench from their opposition’s hands.</p> <p>The final, open auction format, is the loudest and most boisterous. It’s what we think of when we think auction. Players bid each other up until the auctioneer decides it’s over. But when the mood gets set by the relative calm of the other rounds, the open auction tends to be less boisterous and more of a delightful diversion. Like a hum that slowly increases in a library only to be shushed by the librarian and back to quietude.</p> <p><img src="" alt="Artist value layout with the top two rows filled with corresponding tokens." title="Example Artist Value Layout" /></p> <p>But the payout system holds the shifty magic of the game. The round ends whenever the 5th piece of any artist has been put up for auction. Then, each artist is ranked for that round based on the number of pieces sold. The artist with the most work sold adds 30k to their value, the second most is 20k, and the first most add 10k, the remaining artists get nothing. Players then exchange their art for the value of the artist. This creates tension within the round (which artist will take the top spot?) and throughout the game (how can I add to the cumulative value to the art in my hand?). This leads to moments of delight when an artist spikes in value or disappointment when a piece of art you spent a lot on becomes worthless.</p> <p>There’s one final twist that’s worth mentioning. When a player buys a piece of art from the auctioneer, they pay the auctioneer that money, transferring money between players and keeping it “in the system”. But when the auctioneer buys a piece of art they pay the money to the bank, effectively disappearing that money forever. This creates a clear incentive for the auctioneer to try to sell their work to someone else and not keep the spoils for themselves. It’s a little nudge, but one that keeps the system humming overall.</p> <h2 id="punishing-mechanics">Punishing Mechanics</h2> <p>Often when we talk about “punishing” systems it’s in reference to systems that have a high cost on our ability to win a particular game. For example, chess might be considered punishing because one wrong move can obliterate your chance to win a game. But the social element of auction games can offer its own form of exhaustion and punishment. Constant negotiation is exhausting and I tend to avoid those types of games when I play. But because the majority of auction types don’t require direct negotiation, the game doesn’t wear me down the same as other negotiation games.</p> <p>This isn’t to say social pressure disappears from the game. There are still opportunities to over (or under) bid in a round which can lead to uncomfortable moments if that’s not what you’re looking for. But when I found myself in the right frame of mind, the pace of the game often led to each player taking turns looking foolish, reinforcing the “we’re all in this together” feeling of the game, riding through the ever-changing system.</p> <h2 id="the-value-of-theme">The Value of Theme</h2> <p>To me, auction games are a lot like deck-building games in that there aren’t many different ways you can dress them up to change the shape of the game. To that end, I think <em>Modern Art</em> marries the theme of the art world with the craft of the auction mechanics to create the defining entry in the auction genre.</p> <p><img src="" alt="The text says &quot;New York Art Gallery&quot; and the design of the building looks like Guggenheim New York." title="The &quot;New York Art Gallery&quot; player cover." /></p> <p>The art world is a perfect setting because it encapsulates the arbitrary feeling of the monetary value of art, with the cutthroat way that the art values have a direct impact on your ranking in the game. It also encapsulates the capricious swings that can occur when an artist you were pumping up suddenly has their value disappear.</p> <p><img src="" alt="The card is a piece by Manuel Carvalho and is an open auction card." title="One of the Example Cards" /></p> <p>It’s also possible that a different economic setting could map onto these mechanics, but the art framing helps create a light, disconnected mood. And the art itself is fun to look at. In many of the games, I played players would tell a story about the art as they put it up for auction. Many versions of <em>Modern Art</em> have been released and each one uses a different set of artwork to represent. The one I have, by CMON games, features big cards with images that bleed to the edge. The cards feel like you can hold them in two hands which adds weight and heft to them. The borders make them feel expansive and give them presence.</p> <h2 id="find-the-right-setting-and-play-the-game!">Find the Right Setting and Play the Game!</h2> <p><em>Modern Art</em> is a tight game that’s easy to each to a variety of players. It has a depth that can hold players looking for a depth of strategy and has an easy theme that story-driven players can shape to their needs. Even so, auction games are dependent on mood and location. They’re not for playing in a quiet library or if you’re feeling socially drained. But in the right setting, when you’re ready to test wits directly with close friends, you’ll find rollicking good times. The mix of uncertainty, depth, and surprise from seeing how your friends bid. Is fun. It feels like a game that exposes things about your friends that you didn’t learn before and in unexpected ways.</p> Stuart Urback Guildlings: A Coming of Age RPG 2021-02-08T05:13:46Z <p><em>Guildlings</em> is a game created by Sirvo Studios and published on Apple Arcade in 2019. <em>Guildlings</em> is a game with a bunch of cool ideas, to the point where I'm not sure how to start.</p> <p>So let's start with the structure of the game. You might call the game a traditional team adventure rpg. You put together a team of long lost friends. In order to complete your quests, you will select your team of 3 friends each with different special abilities that help unlock certain areas of the map and overcome certain obstacles.</p> <p><img src="" alt="Four characters are pictured among ruins with the Guildlings title above them." title="The Guildlings title screen" /></p> <p><em>Guildlings</em> plays out like a summer break coming of age adventure. Through playing the game you'll reconnect with old friends, overcome scary obstacles, and learn to emotionally mature with yourself and your friends. While there are many games in this genre, <em>Pokemon</em> is probably the most well known. The contours of <em>Pokemon</em>, an adventure, overcoming obstacles, managing a team map onto <em>Guildlings</em> but there are a few key differences where <em>Guildlings</em> feels fresh.</p> <p>The world of <em>Guildlings</em>, like <em>Pokemon</em>, feels alive with the intersection of magic and technology. It's hard to tell where one begins and the other ends. At the same time, it's filled with the detritus of consumer culture that makes it feel lived in. You will fill up on chips and soda, find a friend at a dive bar, and encounter crabs in trash bags. While the universe it lives in is magical, the stuff that makes it up feels commonplace, like living right on the edge between childhood and adulthood.</p> <h2 id="the-focus">The Focus</h2> <p>It’s hard not to like this game. The art style is bright and cartoony, but with enough detail to articulate the differences between characters with their styles.</p> <p><img src="" alt="" title="Characters discuss the issues the world faces." /></p> <p>The story feels like a game's take on YA novels. It also inverts a lot of tropes about RPGs. The focus of the game is on personal growth and emotional management, rather than on defeating enemies. Like other team-based adventure RPGs players spend a lot of time battling enemies. Unlike in a traditional RPG, the goal of a &quot;battle&quot; isn't to wear out your enemy. Rather, the goal is to withstand the attacks of the enemy with your health and moods intact. This inverts the focus from external power to internal management and understanding.</p> <p><img src="" alt="" title="Battle screen as you face down a Crabbage." /></p> <p>It fits with the overall theme of the game. You are on a journey of self discovery, and the goal is to unlock new powers and abilities among the characters you manage, rather than trying to defeat the strongest enemy. For the most part this doesn't change your gameplay. You will lead your adventurers around, trying to unlock certain areas of the map either through your special abilities, by collecting special items, or by withstanding a new enemy. The tactical side of the game, &quot;battling&quot; enemies also doesn't change much, except you are only focused on your health, rather than your health and your opponent.</p> <p>The focus of the mechanics fits well with the theme of the story and pushes the attention of the player onto the characters instead of optimizing arrays of abilities for the proper amount of efficiency. It felt cozy and human rather than arcane and supernatural. It also spoke to my experience as an adult living in the world. Most of the time I spend &quot;leveling up&quot; by introspecting my emotions and reactions to the world, trying to find ways to change my habits and shape my responses to have a positive affect. The game still manages to be escapist fantasy, but it doesn't carry the baggage of power and domination. I enjoyed this fact quite a bit.</p> <h2 id="discordance">Discordance</h2> <p>As I continued to play the way that I was asked to control energies and character moods felt unfulfilled. When you're not battling you'll often spend time talking to friends or strangers who can change your moods depending on what and how things are discussed. This makes sense. In <em>Guildlings</em> special abilities are tied to players moods, so a certain character might only be able to use their &quot;Dash&quot; ability if they feel &quot;cool&quot;.</p> <p><img src="" alt="" title="The player screen with emotions and battery listed." /></p> <p>As the group leader, I was tasked with &quot;managing&quot; the moods of my characters, but there was almost always a &quot;right&quot; mood for my characters to be in, the one that would allow them to use their special ability. While this makes sense from a design perspective, as a player it felt like I was instrumentalizing the emotions of my friends. Furthermore, if we were at a spot on the map where I needed to use a certain ability, I found myself picking fights so I could change my mood to access that area. The idea of taking advantage of the outside world in order to accomplish my goals felt wrong. A similar situation happens in the game where a character admonishes your party for taking advantage of the world for your own ends. It felt like a situation where the story tried to say one thing, and the structure of the game said another.</p> <p>It feels unfair to knock <em>Guildlings</em> for this. I appreciate the shift in tone, and the occasional moment of discordance is a fair trade for a genuine attempt to tell a new story in a new way. Finding a way to square that circle, using emotions as mechanics without instrumentalizing them, is a hard problem. It can only get better as more teams try to tackle that challenge, and I am appreciative <em>Gulidlings</em> went for it.</p> <h2 id="the-ux">The UX</h2> <p>I want to end on a positive note, and on a note that almost makes playing the game worth it on its own. <em>Guildlings</em> has incredible UX. The game feels like a phone game because it uses the patterns of popular apps as core character interactions. In the game, you communicate with your team and the world via a Tome, a type of smartphone in the world with ancient and mystical powers. There are two types of interactions that you use most often, a tap, and a hold. You might use this to direct your team around the world: tap to go to a location, hold to move in a direction. You might use this to interact with objects in the world: tap to expand options, long press to take action that will be apparent from the object you are acting on.</p> <p><img src="" alt="" title="The diamond represents something to tap to interact" /></p> <p><img src="" alt="" title="A long press comes with haptics and a display to complete the action" /></p> <p>When you long tap on an item, a circle starts appearing around it, as a simple delay to confirm you want to take the action you intend. This plus haptics feels fun and creates a lovely affordance to prevent players from doing something they might not want.</p> <p><em>Guildlings</em> also uses this to its advantage in the intro to the game. It takes the idea of &quot;setting up a new phone&quot; and turns it into a tutorial. As you step through the different components to &quot;set up your new phone&quot; you learn how you can interact with the world. The metaphor was so clever it was hard to be impatient about wanting to get to the real game.</p> <p><img src="" alt="" title="The first screen of the game" /></p> <p>The concept of the game, a journey of personal discovery at the boundary of magic and technology works. It uses the smartphone concept so well to reveal what makes smartphones feel special. For all the addictive apps and deceptive business practices, the concept of a pocket device that connects you to thoughts, imagination, and inspiration is pure magic. <em>Guildlings</em> captures that feeling through its UX.</p> <h2 id="the-end">The End</h2> <p>If you are an RPG fan, this game has a lot of heart and inventiveness to offer you. The story is well written, the art is fun, and the mechanics offer enough novelty that you'll enjoy exploring the nooks and crannies of the world. For a fan, <em>Guildlings</em> might justify the purchase of Apple Arcade for a month or two. For other people, <em>Guildlings</em> is a game that you will enjoy experimenting with if you already own Apple Arcade but probably not enough on its own to justify the purchase. For me, <em>Guildlings</em> feels like the type of game that justifies the existence of Apple Arcade. It's delightfully experimental and it can focus on the experience of the game rather than being distracted by monetization or player engagement.</p> Stuart Urback Interlude: Grilled Cheese and Checkers 2021-02-15T05:58:01Z <p>Why read reviews of games? Most of the reviews people read will not result in a game being purchased or played. In fact, most reviews exist within a sphere of the internet where people who read the reviews identify as gamers and read them to keep up to date with the latest news and opinions about the hobby.</p> <p>I find myself asking this question because my grandmother passed away in January, ending the physical bond I shared with two of the closest people I had in my childhood. And as I reflected on what she meant in my life, the weekends I spent over with her and my grandfather playing checkers and eating grilled cheese. My grandparents were conservative down to their bones, both in their politics and their lifestyles (they re-used Ziploc bags). I was a touchy-feely kid who was dominated by my emotions (and pessimism). Games gave us a way to communicate and interact joyfully.</p> <p>It feels ironic that while my relationship with my grandparents was defined by games I never found a way to describe my love of games in a way they could understand. I couldn’t communicate the feeling of being swept away on a gust of wind by the possibility and anticipation of a new idea or concept. The way I feel like I can feel the texture of a mechanic of a game or the fun that I have hearing an idea rattling around my brain. These delicate impractical things were hard to describe.</p> <p>I still remember college when I tried grappling with the now tired concept of whether games are art or craft. It’s the type of discussion that feels fundamental to someone who loves games but alien to anyone from the outside looking in. In the face of reflecting on a person’s life that conflict can feel rather shallow. But I’m reminded about the book <a href="">Cork Dork</a> and how building expertise changes the way we experience our lives. And my experiences with games have deepened my appreciation of those experiences with my grandparents.</p> <h2 id="arts-and-crafts">Arts and Crafts</h2> <p>The debate between art and craft, especially in American society, is about the difference between whether something is authored and worthy of intensive consideration, or whether it was designed to solve a problem and searching for meaning within it isn’t worth the effort. This is a gross simplification, but for a long time, game designers were looking for recognition as being “art” because it would mean they’d made it in being worthy of higher consideration. If you google “Games Citizen Kane” or search for Roger Ebert’s article on whether games are art, you’ll get a sense here.</p> <p>This discussion might seem entirely disconnected from trying to make sense of a group of lives 2 decades ago, but it isn’t. If you believe that games should be analyzed only as art, you might come to the conclusion that the grilled cheese sandwiches that my grandmother made were disconnected from the experience of the game or that because checkers “wasn’t saying anything” that there’s not much substance there to analyze. And if you see a game as a designed element it cheapens the experience. It was a way to pass the time with my grandfather. But checkers was both and neither of those things.</p> <h2 id="what-is-checkers">What is Checkers</h2> <p>Checkers is a game played on an 8×8 grid, typically with red and black discs lined up in alternating squares on either end of the board. The goal of the game is to eliminate all the disks of opposing colors by jumping them. Each turn you either may make one more diagonally, or if there is a “jump” available, you must make it. If one of your pieces makes it to the other end (the opponent’s end) of the board it is “kinged” and may now move in either direction instead of only forward. This turns it into a powerhouse piece. The game continues until stalemate or one player eliminates all the pieces of the other player.</p> <p>As a game, checkers feels pretty same-y each time you play. While there are plenty of different configurations to the board, the game itself doesn’t have much dynamism. Unlike in chess there aren’t interesting clusters or combinations of strategies that present themselves for a varied experience. I realized 2 things rather quickly: getting a King was great and the side spots just above your starting position were extra valuable because they could block off a lot of territory without risking their pieces and allow yours to advance. Checkers taught me that even obvious strategies can feel rewarding when they are expertly deployed.</p> <h2 id="a-problem-to-solve">A Problem to Solve</h2> <p>When we talk about games, we spend a lot of time talking about clever design tweaks that a game makes to make us feel smart. Or design tricks that challenge us and lead us. We don't spend all that much time talking about the way that we act on games and change them, and how the value of some games is how easily they can be changed. We call things &quot;game systems&quot; when they can be built on top of, like how a 52 card deck is a &quot;game system&quot;. But the deeper you go in game design the more you recognize that play is this vulnerable special place where humans are free to experiment with new ways of expressing themselves and becoming vulnerable. Bernie DeKoven, one of the members of the New Games Movement, talked about this concept of the Play Community. In his reading, the games we play kind of form a contract and a space (some people call this the magic circle) that allow us to engage with other people in ways we might not otherwise.</p> <p>Checkers was neither art nor design for me, it was both. Games are design because they solve a specific problem, which is how do you get two specific people at a specific time to play together. Thinking in terms of a community of play, a game is a contract that binds people within a space under terms they find agreeable. Games are art because the experience as the result of that play is beautiful and meaningful. It’s the type of stuff that sticks with you. Checkers was the contract my grandfather and I shared together, and it was guaranteed by the grilled cheese.</p> <p>Checkers was, to put it tritely, “a game that could be played and appreciated by a 10-year-old and an 80-year-old”. Neither had a college degree, at least one had little patience and the other had a memory who failed him. The games fit. Finding that degree of fit between two or more people is hard. It’s an accomplishment that is worth celebrating because when that fit works it sparks pure artistic magic that is rare in my view. Moments when, regardless of your past or future paths, a brief understanding and appreciation can be passed between you.</p> <p>Checkers was special because it was simple enough for a 10-year-old (honestly I can’t remember the exact age) to learn while he was getting destroyed by his 80-year-old grandfather. It was also straightforward enough for that grandfather to continue to remember even though his memory failed him consistently and at strange times that would confuse the young boy when he would have to remind his grandfather how the rules worked. I don’t know, at that time, how many other games would have fit that need. Something like Chess or even Cribbage would have likely been too complex for the young boy to learn or have too many rules for the grandfather to remember. The grilled cheese solved the problem that the boy was hungry and wouldn’t stop eating. The Italian grandmother also wouldn’t stop feeding him. The 2 grilled cheese days were extra special.</p> <p>My first play community was my grandparents. While my grandmother never played the games, the grilled cheese she made and the conversation she offered as a spectator became an important part of the experience. Those games of checkers, I think were what bridged the gap between an entirely emotional child and a pair of grandparents who had practiced being stern and unflinching, for whom emotional expression was something to withhold.</p> <h2 id="it-was-playful">It Was Playful</h2> <p>I know both of my grandparents were tough, demanding people, to put it gently. As a kid, you can occasionally catch the things that your parents let slip, that they still try to hide from you as you get older, to protect those perfect memories you formed. But it would be rather hard to corrupt those memories: I know many of my friends didn't have grandparents around at all, much-less ones that lived next door. But the games of checkers were gentle. The sternness might appear elsewhere, if I were being asked to complete a task. Playing checkers I might be gently chided, &quot;Stuie you have to pay attention to the game&quot;, as I was distracted by the television sitting behind me.</p> <p>And even though as a family we prided ourselves on doing things <strong>correctly</strong>, well, we didn’t play checkers with all the right rules a single time from what I can remember. We never used the rule where you had to jump an available piece. It didn’t make sense to us, so we didn’t use it. I think this is also some of the magic of games. We can reshape them to fulfill our needs without changing them conceptually. We were still playing checkers, just our own version on it.</p> <p>The checkerboard told a story. It started life inside a red cardboard box. The box got opened and closed so much that it fell apart, so I started storing the pieces in a Ziploc baggy and carry over them and the board without protective casing. And then the board split because it had been opened and closed so many times, so we put striped packaging tape down the middle. And then a piece or two got lost, so they were replaced with my ever present legos. The way the pieces contain the memories of those experiences still inspires me.</p> <h2 id="making-meaning">Making Meaning</h2> <p>Checkers was also my first real brush with mortality. Unlike other areas, like my parents ever-present concern about his health or his strokes (which given his survival rate for the first 2 decades I knew him created a very incorrect vision of what having a stroke meant), seeing him fail to remember something in checkers, or start to lose more often felt tangible and real. I could see he couldn’t do things he used to be able to previously do. The game made it tangible.</p> <p>It seems weird to celebrate games for their ability to recognize our mortality, but that’s part of what art does. It can make an abstract concept like death tangible. I suspect this is part of what made me so enthralled by games as an intellectual pursuit. Checkers didn’t set out to focus on mortality, but it ended up giving me the space to consider it and to appreciate the connection I had at the moment.</p> <p>I think that's why I equate two player games to a higher level of appreciation than games that play with three or more people. I equate them directly with love. Because communication that didn't come easily to me or my grandfather the movements of the pieces substituted. The games on the weekend felt intimate without being forced.</p> <h2 id="possibly-predictable-magic">Possibly Predictable Magic</h2> <p>This is why games make such excellent design objects. They solve problems (connecting people) and they are craft objects designed to be manipulated and transformed to suit the needs of their environment. Matching games to people in the right way helps give our communities of play a starting point to leap off from, to change and shift, and the starting point is what defines whether that’s possible and where it might go. Checkers wasn’t special because it was old or because it was a perfect design. It was special because both of us could learn, understand, and enjoy it on terms we were comfortable with. A lot of the way I view games is defined in part by the simple act of setting down a checkerboard in front of my grandfather every weekend.</p> <p>But we changed the games to be more to our liking. The subtle shifting of the rules of games is so banal that we take it for granted. Those small changes, the ones that the system of the game left open for us made it possible to connect the mental gaps between a young boy and his grandfather. Neither my grandmother nor my grandfather would have used the word, but we were a community centered around play, around the playing of games and around the watching of games (football in particular, sometimes baseball). And we shifted the games we played to meet our needs.</p> <p>As his dementia took hold, the last few games with my grandfather were of Gin Rummy. Again we played the game with “incorrect” rules. By this point I would occasionally hold back or lose concentration to let him win or be competitive. It wasn’t so much for him as it was for me to tell myself a fiction that his memory wasn’t getting worse or failing. But by the time I reached high school the grilled cheese and the games discontinued. The relationship we had built was strong enough that it could survive without them.</p> <p>Checkers is not a uniquely great game. Neither is Gin Rummy. And grilled cheese has little to do with an interesting narrative or mathematical mechanic. But these three things are inextricably linked to my emotions and connections to games. You see, for close to a decade of my life I spent at least a day of almost every weekend playing checkers (and then Gin Rummy) with my grandfather who lived next door while my Grandmother made me a grilled cheese sandwich.</p> <p>In <a href=""><em>Play Anything</em></a>, Ian Bogost talks about how what games are special at doing is inverting our expectations by pulling the background forward and pushing the foreground (the things we take for granted) to the back. The benefit here is to make special those things we don’t appreciate or too often take for granted. But with board games, the stuff being foregrounded isn’t the games, it’s the people we spend time with (and ourselves). And what makes each game special is the way it draws out certain elements of our experiences and our relationships to other people in interesting ways. The important thing here isn’t that Checkers or Grilled Cheese or Gin Rummy are special. What was special was the way that Checkers and Grilled Cheese solved a problem of connecting generations and emotions into something that became meaningful, and maybe even profound for my life.</p> <p>Finding a game that connects a group of people is magic. It’s as simple and mundane as that. If movies are about capturing and storing the magic of a moment, and books are about building beautiful mental palaces, and music is about breathing an idea through a rhythm, games are a box of tinder that can spark a new moment of magic. The value in reviewing them is about helping people understand when and for whom each game might solve a problem and making it easier for more people to discover that magic.</p> Stuart Urback The Fox in the Forest: A Delicate Dance 2021-02-22T06:28:44Z <p><em>Fox in the Forest</em> is a trick taking game based on the classic “Hearts”, shifted from a 3-4 player game to a focus on two players. The structure of trick taking games comes from the restriction that you have to “follow suit”, i.e. play a card in the same suit as the other. The game is played over the course of a number of deals. With each player winning points based on how many tricks they win each round. First to 21 points wins.</p> <p><img src="" alt="The Title &quot;The Fox in the Forest&quot; sits above a Fox, sitting proudly" title="The Fox in the Forest Game Cover" /></p> <p><em>Fox in the Forest</em> is a delicate game. You can see it in the artwork, the iconography, and even the game design. Playing the game feels like being a part of a fantasy world with a royal opponent. Delicately playing cards over tea but with dire consequences.</p> <p><em>Fox in the Forest</em> is delicate because it packs meaning and importance to each turn without overcomplicating the game. For many games where every turn is important, what that really means is that whoever makes the wrong move first loses the game. This is not the case in <em>Fox in the Forest</em> because most tricks are unimportant, but finding the ones that you can win required skill and patience. At any moment it feels like the game could break open and reveal who is clever enough to win.</p> <p>At the start of the game, each player is dealt 13 cards, for a total of 13 tricks per game. This leaves a small number in the deck to show the trump (the suit that can “override” the leading suit) and some variability so that neither player has perfect information.</p> <h2 id="keeping-it-in-balance">Keeping It In Balance</h2> <p>The brilliance of <em>Fox in the Forest</em> comes from the way the different components and rules feel as though they’re in perfect balance. Each of the systems of the game feels like they're in perfect tension with one another.</p> <p><img src="" alt="" title="The Fox in the Forest Scorecard" /></p> <p>The scoring of the game works similarly to hearts, echoing in the rules without copying them. Each player scores based on the number of tricks they’ve won, provided by a handy grid. But you don’t score only based on winning the most number of tricks possible. Win too many, or too few, and you’ll score 0, whereas if you keep the number of tricks won by either player roughly even, you and your opponent will take home a similar share of points. The first to 21 wins the game.</p> <p>This leads to each turn of the game, each trick, deciding whether your goal is to push higher, winning the trick and risking going over, or holding back, protecting yourself from overheating but risking giving all the points to your opponent. That tension makes the game fun.</p> <p>The scoring of <em>Fox in the Forest</em> plays a role here too. Because you will play multiple hands, the relative value of the number of points you're aiming at changes. Early on you'll both grasp for 6 points (the max allowed) but often settle for less. Later, as you close in on 21 points, points scored mid-trick become more important, and the goal for one player becomes to shut the other out, lest they score more points in a deal only to lose the overall game.</p> <h2 id="just-enough-variability">Just Enough Variability</h2> <p>The deck is different from a traditional deck of cards. There are 3 suits numbered one through eleven. If the deck were made up of plain cards the game would be a clever design with minimal replayability. But the odd cards are “specials” that break the rules of the game, or add twists to the play as you use them.</p> <p><img src="" alt="From left to right, the moon fox (3), the bell swan (1), and the key chalice (7)" title="The Special Cards" /></p> <p>For example, the “1” card is a goose which gives you control of the next trick even if you lose it. And the “11” forces the other player to follow with their highest possible card of the same suit. The “7” will give a point to whomever wins it in a truck, adding the possibility for mid-game shenanigans, almost like point scoring in Cribbage.</p> <p>These cards introduce variability, making the game a contest about deploying the right card at the right time, not just based on your ability to use logic to deduce your opponents hand and then shape their plays to your advantage.</p> <p>The 7 alters the scoring of the game and gives opportunities for each player to score outside of the number of tricks they won. It can mean snatching defeat out of the jaws of victory, where you let your opponent escape with 3 points even though you “won” the deal and scored 6 points the normal way. It's a perfect example of the way the special powers add variability and tension without a lot of extra complexity.</p> <h2 id="shoot-the-moon">Shoot the Moon</h2> <p>Hearts scoring works a bit differently. In the game you're trying to avoid collecting heart-suited cards, the fewer you get, the better. However, if you happen to collect <strong>all the</strong> heart-suited cards instead of losing, you will win and the other players in the deal will lose. (This is an oversimplification. Here are the full heart rules for clarification: <a href=""></a>) This is called “Shooting the Moon” because it's so risky and unlikely to pull off. But when you do it feels like a huge success.</p> <p><em>Fox in the Forest</em> captures the feeling of shooting the moon without replicating the exact rule. Because you can win a deal by having the fewest won tricks (0-2), forcing your opponent to win trick after trick can feel like shooting the moon. You're pushing them further and further, knowing that if you slip up once, it will fall apart and your opponent will win. Mimicking the feel of a game I'd rare, so when it happens I savor and appreciate it.</p> <h2 id="funny-action-at-a-distance">Funny Action at a Distance</h2> <p>There’s a concept called quantum entanglement where the position of two different particles “know” about each other even though they don't have a direct connection. The two-player leading/following mechanic in _Fox in the Forest_feels like this: you are bound to the player you sit across from, but without the ability to know or directly impact their play. You try to use the cards in your hand, and the information from each turn to force your opponent to make the moves you want, having just enough control to know something about what they'll do, but not enough for that to always be what you want.</p> <p><img src="" alt="From left to right, the moon 10, bell 8, and key 6" title="The &quot;normal&quot; cards" /></p> <p>This is a different experience compared to larger trick-taking games that feel more like trying to ride waves of uncertainty instead of being locked in a dance with a partner you don't fully see or understand.</p> <h2 id="there's-a-story-too">There's a Story Too</h2> <p><em>Fox in the Forest</em> has a published fairytale as a companion to the game. You can find it here: <a href=""></a> I've never read the story, but the context feels connected to the game without being too pasted on or too disruptive. For example, the Goose power retaining the ability to lead the next hand isn't obvious. But the relationship between the powers of the card made a lot of sense. The humans tended to have higher numbers, with the queen being the highest and their powers bend the shape of the game, either to give the player more options or to force the other player’s hand. The animals represented lower numbers and have trickier powers that invert expectations, like changing the trump card or who gets to lead the next trick.</p> <h2 id="play-this">Play This</h2> <p><em>Fox in the Forest</em> is one of my favorite two-player games, and one of the games I recommend the most across the board. It's rare to play a game that has so few components but that feels like it can be played by many different people.</p> Stuart Urback Finished!: Complex Solitaire is Fun 2021-03-07T18:06:07Z!:-complex-solitaire-is-fun/ <p><em>Finished!</em>, designed by Friedemann Friese in 2017 is a twist on solitaire that removes suits and adds resources and restrictions to the popular archetype. You shuffle a deck of cards labeled 1 to 48 and have to sort them into ascending order but can only work with them in groups of three. You play as a data entry specialist, trying to sort the units so the computer can run. The result is a surprisingly complex but fun game that repackages a lot of the concepts of solitaire into a new theme and format.</p> <p><img src="" alt="An example of the Finished! board game state. 20, 28, 34 are in the discard pile, 05, 17, 32 are in the tableau and 01 is in the Ace Pile. Resources are to the right." title="Finished! Board Game Board" /></p> <h2 id="heavy-weight">Heavy Weight</h2> <p>The game took me a while to understand, and I had to spend a few games being comfortable losing without knowing why in order to get a sense for what each of the cards did and how I could use them. Then I spent even more time trying to understand how I could tell if the moves I made were helpful or hurtful towards my goals. This caught me by surprise because I didn't expect a solitaire game to have so many different components to understand. When I think about Solitaire I tend to imagine a simple deck of cards, maybe some special powers, and a way of manipulating those cards for my own success.</p> <p>Most games of solitaire (like <a href="">Food Chain Island </a>) involve a deck of cards and a layout that defines the way that you'll shift and organize the cards around. <em>Finished!</em> does away with most of the layout and instead replaces it with resource systems (candy and coffee) which dictate how you can organize the cards. You will use candy to activate the abilities of cards which let you draw, sort, and shift the cards. Your access to candy limits and shapes what you're capable of doing.</p> <p>There is also a subsystem in the game, a mini-reward on your way to greater success. If at the end of a turn, when you discard the cards from your tableau, if there are three or more in immediate order 5-6-7, you will receive candy for each number after the first. These runs create mid-game goals to reach and represent a lot of the playfulness of the game. I spent a lot of time using card abilities to create runs so that I could replenish my candy supply.</p> <p>There are many different card abilities, but they revolve around either draw cards or sorting cards. Some cards will give you a single candy when they're played into the tableau. They don't have special abilities but they replenish your supply while you build up the runs in your engine. The other basic ability is drawing a card. These let you spend a candy to take a card from the top of the deck and add it to your tableau. Other cards are plays on these. Some force you to discard cards in order to draw more, others let you pull cards back from the discard pile into your current tableau. Finally, there are some cards that let you push other cards &quot;To the Future&quot;, a special column that comes into play anytime you discard a card, you will try to take any cards from the future first before you draw a new set of cards from the top of the deck.</p> <p>If trying to understand that list felt overwhelming, it absolutely can be. I kept coming back to the game because after my 10th play-through, the structures of the game fell away and I understood and could manipulate the resources without feeling like I was constrained by them. I have much more confidence in my ability to use the cards than I do in my ability to explain them. The basic actions of the game are fun to operate.</p> <h2 id="needless-confusion">Needless Confusion</h2> <p>The game took me a surprising amount of time to understand, and it wasn't only because of the complexity of the rules. There were also pieces of vocabulary that made it harder for me to understand how to play, and I want to call it out as something that any new player will have to work their way through. If it weren't for the digital version, I suspect I would've given up on the number of different subtle rules. <em>Finished!</em> also renamed common solitaire concepts like the deck, the discard, the ace pile, into different more &quot;theme-appropriate&quot; names. The &quot;Deck&quot; becomes the &quot;Draw Stack&quot;, the &quot;Tableau&quot; becomes &quot;Present Area&quot;, special columns become &quot;Future Area&quot; and the discard becomes &quot;Past Area&quot;. This type of UI masquerading as the theme is unhelpful and unnecessary to further player immersion. It does more to hurt player learning than any benefit that might come from the unique system it builds. Once I'm fluent in the game, I no longer think in terms of the words that define each component, but until that point, if I have to reconsider what's going on, it takes it longer for me to get to the point where I can be fluent.</p> <p>Let's take &quot;Past Area&quot; as an example here. It seems like the designer wanted to communicate the concept that this isn't the &quot;discard&quot; because it's possible to pull cards back from it into the area of play. Here's how <em>Finished!</em> describes &quot;Past Area&quot;: After sorting cards in the Present Area, you move cards to the Past Area. You may not change the order of these cards nor use their actions&quot;. It's a lot of words to describe a discard pile with a couple of extra rules. Compare this to Magic the Gathering's definition for their graveyard: &quot;The Graveyard is one of the game zones in Magic: The Gathering. 404. Graveyard 404.1. A player’s graveyard is his or her discard pile.&quot;</p> <p>Reusing existing concepts strengthens games and their rules by giving hooks for players to understand what to do, rather than forcing them to confabulate mental models whole cloth. This type of usability complexity doesn't add to the texture of the game, it just makes it harder for players to wrap their head around. <em>Finished!</em> is worth trying out, but it would be much more approachable if the rules used common terminology that was well established.</p> <h2 id="sorting-algorithms">Sorting Algorithms</h2> <p>While the story of the game is doing &quot;data entry&quot;, the ethos of the game feels more like become a computer (with ridiculous constraints) trying to shift and streamline data into the right place before you run out of time. The theme of the game fits the playfulness of player actions, and the rewards for creating new runs give just enough of a boost to keep you chugging along as you try to create the combo that will close out the game for you.</p> <p>Sorting Algorithms in software engineering are basically different ways of taking a pile of sticks and ordering them to varying degrees of efficiency: <a href="">visualized here</a>. In software terms we would assume we have a shuffled deck of cards from 1→48 and then they would be laid out in order for us to see. The goal of the &quot;game&quot; in software engineering is to find the optimal algorithm to sort the different cards in order in the fewest number of moves. If we assume shifting the card one place takes 1 unit of work, the fewer number of shifts we need to make, the more efficient that algorithm would be. This is a useful sort of metaphor for how a bunch of different operations in software engineering work.</p> <p>But a game about sorting 48 cards wouldn't be fun because there's not a lot of structure (or resistance) guiding us towards a goal. That game wouldn't be all that different or more exciting than 52-card pickup. <em>Finished</em>! is an example of how game design creates challenges that help players figure out the smart decision to make. By only allowing the player to see three cards at a time, and only allowing them a certain number of trips through the deck, the rules force players to think about how they structure cards together at a higher level, rather than take the obvious route.</p> <h2 id="chunking%2C-shifting%2C-moving-stuff-around">Chunking, Shifting, Moving Stuff Around</h2> <p><em>Finished!</em> is a kinetic game. Most solitaire games do a lot of moving, shifting, and stacking. But they act more like a blob, that absorbs cards as they go along, only breaking off after a better split comes along. Every turn in <em>Finished!</em> has movement. You spend time reordering cards, shifting them into new zones, and pulling them back from the discard pile to sort and get them into how you just want. It works well on the iPhone with the haptic feedback every time you pull cards into the discard pile and deal them from the top of the deck. Getting to the end of the game and watching the cards go by (each with a little haptic tap) as you've just managed to order them before you run out of time is a burst of excitement.</p> <p><em>Finished!</em> sneaks in the themes of other card games, like <em>Magic</em> or <em>Dominion</em> where you try to create combos by drawing, ordering, and putting cards into specific orders so you can &quot;go off&quot; or create loops where you take actions that give you more candy so that you can take actions that order more cards so you can get more candy, and so on and so on. But it does so in a straightforward way so people who aren't immersed in card game vocabulary will still find themselves playing along.</p> <p>It's a perfect example of how reducing games to a core set of evaluations can miss a lot of the beauty and depth of the medium. This game doesn't have perfect feedback, it's hard to enter a flow state, and even when you're skilled at it it's easy to find yourself at the whims of the random shuffle of the deck, or maybe that's just me. But each turn brings new excitement and sorting the cards into the correct order. And when it fits it brings that same sense of satisfaction that making everything fit just right looks like.</p> <h2 id="counterintuitive-conclusions">Counterintuitive Conclusions</h2> <p>What's most exciting about the game is how it's gotten me to reconsider my approach with each new play. When I first approached the game, I started with the naïve goal of sorting every card as it comes up into low to high order. But this didn't end up working out, because &quot;perfect&quot; sorting left me with a bunch of individual piles that were well sorted, but no way to get long runs that give more candy and can be stacked efficiently. This is something similar to a &quot;local maximum&quot; in math. I'd optimized the narrow band of these cards (the ones in play) but that doesn't do anything to help us when it comes to winning the game.</p> <p>So the next thing I realized is that what I really wanted to do is make sure that the small number cards got closer to the &quot;Front&quot; the part of the pile immediately after the 48, and the big number cards closer to the &quot;Back&quot;, the part of the pile just in front of the 48. This got me further along, but I often found myself getting stuck in the middle of the deck when the game ended, usually on a card in the teens, but without a path forward.</p> <p>This was until I realized a couple of different things. Firstly, that the goal of the game isn't to order the cards from 1-48, it's to pull out all of the cards from the pile as quickly as possible. This happens when the cards are organized appropriately, but the appropriate organization does not necessarily mean perfect ascending order. If I presume that I will have to make a couple of trips through the deck one way or another, it means that clumping like numbers (not necessarily in order) is super helpful. Because of the way that you get rewarded for runs of cards, and because of the way that the &quot;algorithm&quot; will pull subsequent cards out of the pile, putting cards in runs is highly valuable. This led me to the realization that occasionally it's better to push lower numbers towards the end of the line if it made them more likely to find the appropriate &quot;clump&quot; of cards where they'd be most useful.</p> <p>There haven't been many games that have gotten me to take a step back and reconsider how I approach the game in order to play better but <em>Finished!</em> offers the right balance of uncertainty with a small enough mental footprint that it feels possible for me to think through in my head.</p> <h2 id="where-i'm-at-right-now">Where I'm At Right Now</h2> <p>I'm still not sure if the strategy I'm using is correct. There's something infuriating about this, and it would be easy to label this as a game that doesn't have core feedback mechanisms. But it also builds an air of mystery about the game and keeps me coming back even though I have what I think is a general sense of its systems.</p> <p>I think there are a couple of areas of design on this app that could benefit from a bit more cleanup. The sense I have is that certain deals are easier to handle than others. It would be nice if the game had menus to group games into these sets so that I could pick and choose the challenges I wanted, rather than being dealt hands based on random chance. I'm also not entirely sure that the game needs to be in landscape view. The decision to work with that constraint means it's hard to pull out the game unless I can give it all of my concentration (maybe this is a good thing though?).</p> <p>There are so many parts of my life where putting things in the right place, both in engineering and interacting with other people in my job, that feels like just getting things in the right place is a challenge and also a satisfying outcome for a day's work. <em>Finished!</em> taps into this feeling and distills it into a fun, replayable solitaire game. While it's unfortunate that this game is only available for iOS and not Android, I recommend picking it up if you can.</p> Stuart Urback Why You Should Play The Solitaire Conspiracy 2021-03-15T05:05:27Z <p>Solitaire has been a staple of most computer installations for the last 30 years, but it's only recently being explored as an area for new game design. Games like <em><a href="">Card of Darkness</a></em>, <a href="">Shenzhen Solitaire</a>, and *<a href="">Solitairica*</a> are all variations on the genre of stacking cards. We're living in a golden age of competent solitaire variants. <em>The Solitaire Conspiracy</em> by Bithell games is available on <a href="">Steam for $11.99</a> and is a delightful entry in the growing genre of computer-based solitaire games.</p> <p>Bithell games, the game studio famous for hits such as <em><a href="">Thomas Was Alone</a></em> and *<a href="">Volume*</a> started a new set of games in the last five years called &quot;Shorts&quot;. Rather than building these up into huge titles, they add a lot of polish to games that are quick to play through and centered on a single idea. They started with <em><a href="">Subsurface Circular</a>,</em> an erstwhile text adventure, and have expanded the concept here, to <em><a href="">The Solitaire Conspiracy</a>.</em></p> <p><img src="" alt="An overview of the beginning game board" title="The game board" /></p> <p>I'm predisposed to like these types of games. I love the &quot;Shorts&quot; concept that sets expectations for the type of experience players are going to get, and I appreciate that the game doesn't add a lot of content to juice the &quot;value&quot; I get from playing it. It's also a solitaire game, which I'm predisposed to like as is.</p> <h2 id="what-is-it%3F">What Is It?</h2> <p><em><a href="">The Solitaire Conspiracy</a></em> resembles FreeCell, a game I remember growing up watching my dad play, though it comes from the <a href="">Streets and Alleys</a> variant. Unlike FreeCell, the number of suits that make the deal change from round to round and there is fewer columns to play with. The tableau contains three columns with four rows each. The game reserves the middle column for the Ace Piles and deals the cards in the deck into the outer column. <em><a href="">The Solitaire Conspiracy</a></em> is less restrictive than FreeCell. Instead of requiring cards to be adjacent, i.e. a black 7 only goes on top of a red 8, you can play any suit card on top of any other suit card as long as that card is higher. I.e. a 2 of any suit goes on top of a 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, Jack, Queen, or King of any other suit.</p> <p><img src="" alt="" title="A Tooltip Hover" /></p> <p>But the life of the game comes from the special powers the face cards contain. Each face card has a single use power. Some abilities are unambiguously good, like Drive Team Six's ability to send cards buried deep in a stack straight to the ace pile. Other abilities, like the &quot;Blood Legacy&quot; suit, reorders the stack you play the cards from smallest to biggest. It's not obvious because pulling the larger cards to the front of the stack is typically bad. However, it can help pull out the face cards to the top of the stack.</p> <p>I don't want to lose site of the story either. The story revolves around a hacking conspiracy. You're a recruit to a spy agency, tasked with preventing a rogue agent from gaining access to the network. Performances by Greg Miller and Inel Tomlinson highlight the story, speaking to you directly as though you were on a futuristic</p> <h2 id="the-challenge">The Challenge</h2> <p>It took me about three and a half hours to make my way through the game the first time. That short amount of time makes it easy to recommend to just about anyone. While the game feels simple and easy to play, marrying story and game mechanics is challenging, Challenging gameplay can sideline even the best of stories, and an over the top story can make any gameplay feel onerous and boring.</p> <p><img src="" alt="A freeze-frame of the opening animation" title="The deal appears" /></p> <p>In <em><a href="">The Solitaire Conspiracy</a></em> the story segments are long enough to keep my attention, help me understand what's going on in the game's world without making me lose focus on the games. And playing on the default mode ensured that getting to the next story was a matter of when.</p> <p>There's been a change recently, to how we talk about difficulty in games, highlighted by <a href="">this Polygon article</a> and this great, quick <a href="">Tom Francis vlog</a>. The relationship between difficulty and player experience for them comes down to a couple of different things: players and designers talk about challenge in different ways, and the word &quot;difficulty&quot; is squishy without a lot of analytical meaning behind it. I think there's also been a change (led by indie developers and what Anna Anthropy calls zinesters in <a href=";dchild=1&amp;keywords=rise+of+the+video+game+zinesters&amp;qid=1615783481&amp;sprefix=video+game+zinesters%2Caps%2C189&amp;sr=8-1">Rise of the Video Game Zinesters</a>) away from games as challenge machines and towards games as experience machines. Even on a structural level, <em>The Solitaire Conspiracy</em> recognizes that the fun of the game is getting to whisk the cards around and see the effects of the special abilities. And on my second play-through, when I felt more free to experiment, the restrictions made the game sing.</p> <p>The default mode was a better experience my first play through, and might be a better experience overall if you enjoy the experience of playing solitaire more than the challenge of the puzzle.</p> <h2 id="the-feel">The Feel</h2> <p>A lot of indie games ignore what sometimes gets called the game feel. Game Feel is a combination of UI, sound, and other effects that relate to the gameplay that make a game feel sharp and dynamic. The traditional solitaire example of this would be the end of a successful game when the cards come spilling out from the top, filling up the screen. Indie studios ignore these because of the budget. Finishing touches like these can be expensive, hard to pull off, and can end up looking worse if they're not executed perfectly. That's what makes them so spectacular here.</p> <p><img src="" alt="Four suits are shown top to bottom under the &quot;A Thouse Faces&quot; level title" title="The game end screen" /></p> <p>At the start of every round, the animation of the deck being dealt out plays as the camera zooms in and out of the table. When you pick up a card, it tilts slightly, and as you drag them around the screen, they lag slightly, as if they have weight and heft. When the face cards are active, they light up, and when they get played, a flash of light appears as the special ability takes effect. And when the game ends, the cards in each suit get spread across the table, like a nod to a dealer spreading the cards across a poker table. Games don't need to have these types of flourishes, but the focus of <em><a href="">The Solitaire Conspiracy</a></em> on the glamorous fictional world of international espionage fits with this treatment.</p> <h2 id="going-further">Going Further</h2> <p>I would recommend playing <em><a href="">The Solitaire Conspiracy</a></em> to wind down or pass the time after a long day at work. It's like two of the best time wasters for a cross-country flight (a thriller and solitaire game) mashed together.</p> <p>If you've finished <em><a href="">The Solitaire Conspiracy</a></em> and are on the lookout for games to play while you wait for the next daily to drop, I'd recommend something like <em><a href="!:-complex-solitaire-is-fun/">Finished!</a></em> which is a crunchier Solitaire type game with its own fun tweaks. If you loved the story of <em><a href="">The Solitaire Conspiracy</a>,</em> I'd go for something like <a href="">*Card of Darkness</a>. <em>If the story really got to you, I'd go for another Bithell classic like</em> <a href="">Subsurface Circular</a> <em>or</em> <a href="">Quarantine Circular</a> *or another title like <a href=""><em>Wintermoor Tactics Club</em></a> which also does an excellent job of marrying the narrative and the gameplay.</p> Stuart Urback What Being Wrong Can Teach Us About Getting Reviews Right 2021-03-29T22:04:50Z <h2 id="introduction"><strong>Introduction</strong></h2> <p>I gave this talk last week at work, based on a few of the books I’d be reading over the last 6 months, centered on <a href=";dchild=1&amp;keywords=being+wrong+by+kathryn+schulz&amp;qid=1617055579&amp;sprefix=being+wrong%2Caps%2C190&amp;sr=8-1"><em>Being Wrong</em> by Kathryn Schulz</a>. The goal of the talk was to think through ways that humans consume and understand information so that we could better operate as a team. I edited the notes to be more applicable for a written format and also switched the examples out to be more game focused for this blog.</p> <p>When I started reading <em>Being Wrong,</em> I assumed it would be about how humans jump to conclusions and create theories and ideas out of thin air with minimal evidence. I hoped to come away with some tips and tricks to combat my biases. That's not what I got from the book, but didn’t have many expectations beyond that. The book surprised me, bringing together scientific, sociological, and literary ideas into a conception of how humans differentiate right from wrong. It changed my perspective on what &quot;being wrong&quot; is all about.</p> <h2 id="how-do-we-understand-what-%E2%80%9Cwrong%E2%80%9D-is%3F">How Do We Understand What “Wrong” Is?</h2> <p>At first glance, defining &quot;wrongness&quot; seems like a theoretical subject. But Schulz uses illusions and mental health to talk about how certain types of wrongness differ from others. An illusion, something we consciously know is &quot;wrong&quot;, differs from madness, something that others might know is &quot;wrong&quot; but we do not. She uses this to talk about the social component of belief. The difference between us being tricked and having a mental health disorder is the recognition of other people. An illusion is something we can share with our friends to trick them; a disorder we cannot. She uses this to argue that one of the key fears humans have about &quot;being wrong&quot; relates to our desire to be connected to the people we care about.</p> <blockquote> <p>Vocab Part 1</p> <p>Anosognosia: a medical condition where we don’t recognize that we have an illness. I.e. blind people who believe they can see.</p> <p>Superior Mirage: A mirage that’s a real “image” that’s been location shifted because of the refraction of light.</p> </blockquote> <p>We're constantly generating ideas about the way the world works, and when our brains don't</p> <h2 id="the-sociological-component-to-belief"><strong>The Sociological Component to Belief</strong></h2> <p>The social networks we're a part of drive our beliefs. Simplified (probably too much). This means that our opinions are more influenced by who we know, than who we know being influenced by our opinions. This is an oversimplified view in the sense that we won't invite people into our social networks based on their opinions, but it also means we're more likely to adopt the opinion of a social network we're already in rather than leave it.</p> <p>Some of this explains why <a href="">Board Game Geek has a bias for more complex games</a>, or why so much of the competition on Kickstarter has become a race towards higher production values and gigantic plastic miniatures. Those types of markers (complexity and chunky miniatures) become identity markers within the community, and typically when people have to choose between belief systems and community, they will tend to modify their beliefs to stay with the community they're a part of.</p> <blockquote> <p>Vocab Part 2</p> <p>Confabulate: to fill in the gaps in our knowledge with stories</p> </blockquote> <h2 id="consistency-and-dissent"><strong>Consistency and Dissent</strong></h2> <p>What does this mean for how we disagree and why we disagree? Both <em>Being Wrong</em> and <em>In Defense of Troublemakers</em> have some stuff to say about this. <em>In Defense of Troublemakers</em> is a short book about how dissent works in social settings and some thoughts on what we can do to better cultivate dissent in our daily practices.</p> <blockquote> <p>Vocab Part 3</p> <p>French Resistance Fantasy: the author’s coining for our belief that in times of strife we’d definitely be the ones doing the absolutely right thing</p> </blockquote> <p>One of the key points both books hit home is that we're wired to agree. In one study where participants were in a room and asked a basic question like &quot;What is the color of the shape on the slide?&quot;, they were likely to share the wrong color if another person in the room answered differently than what was on the screen. We like to think of this term as peer pressure, but the roots run far deeper; when asked later about the color, the participants maintained they saw the color they reported. Their brain rewired their understanding of the world to fit the new status quo. But, if there were another person in the room disagreeing with the dominant (incorrect) answer, the tester was more likely to give the correct answer. People willing to speak up and disagree are valuable parts of a community because they prevent that community from defaulting to group think.</p> <p>Commentators like No Pun Include who articulate the <a href="">challenge board gaming has with colonialism</a> are a perfect example. You don't need to agree with every point in the article to recognize this genre of game as a dominant strand of thought in the medium. By doing so, they've opened up the possibility (even in a small way) for other types of genres to gain purchase in the industry. Dissenters also don't have to convince everyone else of their belief in order to provide value to a group. By convincingly articulating their point of view, they expand the potential points of view for the entire group.</p> <h2 id="error-blindness-and-doubt"><strong>Error Blindness and Doubt</strong></h2> <p>But what does this mean for us as we navigate the world of game reviews? One challenge to persistent growth is what Schulz calls &quot;error blindness&quot;. It's the concept that we can either be wrong or know we're wrong, but not be both at the same time. Because we replace our incorrect beliefs with our new &quot;correct&quot; ones, we don't cultivate a memory of being wrong. For example, I used to play <em>Apples to Apples</em> in high school and enjoyed it. I can remember the feeling of enjoying playing and I know I don't like the game now, but I can't consciously explain the feeling of liking the game and also knowing the reasons I don't like the game. This isn’t a problem on its own. I don’t think anyone is looking for an <em>Apples to Apples</em> apologist, but because we replace beliefs like this means we don’t have a conception of doubt related to our internal beliefs: we hold on to them right until we let them go, and our brain tells us we were correct the entire time. This doesn't mean that all certainty is bad, but we should recognize that it's more a reflection of our emotional connection to our beliefs than a marker of how accurate that belief is. For example, my belief that <a href="">2 player games are great communication mechanisms</a> has more to do with my <a href="">upbringing playing checkers with my grandfather</a>, cribbage with my dad, and magic with my close high school friends than it is a marker of its accuracy.</p> <p>What does this mean for our relationship to doubt? Schulz talks about the concept of doubt as being a luxury for evolutionarily advanced neurological systems. (Oof that's a mouthful) Doubt is something we have to practice at, whereas certainty is something that feels natural. Uncertainty causes us anxiety and we look to reduce it as fast as possible. This isn't a prescription to disbelief, it's a recognition that doubt is an activity that we have a lot of feelings about. Schulz describes this as the &quot;perverse pleasure of art&quot;. We enjoy it because it makes us feel lost and allows us to learn in a safe place. I think this is the power of a strong reviewer or critic (something I aspire to); they're someone who can open the door to an unknown experience by connecting it to something we already know. Go get lost, but know that safety is only an arm length away.</p> <blockquote> <p>Vocab Part 4</p> <p>Distal Belief: Any belief that doesn't have a direct ability on our day-to-day life.</p> </blockquote> <h2 id="identity-and-learning"><strong>Identity and Learning</strong></h2> <p>But what does this mean for our ability to learn and grow? Schulz describes this system as the network of beliefs: we can’t remove or replace one belief without also removing and replacing other beliefs (and potentially social groups) we hold dear. I concluded that in order to be a lifelong learner you need to be comfortable changing your identity. You can't be the same person who happens to know different things.</p> <p>This concept explained to me one gap between the board gaming community and people who might be interested in games but find it hard to get into the hobby. One strength of the board gaming community is the idea that it's socially valuable to learn, experiment, and play a bunch of different new games. So our identities as board gamers are more tied to learning and experimentation than it is to being Hearts or Bridge players. The gap here, as explained by error blindness, means that it's hard for us to imagine what it's like to anchor to a single game, and that becoming a teacher can be a challenge.</p> <blockquote> <p>Vocab Part 5</p> <p>Theory Drive: The human desire to categorize and explain the world around us</p> </blockquote> <h2 id="what-to-do-with-this">What To Do With This</h2> <blockquote> <p>Vocab Part 6</p> <p>The GI Joe Fallacy: The mistaken belief that knowledge is half the battle.</p> </blockquote> <p>It's easy to come away from this with an idea that the knowledge has inoculated us against these forms of bias for certainty. But these psychological patterns exist deep in our brains, and it isn't something we can simply think our way out of. Rather, our goals should be to build social groups that encourage dissent by expanding the reviews we read and games we play. We can create implementation intentions (an &quot;if-then&quot; commitment we make to ourselves about how we're going to behave in certain situations) to speak up when we disagree and find gaming groups that support our efforts to expand our horizons.</p> <h2 id="tl%3Bdr-and-my-implementation-intent">TL;DR and My Implementation Intent</h2> <ul> <li> <p>Our Idea of Being Wrong has as much to do with our social groups as it is the facts of the matter</p> <ul> <li>Feeling &quot;wrong&quot; about something feels like being disconnected from the people around us</li> </ul> </li> <li> <p>Dissent is powerful because it expands the range of viewpoints within a group.</p> </li> <li> <p>Certainty has less to do with correctness and more to do with our attachment to a belief</p> </li> <li> <p>We can't learn without also shifting our identity</p> </li> </ul> <p><strong>My Commitments</strong></p> <ol> <li>I plan to use examples as much as possible to make it clear what the underlying evidence I have so you can draw your own conclusion</li> <li>Call out any reviewers that I got the initial recommendation from (if I can remember). I filter games from a few different prominent reviewers, and I want to be clear about what's influencing my recommendations.</li> <li>Use what <em>Being Wrong</em> calls self-subversive thought: couching my language in my personal perspective, limiting it to my vantage point and making it clear I think I'm ok with it changing or being disagreed with.</li> </ol> Stuart Urback The Carcassonne (ification) of City Building Games 2021-04-13T05:10:42Z <h2 id="introduction">Introduction</h2> <p>On my bookshelf in the bottom row, right in the middle, there's a dusty, dog-eared copy of <em>Carcassonne</em>, the first niche board game I purchased. I’ve recycled or donated many of the games I bought early on, but <em>Carcassonne</em> holds a special place in my collection. It’s simple but creates dynamic and cool city scapes as you play the game. Until recently, I hadn’t found any similar computer game that filled a similar niche.</p> <p>The concept of building and managing the various elements of a city has been popular since <a href=""><em>SimCity</em> </a>came out in the 1980s. City building games are, as the name suggests, about growing and maintaining cities. Games in the genre focus on the social, economic, and political systems that keep cities running and often don’t have a goal. They can be a playground for your mind to run wild with the possibilities. But the lack of direction and the complexity of the systems stressed me out, so I stayed away. Recently, there have been a couple of new games that have me re-examining my previous assumptions about city builders. Games like <em><a href="">Islanders</a></em>, <em>Dorfromantik</em>, and <em>Townscaper</em> offer a different take on the genre that add structure and reduce the systems to the bare minimum. Like <em>Carcassonne</em>, they take the complexity of city building and abstract many of the economic and human systems into a simple set of points, counted up as you place tiles.</p> <h2 id="what-is-a-city-building-game%3F">What is a City Building Game?</h2> <p>The fiction of a city builder game is one of persistent growth. The player plays the role of city planner and omniscient being to fill in the space of a grid with buildings and roads for the citizens to inhabit. The fun of a city builder is watching your city grow in size and dealing with he challenges that creep up. As noted in <a href="">Why Medieval City Building Games are Inaccurate</a> this conception of how cities grow, especially in medieval times is inaccurate. Cities were barely subsistence between the 12th and 18th century so growth was a distant dream. And even today, US cities <a href="">haven’t grown much in the last decade</a>. City growth becomes an excuse to make the interesting decisions and to tend to the different elements of the game. When you sit down to play a city building game, the growth and expansion are the tools the game uses to give you interesting options.</p> <p>The components of the game then are growth, handling minutiae, and making intelligent decisions about how to place the buildings and roads to ensure your city grows. What’s unique about city building games is your current decisions constrain your future ones and you end up in a success or failure of your own making, though there are outside forces that can <a href="">lay waste to well-laid plans</a>. The tension in a city building games comes from how the player spends their money, and the way they manage the minutiae of the relationships between the different types of buildings. To take a simple example, putting housing next to an industrial building will make the citizens unhappy because of the pollution.</p> <p>While the more famous games of the genre like <a href=""><em>SimCity</em> </a>or <a href=""><em>Anno</em> </a>do this with various complex systems, other games accomplish similar goals with less complexity.</p> <h2 id="how-many-systems-does-a-game-need%3F">How Many Systems Does a Game Need?</h2> <p>One of the challenges to complex economic systems is that they can fail to give the player immediate feedback. A decision you made early in your city (like where you happen to put roads) can be hard to undo, without you having a clear understanding of why. This is even problem in another stripped down “city building” game <em>Mini Motorways</em> has. You get trapped and can’t find a way back out, which is a pretty disheartening experience. Games like <em><a href="">Islanders</a></em>, <em><a href="">Dorfromantik</a></em>, and <a href=""><em>Townscaper</em> </a>go the other direction., they’ve stripped the systems out of the game and focused on the placement and the building.</p> <p>In each of these games (maybe <a href=""><em>Townscaper</em> </a>excepted) the tension is in how close you want certain tiles to sit together, and how far apart you want others. These games share a focus on placement. Each “turn” you place a single tile onto the board. In the case of <em>Islanders,</em> it’s a building on an island, in <a href=""><em>Dorfromantik</em> </a>it’s a tile onto a hexagonal grid, and in <em>Townscaper</em> it’s a colorful element on the misshapen grid.</p> <p>Removing so many elements of the simulation changes the focus of the game on the physical space they take up. The aesthetics are important beyond their ability to mimic a “real” city. They create a unique perspective on the (abstract) ways cities can look and exist.</p> <h2 id="islanders">Islanders</h2> <p><em>Islanders</em> by Grizzly Games came out in 2019. It shrinks the city building to the small space of an island. Instead of a big sprawl, the game asks players to position buildings islands in different configurations to score points and continue building more buildings.</p> <p><img src="" alt="The building options for the city building tiles are shown on the bottom of the screen" title="An overview of the Island in Islanders" /></p> <p>Each level players get a set of buildings to place across the island, scoring points based on their relationships to the other buildings in the area. A house might get bonus points for being placed next to the shaman or the city center, but the shaman will get fewer points placed next to the city center. These combinations create a tension between where you players want to set their buildings. They have to pay attention to location now and potential future locations to set themselves up for success.</p> <p>The goal is to use the buildings in each round to score enough points to get to the next round and then get another new set of buildings. The game ends either when the player chooses to move to another island, or when they placed all their buildings but haven’t scored enough points for the next set.</p> <p><img src="" alt="An example of a scoring and leveling combination for Islanders" title="Islanders Scoring" /></p> <p>The layout of the islands got me thinking about the physicality of the city I was building. Instead of a grid or a wonky grid, I had freedom to spread out all the different locations, but I had to pay a lot of attention to the location of each piece. The minutiae of <em>Islanders</em> is caring intensely about the location of each. As the island got more crowded I zoomed in and out, rotating the island and the building, to find the best possible place to put it, hoping that I could nudge it just close enough to another building to get a couple more points.</p> <h2 id="dorfromantik">Dorfromantik</h2> <p><em>Dorfromantik</em> is a tile laying city building game. You start with a deck of 50 tiles. Each turn you have to place a tile to match different segments (including rivers, railroads, fields, forests, and houses) with one another, similar to <em>Carcassonne</em>. Some types, like rivers have to be connected to one another, so placing a new tile creates a restriction for where the next tile can be placed. Some tiles also have a goal associated with them, some number of consecutive tiles that need to be placed together to “complete” that objective. If you complete the objective, you get more tiles added to your deck and the game keeps going. Similar to <em>Islanders</em> you’re trying to make combinations to push your score higher to keep playing.</p> <p><img src="" alt="The beginning of the game in Dorfromantik. The housing objective is shown just above a tile." title="Dorfromantik First Screen" /></p> <p>Unlike the other games, compactness is the focus of <em>Dorfromantik</em>. Because there are so few tiles (and few ways to replenish them) you want to maximize the number of different connections you can make with a given tile. When I started playing the game, I focused and matching similar tiles to one another, but I quickly created a sprawl and ran out of tiles before I could complete my next objective. These relational restrictions are a trope of city building games. You want to keep similar tiles close, but also want enough variety to make sure you don’t cause problems for yourself in other ways. One of the fun aha moments for me was figuring out that it’s smarter to sometimes place tiles one or two spaces away from an immediate connection, so that you can set up an even better connection in the future.</p> <p>As the game goes on, the goal numbers get higher and higher, more houses to connect more trees to put into a forest. But it also throws a wrench in your plans. Rather than having all the objectives be a number <em>or greater</em> some tiles will be an exact number. So after you’ve put together a field of 50 consecutive tiles, you’ll be asked to set a goal of a field with exactly 10, forcing you to find a new space to start over. It’s this kind of variation that makes the game fun to play over and over.</p> <p><img src="" alt="Showing the sprawl of a Dorfromantik board with rivers, housing, forest, and fields." title="And end game configuration in Dorfromantik" /></p> <p>Over time the game will spiral out of your control. Each tile you place will take you further away from your goals as you watch your deck dwindle. But the result is a beautiful map with giant forests and fields, interspersed with railways and rivers and housing developments. If I had to pick a favorite, it would be <em>Dorfromantik</em>.</p> <h2 id="townscaper">Townscaper</h2> <p>Unlike the other two games <em>Townscaper</em> appears to be a toy at first glance. There aren’t any apparent rules or goals guiding your behavior: no points or end states in sight. There’s a pallet on the left side of the screen with some colors of the houses you can select, and a highlighter that follows your mouse around the screen.</p> <p><img src="" alt="The selection tiles are on the left, and options are on the right." title="A View of the Townscaper Screen" /></p> <p>The “play” in the game comes from the grid that gets generated and the way the building tiles appear. It exemplifies how, as <em>A Game Design Vocabulary</em> explains, a game’s opinions aren’t the goals it sets, but the tools it gives you to shape your experiences. <em>Townscaper</em> shapes your play by giving you few configuration options. The grid is a wobbly hexagonal (ish) shape and all you can do is click to add a house, or right click to destroy. But the shapes you can end up creating are spectacular.</p> <p><img src="" alt="A bird's-eye view of my poorly made island." title="Bird's eye view of Townscaper" /></p> <p><em>Townscaper</em> also gives you another key piece of freedom neither <em>Islanders</em> nor <em>Dorfromantik</em> provide. In each of those games you’re stuck at a 3/4s bird's-eye view, allowed to rotate and zoom in and out, but stuck at an angle. In <em>Townscaper</em> you can move the camera however you want, and even zoom way in or way out. Framing your city becomes part of the fun of the game. The game even gives you tools to change the lighting by time of day and direction. It gives you the tools to tell the story you want and then backs out of the way. It’s hard not to build a cute city and imagine yourself strolling through it on a quiet evening.</p> <p><img src="" alt="Showing how the camera works in Townscaper allowing huge closeups." title="Way Zoomed in on a Townscaper Building" /></p> <p>For <em>Townscaper</em> the story is the one that the photo you’re creating tells, rather than the one that the game’s rules provide you. It shapes your experience with nudges rather than an explicit goal, but the outcome is more interesting than it would be otherwise. If you check out the <a href="">townscaper hashtag on Twitter</a> you’ll see an incredible array of designs and ideas. If you’re looking for a relaxing game where you can paint your way to a gorgeous town, <em>Townscaper</em> is the one for you.</p> <h2 id="the-lego-of-it-all">The Lego of It All</h2> <p>Playing these games led me to realize that one of the joys of the city builder genre the excitement of seeing a city and getting to place yourself in it. Each of the games, whether with an overt structure or a more gentle one created a landscape that I could imagine myself ambling my way around. It reminded me of playing with Lego and telling stories about the cities and the characters within them.</p> <p>Each game is also a lesson in how algorithms that appear random can shape our behavior. The cadence and appearance of certain types of tiles in <em>Dorfromantik</em>, like how the “train station lake” rarely appears, changes my strategy and makes me avoid combinations of railway and river tiles next to one another. And in <em>Islanders</em> which options appear during each level up shape the type of town I’ll build on my island. And in <em>Townscaper</em> the lack of a strict grid creates interesting shapes and opportunities for experimentation, forcing my brain out of basic patterns.</p> <p>Each game shows how a concept like city building can be distilled to a couple of basic forms and then expressed in a variety of ways with different opinions and goals. <em>Islanders</em> is a game about exploring the physicality of the space, <em>Dorfromantik</em> is about the relationship between different types of tiles and <em>Townscaper</em> is about using lighting, color, and framing to produce visual art. If you have 20 minutes and find yourself wanting to get lost in a miniature world, you should check out any of these games.</p> Stuart Urback 5 Thoughts for 5 Years of Bohnanza Duel 2021-05-03T05:54:49Z <p>I've wanted to talk about <em>Bohnanza: The Duel</em> for a little while. It's been one of my most played games on Steam (about 54 hours total). I want to take a quit moment to think about why that might be.</p> <h2 id="5.-old-apps-feel-old-in-a-weird-way">5. Old Apps Feel Old in a Weird Way</h2> <p>It's weird to think about software being nearly a decade old and being unchanged. Comparing that to other forms of architecture (straining at the word a bit) it's different. Houses that are hundreds of years old have things to teach us and ways to inspire us in ways that old software does not, aesthetically at least. I wonder if this has to do with the fact that old software runs on new machines and so our frame of reference changes. Old buildings live in the same world but old software lives on new hardware.</p> <h2 id="4.-whimsy-is-good">4. Whimsy is Good</h2> <p>Bean farming is an out-left-field concept for a game. It's an economic game about beans. The ridiculousness compounds with the art to create an experience that's freeing. This doesn't need to become a rant about how new games are about epic, dark spectacles. But... I think there's something subversive about a game about beans. It takes the seriousness out of it, both in the experience of playing the game but also in the purpose of games altogether.</p> <p>I think it was on an episode of <em>The Three Donkeys</em>, the short lived game design podcast that Richard Garfield was a host on. He talked about how one of the delights of games is the possibility for the rules to combine in ways that are completely absurd. He mentioned the idea of giving a mammoth wings in <em>Magic: The Gathering</em>. <em>Bohnanza</em> embodies this concept. It reminds me of something like <em><a href="">Modern Art</a></em> where the conspicuousness of the concept makes the experience more immersive.</p> <h2 id="3.-it-feels-a-lot-like-hearthstone-or-legends-of-runeterra">3. It Feels a Lot Like Hearthstone or Legends of Runeterra</h2> <p>This might seem like an absurd comparison. <em>Hearthstone</em> and <em>Legends of Runeterra</em> have beautiful artwork (the correct resolution for the device), and beautiful animations For one thing, it's fast. You can play a game in 10-15 minutes. This makes starting an easy decision and idly playing while you watch TV or relax at the end of the day.</p> <p>The game is generous. There are these goal cards that show up in the bottom right of the screen. They're sequences of cards that you have to match in order to score additional points. However, the game allows you to score if you or the opponent makes the connections themselves. It's the little type of thing that big games like <em>Hearthstone</em> or <em>Runeterra</em> get right. They find ways to make cards more permissive, so the game feels like it's got your back.</p> <p>The UX is well thought out. It's easy to see the layout of the screen at a glance, which makes moments like the one depicted here (the trading phase) easy to make decisions without being blocked by the game. <em>Bohnanza: The Duel</em> also does a good job of using animations to communicate intent. You can pull the cards out of their slot and drag them around, giving them weight and life. The game can be understood at a glance while you play. Unlike other board games where you have to zoom in and out on the screen to figure out what's going on, <em>The Duel</em> makes itself apparent to you. Some of this is the benefit of the game. There aren't many moving pieces to think about. But that simplicity is what makes it so good for the digital space.</p> <p><img src="" alt="" title="Bohnanza: The Duel Trading Phase" /></p> <p>Since the start of the pandemic, playing games on computers has gotten me and my gaming group thinking about the types of games that fit well digitally. Games like <em>Root</em> and <em>Scythe</em> feel like perfect fits because the computer does so much of the math for you. And a game like <em>Bunny Kingdom</em> similarly feels like the perfect fit because the decisions are simple but there are so many places to do math. But I think it's worth considering about the opposite direction. Instead of trying to find games that will do the math for you, finding games that you want to play often (because they're so quick) are also a good fit for digital experiences. They make it possible to repeat experiences outside of game days, and fit more into your life.</p> <h2 id="2.-it's-a-two-player-game-that-feels-like-the-original">2. It's a Two Player Game That Feels like the Original</h2> <p>There's a trend in board games where successful games (like <em>Catan</em> or <em>Kingdomino</em>) will see their names attached to new titles. Games like <em>Kingdomino: The Duel</em> or <em>Troyes: The Dice Game</em> are common. But often these games take the iconography of the original for new designs. From a business perspective, this makes perfect sense, but it's not solving the problem a player might want to be solved.</p> <p><em>Bohnanza: The Duel</em>, the digital version explicitly, solves a very clear problem for me. It packages the original game into an easy to play format and gave me digital opponents that I could access from my phone. <em>Bohnanza</em> felt like a great game because it was so quick and I found myself wanting to play it more often. <em>The Duel</em> takes the mechanics of the original and makes some tweaks so that it's possible to play with two people. It was nice to have my expectations met like that.</p> <h2 id="1.-ultimately%2C-software-can't-overcome-its-bugs">1. Ultimately, Software can't overcome its bugs</h2> <p>There are two main ways to play the game. There's the online version which can be played synchronously or asynchronously. Trying to find matches, as you would expect, was impossible. On top of that, the AI in the game is pretty flimsy and uninteresting to play against. Even though the game is good, the UX is well thought out, the game can't overcome the crashes or the lack of good online play.</p> <p>With a couple of tweaks, it would be a game I'd recommend. But for now, it's a fun thought experience.</p> Stuart Urback Creating a Flexible Architecture for Custom Prompts 2021-05-16T17:50:14Z <div class="reveal"> <div class="slides" data-background-color="rgb(70, 70, 255)"> <section><h2>Custom Service Agreements<h2></h2></h2></section> <section> <h4>Prompt</h4> <p>Customers wanted their users to accept custom terms of service and privacy policy information for their team.</p> </section> <section> <h3>Terms</h3> <p><strong>Agreement:</strong> A prompt like a terms of service or privacy policy that users have to accept to proceed.</p> <p><strong>Historical Agreement:</strong> A past agreement of a type that has been replaced by a newer agreement</p> <p><strong>Type:</strong> Differentiating the type of agreement being made</p> <p><strong>Acceptance:</strong> A record of users accepting the agreement.</p> </section> <section> <h3>Context</h3> <section> <h4>Requirements</h4> <ul> <li>Needed to be able to track users' acceptance of agreements for compliance.</li> <li>When a policy was updated we needed to re-prompt the user to accept the new agreement.</li> <li>Users should not be re-prompted for agreements they've already accepted.</li> <li>Our customer success team had to be able to easily create new terms of service where necessary.</li> </ul> </section> <section> <h4>Existing Functionality</h4> <p>Our system already had concepts like "Terms of Service" and "Privacy Policy", but they were hard coded into the front end, and we couldn't update or track their acceptance over time.</p> <p>We had an existing on-boarding flow that we could tap into to require new prompts and acceptances.</p> </section> <section> <h4>Assumptions</h4> <ul> <li>Users are not given the option to decline</li> <li>Configuration will be managed by an internal team so we don't need to worry about users creating too many types of agreements.</li> <li>Won't need to build out custom admin functionality or new onboarding screens</li> </ul> </section> <section> <h4>Goals</h4> <ul> <li>The system should be agnostic about the "type" of agreement.</li> <li>Move existing hard-coded terms of service into the new functionality.</li> </ul> </section> </section> <section> <h3>Architecture</h3> <section> <h4>Backend</h4> <img src="" /> </section> <section> <h4>Testing</h4> <pre> <code data-trim=""> describe('Service agreement getter', () => { it('should not return accepted agreements', () => {}); it('should not return unaccepted historical agreements', () => {}); it('should not return agreements from another team', () => {}); it('should not return agreements for a type their team does not use', () => {}) }) </code> </pre> </section> <section> <h4>Frontend</h4> <p>Modified the onboarding component to allow dynamically populated messsages from the API.</p> <p>Updated the "accept" button to fire a POST request.</p> </section> </section> <section> <h3>Solution</h3> <img src="" /> </section> <section> <h3>Questions?</h3> </section> </div> </div> Stuart Urback Some Thoughts on Roll and Moves 2021-05-31T23:20:07Z <h2 id="an-ode-to-roll-and-move">An Ode to Roll and Move</h2> <p>For some Americans who grew up in the ‘80s and ‘90s, the roll and move mechanic represents games at their worst: boring affairs that make the prospect of putting cardboard and plastic on a table seem bleak. Culturally dominant games like <em>Monopoly</em>, <em>Clue</em>, <em>Parcheesi</em>, <em>Sorry!</em>, and <em>Aggravation</em> feature the roll and move mechanic where players would roll dice and then move a piece around a board based on the rolled number.</p> <p>At a rough level “roll and move” means that a player rolls a die and then uses the result to determine how many spaces they can move. In a game like <em>Candyland</em> they don’t have much control over what they do with the results, but in <em>Backgammon</em> players have a lot of control.</p> <p>The games themselves are considered unfun and unfair luck-driven affairs. And for that reason, the mechanic has also mostly fallen out of vogue in modern board game design which features tight feedback mechanisms, catch up features, and dramatic endings. Playing <em>Machi Koro: Legacy</em> got me to reconsider that belief.</p> <h2 id="the-beauty-of-roll-and-move">The Beauty of Roll and Move</h2> <p>We tend to grade board games today in terms of the aesthetic they portray and how much they compensate players for their skill. Skill compensation is the concept that a game will reward players for their abilities to make better decisions than their opponents. For example, in a sport like basketball, there’s high skill compensation because a team that is more athletic will be more likely to win than a team that cannot. However, if those same teams were to play the card game <em>War</em> against one another the outcome would be random, regardless of teams’ strengths or weaknesses.</p> <p>Especially with board games, it’s easy to create an instrumentalist view where a mechanic that increases skill compensation is good and a mechanic that decreases it is bad. It’s easy as an enthusiast to treat <em><a href="">Monopoly</a></em> like an inferior version of <em>Catan</em>. But this is a short-sighted viewpoint. <em>Snakes and Ladders</em> represented the lack of control of our lives and the role that karma had to play shooting us up or down the ladder on our quests for enlightenment. <em>Candyland,</em> a game sometimes derided for its lack of player autonomy, <a href="">originated in polio wards</a> to allow children suffering from polio to offer them some easy escape.</p> <p>Players have plenty of reasons to play games and the<a href=""> ritual of the game can be more important than the skill of its outcome</a>. It’s shortsighted to say that mechanics that reduce skill compensation are “bad” and mechanics that increase them are good. I tend to like games that compensate player skill, it’s worth noting that’s not the only point of games. The questions become: what benefit does roll and move provide? and (given the current moment) can they be a part of a game that compensates skill well?</p> <h2 id="what-is-the-benefit-of-roll-and-move%3F">What is the Benefit of Roll and Move?</h2> <p>I think rolling and moving is a delightful and cozy mechanic that draws players into the game. Rolling and moving tells a complete story. You roll a die, move a tiny piece of plastic across the board, and then adjudicated the results of it landing. It’s a great moment of small suspense and payoff (a quick, encapsulated story). Roll and move also pushes the game towards the end (each turn the dice will be rolled, and the narrative will move forwards) and provides support to players trying to make decisions. In <em>Monopoly,</em> when you land on an unused space and buy it, you’ll feel like you’ve taken a satisfying turn even if you didn’t end up making a single decision.</p> <p>I think what makes roll and moves so great is the fun of operating a machine and seeing it unfold. The enjoyment of being the machinery of the game without needing to make decisions about it. This is the physical variant of games like <em>The Sims</em> or more recent entries like <em>Loop Hero</em> where you make decisions and then see what happens. While it can’t recover an otherwise unplayable game, it was a fun moment of delight that could be deployed more effectively in other titles.</p> <p><strong>Brief Machi Koro: Legacy spoilers below</strong></p> <p>I wouldn’t recommend playing <em>Machi Koro: Legacy</em>. For those who aren’t familiar, the original <em>Machi Koro</em> takes <em>Catan</em> and asks “what if we used cards instead of a map?”. Players purchase cards that give them coins based on the number of dice rolled each turn. <em>Machi Koro: Legacy</em> complicates this by creating a 10 game campaign that changes the cards that can be purchased and the special goals each game, while adding some additional mechanics and storyline. It does not solve <em>Machi Koro</em>’s underlying problems. Dice rolls cluster: 6-10 are way more likely to be rolled than any other number. Players tend to win if their cards get activated the most. But there’s one component of the game I found delightful: the visitor’s dice. This dice, rolled on every round, had a face for a sea turtle, an oni, and a princess. Depending on which one came up, the corresponding figure would move around and either dish out coins or cause chaos.</p> <p><img src="" alt="Left to right: A sea Turtle, an Oni, and a princess" title="The visitors from Machi Koro" /></p> <p>I liked that <em>Machi Koro: Legacy</em> separated out the roll and move elements from the rest of a player’s turn. Other parts of the game felt like bookkeeping, but the visitor’s track consistently felt like the moment with the most tension and delight. When the sea turtle landed on your property it felt warm and fun. Unlike <em>Monopoly</em> or <em>Candyland</em>, the roll twisted player’s turns lightly, either providing a slight boost or a challenge. It was like a fun side show during a larger game. It was also the closest the game got to telling a story during play.</p> <p>Having the roll and move mechanic happen every turn without being the core of the game felt like a nice balance between competing concerns. It added a dynamic plot point without overwhelming the goal of the game. But does that mean roll and move <strong>can’t</strong> compensate skill at all?</p> <h2 id="can-roll-and-move-compensate-skill%3F">Can Roll and Move Compensate Skill?</h2> <p>The short answer is yes, roll and move can be a skill compensation mechanic. The longer answer is: It depends on how you want to do it.</p> <p><em>Backgammon</em> is a game that rewards skill compensation. While it might not be as challenging as a game like <em>Chess</em> or <em>Checkers</em>, no one would argue that players don’t get rewarded for their ability to make good decisions. But because players have so many options on any given turn the decision becomes a matter of which piece they choose to move given the roll of the dice. Other games like <em>Railroad Ink</em> or <em>Ganz Schon Clever</em> use roll and move like mechanics to create a game.* Here the “move” means making a mark on paper rather than moving a figurine around the board. The skill of the game is in figuring out the correct order to fill out your board.</p> <p>The difference is the relationship between the roll and move and the game. I think one of the reasons that <em>Monopoly</em> and <em>Clue</em> feel dynamic is that the roll and move connects to the aesthetic of the game. The games I talk about above add skill compensation but remove the connection to the narrative of the rolling and moving. In <em>Monopoly,</em> you’re the wealthy elite strolling the boardwalk deciding what to buy. In <em>Clue,</em> you’re a detective slinking around a house. As <em>Machi Koro: Legacy</em> shows, it’s hard to both capture the narrative of roll and move and also compensate for skill.</p> <p>However, there is a game that manages to both compensate skill and also capture the feel of roll and move. That game is <em>Formula D</em>. In <em>Formula D</em> you are a race car driver trying to make your way around the track as fast as possible. The skill of the game comes from the gear your car is in (i.e., the size of the dice you’re rolling). Higher gears mean you can move faster but if you move too fast you’ll take damage going around turns. It’s the perfect combination of capturing the aesthetic of the roll and move and allowing players to feel control through their skill.</p> <h2 id="where-to-go-from-here">Where to Go From Here</h2> <p>I think <em>Machi Koro: Legacy</em> offers an interesting direction forward for roll and move mechanics. By distancing themselves from the centerpiece of the game it allows them to create a narrative (the “visitors” moving around town) and also be a complexifier for the game (players have to respond to the results). <em>Machi Koro: Legacy</em>’s biggest problem is that the complexification doesn’t change the game enough to be meaningful. By the end of the games the visitor dice became a side effect that wasn’t enough to shift the outcome one way or another. It would be fun to see what happens if the result of the visitors move became central to the outcome of the game.</p> <h2 id="want-to-see-some-prototypes-for-how-i-might-design-a-roll-and-move%3F">Want to See Some Prototypes for How I Might Design a Roll and Move?</h2> <p><a href="">Sign up for my e-mail list</a></p> <p>* You could argue here that if “Roll and Write” games are “Roll and Move” that games like <em>Machi Koro</em> or <em>Catan</em> are also roll and move. The distinction I try to make here is that in Roll and Moves you can’t manipulate the results of the outcome but have to deal with them as you build your strategy. In both <em>Machi Koro</em> and <em>Catan</em>, the rolling exists purely to distribute resources.** This is a tenuous difference, but I don’t think it ultimately weakens the argument I’m trying to make.</p> <p>** You could absolutely argue that roll and move or roll and write is also resource distribution, but I think decoupling resources from the dice creates enough of a separation that I’m happy with where it landed.</p>