Archive for the ‘Game Cliches’ Category

Blop, a precursor to 1010! and Hex FRVR

Sunday, February 14th, 2016

blop_logoInterested, as I am, in the family tree of puzzle games, when I wrote up my post about deconstructing Tetris, (the one where I go a bit into the mechanics of 1010! and Hex FRVR) I’d completely forgotten about this simple little iOS puzzle game from way back in 2009. Predating my own ActionChess by about two weeks in the app store, I remember playing a ton of this simple little puzzle game called Blop when I first discovered it.

The goals are slightly different from our line-making in Hex FRVR and 1010!; this square-grid game is actually more of a match-3 than a Tetris variant. The block shapes that appear are either 4-color squares or an angle made of 3 squares. And where color doesn’t matter in 1010! or Hex FRVR, here, the color is what’s used to remove pieces from the board. The board itself is 10×10, and each level the goal for number of matching colors increases. The first level, as soon as you connect 3 of the same color, they are removed from the board. After you’ve removed a square from each grid space (there is a handy “show” button to show you where you haven’t yet removed one), then the level increases, as does the number of squares you need of the same color.

blopscreen320x480The gameplay is at your own pace, and you do see a queue of the next few pieces, so you can plan ahead to maximize your strategic brain burning. When picking up the game again after all this time, I found it didn’t quite hold my attention the same way 1010! and Hex FRVR have for so many hours. I’m not honestly sure why that is the case. The complexity is about the same, maybe a tiny bit higher, due to the color matching rather than line-making, but I found myself playing the game a lot slower than I do those others.

After being spoiled by the simple and pleasant UI from 1010! and Hex FRVR, I did have a couple of minor UI quibbles as well:
– The squares to be placed appear “hovering” on top of the gameboard. They can and do get in the way of any squares you have already placed underneath them.
– You move the pieces around with your finger, but cannot rotate them this way. Tapping on them does nothing. (There are buttons at the bottom of the screen for rotation, as well as one in the middle to drop the piece.)

I will say, the game has held up remarkably well. It functions just fine after all these years. Notably, it did see an update last back in May of 2013 that added (among other things) multitasking from iOS 4.

Update: It’s perhaps worth noting that I ran into Blop again while looking through my iOS purchases, and it was not the first time while doing so that I thought “hey, this game is actually very similar to this other game”, but I hadn’t recently written about either of those other games. For posterity, they were Unify and Claustrophobia. Zach Gage’s game, Unify, came out in September ’09. It felt to me (at the time, I distinctly remember) like a re-imagining of another early iOS game, that came out in December ’08, by David Leblond, Claustrophobia. I actually remember downloading and playing Unify when it came out, and thinking it was different enough to be its own thing, but that I liked Claustrophobia better. (I have actually written about Claustrophobia once before.)

A Strategy for Abstract Strategy Game Reviews

Tuesday, January 19th, 2016

Today I posted over on Board Game Geek asking for help defining a review system for abstract strategy games. For posterity, here’s the contents of that post:

I’ve been thinking about criteria for reviewing abstract strategy games. In particular, I’d like to end up with a list of ratings, (not just one) that give the reader a sense of how the game plays in comparison to other abstract strategy games.

As an aside, I’m not using the term combinatorial, although I do prefer those games, both because I don’t want to limit the scope of games reviewed to those criteria, and also because I feel the term is hard to understand and explain to someone not already familiar with the nuances of game rules (and abstract strategy game rules in particular). I will certainly indicate the presence of any non-combinatorial elements in the review, and maybe even “at a glance” as part of the rating section. Maybe something like this:
– Number of players: 2
– Luck: Yes/No (If yes, maybe with some details.)
– Randomization: Yes/No (With an indication how.)
– Hidden Information: Yes/No (Again, indicating where.)
– (More needed?)

My goal, to be up-front about it, is eventually to start a new game review site, focused on abstract strategy games. That site’s mission will be: To promote and evangelize the beauty of abstract strategy games.

Here are the criteria I’ve come up with so far:

Strategic complexity – How strategically complex? I.e., how far ahead can I think about my turns with any real expectation of implementing a specific strategy?

Tactical Complexity – How individually complex are each of my decisions in a given turn? How many factors are there influencing my decisions based solely on the game’s state in a single turn?

Rules complexity – How easy is the game to understand and begin playing? How well are the rules written?

Game Readability – How easy is the game to understand at a glance? Can an experienced player take in the game’s state and gauge whether a player’s position is superior or inferior to that of their opponent?

Game Depth – How deep is the game? This could mean a lot of things, but for my reviews, it will mean how much can experienced players be said to be playing at a “different level” from beginner players? Or in other words, how much do the game decisions made by an experienced player change versus the decisions of a beginner player?

Spacial Engagement (Geometric Engagement?) – How much does the game rely on the player visualizing the positions of game elements in relation to one another or in relation to imagined elements?

Mathematical Engagement – How much do mathematical equations or general math principles (counting, etc.) play into the tactical decisions and / or long term strategies in the game?

Originality – Have I seen games like this before? Do I feel like there are new ideas in particular that deserve calling out in this particular game?

Physical Beauty – If this is a game played with standard components, or PNP, it may get dinged here, but since I am attempting to promote abstract strategy games to the general populous, it’s actually a super important criteria.

Overall Elegance – This could be expressed dispassionately as a ratio of rules complexity to strategic depth, but I actually think of it more as an expression of my feeling of satisfaction with that ratio. Did playing the game feel like more than the sum of its parts? Did it inspire me to think about it?

Again, I’m definitely looking for feedback about these. In particular:

– Is there anything obviously missing? Are there other criteria you use when judging a new game?

– How are the names? Any you feel should change or that you feel could be articulated better?

– Is “Overall Elegance” even needed? It’s probably the most subjective, but the concept I’m attempting to capture is just how it feels to play, which is absolutely subjective. Is there a better way to say that, maybe one that doesn’t seem as subjective?

– I’m thinking about doing a scale (probably 1-5) for each of these, and giving the game a score based on the sum total, or possibly an average. Thoughts on that final score?

– Are there other game ranking schemes you particularly like? I’d appreciate pointers to any that break the review down into a list of criteria like this. (I know there are more of them out there, but I’ve only managed to “find” a few links so far.)

This entire thing essentially came about because I was thinking about the term “combinatorial game”, and whether I wanted to use it along with (or instead of) “abstract strategy game”. When thinking about a rating system for Abstract Strategy games, it’s a no brainer to indicate whether there are elements that fans of “pure” thinking games might not appreciate: randomization during gameplay, hidden information, player manipulation, and generally just anything that gets in the way of the player determining their win or loss through skill alone. Generally, this is why the combinatorial term came about. (Although some might argue that it came around the other way, from actual academic game theory, as it was definitely used there first.) But I feel like it was only co-opted by game designers because “abstract strategy” has been used too frequently in the board game industry at large to describe games that are only abstract in theme, and don’t meet the other criteria.

If you visit the wikipedia page for abstract strategy, you’ll see the description carefully adds qualifiers like “almost all…” and “most…” or “many…” when describing the no luck and no hidden information qualities. It’s a controversial term.

I’m partial to the term “abstract strategy” though, partly because I just like its connotations. Abstract thought is one of the things that sets us apart from other species of life on this planet, and has far-reaching implications for humanity and civilization. Not to mention that games essentially wouldn’t be possible without it. In addition to the reasoning I gave in my original post, I also feel that the term “combinatorial” hasn’t reached critical mass yet, and not enough folks know what it means for it to be super useful. (Thus, I went with Abstract Meeple rather than Combinatorial Meeple, though both have a ring to them.)

Back to my thought-process: Indicating the presence of any of those non-combinatorial elements in a review will be easy, but some games that contain one or more of those elements still feel like abstract strategy games to a greater or lesser extent to me. I want to be free to review those games, and also want to communicate that feeling and quantify it somehow in my rating system.

But simply telling my readers that a game “feels abstract” seems too subjective, and also, it won’t give them enough information about whether they might also share that feeling. So I realized I’d need to break it down. Which led to the question: Why do games feel like abstract strategy? This led to my list of rating criteria.

And somewhere in making the list, it occurred to me: All the issues of combinatorial (or not) being equal, I have the same problem when comparing two completely combinatorial games. Other than my personal feelings about them, how would Chess rate any differently from Go? I thought about it some, and that also influenced the list. (In particular, the addition of Spacial and Mathematical engagement.) As it says in the post, I’m definitely looking for feedback on all of this. Feel free to post a comment, or head over to BGG and join the discussion.

Deconstructing Tetris

Monday, December 14th, 2015

Elements of Tetris

Tetris is so simple, you might (mistakenly) think it’s the simplest possible version of itself. (The original gameboy Tetris, not whatever feature-laden version happens to have been released this year.) It’s fairly easy to make a list of the various “elements” that go into Tetris. (I’ve always called these mechanics, although someone online recently pointed out mechanisms might be more appropriate.)

– Blocks made out of 4-squares (tetrominos)
– A column-shaped gameboard
– Gravity, the tetrominos move from the top of the screen to the bottom, where they stick in place
– Line clear when a row of blocks is completely filled
– a score counter that increments when lines are cleared

Sure, there’s probably some other stuff in there, but at a very high level, I think these are the most interesting elements. The last few months I’ve spent a lot of time playing a few different games that I think basically fall into a new “branch” of the Tetris family tree. One where the main difference is that they’ve replaced the block-falling gravity with free-form block placement. Turns out, this makes for a bunch of interesting games!

Hex FRVR

I guess I probably saw Hex FRVR first, back in October, when it hit my “Tetris” google alert, and then shortly thereafter as my Twitter feed exploded with it a bit. I think there were probably just as many people impressed that the mobile web app (the game is fully playable on its website) functioned as well as the mobile app as there were folks commenting on the game itself. Although plenty of folks did comment on how easy it was to get sucked into it. I got pretty hooked, and was still playing it in November when I went to Practice.

1010!

Over thanksgiving, only a few weeks later, my brother Dan introduced me to 1010!, which evidently he and his girlfriend have been playing for a while now. I hadn’t seen it before, but I guess that’s not terribly surprising given that about 500 games come out every day on iOS. Looks like it first came out September 2014, for iOS anyway, and it’s been successful enough that they’ve released 1010! World, which is basically the same game broken up into finite levels and put on a map like many of the big puzzle games do nowadays. (Candy Crush etc.)

1010!, played on a square grid, does that mechanic swap I mentioned, bye-bye gravity, hello touch-and-drag, but there are some other pretty major differences too.

It’s played on a ten-by-ten sized game grid, and I’m assuming that’s where the name comes from. 1010! also does away with having a single available piece, and showing you the order of the upcoming ones. Instead you have three available pieces, and see nothing further until you play the last of them. In fact, most of the strategy in the game comes from effectively using the three you are given together to clear some of the board before the next three.

Always Be Clearing

But if 1010! were just giving you tetrominos, it would probably be too easy. I’m guessing I could play indefinitely unless something more was changed, which it is. (In fact, it’s worth noting that 1010! doesn’t include the J, L, Z, or N pieces at all.)

So to balance the game toward ending, it throws in blocks of the following (important) sizes: 1×5, and 3×3. Sure, you can lose from the other block sizes if you’re not careful, but mainly, it’s going to be one of these two that you will inevitably not be able to fit onto the gameboard, thus ending the game.

I think it’s this balance (when to throw you “hard” pieces, and what percent of the time to just give you the basics) that makes both 1010! and Hex FRVR good games. They are both tuned to let you play for a bit, but then stump you not that long after. Playing for a while feels like an accomplishment, the classic “high score high”. Whether the games give you essentially random pieces, or just the illusion of random pieces, I cannot say, but just as in Tetris, you can easily talk yourself into believing the game is not random. Maybe it’s giving you this piece just when it knows it’s impossible for you to play it.

Everything is a Remix

It’s no secret that a lot of my game ideas are also inspired by Tetris.

The quote, “Good artists copy, great artists steal.” evidently goes back quite a bit further than T.S. Elliot. I very much subscribe to the thought that everything is a remix.

Right now I’m working on a port of my first game (playable on this site) to iOS. It’ll be called Action Go, and will play like the web counterpart, but look a whole lot better. The entire inspiration for that game was, “What if I removed line-clearing, and replaced it with the capture mechanism from the board game go?” I’m not planning on removing the web version, but the new one adds a lot of stuff, so I hope it’ll find a following on iOS and Apple TV when it comes out early 2016.

PS, It’s all been done

By the way, I have no idea if the Hex FRVR folks know about 1010!. But it’s a pretty fair assumption that they do. After I spent some time thinking about this, I realized I could whip out a triangle-based game with similar mechanics in very short order. A quick search later, and I’d found Tringles, which does exactly that. (Good thing I didn’t waste any time prototyping!)

It’s easy to see though, that there are nearly infinite ways you could take just a simple game and swap out one mechanic, (and adding a few more where it makes sense after that) to get a whole new game. Or hell, a whole new genre of games.

P.P.S. Crash

If anyone who works on 1010! read this, know that the app is crashing for me on my 6s+ like every 2 minutes. I don’t think it was doing this until the recent 9.2 update. Please fix it. I have an addiction to manage.

New Chess Variant Videos

Tuesday, September 22nd, 2015

Tonight, a chess variant is sitting at the top of r/gaming. That itself is probably newsworthy, but watch the video below of Speed Chess (apparently unveiled at the Tokyo Game Show 2015) to see why I’m now dying to play this real-time chess played on a touchscreen.

??? -SPEED CHESS- demonstration from trust tower on Vimeo.

Oh, and don’t worry, I’ve mined a ton of other good videos from the reddit thread so you don’t have to!

  • In this one, the new chess (no, not that one) is about to be released. (This was a little slow at first, but gets pretty good, I felt.)
  • This Chess reviewer had me laughing out loud.
  • I’ve definitely seen this BBC skit about how to play chess properly before, but it was worth a re-watch.
  • Finally, this scene is apparently from a UK sitcom called Bottom.

And while I’m at it, I’ve been eagerly anticipating Chesh for at least a couple of weeks now. I’ve been waiting to say anything about it here until I played it, but the since I wanted to post the Speed Chess video above, I felt it deserved inclusion in this post. Here’s the trailer:

From what I’ve gleaned from the internet, it’s a random chess variant with hundreds of possible pieces. I like the glitch-tank aesthetic. Remains to be seen whether I’ll also like the randomized gameplay.

Tetris hardware hacking

Thursday, January 22nd, 2015

It’s been a while since I’ve posted any Tetris stuff on here, and I ran into some interesting hardware implementations today that reminded me I hadn’t posted about L3D Tetris yet. So…

L3D Tetris

Last week at the bar after our monthly igdatc meeting, I was showing off the L3D, and took this vine of CubeTube user hape’s L3D Tetris. (Shortly thereafter, the official CubeTube youtube channel also posted a much better/longer video of it in action.)

Frankly, this existing was a load off, since I had already said I was going to write Tetris for the L3D. Now that I don’t have to, I’m focusing on some more original game designs. I should have one I’m calling Match-L3D playable later today. (Though I’ve been saying that for a few days, and I spent most of this morning cleaning up code I wrote last night when it was too late for me to have been realistically coding.)

My impression of actually playing it was basically that there are far more satisfying 3D tetris implementations, unfortunately. It’s just plain HARD, and can be really difficult to “line up” the pieces, especially the farther into the cube you’re looking. The L3D has a pretty serious problem with reflections off the plexiglass, and that didn’t really help with the playability either.

tetris_breadboard

LED Tetrises

Over at the HackADay blog, they posted yesterday about user Alex’s Arduino Tetris on an LED Array. That one was pretty plain looking, (not to diminish Alex’s efforts, I’m sure he learned a lot putting the project together!) That post links to a previously posted project (shown above) called Breadboard Tetris, as well as another running on an oscilloscope. But their blog is actually a cornucopia of LED Tetris links! Many more are findable by searching their website, including Tetris wearables, like this LED tie, and a sweet looking arduino bracelet.

tetris_and_dinoIf you want to build your own LED Tetris, there is an instructable you can follow, (although comments imply it’s incomplete, so maybe you’ll have better luck with this other one). Anyway, hardware hacking is getting easier and easier all the time.

Many of these projects post their Tetris code, and it would be a fun exercise (though not one I’m about to undertake just now) analyziing how they all go about implementing the various challenges inherent in writing Tetris. (Piece rotation would probably be the most interesting to analyze, although 2D grid storage would also be worth comparing and contrasting.)

I’ll leave you with this custom LED Tetris project next to an inflatable dinosaur. It’s a tossup which one is a bigger waste of space. At least you can deflate the dino. ;)

Chessrunner & more Chess Puzzle Games

Thursday, November 6th, 2014

Screen Shot 2014-11-05 at 11.42.54 AMChessrunner
Yesterday, my friend Lloyd linked me to Chessrunner (reddit thread), a web-based, chess-inspired endless runner in which you start with only a king, which you have to move forward on an endless chessboard. As you move, you can capture enemy pieces and make them your own. It’s an inspired idea, and one that apparently only took developer/creator Juha Kiili a weekend to implement (in Unity). There has been plenty of positive commentary on Reddit, and hopefully he’ll flush out the idea and (ideally, IMO), bring it to iOS.

Chessrunner’s “timer” mechanic (making it an action puzzle game) is pretty cool in that the gameboard is both expanded (from the top) and shrunk (at the bottom) one square at a time. The opposing colored pieces take one move after every one of your moves. They will ALWAYS capture your king if you give them opportunity, but they are not smart enough to trap you (yet), so surviving is really all about seeing all the attack lines. And that’s why this game really does a good job (IMO) of feeling like something you do while playing chess.

Have I been remiss?
I’ve written before about various chess-inspired puzzle games. (And of course I hope anybody reading this already knows about ActionChess, which was my first app in the app store.) But I realized when I started writing about Chessrunner that there was no way to find those game mentions! (Now there is a Puzzle Chess Games category.) And furthermore, there are several other chess puzzle type games that I’ve played over the last few years that have not (yet) been mentioned here. So I wrote up some mini-reviews:

Pawn’d
IMG_3470Pawn’d (available for $1 on iOS, or in Lite form for free) is a chess & match-3 matchup. I had a very similar design idea for this style of game as a game mode for ActionChess, but I never really put any time into it.

Pawn’d takes the concept in a lot of different directions at once, and looks great while doing it. There are three main game modes, each designed around how the game ends, and each with two more difficult variations called “Blitz” and “Master”. Additionally, there are two introductory modes that have neither variation, one called “Practice’d” (play to a certain # of matches), and another called “Clock’d” (play to a time limit). Each of the modes has its own leaderboards, making something like 22 leaderboards in the whole app. There are also a ton of achievements. Basically, if you like this concept, you can keep playing it for a LONG time without running out of things to do.

This game, possibly more than any of the other ones listed here, is decidedly worth playing, and I’ll cop to getting sucked back into it while writing this.

Chess Tower Defense
Screen Shot 2014-11-05 at 11.41.24 AMI’m fond of telling the story about how, when asked what he thought of ActionChess, my (then 8-year old) nephew Jake replied with “Could you make it a tower defense game?” I LOL’d. Well I think it was less than a year later that you could play Chess Tower Defense over on Kongregate.

It’s graphic design is quite spartan, but the concept is interesting nonetheless. You must survive waves of attacking “things”. (They are not pieces really.) The things don’t attack your pieces, but instead march methodically toward you (downward), passing right through your pawns. Your pawns (and other pieces) can attack them, in the standard directions, and if they don’t, each thing will remove one of your hearts when it gets past your back row. Between waves, you can reposition your pieces, and buy new ones. It’s an interesting concept, and one also worth spending some time playing, if only just to wrap your head around it, I think.

Knight Defense
knight-defense-screen1136x1136Knight Defense (for iPhone or iPad) appeared in the app store about another year or so later. As good as Knight Defense looks, it’s definitely less on the chess strategy end of the spectrum, and closer to the tower defense end. It’s all real-time, so there is no turn based aspect, and you can move your pieces all over the board at will during the game. In each of the squares your pieces could attack in a real game of chess, those pieces may damage enemy pieces. Like other tower defense games, Knight Defense is played in waves, during which enemies will appear at the top of the screen and move toward your king piece, wherever he might be on the gameboard. Though they are shaped like chess pieces, the enemies don’t move or attack like chess pieces, there just run into whichever of your pieces are in front of them, and “damage” them, eventually destroying them. Your pieces can be upgraded to do more damage at once, and to heal them once they’ve themselves been damaged. This is worth playing for chess fans, (especially so for those of you who already enjoy Tower Defense), but it’s not necessarily at the top of my list.

Cheesy Chess
cheesychess_screen1024x1024Cheesy Chess (free with ads for iOS) is not turn-based or action-puzzle at all. It’s more of a static puzzle game where the goal of each level is to get your king to the other side of a small chess board filled with pieces but for one square. In as much of the game as I’ve seen, there were no captures, only moving pieces around in a very cramped and crowded grid. This felt to me like a chess-themed version of Rush Hour (a sliding block game). Admittedly, I’ve played the least of this game. The mouse chess theme is super cute though, and it’s very well-made.

Pebblis & Tetris on new hardware

Saturday, May 4th, 2013

pebble-watch-face-tetris-300x300So I finally got with the program and figured out how to load up watch faces and 3rd party software onto my pebble today. (It turns out you just need to open relevant files in Safari, and they are already associated with the Pebble app, which then syncs them to the device for you.)

Anyway, this of course meant that I could try out Pebblis, a version of Tetris created for the Pebble by Robert Hesse. As widely reported, Pebblis is nothing more than a Tetris clone you can play on your wristwatch, but if you’re not looking for anything fancy, it’ll definitely scratch that tetromino itch.

I haven’t yet mentioned on this blog that I got into Google’s Glass Explorer program. In case you’re not familiar, google is giving 8,000 people the chance to get their hands on Google Glass early (you still have to pay for it). They held a big contest on twitter and Google+ to pick who gets it, and I got in with this tweet: “#ifihadglass I would use OpenCV to find grid patterns in what you are seeing. Then allow you to play Tetris on them, of course.”

Unfortunately, now that the Glass API has been released, it doesn’t sound like AR tetris is really possible, at least with this 1st-gen device. (In fact, the AR capabilities will be quite limited, and that rather disappointing aspect of the hardware has not gotten much press, at least that I’ve seen.) I’m still excited to get my eyes on mine, and I’ll be exploring what games appear for it over at Games with Glass, a site I’ve started with my former co-worker Breon. Not much up over there yet, but then again, there’s really not much yet to report on either. I’ll be writing more about all this soon, for sure.

UPDATE: After much deliberation, I decided not to put in for my Google Glass. I didn’t have time to make something for it, and it was hard to justify as a business expense if that was the case. Additionally, I tried them out, and had a sort of “what’s the big deal?” feeling about them. I’ll be curious to see how the next few years shapes up for that product line. I think they’re going to be leapfrogged by tech that is maybe not quite as technically revolutionary, but delivers a more compelling experience. (Perhaps even tech originating from google or even the Glass project.)

Pumpkin Tetris

Tuesday, October 30th, 2012

Over the years I’ve seen a number of Tetris-themed halloween costumes, but this is a first for me! Some dude made Pumpktris (is that pronounceable?), which is to say, a playable version of Tetris in a Pumpkin. Follow the link, or check out the video below:

Action Puzzle Games

Wednesday, August 1st, 2012

I presented the following slides on Action Puzzle Games tonight at the MN Mobile Game Dev Group. I’m not sure the slides are really enough to convey the meaning, but most of this is really just a list of good Action Puzzle Games for iOS, and I said I’d post those, so here they are.

Action puzzle games from livingtech1

Special thanks to Jesper Juul, from whose amazing article (“Swap Adjacent Gems to Make Sets of Three: A History of Matching Tile Games”) I stole the Family Tree of matching tile games.

Ecstasy of Awesome

Tuesday, April 17th, 2012

I saw the movie Ecstacy Of Order: The Tetris Masters tonight, a documentary about the first “Classic Tetris World Championship” held in (I believe) 2010. Like Word Wars (2004, about Scrabble) and King of Kong (2007 about Donkey Kong) before it, we learn something about the lives of specific characters who take part in this tournament of experts, in this case expert game players of the classic (original) version of Tetris for the Nintendo Entertainment System. Also like it’s spiritual predecessors, the documentary mostly succeeds because of the intriguing nature of those characters.

I can’t really recommend this movie highly enough. It far outstripped my expectations, (which admittedly were pretty low), and actually made me want to evangelize the movie, as well as, of course, go home and play some Tetris.