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Games Interactive 2: Cryptograms

gi2-cryptogramPreviously, I lamented the lack of cryptograms in Games Interactive. Well, in the sequel, my wish is granted! Cryptograms are an entire category — although, weirdly, the name of the category is “Crypto Funnies”. I guess this has something to do with the fact that it’s the name of the first five puzzles in the list. As with the logic puzzles, the category contains four distinct sub-types: Crypto Funnies (four-panel cartoons with ciphered word balloons, which gives you enough context for the deciphering to be really easy), Cryptolists (ciphered lists of things that fit some theme, without the cues you’d get from full sentences), Variety Cryptograms (collections of ciphered texts fitting some theme), and “Dszquphsbnt!”.

This last one is the name of Games Magazine’s regular cryptogram section; it’s the word “Cryptograms” shifted forward one place in the alphabet. The individual cryptograms within a Dszquphsbnt! are unrelated, and, as in Battleships and Paint by Numbers, are only grouped together here because they were originally published that way. Dszquphsbnt! is where the really tough cryptograms are — the ones where they make sentences without articles or other short words and with weirdly skewed letter frequencies, where your only way to get started is by noticing a long word (or, worse, combination of words) with an unusual pattern that identifies it. They don’t start out that way, though. Each Dszquphsbnt! set starts out easy and works its way up. In fact, the first cryptogram in each Dszquphsbnt! is a “Cryptoon”, which is basically the same idea as Crypto Funnies but with one panel and a caption instead of four panels and balloons. Unfortunately, in Dszquphsbnt!, this game leaves out the pictures. The Cryptoons are quite solvable without them, but what you end up with is a punch line without its context, and sometimes it’s a really inscrutable punch line, like “That looks like it says, ‘Machine wash warm, tumble dry medium, made in France'”. I think some of the Variety Cryptograms may have been originally published with pictures too, but that’s just a guess.

The basic cryptogram UI here, shared by all the puzzles in the category, isn’t the best I’ve ever seen, but it’s okay. It lets you select letters with either keyboard or mouse, and in the case of mouse, it lets you click on either a displayed alphabet or directly on the cryptogram. I mostly wound using it in a sort of hybrid style, clicking on the cryptogram to select a ciphertext letter and then typing the plaintext version via keyboard. Selecting any letter highlights all instances of it in the cryptogram, which is handy for eyeballing letter frequencies.

On the downside, it occasionally fails to respond to the keyboard, making me press a key multiple times to get it to register. Also, it lets you bind multiple ciphertext letters to the same plaintext, so sometimes I accidentally wound up with multiple distinct kinds of T on the screen. This is exacerbated by the way it removes the ciphertext letters from view when you bind them to plain text, so you have nothing visible to tell apart identically-bound letters. That is, it doesn’t take them away completely — there’s still a very faint ghost of the letter there, like they tried to gray it out but went too far. At least you can still click on it to highlight it, but what it really makes me want is a way to remove a letter’s binding, and the game doesn’t give us that. The ability to mess up the display without being able to unmess it interferes with the way I want to use the interface: not just as a way of entering answers that I’m cure of, but as a medium for exploring possibilities.

I said the cryptogram UI isn’t the best I’ve ever seen. You know what is? It’s the one where you have just one version of the text displayed, and selecting two letters swaps them in it — that is, selecting A and J, for example, replaces every A with a J and every J with an A. It’s simple, and it just naturally avoids the problems here. And if I’m not mistaken, this was the interface used by Cliff Johnson in games such as The Fool’s Errand and At the Carnival back in the 80s, so it’s not like it was unknown.

Outside and around the cryptogram UI, there’s the UI for navigating through the puzzles within a collection, and that’s where we run into real trouble. Dszquphsbnt! and Variety Cryptograms commit the same sin I previously observed in the Battleships and Paint by Numbers in the previous game: they expect you to solve each puzzle in the group in sequence, and press the “Done” button after each one to score it, but the “Next” button, which advances to the next puzzle without scoring the current one, is still available, even though there’s no way to go back once you’ve pressed it. Cryptolists spreads a single puzzle over multiple pages, one list element per page, and thus allows you to page back and forth freely with the “Next” and “Back” buttons, but it still expects you to press “Done” on every single page to get credit for it. Hitting “Done” on every page isn’t enough to finish the puzzle, though. You signal that you’re finished with a Cryptolist by pressing “Next” on the very last page, which is way too easy to do accidentally, because you’re pressing that button a lot just to see the entire puzzle.

The very worst thing, though, is the Crypto Funnies. Like Cryptolists, Crypto Funnies spreads a single puzzle over multiple pages, one page for each panel of the comic. And like Cryptolists, it lets you page around with “Next” and “Back”, and expects you to hit “Done” on each page. But this time, there doesn’t seem to be any way to signal completion. Pressing “Next” on the last page just keeps you at the last page. The only way to get out is to just quit the puzzle, which leaves no record that you ever attempted it.

Remember that there’s a final puzzle only available to people who have played all the puzzles. It looks like this is impossible to reach without cheating. So I cheated. I think it’s permissible in this case: I’m not lying to the game about my accomplishments, I’m just making it acknowledge the truth by the only means available. Luckily, the game’s record of player progress turns out to be stored as an easily-editable text file. The only complication was that I failed to realize at first that the first thing in that file is a count of the records it contains; if I didn’t increase that, anything I appended to the end would be ignored.

[Update] It turns out there is a non-cheating way to get credit for attempting the Crypto Funnies: pressing Next on the final page works if and only if you have not made any attempt at solving the puzzle. If any letters are bound, it fails. I guess this explains how the unlocking of the final puzzle passed the developer’s tests, if they performed any.

Games Interactive 2: Crosswords

gi2-crosswordLike the first game, Games Interactive 2 divides its puzzles into categories. But this time it gives the categories in alphabetical order, so Crosswords come first.

The UI has changed in several ways. The clues are in a smaller font, so it can fit more of them on the screen at once, but it’s wasting even more screen space on headers and frames, so it’s basically a wash. The backspace key, which used to delete the previous letter in the word unless the cursor is on the last letter and the last letter is filled in, now behaves consistently: no matter where you are in the word, it deletes the letter under the cursor and then backs up if possible. This takes a while to get used to, because it’s not how backspace behaves in any other context I can think of. Clicking the grid to navigate, which always selected Across in preference to Down before, now alternates — if you had an Across clue selected, it selects a Down, and vice versa. (Clicking a square on your currently-selected word to switch to the word that crosses it is thus now just an application of the general rule, rather than a special-case behavior.) I thought this was weird at first, but I’ve come to appreciate how it fits a certain solving pattern, where you fill in a word and it gives you enough information to fill in a word that crosses it. But it doesn’t exactly fit the just as frequent pattern where you want to fill in several words that cross it. I still can’t help but feel that there’s a better way to handle this.

Anyway, it’s not all improvements. For one thing, it’s slower. I remember when I tried this game for the first time being disappointed that they hadn’t fixed the speed problems of the crosswords in the first Games Interactive, but now that I’m playing on a faster machine, I see they actually made it worse. When you select a word, it highlights it in the grid, one square at a time, a flashy little transition effect. For the longer words, the resulting delay, during which the UI is unresponsive, can be quite irksome. Another thing: Whenever you select a word, it moves the cursor to the beginning of that word, even if you clicked on the middle. This is something that the first game got right and GI2 gets wrong. And where the first game had some problems with navigating the grid with the arrow keys, this game solves them by scrapping that functionality entirely. You can only use the arrow keys to move the cursor within the current word.

I haven’t seen a whole lot of bugs within the grid data. There were a couple of cases where its notion of where a word ended was a few letters short of where it should have been, but that just meant I had to fill in the rest of the letters via cross clues. Instead, the chief problem this time is typos in the clues. Most commonly, there are a bunch of clues missing their first letters. This is fairly benign; when you see a clue like “ouis Quinze, e. g.”, you can tell what it’s supposed to be. But there are other places where typos just obscure the meaning. For example, “Cop cabana site” was a plausible enough construction that it wasn’t until I worked backward from the cross-letters that I realized it was missing an A.

Games Interactive 2

gi2-menuAnd with that, let’s get back to kicking this dreck off the Stack. If you’re wondering why I picked up Games Interactive 2 after my experiences with the first Games Interactive, my thoughts were basically “The underlying puzzles are good, and surely they must have fixed most of the problems by now”. And, well, it looks like they’ve at least addressed some of them. At the very least, it hasn’t thown any “Index Out of Bounds” errors yet.

Installation under Windows 10 had exactly the same problems as the first game, and the same solutions worked. From the very start, it’s clear that it’s going for a different vibe than the original. It’s more retro-futuristic, all curvy, metallic, and skewed, with a fairly subdued color scheme. And instead of jazz, we have electronic music. It’s not as gentle and ambient as the stuff I was just talking about in SquareCells, but it’s reasonably backgroundish. In the puzzles, however, it’s marred by various ticking-clock noises playing over it at a different tempo. I wound up turning off the sound most of the time in Games Interactive, but I’m doing it a lot earlier here.

The main menu is a bit simpler and more reasonable than last time: there is never a stage where you have to select the number of puzzles you want to do. You still have the weird bit where you choose the puzzles you want from a checklist, but at least you can just check off as many puzzles as you want at that list instead of choosing a number and then having to check off exactly that many. You can still have the game choose puzzles for you at random — it’s called “Quick Select” now — but if you do, it seems to just keep feeding you puzzles until you choose to exit.

Finally, one fairly big difference: this time around, there’s an actual ending. After you’ve played all the puzzles, a final bonus puzzle unlocks. Note the word “played”. If I understand correctly, there’s no expectation that you solve all the puzzles correctly. And thank goodness, because I’ve already seen enough typos in the crossword clues to make me think think that there’s probably some not-completely-solvable puzzles to come.

SquareCells

squarecellsDue to my recent experiences with Games Interactive, the main thing that I was thinking when I tried SquareCells was “Finally, Paint By Numbers done right!” It’s not quite Paint By Numbers, though. The answers don’t form meaningful pictures, the better to emphasize logical deduction. And, while it incorporates nonograms into its ruleset, it combines them with another grid puzzle system that I’m sure I’ve seen before but can’t think of the name of right now: numbers on cells of the grid, indicating the size of the polyomino containing it. The game starts with pure nonograms, but most of the puzzles mix the two systems, putting nonogram numbers on some but not all rows and columns. It works kind of like Hexcells, the previous title by the same developer, except that Hexcells starts with Minesweeper rules and adds nonogram numbers to that. (One peculiarity: in Hexcells, a number on a row or column normally just gives a count of the number of cells used, and doesn’t necessarily indicate that they’re adjacent, unless it’s in brackets, like “{3}”. In SquareCells, it’s the reverse.)

Still, it’s close enough to Paint By Numbers to make me really appreciate all the little things it does to improve the experience. Like automatically saving your progress when you quit in the middle of a puzzle. Graying out numbers when they’re satisfied. Playing soothing ambient electronic music in the background instead of jazz. Those are all fairly obvious things, but there are some touches I wouldn’t have thought of, like the little arrows that point at the end of the row and column your cursor is over, making it easier to find the relevant clues. One unusual choice that really shows that the developers were paying attention to the play experience: instead of starting completely empty, the grid starts completely filled. Or rather, everything starts off in a third state, and the puzzle isn’t finished until you’ve marked every cell as either full or empty. But the initial state looks a lot more like the full state than the empty state, and cells marked as empty are completely and irrevocably deleted, while cells marked as full can be toggled back to unknown. I’ve noticed before how the process of solving nonograms feels more like carving the solution out of a block than like drawing it, and this UI reflects that.

The one thing the Games Interactive version had that I really miss is the ability to take notes on the grid.

Magnetic: Cage Closed

What we have here is a really obvious Portal imitation. No surprise there; that’s what I wanted. That’s why it was on my wishlist. The novel puzzle-solving gun in this instance is a magnet gun, which isn’t even all that novel: it’s a lot like the Gravity Gun from Half-Life 2, except that in addition to pushing and pulling objects, it can also propel the player by pulling or pushing against specially-marked walls, ceilings, and floors. With this, you go through series of contrived puzzle rooms while a voice over the PA system taunts you, just as in Portal. At one point, there’s an earthquake or something and you escape beyond the walls of the puzzle rooms for a while, and it reminded me so much of similar sequences in Portal 2.

In fact, it’s so much a Portal wannabe that I think it’s more interesting to note the differences than the similarities. Chiefly, where Portal was set in what was ostensibly a laboratory or “testing facility”, Magnetic drops all pretense that the setting is anything other than a prison. It’s a prison that’s currently being used for testing experimental magnet guns, but you get enough backstory over the course of the game to know that the test chambers are older than this project, that the prison has been sending prisoners into death-traps with a cruel promise of freedom for some time.

Now, the backstory is sparse. You never really learn a lot about the prison, or why you’re there, or the conditions that produced it. There’s a mention of a war, but this is never elaborated on. What you do know is that you’re the captive of a sadistic warden who trash-talks you to the point of monotony, but who is in some ways constrained by Karen, the prison psychologist, who’s a potential ally.

Unlike Portal‘s single through-path, the first chapter of Magnetic, before the earthquake, is spent in a repeated routine. You go from your cell into a transport that takes you to the test chambers, you solve some puzzles, you return your magnet gun get a little talk and a sort of test choice from Karen, and then you get transported back to your cell (making it easy to decide to take a break from playing). One of the choices is just a quiz to see how well you remember the preceding test chamber. Another is a moral choice: another prisoner is described to you, along with her crimes, and you get to choose whether she should be executed or sent to the test chambers like you. I suppose the implication is that you were picked for testing the same way. What effect do these choices have? I don’t know. The game has nine endings, but the final level gives you a choice of only three paths, so earlier choices must figure in somehow.

Karen describes those three paths somewhat oracularly as the one that gives you a chance of revenge against your captors, the one that gives the most direct path out but which comes at a price, and the one that gives you the greatest chance of happiness. I chose the latter, and got a pretty straightforward escape ending as a result. The save system makes it inconvenient to go back and change your mind, so I don’t think I’ll be doing that soon. But I assume that not all of the endings are good. If you choose death for your fellow prisoner, does your guardian angel decide you’re not worth saving?

I suppose the whole thing is kind of gnostic, with its wise woman offering liberation from the angry demiurge. In which case, what are we to make of the fact that, after escaping the confines of the chambers in chapter 2, you have to go back inside to finish the story and the game? I guess it could be representative of a mystical experience, a temporary look at reality from outside, after which you return to your life with new knowledge — specifically, the knowledge that the test chambers and transports are suspended in a seemingly limitless void. Portal 2 did something similar, but it feels a little different in a prison setting than in a mad-science complex, where phantasmagoria is more expected. Although the very existence of test chambers means we’re already pretty far from the realms of the real in both cases.

Anyway, the puzzles were mostly pretty satisfying, apart from the ones requiring difficult platforming. There was one towards the end where you have to pull yourself up to a magnet on the ceiling in order to be able to aim downwards at another magnet to repel yourself across a gap, and the act of switching between facing-up-and-pulling and facing-down-and-pushing fast enough for it to work was difficult enough that I’d think there had to be another solution, if I hadn’t spent so much time looking for one.

simian.interface++

sisimian.interface++ is a sort of game I always find interesting: a game that takes a single form of interaction and explores what you can do with it. In this particular case, the verb it’s exploring is “calibrate”. On each level, you have a graphical display that moves in some way in response to the mouse, and which you have to bring to some kind of sweet spot via minute tweakings. In the first and simplest form, you have a square that you have to move into a square-shaped frame, but what if the square moves in a different direction than the mouse? What if the square and the frame both move in different ways? What if something moves irregularly or in a sine wave or orbits a point in response to linear motion? What if there are multiple squares and it’s not clear which goes to which frame? What if instead of a square, it’s multiple shapes that fit together to compose a square when they’re in the right position? What if we add orientation to the mix, making the squares spin about their centers in addition to moving around? What if we make motion affect color? What if we move things in three dimensions? What if we just throw a whole bunch of things on the screen that move in different ways and make it unclear what the target position looks like?

There are a lot of games that have some sort of mini-game along these lines, usually to represent some sort of machine calibration, or sometimes lockpicking. I’m pretty sure I’ve also seen a specific case of it, rotating a collection of pieces until they line up to form a picture, spun out into a full game. But I think there’s value in putting a whole lot of variations on the theme together like this.

If it doesn’t explore the entirety of the form’s potential, it’s because it’s keeping things abstract and mainly based around squares and straight lines. So, no levels where the target image is a photograph, or where you’re manipulating the frequency and offset of a waveform. Keeping things simple presumably helps when you finish the levels and try out Endless mode, which seems to generate levels procedurally. I could easily imagine endless mode of this game on a projector at a party, as a toy for introverts that’s also a non-distracting source of varying abstract background visuals.

The Magical Silence

tmsThe Magical Silence is one of those surreal stream-of-consciousness games like Samorost or Windosill, where you click on bizarre landscapes with no idea what your clicks will provoke. As usual for this sort game, it’s very short. I guess a lack of coherent system means that content doesn’t stretch as far.

There are three things about it that I think are worth commenting on. First, it is highly vertical. The whole game, apart from its intro and outro, takes place in a single scrolling 2D space, and this space is much taller than it is wide. It’s an unusual choice, and one that I think could be taken better advantage of in other scenarios. This is a world that’s mostly sky, with water at the bottom, but I can easily imagine doing the same with a tall building, or a forest.

Second, it makes use of button-mashing. That is, sometimes you have to do more than just click on something, you have to click on it repeatedly and rapidly. In most cases, this was easy to figure out. When I click on a chameleon’s top hat, and it just wobbles slightly, I know that I’m after a stronger effect, like knocking it off completely, and that makes me try clicking it again and again. But down at the bottom of the world, there are a set of four squares that just flash and emit electronic tones when clicked, and you’re supposed to mash those as well. I had to look at the Steam forums to find this out, and there I learned that I wasn’t the only one to get stuck there.

Thirdly, it’s unusually morbid for a game of this sort. It starts with a cartoon dog sitting alone in a dark room with a bottle in front of him. He asks you to go through a door into his imagination to fix “something strange to my head”. (The author is apparently from Siberia, explaining both the grammar and the outlook.) When you finish, and re-emerge into the dark room, the dog has finished the bottle and is preparing to hang himself. “Now I am calm”, he says. “Now you must to finish the game!” You to finish the game by removing the chair he’s standing on. These games often have an air of menace, rooted in their utter unpredictability. But I don’t think I’ve ever seen one take it as far as “Everything you did was to help a dog commit suicide”.

[the Sequence]

sequence[the Sequence] is probably my favorite acquisition of the Summer Sale. It’s a little bit Spacechem and a little bit The Incredible Machine, which kind of makes me realize that Spacechem was really a descendant of The Incredible Machine all along. All these games share a paradigm of setting up a mechanism and then letting it rip, trying it out to see if it does what you want it to do. As such, they’re all really about computer programming. But [the Sequence] doesn’t even pretend otherwise; it’s computer-themed, and its mechanisms, although spatially-arranged, are highly abstract.

Each level has the same objective: on a discrete grid, move a little round thing — officially a “binary data point”, but I can’t think of it as anything other than “the ball” — from a source tile that produces an endless stream of them to a goal. Getting four balls from start to goal without collisions is considered to be adequate proof that you’ve created a loop that can continue indefinitely. You accomplish this by placing objects on the grid that can move the ball around. For example, there’s a type of object that can push the ball one square away, another that can grab it from an adjacent tile and then rotate 90 degrees and drop it, another that’s a shuttle that moves one square in the direction it’s pointing every turn and can drag the ball with it, and so forth. These are represented by really well-designed abstract icons that clearly communicate what they do and where and in what direction. I won’t call them “intuitive”, because I don’t think you could guess their function purely from their appearance, but once you’ve seen them in action, they’re highly memorable.

The real trick, however, is that the objects don’t just affect the ball. They can also affect each other, effectively becoming nouns one moment, verbs the next. Like, maybe you need a pushing device in two different places, but have only one available in your inventory. That just means you need to construct a device to move that pusher around. There are even objects whose only purpose is to affect other objects, like the polarity reverser, which turns a pusher into a puller, or reverses the direction that a rotator rotates.

It’s all very much about lynchpins, flashes of insight about what the rules enable. A typical puzzle makes some aspect of the solution obvious, yet seem impossible: “The only thing I’ve got that’s capable of carrying the ball all that distance is a shuttle, but how do I get the shuttle back to the starting position without a polarity reverser?” And it’s kind of impressive how much it manages to force specific solutions through nothing more than the level geometry and the choice of tools. On the few occasions when I’ve been seriously stuck, it was because I was mistaking a puzzle’s intentions on a fairly high level.

The game’s title derives from the fact that the objects take turns. Getting the behavior you want often depends on adjusting the order in which the objects act. I’ve long felt that coarse placement grids are a good thing in contraption games, making the solutions more certain and less fiddly. Giving the player absolute control over the sequence of action effectively does the same thing for time.

Press X to Not Die

Press X to Not Die is first-person FMV in the key of stupid. That’s its basic draw: Laugh at how stupid it is, and, by extension, how stupid FMV games in general are. The FMV genre is a thing of the 1990s, after all, apart from a few modern revivals like Her Story (which, significantly, imitates the look and feel of a 90s operating system). And 20 years is about how long it takes for things that were originally regarded as merely bad to become appreciated as enjoyably bad.

It gets the low-budget schlock aesthetic pretty much right, with its bad acting and unconvincing violence. At one point it teases a possible shower scene (without following through), and all I could think of was a similar moment in the 1993 FMV game Critical Path. The interactivity seemed a bit off the mark, though. There are two forms of interaction in the game: choosing dialogue from a menu (which provides a certain amount of branching), and QTEs of various sorts, including randomized button presses and rapid button-mashing. I can’t think of any actual 90s FMV game that worked like this; rather, it’s a combination that I personally associate very strongly with certain more modern games that arguably might as well be FMV. So, I could believe there’s a sly wink there, if I thought the game had any interest in subtlety.

The premise is that nearly everyone just starts attacking each other in the streets for no apparent reason, with only a few people unaffected, such as the protagonist and his girlfriend. In other words, it’s basically a zombie apocalypse scenario, except that they didn’t even splurge on zombie makeup. Now, to spoil the plot — and here things get really stupid — it ultimately turns out that the common factor linking the survivors is that they’re all gamers. The QTEs you’ve been performing throughout the game are part of an experimental system that’s supposed to render people capable of performing complex tasks “with the ease of pressing a button”. But only people who play videogames are capable of thinking like that. Anyone else goes mad trying.

This leads to a cringeworthy but weirdly self-defeating moment. When this revelation comes along, the player character turns to his girlfriend and says, with surprise in his voice, “You’re a gamer?”, and in reply, she shrugs and says “Angry Birds”. Now, my first reaction to this was that the game was displaying the unfortunate sexist attitudes that infest geekdom: that it’s surprising when a woman likes games, and also that women only play casual games, which don’t really count. But when you think about it, the fact that she’s immune to the insanity shows that she really is a gamer, in an objectively confirmable sense. Casual games do count in this world. They may even count more. The girlfriend character uses her personal QTEs to do things like hack through electronic locks, while the player gets things like a button-mash to climb over a fence that has a perfectly serviceable gate in it.

Knights

knightsThere’s an old puzzle involving four chess knights, two black and two white, in the corners of a 3×3 board. Making only knight moves, you’re supposed to swap the positions of the black and white pieces. The key to solving it is to think in terms of the topology of how the squares are connected by knight moves instead of the geometry of the board. To a knight, the center square is unreachable, and the other eight are each connected to exactly two others, forming a single loop. Swapping the knights is as simple as having them chase each other around that loop halfway.

Knights is essentially a generalization of that puzzle. In each level, you have a board with some red and blue knights on it, and have to move them to target squares of the same color. Some squares will be blocked off. After a certain point, it introduces a yellow knights, which don’t have targets and only exist to clog things up and get in the way of the other knights. And that’s it for rules. It’s presented in a clean, elegant graphical style that’s immediately comprehensible, requiring not a word of tutorial explanation. While the puzzles are more complex than the Four Knights puzzle, I don’t think it’s a ruleset with a great deal of room for variability. But that’s okay, because the game is also pretty short.

It definitely trains your brain up, though. After working through the bulk of the levels, I was seeing knight-move connections far more easily than when I started, even perceiving the relevant topology directly. There are a couple of levels that try to confuse you with yellow knights in places that are completely disconnected from anything that the red and blue knights can reach, but by the time I reached these levels, the ruse seemed laughably obvious in a way that it probably wouldn’t have when I started.

The day after finishing the game, I experienced some pretty strong Tetris effect, tracing knight-move patterns with my eyes on the seats around a table and suchlike. Mostly I traced the eight-pointed star that’s the basis of the original Four Knights puzzle. This is a pattern I kept returning to again and again over the course of the game, a sure-fire if tedious method for shifting a knight around short distances without disturbing things elsewhere on the board. Even if seven of the eight spaces in such a ring are occupied, it’s possible to shuffle them slowly around.

The later levels tend to interfere with such rings by blocking off squares. This can create dead ends in the connectivity graph, trapping pieces behind a bottleneck until you can consolidate enough empty space to let them free. This, in turn, forces the player to think hierarchically: “I’ve got to get that piece out of the way, but I can’t do that until I can move this piece”, etc. Completing the last level gives you access to the daily puzzles, which, if I understand correctly, are generated procedurally. I’ve only tried these a little, but it seems to me that, lacking a human designer’s sense of symmetry and beauty, the daily puzzles are even more prone to multiple-tiered blockage of this sort. This makes the puzzles take longer to complete, but it doesn’t necessarily make them more difficult to figure out.

I suppose there’s a balance to be struck. If things are too loose, if there’s too much empty space and the player has too many options, the puzzle becomes easy, because it’s easy to get things where you want them. If things are too tight, and the player has too few options, the puzzle becomes easy because there’s so little opportunity to go wrong. But then, this only applies once you’ve played enough puzzles to look at things the right way. The original Four Knights problem fits into the too-few-options category, but only if you can see it as a loop.

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