Archive for July, 2016

Games Interactive 2: Thinking About Battleships

I find that there are two distinct modes of thought involved in solving Battleships puzzles. It’s not quite the “logic vs intuition” thing again, though.

On the one hand, you have the same sort of approach as Paint by Numbers puzzles: proving things about the grid. You have certain constraints, including puzzle-specific ones like “this row has exactly three occupied spaces in it” and general ones like “there is exactly one set of four consecutive occupied spaces”, and from these constraints you construct chains of reasoning about what must be in specific spaces. “There are two three-tile long ships and only three places where they can fit. So at least one of them must be in one of these two places, both of which border on this square. Therefore, this square is unoccupied.” You then mark the square as unoccupied, and start using that as a constraint in further proofs.

On the other hand, you can also think of it as an assembly puzzle, like pentominos or tangrams. You have ten pieces of varying length, and you have to put them together into a shape that fits certain constraints. True, most assembly puzzles use a target shape where the pieces touch each other, and that’s specifically forbidden here, but that doesn’t really make much difference. You’re still thinking about it in terms of moving pieces around. There’s typically a very limited set of places where the four-long ship can go, so you try it out in one of those places, and when you see that it prevents the rest of the pieces from fitting in nicely, you move it somewhere else. This is really equivalent to reasoning from trial-and-error, but I find that conceptualizing it as moving pieces around makes it a lot easier. Sometimes I’ll mark in all the pieces in an way that doesn’t fit the numbers, because it helps me to see how to fix the problem by moving something.

Usually my trajectory through a puzzle starts with the former approach, and switches to the latter when progress fizzles out. In some puzzles this happens very quickly. Notably, the UI discourages the assembly model. I can think about it in terms of moving pieces around, but I can’t actually remove an entire ship from one place and put it somewhere else as an action. The only form of interaction is marking and erasing individual tiles, which fits better with the other approach. This sways how I want to solve the puzzle. I can’t blame Games Interactive for this, though. The same applies even more strongly to the print version.

Games Interactive 2: Reason vs Intuition in Paint by Numbers

As before, Paint by Numbers is weekend work. The game has six sets. I’ve done two so far, and expect to manage a third today, leaving the other half for next week. The palette this time is missing the dithered grey that I previously used to mark uncertain squares, so I’ve been using yellow for that purpose instead. At least the two-semantically-distinct-whites problem is gone.

The chief characteristic of Paint by Numbers is that it’s methodical. I described the basic solving process in a previous post: you look for a thing that just barely fits in the space available, which gives you information about its position, which imposes constraints on other things, and so on. It takes time, but you can keep on extending the chain of logic for as long as you keep finding leads. Every once in a while, though, the chain seems to end. Maybe you reach a point where the necessary reasoning takes more steps before yielding concrete results. Maybe there really is a simple next step, but it’s hard to spot. Either way, I wind up marking, in a different color, the things that I suspect rather than just the things that I know.

I don’t like taking this step, because it seems so much less certain than the plodding and methodical reasoning. But is it really? In theory, logic should never steer you wrong, but it’s being applied by a fallible human mind. I frequently do make mistakes. Occasionally, I even make mistakes so severe that I have to correct them by wiping the entire grid and starting over. Intuition may well be a better guide, especially as I train it up by solving these things. It would certainly be faster. I remember struggling with anagrams in crosswords as a child, seeing no good way to solve them other than by writing down every possible arrangement of letters to the point where they stopped making sense. Nowadays, all I usually have to do is look at the letters and, if I have enough constraint from the cross-letters and clue, the solution just pops out at me unbidden. Could a human mind get to the point of solving nonograms the same way? I suspect so, given the prodigious mental feats that “Human Calculators” have trained themselves to do. Heck, after all this intensive practice, I may well be closer to that point than I’ve been allowing myself to acknowledge.

Games Interactive 2: Planet of Strangers

gi2-strangersI decided to ease myself back into the Logic section by tackling the one-off puzzles. This time around, it turns out none of them are logic puzzles in the traditional sense. There’s an easy tile-based dissection puzzle, a memory challenge, a sort of visual trivia thing where it gives you the top and bottom thirds of a bunch of circular logos and other symbols and you have to match them up. This last one has a non-intuitive UI: all the pieces are displayed on the screen at once, but whenever you want to match a pair, you have to click “Done”. I don’t think I’d have guessed that if I hadn’t seen it do something similar in the Cryptograms.

There’s one puzzle in the assortment that I could see calling a logic puzzle, although it’s really more of a math puzzle. It’s a more complicated variant on the old chestnut where you’re given a head count and a leg count and have to derive how many cows and how many chickens there are. The premise here is that there’s a planet occupied by six species of aliens with lame jokes for names. The number of eyes, noses, mouths, eyebrows, ears, and heads varies by species. Given a total count of each body part, can you figure out how many of each alien there are? Well, maybe you could in the magazine. Here in Games Interactive 2 it’s impossible because they left out the body part count. That’s like asking us to solve a crossword without the clues. We’ve seen other puzzles where there was information missing, and I’ve always done the best I could. But this time, the best I can do is just hit the “Done” button and let it give me a rating of -100% for not having any of the answers right.

Games Interactive 2: Last of the Crosswords

Well, I’ve completed the Special Crosswords. The remaining Orneries fell in a single session. It’s a lot quicker to get these things done when you’re fully alert, and can get your mind into a thinking-of-words zone. But then, it’s also quicker to get them done when you already did half the puzzle in a previous session, and that’s probably the larger factor here.

That left just the sole remaining Clueless, which was one of the difficult ones I mentioned before, where all the words come in just two lengths and there isn’t much obvious constraint about what goes where. Such a puzzle offers no clean way to get started. The only workable approach I’ve found is trial-and-error, picking a space with lots of crossings and trying out each of the words from the word list in that spot and exploring the consequences until you hit an impossibility. If you’ve picked a good spot — which I didn’t on my first couple of attempts — then you eventually find a word that forces a lot of other words, and the pattern grows until not being right would be a weird coincidence. If you haven’t, you eventually find a few different words that don’t force anything much.

gi2-loserThis last and hardest Clueless turned out to be the only one in Games Interactive 2 with a typo in the word list: the word “power” was listed twice and “loser” omitted, as if the extra power had forced the loser out. Fortunately, due to changes in the UI, I was able to get a perfect score anyway. In the first Games Interactive, if you tried to put a word in a place where it conflicted with existing letters, the game just didn’t let you. In Games Interactive 2, it lets you and it just overwrites any conflicting letters. And the way the word “loser” was situated, it had words crossing it at the L and S. So I could put “power” into its spot, then re-enter the crossing words to overwrite the P and W. I can’t help but think that there’s a metaphor in that, but I don’t know what.

Games Interactive 2: World’s Most Soporific

I said that I hadn’t done the World’s Most Orneries. I have, however, been attempting them. I think I’ve tried them all by now, mainly because I wanted to confirm that they were World’s Most Orneries — as before, they’re listed only by title, not type. But I’ve only finished two. This is because I keep drowsing off.

Really, you can blame my current schedule more than the puzzles (or the music, which I haven’t even been listening to). A World’s Most Ornery takes takes me about 1-2 hours to get through, which is certainly something I can manage in most circumstance. It’s about the same amount of time that I’d spend on a Battleships set, for one thing. But I haven’t even been trying the Battleships lately, because they require more focus. If start to nod off in the middle of a logic puzzle like Battleships, then drag myself awake and remember “Right, I was in the middle of a puzzle, I should finish that”, I’m basically lost. Puzzles of that sort involve storing information in your head about what implies what. Crosswords don’t. I can go straight from drifting off to looking at a clue with exactly the same level of bafflement that I started with.

I think I’d stay awake better if the game better afforded breaking the monotony by alt-tabbing out to a browser window, if only to start preparing a blog post. It doesn’t prevent you from doing this, but it keeps the screen resolution at 640×480, which is so unsuited to modern use that it hardly seems worth it.

Games Interactive 2: Special Crosswords

Failing to make much headway on the Logic puzzles, I’ve skipped ahead to the next section, Special Crosswords. It’s a similar assortment to last time. The Cross Numbers are gone, but we’ve got World’s Most Ornery, Cryptic, Helter Skelter, and Clueless. They’re all quite revamped and less buggy than before. This comes as a particular relief for the Clueless, which was previously nigh-unplayable, and now functions perfectly, albeit more slowly — you used to be able to scroll the word list by an entire page at a time, but now it dribbles out line by line. And I’m pretty sure there are fewer typos than before, especially in comparison to the regular crosswords. It’s enough of an improvement that I’ve guzzled down the lot, apart from the Orneries, which take a while, and the hardest of the Cluelesses, which features only 9-letter and 5-letter words.

The changes to the UI have an effect on the Helter Skelters that’s worth noting. One of the distinguishing things about the Helter Skelter is that you can’t tell just from the grid where the words end. The first Games Interactive recognized this by not limiting your typing, even to the point of letting you type past an edge and wrap around to the other side. In Games Interactive 2, Helter Skelters bide by the new rules for all crosswords: when you select a word, the space for that word is highlighted, and you cannot move the cursor outside that space. This is effectively a change to the rules. It gives you information that you don’t have in the print version. Sure, some of the other puzzle types make information more easily accessible than it would be in print, like the letter frequencies in a cryptogram, but that’s still just information you could gather for yourself.

The one thing that makes it a bit more like the print version is that the word length indicated by the highlight is sometimes wrong. Not often, but often enough to make me never trust it as a source of information.

Games Interactive 2: Starting Logic

Next up: the Logic section. As before, we’ve got Battleships, Paint By Numbers, Cross Math (not to be confused with Cross Numbers), and a bunch of one-offs that may or may not really be logic puzzles. I’m pleased to see that, although the Battleships and Paint By Numbers puzzles are still grouped into unwieldy sets, the navigation between puzzles within a set is more sensible now. As you may remember, the behavior in the first Games Interactive was: Pressing “Done” scores the current puzzle and goes to the next one, pressing “Next” goes to the next puzzle without increasing your score, and either way, there’s no going back. In Games Interactive 2, it works the way I originally expected: You can navigate freely through the entire set with “Next” and “Back”, and pressing the “Done” button indicates that you’re done with the entire set, at which point it scores all the puzzles at once. But the irony of suddenly switching to what I originally expected is that I didn’t expect it any more. After the first game, and the cryptogram section in this game, the obvious thing to do on completing the first puzzle in the first Battleships set was to press “Done”.

I do appreciate the freedom to switch around between the puzzles in a set. I’ve pooh-poohed the decision to keep the sets together as units instead of dividing them up into individual puzzles, but as long as you have the entire set available simultaneously rather than sequentially, it’s a better imitation of how you’d solve them in the magazine, skipping around whenever you run out of leads. Unfortunately, it seems to be unsafe to do! Every once in a while, on paging backward in Battleships, I’m horrified to find that the entire set of puzzles, including ones I had completely solved, has gone completely blank. Understand that most Battleships puzzles don’t even start out blank; they usually have a tile or two already revealed and playing a crucial role in figuring out the rest. I don’t know what causes this, but since it seems to only happen when I page backward, I guess I’m going to stop doing that. So long, lovely new feature that I wanted to use.

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 sure 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 that there’s probably some not-completely-solvable puzzles to come.

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