Runespell: Overture

I suppose that by now the description “like Puzzle Quest, but with X” is an entire genre. Runespell: Overture is like Puzzle Quest, but with a card game based on building poker hands. The basic mechanics are as follows: You and an opponent take turns, performing a default of three actions each turn. Most of these actions will be spent rearranging cards, either stacking face-up cards from your side of the playfield or stealing unstacked ones from your opponent’s side (both gaining them for your own use and preventing the opponent from using them). When any of your stacks contains five cards, you can use it to attack the enemy. Better poker hands do more damage: a pair does 8 hit points, while a five-of-a-kind does 20.

Mind you, the fact that it’s a fantasy-themed game using standard playing cards has me wondering if it reminds me more of Faerie Solitaire than of Puzzle Quest. It all comes down to depth. Puzzle Quest provided the possibility of pursuing various different strategies, and gave us enemies with different attributes that required different approaches. Faerie Solitaire remained pretty much the same throughout.

I haven’t got very far in Runespell yet, but so far, it looks like it’s somewhere between those two cases. As in PQ, there are spells, things that you can spend your actions on that take the tactics of combat outside of the card game, or that enemies can use to gain distinct powers. But in PQ, half the joy of the spells was the interplay between the spells and the match-3 game, each affecting the other in nontrivial ways, and I haven’t seen that in Runespell yet. I’ve seen damage spells and shield spells and spells that prevent the opponent from casting other spells, but nothing that affects the cards directly, or is affected by them. So it could very well be that the underlying card game is always basically the same, something that could be swapped out and replaced with any other hit-point-based combat mechanic that takes place over multiple rounds. But we’ll see.

Faerie Solitaire: Final Thoughts

This has been a very busy time for me, as you might have guessed from my lack of posts. It isn’t really the case that I haven’t had time to play games, but I haven’t had time to play games and blog about them. And so I’ve got about a third of the new achievements in Half-Life 2, which I got off the Stack three years ago when it didn’t have achievements yet, and I’ve gotten maybe a quarter of the way into the latest Gemcraft sequel, Gemcraft Labyrinth, which isn’t on the Stack because I haven’t paid for it. Gemcraft Labyrinth is a game you can play it for free on the web, but certain optional features are locked until you pony up some dough, and the UI pointedly reminds you of this every time you begin or end a level, so it’s likely that I’ll break down and pay at some point.

Still, I can’t ignore the Stack completely, can I? And so I spent a little time this weekend polishing off the game I was closest to completing, Faerie Solitaire. There are still two Challenge levels that I’d like to complete at some point, and I’m missing enough of the fairy pets that I doubt I’ll ever bother to catch ’em all. 1Update: See the icon for the “collect each pet’s adult form” achievement (it’s at the very bottom). That does not describe me right now. (It’s still not clear to me if the eggs that the pets hatch from are granted at random, or if they’re under specific spots in specific levels. The latter would make hunting the last ones down more appealing.)

I don’t really have a lot to say about the game that I haven’t already said. The final levels didn’t reveal anything new or transform gameplay in any unexpected ways, especially considering that I had already purchased all the power-ups. When you finish the last level, you get to passively listen to the hero describe confronting an evil wizard, and then there’s a sequel hook. Which has got me speculating: what would I put in a sequel if it were up to me?

I’d want to elaborate on the game mechanics, obviously. I felt that the gameplay didn’t even really support a game of this length, so definitely I wouldn’t want to keep things the same in a sequel. Probably I’d try to figure out some way to make the layouts more relevant, less prone to devolving into a bunch of independent columns.

I’d want to do more with the pets. At the very least, I’d give them spot animations to make it seem more like you’re collecting creatures rather than portraits of creatures. Also, they’d be more interesting if your choice of current pet had some kind of effect on the game beyond bringing it closer to its adult form. Certain pets could give you bonus gold, for example, or turn additional cards face-up. Even if it’s undesirable for pets to affect the main game this way, they could at least affect the pet system: pets could make it more likely to find specific resources. There’s all sorts of unused potential here.

Finally, I’d want to give the fairies more of a voice in the story. Now, the story of Faerie Solitaire isn’t the most relevant part of the game. It’s pretty much just tacked on. But it’s tacked on poorly. We have all these fairy pets, we have constructions in Fairyland, we have cards with pictures on them, we have fairies as an ostensible unifying theme. I’d want to see this stuff become relevant in the story. In what we have, the story is instead about a journey to defeat an evil wizard, with fairies as a mere MacGuffin, not as characters. Fairies have the potential to guide the hero or trick him, to set quests, give hints, keep secrets, misunderstand your intentions, cast spells that help or hinder the player. Zanzarah, still the best fairy-themed videogame I’ve played, felt a lot more like a story about fairies, even though it didn’t do much more with them than Faerie Solitaire does — the fairies there are mainly treated as tools, not characters, and never really have agendas of their own. But at least it has wild fairies that attack you spontaneously, which makes them seem self-willed.

1 Update: See the icon for the “collect each pet’s adult form” achievement (it’s at the very bottom). That does not describe me right now.

Faerie Solitaire: Mimesis

Even if Faerie Solitaire is essentially the same game as Fairway Solitaire, it seems to me that the golf theme is a better fit to the gameplay. Regard each draw from the deck as a stroke: the game is about trying to achieve a goal (clearing the board of cards) in as few strokes as possible. It’s not a big stretch of the imagination to think of a lengthy run from a single foundation as meaning that you’ve hit the ball a very long way. The “faerie” theme affords no such easy interpretation. In my mind, I’m comparing it to Puzzle Quest, which is another fantasy-themed game with highly abstract gameplay. But at least PQ took care to establish some clear metaphors for swordplay and spellcasting in the player’s activities, conveying a sense that it was all just a symbolic representation of what was really going on in the gameworld. All games with combat mechanics are abstractions; PQ just abstracted it a little farther than most. In Faerie Solitaire, there’s not even a clear notion of what the card-game might be an abstraction of.

I mean, what is the hero doing in the game? Assuming that the voice who narrates snippets of story in the first person is supposed to be the player character — and there’s not much to suggest this other than convention and expectation — he’s pretty passive. He travels from place to place, directed by various supernatural beings, observes conditions, and gets bits of prophecy thrown at him. Occasionally he lets a fairy out of a cage, but also at one point he’s tricked by a fairly transparent trickster into carrying a magic item that winds up killing a bunch of fairies instead, so at the point I’m at, I can’t really say that he’s had a net positive effect. It’s really surprising how much of a downer the story is. I guess it’s trying to use depictions of fairies being imprisoned, tormented, tortured, and occasionally slaughtered in large quantities as a way to motivate the player to free them, but it doesn’t really counterbalance this with depictions of fairies not being imprisoned, tormented, tortured, or slaughtered. The icon used for the game in the Steam interface shows a very sullen-looking baby-faced fairy, which struck me as an odd choice when I first saw it. Why not use a picture of a smiling, happy, frolicking fairy, which would probably be more appealing to the fairy-loving demographic and drive up sales? The answer: the game contains no such pictures.

The one occasionally mimetic thing about the levels is that the card layouts sometimes reflect the story environment. For example, if you’re walking along the shore, the cards might be arranged in a wavy pattern. But the physical layout is rather arbitrary, especially given the use of ice and thorn cards to rearrange the stacks without affecting the topology.

Faerie Solitaire: Difficulty and lack thereof

So, yeah. I played some more of this. It’s not the most sophisticated or compelling of games, but it’s easy to slip into and out of, and doesn’t require a lot of attention and doesn’t demand that you keep track of context between sessions, and these attributes make it well-suited for slipping in between other things. And I do intend to finish it eventually. Let’s take a look at what that involves.

The game is divided into 40 levels, grouped arbitrarily into eight “stages” of five. (There’s a set of five extra-hard “Challenge” levels as well, external to story mode and accessible from the main menu.) Each level consists of nine hands. So, that’s 360 hands in the main game (plus 45 in the challenge levels).

The hands themselves don’t seem to get significantly more difficult over the course of the game. There may have been some variation in difficulty in the very earliest ones, when it was acting as a tutorial, but that was a long way back. Instead, the game increases the difficulty through increasing the criteria for passing levels. At first, all you have to do to pass is meet a certain minimal score (filling a progress bar) in each of the nine hands in a level to pass. Then it starts making extra demands, like “fill the progress bar within two minutes of starting a hand” or “win at least two levels perfectly” (that is, clear all the cards) or “earn at least $7000 over the course of the level”, and after that, it starts combining them, making multiple demands. Failure to meet all of a level’s demands means you have to restart it from the beginning, even if you passed each hand.

Even with these criteria, things don’t really get more difficult. Remember, you get to use your earned riches to buy power-ups, in the form of structures in Fairyland, that give you cheat-like special abilities. This easily offsets the increased demands of the levels — in fact, I have yet to lose a level in the main game. I have, however, tried and lost the Challenge levels. That’s how I know that the game is actually capable of making things difficult, and also how I know that the power-ups are effective. I just purchased the most expensive one, a “tree of life” that makes 1/4 of the cards that would start face-down start face-up instead. Lack of information is your chief enemy in this game, so this was clearly worth saving up for, even if I had to ignore some lesser power-ups to reach it. And now that I have it, I’ve managed to pass a Challenge level for the first time.

Faerie Solitaire: Continuing

I spent a bit more time on Faerie Solitaire last night. Sleepy of mind, I wanted something simple to distract me, and isn’t solitaire the canonical distraction? The Solitaire app that still comes with Windows was the thing filling the “casual game” niche before anyone figured out that there was a market there.

But of course that solitaire does’t play the tricks that the for-profit games do to keep you interested and then, eventually, tell you that you’re done so you’ll buy a sequel. More precisely, they tell you that you’re done when you dispose of all the cards, which I suppose is an “eventually” thing, but they don’t have a long-term goal you’re working towards, a campaign mode containing hundreds of hands, with bits of story punctuating chapters. Ending with a single victory seems like the wrong granularity if you want people to play continuously and obsessively. Faerie Solitaire certainly doesn’t. In fact, it employs something of the same gimmick as Half-Life: it never gives you permission to stop. When you finish a match, it doesn’t present you with a menu that has a “quit” option. It gives you a special screen displaying your progress, but the UI has only one button, labeled “Continue”. In order to quit, you have to quit after the next round has started.

The thing is, though, despite the lack of such gimmickry, people did play Windows Solitaire obsessively for millions of man-hours. Was it just the lack of alternatives, or is there still something we can learn from it?

Faerie Solitaire

Now here’s one that I probably wouldn’t have tried, let alone bought, if it hadn’t been part of a bundle. Faerie Solitaire is apparently a fantasy-themed variant (and near-homophone) of the golf-themed Fairway Solitaire, a game I know almost nothing about. But now that it’s flounced its way onto the Stack, scattering glitter all over the place, I might as well give it a whirl.

It’s basically a get-rid-of-all-the-cards game, and feels quite a lot like that thing with the Mah Jongg tiles that there seemed to be a hundred different indie casual implementations of a few years ago. You have a bunch of cards on the table in stacks, and you have a “foundation” card. You can remove cards from the top of the stacks and place them on the foundation, but only if their value is one greater or one less than the current foundation card. If you can’t make a move like that, you draw a new foundation card from the deck. Play ends when you clear the board or run out of deck. Either way, you keep going to the next level, trying to build up a total score that exceeds some threshold. The exact rules of scoring are left obscure, but apparently it helps to go for long runs without resorting to the deck. It’s a game with a large random factor, where you’re often left just going through the motions with no need of thought, but every once in a while you have to make a real decision.

The whole reason that this game can have levels, and therefore a campaign mode, is that the layout of the stacks can vary. Stacks can branch or merge or take on pyramidal shapes where one card controls access to many. (This is particularly reminiscent of that Mah Jongg tile game.) The designers also try to introduce a little variety with special layout features like ice cards, which can’t be removed until you melt them by reaching a fire card elsewhere on the board. But when you come down to it, that’s just a little window dressing on an ordinary stack that’s been divided between two places on the screen. It does have the practical effect that it can split the stack in ways not otherwise geometrically possible, because there can be arbitrarily many ice cards on the board, all melted by the same fire card. There’s a similar gimmick with flower and thorn cards that go the other way: in order to release the thorns, you need to hit all the flowers. Either way, though, it’s mostly just an illusion of variety.

For that matter, the whole “faerie” aspect is a veneer. It’s a pretty thick veneer, though. There’s a whole thing where clearing the last card in a stack sometimes reveals an egg, which you can hatch into a magical critter that you keep in a menagerie in fairlyland, and which can grow up into a larger critter with some color text if you let it earn enough experience (which it gets by watching you play cards) and then give it a specified number of some Catan-like resources that you also occasionally find under stacks. As far as I can tell, none of this has any impact on the game. It’s a sub-game that you’re expected to pursue for its own sake.

Also, playing cards earns you money that you can spend on upgrades, like additional free undos, or the ability to peek at the next card in the deck. Increasingly sophisticated ways to cheat, in other words. Except of course that since they’re codified in the rules, and the player has to earn them, they don’t really feel like cheating. It’s the benefits of cheating without the gnawing sense that you’re missing out on the intended experience.

To be short about it, what we have here is a rather thin game buttered over with the leveling, purchases, upgrades, unlockable extra modes, pseudostory, and graphical bling that are used by casual games in general, but that I associate most strongly with PopCap. The fairypets, although they just sit there without so much as a spot animation, are sort of a lo-fi version of the Zen Garden and Virtual Tank from Plants vs Zombies and Insaniquarium respectively.