Tuesday, 24 September 2013

Review: Help Me Fly for iPhone and iPad

Help Me Fly by Funtomic is a casual puzzle game whose difficulty level pleasantly surprised me.
The primary goal of the game is to rearrange the position of the red pieces, forming a continuous path from the battery to the plane. The secondary goal is to also connect the path to the stars (the number of stars changes from puzzle to puzzle). When you solve a puzzle, you get a nice animation of the plane flying away in circles.

Normally the pieces can only be dragged around; the pieces with an arrow on them can also be rotated.

Finding a route to the plane is easy enough, but also connecting all the stars required me several attempts in many cases. The solutions are elusive, possibly also for psychological reasons. For example in the puzzle pictured above, laying down a path to either the star or the plane is trivial, but to connect both of them you always seem to be one cell short, until you figure out that you are approaching the puzzle from the wrong direction.

The game currently contains 60 puzzles, split across 4 worlds. More are promised in a future update.
While you can easily eadvance through a world by just finding the basic solution to each puzzle, to unlock the next world you do need to collect most of the stars.

The most interesting element introduced in later worlds is the energy wall. To turn off the wall, you need to connect the battery to a switch.
The nice twist is that in some cases the pieces cannot be just put in their correct position, because you need to open the wall first. So first you have to power up the switch, then rearrange the pieces while keeping the switch powered all the time.
Additionally, you don't necessarily have to open the wall to complete a puzzle. It's up to you to figure out whether you should use that extra piece to reach the switch or to find an alternate route around the wall.

Another element is the transmitter, which opens up new possibilities for different puzzles.
I found the user interface a bit unresponsive on a 4th gen iPod; also, the game occasionally crashed running out of memory. It should run better on more powerful devices. Even with those problems, I found the puzzles enjoyable and well worth the price of the game.



Summary

Nontrivialness★★★★☆
Logical Reasoning★★★★☆
User Interface★★☆☆☆
Presentation★★★★☆
Loading Time★★☆☆☆
Saves Partial Progress
Status Bar

©2013 Nicola Salmoria. Unauthorized use and/or duplication without express and written permission is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Nicola Salmoria and nontrivialgames.blogspot.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Friday, 20 September 2013

SoulJar Meeting 9/20/13

Just got off the phone with the SoulJar Team (Team SoulJar?!) for our weekly conference call. Previously, we'd only done these things bi-weekly, mostly because we don't really like talking to each other. But as things have begun to progress, we've had to move them to weekly. We discussed a lot of things.

1) We finalized our GenCon '14 plans. We already have rooms, and we're working to secure booth space. We decided on a plan of action and allocated a budget for a booth. I still have one last meeting before I can say categorically that we're going in an official capacity (as opposed to just wandering around). But we're one step closer to attending the con. I hope Indianapolis lays in a sufficient supply of gin.

2) We're working on a plan for the re-release of the Cairn Bicycle-brand Playing Card Kickstarter. It's going to be dialed up to 11, because that's why they put an 11 on the dial. Alyssa is working on that, and we have a meeting scheduled for Tuesday to vote on her plan. (Like I said, we vote on everything.)

3) We discovered Alyssa can't pronounce "yahoo" or "jaguar."

4) We shuffled some things around on our production schedule. To be completely honest, we can't sit around waiting for me to be finished with the Cairn RPG when we have a slate of games ready to publish. Yes. We have other games ready to go. This particular game is done. Rules written. Board designed. Playtested. Here's an image of our next release:


This is a tile from the playtest. I know it doesn't look very exciting now, but when you have one of the industry's foremost map makers on staff you can bet this thing will pop! There'll be skulls and puddles of ooze and other detritus strewn all about.

Keep your eyes peeled for more information on the game, game play, and the Kickstarter!

A Peek Behind the Curtain

I have two consecutive days off from the "day job," which is pretty rare. So, in honor of the event, I'm going to start the day with a blog. I lead an exciting life, no? Yesterday was also the 25th anniversary of the release of "A Little Respect," so I may be rocking out to Erasure today. It's hard not to be happy when you're listening to Erasure.... I can see by a quick scan of the blog that I've promised to write a bit about SoulJar Games as a group, an endeavor, and (shall I say it?) a movement.

Okay. That was a little pretentious.

SoulJar Games grew organically out of our work processes for the past year. I "met" Alyssa Faden while working as the line editor for Nystul's Infinite Dungeon (yes, that book is coming out via D3 Adventures). Alyssa drew the maps, so I ended up working closely with her on the design. Eventually, she asked me to line edit her miniature boardgame, Torn Armor. In the meantime, I'd reconnected with jim pinto at GenCon and I was editing/writing little pieces of King For a Day and Solomon's Guild. He, in the meantime, was doing layout work for, you guessed it, Alyssa Faden.

When I acquired the rights to Cairn, I saw it as an opportunity to start my own game company. This was something I'd avoided for 12 years. I didn't want to run a company. I wanted to make games. Unfortunately, in this business, there isn't much of a promotion ladder from where I used to stand. I had been a line developer for one of the largest game companies (Decipher), and I was making a top salary. The only other people who could offer me a comparable salary was Wizards of the Coast, and there was no way I was going back there. So my options were go back to freelancing or starting my own company. See above, "I didn't want to run a company."

But with Cairn, fate had presented me with an opportunity that was too good to pass up. Besides, I'd spent three months working on it, and I'd be damned if it didn't see the light of day. So SoulJar Games was born. Once everything was in place, I asked Alyssa, jim, and Jack Cull (who'd worked with me on Torn Armor) to join in. See, we'd talked about how much fun it would be to work on something together... All three of them jumped at the chance.

As I say, this has been an organic process, and we've fallen into our roles naturally. Alyssa has a day job as a manager at some computer-type place (I really don't know; I never pay attention when she starts talking about it), so she knows about managing people and budgets. So she's the brains of the operation (God help us). She keeps us focused, manages the "message," and takes care of the business side (mostly by asking questions I'd never think of). It's terrific to have someone who can handle this.

Pinto wears many hats, mostly because he has a big head. (And I'm sorry jim, I know you like to lower case your name, but I'm not violating the rules of grammar for anyone). He does the graphic design. He writes. He designs. He also knows the business end. So, while I know about the mechanics of putting a book together -- word counts, page counts, signatures, binding, covers, paper stock -- jim knows actual print buying (something I've never done). We were talking about GenCon 2014, and jim popped out all kinds of statistics that helped us make decisions. So, jim is sort of the Ombudsman of the company.

Jack Cull. I'm not sure what he does. He keeps Alyssa's wine glass full. This is an important job, since Alyssa becomes cranky when she's not properly liquored up. Conversely, too much and she becomes the Hunter S. Thompson of the hobby games industry (which means she pulls out a shotgun and starts randomly shooting things). He's also our Secretary when we hold meetings because we made him. Oh, and he's also a terrific writer who turns out great stuff quickly. It's going to be nice to have someone like that on staff. In the corporate culture we've evolved, Jack serves as the "canary in the coal mine" -- he tells us what's good and what's not-so-good.

We're four people on two coasts living in three cities, so getting this to work is a telecommuting challenge. First, we're on Facebook all the time. If jim needs something, we get a message. When Jack has an idea, we get a message. Since everyone checks Facebook 15 times a day, it's never long before someone replies. This way, we can address something quickly. Facebook also lets you create groups, and we use this functionality on a per-project basis. So we have a group for *redacted* where all the ideas for that game go. There's one for Cairn art. And one for general business. If we all vote to pursue an idea, it gets a group. Third, we hold regular Skype meetings where we discuss various and sundry things. We also laugh a lot.

And I can see I've skipped over the corporate structure. There are four principals to the company, and each of us gets an equal say. We're partners, and we vote on everything. In fact, this is in large part why we're in daily contact. We've already decided on a production schedule for the rest of the year, and have a slate of games we're planning. We all submitted ideas, then voted on which ones made us the most excited. The decision to go to GenCon was voted on. Nothing is decided until all four of us vote. Simple majority wins. So far, we've been unanimous on everything.

We've started attracting a stable of freelancers who we really want to work with (and who fit in with our cracked personalities). You can see that with Jeff Laubenstein, Alberto Tavira Espinar, James Silverstein, and Mark Quire. They're part of the SoulJar Games family, and they'll always have a place with us (as long as they keep turning stuff in on time -- why are you reading this?! Get back to WORK!).

I'm joking.

Wait, no I'm not.

Seriously, get back to work.

So that's a bit more about SoulJar Games and how it all works. We're four people who really want to work together to produce the kinds of games we want to play (and aren't necessarily seeing out there). Now, if you'll excuse me, I have to get ready for the Skype meeting tonight. Which means making sure Jack has enough wine for Alyssa and I have something to rant about.

Have a question? Please, feel free to ask.

Thursday, 19 September 2013

Away Too Long...

I'm sitting here at the SoulJar Games corporate world headquarters, gazing out at my spectacular view of Central Park and contemplating the vicissitudes of life.... I've been away too long, and to be honest it's because I had no idea I hadn't posted an update in two weeks. You have my apologies. In this, the Wired World, I forget that often no information is seen as, well, no information; I forget that nowadays one has to remain in constant contact with people. Also, this new job is kicking my butt.

However, let me state categorically that just because you haven't heard from me in two weeks that somehow I've gone away, that SoulJar Games has gone away, or that the Cairn RPG has gone away. We're all still here. So, let's talk update.

First, the Cairn playing cards did not fund. While we're not discouraged, I must say I'm a tad confused about why this occurred. Either way, we're going to relaunch the Kickstarter in two weeks, with added pledge levels, new add-ons, and stretch goals. To be completely transparent, we figured that this Kickstarter would run itself; it's a deck of playing cards... What's not to love? But we got so much feedback from people who wanted to see specific things that we just never considered. So I thank you for your suggestions; we're going to incorporate them as soon as possible.

Second, what did the playing card Kickstarter get us (specifically, the RPG and the backers)? It got us new art from Jeff Laubenstein. When Jeff started drawing last year, most of the artwork as "proof of concept" work. There really was no world to which he could pin his images. They were concept sketches. Now, there's a world and things are more firmed up, and Jeff had more to work with. You'll notice that his later pieces are more detailed. Crisper. The Kickstarter re-energized him to turn out some really great images that are more directly connected to the Cairn world. Moreover, Jeff now wants to start drawing more scenes and character in situ, to give everyone a better sense of what the world looks like.

The Kickstarter also got us color art! Alberto Tavira Espinar has joined the team as a "valued friend" and he's been coloring our face cards for us. We love Alberto's work, and as a general principle SoulJar Games likes to throw work to people we want to work with. (There are actually several people on this list already. Maybe I should discuss our corporate culture with you some day....) Anyway, we're looking into the costs of including several color plates in the RPG now.

We're also going to be including some stuff in the next Kickstarter that will be unique only to backers of the next fundraiser. T-shirts, for example, featuring Jeff's artwork, which will only be available through Kickstarter. Maps, flash cards, dice.... we've got a bunch of ideas that will help you show your SoulJar Games loyalty. One of the other things that came out of this (in this vein) are a couple of new product ideas. Like "Golden Books" set in Cairn.

Third (getting back to the update portion of the blog), work continues on the RPG, albeit slowly. We've added an adventure path system that I have to develop. This game was originally marketed as a "beer & pretzels" game, something you could easily pick up and put down. What came out of the process is D&D Lite with animals. That's not what anyone really wanted, I think. The adventure path system works like this:

We described the town of Cairn. After all, that's the game's name, right? The town has places you can visit, and people (animals?) you can talk to. You can visit Professor Puddleglum, the town's scholar, and he has a list of adventures you can go on, like an ancient map hanging on his wall leading to who knows what? Everyone in Cairn has these adventure seeds. This plugs into the adventure path system by affecting the town's well-being. Cairn has several stats of its own, like Protection and Food. The adventures you go on affect the town's stats, which in turn affect later games. So, for example, you visit Mrs. Moonleaf, the town's baker, and she has an adventure for you; she hasn't heard from Farmer Cottonbottom for several weeks, and she's worried. This is a Food adventure. You go to his farm, and discover he's been taken by goblins (or whatever), and it's up to you to save him. If you succeed, Cairn's Food stat goes up, and you've helped the town get through the winter. Thus, your actions have a direct effect on the town's development. It also gives you the ability to pick up and put down the game more easily. (Did I mention there will be rules for creating your own towns in the Companion, so you can watch your own hamlet grow into a city?)

Which brings me to my fourth point. When this game was originally proposed, there was no outline or foundational document. This has come to hamper the project, as we figure out just what this game is and how it plays. There's been a lot of fumbling around in the dark. And as things have developed, they've just been added to the rules, making some earlier things obsolete. So I have to go through the rules and cut back on the kudzu and focus things better. I am sincerely sorry things are taking longer than I originally thought. Some of you have contacted me privately to say you'd rather a good, solid game that takes longer rather than some shovelware just to get the game out. Is this indeed the case? Let me know.

That's what's been going on for the last two weeks. New artwork. New ideas. More work on the RPG to make it do what it's supposed to do. Personally, the fault lies with me, since my new job takes me away from writing and development. I think I've finally worked things out whereby I can focus on Cairn 2-3 days a week. I want to thank you for your patience. I promise you that you'll get an RPG, and it'll kick ass.

Sunday, 15 September 2013

Review: Strata for iPhone and iPad

Strata by Graveck is enjoying good success on the App Store, having reached the #1 place in the US and other countries. That's well deserved since it looks and sounds great, and it plays well. But is it a good logic puzzle?
Unfortunately, I'm afraid it's not. There is a completely mechanical way to solve all the puzzle. But let's see the rules first.

You play on a square grid. On the grid there are some colored squares.
By tapping on the empty squares along the side, you make ribbons slide over the grid. Every ribbon is placed on top of the ones already on the grid. Eventually, every cell of the grid will be covered by two orthogonal ribbons. Your goal is to make every colored square match the color of the top ribbon covering it. So one solution for the above puzzle would be this one:
Playing has a relaxing feeling, which I guess could be similar to actual weaving.

The puzzles are split across 5 sets; the first 3 are free, the other two must be unlocked using two separate in-app purchases. You can play up to 5x5 for free; one of the premium sets also has some 6x6 puzzles.


Estethically, the game is gorgeous. The graphics, the animations, the subtle sound cues, all conjure to provide an enjoyable experience. There's a very interesting article on Gamesauce about the design, which I encourage everyone to read.

The only problem is that, as said at the beginning of this review, as a logic puzzle it isn't worth much, because it can be solved mechanically.

SPOILER ALERT don't read past this line if you want to solve the puzzles yourself.


The obvious approach to the puzzles is to use the game engine to solve them backwards. That is, instead of placing the ribbons so that the squares match the color of the top ribbon, make them match the bottom one.
This is trivial to do because at every step you just have to place a ribbon over a row or column where all the uncovered squares are the same color. This is always possible, otherwise the puzzle would be unsolvable. So let's try this puzzle:
The first move would be this one...
then this...
then this...
and finally this:
There are two more ribbons to place; you can put them in any order and color since they are irrelevant to the solution.

After doing this, all you have to do is restart the puzzle, and simply repeat the moves you made, backwards. The order of the ribbons will be reversed, so what was at the bottom will be at the top, and the puzzle will be solved. No sweat.

The bottom line is that even if I knew how to solve the puzzles, I still enjoyed playing this game. This says much about how well done it is, so it might be worth a buy just for that. I wouldn't spend more money to unlock the extra sets, however.


Summary

Nontrivialness★☆☆☆☆
Logical Reasoning★☆☆☆☆
User Interface★★★★☆
Presentation★★★★★
Loading Time★★★☆☆
Saves Partial Progress
Status Bar

©2013 Nicola Salmoria. Unauthorized use and/or duplication without express and written permission is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Nicola Salmoria and nontrivialgames.blogspot.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Thursday, 12 September 2013

Review: Escapology for iPhone and iPad

Escapology by Hyperbolic Magnetism boasts in its App Store description that it was completed in 3 days. While this is a remarkable achievement, I think that it could have benefited from a bit more time spent in design.
The basic puzzle mechanics aren't new, but the way how they are presented caught my attention.
Think of the play area as a room viewed from above. When you slide your finger across the screen, the floor slides by one step in the same direction. This is made apparent by the checkerboard tile pattern.

When the floor moves, the balls move with it. Balls are the only objects that actually move; the square blocks, and the striped area indicating the goal, stay fixed in place.
The objective of each puzzle is to move all balls over the striped areas. Since the balls move all at the same time, you need to make use of the other objects to prevent some of them from moving in unwanted directions.
The only two additional objects I've seen are arrows, which can only be travvelled in one direction:
and odd magnet blocks, which don't allow the ball to move away from them orthogonally; it can only slide in a parallel direction.
There's about 100 puzzles in the game, split across several packs which are unlocked by earning stars during the game. Additionally, there's an extra pack which can be unlocked with an unusual form of in-app purchase: instead of simply paying for it, you are asked to go to the App Store and buy another game by the same developer.

I like that there are many small 5x5 puzzles, though there are larger ones too. The big problem is that there is no sense of progression through the game, since the difficulty of the puzzles is unpredictable. Some of the puzzles are elegantly laid out and require accurate planning, but they are intermixed with many which are quite uninteresting, not posing any challenge at all. The puzzles seem to be a completely random selection with no underlying logic.

You also have to unlock the undo/redo functionality using an in-app purchase. Since that functionality has limited usefulness in the game, I wonder why the developers bothered to add this complication.

Overall, I liked some of the puzzles, but I think they should have been selected more carefully. Blockhouse, for example, has similar mechanics but much better level design, so you might want to take a look at that one first.


Summary

Nontrivialness★★★☆☆
Logical Reasoning★★★☆☆
User Interface★★★★☆
Presentation★★★☆☆
Loading Time★★★★★
Saves Partial Progress
Status Bar

©2013 Nicola Salmoria. Unauthorized use and/or duplication without express and written permission is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Nicola Salmoria and nontrivialgames.blogspot.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Friday, 6 September 2013

Review: FlowDoku for iPhone and iPad

Just when you thought that Sudoku had been beaten to death, here comes FlowDoku by HapaFive Games, which turns the concept on its head to produce an excitingly original new puzzle.
To be clear, the only thing this game shares with Sudoku is the basic premise of placing symbols on a grid so that certain requirements are met on every row, column, and box. That's pretty much the end of similarities.

In Sudoku you have 9 different symbols, which must not be repeated; in FlowDoku, you have a smaller number of symbols, some of which must be repeated a given number of times.
The second rule is the stroke of genius: the symbols that appear multiple times in a box, must be next to each other.
This second rule makes the solving strategies very different from Sudoku, and allows for a great variety of logic deductions.

At the beginning of each puzzle you have a number of givens; it goes without saying that there is only one way to fill the grid following the rules. So e.g. you need to get from this:
To this:
As you can see, graphically the givens are only slightly different from the shapes that you enter yourself. I found this a bit confusing initially, but quickly got used to it.

I was particularly impressed by how carefully the user interface has been designed. The basic way to put a symbol in an empty cell is to tap it multiple times, which makes it cycles through the available shapes. This could get tiring quickly, especially with the circle which requires 3 taps, but there is a very clever alternative way: just drag from a symbol which is already on the grid and you'll duplicate it. Cells that already contain a symbol aren't affected, so you can e.g. drag a circle to the opposite side of the grid, if the cells you slide over are empty. This works very well once you get used to it, and reduces tapping to a minimum.

There's a total of over 700 puzzles in the game; 250 can be played for free, the others can be unlocked using several different kinds of in-app purchases, including a single one which unlocks everything.
The puzzles are split across 4 sizes, and for each size they are split in packs of varying difficulty.
The size of the grid affects the type and number of symbols you have to use. Note that the circles are special because even if you have to place more than one in a box, they don't need to be next to each other like the other symbols.

12x12 is a bit too crowded for the small iPhone screen, but the controls are precise enough and, if you need to, you can zoom in on every box by holding your finger on it.
The game is very well designed. Great attention was given to many detail: it saves partial progress on every puzzle, tracks statistics, has a good tutorial that introduces the rules interactively, explains wrong moves, and so on.

Worth mentioning is a novel "roll back" function which doesn't simply undo your last move, but all the moves until your first mistake. This is a brilliant idea for this kind of logic puzzle.

Included is also a strategy guide, explaining some of the logic deductions that can be used to solve the puzzles. I encourage you to find them by yourself, however; it's a lot more fun that way. The rules are so original that they require some deductions very different from anything you might be used to.
The only issue I had with the user interface is that scrolling the lists isn't as responsive as native iOS apps: it looks like the lists scroll slower than you move your finger. But this is a minor thing and doesn't detract from the puzzle solving fun.

This is clearly one of the best logic puzzles released this year. Don't miss it.


Summary

Nontrivialness★★★★★
Logical Reasoning★★★★★
User Interface★★★★☆
Presentation★★★☆☆
Loading Time★★★☆☆
Saves Partial Progress
Status Bar

©2013 Nicola Salmoria. Unauthorized use and/or duplication without express and written permission is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Nicola Salmoria and nontrivialgames.blogspot.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.