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.


Logical Reasoning★★★★☆
User Interface★★☆☆☆
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.


Logical Reasoning★☆☆☆☆
User Interface★★★★☆
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.


Logical Reasoning★★★☆☆
User Interface★★★★☆
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.


Logical Reasoning★★★★★
User Interface★★★★☆
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, 30 August 2013

New Art Revealed!

Yesterday, I mentioned that Jeff Laubenstein has been drawing additional art for the Villagers of Cairn Bicycle-brand Playing Card Kickstarter. Jeff has graciously agreed to add more art for Cairn because he believes in this project strongly, and he's fitting it in and around his other, paying gigs. This benefits the Cairn RPG by adding more artwork, as well as making it a bit easier for us to publish the book. All of us on the SoulJar Team (Alyssa, Jack, jim, and myself) want to thank Jeff for his contributions. I think it's safe to say that Cairn would have a very different look without him.

Isn't this lady groundhog beautiful? In the Cairn RPG, you must choose two professions, which gives you a range of options. You can choose two complimentary professions, like warrior/marksman, which would allow you to fight equally well with both sword and bow. Or how about priest/healer, giving you access to spells that deal with both Harmony and health? You could choose two different kinds of profession, to make you more well-rounded. Like rogue/acrobat -- climbing, sneaking, tumbling, and jumping. Or how about a barbarian/druid, a defender of the forests and the old ways? Lastly, you could choose to go completely crazy and pick two professions that really have nothing to do with each other, like paladin/minstrel or acrobat/enchanter.... What do you think our friend lady groundhog is?

Why do we call this "The Awakened Villagers of Cairn" Kickstarter? Well, first of all, as many of you know, the animals were Awakened by The Bright Ones after the gods destroyed humanity for their hubris. Humans kept mucking about with the gods' design for the world, and generally not being very nice to each other. The Bright Ones hope that the Awakened animals can do better. Secondly, one of the changes we made to the Cairn RPG is to focus solely on the town of Cairn. After all, that's the name of the game. This ties you to a place and the community at large. You are a villager of Cairn, an animal of consequence; will you be famous or notorious? You are going to be able to influence the development of the town through your adventures -- will Cairn prosper and grow? Will the town have enough nuts to survive the winter? What are those pesky moles up to, anyway? From a gameplay perspective, this makes it simpler to come up with stories and give them focus.

We have a few more pieces of new art from Jeff that we can't wait to reveal. We've decided to add t-shirts to the Kickstarter, as well as a PDF coloring book. And fans of suggested quite a few other things that we're considering, too. So come on over and join us. We here at SoulJAR love our fans and want to hear from you.

Thursday, 29 August 2013

Getting Back Up to Speed

It's a chilly, overcast August morning here in NYC, a harbinger of returning winter. We're entering one of my favorite seasons in New York, the autumns here are generally mild and pleasant. At least September and October. So I'm sitting here at the SoulJar Games World Headquarters, which look suspiciously like my bedroom, sipping a cup of coffee and getting ready to work.

I'm still trying to get used to this whole "day job" thing, which is weird to say since generally I work nights. But "night job" sounds like I'm a prostitute.... Which, as a freelance writer, I generally am. But still. The only days I really get much work done are my days off. I can get some things done in the mornings on work days, but then I lose momentum when I have to leave. Still, stuff is getting done.

One of the things that's gotten done is that we've received two new pieces of artwork from Jeff Laubenstein. When we asked him to do more work, Jeff asked for a list of what we wanted to see. Originally, when Jeff drew for Cairn, there wasn't really much for him to go on. He just drew what was in his head. This was terrific, because it inspired all of us (the creatives and you fans out there). But there really wasn't much focus to the artwork. This time, we made a list of subjects, and Jeff hasn't disappointed. We're getting artwork that's more representative of the setting, and much more detailed. I can't wait to show it to you.

In and around this, the SoulJar Team (Team SoulJar?!) has been having many conversations. All four of us use Facebook's messaging capability, since that's the fastest way to get in touch with each other. We've had conversations about setting up a creative process and organized our communications. We've discussed future projects, as well. Usually, this happens while I'm at work, so when I get home I have 82 messages to comb through. Like I said, the change in routine has flummoxed me a bit.

I also have a bunch of files I have to go through and review/edit today. One of the frustrating and mystifying things about the creative process, at least when it comes to games, is that 90 percent of the work happens in the last 10 percent of the time. I'm not sure why that is. We're plugging the remaining holes in the Cairn RPG text.

See, normally, when you embark on an endeavor like this, you start out with two principle design documents (even if you're working alone). One of these is the design bible. This tells you what the game is and isn't. What it's supposed to look like. So, for example, you'd summarize the Harmony system, set down how you think it should work. You'd describe the central concepts. Write about the world a bit. This way, everyone's on the same page, and you've done all the conceptualizing at the beginning of the process. The outline is vital for several reasons, the most important of which is that it tells you when a chapter is done. You've got 5,000 words to cover spells (for example). Once you get to 5,000 words, you're finished. No, you may not add just one more spell, because that takes you over 5,000 words. The chapter is done; save it for the Companion.... That didn't happen on this project, which is where I suspect most of the delays originated.

Finally, we currently have 131 backers to the Villagers of Cairn Bicycle-brand playing card Kickstarter. To you fans who have already backed the project, I offer you my hearty thanks. You've put your faith in the SoulJar Team, and we're all appreciative. If you haven't checked us out yet, how about giving it a look-see?

Here's the most recent card we've gotten colored. Color really makes the image pop. We've begun discussing the costs involved in adding a few color plates to the RPG, which means value added for you RPG backers out there. Take a look:

Update: BlockPath Pro for iPhone and iPad

My main regret in my original review of BlockPath was that it is too expensive to unlock all puzzles, since it requires four separate in-app purchases. This has been addressed today with the release of BlockPath Pro, which costs 99 cents and has all the worlds unlocked.
While I feel a bit cheated since I had already bought 3 worlds in the Free version, the good news is that the puzzles in the Pro version apparently are different, so I didn't buy the same stuff twice. Also, it looks like their size is large from the very beginning. In the Free version, the first few puzzles are played on smaller grids.

The developer is promising new puzzles to be added in September, so this looks like a bargain. Get it.

©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.

Wednesday, 28 August 2013

Review: Spliced Colors for iPhone and iPad

Make no mistake: Spliced Colors by Maria Cristian is not a logic puzzle. It is, instead, a game to exercise your visual-spatial abilities.
The goal is peculiarly odd. You have a set of 12 tiles, and a pattern shown on the right of the screen. You need to pick in order the 5 tiles that reproduce the pattern, but rotated 90 degrees counterclockwise.
So in the above case, the solution would be this one:
Picking the tiles is not intuitive: you must tap the tile and swipe up. Don't try to drag it into place, that won't work.

You get 10 points for every level you solve correctly, and lose 10 points (and a life) when you make a mistake or run out of time. Every 50 points, there is an extra level where the tiles scroll across the screen instead of being lined up at the bottom.
Every 50 points, the tile set changes. Don't be confused by the different shapes: topologically, it's always the same set, the lines just get more tortuous to be harder to recognise.
There are five tile sets in total, the fifth one is my favorite, it looks like mountain peaks.
At 250 points you restart from the beginning, but at higher speed, and your lives get reset. At 500 points speed raises again and lives are reset again. After that, you just go on at the same speed until you lose all your lives.

I found this game too easy. The proper way to play it would be to rotate the yellow shapes in your head and recognise the matching tile, but at the lower speeds you can just look at where the line starts and ends (in both cases it can be top, middle, bottom, or top+bottom) and look for the tile with the same properties, ignoring its shape completely. It's only at the fastest speed that this starts being inefficient, forcing you to look at the shapes to be quick enough.

Also, games last too long for a mobile game. I scored 960 on my second attempt; that's 96 levels played, so it took more than 30 minutes for sure. It's unlikely that I'll play again as it currently is, but if I were able to start at the third speed level, with the speed continuing to increase after that, it could be an interesting challenge.

When the game was released, it cost $0.99. Currently it's free, so it's worth giving it a look to test your shape recognition skills.


Logical Reasoning☆☆☆☆☆
User Interface★★☆☆☆
Loading Time★★★★★
Saves Partial Progress
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©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. 

Tuesday, 27 August 2013

Review: Reiner Knizia's Kaleidoscope for iPhone and iPad

Reiner Knizia's Kaleidoscope is a nice variation of domino placement puzzles, flawed by a mediocre user interface.
Whether Reiner Knizia was actually involved in the design of these puzzles, or his name is just used for marketing purposes, is unclear to me. The game uses the same double-hexagon domino pieces of Knizia's Ingenious (marketed as Kaleidoskop in some countries), but that's a totally different game.

There are six symbols, and 21 domino pieces showing all the possible pairs of symbols.
The playing area is a hexagonal grid, which in each puzzle is populated by a different pattern of symbols. You must place all the 21 pieces on the board, matching the existing symbols. Each puzzle has only one solution.
When you tap a piece on the right, the places where it can be moved are highlighted. This is helpful because to find the solution you only want to place a piece when you are sure of its position.

If you try to drag the piece over the board, which would be the natural thing to do on a touch screen device, you'll be disappointed: that doesn't work. To place the piece, you have to tap one of the highlighted spots.
The main shortcoming of the user interface is the fact that you don't see all your pieces. You start with 21, but there is space only for 8 on the screen. When you put down a piece, another one scrolls in to fill the gap.

The way how this has been implemented is confusing, because it seems that you can use only the pieces you can see, even if there would be better moves available. For example, looking at the position above, the double-yellow piece can only go in one place, but it isn't available on the right.

This annoyed me for some time, until I noticed the up and down arrows. Those let you scroll through your pieces. Again, this is not how one would expect things to work on a touch screen. You'd expect to just be able to scroll the list of pieces by swiping over it.

The luxury of having pieces which can go in only one place on the board quickly goes away as the puzzles progress and the layouts get more ambiguous.
It would be useful to be able to place dividers on the board, to keep track of positions where a piece can't be placed, like you can do for example in the Dominosa puzzles of Simon Tatham's Portable Puzzle Collection. Unfortunately, that's not possible, so you have to do all logic deductions in your mind.

There's a total of 30 puzzles, which are all playable from the start with no need to unlock them. The last couple of puzzles further increase the difficulty by replacing a few symbols with question marks, so you have to figure out which symbol goes there.
30 puzzles aren't many, but they take a good amount of time to solve so I think it is adequate value for 99 cents. The user interface, however, would need some serious redesign.


Logical Reasoning★★★★☆
User Interface★★☆☆☆
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.

A Statement from Alyssa Faden

There seems to be a bit of confusion surrounding the Cairn Bicycle Kickstarter and the Cairn RPG. Some people have emailed me privately to ask if I owned the intellectual property, or received permission, or was ripping Mike Nystul off. One person assumed I was fronting for Mike. There seems to be some anger bubbling in certain areas about another Cairn-related Kickstarter.... My friend and partner, Alyssa Faden, wrote a response and I want to include it here. She says it much better than me. 

Hey guys and gals, my name is Alyssa and I'm part of the SoulJAR team. Together with jim pinto and Jack Cull, we have banded together under the SoulJAR name to help Ross make this game - and other games - a reality.
We are huge believers in utter transparency and honesty and have been updating our own FB pages, the Cairn page, SoulJAR Facebook and our SoulJAR Blog with regular - if not daily - updates. We are also completely open to being PMed and emailed, and - believe me - are here to help, answer questions, and attempt to alleviate some of the frustration that has built up around the Cairn name.
I am also a Cairn backer (hence me able to post here :) ). I backed at a fairly high level so I could also get all of the miniatures. I get where you are all coming from, so please consider me empathic to your thoughts and feelings around this title.
The gathering of the team (and why), and the playing cards (and why) were announced here: http://souljar-games.blogspot.com/2013/08/souljar-grows.html
But allow me to put this into my own words:
We love Cairn. We truly believe in the title, the subject matter, the setting and the sheer possibilities that lie within. We want to see this book go live, because - quite frankly - too much hard work and your money has gone into it.
So Ross offered to take this off Mike's hands and help finish the writing, the proofreading and layout, get it printed and distributed. The IP transferred to Ross for the book, NO MONEY WAS EXCHANGED. This is important, because Ross and SoulJAR want to ensure that you get a copy of Cairn, but it will be at SoulJAR's expense. I know you spent money - I spent money as well - but none of that went to Ross, none of it went to SoulJAR, so for SoulJar to get you your copy of the book we're effectively got to eat the cost. That's not your problem, but it is a reality.
We therefore started the Cairn Bicycle Cards to help offset these costs (the rest will come out of our pockets). There are several strong pluses here as it has enabled us to - 

Neither of these would have been possible otherwise, and - please note - both are also out of SoulJAR pocket.
With patience already exhausted and communication over the last year probably not what you wanted it to be, it's a tad cheeky of me to ask "please bear with us while we bring Cairn together." But I do ask for your understanding: We did not run the Cairn Kickstarter, nor have we been running the communication since it funded to now; so we cannot be responsible for what was said, promised or otherwise inferred. We are however cognizant and sympathetic to everything that has occured, and intend to show a slightly different face and method of communication moving forward.
If you have any questions - or simply wish to vent - please find us:
and my own personal wall: 


See why I adore her? She's super-wonderful. 

Allow me to echo some of what Alyssa said. I did not pay money for the intellectual property known as Cairn. The rights were transferred to me so long as I promised to fulfill the promise to provide the RPG to the backers. (As a side note, I even looked into the possibility of producing the miniatures and providing those as well before I signed the contract. That was one of the reasons for the delay in transferring the rights -- I was doing due diligence to find out everything I could about the original Kickstarter and it's costs. Sadly, I cannot afford to produce miniatures at this time. The costs run upward of $10,000 and I simply can't afford that. So part of the negotiations also covered just exactly what I was agreeing to do). What Mike Nystul did was find a way to at least fulfill the basic offering -- the RPG. 

Nor did I receive any money from the original Cairn Kickstarter. This is important, too. That money is gone, I know not where. We want to draw a line in the sand between the past and the present (and future!), and let you know you are dealing with SoulJAR Games -- Jack Cull, jim pinto, Alyssa Faden, and Ross A. Isaacs. We're four people who are passionate about games, and Cairn. We're a new team. The past is the past, and it should stay there. We want to look forward. 

That said, you would not believe the cost of printing 1,000 copies of this game. A thousand copies is the minimum at which we can print a book and keep the unit cost reasonable. We're then giving away 40 percent of the print run for free to the backers. That means the remaining copies have to essentially cover the costs of the entire print run. I doubt this book will break even. And despite this, we still believed in Cairn enough to want to do it. 

We LOVE Cairn

In order to help offset the costs of printing, we are running the Cairn Bicycle Playing Card Kickstarter. We will make up the difference out of our own pockets, so the game will be coming out no matter what. The current Kickstarter has already allowed us to color the card art (so now we're looking at adding color plates to the RPG!). However our resources are not unlimited (or very large). Offsetting the costs in this way helps us to do other things -- like start working on other games, and devote even more resources to the Cairn RPG. We could use a little help to kick start things, and get from where we are to where we want to be.  

Finally, we wanted to be able to share the wonderful artwork in a new way, to a new group of people. Jeff Laubenstein has been drawing away and sending us new artwork. Let me tell you, it's amazing. I can't wait until we share it with you. 

We are certainly cognizant of the ill will that surrounds the Cairn RPG, and we're sensitive to it. We're here to answer questions and listen to you. We're all about dialog. I want to thank all of you for your patience and support. Overall, the response to the transfer of the rights, the playing cards, and SoulJar Games as been positive. Without you guys, we'd be nothing. We're aware of how important you are, as well. 

Thursday, 22 August 2013

Colored Cards

Hi SoulJAR Fans!

First, we need to come up with a cool name for you guys. SJers? Jarheads? I don't know. You guys let me know.

Second, we got a card colored by a friend, Alberto Tavira Espinar. We always intended to make the face cards color, so they stand out in the deck. We are also toying with the idea of adding a little design behind the image to add a little depth. What do you guys think?

Leave them as plain sketches?

Color the cards?

Color and a little design?

Vote in the comments section.

Check out our Cairn Bicycle Playing Card Kickstarter for more information, and a chance to own these awesome images of warrior groundhogs, rogue squirrels, and sorcerous weasels drawn by the incomparable Jeff Laubenstein.

Wednesday, 21 August 2013

Update: Lazors 2.2

An update to the popular Lazors was released a few days ago, featuring 5 new groups of puzzles with cleverly thought themes, for a total of 50 new puzzles.

Numbered features grids shaped like the numbers 1 to 10, and each puzzle even has a matching number of blocks!
Grande contains grids larger than average. I found these puzzles to be the hardest of new ones.
Tinier has the smallest grids in the game. These are so small that it's easy to stumble on the solution by accident.
Glassware only uses glass and crystal blocks.
Elementary is a set of puzzles all using the 4 "elements" of the game, that is one of each kind of block.
The new puzzles are all entertaining as usual, so if you deleted the game from your device for some reason, it's time to download it again.

©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.

Cairn Bicycle Playing Cards Update

Just a quick note. So far, we're up to 66 backers for our Cairn Bicycle Card Kickstarter. I want to thank those of you who backed us so far. We appreciate your confidence and support.

jim pinto is working on getting a new card ready today. We hope to reveal one new card every day (or thereabouts). Jeff is drawing new art. Alyssa is shepherding the Kickstarter. I continue to write what's left of the Cairn RPG. Jack continues to read the most recent draft. And we have a conference call scheduled for tomorrow to keep everything moving.

Thank you again from all of us for your contributions and interest in SoulJAR Games. Without you guys, we wouldn't get to do what we enjoy. You're what it's all about.

Tuesday, 20 August 2013

Review: BlockPath for iPhone and iPad

BlockPath Pro (also free) is a fascinatingly minimalistic path finding puzzle which hooked me from the beginning.
It was created by Tehnio, a Latvian developer, which is an interesting thing in itself since Latvia is one of the smallest countries in Europe, with a population smaller than Houston, Texas.

The puzzle concept is not entirely new, but the implementation in this case is excellent, making the game very enjoyable to play.

You start with a grid mostly empty, except for one blue and a few red cells. Your goal is to draw a continuous path starting from the blue cell and passing through all the cells except for the red ones.
For example, the solution of the above puzzle would be this one.
Surprisingly, even when the grid size increases, every puzzle has a unique solution. I think the largest size is 6x8, which is perfect for the iPhone screen size.

The lack of explicit clues makes these puzzles simple and elegant, in a way similar to Monorail, which is another favorite of mine.

If I were to solve these puzzles with pen and paper, I'd draw parts of the path all around the grid in random order, as logic deductions made me to exclude other possibilities. BlockPath doesn't allow to do that, because you must draw the path from beginning to end, but this isn't a problem; it just means you have to use visual intuition more than strict logic deductions. If you make a mistake you can restart from any point, so the game is not frustrating.

Both the Free and Pro versions have a total of 175 puzzles, split across 5 worlds of 35 puzzles each; the puzzles are different in the two versions.
The puzzles in each world must be played in sequence; the Pro version has all worlds unlocked, while in the Free version each world after the first must be bought individually using in-app purchases.

The technical implementation of the in-app purchases is actually the worst part of this game, because it is very slow and there is no visual indication that the request is being processed. It took me a lot of perseverance to successfully complete the purchases; other users might not have the same patience.

Another minor problem I had with the user interface is that frequently the swipe used to move between worlds was misinterpeted as a tap to select a puzzle. But that's just a nuisance; the puzzle solving interface is rock solid.

Definitely try out this game; it's relaxing and almost hypnotic in its simplicity. Just grab the free version, and if you like it, avoid the in-app purchases and simply buy the Pro version.


Logical Reasoning★★★★☆
User Interface★★★☆☆
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.