Thursday, 28 February 2013

Review: Senkai Puzzle for iPhone and iPad

Senkai Puzzle is a well presented puzzle game for iPhone and iPad which was originally released a couple of months ago. The first version left me a bit cold because after solving the puzzle for the first time, which isn't too difficult, it lacked a clear objective to motivate playing again. An update has just been released, and the game is now a lot more interesting, in a Spinpossible sort of way.
At its core, Senkai is another group theory, sequential movement puzzle. It is played on a 2x2 arrangement of cubes, and this is the start position:
A move consists in turning a pair of cubes around their common axis, like this:
Of course the goal is to return to the start position after shuffling.
The user interface is very well done and uses swipes to turn the cubes. An excellent detail is that you can move the cubes just a little, to see what's on the side faces, without actually making a move. You can do that also to see what's on the back face, but that's not needed because the back face is the same as the front face, except that one is white and the other is red. The solved state uses only the white faces.

The update which has just been released adds an introductory 2x1 puzzle, which is much simpler to solve:

As I said at the beginning of the review, the initial version of the game lacked a purpose: it just showed a counter of the number of moves made, without any objective to meet.
This is fixed now because a "belt" grading system has been added:

after shuffling the cubes, you are shown not only the number of moves you made, but also the optimal number of moves needed. As the table above (for the 2x1 puzzle) shows, you need to solve the puzzle with no more than 5 extra moves to earn an orange belt, and so on; solve it 30 times with the optimal number of moves, and you'll earn the black belt. The requirements for the 2x2 puzzle are more relaxed to account for the higher difficulty.

I don't know what the theoretical maximums are; it looks like the optimal solution usually requires 5-6 moves for the 2x1 puzzle and 8-10 moves for the 2x2 puzzle. This should mean that earning the black belt in 2x1 shouldn't be too difficult, while for 2x2 it will be a lot harder.

Well done to Grifia for implementing such a slick interface and for recognizing the shortcomings of their initial release and quickly addressing them.


Logical Reasoning★★★★☆
User Interface★★★★☆
Loading Time★★★☆☆
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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 with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Wednesday, 27 February 2013

Review: Spinpossible for iPhone and iPad

Eric Kelsic of ALX Games contacted me about the free puzzle game that he and his friends Alex Sutherland and Alex Sheive have developed: Spinpossible.

The basic idea is simple: take a puzzle based on group theory, like Rubik's Cube, but easier; and make the main goal of the game not just to reach the solved position, but to do it in the optimal number of moves.

The playing board of Spinpossible is a 3x3 grid, containing numbers. A move consists in rotating a rectangle of any size (including 1x1) by 180 degrees.
For example here is the starting position of one of the tutorial levels:
the first move we make is to rotate the 1x2 rectangle containing the 2 and the 5, leading to this position:
now we rotate the 3x1 rectangle containing 1, 2, and 3, and we have reached the solved state:
If you can solve Rubik's Cube—and by solving I don't mean using a set of operators learnt from a book, but consciously applying the concept of commutator to reach the solved state—you should have no problem with this new set of rules. If you don't, don't despair: the first few levels of the game do an excellent job of explaining the basic concepts.

Attempting to solve every puzzle in the optimal number of moves, however, changes things dramatically. For example, here is one of the early puzzles:
Reaching the solved state would be pretty simple: just rotate the (1,4) and (6,9) rectangles, which brings the numbers in the correct position but upside down; then rotate each number individually. That works, but it takes a total of 6 moves. The green squares at the bottom of the screen, however, indicate that the optimal solution requires just 5 moves. Can you find them?

The authors have written a paper about the mathematics of Spinpossible, and also verified through exhaustive search that 9 moves are sufficient and sometimes necessary to solve every position. However, you can be sure that finding those 9 moves can be extremely hard for a human. 5 moves, like in the example above, is already pretty difficult.

The game has 4 different playing modes:
  • puzzle:  the main mode, which contains a tutorial and about 100 selected levels of increasing difficulty;
  • arcade: you need to solve puzzles within a time limit; after each puzzle, you get a time bonus depending on how quick you are and how many moves you use;
  • random: solve randomly generated puzzles at your own pace;
  • multiplayer: compete online with other players.
To access some of the features you need to register on the Spinpossible web site, which is free.

Spinpossible is a must-have for every logic puzzle enthusiast. It is sure to push your brain to its limits, because, as the FAQ says, "no one has beaten all the levels without computer assistance".

The only criticism I have is for the user interface, which is a bit confused, and sluggish on some devices. This is a byproduct of the game being a port of a Flash game rather than a native iPhone app. Hopefully this will be improved in future updates.


Logical Reasoning★★★★★
User Interface★☆☆☆☆
Loading Time★★★☆☆
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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 with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Monday, 25 February 2013

Review: Monorail for iPhone and iPad

Glenn Iba recently wrote me about his puzzle game Monorail for iPhone and iPad.
There was no need to: that game was already installed on my iPod and it's one of the most interesting puzzles I know.
The goal of the game is deceptively simple. You start with a grid of points, with some pre-drawn lines connecting a few dots:
Starting from there, you have to draw a closed loop that touches all points and doesn't intersect itself, like this:
All the grids provided have a unique solution, which is somewhat surprising initially: the pre-drawn lines are such subtle clues that they almost don't seem to be there.

These puzzles are also known as "Round Trip", and have been published in magazines since the early 1990's. Glenn Iba has collected some of them in a book; an extended introduction is available on his web site. It is an interesting read and shows how to approach the puzzles with logical reasoning without trial and error.

The puzzles are similar to Slitherlink, the differences being that in Slitherlink the path doesn't have to touch every point, and the clues are numbers instead of lines. Due to the lack of numbers, I consider Round Trip a "purer", more elegant puzzle.

In addition to the traditional square grid arrangement, Monorail also contains puzzles laid out on a hexagonal grid, like this:

The game contains 50 free grids. If you want to play more, there are a few packs available through in-app purchases, for a total of over 800 grids.

The user interface is quick and easy to use, and it makes the game enjoyable. The only criticism I have is the same one that I made for CounterBalancE: there is no way to put a cross on the grid, as a reminder that a line cannot be in that position. This is odd since the use of crosses is explained in the book introduction I mentioned above, so the author clearly knows that they are useful. Annoyingly, the feature was actually available in an earlier version of the game, but was removed when the undo/redo functionality was added. It would be great if it could be reintroduced in a future update.


Logical Reasoning★★★★☆
User Interface★★★☆☆
Loading Time★★★★★
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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 with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Felicia Day

If elections were held for King and Queen of gaming and geek culture, I imagine Wil Wheaton and Felicia Day would be on the short list of nominees.  In fact, it was seeing a headline that Felicia Day was going to be hosting IndieCade that got me wondering if perhaps I should enter my game.  When I was actually at IndieCade and saw Felicia at the awards party, I was really hoping that she’d walk around during the Press/VIP time and play some of the games.  It would have been a thrill for me to show her my game.  But alas, I never saw her.  No big deal, but it’s kind of become a secret unfulfilled goal that’s stuck in my head.  Well, not really a goal, because there’s not much I can do about it, but an unfulfilled “cool thing that would be really neat if it happened”.

Every so often, I search for “Hidden in Plain Sight” on Google and Twitter to see if anyone is talking about it.  The other day, I saw a post from someone named “Josie Kavadoy”, responding to someone else asking her what she was playing these days.  She said “Hidden in Plain Sight”.  Now I have no idea who Josie Kavadoy is, but I tweeted back asking what her favorite modes were, and if she had any feedback for me.  She noted a technical issue with MS (nothing to do with the game), and then said that they mentioned the game in some video, and provided a link.

I figure maybe it was a little podcast or something, so I click the link.  It’s the “The Guild Season Finale G+ Hangout”. 

Holy shit.  For those who don’t know, The Guild is Felicia Day’s web show thing (created and written and starring her) that has a pretty decent cult following.  It’s an ensemble cast, and they do G+ Hangouts (live multiway video chats) where they shoot the shit about stuff.  Anyways, they talk about what they’re playing, and one of the stars of the show, Sandeep Parikh, calls out over his shoulder “Josie, what are we playing these days?” and the woman behind him calls out “Hidden in Plain Sight and Dominion”.  (Dominion is a tabletop card game, which is also a lot of fun).

So this random Josie turned out to be girlfriend(?) of a guy on the Guild.

In the Hangout, Sandeep then takes a minute or two to describe the game to the rest of the cast (including, of course, Felicia Day).  I wondered if she’d recognize the title from IndieCade, but she didn’t.  It’s a hard, awkward game to try to describe to other people, but they agreed it sounded neat, and the conversation moved on.

This morning, in response to Josie’s tweets, he said:

Pretty damn cool.  But it’s also really made me think.

Why do I care if Ms. Day plays my game?  In the end, I guess I don’t really know.  She’s a big name, and I’m somewhat star-struck.  If Twitter followers are any indication, I have about 250.  Josie as 1000.  Sandeep has 35K.  She has 2 million.

The other dirty elephant in the room is that with that many followers, she has clout.  A mere mention of the game on Twitter would lead to exposure and sales.  And while that’s what every indie developer dreams of, it kind of sullies the waters for me.  I don’t care that much about exposure and sales.  I mean, I do, but I don’t.  I care more about people liking the game and thinking it’s fun than anything else.  And to that end, it doesn’t matter if it’s a big name like Felicia Day or Wil Wheaton, or a random guy from Scotland named Joe Dillon.  Each opinion is worth the same to me.

So I guess in the end, I’ll do what I’ve done from the beginning.  If the game is fun, it will market and sell itself.  And if it’s not fun, and people don’t like it, then trying to spread the word won’t work anyways. 

Sunday, 24 February 2013

Productive Week

It is has been a very productive week at Purple Duck Games. We accomplished many things on both the Purple Duck Games and the 4 Winds Fantasy Gaming sides of the business. To recap this is what has happened.

Deus ex Historica (4WF) - We recently got the subscription for the Deus ex Historica up and running. All the kickstarters that supported the project should have received a link to the subscription and we have put three characters through initial layout and up for sale.

The plan at this point is to get four more characters up a week. Two on Mondays and Two on Thursdays. If I can squeeze more in I will but PDG is not a full-time operation.

Heroes of the Fenian Triarchy (PDG) - Heroes of the Fenian Triarchy is our first of a series of player-focused books that explores the Lands of Porphyra in detail. Written by Josh McCrowell this product clocks in at 52 pages of content is chocked full of information needed for players to build characters from the Fenian Triachy. Its not out for sale, yet because it is currently in print production with Lightning Source. As soon as the files are ready, I will be ordering proofs and then if they look as great as I thin they will we will be releasing it for sale in PDF, B&W POD, SC POD, and PC POD.

Preliminary Art by Kristen Collins
Paths of Power II: Paths of Blood (4WF) - Paths of Power II is one of those legacy products by 4 Winds Fantasy Gaming that has been on pre-order for a while but has not had a clear release date. This week, I spoke with Robert and Sean O'Connor about this project and hammered out a final table of contents for it. Most of the product is written in at least draft form, so instead of have you the fans and the writers wait an extended period of time until all i's and t's have been dealt with I'm going to put this up as a subscription as well starting in March. The subscription price will be the same as the final compiled PDF probably $9.99 or $10.99 (I need to check the figures). Some of 4WF existing content was intended to go in here and it still is. The final product should include the following items:

- Race Options (the 7 core; dwarf and halfling out now)
- Aasimar, Tieflings, and Elementalkin (previously out now)
- Class Options (8 new base classes, 1 alternate class, 2 archetypes plus archetypes or options for the classes from Paths of Power, 1 prestige class)
- Flaws (previously out now)
- Techniques and Tools (new feats and equipment)
- Magic (spells and wondrous items)

That is the table of contents for the book as it stands right now.

Monsters of Porphyra (PDG) - Gary continues to hammer away at the art for this project. I need to dedicate some time to actively work on the monster conversions but I am deluding myself that I will all flow like magic as soon as all the art is in. Probably need to take a more active roll in finishing this one up. It has sat for a long time, and with the art almost finished for it there is really no more reason to wait.  Did I mention it will be a full-colour monster book?

Lands of Porphyra (PDG) - The first full draft is written. The map is coming along. I slowly working my way through the text as is Tom Baumbach to make sure all the pieces make sense. Its good to have Tom Baumbach voluntarily chipping in on this because he is arm-length from the project. I am very familiar with the world and I'm sure my brain will leap to conclusions that the reader will not. Tom helps provide that perspective. 

Celurian's Magic Miscellany (PDG) - This small tome of magic items was designed and illustrated by Carlos "Celurian" Torreblanca. I've started initial layout on this one. I expect it will be available in the early days of March.

AL 4: The Waystation (DCC - PDG) - Has some art being done for it.
AL 5: Stars in the Darkness (DCC - PDG) - Has just gone to editing. 

Oh, and I think its time do get to work on finishing this too.----->

It has been a busy, tiring, productive week. The week of the 25th-2nd of March will be busy and tiring for non Purple Duck Games reasons so you might not hear from me much next week, but I'll be back with more news in early March.

Take care everyone.

Thursday, 21 February 2013

Review: Pudding Monsters for iPhone and iPad

You probably don't need to learn from me about Pudding Monsters, a top quality game from Zeptolab, the makers of the classic Cut the Rope.

The basic idea at the core of this puzzle game has been used before. You make the pudding monsters slide on the floor; once they start moving, they won't stop until they hit something. If they don't hit anything and leave the screen, you lose and have to start again.
Even if the basic idea isn't new, I don't recall it having been used this way. When two monsters touch, they join to form a larger monster. The level is solved when all monsters are merged.
There is a lot of variety in the puzzles, because all kinds of different elements are introduced throughout the game: monsters that leave a sticky trail, sleeping monsters that cannot move until another monster joins with them, ice blocks that break after being hit, cloning machines, arrows, and so on.

Additionally, there's the customary three star rating system; stars are earned by finishing the level with monsters sitting on top of the stars.
The levels don't have a single solution, and after solving all levels for the first time, the game encourages you to play them again and earn 0, 1, 2 and 3 stars; when you do that, you earn a crown.

There are also funny Game Center achievements like "form a monster shaped like a hot dog".

Curiously, I've seen this game criticised both because it's "only" a logic game (by people that expected another action game like Cut the Rope) and because it is too easy as a logic game (by people that expected some hard core logic puzzle).

I don't think those criticisms are fair. Clearly, the first thing that strikes while playing the game is the incredible quality of the presentation: the animations are beautiful and full of humour, and the sound is great too. However the puzzles, while not terribly hard, can be challenging, especially if you want to earn all crowns. I've had many a-ha! moments when an elusive alternative solution finally clicked. Frankly, I don't think we could expect anything more than this from a game that is designed to sell millions of copies.

Every time I play, I'm amazed by the beauty of the level select screen. As you flick through the pages, the image in the background zooms out, sort of like in Powers of Ten™, starting from a cup of tea, through the roof of the house, to show the whole neighborhood (for now; it's easy to guess that we'll keep zooming out with future updates).

An update was released just today, adding 25 more levels, bringing the total to precisely 100. Even that way, and even playing each level multiple times to get the crown, it still feels a bit short, and you're left begging for more. But I think the main reason for this is that the game is so utterly enjoyable that you'd want to keep playing. Hopefully Zeptolab will continue to release updates in the future, like they did with Cut the Rope.

What do you think, is this game worthy of being labelled nontrivial?


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 with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Wednesday, 20 February 2013

Puzzles, what are they good for?

I recently came a across this article from AdventureGamers about puzzles, and it got me thinking. The article covers the different ways in which puzzles have been swapped for other activities over the years, something that I am very interested in. There is so much great about adventure games that just seem to be held back by their puzzles. It always seem that they break the flow of the experience. I find that many adventure games are more engaging to play when you have a walkthrough close at hand. Of course, consulting a guide has it own share of problems, and is far from an optimal way to play. Some other solution must exist.

Ever since we started Frictional Games, a big goal has been to try and fix this somehow. With each game we have incorporated new ideas in order to deliver a more streamlined experience; to try and minimize the problems that puzzles tend to cause.

When we started our Super Secret Project our initial idea was to get rid of traditional puzzles entirely. A focus from the start was to have levels where the goal was very clear. We wanted to create "scenes of drama" where the player would be free to role play without worrying about solving puzzles. But as the project has progressed, more and more traditional puzzle design have slipped in. I have been aware of this for quite a while, but the AdventureGamers article slapped me in the face with it. Despite all our efforts to the contrary, we seem unable to remove the puzzles entirely. There is just something that makes them a crucial ingredient.

The three main reasons seem to the be following:
  • Goal. They give the player a goal. When a situation is set up in the form a of a puzzle it is so much easier for the player to understand what to do next. It sets up a framework on how to behave, act and what outcomes to strive for. Actually, it is more accurate to say that setting up situation in a comprehensive manner gives you a puzzle. So the puzzle-element is simply a sort of side effect. (For those interested, here is an entire blog post dedicated to this subject).
  • Structure. It is an excellent way to set up a structural framework and provide flow. It is impossible, and story-telling wise unwanted, to allow the player to go in whichever way or do whatever they please. It is necessary to set up scenes in such a way that it confides the player to a certain path (or paths). Puzzles provide bottlenecks that are implicit and goes along with the narrative. If you want the player to visit rooms A, B and C before going to room D, you can set up a puzzles that achieves this. This system also lets the player drive the story forward. Instead of it the game telling the player when it is time to move on, the player is the ones in control. It also sets up a nice way to control the flow of the narrative. For instance, if the player is required to slow down and remain in an area for a while, you can have them searching for clues or engage in other puzzle related activities.
  • Immersion. Puzzles are a great way for the player to become part of the story. When solving a puzzle players use their knowledge of the game's world in a way that has an effect on the narrative. Players become one with the story and base their decisions on that. The puzzle is not there to test the player's wits and/or hinder progress, but to increase the sense of presence. By having something that requires the player to connect the dots often makes it much more engaging. Like how a description in a book can be more compelling if written in an indirect and/or metaphorical fashion.
I find all of these strong arguments for having puzzles. But at the same time the problems of puzzles remain. The AdventureGamers article point a few ways in which games have worked around puzzles; but the problem is that this mostly also removes what is so good about puzzles. For instance, The Walking Dead uses important dialog options to make the player part of the story. But in order to this, the game needs to have long cut scenes and reduce its scope of interaction. Players no longer push the story forward or get implicit goals. The game simply tells them what to do and when it is time to move on. For all its accomplishments, The Walking Dead fail to deliver a game where you play all the way through. This is not the kind of experiences we want to make at Frictional Games.

Instead of thinking about what to replace puzzles with, it is more rewarding to consider how to evolve them. How to improve them in a way that keeps the good traits and removes the bad. The first step towards this is to consider why we have puzzles at all. I think a major reason many adventure games gets problems with puzzles is because they are never justified. Every puzzle is seen as a "fun challenge", a feature with intrinsic value that should not be questioned.  I think that simply asking the question: "how does this puzzle serve the overall experience" is bound to be a good start.

Once it has been decided that a puzzle is really needed, the next question is what kind of complexity it should have. If you want a game that is about engaging the player in a narrative, you really want the puzzle to be as simple as possible without losing any of the benefits  So what is simple enough? My current gold standard is:

"A puzzle should make players to do something in such a way that they feel they came up it themselves."

This means that the puzzle must give the player some kind of "revelation" and must not feel spoon fed. The path from encountering the obstacle to performing the solution should not be too obvious or simple. However, this often means puzzles become too complex and/or difficult. The solving problems then devolves into "guess the designer" which ruins the intended effect. The player should be kept inside the game's world and never be forced to think outside of that. What follows are some of the ways we try and solve this:
  • Locality. All ingredients for solving a puzzle should be in close proximity to one another. This makes sure the player does not get stuck because of missing a clue or an item at a now distant location.
  • Multiple Solutions. Having many ways to solve a puzzle is often used as a replayability feature. In our games, it is instead used to make sure that the solution feels natural and intuitive to a wide range of players. In many cases we have actually implemented whatever fitting approaches that testers have tried (to the point of even allowing button mashing as a way to progress). 
  • Low Item Density. By making sure there are not too many locations, objects, characters, etc, one can avoid confusing the player and leading them on stray paths. Too few items can also be a problem of course, so one has o have a bit finesse.
  • Coherent Simulation. This means that mechanics work globally and are consistent throughout the game. For instance, a pickax is able to break any object made of ice. Most of the recent great puzzle games like Braid and World of Goo use this approach; however all these games are set in fantastic realms where the mechanics come before the story. In a narrative driven game aimed to have a sense of "reality", it is much harder to be 100% consistent. We have tried it with physics and it comes with all sort of trouble. More info here.
  • See it as an Activity. When possible it is often rewarding to think of puzzles as an activity. This push you out of mindset of just thinking about having clever solutions. If you want to have puzzles that are there to enhance our storytelling, they need to stop being seen as challenges. 
  • Part of the World. The most obvious, and also hardest one: puzzles should always stay consistent with the story. If not, it will be painfully obvious when one is encountered. Resident Evil is a poster child of this; very few of its puzzles make sense in the game's world.
  • Story Coherent Hints. I think the best way to make sure that the player is not stuck is to have protagonist comments, notes, or whatever auxiliary means, show the puzzle from different angles. This in order to make sure that the player has not misunderstood some concept and is seeing the puzzle in the "right way". If players get stuck, the most common cause is that there is some step in the logic that they failed to catch. By having subtle hints it is possible to minimize this from happening
The above tips are meant to facility a smoother experience for the player while trying to solve the puzzle. Another important issue is how to make it clear that there is a goal at all. Player often get stuck in games because they do not realize what their objective is, what puzzle it is that they are supposed to solve.  Here are three ways that can help overcome this problem:
  • A Clear Goal. This is probably what we have tried to use in most of our games. It basically means that you make sure players know where to go next. In Amnesia we always tried to have some obvious obstacle or let some kind of note/vision give a hint. As a back-up we also employed a somewhat immersion consistent todo-list, where further hints where given. 
  • Hidden, but guided. Sometimes it is possible to never tell the player exactly what to do, but guide and/or confine them in such a way that they will stumble upon it eventually. A simple, but effective, example is in Silent Hill 2 where you need to escape a well by finding a loose rock. It is a great way to create a sense of panic, and since the solution is so easily found it never becomes frustrating.
  • Spelled out Solution. This is when you just tell the player front up exactly what they are supposed to be doing. This might seem kind of of boring, but can work really well in some situations. A perfect example is the food rationing in The Walking Dead. Here it is obviously clear what you need to be doing, but a quite hard to decide who to give food.
Despite following all these rules, it is not sure that you come up with a puzzles. It is vital to not see them as stumbling blocks along the players's journey. You want something that enhances the player's time in the game's virtual world. Not something that reduce it.

A very bad example of this is in the remake of Broken Sword. When encountering a locked door, a sliding puzzle pops suddenly pops up. Disregarding that I loath sliding puzzles, this is really bad. It has nothing to do with the game's narrative. I gain nothing in terms of a connection with the story by solving this. It is simply there to hinder my path. What makes it worse is that the obstacle itself, a locked door, is not really interesting. The designer has taken an uninspiring set up and made it worse. This is a bad usage of puzzles.

A good example is found in Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth, where you need to open a passage to a priest's secret hideout. Upon arriving at the church you are not aware of there even being a hide-out and need to read this in a note. Here is also a clue on how to access it; the church bell must be rung in a certain order and opening up a secret passage way downstairs. I think this sort of puzzle is great; it requires a combination of lore, exploration and force the player to make narrative connections. It also lets you interact with the environment in an interesting fashion. By both discovering and opening the secret passageway the player has an active role in the progression of the story. 

There is a catch though. The mechanism for opening the hideout makes little sense. The whole town would notice whenever the priest wants to go to his lair. But in the end, it does not matter. It satisfy enough criteria to still be a good puzzle. This is a really important aspect of the craft.

Coming up with puzzles is hard. Coming up with puzzles that are coherent, engaging and fit with the flow of the narrative is extremely hard. If you want to make an engaging and varied adventure, it is impossible to make every puzzle perfect. Above all else, the puzzle must fit with the experience that you want to create. Players can see past strange mechanics (like the above bell puzzle), live with simplified inventory system (like in The Walking Dead) and other sub-optimal solutions as long as it serves to enhance the experience. This is very important to remember when creating a puzzle. 

The goal is not to make players think you are clever or to do the most complex set up. The goal is to make sure all parts serve the experience as a whole. It is very easy to forget this (I have done so many times myself) and it does not help that puzzles are fiendishly hard to evaluate. But I think that with the right mindset, it should not be an insurmountable challenge.

As mentioned in the start, over the years puzzles have been pushed aside for other mechanics. Games with more progressive design either push the puzzle elements into the background (eg Uncharted) or base all around a specific mechanic (eg Portal). I do not think it is time to give up on the more classical adventure game puzzles yet though. By this I do mean that we should go back to the interconnected puzzle design of old days (as explained here). Instead we should try and look at puzzles in a different light and see how we might change them and reinterpret their role. This post has been an attempt to do just that, but I think there is a lot more to explore. It would be very bad to abandon the quest to combine storytelling and puzzles just yet.

Those interested in more puzzle discussion might want to take a look at series of articles on puzzle that I wrote a few years back while working on Amnesia. They can be found here. The posts go through some other aspects of puzzles design that should be of interest..

I am also interested in getting your input and/or links to other articles on this subject. It is not easy to come by good writing on puzzles, and even harder to find something that discuss narrative-serving puzzles, so I am very grateful for any feedback and tips!

Superpowered by M&M and Sorcerer Bloodlines.

As most of my readers know Purple Duck Games is not my day job so sometimes things can be slow to get moving. However, this week I'm on holidays so naturally that means I have lots of time to work on Purple Duck Games projects. So far, it has been a very productive week with one of the larger 4 Winds Fantasy Gaming  products getting some movement and at least on Purple Duck Games release as well.

Danni Cipher, Time Travelling
by Talon Dunning
First up, we have release a subscription for the Deus ex Historica line. The complete Deus ex Historicai book will likely be over 300 hundred pages when finished, so in order to tackle this one easier and get content out to our kickstarters quicker we have decided on doing series releases. Each of the heroes and villains will be available independently of the subscription if you only have interest in certain characters as well.

The first of the serial releases is out now and details the time-travelling archaeologist, Danni Cipher, who acts as the guide and narrator to the rest of the character profiles. This is the first 4 Winds Fantasy Gaming and Purple Duck Games product developed for the 3rd Edition of Mutants and Masterminds. The entire project was written by James Stubbs and Don Walsh.

Stirge bloodline fully manifested
by Gary Dupuis.
Meanwhile, Perry Fehr (author of 5-star rated Purple Mountain III: The Feasting) has been hard at work on a number of other projects including Monstrous Bloodlines for Sorcerers which was released earlier today. This tightly focused PDF add seven new sorcerer bloodlines for player characters (cyclopean, inevitable, medusan, otyugh, sphinx, stirge, and unicorn... we couldn't get a flumph one we were happy with yet). If you are looking for new ways to differentiate your sorcerer, Perry has you covered. This product was inspired by the art Gary Dupuis created for us to the left.

Now I need to get a bit of work done on Paths of Power II and finish the Heroes of the Fenian Triarchy.

Unboxing videos and posts from around the web

I have a few things to cover in this post.

1)      The Forums are up Yay! The old forum suffered catastrophic failure due to my ISP changing database format without warning Boo! I suppose if I look on the bright side it means I will have a fresh start with the KS backers (I will send out invites to the private section of the forum when I have time to dedicate to game development)

2)      Updated instructions are now available in PDF format on the main product page of the website. This includes the updated Crusader instructions. You will also find them here in the bolg in the INSTRUCTIONS page (right hand column)

3)      If you are a retailer that is stocking DreamForge product, I would like to add you to my links. Please post a comment here and I will add your information. You don’t need a web presence, I am happy to add the address and phone numbers of brick and mortar locations.

I took a moment to use a little Google-fu and search for unboxing videos and builds. Here are a few that I was able to come up with so far, displayed in no particular order. I know I am missing some, I apologize if I overlooked your post; if you would like to be added, just post a comment to this story and I will update the links. And a BIG thank you for all those posting these!

Mordian 7th   Part1   Part 2   Part3
Reobeast    Part1  Part2   Part3

Games and life   Link

Between the Bolter and me   Link

Pick a damn army  Part1  Part2  Part3

Moon tank   Link

Warpstone pile  Link

Tabletop Online (German)   Link

A Gentalman's War   Link

Photos  Link

 And now for some YouTube action ;)



 The Second Founding

Spikey Bits


Silver Skull Gamer


Review: Khalou for iPhone and iPad

Khalou is a very nice free puzzle game for iPhone and iPad by Aurelien Wenger.

The instructions are only in French, so understanding the rules might be difficult, but don't despair! I'm here to help.
The game is played on a 4x4 board, filled with stones. Stones are white on one side and black on the other, and are randomly placed at the beginning:
The goal is to make all stones white. This is done by making a number of moves, where all the stones in a group are turned upside down.
As you can see in the instructions page, the only allowed moves are:
  • Turn all 4 stones in a row, column, or major diagonal;
  • Turn all 3 stones in a L shape, anywhere on the board.
The instructions continue with an example:
At the top is the start position. Then the first and second columns are toggled, leading to the position in the middle. Then a L-shape in the center of the board is toggled, leading to the bottom left position. Then the final L-shape leads to the solved state in a total of 4 moves.

Now if you think about the rules for a moment, you'll realise that the L-shape moves would be all that's needed to solve the puzzle, because there is a sequence of three L-shape moves that toggles a single stone, and could be applied all over the board (figuring out the sequence is left as an exrcise for the reader).

The interesting thing is that, with the full set of rules, all positions can be solved in a maximum of 5 moves. It took me some time to get the hang of it, but when it finally clicked, attempting to always solve the puzzles in no more than 5 moves is an interesting—and difficult—challenge.

The game also has a scoring mechanism, if you're so inclined. When you start playing, you have a time limit of 5 minutes. During that time you must solve as many puzzles as you can; for each puzzle solved, you score points depending on the number of moves and the time taken. But be careful, because if you take more than 5 moves, your score is always 0. At the end of the 5 minutes, your total score is computed and uploaded to Game Center.

Overall, this is a nicely presented way to flex your brain muscles with come challenging, but not overly difficult, logical reasoning.


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 with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Tuesday, 19 February 2013


All changes have been made in bold red type and noted with a red circle. Without the CAD files I was unable to add in missing component renders but I did make notations as needed.

For PDF copy click here

Sunday, 17 February 2013

Review: MatCube for iPhone and iPad

Some incredible things can happen on the App Store.
The other day I downloaded MatCube, a free game for iPhone and iPad by Eizo Ono. Nothing on the iTunes page suggested that it could be a great puzzle: I couldn't even understand the description, because it's only in Japanese, and the screenshots made it look more like a proof of concept than a full featured game.

Still, I'm glad I downloaded it, because I was blown away by how clever it is.

Actually, it's not even one puzzle. It's 4, or 8, or 24, depending on how you want to count them. Let me explain.

This is the initial screen after launching the app:
The grid of 3x3 cubes is the goal position. This is the easiest difficulty setting, where each cube has only 2 colors: 2 opposing faces are red, the others are green.
When you tap the Shuffle button, the cubes are randomly scrambled, and you need to get back to the goal position.

The first thing that I thought when I started interacting, was "this is Lights Out on steroids". Lights Out is played on a 2D grid, and MatCube appears to be the natural extension to 3D: when you tap a cube, the cubes that surround it are rotated.

Lights Out is a relatively simple puzzle, because each cell can only have 2 states: ON and OFF. MatCube is a bit more complicated because, at the easy difficulty, each cube can be in 3 states. Also, the side from which you move a cube changes its state in a different way, because the cube rotates around a different axis.

Solving MatCube at this difficulty (and by "solving" I mean finding an algorithm that consistently allows you to get back to the goal position after shuffling) isn't extremely hard, but it isn't a walk in the park either. It took me several attempts to eventually "get it", though the naive method I used doesn't generalize well to the higher difficulties.

When playing at the normal difficulty setting, each face of the cubes has a different color, so each cube can be in 6*4 = 24 different states. This makes things a lot more... interesting.
When playing in full color mode, it's useful to know that you can rotate the cubes in the opposite direction by tapping while touching the screen with another finger.

The number of cubes can also be increased, with a choice between 3x3, 4x4 and 5x5. At 5x5, it looks quite daunting:
But that's not all: what I described so far is just one of the play modes available. There are a total of four different modes.

The second one is similar to the first, but when you tap a cube you rotate all the cubes in the same row and column, instead of rotating only the surrounding ones.

The third one is a surprise: one cube is removed from the grid, and moves are made by rolling cubes towards the hole. Therefore, this could be described as "15 puzzle on steroids". I have tracked down a mechanical puzzle using the same mechanics: Rolling Cubes by John Harris.

The last mode is another surprise: the cubes are no longer laid out in a square grid, and form a pattern reminiscent of the Q*bert videogame:
Tapping a cube rotates all the surrounding ones, which can be up to 6, each one around a different axis.

So that's why at the beginning of the review I said there are 24 different puzzles in this app:
(2 colourings of the cubes) * (3 sizes of the grid) * (4 play modes) = 24 combinations.

Not bad for a free app!

Here's a video by the app developer, showing the Android version:

The main criticism I have about this wonderful puzzle is that playing on an iPhone or iPod the cubes are a bit too small, and it's difficult to tap the one you are aiming at. While this is pretty much unavoidable when playing the 5x5 version, the 3x3 and 4x4 versions could be easily improved by simply making the cubes larger.

A significant missing feature is that the position is not saved when the app goes to the background, which makes it impractical to attempt solving the larger puzzles unless one has a good amount of time to spare.

I also don't like that the only form of score is the timer shown at the top left of the screen. Personally, I would be more interested in the number of moves.

The final criticism is about the color scheme. Here is a simulation of how a person with protanopia would see the goal position in easy mode:
That could be improved by using different colors, or by adding other visual cues to the cube faces (for example, making them look like dice).

Overall, this is certainly a puzzle that will stay on my iPod for some time. Congratulations to its inventor!


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 with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Saturday, 16 February 2013

Purple Mountain VI: Well of Stars in playtest

Undine Queen by Ryan Rhodes
Today we started our internal playtest of the Well of Stars. This is the sixth level of the Purple Mountain megadungeon. We had four players today who played:

Human inquisitor of Gerana 6 (Thomas Boxall)
Human sorcerer 6 (Michael Vanderstelt)
Obitu fighter 3/rogue 3 (Patrick Kossmann)
Qi'tar tactician 6 (Mark Gedak)

Jeff isn't doing a lot of talking in the group. He tends to speak by telepathy within the collective as much as possible. We botched up some of the initial investigation and ended up going to Purple Mountain by foot instead of by teleportation which slowed things down. It was also reveal that the inquisitor is prejudiced against psionic creatures so he is no longer part of my collective. We killed some harpies, derro and met an undine queen who was later eaten by crysmals.

Pretty smooth session, no player character deaths yet. I suspect there will be though because we do not have much in the way of healing in our group.
Here is the character that I am using for this playtest.

Jeff <He who Plans>
Male qi’tar tactician 6
LN Medium humanoid (catfolk, psionic)
Init +1; Senses Perception -1
AC 18, touch 11, flat-footed 17
(+6 armor, +1 Dex, +1 shield)
hp 46 (6d8+18)
Fort +3, Ref +3, Will +4; +2 vs. mind-affecting, poison
Speed 30 ft.
Melee savage attack +8 (1d6+6) or adamantine temple sword +8 (1d8+4/19-20)
Ranged needles +5 touch (5 + 1 bleed)
Special Attacks coordinated strike +1 (5/day), coordinate (1 teamwork feat), strategy (5/day – focus attack)
Qi’tar Psionics(ML 3rd; concentration +5)
   1/day – vigor (15 hp; 3 minutes)
Tactician Powers Known (ML 6th; concentration +8; +12/+13/+14 next to ally) [43 pp]
   3rdBattlesense, Strike as One                                                 [Defensive 21]
   2ndPsychic Interference, Strength of My Enemy                   [Defensive 19]
   1stCircumstance Shield, Inevitable Strike                              [Defensive 17]
   Talents – Detect Psionics, Distract, Lesser Fortify
Str 18, Dex 12, Con 13, Int 14, Wis 8, Cha 10
Base Atk +4; CMB +8 (+9 grapple); CMD 19
Feats Extra Strategy, Psionic Body, Psionic Talent, Psionic Weapon, Shielded Caster
Skills Climb +13, Craft (weapon) +11, Knowledge (history) +11, Knowledge (engineering) +11, Knowledge (psionics) +11, Spellcraft +11, Swim +13; ACP -2
SQ collective (3 members, 130 ft.), improve share, spirit of many, telepathy, tools of war (temple sword)
LanguagesCatfolk, Common, telepathy (other qi’tar, collective)
Combat Gear robe of needles; Gear adamantine temple sword, armbands of the brawler, darkwood buckler, elven chain, fighter’s kit, boots of landing, ring of missile protection, warrior’s scabbard, 80 gp (belt pouch)

Jeff is a student of history, engineering and great battles. He has traveled far to learn as much of war as he can to share with his pack-mates when he returns to the Middle Kingdoms.