Thursday, November 27, 2008

Wooden Path

Wooden Path is a well-crafted version of a puzzle you've likely seen before -- a sliding blocks puzzle. There are a few enhancements to the basic formula, but they don't change the gameplay all that much.

The basic concept of Wooden Path is very simple. You have a set of varyingly-sized rectangular blocks. Some of them are wooden bridges, while others are different-colored stone. You have a limited area (set in a river, in this game) in which to move them, and the object is to slide the blocks around so that the wooden bridges make a continuous path from one bank of the river to the other. If you've ever played Rush Hour, for instance, this will seem pretty familiar. Some of the puzzles can get quite difficult, especially when the space is so limited that your possibilities are very tightly constrained. And, as is the hallmark for puzzles of this type, often you'll do a lot of work just to get one block into the right place, and then when it is, the rest of the puzzle kind of falls together.

There are a few additions that you wouldn't see in a physical puzzle, though. Some levels feature switches; they come in sets of two (or occasionally three) of the same color. To activate the switch, you must connect all of them with stones of the same color, which causes some barriers in the level to disappear. Some levels feature gold stones; connecting all of the gold stones to each other will cause them all to disappear. Finally, there are also teleporters. The teleporters can do interesting things -- for instance, they can change the orientation of a block -- but since they usually connect two otherwise-disconnected areas, most of the time they just serve to increase the effective area available in the puzzle. The gold stones and the switches are kind of neat, but they're also a little bit superfluous -- usually, once you trigger the switch or eliminate the gold stones, you've opened up enough space that the rest of the puzzle is pretty easy, so there's still really only one difficult objective.

The graphics are pretty -- while they're just stones, they're nicely textured and the background is nice. The game wisely eschews insanity-inducing background music in favor of some nice woodland sound effects, so you'll hear pleasant bird chirps and so forth. This adds a nice relaxing feeling to the game. The stones move softly, but audibly, so they have a nice heft. One puzzling interface decision is that the stones don't move as you drag them -- rather, you click and drag a stone, but the stone doesn't move until you actually let go of the mouse button. This is rather counterintuitive; while you get used to it eventually, I don't understand why they can't just move the stones normally.

Anyway, Wooden Path is a pleasing game to play, but it is awfully long -- the game features 22 "beginner's levels", which are, as you might expect, easier, but can still be pretty involved, and then 30 "adventurer's levels", which can often get very lengthy indeed. Probably the game could benefit from cutting a few of the levels so it's not quite so tedious to get them all. Still, Wooden Path is quite enjoyable in small doses. If you try to do 20 levels in one sitting, you'll certainly go mad, but a level here and a level there is the perfect way to do this game.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Shore Siege!

Shore Siege is a simple game by Antony Lavelle, the designer behind the SHIFT series of games. While entirely unlike SHIFT, Shore Siege does share several of SHIFT's traits -- it's simple, easy to learn, doesn't take too long, and has enough cleverness to make for an entertaining play.

At first glance, Shore Siege seems to be your typical (side-view) survival shooter game -- your pirate ship is beached on the shore and under attack from a bizarre variety of critters, and you have to kill them to save your ship. However, the mechanics of the gameplay are not your simple "click mouse to shoot zombie" (or whatever else, but let's be honest, it's nearly always zombies) that you see in your ordinary survival shooter game. Rather, you have a truly silly assortment of weaponry, but each weapon in your arsenal is only effective against one or two types of enemy, and each weapon is used differently (some you click and drag onto the enemy, some you just click, some you have to hold over the enemy, etc.) At the end of the day, you can buy the usual array of upgrades to your weapons, and buy repairs for your ship; if you get it repaired enough, you can sail away from the island and win the game.

Anyway, the game is neither overly complicated, overly difficult, or overly long. The balance is not quite right; you'll discover that one of the upgrade strategies is clearly the most powerful, so once you find that out you should be able to win pretty easily and quickly. The graphics are pretty cute; the music is also nice, though (as is pretty much always the case) pretty repetitive. The sound effects are pretty basic, but they get the job done. One complaint is that one of the weapons (the magnet) was not at all intuitive to use; I didn't actually figure it out at all the first time I beat the game, but only when writing this review.

Overall, Shore Siege is a nice little diversion. Like the SHIFT series, it doesn't overstay its welcome; it doesn't bore you with 50 levels of nearly the same thing, but rather gets you through the game in a reasonable amount of time while remaining fun all the way through. It's not a game you feel the need to go back and play again and again, but I definitely enjoyed playing through it.

Monday, November 24, 2008


Zilch is a fun little dice game. Like any dice game, there is naturally a large element of luck, but like Yahtzee, it adds enough skill to make you feel like it's not just a mindless exercise. To its credit, though, it is completely unlike Yahtzee (although, perhaps not surprisingly, it is apparently based on a real dice game), giving it a nice, original feel.

The rules for Zilch are pretty straightforward. You roll six dice, and then score some or all of the resulting dice. You can score any number of ones or fives at a time, or three or more of any die; there are also a couple of special combinations (like a 1-6 run or three pairs). After scoring, you can elect to bank or roll again. If you bank, your turn ends, and all the points you have scored that turn are added to your score. (You can only bank, however, if you've already scored at least 300 points.) If you choose to roll again, you can try to score more points. However, you don't reroll dice that you've already used to score. (That is, if on your first roll, you score a single one, you then only roll five dice on your next roll, which obviously decreases your scoring opportunities. If you manage to score with all six dice, then you can reroll all of them.) If you happen to take a reroll and fail to score anything, you zilch! Zilching causes you to lose all of the points that you've accumulated that turn, and, should you be unfortunate to zilch three times in a row, you'll lose 500 points. So, there's a natural balance between wanting to push your luck to eke a few more points out of of your turn and quitting while you're ahead, which makes for a sound tactical foundation for the game. Once one player reaches 10000 points, the other player has one turn to try to beat that, and then a winner is declared.

That's pretty much all there is to the game. The game offers three different AIs (you can also play a hotseat 2-player game) -- Reckless is very aggressive (as you might guess from the name), and so will occasionally pull out huge scores but more often take completely avoidable zilches; Cautious is (again, as you might guess) more conservative, while Realist tries to take the most "human-like" approach. Realist is pretty tough to beat, but even it makes baffling decisions sometimes. The game is well-suited to being a laptop game, since it doesn't demand constant attention, a single round doesn't take very much time, and it can be played entirely with the keyboard. (I should take this moment to mention one poor interface decision, though. When you roll the dice, the scoring options are displayed, and you might think those are your choices. However, in some cases only the highest-scoring option is displayed. For instance, if you roll two ones, only the two ones scoring option will be displayed -- it doesn't appear you can just score a single one, which you might want to do to leave more dice free for your next roll. You can, however, score just the single one by clicking on the die, rather than the scoring option. This parenthetical remark will probably make no sense if you haven't actually played the game, but if you try it you'll see what I'm talking about.)

The graphics are pretty straightforward, but are charmingly carried out, giving the game a pleasing look. There's no music, and the sound effects are basic but well-chosen, making the game pleasant to play. With its default settings, the game does kind of proceed rather slowly, but you can speed it up by reducing some of the dead time.

OK, two rants now. First, a supportive rant. There's an amazing number of comments complaining that the game is rigged (i.e., the CPU somehow magically gets better rolls). These comments could practically serve for a case study in confirmation bias. It's pretty obvious to me that the rolls are fair, but, for instance, when you play Reckless, he occasionally will get phenomenal scores thanks to his aggressiveness. People will look at this and somehow think that the game is rigged, when in fact they're just not noticing all of the zilches that Reckless' recklessness get him, too. There are, of course, times when you will get blown out of the water due to the computer having good luck (I played one game when the computer rolled six ones, an 8000-point roll), but these are balanced out by the times when you get loads of points while the computer struggles. Anyway, my point is, people saying the game is rigged are clearly not paying attention.

Now, an annoyed rant. Zilch features 120 achievements, which is a truly staggering number, and I was terrified that Kongregate would make it an impossible badge to get all of them, which would have been unbelievably tedious. Thankfully, they chose the more sensible route of requiring 100 achivements, and making it only a hard badge. This is because the achievements are simply not well designed. Some of them just require mind-boggling time investments (completing a very large number of games, or scoring a total of a large number of points), or incredible luck (scoring a nearly impossible number of points in a single turn), which is not fun to anyone. Worse, though, is that a lot of the achievements overlap significantly. For instance, there's an achievement for playing a game that lasts 30 turns. There's also one for winning a game that lasts 30 turns. What's the point of the former when you have the latter? I could cite bunches more of examples, but if you play the game you'll see what I mean (you'll also see that, annoyingly, the game doesn't tell you how to get the achievements, which I've ranted about before). This means that the overall achievement count is kind of padded, because of all of the redundancies. Contrast Zilch's achivements with, say, Amorphous+, and you'll see what I mean. Amorphous+ has a lot more oddball, one-off achievements for silly things, so that there's a lot more variety in getting them all. And even though there is some redundancy, the redundant achievements aren't useless -- getting achievements can unlock rewards, which you may find necessary to get the harder achievements anyway. In Zilch, on the other hand, the achievements don't serve any purpose. Overall, I feel that the game probably would be served with fewer achievements, but more judiciously chosen ones.

Anyway, Zilch is a fun game. If you're playing it for the badges, you're probably going to have to play it a little more than ideal -- it's best played in small doses, since the gameplay doesn't change very much, playing ten games in a row can be kind of boring. Still, it's a good design and a good execution, and a fun game to play here and there.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Feudalism II

Feudalism II is -- let's be honest -- a mess of a game. It's a strategy game with not enough strategy; it's an action game with too much action; it's an RPG that doesn't matter. Overall, the different elements of the game simply do not fit together well; while the game certainly is ambitious, it fails to produce a challenging or entertaining result.

So, the basic concept in Feudalism II is pretty simple. You start as one of twelve heroes (there are six nations, each with a male and a female hero), with control of one tiny town in your starting nation and a small army to your name. You travel across the overland map from place to place (occasionally encountering random battles along the way); in a given town or city, you can buy or sell equipment, get quests, or attempt to capture the town. Once you've captured a location, you can recruit troops there to add to your army; naturally, the bigger and more powerful towns have better and more powerful troops, so you need to gradually work your way up the ladder. Once you've conquered one nation, though, conquering the other five is pretty much a cakewalk, since you can now use the best troops available.

Battles are, as you might expect, the most important part in the game, and it's here that the game's shortcomings become rapidly apparent. There is a wealth of things for you to do in battle -- you have a melee weapon and a ranged weapon, and can switch between the two as necessary; for each weapon, you can activate one or more skills which give you various powerful attacks, and you can also have passive skills which increase the power of your army and aura skills which can affect all the units on the battlefield. It's easy to see how this could lead to a variety of interesting tactical options. However, unless the enemy only has like two units, you'll never get to use any of them. With 15 or 20 units on the battlefield, the action is simply far too chaotic for you to be able to do anything productively -- the only useful action you can do the vast majority of the time is to sit in the back and fire arrows, which is hardly exciting. This means that the RPG elements of the game are not terribly useful -- as you gain experience, your character becomes more powerful and acquires more skills, but most of these skills you'll never use anyway (although some of the aura skills are very useful).

The game balance is also not great. The gold, for instance, is way out of whack -- after your first few battles, you'll have more than enough money to last you through the rest of the game. While conquering your first nation is not easy, as I mentioned, once you're done with that, there's not much left. Each nation has its own set of weapons and techniques it specializes in, so in theory, you could take this into account when creating your army, but again, because the action is so chaotic, it's impossible to tell what's going on, so you might as well just build a simple army and go with that rather than trouble to do anything more complicated.

The graphics are about average; the overland map is pretty boring, although there is a nice amount of effort put into giving each nation a distinct appearance, so there is at least a nice variety. There's no music (which is a shame; the game probably could have benefited from some), and the sound effects are quite generic. Where the game really shows poor production values is in the text -- I am (sadly) accustomed to a certain level of errors in your typical Flash game, but Feudalism is completely riddled with typos, misspelled or wrong words, and very strange-sounding sentences; I suspect it was written by a non-native English speaker, but really, you'd think he could have at least asked a native English speaker or two to look over it before releasing it.

Overall, Feudalism II shows flashes of being an interesting game, but the vast majority of time it is not. Fortunately, it's not terribly difficult; since the outcome of battles seems often determined by luck as much as anything else, a couple of retries is usually all you need to get through the tougher battles. So, if you want the badge, it's not too bad, but it's still not a great experience.