Electron Dance
27May/1813

Been Around The Block

This is the eighth part of The Ouroboros Sequence, a series on puzzle games.

Haven’t you got any more ideas?

Do you really think the world needs another block-pushing puzzle? What makes pushing blocks special? Can you for the love of God stop churning out the same game, again and again and again?

Yeah, I didn’t want to play block pushing games any more. But one day I played Full Bore (Whole Hog Games, 2013) and it changed my mind about everything.

What is puzzle innovation?

I’ve previously mentioned that Full Bore killed off my jaded view of the block pusher. I couldn’t help but see confined spaces full of blocks as an evolutionary dead end, a branch of game design that should have died already. Just like I had thought about the 2D shooter.

Full Bore was completely different to block-pushing games I’d seen up to that point. I’m not going to claim the mechanics were unique to Full Bore because I had been giving Sokobanlikes a wide berth, but it was the first time I had seen this particular mix. At the time I encountered Full Bore, I knew only that I enjoyed it but today, I can explain why.

  • Diversity. Full Bore keeps throwing crazy blocks at you which means there is little time to get bored with a particular form of puzzle. Note it’s also a block pusher with gravity in the Boulder Dash mould.
  • Map. Full Bore arranged everything in a highly-connected map and dispensed with linear progression from puzzle to puzzle, making the player an explorer of both space and puzzles.
  • Open Design. Full Bore had no qualms about dropping multiple problems into the same “area” which dissolved their boundaries; it often shied away from traditional hermetic-sealed puzzle design. In its place was a real sense of adventure, the kind you get from exploring GLaDOS’ domain in Portal 2. Sometimes finding the secret entrance to a room was the only way to solve a problem.
  • Puzzlevania. Progress was gated with problems featuring new block types; these were only solvable once the game had decided it was time to enlighten you.

Full Bore

What this meant was all that talk in my head of “evolutionary dead end” was premature. But my prejudice against the block pusher ran deep and my initial reaction to Stephen Lavelle’s excellent PuzzleScript was an expectation that it would quickly exhaust all the Sokobanlike ideas. But cool new PuzzleScript games keep emerging, from the testing The Flames (Rosden Shadow, 2017) to the witty and clever Easy Enigma (Jack Lance, 2018). Easy Enigma is not your traditional block pusher and more secret box - the player must figure out how to progress rather than solve challenges within well-defined boundaries.

And what can we say of Stephen’s Sausage Roll (Increpare Games, 2016)? I haven’t finished SSR but my impression is of a pure block-pusher. Hermetic design and the player must complete a set of puzzles to progress to the next that exploit a new mechanic. Yet the basic format of SSR, putting aside all that extra zaniness that comes at you later, is unusually complex:

  • Blocks are rectangles. The sausages are 2x1 shapes.
  • Player is also a rectangle. The player is also a 2x1 shape with the ability to rotate which increases the modes of interaction with sausage.
  • Complex condition for solution. Sausages roll, have two sides and both sides of a sausage need to be touch a grill plate to complete a puzzle, but not touch a grill plate twice (burned). Notice grilling one sausage means there must four contacts made with grill plates (two sides, and a sausage is two grid spaces long).

Stephen's Sausage Roll

SSR is a block-pushing game unlike many before it, because of its unique strain of mechanics and how the player must discover them. It is by no means, the only game to dispense with the humble square block; my first block love of Zebuland (KE-Soft, 1990) dabbled with this as did Sokobond (Hazelden & Lee, 2013) in which you bind atoms together to make molecular structures. In fact, Zebuland is interesting for the historical record because it not only featured odd-sized blocks, but revolving doors, pits and multiple characters that must work together and escape together.

Zebuland

Anyway, it is only fair that I concede there is still much life in the old Sokobanlike. But surely, surely, we must have seen enough Match-3 games? Except here, too, I keep coming across new twists that make me sit up and pay attention.

I was taken with Marble Duel (HeroCraft, 2014) which did for Zuma what Puzzle Quest did for Bejewelled: it added a combat layer and was cleverer than it looked. You can play a version of the game on Kongregate but I bought the original called Evy: Magic Spheres. I am wary that tweaks to the newer version on Steam might have made it more frustrating to players; I can’t be sure without playing because some of the levels called upon the player to stop and think instead of just hammering away hoping randomness would net you a win. This is the same problem which upset some reviews of card game Shadowhand (Grey Alien Games, 2017) as I discussed in an earlier stream: to get through duels successfully requires the player to spend time on the correct loadout for each different battle otherwise you’re relying on luck... and luck will let you down.

Marble Duel

Six Match (Aaron Steed, 2017) is strangely terrifying. A score attack sliding-tile Match-3 puzzler with longform play. If, like me, you only play Six Match during train commutes, it can take weeks to build up a significant score and each point contributes to the tension. Will you make a new high score this time? Or will you flush it down the drain with a mistake? Did the train rock at just the wrong time screwing up that vital swipe?

If it was complexity you were looking for, Tidalis (Arcen Games, 2010) might have you covered. Tidalis feels more like Tetris in that blocks drop in from the top and a full board ends the game. The player clears blocks by firing “streams” from them - if those streams hit three blocks of the same colour then, pow, you have a match and the blocks vanish. The stream is directed by the arrows on the blocks, which you can turn at any time. The number of block types is staggering: water bottles, burnable wood blocks, sun and moon tiles, eating blocks, stream splitters and many, many more.

Tidalis

Tidalis is tough and requires an unusual amount of dexterity for a puzzle game. This is a Match-3 where someone threw like everything they had at the canvas and not all of it works. In the more advanced stages, I got the impression the procgen level generator often churned out levels which were impossible to complete and was forced to wait for it to churn out a solvable version. It was eight years ago I wrote: “I have the uncomfortable feeling that sometimes I am at the mercy of lady luck.”

While Match-3 games tend to be score attack games, my ultimate Match-3 joy is not: Dissembler (Ian MacLarty, 2018). I’ve discussed Dissembler not just once but twice now on the E/TX stream. It is what I might call Finite Bejewelled: each match causes part of the board to disappear, a void across which pieces can not move. The goal is to use matches to make sure the entire board disappears. There are additional twists, such as fixed tiles that cannot be flipped, patterned tiles that need to be aligned correctly and tiles-within-tiles from which new tiles emerge after a match instead of disappearing. I’ve been playing the procedurally-generated daily mode of Dissembler for months and still haven’t tired of it.

Dissembler

Perhaps what I find most interesting about the Match-3 titles above is that, for Six Match, Aaron Steed did his homework on the Match-3 genre. He examined what seemed to work, what didn’t and what might not yet have been exploited enough from a design angle. This kind of analysis is extremely useful but let’s admit that being exhaustive is practically impossible: because Match-3 is a staple of casual player bait, there must be hundreds - possibly thousands - of Match-3 games out there.

And it is in that spirit I will next discuss laser reflection games, the genre of "Oh, uh, how did I do that?"

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Comments (13) Trackbacks (0)
  1. Now I am addicted to Dissembler… Thanks a lot :)

  2. Another victim :) The great thing about Dissembler is that it big draw on your time, you stop and start at whim.

  3. Tryna come up with an intelligent comment on Marble Duel and all i can think of is how the revised cover art emphasizes the “Magic Spheres” aspect.

  4. who has two thumbs and keeps forgetting to input his name? This guy.

    ooh there’s a checkbox to remember it!

  5. Gearing up for more of a comment, in light of the link you included about changes having made it more frustrating to players, but the level I’m stuck on is level 69. Nice.

  6. Matt, don’t persuade me to play Marble Duel again, I don’t have the time

  7. Well of course after posting that I got through the level I was stuck on in a couple of tries and made it through a bunch of the rest with not much trouble. Currently stalled out because it slowed down massively in my browser. More thoughts WHEN YOU LEAST EXPECT THEM.

  8. I look forward to reading them below a newsletter discusson about first-person shooters. “So while we’re talking about shooting games–“

  9. Another one in the category of ‘Match-3 with a Twist’ that’s worth checking out is Beglitched (Hexecutable, 2016). It combines a Match-3 setup with Minesweeper, and an RPG, sort of? It has a lot of neat stuff going on mechanically, but it’s also narrative driven rather than a score-attack.

  10. Hi Alexander! If only Beglitched were on Android :) Maybe I will give it a whirl on Windows some point. Thanks for the recommendation!

  11. OK well I was just going to report “Sandra went down like a punk on the first try” but I started going back to Marble Duel again and it took me like twenty tries to beat her again.

    I will say:
    –the final Sandra boss fight lacked identity. You have the same basic set of marbles, no topology tricks with the line, she doesn’t have any outlandish stats except health. I suppose that’s a sort of identity–no tricks, you just have to defeat her with sheer marble blasting skill.
    –or luck. The fact that I got her the first time and then never again for a while (though some of that time I think I had probably respecced myself into a bad build) suggests that there was a lot of luck of the marbles involved. There was definitely once on the dreaded level 69 (opponent has heal shots, you don’t) where I whittled the opponent almost all the way down and needed one red marble but I didn’t get one.
    –but there was a lot of figuring things out to do. On the first optional boss fight it seemed absolutely impossible at first and then I realized I needed to exploit the technique the opponent was using to make huge combos, preferably to almost kill him before he got a turn.
    –the AI isn’t always ideal, which is fine. There’s a good “stop hitting yourself technique” if you can pull it off, where when the opponent gets a huge purple boost you strip their shield and build up 100% shield and some reflection. Then if they attack they will damage themselves and not you. This was key for the optional boss fight where the boss can accumulate 500% shield but doesn’t have any red marbles–which means their purple bonus often reaches ridiculous levels before they can get a shot off. You have to pull off long series of combo attacks to get their shield down but if you do that they can wind up dealing themselves hundreds of damage at once.
    –but they have 500 health points. When the opponent has some kind of overwhelming advantage it seems gratuitous to make them damage sponges as well. (This probably applies more to this optional fight than the others, as this fight basically forces both sides to turtle.)
    –the leveling system is pretty meh to me. One thing is it isn’t transparent about the maximums you can accumulate in each stat during the fight (I mean things like your shield topping out short of 200%), but also, why? The positive feedback aspect isn’t great, and it would be OK to have each level be a sort of set challenge. Often the redeeming feature of this is that you can adapt the fights to your skill level by grinding, but you can’t even grind here.
    –gotdamn that Steam thread you linked was painful. The developers weren’t being great at PR (that seems like a theme with them) but a lot of the players were just painfully entitled. Games are frustration machines which makes people angry, and me too, sometimes you realize that you put a lot of time and effort into something that has a design flaw or bug and it’s maddening, but there were a lot of people in that thread who were just infuriated that the game wasn’t like the way they expected. Though there’s also the effect of a too-gentle ramp up before the sudden difficulty jump when you cross the river, as it provides a sort of illusion of progress before you realize you don’t have the skillz. (I had something similar with Offspring Fling, which has a bunch of levels which are basically trivial and eventually turns into Fishbane, though there are other issues I have with it.) Imagine if Stephen’s Sausage Roll had some simple “here’s the sausage and here’s the grill” levels and then hit you with The Great Tower! It seems like the fact that everyone was talking about being stuck on different levels does suggest that it was skill instead of the game suddenly getting completely unfair. I did feel for the guy who plaintively said “I just want to come home and match some threes”–the Casual presentation of the game may set up some expectations.
    –the writing, oy.

    Actual highish-level thoughts:
    –the minigames were–not good. There’s three layers here–the not-goodness, the Oil and Water problem where coordination suddenly becomes a potential issue, the reverse Oil and Water problem where except for one level they weren’t actually on a clock so they were pointless, and also they’re just not what the game was about. I had a bit of a similar issue with the levels where the marbles move, because I thought it made it impossible to build for combos because anything you did would get swept away, but then I realized everything was on a loop so you just get the Oil and Water problem there. Didn’t like them much, though.
    –in contrast there were some levels that did clever things with the core mechanics. The most memorable was one where the opponent only fires red balls with a superpowered attack, you fire three types of balls, the path is a curve with one side accessible for each of you–and every single ball you don’t fire is one of those white balls with no effect. So it’s all about figuring out a way to get the red balls it fires away from its side so it can’t build up its combos.
    –with games like this it’s much more satisfying when the game is able to get different effects out of a logical set of mechanics rather than layering a bunch of different mechanics on each other. In an extreme you get an Oil and Water case, where even if you have a great Sokoban alternating with a great shooter you still would rather play them separately. But it’s also much better to have different variations on the “boom marbles for RPG points” idea than to introduce explicit rules like “OK here you have to make combos without shrinking this circle too much.” There’s one level with many overpowered bombs that effectively flips the script to avoiding combos without artificially changing the rules. A bit like Flames where sometimes the trick is to set things on fire and sometimes it’s to avoid doing that.
    –though a variety of mechanics can be cool too. You’ve said you’re glad that World of Goo doesn’t reuse its tricks, and I enjoyed Blobbo Lite which has lots and lots of different elements. (There’s even some reflection puzzles!) Even Stephen’s Sausage Roll really does have a lot of different mechanics, though they’re unified by the “This kind of makes sense as a matter of sausage physics” theme.

  12. What do you think of single level bite size puzzle games like:

    https://www.puzzlescript.net/play.html?p=bf3272fd7b73c43acb4f835478fb25ee
    or
    https://www.puzzlescript.net/play.html?p=45f13378f02acf2d2583d91fac32e729

    while they can’t be games that could be sold they are interesting in that they want you to experiment and figure out its mechanics in just one level and then once it’s completed it’s over.

  13. Matt

    It’s real nice at last to have someone around here who is a fellow Marble Duel veteran.

    I was surprised the final boss was not that difficult and I agree it lacked identity, very generic. It’s possible some luck was involved but I didn’t try the game again. I found Marble Duel compulsive; I was always interested to see the shape and structure of the next level.

    Yeah, the clever thing about Marble Duel is how it ekes so much from what seems a very basic rule set. Different combinations of spheres make some levels seem like they come from a different game (like the one you mentioned full of bombs) and topology is also key. I don’t remember much about the upgrade system, so perhaps that’s a comment in itself. (As you know, I’m not much of a fan of upgrade systems because in most cases they feel like illusions to excite the player. They’re not *all* bad, but Marble Duel doesn’t have anything special to commend it.)

    But, gosh, the story is completely forgettable. And the mini-games are inappropriate, all of them, including those sphere rings which really aren’t that interesting.

    The story and PR problems stem from the fact that Heroquest are an Eastern European developer and their English is not that strong. And I think You can see why I didn’t want to assume the complaints were valid? I think there were levels which were annoyingly random and some of the late levels are punishing – but those aren’t the memories I took away from Marble Duel.

    Hello Zozoko!

    I think the principle is great – I hadn’t played either of those until just a few minutes ago. Like I don’t know if there’s a “full blown game” in either of those ideas but it doesn’t make those individual levels less interesting. Then again, if you had LOTS of ideas like that, I’m sure you could assemble them into a single game, but making mechanics is very hard. (I didn’t manage to crack The Art of Cloning by the maker of The Flames no less).

    And there’s Participating in Society today from Stephen Lavelle.


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