This is the third part of The Ouroboros Sequence, a series on puzzle games.
Spelltower (Zach Gage, 2011). It’s like the best word game, the best, I heard.
I installed it on my Android, gave it a spin. I had a good time. Briefly. Either my game was too short and unsatisfying or it was really long and taxing.
The last game I played kept going and going. After, I think, a couple of weeks, I made the call. I never opened the app again. The game died in stasis.
And I came to the sobering conclusion that maybe I didn’t want it to be so hard.
Spelltower belongs to the special category of “word puzzle games” which are a world apart from your stereotypical abstract indie puzzler: the rules of language are knotted up with the rules of the game. Some stupid people might argue a word game isn’t a puzzle but let’s ignore those people for now.
Spelltower feels familiar. Players must match tiles to clear space while the game keeps adding more to the board; the game is over if the tiles reach the top. Normally in this flavour of puzzle game the player is tasked to match tile colours but in Spelltower they must make words from the letters printed on the tiles to remove them.
There are some twists to make the game even harder. A word can only be used once to make a match and some letters come with minimum word length requirements. As you are more likely to form words from letters that have neighbours on both sides – simply because there are more possibilities available – what inevitably happens is that you build up tile debt on the edges of the screen. It becomes crucial to attack the towers on the edges because they are harder to wear down.
On Android, there are three single player modes (actually there’s four, but let’s just pretend expert mode doesn’t exist). “Puzzle mode” adds a new row after each move while “Rush mode” is a race against time as a new row is added every few seconds. I found Rush mentally debilitating – stress killed my ability to divide attention between word hunting and managing towers. So I gravitated towards Puzzle mode.
Spelltower tightens the noose rapidly. The more progress you make, the more tiles with minimum word length requirements appear. In fact, you don’t have to throw away half an hour before it gets serious – it’s bloody efficient in getting you to think. Each move you make undermines your future – remember, those words you’re burning up can’t be used again. The player experiences rising panic, the feeling that the walls are closing in. But each moment-to-moment snapshot is a puzzle in itself, one with no guarantee of solution. Inevitably, I would stare at the board for a long time before making a move.
In the final game, I accepted I wasn’t enjoying myself. It seemed that Spelltower frequently pumped out obnoxious letters like Q and X and the constant stream of long word requirements were difficult to satisfy with such a narrow board. Spelltower, the masocore word game. I was always opening the app reluctantly to stare at the latest Board of Unfairness, one skirmish in a long war of attrition I was destined to lose.
I was grasping for a mode less taxing where I could just deploy words without quite so much anxiety. Note that I’ve discussed only two of the three modes. The third, Tower mode, might seem to be exactly what I was looking for. Here Spelltower piles up 150 tiles and asks you to make as many words out of it as you can. That’s it. No pressure to perform, just spell words.
This did not scratch the right itch at all and there was an obvious limit to the scores you could pull off. I needed something different, a mode in which I could blossom.
Smash Hit (Mediocre AB, 2014) is a first-person action game where you throw balls to smash obstacles made of glass; it should have been called Window Smashing Simulator 2014. After a few levels, the standard game gets hard, demanding rapid and precise firing. The developers bundled in a zen mode which frees you from the repercussions of missing obstacles and tools you up with infinite ammunition: smash away, my friend. I felt like I was looking for something like that in Spelltower. Where is Spelltower‘s zen mode?
Nearly three years ago, I loved then broke up with Alphabear (Spry Fox, 2015). On the surface, Alphabear is a bright mix of puzzle and word play saturated with cute bears. Alphabear presents the player with a grid of letters from which you must make words and each letter has a point value. The point values decrement each turn they are not used, eventually becoming unusable stone at zero. You also get bigger bonuses if you’ve cleared large rectangular areas, and stones severely damage those bonuses. Players also collect bears which act as rechargeable powerups: if used wisely, they can net you a cool score boost.
Each board is finite. You have to make the best of it, much like Spelltower’s Tower mode, but I found it more involving. What undid my Alphabear relationship was the realisation that the bear powerups were far more important than word smarts for high scores. With my innocence torn asunder, I could no longer view it as this curious, intricate little word toy but more of an RPG with XP word grind. Dan Cook of Spry Fox explained in the comments that an earlier more purer incarnation of the design, Panda Poet, had done poorly, but Alphabear’s strain had found an audience.
In some ways, Alphabear is closer to the zen mode I was hankering after. But it cared too little for the words and the powerup-centric structure shunted it sideways into something more grindy. Still, it held my attention for a while. Back in that 2015 post on Alphabear, I wrote that “I tend to play a single big board over a whole day, pondering over long word possibilities on the train, in the cafe queue, at the urinal…”
However, caution is advised. There are awkward parallels to be found with Threes (Sirvo, 2014) and the free, multi-platform clone that would come to eclipse it: 2048 (Gabriele Cirulli, 2014).
In Threes, the player faces a four-by-four grid of numbered tiles. Each turn, the player chooses which direction to slide the tiles in: they all move one space and an extra tile slides on to the edge you’ve pulled from. Space is created by merging tiles of the same value to make their double – such as 6 and 6 to make 12, 12 and 12 to make 24 – with the exception of 1 and 2 which must be combined to make 3.
Like Spelltower, Threes is efficient at getting the player into trouble quickly. Players who plan to see high value tiles like 768 learn to slide cautiously from the get-go. The developers laboured hard to make Threes simple to pick up and get interesting fast. It is the opposite of the zen game and I love it.
2048 appears similar to Threes but the sliding works a little differently plus the tiles are assigned powers of 2. The result is a game that does not get interesting until you’ve done a lot of grinding. 2048 is addictive because players can mindlessly slide tiles without concern for a good portion of the game. Players who leave the safe haven of 2048 to dabble with Threes are often stunned by the latter’s brutality.
2048 is the zen mode of Threes. I hate 2048.
Electron Dance regulars will be aware I’ve been playing Six Match (Aaron Steed, 2017) intensively over the last few weeks. It is a Match-3 game that involves sliding tiles around but shares a feature with 2048: you can almost play on autopilot for the early phase of the game. Almost. The fact that you will be dead in six moves if you don’t pay attention means you will pay attention even when Six Match is showering you with cascades. It just about blends a perfect marriage of zen mode – easy, purposeful progression – with vicious puzzle strategy.
Six Match starts as 2048 and then becomes Spelltower. You pore over each move, taking longer and longer, to ensure you’re not backed into a corner as you have only so many second chances. Getting a Six Match score above 6,000 is a fucking project that can easily span days.
And now I see what it was that I desired, what sweet spot I’d been searching for in Spelltower. I wanted the illusion of puzzle solving that gradually transformed into a hardcore mental workout. But it’s a very fickle, personal desire because I certainly didn’t need this from Threes. The question isn’t where is Spelltower’s zen mode because I can tell you exactly where it is. It’s on bloody iOS. It was added last year, 6 years after Spelltower’s initial release. The question should be why do I want one?
And I cannot answer this. But it does mean all that soul-searching about what makes a “real puzzle game” last week was a complete waste of time. It seems I want puzzle games to not actually be puzzle games; I want them to lie to me. At least, just for a little while.