The best multiplayer experience in a year full of brilliant ones came from a company that had never shipped a mobile game before, and it represents only the second time we’ve ever given an award to a free-to-play game.
Posts by: Kelsey Rinella
Pair Solitaire is a fresh replacement for the Klondike most of us learned as children and now only play when counting flowers on the wall and watching Captain Kangaroo grows stale. The concept is remarkably simple: line up all 52 cards, and then you can remove a card which matches a card not adjacent, but two away from it, either in suit or rank. It requires careful planning to remove as many cards as possible.
The card designs are attractive and the interface handles portrait and landscape equally well, and, while I prefer most games on the iPad, PS works nicely at the smaller phone size. Even better, though unlocking the full version will run you a buck, this only unlocks different card faces and a daily challenge, and removes ads I hadn’t even noticed in the gameplay-complete free version.
Now that I have satisfied Thumper’s dad, that’s everything good I can say about the game. It will find an audience among those who would otherwise be playing Klondike, but this is Pocket Tactics–if you’re coming here at all, you can do better.
Owen has asked me to explain our pick for the best RPG of 2014 because he respects our exemplary audience enough not to want to inflict upon them his amateur poetry. I sympathize; many of the most impressive games of the year rely upon high-class presentation, while this particular game’s presentation is about as classy as a nose-picking contest on America’s Next Top Hobo. When I put that way, it doesn’t sound likely to inspire verse, but at Pocket Tactics we are moved by a nontraditional muse.
Stalag 17 is a tense game about escaping from a German POW camp in WWII. It evokes a sense of very limited power and the psychological impact of unpredictable inspections which can cost you all the time and preparation sunk into maximizing a crucial opportunity. Oddly, it’s a hand management game in which you start with only two cards in hand, and your ability to draw more cards is offset by the high cost of being caught with much in it. I ended up feeling like I was locked in a closet and my joy at the key in my hand was tempered by the occasional scrabbling sounds coming from the other side of the door.
Tabletop blockbuster Love Letter has amply demonstrated that it’s possible to make hand management work even with a maximum hand size of one card, but it makes players highly dependent on options for improving that hand. Stalag’s problem is that it feels like it learnt too well the lesson that catch-up mechanisms need to be weak in order to allow the advantage of skill to matter. That’s true, but in a game with some randomness and a relatively low skill ceiling, advantages often come from luck. As a result, the fact that most of your options for improving a terrible hand come with substantial costs feels disempowering. Thematically, that’s perfect–one expects escaping from a POW camp to be terribly difficult and involve a great deal of influence from factors beyond your control. It also means that Stalag is ideally suited for the sort of brief “filler” role in which a strong experience can compensate for limited depth.
Some apocalypses leave the surface of the earth in desperate straits, with humanity struggling to survive. Mad Max, Fallout, A Canticle for Liebowitz–there are lots of post-apocalyptic settings in which interesting things can still happen on Earth. Heck, Marvel apparently already has post-Ragnarok plans. Nexionode is set at the end of the other kind of apocalypse; the kind that puts one in mind of the classic exploration of how to utterly destroy the earth. When something’s coming which won’t even leave the cradle of humanity a plausible place to recolonize, the tragically unforgiving allure of space becomes irresistible. Unfortunately, you’ve departed on your extrasolar Oregon Trail in quite the hurry, without the equivalent of a spare wheel or axle. Your job now is to Macguyver your way around the complications of flying humanity’s last hope before it’s entirely finished being built.
Darkly humorous setting aside, what we’re really talking about here is a simple puzzle game; in some of the loosest theming this side of the Tetris movie, there’s nothing an interstellar handyman can face which isn’t fixed by drawing lines between dots. These are the titular acid reflux-suffering nodes, each of which sports a number of hashes equal to the number of links it must have. Fortunately, simple concepts can work well for puzzle games, and Nexionode gradually adds obstacles, severe time limits, and motion, all of which add difficulty without additional rules overhead.
Driving. You only see other delivery trucks, so it must be late, but you’re so amped that the world takes it color from a small box of crayons. Need to swing by the stash; they need red tops across town. Have to be careful not to circle around or trace the path of the fella bringing the green pills to that rich kid’s party, though–boss don’t want too much exposure in case of a stakeout somewhere. He’s getting paranoid, moving his drivers to a new city every ten jobs. Never get to learn the layout; feels like civil engineer gremlins lay out new roads every morning.
The un-themes and family-friendly attire of many puzzle games drive me to creative interpretation. RGB Express is the polar opposite of noir, a simple deliver-the-packages puzzler with a difficulty curve reminiscent of the world’s longest bunny slope. It instantly attracted my children to perch on my shoulders like a five- and six-year-old Hugin and Munin excitedly shouting what we’ll euphemistically call “wisdom”. It’s a wonderfully inviting experience, and for a long time offers only rare challenges for a disciplined mind. Eventually, though, I was tired and distracted, and chose Ascension over RGB–that was when I realized it had gotten hard. Continue reading…
My grandmother is a Gin Rummy player, and by “player” here, I mean something rather less innocent and more ruthlessly predatory than the association with “play” might suggest. Many traditional card games have a high skill ceiling and a basic mechanism which generates interesting choices, but also have a themeless blandness and significant gameplay flaws which make developing that skill something of a chore. Rocco Bowling thought it would be pretty cool to highlight the heart of such a game by adding some tactical positioning and setting it in the same universe as his masterful and well-maintained Starbase Orion. So, instead of playing a five to take a two and three as in the classic Italian card game Scopa, you’re launching a midsize cruiser to ward off an attack on your home star system. Like tabletop gem Nexus Ops, Starbase Annex is still fairly simple, but departs from its traditional card game roots in that playing feels more like being a galactic emperor and less like being an elderly hairdesser.
My first thought, upon hearing the pitch for Matchstick Memories, was that it had great potential to remedy a serious problem with classic interactive fiction: as I read most IF games, I’m basically playing Spock (Leonard Nimoy style, not the new-fangled, emotional Zachary Quinto version). I might have some investment in the story, but I always have as much time as I like to rationally evaluate my options. Even worse, the authors know this, so they have to write their choices so as not to make the better option so obvious that the distinctive freedom the book offers effectively disappears. So, not only do I feel like that bizarre abstraction, Economic Model Man, but the story also ends up feeling contrived for maximum uncertainty.
Matchstick Memories (henceforth MM) offers interactive fiction in which your performance on a variety of puzzles determines your choices. You’re still the ruthlessly efficient Economic Model Man, but now there’s some gameplay standing between you and your decisions. It’s well-suited to players who’ve ever imagined that successful life choices might hinge on the thousands upon thousands of hours of games you’ve played (which, as a man with a gig reviewing games for a website, I have).