Review: The Game - Play...as long as you can!30 Mar 2016 10
Review: The Game - Play...as long as you can!
Released 22 Mar 2016
“The Game” is the title of this game. For App Store purposes, it's “The Game - Play … as long as you can!”, but it's really just “The Game”. You see what happens, Patchwork: The Game? Now I have to hire John Goodman to take a baseball bat to Clash Royale’s new sports car (because that's the first hit at the moment when you search for “the game” on iTunes, which nicely preserves the mistaken identity motif. Also, Clash Royale can afford a replacement). In some ways, I understand--it has to be hard to choose a name for a completely abstract hand-management game. If you sell the game as Twilight Sparkle’s Rainbow Butterflies, people will look at the paragraph’s worth of rules and dismiss it as something to trade to their kids for a moment’s peace. If you go for something more like Mind Duel Challenge Team Force and slap a “Spiel des Jahres Nominee” sticker on it, enthusiasts might be more aware that there’s some depth, but the casual crowd will steer clear of a game they could perfectly comfortably play. So they went with the equivalent of “It’s a Game - You Play It”, and then tried to give it a little more flavor by borrowing stylistic elements from black magic and pyromania. I don’t understand it any more than you do.
In the solo-only digital conversion, The Game works like a puzzle. You have a hand of (usually eight) cards drawn from a deck with the numbers 2-99, and you must place two (or three, on the higher difficulty levels) per turn onto piles. You have four piles to choose from: two up, two down. On an up pile, you can place any card higher than the value showing, or a card exactly ten less than the value showing. Down piles are exactly the same, but climb down. Your goal is to play as many cards as possible. If you empty the draw pile, you’re doing pretty well, but you only beat the game if you play every card. Even on the easy level, that’s very difficult for me. [I'm pretty sure it's difficult for everyone -ed.]
What makes this dry exercise in testing your comprehension of greater than and less than interesting is the varying degrees to which you can plan to bounce back ten. Sometimes, you’re given very little to work with, and you’re simply playing to reduce the distance you travel and avoid leaving several piles in need of similar cards. But sometimes you’re holding 38, 58, and 68, with only 10 cards left in the deck and you have to try to remember whether you’ve already played the 48 and whether you can delay long enough to set up that epic bounce-chain. Because the balance between tactics and strategy is always shifting, you’re constantly re-evaluating how deeply you need to think. There’s a disagreeable amount of card memory involved in truly excellent play, but I found myself mostly not even trying, and still enjoying the task.
The Game switches things up by adding several additional modes: more difficult versions of the normal rules in which you must play three cards per turn, or have a hand size of seven rather than eight. There’s also the “On Fire” mode, in which 22, 33, and so on require that you cover them up immediately once played to a pile; if they remain uncovered at the end of the turn, you lose. But the real star for me was the digital-only “Lift Up” mode, which turns the game into a high-score chase. It’s particularly cool because, though the variability is still present, the amount of planning ahead is somewhat higher. In Lift Up mode, you earn a stacking multiplier each time you play a card only one higher or lower than the cards it’s on. Since there’s a 25-point bonus to bouncing back, the ideal play involves playing several cards in a row which are adjacent to their predecessors, then bouncing back. But the balance between big plays vs. consistent efficiency interacts with your thinking about the usual concerns about moving too far in a complex way, but never gives you so much to think about that it becomes a sitting still simulator. As a parent, a sitting still simulator becomes a grail game, but, as a player, it’s not really my bag.
There are a lot of reasons you might not like The Game. There’s enough randomness that you’re assured of numerous opportunities to curse the gods. The theme is so thin and strange I’m honestly a little surprised they even bothered to represent physical cards splayed out as a hand. For a brief game that’s light on rules and has few interface elements, they’re often small enough to be hard to tap accurately on a phone-size screen (though I tip my hat to The Game's designer, Steffen Benndorf, for pointing out that it’s possible to tap on a card and its destination, rather than dragging, which helps quite a bit). It’s solo-only. But it merits its SdJ nomination; very few games are so completely approachable while offering as interesting a challenge, and its brevity makes it very well-suited to mobile. Now, if only they’d named the app The Game: The Game, so I could mock it while feeling as though the devs are laughing with me.