Friday, December 30, 2005

2005 Game of the Year

Game of the Year: DROD: Journey to Rooted Hold

This was an easy choice. Playing DROD: JtRH was the most gaming fun I had all year. Nothing else came close. Running around in the various mazes, out-witting and killing all the creatures is great turn-based logical fun. DROD:JtRH is a massive game, and when you finish, there is DROD: King Dugan's Dungeon. The next version DROD: The City Beneath is currently 61% complete. If that is not enough, there are many user-made holds.

Runner-Up: Babala

While still technically in beta status, Babala is a great polished game. You have to shoot or blow up all the bad guys before they get to you. Luckily, there are weapon caches sprinkled around the board. The real beauty is that the rules are simple and the depth in the game comes from masterful level design. This is must play freeware game.

Honorable Mention: Pyva Lights and 6-Colors

These are two great 5-minute freeware games from Pyva net. In Pyva Lights, you rotate the nodes to form a connected grid of lights. 6-Colors is a challenging 2-player strategy game. It is much better than the similarly named 7-Colors.

Thursday, December 22, 2005


Name: Loderunner: The Legend Returns
Author: Sierra
License: Commercial
Website: abandoned

It has been a busy week. So, I am going to pull out a classic. I hope you do not mind a history lesson.

I first played Loderunner on the Apple II back in 1984 (give or take a year) and immediately fell in love. That version was developed by Doug Smith and released by Broderbund. It had a near perfect combination of simple rules and good level design plus a fun factor which is hard to quantify. I spent many an hour playing through the 150 levels several times. Then using the level editor, my brother and I made many challenging levels for each other. Soon afterwards, Championship Loderunner was released with 50 tough levels. Yes, sometimes the levels require some tricky finger work and/or fine timing, but it is mostly a thinker's game.

Just in case there is anybody out there who has not played Loderunner, let me give a quick overview. It is platform game in which you play Jake Peril. Your goal is to collect all of the gold chests and then make your way to the exit. Standing between you and success are the bungling mad monks. They chase you around the map. If one comes into contact with you, game over. Your only weapon is an ability to temporarily drill out certain types of floor tiles just to your left or right. Monks will fall into these traps and stay there for a short while allowing you to pass over them. On several levels, you also have to use your drilling ability to gain access to some of the gold.

In 1994, Sierra released a remake called Loderunner: The Legend Returns (LR:tLR), and I was in puzzle game heaven once again. It is rare that a remake is actually better than the original, but LR:tLR does it. They added several new items: bombs, keys, goop which significantly slows down you and the monks when passing through it, caves in which you can hide, and a couple more. My favorite new feature is the spot light. On these levels, you can only see a small circle around Jake; the rest of the screen including the position of the monks is hidden. Even with the additions, the game keeps it old feel and most importantly its fun factor.

There are 150 levels in LR:tLR divided into 10 groups of 15 with cut scenes between groups. The levels are the heart of the game and well done. The pacing is just right, introducing new items and increasing in difficulty at a comfortable pace. Any level can be played at any time, although you lose the ability to appear in the high score list by skipping a level. And a level editor is included.

Despite being over ten years old, LR:tLR plays just fine on Windows XP machines. However, it only uses 480x640 resolution and appears as a small window on today's monitors. A minor flaw. Another complaint is that the AI for the monks is really bad. They often get stuck and are not super aggressive at chasing you down. My final minor complaint is that red monks blend into the backgrounds for some pallets. Do not let any of this stop you giving this game a try.

About a year after LR:tLR came out, Sierra released a small upgrade called Loderunner On-Line: The Mad Monks' Revenge. I was not able to get my copy to run on any of current computers. My memory is that it was not a huge improvement over LR:tLR, but it did allow you to play 2-player cooperative levels on-line.

It appears that LR:tLR has fallen into abandoned status. You can get it at the usual abandonware sites. There are several online Loderunner resources. The best is probably Jason's Loderunner Archive. It contains patches and user made levels. One set of user made levels is the 150 from the original Loderunner and the 50 from Championship Loderunner. Also, they have a list of minor flaws in the rules. These do not really effect the levels which come with LR:tLR, but some user made levels take advantage of them. Another good source on LR:tLR is here.

Over the years there have been many Loderunner remakes and clones. Caiman Free Games has a whole category on Loderunner type games. I want to mention two of them. The first is the official sequel called Loderunner 2. This version is 3-dimensional played from an isometric view. In this version, Jake can drill in any one of four directions. They also improved the monk AI. There are three types of monks with different AI routines. However, the controls are clunky, and it just does not have the same magic as the original.

The other is N. This game has a wonderfully fluid motion and excellent physics model. The British version of PC Gamer listed N in their list of the best 100 games ever this last Summer. In N, the ratio between fancy finger work and thinking tips towards the finger work, but this is still must try freeware game for any Loderunner fan.

Friday, December 16, 2005

Gipf for One

Name: Gipf for One
Author: Kurt Van den Branden
License: GNU General Public License

Gipf is one of the best two-player abstract strategy games released in last ten years. It was named the best abstract game in 1998 by Games Magazine. Gipf is played on a hexagonal grid. Each player starts with a reservoir of twelve pieces. A turn consists of taking a piece from the reservoir, placing it on the edge of the board, and pushing it onto the board. Any neighboring pieces get pushed along the same line. If after moving, four or more pieces of the same color form a row, they are removed along with any adjacent opponent pieces in the same row. The player's pieces are returned to their reservoir. The opponent's pieces are captured and removed from the game. The first player whose reservoir runs dry loses.

The strategy is fascinating. You want to threaten captures while avoiding getting your own pieces captured. You also want to maintain a supply of pieces in your reservoir. This often means completing rows of four with no captures just to replenish your reservoir. To keep your opponent from replenishing their reservoir, you often need to disconnect their pieces with a timely push. As a testament to the depth of Gipf, even after a few hundred games, I still do not have a good feel for what strategically makes a good position besides the obvious captured piece count.

Gipf for One (GF1) is a very good computer version of Gipf. It has human vs human and human vs computer modes, and is a great way to learn how to play the game. GF1 has crisp graphics and a simple, intuitive interface. It also plays a strong game. There are eight strength levels. Level 3 beats me far more often than I beat it, and I have never beaten level 4. GF1 mixes in a little randomness so that each game is different.

There are actually three sets of rules for the game Gipf: basic, standard, and tournament. The basic version was briefly described above. The standard game adds to the game three "Gipf Pieces" for each side. These are special pieces and have additional powers. However, you must keep at least one on the board, or you lose. The tournament rules adds another layer by allowing the player to choose the number of Gipf Pieces. GF1 implements all three rule sets.

Gipf is the first game in the Gipf Project, a collection of six abstract strategy game. There is a computer version for one of the other games. It is aptly named Zertz for One.

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Christmas Wish List

Dear Santa,

I have been a very good boy this year. So, I deserve lots of presents. Santa, here is what I want for Christmas.
  • No Spyware or Adware. I want a spyware free 2006. I get so bummed when a cool looking game comes along with some evil spyware or adware. I feel violated and delete it as fast as I can. If you want to make some money off your game, charge us $10.
  • Mainstream Coverage of Puzzle/Logic Games. I want mainstream gaming magazines to provide some coverage of puzzle and logic games. I am only asking for a little coverage. They used to cover our games. In the "Strategy and Puzzle" section of this year's Games Magazine top 100 computer games (Dec 05), there were 9 games listed. None were puzzle games. All were strategy games. So sad. Blogs like this one are fine, but they are inherently biased and limited.
  • GNU Bridge. There is GNU Backgammon, GNU Chess, and even GNU Go. For GNU Bridge, there is only an empty directory. What is the deal?
  • Game Theory. Here is an odd request Santa, I would really like a logic game based on game theory. In it, you would have to figure the right mixed strategy in order to complete the levels or beat the computer. A simple example of such a game is footsteps. Another example is the battles in Heroes of Might and Magic. Doing well in these battles requires some knowledge of game theory. I not quite sure what I want, but I will know it when I see. For the curious, here is good book on game theory with many applications to puzzle games.
  • More Fan-Made Levels. I want more fans to take the time to make levels for their favorite game. After completing a good game, you can extend the joy of that game for others by putting together a good level set. I am as guilty as anyone in this regard. Maybe, I should make this a new year's resolution.
  • Good Remake of Oxyd. One of the most disappointing moments of the year for me was playing Oxyd 2.0. At least we have enigma.
  • Smart Games 4. Smart Games is a series of compilations of puzzle games. Each combines some old classics with some original gems. They are very well done. I would love a fourth edition.
  • Original Games. I know this somewhat contradicts my previous two requests, but I would like a couple of new original games. Something that catches me by surprise and pushes my brain in new ways.
  • Sprouts. I want a computer version of sprouts. Sprouts is an interesting topological graph theory game. Here a java version for human vs human play. Writing a version which plays against you might be difficult. It is not even clear how to efficiently compute a list of possible moves. A couple of other links: World Game of Sprouts Association and Google Directory. There has been some research on sprouts.
  • Liberating Abandonware. Sometimes, the copyright holders of older commercial games release their games into the public domain. The Liberated Games site keeps a list of games which have been released. There is only one puzzle game in list: glider. I would like more copyright holders to release their games. If you have stopped selling the game, liberate it and keep us from having to dip into the legally murky world of abandonware.
That is all I want Santa. Happy holidays and peace to all: Christians, Jews, Moslems, Hindus, Buddhists, Atheists, and any others I may have missed.


Friday, December 02, 2005


Name: SubTerra
Author: Crystal Shard
License: Freeware

SubTerra is part boulderdash, part sokoban, part logic game, part action game, and a little blocks thrown in for good measure. You control the guy with the brown hood. Your goal is collect enough gems to activate the exit. To get to the exit, you have to navigate mazes, find keys to unlock doors, obtain special tools to pass through certain tiles (ice skates to pass over ice for example), and move items out of the way. Along the way you need avoid falling rocks, traps, monsters, and what not.

SubTerra is not a perfect game. In fact, it is far from it. The games contains 80 plus objects. This is the first problem with the game: there are too many items. The tutorial levels gently introduces the various items, and there is good documentation. However, it is difficult to keep track of how each item acts and interacts with other items. Let's see, when a rock drops on an egg, it becomes a diamond. On the other hand, when an egg passes through a blue transmuter, it hatches into a cryo bird monster. The rules often do not make any sense. Why does a safe when pushed into water become dirt? I think you get the point.

The second problem is more personal taste. Too many of the levels require quick fingers and little brains. I wish it was the other way around. Or at least, I wish there was one level set which is for thinkers only.

Another complaint is that the game is buggy. If you minimize the game, it will most likely crash. When you exit, SubTerra hangs with a white screen. You have to use the task bar to kill the game. This is very annoying.

With all this going against it, why am spending this week's entry on SubTerra? Well... it is a fun game. There are a huge number of levels, 7 level set with 459 levels, plus some hidden levels. And despite the frenzy finger work sometimes necessary, the levels are enjoyable and challenging. Also, this was released as freeware after being shareware for years (thank you!!!).

Another thing this game has going for it is a large fan following. This is always a good sign. CaravelNet (makers of DROD) hosts a SubTerra forum. In this forum, you can find out about new levels, get help, learn how those transporters work, or read up on rumors of a sequel.