Saturday, July 29, 2006

Browser Games 4

This week, I am back with a trio of browser games. These are games which you play right in your web browser. This edition is a little different. All three games are two-player abstract strategy games. The first two use Java which is a natural choice. The last one uses Macromedia Shockwave which surprised me a bit. I did not know that Shockwave had the power and efficiency to implement a good min-max algorithm.


In my youth, I purchased the book Brain Games by David Pritchard. It contains the rules and a brief introduction to the strategy for the best 33 abstract strategy games in Pritchard's opinion. I ate it up. I was most fascinated by Tablut, a Scandinavian game in Tafl family. I made a simple set and forced my brother and sister to play many games. Tablut is an asymmetric game. The goal of one side to move its king to the edge of the board. The goal of the other side is to stop the king. It is rare that asymmetric games are balanced, but Tablut is pretty close. Each piece moves like a rook in chess with custodian captures. There are a few other minor rules which you can read at their site.


Bridges is a classic game similar to hex. You have to form a red path from left-to-right before the computer forms a blue path from top-to-bottom. At each turn, one player turns a white square to their color forming their path and blocking the opponent at the same time. The game is as simple as that. This program plays a strong game. In order words, it kicks my butt. One cute thing about bridges is that a game cannot end in a draw. Ask your favorite mathematician friend for a proof.


This is an odd game. After playing it a significant number of times, I still do not understand the strategy. Each turn, you get a piece to play on an empty hex. Neighboring pieces of your color get their values incremented by one. Neighboring pieces of the other color and lesser value are captured and switch to your color. The player with the most hexes at the end wins. The order in which tiles arrive to placed is randomized and secret. This randomness has allowed me to win a couple of games, but I have yet to morally beat the computer. If someone has a good feel for the strategy of Proximity, I would like to know.

Saturday, July 15, 2006

Network Neutrality

In the year 2026, my son will send the following email to a friend.
    Yo Bobby,

    How's it going? Last night, Sally and I wanted to head out to Zingerman's Deli in Ann Arbor for dinner. But, when I entered their Road Network Address into my car's computer, I saw that they had not paid the annual access fee to the Metro Detroit Road Authority. You know what that means! By the Road Network Protocol, my car may only travel 10 mph while on a MDRA road heading to or returning from Zingerman's. The trip from Southfield and Ann Arbor would take forever.

    So, we went to TGI Friday's instead. We were able to go 65 mph most of the way. Because they paid for class 1-B access, we also made all but two lights. At one light, there was a family on their way to McDonalds crossing us. So, they got the green. At the other light, there was a guy returning from Target.

    It did kind of make me think about my senile old dad who used to blather on about Road Neutrality or something.

When network neutrality dies, so will blogs like this. How can Blogger afford to pay your ISP for access? Similarly, how can all those sites which provide us with free games and demos pay the fees. I pay SBC n dollars a month for x bandwidth. What I do that x bandwidth should be up to me. I paid for it. If SBC needs to make more money, they should increase n. The website supports this view.

Sites like advocate no government interference in the Internet. Thus allowing ISPs to charge destination sites (ie google) money in order for their customer's packets to get there. I would be fine with this view if the ISP market was truly a free market, because I could choose an ISP which treats packets neutrally. Who wouldn't? In reality, the ISP market is an oligopoly. Most people in the United States have to choose between cable and DSL for high speed Internet access. It is in situations like this when government intervention is called for.

Thursday, July 13, 2006


Name: Eets: Hunger. It's emotional
Author: klei entertainment
License: commercial

This week's game, Eets, has gotten some great reviews. Here are a few: Game Tunnel, Jay is Games, and Gamespot. These are well respected game reviewers. Far more respected and experienced than I am. So, why don't I love Eets just as much as they do? Sure, it is a fun and cute puzzle game. Actually, it may be too cute, but that is a matter of personal taste. I enjoyed playing it. I would suggest you go buy it (well... see my DRM rant below) and play it, or at least give the demo a spin. However, in my opinion, it does not deserve all the raves it is getting.

I was bothered by this difference of opinion for a long time, but eventually I figured it out. The reason why I do not care for Eets as much as many other reviewers is that I am not in its target audience. Eet is aimed at the casual gamer. They are going for a wider audience. This is apparent in the early levels which are a breeze. I was able to get through about half of the levels within the 60 minute demo period. This is not to say that Eets is always easy. Some of the later levels are tricky, but never a deep challenge. Eets was originally designed for handhelds such as the PSP. The small size limits the scope of the levels and is probably responsible to some extent for easier difficulty.

Now for a one paragraph rant on the term "casual". Many people, even people who should know better, lump all puzzle/logic games into the "casual game" category. There is nothing casual or easy about the games which I enjoy and promote in this blog. Most are quite difficult. The number of gamers in the world capable of finishing Deadly Rooms of Death is significantly smaller than the number who can beat Half-Life 2. However, for some reason, many gaming websites put DRoD in the same bin as all of those Bejeweled clones. It is damn annoying.

I am going to try to put a positive spin on Eets. It is a stepping stone game. After new gamers finish off Eets, they can start to explore the world of hardcore puzzle and logic games. To this end, I think Eets is great. Also, the popularity of Eets shows that there is pent up demand for puzzle games. People are willing to pay real money for a good puzzle game. Maybe, the game developers will take notice.

Before I go on, I need to mention a troubling aspect of Eets. When you purchase Eets, you do not get ownership of a copy of the game. Instead you receive the right to activate five copies of the game. This is very similar to purchasing songs using iTunes. The difference here is that there is no mention of this restriction until after you have sent them your money. The following sentence is from the email they sent me after I purchased the game.
    In the event of a license loss, a change in your computer's configuration or if you wish to install the software on additional computers, you will have to RENEW your license by providing us with your: ACTIVATION CODE:
What does "a change in your computer's configuration" mean? This is scary. Depending on your personality, this is either par for the course in the new DRM world, a deceptive business practice, or plain illegal. I understand that piracy is a problem, but they should have been up front about this policy. If I had known about this restriction, I probably would not have purchased the game. But, I did purchase it, so on with the review.

Hold on, one more mini-rant. I am really troubled that none of the supposedly reputable reviews listed above even mention this activation restriction. Note to game reviewers: your duty is to us game players not the game makers. This means that you should tell us about things like Eets' activation policy. It also means telling us about copy protection crap like Starforce (which Eets does not contain). I would also like to know if a game requires administrator privilege in order to install and/or play (which Eets does not). Putting these sort of facts in your reviews will not make game developers happy, and they may stop sending you free games to review. But if you have any integrity, this is what you need to do.

Alright, I guess I should describe the game. I will be brief as you probably have already read some of those other reviews. Most of them say Eets is a The Incredible Machine (TIM) style game. I would actually say Incredible Toon Machine is more like it. You have to guide Eets, the guy with the big circular head, to his goal, the puzzle piece. Each level comes with some items to place on the board. There is a wide variety of objects to place. The whale for example sucks up nearby objects and spits them out. The cookie shots out chocolate chips. The pig emits exploding piglets when touched. There are many more. Each comes with a nice cartoonish animation. Holding the mouse over any item brings up a description of that item and its actions and effects.

Once you think you have the items placed correctly, hit play. But, unlike most TIM games, hitting play does not leave you an observer. You still have to direct the action with some timely mouse clicks somewhat in the style of Lemmings. In order to get the whale to suck up and spit out Eets, you need to click on the whale as Eets walks by. You have to pay attention, but the timing is not critical. There is usually a fairly wide window in which a click will work.

The unique feature in the game is that Eets has three different moods: angry, happy, and scared. The main effect of Eet's mood is his action at an edge of a cliff: jump far, jump a little, or turn around. There are a variety of ways to change Eets mood. The primary way is to place special marshmallows for Eets to eat. Thus, the name of the game. Planning these mood transitions is the heart of the game.

Within the game, there are seven puzzle areas. Each area introduces some new items with a few tutorial levels. Then there are roughly ten levels which can be played in any order. To move on to the next area, you only need to complete about half of levels. Thank you, thank you, thank you for this level access model. After completing all these levels, you can try the fan-made levels. There is more than enough to keep you busy. Some of these are really hard and do require some careful timing.

One nice feature of Eats is the trophy room. When complete certain tasks such as solving a level without using all of the items, you get a trophy. Another trophy is given out when you complete all of the levels. One trophy is for "doing something special." I am not sure what that is. There are ten trophies in all. I have only gotten five of them. Maybe this game is harder than I thought.

Many TIM-like games suffer from a pixel-level accuracy problem. To solve a level, an item might have to place just right. If the item is off by even a couple of pixels, it does not work. Somehow, Eets avoids this. I am not sure how exactly, but I never had to place something just so to solve a level.

The graphics and sound are top notch. Eets is very professionally done game. It is a bit cutesy at time for my taste, but I think I am in the minority on this point. I wish you could turn off the background at times as you can in TIM.

Saturday, July 08, 2006

Drops of Light

Name: Drops of Light
Author: Ky Kimport
License: Freeware

I am reviewing a slightly older game this week. I first played Drops of Light four years ago or so and recently returned to it. I am glad I did. It is a simple, fun, slightly unusual puzzler and well worth playing.

Drops of Light is played on the points and intersections of a six-sided star. In each level, there is a starting configuration and ending configuration. Your goal is figure out how to transform one into the other within a certain number of moves. To do this, you move photons from one node to the next. In making such moves, you can combine two photons into one if they contain no primary colors in common. When combining photons, the usual laws of optics apply. For example, blue plus red makes purple.

There is another type of possible move. You can split a photon into its constituent primary colors. Each of these constituent photons can be placed at a neighboring node or in the original node. This ability to combine and split colors allows you move one photon through another, and maybe pick up or drop off a color along the way. The heart of the game is determining the most efficient way to combine and split photons.

There is a limit on how many moves you can make. Each level comes with an energy limit. It costs one unit of energy to move a photon from one node to another. It costs two or three units of energy to split up a photon containing two or three constituent primary colors. You have to plan carefully how to use your allowed energy on a level. Some levels can be solved without using all of the energy, see the Hall of Fame.

Drops of Light comes with 119 levels spread across 8 level sets. The quality and pacing of the levels is pretty good. Some of the later ones are quite challenging.

Now for my complaints. First, you have to complete the levels in order, and there are passwords to write down. This is mitigated by the fact that there are 8 level sets. If you stuck on one set, you can move onto the next. Also, passwords for the "classic" level set are available on the website. My second complaint is that the graph of nodes on which game is played never varies. Drops of Light would be greatly improved if level designers could use a graph of their choosing adding a little variety.

Saturday, July 01, 2006

MailRoom Madness

Name: MailRoom Madness
Author: Reasonable Games
License: Freeware

MailRoom Madness is a fun simple platform puzzler. This simplicity is its beauty. There are just ten items in the game. It takes only a few minutes to learn all of its intricacies. That isn't to say MailRoom Madness is easy. The quality and variety of the levels make this a great game.

The goal of each level is to collect all of the mail. Supposedly, some disgruntled postal employee spread them about for you to collect. To gain access to these letters, you have to use the various items. The first set of items is the boxes: normal, fragile, and empty. These boxes can be picked up and moved about allowing you to build staircases and bridges.

Next, there are elevators. You can warp up or down to other elevators. One interesting aspect of MailRoom Madness is that you can move the elevators. This ability results in some great puzzles. There are only a couple of other items. Bombs which can dropped and destroy floors. There are tiles which can only be walked over once. Finally, reels can be pushed to fill holes and set off bombs.

MailRoom Madness comes with 70 levels. The level design is very good. Each level is rated for difficulty. The levels can be difficult but never unfair. There are a couple of very nice features which I want to mention. In case you make a misstep, you can undo. I am not sure how many steps are recorded. Also, you save your progress on any step. My only complaint is that you have to complete each level in order. If you are willing to edit your registry, you can get around this.

Reasonable games has a sequel More Mailroom Madness. It is a shareware games which includes several additional items, springs and lasers and whatnot.