Saturday, March 29, 2008


I was introduced to Blackbox as an undergraduate many years ago. After exhausting the patience of my roommate, I wrote a computer version. Ah... Turbo Pascal. I spent a lot more time playing the game than I would like to admit. Recently, I decided to see what Blackbox games were available, and here are my findings.

In case you are not familiar with Blackbox, the goal is to deduce the position of four atoms inside an 8x8 grid (or blackbox). You can probe the blackbox by sending in particles at any of the 32 sides and seeing where or if they emerge. The rules for how the probe particles are effected by the atoms is given in the wikipedia article mentioned above. The fewer probe particles used the better.

In the original game, the scoring was one point for any probe particle that reflected or absorbed, two points for a probe particle that emerged elsewhere, and five points for any wrongly placed atom. The fewer points the better. The interesting aspect is that it often pays to guess were where that last atom is located, rather than waste a bunch of probes. Or, try to choose probes which will either be reflected or absorbed.

Web Based

This is a very faithful recreation of the original game. It plays right in your web browser using Macromedia Flash. One feature which I like is that you can click on squares to mark them. This allows you to mark excluded spots for atoms.

Simon Tatham's Portable Puzzle Collection

A stand alone Blackbox program for both the PC and Mac. Again, a faithful recreation of the original. You can also choose different sizes and number of atoms. He also includes a variant were the number of atoms varies. Now where is that last one?


There is an implementation of Blackbox built into emacs. M-x blackbox and start playing. Does this mean that any work place that forbids games on the computers has to uninstall emacs?

Aargon Blackbox

This is a combination of Blackbox and Aargon. Instead of atoms, the blackbox is filled with mirrors and other optical items. Instead of probe particles, you send in laser light and have to deduce what is in there based on where the light comes out and what color it is. Randomly placed objects in the blackbox would be too hard to deduce. So, the designers of the game made up levels. I purchased Aargon Blackbox and will review it when I am done.


This is commercial game loosely based on Blackbox. Instead of atoms, there are hidden bumpers. One odd thing is that you can hear the internal bounces. This gives you way too much information. I played the demo and did not care for it much, but it received high marks from Game Tunnel and James Allen.

Black Cube

If you are a Mac user, there is a 3-dimensional version of Blackbox. The rules are more complicated; at certain points the probe particles can split. It is a deeper game than the 2-D version, but I do not think it is a better version. It also includes the 2-D version.

Black Box+

Recently, a new variant of BlackBox was released. Here the game is played on a hexagonal board. It seems like a good idea, but I have not played the game, so I cannot be sure.

Happy probing.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Crazy Boxes

Title: Crazy Boxes
Author: Josef Stöckl
License: Freeware (version 1)/Commercial (version 2)

Back in November, an anonymous comment pointed me to Crazy Bytes. It is the homepage of computer/programming enthusiast who loves writing computer games. The older ones, he gives away for free, while he tries to make a dollar or two on the newer ones. I had never wondered across this site before. It contains 19 games; many of which are puzzle/logic games. I have been playing through the games and will report on the ones I like, starting this week with Crazy Boxes.

At first blush, Crazy Boxes is just a Sokoban clone, and the world does not need another Sokoban clone. Trust me, we don't. But, if you give the game a couple of minutes, you will see that this variant adds a couple of twists which give rise to some good puzzles.

As in Sokoban the goal is to push all the yellow crates to the target areas. Crazy Boxes adds three new twists. First there can be red crates. These do not have to be moved at any particular place; they simply get in the way. Then there are water holes. Neither the yellow crates nor your character can enter the water holes. But now there is a use for those red crates. They can be used to fill water holes by pushing them into the water. This allows your character and the yellow crates to pass. Finally, there are turnstiles which rotate about their pivot point when pushed by your character, assuming that nothing is blocking them.

There are 163 levels. I did not count, but I would estimate that about one in five levels straight Sokoban levels. The other 80 percent contain one or more of the new items. It is amazing how just a few extra items, well used, really breathes some life into Sokoban. The levels on the whole were very good, but not well paced. Some of the later levels were quite easy.

There are several annoying interface decisions in Crazy Boxes. First, you have to play the levels in order. It turns out that this is easy to fix with a little register editing. Usual warnings: if you do not know what you are doing, stop now, do not use regedit, deal with the flaw in the game. If you do know what you are doing, backup your registry first. When the key HKCU\Software\CrazyGames\CrazyBoxes\V1\common\high is set to DHH, Crazy Boxes thinks that all of the levels have been completed. Now using the "One Level Forward" arrow, you can skip any annoying level. I skipped the all levels which did not feature one of the Crazy Boxes specific objects.

Annoying feature number two is that there a scrolling text ad banner at the bottom of the game. This would normally be a deal breaker for me, but luckily, it is just text. Open the executable in your favorite hex editor, search for the scrolling text, and make it all spaces. All gone.

The last annoying feature that there is a click through copyright screen every time the game is launched and exited. Once when the game is installed is fine, but this is crazy. Actually, I am not sure if it a bad translation to English or a bit of a joke on the author's part, but the actual text states, "If you want to use the program, please disregard the following rules:" (my emphasis).
At the author's request, I decided to disregard the rules. I busted out OllyDbg, did a little poking about, and made the pop up screen go away. It was not hard. If you have never done any reverse engineering, this could be a fun project to start with.

The commercial version 2.0 adds better graphics and one new twist. Some levels contain two pushers which have to work together to get all the crates to their targets. There are about 60 levels in demo and over 300 in full version.

A slightly similar flash based game is Puzzle Boy, which a Kwirk remake.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Browser Games 9

It is time for three more browser based puzzle games. All three games are played in a browser using Adobe Flash. Some of the best puzzle game ideas today are being published in this format. I have never developed a flash based game, but the tools are fairly easy to use. This makes it relatively easy to code up a game given a puzzle game idea.

Sola Rola

The goal is simple: get the red and blue balls to their respective homes (homes look like PC power switches). The problem is that your only tool is to rotate the board and allow gravity to do the rest. There are added complications: colored doors. Doors open temporary when one of the balls passes over the switch of the same color. The balls have to work together to achieve the goal. Other twists are added along the way. There are 48 levels which get progressively harder. There is also a fun little back story. A similar game is Circulate.


Kermix is a platform puzzler. The goal is to use the red squares to collect all of the coins and get one red square to each of the yellow exit squares. The catch is that the red squares move in unison. Each turn, you can either roll both to the right, roll both to the left, or have both jump up three spaces. When jumping, the red squares can pass through certain platform tiles and land on the next level. There are a couple of odd rules which you will learn about as you work through the 25 levels. For example, when a red square roll into a yellow square which has already been used, it falls through. Later levels add additions red squares and get much harder.

Hex Vex

Hex Vex is a really simple puzzler. The goal is to move each colored piece to its target hex. Usual rules: once a piece starts moving, it does not stop until it hits the edge of the board or another piece. Completing most levels requires a little planning, having certain pieces block for others. There are only 18 levels, and none are too hard. It is fun while it lasts.

Friday, March 07, 2008


Title: WBridge
Author: Yves Costel
License: Freeware

Computer bridge programs are starting to come of age. Most top level programs play the cards using Monte Carlo methods. For dummy play, they simulate many random distributions for the opponent's 26 cards which are consistent with the bidding and then use a double-dummy engine to play each hand. The line of play which is successful against the most random deals is taken. This method yields some sharp card play, although not quite expert level.

For the bidding phase of the game, the programs often use flowcharts written by experts. If the programs get off their flowchart, things can go bad fast. The odd psyche bid can really throw them for a loop. However, when the programs have to make a decision such as whether to accept an invitation to game, they again use a Monte Carlo method to make the decision. The programs actually perform better than expert humans in these situations. I expect that by examining these simulations, humans will develop better heuristics for making decisions in invitational bidding situations.

There are several good bridge programs out there. I have logged many hours with GiB and Jack. These two have impressed me, a good flight B player in the ACBL. But both are a bit pricy. On the other hand, the winner of the the last world computer bridge championship is a freeware program called WBridge.

The biggest flaw with WBridge is that all of the menus are in French. There is a help file in English which is great, but the menus are only in French. It is actually easier and would be more helpful to translate the menu resource. There are free editors to do it! You can have it use English card symbols (AKQJ) instead of the French (ARDV). Language aside, this is a great program. I have not played it as much as some others, but believe it is as strong as GiB or Jack. It is certainly better than your average club player for whatever that is worth.

Above is a screen shot during the bidding. There are many helpful tools built into WBridge. One is the info button. With this turned on, the current knowledge of the other three players hand distributions and strengths based on the bidding so far is shown. Also if you hover over a bid, the meaning of that bid is shown. The default bidding system is 5-card majors with lots of gadgets. The meanings of the various bids were not translated from the French help file to the English one. So, it took me a little trial and error and a few disasters to figure things out.

In tournament mode, it replays the hands with computer playing your cards as well. By comparing, you can see how well you did. On this hand, due to substandard defense on my part, 3NT made with an over trick. At the other table, 3NT was defeated. The running state of the match in the lower left corner.

My only complaint about the interface in WBridge is that you need to hit the continue button at the beginning of the bidding and play. It seems like this should not be necessary. Maybe there is some menu entry to turn this off.

Will computer surpass humans at bridge? At on-line, impersonal bridge, of course computers will rule, maybe quite soon. At the table, it may take a while. A big part of bridge is the human interaction. Even at my level, noticing hesitations or that one defender paying more attention than the other is often key to making a hand. Computers cannot see these things.

The one area I expect/hope to improvement is in computer generated bidding systems. Using genetic/evolutionary computing techniques, I foresee computers developing far superior bidding systems and hand evaluation methods than humans use. Such systems will surely not be ACBL legal, but in more liberal tournaments computers could easily out pace us humans.

If you are interested in learning to play bridge, one nice site is Bridge7.

Saturday, March 01, 2008


Title: Chromatron
Author: Sean Barrett
License: Freeware

Sean Barrett and Silver Spaceshipt Software recently decided to make all four installments of the Chromatron series free. Previously, only the first version was free. They are still hoping that players will make a donation if they enjoy the game. This is wonderful news. I had played the first version long ago, and now am enjoying the other three.

Chromatron is a colored laser and mirror game similar to Aargon Deluxe. The object of each level to shine the correct color or combination of colors through each of the target pinwheels. To achieve this, you have to place the mirrors and other items in the correct positions with the right orientation. The mechanics of the game is straight forward. Each level comes with a collection of items in the box on the right. You drag them onto the grid. A left mouse click rotates the piece counter-clockwise. A right click rotates it clockwise. If you want to start over, the "R" key resets the board.

The level pictured above features several of the key game items. First the one way mirrors split the white light. Then the red, blue, and green filters let only one color through, white = red + blue + green. Finally, the well placed mirrors bounce the light towards the pinwheels. This level has all seven colors. The non-primary colored pinwheels require multiple lasers to pass through them, cyan = green + blue for example. For Aargon players, note that green and blue lasers do not have to combine on the same path.

There are several other items which you will learn about. Unfortunately, there is no manual fully explaining the effect of the various items. Instead, you have to learn as you go. I highly suggest starting with the first episode as the early levels form a tutorial. When an item appears for the first time, a brief message describing it is given.

Each of the four episodes contains 50 puzzles. You do not have to play the levels in order, but only certain levels are unlocked at any given time. As you complete levels, more get unlocked.

The level design in Chromatron is good. The first episode contains some challenges, but is not too hard especially if you familiar with Aargon. The other episodes have some good tough puzzles. Actually, I found the second installment to be hardest. Many levels have a nice a-ha moment to them. I only solved a few of the levels on my first try. Most, I had to work out the what the secret to the level. After a while, the levels do have a repetitive feel, but on the whole very good level design.

The other aspects of Chromatron are well done. The graphics are simple but sharp, clear, and effective. There is no sound which is fine. One really nice feature of the game is that is saves the partial solution on levels you have not finished when you exit.

My usual hint for these sort of games is too keep your eyes open for things arranged on diagonals. If you get stuck there is a forum.

One last note for Aargon players, Chromatron does not contain any TNT or the silly green goo monsters. Thank god.

I highly recommend playing this game and make a donation.