Sunday, June 14, 2009

Title: HiddenLynx
Author: Mikko A Oksalahti
License: Freeware

One of the odder aspects of my childhood was trying to get my friends and siblings in midwest America play games like Chinese Chess (also called Xiangqi). I was fascinated by the game. It seemed so exotic. Playing seemed a way to travel to the other side of the globe. To my friends, it was pure torture. Every none and then, they would humor me. Most of the time, I would just play against myself. These were the days before PCs and the Internet (I am that old).

Chinese Chess is fundamentally different than western Chess. Learning the rules of the game and playing it as a ten year old, I felt I was learning about the Chinese culture. The cannon seemed particularly unique. It moves like a rook, but can only capture by jumping over one intervening piece. I remember thinking this was the strangest rule and somehow mastering its power would give me an insight into the Chinese psyche. Yes, very silly in retrospect.

Today, I could have played Chinese Chess against human opponents on-line. This would have saved my friends some pain, and I might have actually learned something about Chinese culture through my opponents. Also, there are computer opponents. Zillons of Games contains a credible version of Chinese Chess.

Recently, I ran across HiddenLynx, a nice simple Chinese Chess game. This led to a little Chinese Chess revisit. The mechanics are initiative, click and drag the piece you want to move. When you click, the possible destinations are lit up. The graphics are well done. And its free. What's not to like.

HiddenLynx has five skill levels. It took me a little while to find the menu; it appears when you hover your mouse on the right side the screen. The lowest level is easy to beat and a good way to learn (or relearn) the game. The middle level proved too tough for me. Ok, I am not much of a Chinese Chess player.

I do not have anything bad to say about the program. One mystery, to me at least, is the meaning of the small dots on the left side of the screen. I think it is some measure the computer's evaluation of the current position, but I could not quite work it out.

There are many good Chinese Chess programs available. I am not claiming that HiddleLynx plays the best game. Another one is Qianhong. It has more features and plug-in AIs. It is probably a stronger program, but there is something simple and nice about HiddleLynx which I enjoyed. Mostly, I enjoyed the journey to my youth.

Sunday, June 07, 2009


Title: Cluster
Author: Edgar "Fast Eddie" Williams
License: Freeware (donation requested)

Cluster is a simple puzzle game which you might think you have played before, but you haven't. I am not sure where I first ran across Cluster. But I do remember that I almost went right past it thinking it was another sokoban game. Luckily I didn't.

So what is Cluster? Like sokoban, from a top down view, you push crates around with a bulldozer. That is where the similarities end. The objective is not to push crates to certain positions. Instead, you need to push the crates so that they form one (orthogonally connected) cluster.

The other big difference is that once two or more blocks become connected, they stay connected and have to be pushed around as group. This can be a hindrance as the larger group is more awkward. On the other hand, this can be useful. For example, you can attach additional blocks to a block "stuck" along a wall which form a handle and allow you to push the group away from the wall. Learning to use groups in this way to save "stuck" blocks is really the key to solving Cluster levels.

As with any puzzle game, there are a couple of twists. There is a special block type which cannot be moved at all, but must still be part of the final cluster. Nor can any group connect to such a block be moved. There are also special blocks which can only more vertically, and another type which can only move horizontally. Groups containing such a block can only move in that direction. A group containing both a vertical only and a horizontal only cannot move. The final twist is the oil slicks. You cannot move your dozer through a oil slick, but you can move blocks through them.

Cluster contains 25 levels which can be played in any order. The puzzles are hard. No causal gaming here. Even the first "Getting Started" level requires some thinking. There is a level editor for more. The biggest flaw in Cluster is that the game does not record your progress.

If you enjoy Cluster, I would suggest you give Chocolate Castle a look. It has similar mechanics of combining blocks into one group and was my game of the year for 2007.