My Favorite Game of 2014 Was …

Monument Valley.

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Monument Valley (Ustwo; iOS/Android: $4) is a small game. It won’t take you long to finish, and it’s not very challenging, but what it offers is such a pure delight that it became my personal favorite game of 2014. Indeed, I would argue that it was the best game published all year, and for an iPad-only puzzle game, that’s quite an achievement.

People are throwing most of their 2014 GOTY awards at Dragon Age: Inquisition. I have no problem with that: it’s an impressive piece of work. I may be just suffering Bioware fatigue, but I’ve had enough Biodialog-trees and Biorelationships and Biocombat and Bioquests to hold me for a while. Honestly, if I had to pick an RPG that I enjoyed more than any other this year, Inquisition would have taken a backseat to Legend of Grimrock II. Endless Legend also would have been ahead of Inquisition.

2015-01-20 12.04.05Monument Valley offered something different and simple and appealing, and I like that more and more the older I get. It’s an example of a game that is more about the experience than the challenge. None of the puzzles in either the original game or the Forgotten Shores add-on will stop serious puzzlers for more than a few minutes. Altogether, the play time probably adds up to about two hours at the most. The appeal is in the quality, not the quantity: in the experience rather than in the difficulty.

The visual style of Monument Valley is what grabs you first. Drawn with clean lines and sharp angles, it packs a lot of information into its shifting, single-screen puzzles. The most obvious comparison is with the artwork of surrealist MC Escher. His impossible architecture is at the heart of Monument Valley’s world and its puzzles.

You guide a little princess in a conical hat through ten worlds (with another seven in the add-on), attempting to get her from the beginning to the end. Each screen is given a chapter number and title, with a subtitle that hints at a “story” that never develops and only provides another layer of atmospheric mystification.

It’s not a wholly unpopulated world. The Bothersome Crow People walk set patterns that either block your path forward or enable you to trigger buttons remotely. There’s a mystic/monk figure offering cryptic comments. And, best of all, you have an occasional companion/helper called Totem. He’s a big-eyed totem pole who provides help with a couple of levels, and when he appears to die, you actual feel a little sad. It’s a game that gets under your skin in weird ways.

2015-01-20 12.07.27Each screen can be manipulated with levers and buttons to alter the configuration of its various structures in impossible ways. As with the work of Escher, a walkway will suddenly turn one direction only to open up access on a completely different plane. It’s the kind of thing that’s hard to describe in print, but the result is that you climb through impossible architecture at strange angles, triggering changes in the layout in order to get to the endpoint.

The gentle music, soothing visuals, and dazzling use of space and motion create an otherworldly experience that moves beyond the limits of mere gameplay. Of particular note is Chapter VIII: The Box: the one of the best implementations of a mechanical puzzle box that I’ve ever played in an electronic game.

I’ve certainly played much harder puzzle games, but few that I found quite so enchanting as Monument Valley. Even when the gets a bit dark (and there are storm-tossed seas and deep descents that hint at classic elements of the hero’s story), it stays enjoyable. The key to its appeal is that as a game, it’s content to find a balance among its various aesthetic elements (art, music, animation, structure) and its gameplay, which is mild and refreshing. Careful observation and tinkering will yield a solution pretty quickly, so frustration never overrides the gentle atmosphere. I’ve always argued against games as art, but Monument Valley come closer than most to making me question that opinion.

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The Latest Federal Power Grab: Navigation Apps

Government bureaucracy is the kudzu of modern civilization. It’s a smothering, all-consuming, self-perpetuating monster that sucks the life out of everything it touches. 

Case in point: for some bizarre reason known only to the infantile minds of government functionaries, Obama’s Transportation Department (go ahead, I defy you to explain why a such thing even exists) believes the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (ditto) has authority over mobile devices.

Yep, they want to control your Google Maps.

The measure is buried in the Grow America Act amid other happy-sounding nonsense that will do absolutely nothing whatsoever to “grow America” and will, almost certainly, make life worse, because that’s the wildly expansive government championed by this administration does.

This new authority would give NHTSA the power to regulate, restrict, and order changes to individual smartphone apps by classifying them as motor vehicle equipment.

The problem in search of a solution is this idea that people using apps for navigation, rather than expensive stand-alone or built-in GPS systems, are uniquely dangerous on the road. Are they? Why? Is there proof of a problem? If so, why do the Feds need to flex their muscles rather than leaving the matter to the states?

The NY Times tells us that the measure already has the support of the auto manufacturers. You know: the same people who want to sell you expensive built-in navigation systems. No conflict there. And, of course, the same safety Nazis that swaddle us in useless bike helmets and protect us from the terrifying threat of opening the lid of a modern washing machine mid-cycle are totally behind this.

If there is a proven problem with mobile navigation systems–one that makes them somehow significantly more dangerous than your average Garmin or TomTom–then the states can amend their anti-texting laws to include any kind of mobile use in a moving (not a stationary) vehicle. Giving the USDOT power over mobile applications, however, is madness.

The Dirty Little Secret About Ellen’s Oscar Selfie

You know, this one:

It was a wacky, seemingly spontaneous moment in which Ellen and a bunch of stars took a selfie, and then she urged people to make it the most retweeted photo ever.

And they did! I think it got almost 3 million retweets. That’s the only reason I even know about: it was all over Twitter.

Yeah, that was totally a bought-and-paid-for ad by Samsung for the Galaxy Note 3. And if you retweeted or shared it, you were doing a little unpaid marketing for Samsung. Congratulations!

Samsung spent about $20 million in a promotional deal with ABC, which included featuring the device during the broadcast. They even had their people at the rehearsals teaching Ellen how to use it. It worked, too: Samsung was being mentioned 900 times a minute on Twitter during the broadcast.

Did the stars in the photograph even know they were part of some tacky product placement stunt? If they did, would they have cared?

Try to keep this image in mind next time you hear some celebrity blathering on about freedom of expression or artistic integrity. In the end, entertainment is always about the almighty dollar. That’s not a problem, mind you: I write for a living and expect to be paid. But the pretense that it’s All About The Craft wears thin.

Pudding Monsters [App o the Mornin’]

Cut the Rope is one of the best and most successful mobile games to date, with over 100 million downloads and a shelf of awards. So when the Russian team at ZeptoLabs did a follow-up to their hit franchise, gamers paid attention.

Pudding Monsters (iOS/Android: $1) are little blobs of jello that slide around on a chess-like board. (As with another good game–Pudding Panic–“pudding” is used in the more European sense of “dessert.”) Each blob occupies one square, and can move along the rank or file by simply swiping them in the direction you want them to travel.

One problem: if there isn’t something else on the board to stop them, they’ll shoot right off the edge and the puzzle is lost. If they hit an object, they stop. If they hit another monster, they fuse with it. The goal is to get all of the blobs 1) fused and 2) covering all three stars on the board.

It’s not usually too hard to slide the monsters until they blend, but sliding them so that the last one merges with the whole monster-blob on top of the third and final star is a bit more tricky. Along the way, new kinds of monster-blobs are introduced, including “frozen” blobs that need to activated, green blobs who leave a slime trail which allows other to stick rather than shooting off the end of the board, blobless eyes who need to be reunited with their blobs, and so on.

There are 75 levels spread over 3 worlds, with more levels coming. As sliding puzzles go, this is a lot of fun with a cute art style and a moderate challenge level. Is Pudding Monsters the next Cut the Rope? Probably not, but it’s very very good and a worthy follow-up that shows Zepto still has some tricks in their bag.

Content issues: None.

Tetrobot [App o the Mornin’]

Tetrobot and Co. (<PC/Mac: $12, Android/iOS: forthcoming) is a sequel to Blocks That Matter, a puzzler featuring a high-tech drilling robot called Tetrobot. (You can download a free computer demo of Blocks That Matter at swingswingsubmarine.com, or buy the whole game for $5.)

The sequel (confusingly) focuses not on Tetrobot but Psychobot, a helpful little flying robot tasked with repairing Tetrobot.

The Psychobot functions a bit differently, absorbing blocks and spitting them out to solve puzzles. Its job is to float through the inside of a machine removing obstacles and getting things running again. Psychobot is not too clever, however, and needs help finding his way in order to trigger an electric fence, flick a switch to open a gate, or throw a block to remove a hazard. 

The game shows a 2D cross section of the environment, featuring boxes, switches, levers, tunnels, electrical fields, and other odds and ends. The levels are more sizable than your typical 2D puzzler, requiring the gamer to trigger multiple events on various screens. This adds greatly to the complexity level for perfect, 3-star completion of each level. It’s possible to “complete” a level quite quickly, but doing so with a perfect score can be a real mind-scrambler.

The real challenge comes from manipulating blocks with different properties. Some are sticky, some float, some grasp, some fall, and so on. By stacking and throwing blocks, you trigger events that lock/unlock/alter the environment. As the game goes on, you’ll find yourself shot through water, transported across the map, flying through goop, and dealing with other events and distractions.

It’s all buoyed by a charming animation for the little robot and endlessly clever level design. As puzzlers go, it’s more complex than most, but allows simple ways through for people satisfied with only collecting one or two stars. You, of course, will not be so satisfied, so expect a solid challenge.

Content: No concerns. Rated: E

Technology Turned Against Kiev Protestors

Kiev is exploding in protests as Ukraine’s president attempts to move the country away from EU membership and closer into the Russian orbit.

On Tuesday, anyone in the vicinity of the protests received the following message on their phones: “Dear subscriber, you are registered as a participant in a mass disturbance.”

Registered.

Got that?

We know who you are now and you can expect a visit.

I knew the tech existed, but the idea of it being deployed in such a blatantly totalitarian and oppressive way still shocks.  Anyone with an active cellphone in that area is identified, complete with a list of contacts and just about everything else anyone needs to know. They don’t even need to be participating in the protest. Just nearby.

Okay, now imagine this going on here, with the full power of the NSA brought to bear on citizens, and you’ll understand why some of us are getting a little jumpy.

Protest leaders said the authorities seemed to be giving the more radical protesters free rein while going out of their way to frighten more moderate ones, particularly with the threatening text messages sent on Tuesday.

The phrasing of the message, about participating in a “mass disturbance,” echoed language in a new law making it a crime to participate in a protest deemed violent. The law took effect on Tuesday. And protesters were concerned that the government seemed to be using cutting-edge technology from the advertising industry to pinpoint people for political profiling.

Three cellphone companies in Ukraine — Kyivstar, MTS and Life — denied that they had provided the location data to the government or had sent the text messages, the newspaper Ukrainskaya Pravda reported. Kyivstar suggested that it was instead the work of a “pirate” cellphone tower set up in the area.

The messages appeared to have little effect. Three hours after they were sent, riot police officers pushed past barricades of burned buses at that site and were met by a crowd of protesters in ski masks and bicycle helmets, carrying sticks and ready to fight.

The police fired plastic bullets and threw stun grenades. They pressed as far as a cobblestone-throwing catapult built by protesters the day before and dismantled it before retreating.

In case you missed that, they’re building catapults in Kiev.

 

Pocket Trains [App o the Mornin’]

Pocket Trains (Android/iOS: freemium) is insidious. It’s insanely addictive, just like NimbleBits’ previous games, Tiny Tower and Pocket Planes. Pocket Trains follows the formula of Pocket Planes, but does it even better. You begin the game with a simple map of Europe and a couple of major cities. These are connected by train tracks, with one train running on one set of tracks. As you earn more money, you can connect more cities, build more trains, establish new lines, and continually expand.

Money is earned by hauling freight from city to city. Freight that goes further, or has a higher value cargo, generates more gold. You can also pick up crates and bucks. Crates have train parts in them: get enough parts and you can build a new train. There are quite a few train models, and you’ll want to upgrade as you go to increase your distance, fuel load, and hauling capacity. Bucks are used to uncrate the train parts and expand stations to hold more freight.

As you begin to sprawl across first the map of Europe, and then the entire world, you find yourself relaying freight from one train to another. A high-value cargo may have to go from Moscow to San Francisco through a series of cities and train lines, switching three or four times before you can earn the money for completing delivery. Managing these lines and maximizing profits it a key part of the game.

You can expand to North and South America, Asia, and Africa, but each new region costs 50,000 gold, and the price for each new train line increases each time you build one. By the time you gave 12 trains running, you can be paying almost 40,000 gold for each new line.

Pocket Trains is a classic casual maintenance game, and that’s the key to its fun-factor. You can check in a few times a day or once a week, spend 5 or 10 minutes directing your trains, or half and hour messing with loads, and then forget about it. The trains rack up their miles, earn their gold, and refuel without any fuss, so you can focus on just managing and expanding the lines.

The game is free, but you can purchase bucks starting at $1 for 100 bucks and going up from there, as well as crates. This allows you move the game along faster, but I’ve expanded to a dozen lines on four continents and never spent a dime, so it’s possible to have a completely free experience if you’re patient.

As with all NimbleBits product, the visuals use a colorful, blocky 16-bit style, with little people on the train platforms and in the passenger cars. It’s quite a charming package, and a good casual game for people who just like to check in and fiddle with things for a few minutes throughout the day.

The Rivals For Catan [App o’ the Mornin’]

Klaus Teuber’s two-player version of Settlers of Catan went through a much needed streamlining and revision a couple years ago, creating a more balanced, user-friendly game.

The Rivals for Catan (USM, iOS: $4) uses the themes and setting of Catan, such as quasi-medieval village life; gathering rock, wood, wool, gold, brick, and stone; and spending it on upgrades. Instead of a map, however, each player has a town center made of cards in front of him, and begins with two settlements and a stretch of road. By drawing cards and spending resources, the player expands the road, adds and upgrades settlements, and constructs specialty items, such as buildings or heroes, that add resource bonuses or point advantages. The goal is to build enough to reach a set number of victory points.

In the basic game, 7 victory points is the win limit, but The Rivals For Catan app includes all of the special card sets, adding new kinds of buildings that match various Eras: Gold, Progress, and Turmoil. These add subtle strategic changes and have a way of making the game, which is a really a face for points at its basic level, into a more interactive and cut-throat affair.

If you’ve played the original tabletop game, know this much: the app is 100% faithful recreation for the iPad, making good use of the game space. Your town center and cards are visible at all times, and you can toggle to see your opponent’s lay out with one tap. It takes a few minutes to get the hand of the gameflow and the way the interface handles resources by turning cards (thus mimicking the original), but after a tutorial and a few turns, the controls become quite natural.

Rivals includes hotseat and internet play (including GameCenter player matching), which is a welcome treat for those who don’t care for AI opponents. It’s a straightforward and clean adaptation of a fun little addition to the Catan family.

Lost Cities [App o’ the Mornin’]

The original tabletop version Rainer Knezia’s Lost Cities, originally released in 1999, found a loyal following, and even migrated to the Xbox about 5 years ago. The premise and design of Lost Cities is very simple. There are five archaeological “expeditions”, each represented by a different color: white, red, green, blue, and gold. Within the deck of 60 cards, there are 12 cards of each color. Nine are numbered from 2 to 10, and 3 are marked with a symbol to make them “investment” cards. The idea is a variant on solitaire: you “explore” an ancient city by placing cards in colored sets, from lowest number (2) to highest (10). Before pacing a number card, you may place 1 to 3 investment cards to double, triple, or quadruple your earnings.

Placing cards, however, has a base cost: 20 points for each investment card, and differing amounts for numbered cards. The idea is that starting a “dig” places you in debt, and you have to play the right cards in the right sequence to wind up with the highest value for each color location. At the same time, an opposing player is doing the same thing, with the victor being whoever has the highest point value. Since you either discard or play each turn, the game quickly moves through three rounds.

Like Stone Age, the mobile version of Lost Cities (iOS: $4) opted for the larger iPhone market rather than the more limited iPad audience, and the implementation works well. Adding considerably to its appeal is a strong set of online matchmaking options, complete with an active leaderboard for ranking players. The game has an unpleasant (and humbling) habit of tracking your games, so you can watch the downward-marching arrow when you lose. Since both the live and AI opponents tend to be formidable, this might be a regular occurrence, but it’s still fun to have this classic in a portable form.

Pandemic [App o’ the Mornin’]

Four diseases are spreading across the planet, and your goal is to find the cure for each in this adaptation of the award-winning co-operative boardgame.

Pandemic (F2Z/Z-MAN Games, iPad: $6) is a tense game, with many ways to lose and one way to win: cure four diseases by matching sets of cards. Along the way, if you run out of cards, draw too many outbreak cards, or have all the disease groups on the board, you lose. Fortunately, you’re not in this alone. Other players are working with you against the enemy (disease), and by communication and coordination it’s possible to race to the finish before virus outbreaks destroy the world.

Each player takes on a character with a particular skill: the Medic can remove three infections in one action, while others can only remove one; the Dispatcher can move people; the Operations Expert can build for free; the Researcher can uses cards even if they don’t match her location; and so on.

Characters get four actions and draw two cards per turn, with new infections added after each turn. The cards can include new cities (which are also color coded to match the viruses), special events, or epidemic outbreaks. You can use the cards to travel, trade, or curse diseases.

The map shows cities across the world, connected with lines allowing for direct travel. A player can move to an adjoining city using one action, or use special abilities to move around the map. As infections multiply, the chance of them spreading increases, so players also use their turns to cure diseases.
The Epidemic card moves the infection rate marker and the game forward. One city gets three infections, and discarded infection cards are placed back on the top of the deck, meaning new infections will break out soon. Since each city can only host three infections, any fourth infection causes an outbreak and all cities connected to the first receive one infection.

If you gather enough matching cards, you can cure an infection, and all the same color cards are removed from the board. The disease has been eradicated. Do this four times and you win.

The proper use of character skills, co-ordination and co-operation with other players, and a bit of luck are all part of the game. For a board-game conversation, it achieves a very high level of tension thanks to music and pacing that accelerates as the threat grows.

The problem, however, is that it lacks multiplayer support (with the exception of pass and play). Fortunately, the nature of co-op games is such that they convert quite well to solo play. Rather than playing with other people in the various roles, you’re performing all the roles. It makes for an effective game even without other live players.

Content: Pandemic is not gross or overly detailed, but it deals with outbreaks of diseases that cause mass deaths. The subject matter is, of course, quite grim, but the game doesn’t make light of it.