“I wanna make a jigsaw puzzle that’s 40,000 pieces. And when you finish it, it says ‘go outside.'” – Demitri Martin
The puzzle has long filled a peculiar role in video games, puzzle games like Tetris notwithstanding. If I learned anything during the late 90s and early 2000s, it was how to solve three-dimensional box puzzles. I must have solved hundreds of them. This, despite the fact that I never actually bought a game that advertised box puzzles as a key feature. Whenever I ran into a box puzzle, I felt as though the developers had built their insecurity into their level design. It was like they just couldn’t believe that they could adequately control of the flow of action without the introduction of a foreign mechanic.
“Player,” they said, “we know you’re probably bored of prying the heads off of undead satyrs so, here, push these boxes onto pressure plates!”
When simulation and immersion fail video games, there appears to be an instinct to fall back on abstract mechanics involving basic shapes, colors and symbols. This is not a criticism so much as an observation. Though the box puzzle grew into sigh-inducing cliché, abstract mechanics can have remarkable staying power, freed as they are from expectations of realism.
Puzzle Quest put a new spin on the venerable RPG mechanics. Henry Hatsworth and the Puzzling Adventure presented audiences with an unlikely marriage of platforming and column-based puzzles. It was really only a matter of time before a game like Puzzle Craft came along.
In the eternity-ago that was 2009, Zynga developed a monetization/design formula that would all but print money for the next three years. FarmVille became the first of a wave of socially integrated city builders–or “cow clickers” to the cynical—that would eventually make their way from Facebook to mobile devices.
Though immensely popular, most notably with a non-traditional casual audience, city-builders have been accused of overly simple mechanics, namely being a system of intricately rationed cow clicks and high-pressure sales. While players determined to do so could engage the strategic elements of the game by creating the most efficient city possible, I’m probably not going out on a limb by saying most people don’t play them that way, preferring the sandbox appeal of designing their own settlement.
Atgames seeks to address these charges by marrying the city-builder to another popular mobile genre—the match-3 game—with Puzzle Craft. Not only do shiny collectibles pop out, at a touch, from buildings after a lengthy cooldown; they also can be rounded up by initiating matching mini games at key features like the farm and the mine.
Once a puzzle is initiated, a grid fills up with a randomized selection of resources. Collecting useful knickknacks is as simple as drawing a line through three or more identical materials. Those materials are removed from the grid and added to your stockpile, new goodies dropping down from above to fill the gaps. Advanced items and bonus experience are awarded to players who create long chains. While you have a limited number of moves each mini-game, there’s no win or loss state for the puzzles. Poor performance simply means fewer resources collected.
The simplicity of the puzzle design keeps Puzzle Craft comfortably within the casual game market. Setting up large resource chains takes a little forethought, but it’s not difficult. Like more traditional city-builders, the “game” (as opposed to the sandbox “toy”) is efficiency. What’s different here is that Puzzle Craft pushes the efficiency game to the forefront.
The city-building elements serve the puzzle game more than the other way around. Unlike most city-builders, you can only build in predetermined slots, removing a lot of the sandbox appeal of building your own hellish suburban dystopia. Even the map’s perspective is locked in a zoomed out, flat aerial view, blunting a good deal of the details of your houses. All the familiar compulsion loops are here: you’ll still level up and unlock new, fancier buildings as you go, you’ll just care less about how they look than what they do.
Almost every building and collectible improves your efficiency in the puzzle mini-game. Sick of manually digging dirt out of the mine to get to the good stuff? Craft a shovel in your workshop. Want to yield better results from smaller chains? Build cottages and workers. Want to grab every squealing swine on the grid? Build a pig wheelbarrow.
Puzzle Craft is derived from the contemporary city builder, so that means it has monetization built somewhere into its design DNA. A 99 cent download, Puzzle Craft takes your money up front, so you won’t encounter high pressure pay and viral gates per se. You can, however, purchase in-game currency with real money if you can’t defer gratification of your pig wheelbarrow fetish. It’s freemium-lite.
While Puzzle Craft elevates the resource collection element of city builders above simple cow clicking, it’s not a game that will entirely silence the criticism of the genre. It’s a simple, casual game designed to be played in short spurts that rewards players using standard level-and-unlock compulsion loops. That said, there’s a lot more “game” to sink your teeth into here than you might expect. If you are or ever were a fan of the genre, Puzzle Craft’s novel game play and low price point edge it into “can’t miss” territory.
3 out of 4