["Beyond Tetris" is a column from Tony "Tablesaw" Delgado about puzzle games that transcend mere abstract action and instead plunge deep into the heart of problem-solving. This installment looks at a collection of the best puzzle game of all time: Deadly Rooms of Death.]

One of the most difficult rooms in DROD: Journey to Rooted Hold, by Erik Hermansen.This is the story of a puzzle game with the unlikeliest name ever: Deadly Rooms of Death.

You are Beethro Budkin, dungeon exterminator extraordinaire, and you take up one square of a grid. You have a "really big sword," which takes up one of the eight squares of the grid adjacent to you. You are tasked with removing the vermin that has infested the grid-arranged dungeons beneath the castle of King Dugan. Once there, you meet a horde of monsters closing in on you: roaches, spiders, wraithwings (bats), goblins, golems, snakes, and other terrible beasts that defy simple categorization. Your goal is simple: kill everything and move on. You can see it all from overhead, and the whole thing looks a bit like Gauntlet. A garden-variety hack-and-slash is imminent, swinging your sword as quickly as possible while weathering hits from the host that will slowly chip away at your life force.

Except that there is no life bar, the moment a single creature reaches you, you're dead. And, more curiously, the horde isn't attacking. They're just waiting for you to move.

DROD is turn-based. Every turn, you may take one step or rotate your sword one square. Then, all of the monsters can make one move. And their moves are predictable: a roach will always take the most direct route to you, even if that means getting itself stuck behind a wall. A goblin will always avoid your sword and try to attack from behind. A wraithwing will always stay a safe distance away from you, until it can find a friend with which to gang up on you. And they'll all wait while you figure out how best to kill them before they kill you.

The frantic button pushing of Diablo or Gauntlet is gone. The random layouts and capricious behaviors of NetHack are stipped away. All that's left beneath the dungeon-crawl veneer is the most inventive pure puzzle-solving computer game ever written.

Ten Years of Smiting

The cover of the Webfoot Technologies release of Deadly Rooms of Death, scanned by 'Phweengee'Deadly Rooms of Death was written by Erik Hermansen, who began playing with the concept in 1991. An early version called Swordplay was coded into Visual Basic and uploaded to BBSes in 1993. The game was actually released by Webfoot Technologies in 1997, but unfortunately, it was one of the last 2-D games published by Webfoot. After low sales, the company pulled support for the game as part of an attempt to rebrand as a 3-D company. Still, the game continued to gain followers while it appeared on the abadonware site Home of the Underdogs, where it was inducted into the Hall of Belated Fame.

In 2000, Hermansen got permission from Webfoot to rewrite the game from scratch using in open-source model. In 2002, with the help of several programmers including Mike Rimer, Caravel DROD was released. It was a duplicate of the original with a few additions, like progress-saving checkpoints. Fifty-one weeks later, a new version had a more significant upgrade; DROD: Architect's Edition offered the game's first level editor.

Before 2003, fans who'd completed the entire game were struggling to keep the challenge in the game. The members of the DROD egroups list, and later the DROD Forums, began posing challenges to make solving the existing rooms harder. "Complete the room without turning turning your sword," read the first one; "Let the room fill with roaches . . . BEFORE you kill your first roach," read another. Starting during the beta of DROD:AE, the community began putting together rooms and levels (organized into packages called "holds"). Built by the hardcore and distributed to the hardcore, the new levels explored obscure strategies and quirks of the game.

While the community was expanding the scope of DROD, Hermansen and Rimer worked on the long-awaited sequel. Hermansen had planned to write one in 1998 (he got sidetracked playing Age of Empires), but the time was finally ripe. After drafting help from some of the best minds from the creators (architects) and solvers (delvers) of the online community, Hermansen's Caravel Games finally released DROD: Journey to Rooted Hold in the spring of 2005. The game featured new monsters, new level components, and a new scripting system that allowed for a comical story to play out amid the puzzles.

Step by Step

A room from King Dugan's Dungeon, as seen in DROD: Architect's Edition; the current record for this room is held by TablesawDROD has been named the best puzzle game of all time a few times. It has the highest rating of any puzzle game at the Home of the Underdogs (specifically, DROD: AE is number 1, and Journey to Rooted Hold is part of a six-way tie for second). In the "Math Games" column of the Mathematics Association of America, Ed Pegg, Jr. (who also runs the fantastic puzzle site MathPuzzle.com), gave it the same honor. And I've been calling it the same for years myself.

What I find most fascinating about the game (and why I rank it above games like Cliff Johnson's), is that it is entirely impossible for the puzzle to appear off of a computer. While it's possible to encode pencil-and-paper puzzles into DROD, the complicated rooms that involve hundreds of independent creatures just can't be replicated anywhere else.

And the game isn't merely turn-based; it's completely devoid of any randomness. Entering the same set of actions in a room will always provide the same outcome (barring minor changes to monster behavior that sometimes occur during major upgrades). While macro-level strategies are usually necessary to best a large horde of creatures, there is always at least one solution, a single string of commands, that will beat the room. In fact, these "strings" are the basis for the demos that can be recorded in the game, then replayed to examine mistakes or show off techniques and victories.

The Best of the Best

A room from 'Halph Has a Bad Day' by 'Eytan Zweig'; the current record is held by Rabscuttle and was formerly held by TablesawAnd with Journey to Rooted Hold and the opening of CaravelNet, players were finally able to compare demos and solutions directly by uploading them to a central server. Suddenly, hardcore fans of the game had a new challenge: beat each room in the minimum number of moves.

Earning the #1 score for a room takes extreme ingenuity and dedication. It demands extensive foresight and knowledge of monster behavior. It requires speed, so that nobody else finds the best answer before you do. And it takes near-perfect typing skills. Although most rooms in DROD now have checkpoints, they rarely fall on the optimal path, and a #1 demo may have to avoid them to save time.

I currently hold the #1 rank on six puzzles, and they represent my most triumphant moments of accidental ingenuity. In the Smitemaster's Selection hold "Halph Has a Bad Day," I struggled for quite a while trying to beat the room shown to the right. The golems waiting to swarm me turn into impassable walls when they are killed, and I kept finding myself trapped in the top part of the room. When I was done, I was surprised to see that my solution was ten moves shorter than the previous best. The previous solution had been simpler (I really should have seen it myself), but my very nonobvious solution was much faster.

[Note: One week after this article was published, my record for this room in "Halph Has a Bad Day" was beaten. This lends credence to the next sentence . . .]

It's not easy becoming #1, and it's sometimes more difficult staying #1; there's always somebody looking to take your throne. According to the CaravelNet records, there are fifty-two rooms where I used to hold the top spot, only to have my crown snatched away by someone more dedicated. Most of those used-to-be #1s were scored playing through new or lesser-known rooms before better players got around to them, but some of them were my bestest best efforts, which other players still were able to best.

It can be frustrating for a beginner, but the CaravelNet scoring system is lenient. If nothing else, just completing a room earns a point to the global ranking. And even if you can't be the best, being anywhere in the top 8 earns bonus points. And the best way to increase your rank is to just keep exploring the game.

Delving Deeper

A room from 'Perfection' by Larry MurkSince Journey to Rooted Hold, there have been several holds released. Most notably, Hermansen and his team have singled out a few user-created holds as "Smitemaster's Selections." These are some of the best holds available, and they get a special polish (including story and voice-overs) before they're made available for download by CaravelNet members and for sale on CD. These expansion packs are generally very difficult. Larry Murk's "Perfection" features rooms with time limits and restrictions that demand optimization.

And Hermansen is preparing a new release for 2007; DROD: The City Beneath is 91.3% complete at the time of writing (according to the forum's Progress Bar). I considered holding off on writing about DROD until then, but Hermansen's recent thoughts about the game suggested I should focus on the previous releases:

"The City Beneath is almost arrogant in its attitude toward the DROD newcomer. Unlike King Dugan's Dungeon or Journey to Rooted Hold, it wasn't designed as an entrypoint to learning the game. Sure, we try to go easy on the player in early levels. And there are tutorials interspersed throughout the game to catch up rookies on previously-introduced game elements. But the general advice given to the new DROD player will be to start from one of the two earlier games. "You wanna play the game? Or you wanna play the game right?"

Will there ever be a beginner-friendly DROD release? I don't know, but with two such games already available (one of them free), it shouldn't be a problem getting up to speed with the cutting edge of difficulty. So, for now, if you haven't already, take the time to acquaint yourself with the game. You'll be glad you had a head start when you start losing productivity time to this wondeful game.

[Tony Delgado is a member of the National Puzzlers' League, and a solver and creater of puzzles of all sorts. He also works as the copy chief of The Gamer's Quarter.]