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Column: Beyond Tetris

COLUMN: 'Beyond Tetris' - Shenanigans & Errata

January 19, 2007 7:21 PM |

I AM ERRATAThis is Tablesaw, popping in on a non-Monday to clear up some mistakes and changes regarding my most recent Beyond Tetris articles.

First, in Part I of my MIT Mystery Hunt article, I mentioned the definitive article about the Hunt: "The Great Annual MIT Mystery Hunt," from the July 1991 issue of Games Magazine. I also talked about the author of that article, how he had run the Hunt in 1988, and how this year he was on Dr. Awkward, the winning team.

Unfortunately, instead of correctly identifying that person as Eric Albert, I incorrectly identified him as Eric Berlin, a different member of Dr. Awkward. Fearless editor Simon Carless made some quick deletions to preserve my integrity, but since I've known both of these Erics over the past few years, my chagrin goes beyond a mere revision. They are talented puzzlers, and I've enjoyed my time with them both, and I have no excuse for my mental typo other than a lack of sleep.

Second, one week after it was featured in the article on Deadly Rooms of Death, and on the same day that article was noted by the DROD forum, my record for the room in "Halph Has a Bad Day" was beaten. A player with the handle Rabscuttle bested my solution of 48 moves by turning in his own 47-move demo on January 8. The original entry has been modified to reflect this. I wanted to make special mention of it because I discussed the room and the record in particular; I do not intend to make further updates about people being better than me at DROD.

Rabscuttle's accomplishment is appropriate, though. In the article, I also included a screenshot of a room I hold the record for in "King Dugan's Dungeon." The previous record for that room had been held by Rabscuttle, and I had beaten it by a single move.

Finally, not an erratum but an important addendum: there will be an official release of an easy DROD hold called "Smitemastery 101." Intended as a version of DROD suitable for kids, "Smitemastery 101" will likely also be a good opportunity for older puzzle gamers who want a more gentle introduction to the game. It will be released as a Smitemaster's Selection, which means it will available with a CaravelNet subscription for a limited time, and it will be available for individual purchase thereafter.

I am still recovering from the Hunt and preparing for the GameSetWatch synopsis, so Part II of the article should appear shortly. I now return you to your regularly scheduled blog.

COLUMN: 'Beyond Tetris' - The MIT Mystery Hunt (Part I)

January 14, 2007 6:11 PM |

- ["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. Today is the beginning of a two-part article on one of the most grueling puzzle marathons available, the MIT Mystery Hunt.]

In 1980, a graduate student at the Masschusetts Institute of Technology named Brad Schaefer hid a valuable coin on the campus of his Boston college and wrote a few devious riddles leading to its location on a sheet of paper. Since then, the IAP Mystery Hunt has grown in size scope and importance; and while the puzzles were once bound on paper, the growing intricacies of the puzzles have turned the game into something increasingly dependent on computers.

Today, the Mystery Hunt has some unusual traditions. Puzzles are distinct, and lead to an answer that is a word or a phrase. Then, all of the answers in a round feed into another puzzle called a metapuzzle. Completing these metapuzzles help a team progress through the Hunt until they can find the location of a "coin," which has recently been anything from a small disk to a snowglobe. And Mystery Hunt puzzles tend to have very unusual twists to them. Something that appears to be a crossword might be something totally different. The unsual text introducing a puzzle (called "flavor text") can hold critical, if abstract, clues. And sometimes, you just need to know the MIT campus.

This article is going to be a little weird. When this Part I goes live, the Hunt will be over. But right now, as I write it, I'm in the headquarters of the team running the Hunt. In 2006, my Hunt team, The Evil Midnight Bombers What Bomb at Midnight, won the Hunt and consequently was awarded the duty of running the 2007 Hunt. Since that time, we've been frantically planning the game and writing the puzzles, and now thirty-eight teams and hundreds of players are finding their way through our maze of enigmas.

To maintain secrecy, I cannot reveal much about the meat of the 2007 Hunt at this time, so I'll be writing more about it later this week, when I return from Boston. You can look at the address of the current hunt, but I can't guarantee that there'll be anything there. It could be all of the puzzles from the 2007 Hunt, it could be none of them. But in the meantime, I'm going to talk a bit about Hunts past with an eye, of course, toward videogames

COLUMN: 'Beyond Tetris' - Deadly Rooms of Death

January 1, 2007 2:15 AM |

["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.

COLUMN: 'Beyond Tetris' - Heaven and Earth

December 18, 2006 1:28 PM |

["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 eye-bending mindbenders: Heaven and Earth.]

Convex Concave, by Scott Kim, from Heaven and EarthIn 1992, the newly reestablished Games Magazine published a puzzle by Scott Kim called Convex Concave. There were several 2-D images of 3-D blocks to be punched out and arranged to form other 2-D images of 3-D blocks. But while the component images were simple, the goal images were complex Escherian monstrosities. But by laying the flat pictures on top of each other in ways that their 3-D representations could never allow, the impossible was created.

The Games puzzle was a promotion for the upcoming game Heaven and Earth, developed (though ironically not published) by Publishing International. The game had three parts: a pendulum toy; a solitaire card game; and The Illusions. The Illusions were designed by Scott Kim and comprised twelve puzzle games, each with forty-eight puzzles in four variations. In keeping with the Buddhist trappings of the game, the puzzles were all meant to challenge the mind by challenging the eye. The Convex Concave puzzle (which was, of course, one of the Illusions) was only the beginning.

Into the Labyrinth

Gaining Losing, by Scott Kim, from Heaven and EarthOne-third of the Illusions are mazes of different sorts. The most basic is the Antimaze; instead of following a path between lines, you have to send your cursor across the lines. In the Identity Maze, you maneuver multiple cursors simultaneously through the maze. Sometimes the cursors all move in the same directions, sometimes their movements are rotated or flipped; and in order for one cursor to move in a given direction, all of the cursors must be free to move appropriately. Both of these mazes are essentially no different from basic, single-state labyrinths. But in keeping with the theme of illusion, these puzzles recast simple mazes in an unfamiliar presentation. And in some of the more complex wrap-around Identity Maze puzzles, a "simplified" representation of the maze would be much larger than the original puzzle.

The other mazes, Changing Bodies and Gaining Losing, are more complicated. In these you control a fleet of active cursors that move in sync across a field filled with "frozen" cursors. The frozen cursors lie dormant until touched by an active cursor. In Gaining Losing, touching a frozen cursor activates it. By adding cursors in this way (and by skillfully removing cursors using "pits" on the field), you have to make sure that you fleet makes it to the goal in the correct formation. In Changing Bodies, if an active cursor hits one of these frozen squares, its "consciousness" leaps into the new cursor. The frozen cursor becomes an active cursor, and the active cursor becomes an impassable wall. These two puzzles are more than mere illusions; they are far, far more difficult than the other mazes.

Block Parties

A piece in motion in Figure Ground, by Scott Kim, from Heaven and EarthThe next third of the games involve moving shapes around the screen into the correct positions. The most basic is Sliding Graphics, where Kim has drawn upon the long history of sliding-block puzzles. The new addition for the game is sliding-block puzzles where unconnected blocks must be moved as a unit. Fit Fall has some twists on polyominoes, including infinite blocks and "blocks" made of unconnected cubes. While these variations aren't particularly illusory, they do allow for puzzles impossible for their non-computerized predecessors.

Figure Ground and Regrouping are the more complicated puzzles. Instead of staying discrete, the "blocks" that are moved around in these puzzles tend to merge into each other and become new shapes. In Figure Ground, when a group of similar-colored squares is moved, they uncover squares of a different color. And when two shapes of the same color are put next to each other, they become a single shape. In Regrouping, you manipulate groups of lines on a grid, but the lines you can move depend on the conditions of the round. Sometimes it's squares of a certain size, sometimes it's L shapes. In both of these games, it can be impossible to know how far you are from reaching your goal; the simplest mistake can make success impossible, and it's easy to convince yourself that the correct path won't work.

More than Meets the Eye Ai Ai!

Flip Turn, by Scott Kim, from Heaven and EarthThe last four games are unique and extremely hard to explain. One game, Cursor Warping, relies too much on skillful mouse manipulation to fall within the scope of this column, and I've already touched on Concave Convex (which is expanded in the Heaven and Earth). But it would take separate articles to explain both the mechanics and the subtleties of Flip Turn and Multiple Cursors. And those articles will never exist because those games, like most of the other puzzle types from Heaven and Earth haven't been duplicated. They have to be played to be understood. Luckily, both Scott Kim and Ian Gilman (one of the main programmers of the game) encourage you to play the original game.

I've been playing this game, off and on, since it was first released nearly fifteen years ago, and I still haven't finished it. There are puzzles (like some of the more complex Gaining Losing scenarios) that I've never come close to solving, and there are puzzles (like Convex Concave) that I've enjoyed solving over and over and over again. Even if the screenshots in this article don't seem appealing, I suggest you play the game yourself. As you might suspect, looks will be deceiving.

COLUMN: 'Beyond Tetris' - Mario's Picross

December 4, 2006 12:01 PM |

["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 fondly remembered reincarnation of a pencil puzzle: Mario's Picross.]

Computers get into everything, even puzzles that seem more suited to the page. Crosswords, cryptograms, word scrambles, acrostics, and all manner of pencil-and-paper–based have been implemented on computers. Usually, these puzzles only appeal to the kind of people (like me) who are already fans of the static puzzles. But occasionally, a print puzzle makes a flying leap into videogames, and very occasionally, that game can be considered "hardcore." Mario's Picross is one such puzzle game.

Mario's Picross is Nintendo's version of a puzzle that goes by many names. It was independently invented in 1988 by both Non Ishida, who called hers "Window Art Puzzles," and Tetsuya Nishio, who called his "Oekaki-Logic." When James Dalgety brought Ishida's puzzles to the Sunday Telegraph in the United Kingdom in 1990, he renamed them "Nonograms." The Telegraph later changed the name again, to "Griddlers." As other publishers across the world started printing their own versions, more names were born for the same puzzle: Edel, Pic-a-Pix, Tsunami, and others. But when the puzzle was brought to the U.S. (and to me) by Games Magazine, it was called Paint by Numbers.

[Click through for more.]

COLUMN: 'Beyond Tetris' - Polarium Advance

November 20, 2006 11:03 PM |

["Beyond Tetris" is a new column from Tony "Tablesaw" Delgado about puzzle games that transcend mere abstract action and instead plunge deep into the heart of problem-solving. This second installment looks at a puzzle game that just hit American shelves, Polarium Advance.]

This month, while most gamers are focused on the generation gap, North America will finally see a brilliant puzzle game. Polarium Advance has been brought to America by Atlus, several months after a European release and over a year since the game was first released in Japan as Tsuukin Hitofude. It is a puzzle game spawned in the ashes of a "puzzle" game, and it should be celebrated by all right-thinking lovers of mental challenges.

Behind Tetris

Polarium's Challenge ModePerhaps you can tell from the title of my column (and from the italicized, square-bracketed introduction to this article, and perhaps even from the obtuse opening paragraph of this article) that I have a bone to pick with Tetris. I agree that it's a fine game, a fun game, a successful game, but it's not really a puzzle game. That is, it's not a game about solving puzzles with careful thought; it's a game of quick reflexes and abstract strategy. But despite my personal semantic quibbles, Tetris defined the "puzzle game" genre, and consequently inspired legions of potential successors.

One such aspirant was Polarium, from the Japanese developer Mitchell. It had simple graphics. It featured falling blocks that had to be cleared in lines. It was even released at the launch of a Nintendo handheld system, the DS. And Polarium was designed to showcase the DS's brand-spanking innovative touchscreen—to clear lines, you had to draw a path over the lines that appeared on the screen.

But the problem with Polarium's "Challenge Mode" was that it was terrible—not merely from a puzzling standpoint, but from a gaming standpoint. The lines that had to be cleared fell in huge screen-clogging chunks, and simple mistakes with the stylus were extremely difficult to correct. Instead of evoking Tetris's exhilarating addiction, Polarium only inspired frustration.

Lucky for Mitchell, they had included a "Puzzle Mode" with Polarium. This was undoubtedly inspired by the similar mode from another top-tier puzzle game, Tetris Attack (or Panel de Pon or Pokemon Puzzle League, etc.). Puzzle Mode was small at only 100 levels (Tetris Attack had 120), but it was definitely a better fit for the line-drawing concpets that Mitchell was introducing.

[Click through for more!]

COLUMN: 'Beyond Tetris'—Soko-Ban

November 6, 2006 12:12 PM |

["Beyond Tetris" is a new column from Tony "Tablesaw" Delgado about puzzle games that transcend mere abstract action and instead plunge deep into the heart of problem-solving. This first installment looks at one of the most persistent puzzle games, Soko-Ban.]

In 1982, puzzles about moving squares around weren't new. A hundred years previous, the world had been captivated by sliding squares around the 15 puzzle, and Rubik's Cube had just recently brought square-relocation into the third dimension. But the time was ripe for computers to revolutionize pushing of squares from their initial locations to other, different locations (preferably in a minimum number of moves).

Soko-Ban was published by Thinking Rabbit games in 1982, and was released to the West by Spectrum Holobyte in 1984. It featured a titular warehouseman pushing boxes around grid. And it was revolutionary. It moved mechanical puzzles into the virtual world, and established crate-pushing as one of the most fundamental videogame puzzles, a paradigm that continues to this day.

The Warehouse Revolution

Level 1 from the Spectrum Holobyte release of Soko-Ban

It seems odd that an avatar would be such a revolution in videogames, even as early as 1982. But videogames were young and mechanical puzzles were old, and the love child of the two couldn't help but be influential. Soko-Ban's top-down perspective seemed like any other block-slider, but with a "man on the inside," puzzlers had to think in entirely new ways. Extreme foresight is needed to make sure that the warehouseman can get behind every box when he needs to—a box along a wall will stay along that wall until the end of the game. And since these massive crates are apt to completely block off key passages, it is disturbingly easy to trap oneself behind a line of boxes. The real puzzle is getting the warehouseman around the labyrinthine storage space, pushing around the crates is simple after that.

The videogame is enables another important rule: the warehouseman can only push one block at a time. Remember that in sliding puzzles, like the 15 puzzle, you can move any number of squares at the same time, as long as they're not blocked by a wall. A square can't be movable from one position and then immovable from another. But the computer can keep track of changes like that, and two blocks forming an immovable deadlock was a novel twist that was much easier to keep track of in a virtual space.

When you consider all of these blocked passages and impossible-to-move boxes, the generally small puzzle grid starts to unfold into a massive maze of possibilities. The first level of Soko-Ban (shown above) takes over two hundred moves to complete. Others of Soko-Ban's original fifty levels take more than a thousand.

Attack of the Soko-Fans (Also, Clones)

Hexoban by David W. SkinnerThe level editor was another key feature of Soko-Ban, and dedicated players have been using it ever since. Many of Thinking Rabbit's sequels to Soko-Ban (Sokoban Perfect and Sokoban Revenge for PCs; Boxxle and Boxxle II for the Gameboy; and even a few releases on consoles like the Playstation) have featured levels designed by fans. Today, excellent amateur designers like David W. Skinner make their creations available over the internet.

Like most puzzle games with simple rules and low graphical demands, Soko-Ban has been cloned over and over and over again. One webpage has listed over eighty different implementations of Sokoban, which has become the name of the generic puzzle. Some of these programs, like SokoSave are designed to aid in the sharing of Sokoban levels and solutions. But many of the clones aren't just Sokoban, they're Soko-Ban with different skins. While it's considered questionable but generally kosher to clone a game mechanic, the level design is a different matter, and a number of these clones take Thinking Rabbit's original fifty levels with neither permission nor attribution.

The Sokoban community has gone beyond designing new levels to design new variants. David W. Skinner also created Hexoban, which is Sokoban on a hexagonal field. Trioban (Sokoban on a triangular field, where triangular boxes are pivoted instead of outright pushed) came from Fran├žois Marques. And then there's Malcolm Tyrell's Multiban, in which the lonely avatar has finally hired some more warehousemen to help move the boxes. Other games like Cyberbox and Block-O-Mania add gimmick blocks and grid spaces (one-way spaces, teleporters, etc.) to create new challenges.

Crates to Seconds

Sokoban in NetHack for Windows - Graphical InterfaceEven beyond the clones and variants, Soko-Ban inspired a number of item-pushing puzzle games. In 1985, the Eggerland series (known in America as The Adventures of Lolo and its sequels) began using crate-pushing as the core of its puzzles, which also involved collecting items and dealing with enemies. Even action games have incorporated Sokoban. Link invariably has to push crates into position somewhere in each Legend of Zelda game (The Wind Waker even featured an elementary Trioban segment). And the action-packed roguelike NetHack sports a Sokoban sidequest.

In today's more immersive games, crates aren't just for pushing; they're for pulling and climbing and smashing and gravity-gunning. In the mainstream, crate-pushing has become cliché. But that's only because the crates of first-person shooters and adventure games don't get pushed around enough. Action-game blocks are usually present only as an annoyance for a few minutes, but a difficult, well-designed Sokoban level can take hours of work over the course of days. It's far more frustrating, but on the other hand, it's far more rewarding to finish a level and know that you're done, not just moving on to better-designed parts of the 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.]