Wednesday, June 14, 2023

Puzzles and Alexander Shen

When looking for a demo of Alexander Shen’s Crumbling Dungeon, I found out that there was a Memorial Day sale on their games and puzzles. Which was a way of getting Crumbling Dungeon and a bunch of other stuff for a darn fine price. I had a couple items already but it was still a real bargain.

While I initially tried out Crumbling Dungeon, I decided that I wanted to next try out three different puzzle collections: Circuit Board Square, Galactic Diplomacy Corps, and  ‘I Have to Retrieve 5 Gems from a Dungeon That is Falling Apart and I Have Leas Than 30 Seconds to Do It’ The last makes me want to reread Chip Delany’s science fiction (We In Some Strange Power’s Enploy Move On a Rigorous Line and Time Considered As A Helix of Seni-Precious Stones arw great works as well as insane tities) and I will call it 5Gems from here on out.

Circuit Board Square is a flat-out puzzle with no random elements or theme. You have to fill out a three by three grid with the numbers one to nine. The edges and the corners have sums and you have to fill out the grid to make all the sums work. (And, yea, that means the center square isn’t part of any of the sums)

I described it as Sudoko for people with very short attention spans to my wife. She said ‘So, children?’ I said ‘No, me’ There are some simple strategies to filling out a grid and I find, once I do one, I end up doing a couple. And, if I end up in a classroom again, I’d think of using Circuit Board Square.

Galactic Diplomacy Corps is a grid where each square has a number and symbol. You draw a line that connects like number or symbol to like symbol or number. The twists are you can’t land on a square that the line has passed through or stopped at and you start to lose points if you get too many of the same symbol.

Honestly, GDC is the least engaging Shen puzzle/game I’ve tried. It doesn’t have the quirky charm that permeates a lot of their games. Nor does it razor-sharp simplicity of Circuit Board Square. Honestly, if it was broken or bad, I’d honestly find it more memorable.

Speaking of quirky charm, 5Gems has got it. You navigate a maze to collect five gems in a limited number of turns. Traps randomly block spaces, switches let you knock down walls and you have three one-time special powers.

Honestly, it makes me think of a game you’d have programmed in basic on an Apple ][e in the early 80s. And I mean that in a compliment. I can’t say 5Gems is a good puzzle but it’s got character. I have had fun with it.

Since I started exploring PnP and indie games, I’ve found a world that’s both unpolished and flavorful. You aren’t going to find designers who are undiscovered Reiner Knizias or Richard Garfields. But you will find neat little things you’d never find anywhere else.

And while a lot of Shen’s work feels like it could use some more workshopping (I’ll cover Quests Over Coffee at some point and it’s an exceptions. It rocks) but they definitely show persistence. And, when I think about other indie designers I’ve looked through, their charming and solid body of work stands out. It’s not perfect but it’s good stuff.

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