Developer: Ars Thanea Games
Release Date: 8/16/2012
Don’t be put off by the Facebooky look of Puzzle Craft, the new effort from Polish studio Ars Thanea Games. Its cheery cartoon visuals belie an incredibly polished, if not overly complex, hybrid of the match-3 and resource-gathering genres.
Although Puzzle Craft tasks you with growing your quaint countryside village into a bustling city, it’s not a simulation like the Tropico series. In fact, like a number of great board games (Settlers of Catan, Lords of Waterdeep), the theme is really just window dressing for the primary mechanic. In this case, that mechanic is matching tiles to collect resources.
Two grids, one for farming and one for mining, allow you to match squares to gather different materials, like wheat or iron. Collection is as simple as drawing a line between adjacent tiles of the same type. Matching enough tiles of the same type generates a tile of a more valuable type—match 6 coal and you’ll form a diamond. As you gather resources, progress bars on the bottom of the screen fill up, indicating when you’ve collected enough of each to form a unit (e.g., a bar of silver). These units of materials can then be used to purchase or upgrade buildings, hire workers, craft tools or trade for gold.
The trick with any tile-matching game is keeping it interesting. You have to design some kind of hook to keep players invested in returning to the same activity over and over. Puzzle Craft does a few smart things on this front. First, you have to spend farming resources (i.e. food) in order to mine, so your attention is balanced between the two grids. You also have a limited number of turns on each grid, but by purchasing and upgrading buildings, you can extend that number. Similarly, hiring workers can reduce the number of tiles you need to match to form a unit or to generate a more valuable tile on the grid. (The city-building conceit is pretty thin cover for what amounts to stat boosts, but it works.) Finally, completing sessions on the farm or in the mine earns you experience points; gaining levels unlocks the ability to purchase more valuable upgrades. Hit level 25 and build a castle, and you’ve won the game, inasmuch as it’s possible to “win” a game like this.
The title Puzzle Craft is a bit of a misnomer, since there really isn’t much in the way of puzzles here. Matching tiles doesn’t require a ton of critical thinking, although as you rank up, the game throws a few obstacles at you to keep you on your toes—wolves that will eat your livestock on the farm and exploding gas deposits in the mine. While the tactical layer is extremely light, it is present and does combat the fatigue of grinding through the same activity yet again.
And although the game’s art and animations may feel distinctly Facebookish—tapping on exclamation points makes bonus tools spring from the map, which have to be tapped to be collected—there are mercifully few of the typical irritating casual game hooks in Puzzle Craft. There’s only one form of currency to buy with in-app purchases, and these are circumspectly sequestered at the bottom of a menu. You’re not prompted to tweet your accomplishments, which I’m sure my followers appreciate. Puzzle Craft’s notifications are strangely needy in tone (“Your taxes are ready to be collected. And your people miss you.”), but they’re more amusing than annoying. It’s worth noting, too, how intuitive and slick the user interface is.
Maybe the reason I’ve found myself playing Puzzle Craft so much is that it’s designed to be relaxing. It hits that right balance between mindless activity and constant progression that so many iOS games try to achieve. I look forward to seeing what the designers craft in the future.