## Monday, August 25, 2014

### Game Retrospective: Hex Cell Plus

Okay, so the long form build up to my currently played game wasn't working. Some would see that as a sign that I should stop trying to talk about videogames on the blog. Well, I see it as a sign that we should talk about slightly different videogames. Recently, I asked my FB friends to pick random numbers that corresponded to positions on Steam account. And then I would play them, and talk about them here. The results: Shelter (badger mommy sim), 10 000 000 (bit runner meets match 3), Zuma's Revenge (marble blasting), and HexCells Plus (minesweeper puzzle game). The Testament of Sherlock Holmes, and Hammerwatch (pixel-based fantasy tactics thing).

I didn't have the heart to tell the poor dears I already did 10 000 000. Mostly because I'd like to play it again.

Anyway, a review of the first one I finished, HexCell Plus, after the break.

The starting idea behind the original HexCell is simple enough: it's Minesweeper, but with hexagons. So if a hex has the number 3, there's three adjacent hexes to be marked. But there's two other significant deviations from MineSweeper: first, the board is preset rather than randomly generated, which in effect means that you're presented with is a puzzle with a set solution. Second, it reverses the mine mark button and the regular click button from MineSweeper, a single change that leads to more of my mistakes than any other move. Rather than MineSweeper's "one wrong click and you're dead" the game intsead tallies up your errors, subtracting them from your point total at the end, and you need a certain point max to reach the next set of worlds.

And because all of this is just too darn simple, it adds further complications: if the number is in brackets, then it denotes that the adjacent mines are adjacent to each other as well: {2} means that the two mines around it are also touching each other. And -3- means that there are three marked hexes around the hex, but at least one isn't adjacent to the others. Then there's the next level: the numbers can be applied to rows and columns and diagonals rather than just cells, with the same rules as before. It can lead to some very swear-inspiring moments.

The original Hex Cells was great; I found it a lot of fun, and my main complaint was that there wasn't enough of it. Hex Cells Plus answers that complaint, with another 36 levels. Things get really tough around world 3, though, and I *still* haven't figured out world 3.5, despite unlocking everything else in the game. Hex Cells Plus is not just harder than its predecessor--it adds another wrinkle. Now, some marked mines have numbers on it. These numbers indicate how many mines there are within a range of 2 hexes rather than just adjacent. The complexity this adds--especially when added to the other other elements--is headache-inducing. There was definitely a time a few days ago when I wondered if this game was too smart for me.

But talk, like my Hex Cells game skill, is cheap. Let's look at an example of a few moves to give you a feel how it all works. ..Or rather, I would, but there's something wrong with the way this program works with screenshots, so they're all just black screens. I'd post those, for a "black bear blinking in a coal mine" type joke, but let's save us all some time. Instead, here's a random shot from the internet. Thanks, internet!

.This image, in fact, is straight from the developer's site (that's Matthew Brown Games). It's the opening state of Level 6.5, or, as I called it last night at around 4 am, Hell. It's got most of the components I was talking about: bracketed numbers, dashed numbers, blue mine radius numbers, numbered columns, and numbered diagonals. While there's a few things you can do with the rest of the board, the main action is up in that upper left corner. (Feel free to open a larger version of the image in a different window for reference.) In particular, the action centers around that 3 diagonal, the number just above the 7 to the left of the -2-. Now, this diagonal mine count doesn't stop with the hex to the bottom right of the three--it keeps going down the diagonal, right to the 1 diagonal and beyond. But since that 1 diagonal is there, that changes things. It says there are two mines and only two between that 3 diagonal and the 1 diagonal. (You'll notice I switched from marked hexes to mines; technically, they're not mines, and the term mine is probably copyrighted in this context, but let's ignore that.)

So there are two mines, and a possibility of three hexes for them to be in. Note that the -2- is already next to one mine, the blue 4. But because there are three mines between diagonal 3 and diagonal 1, there has to be at least one mine in the space either above -2- or to the upper right of -2-. But there also can't be more than one, because that would make -2- adjacent to two mines. Further, because of the dashes around -2-, the space directly above blue 4 and the space directly below 2 can't be mines, because they then would be adjacent to 2. So we can clear those two spaces, and mark a mine in the one hex left available, directly above -2-. Further, since there's only one unmarked hex left between diagonal 3 and diagonal 1, and one mine left to account for, the number to the bottom right of -3- must be a mine. That means all the mines are accounted for for the 2 below the -3-, and so we can click to the bottom right of two--or directly below blue 4--as unmined.

That's two mines accounted for. There are 115 left to go. And they are all like that. I think you can tell by now if this is something that's for you or not.

The basic game is simpler than this example, but the basic skill remains pretty much the same. This isn't a game with a lot of representational attachment--it even removes the evocative, violent language implied by Minesweeper, to cater to a world of logic-based numbers. And it goes a step further than that--the game is entirely deterministic, a set system of rules in contrast to Minesweeper, which is at least randomly generated. This deterministic aspect leads me to the question--Is it a game or a puzzle?

And now I can hear the digital groans and catcalls. Person, you cry. Oh, Person. Person of Consequence: really? Is that really why you've dragged us all out here, to beat that hoary horse again? To resurrect the spectre of "is it a game," the penultimate most insidious and most tedious of all videogame questions, second only to "but is it art?". What possible reason could you have for raising it here? What does it matter?

To which I could answer, it doesn't. Nothing matters. I am a bipedal mammal typing on an electronic box in an infinitesimal speck in the larger universe, and nothing I ever do will matter. Less flippantly, I could say, going with the better truth, that it doesn't matter because "is it a game" is a question that has been used to attack developers and designers who have done something different outside of mainstream videogames, to denigrate their efforts to do something new and creative, to be different. And raising the "is it a game" question raises a hand against all of them. And I don't want to do that, and I won't do that.

So--I'm making no general statements here. No judgments on anything, except those things I specifically name. I don't think of jigsaw puzzles as games--until you put a timer on it, it becomes Perfection, and suddenly I'm racing against time. I don't think of crossword puzzles as games--unless you're playing competitively against someone, and you take turns answering the clues, with the catch that you get points for the resulting letters, ala Scrabble. I don't think of Sudoku puzzles as a game--unless I'm comparing my average time to complete with everyone else who did the daily puzzle. In short, in my personal experience on exactly these types of activities, I don't respond to an entirely deterministic system, even one with rules and a clear outcome, as a game rather than a puzzle--unless you shift the focus from reaching the singular solution to the player's performance in achieving that solution. In short, Minesweeper, in terms of how I respond to it, is a game by virtue of its timer and randomization; Hex Cells Plus has neither, but the sense of progression from level to level and its careful measuring of my errors more than makes up for it. I mean, spoilers, but there's a reason I've been calling it a game the whole time.

So: that's Hexcells Plus. Great game for logic geeks. Maybe less great for other people. But it's really cheap--you can get from the developer's site RIGHT NOW for the low, low price of \$3.

Later Days.