I’m not one keen for mobile games, being wary of the usual stereotypes. For the most part, many mobile games (especially the free ones) are designed to draw players in and take a lot of time. At first, the game is generous, the levels are easy; only later does the difficulty spike and the resources become scarce. There’s often the traditional cooldown that prevents more play unless real money speeds up the process. Having read about Puzzle Craft from another game journalist, I thought I could give the game a chance. After all, I’m an Android user, and I haven’t played a mobile game in a while. Here’s my analysis on what the game is doing well to keep my interest, and what it could improve upon.
The Initial Draw
Who likes farming nowadays, right? Farming is associated with long XP or resource grinds involving repetitive actions. I’m a fan of farming Harvest Moon style. I realize I can’t get a similar experience on the phone, but I thought I’d see how I like Puzzle Craft. Part of the appeal are the cute graphics that remind me a little of the Natsume title, even if they don’t seem distinctively anime. The round piggies, the chickens, and the overall style of buildings did its part to appeal to me, and is likely first step for anyone developing an interest. Simply put, if the game were ugly, it would get a lot less downloads, despite whatever compelling game systems it has to present (even if it is free).
The Meat Market
Puzzle Craft is a mixture of two games: A town-building sim and a puzzle game. During the puzzle part, the player gathers resources to spend on town upgrades; new buildings that change up the puzzle game. An EXP bar shows what level you are, progressively filling the screen and growing from a hamlet, to village, to town.
The mini game hardly feels like a “puzzle.” It’s an easier twist on match three. All you need to do is swipe your finger at least across three of the same resource to gather it, with easy diagonals possible at all times. Getting as many as possible in a row is key, which also brings in more powerful resources. The farm mini game has grass, wheat and chickens, but more valuable, higher tiers of resources come in the more you play. It plays fairly easy and getting big chains of supplies is no problem, and takes little time to learn.
Farm to Farm, or F2F
Puzzle Craft takes this concept really well. Everything done in the game – whether it’s on the fields or in town – leads to higher yields. The newer buildings cause better resources to appear and enable tool crafting, and tools are one-time usable items that clear the screen from a particular resource. Workers are passive upgrades that decrease the number of squares needed to get a full stack of a resource, or to facilitate the appearance of better resources, such as pigs, apples, carrots, precious stones. The better and higher level the buildings, the more and higher level resources are needed, while the existing ones do nothing but power up the farming process.
The way Puzzle Craft improves farming has a subtle effect on the app usage. Some of the buildings extend the farming time, so collecting wheat eventually doesn’t make a turn pass, and the greenhouse gives eight extra moves on the farm. Several buildings and better food increase turns in the mine. The deeper you get into Puzzle Craft, the longer it keeps you playing its mini games, requiring more resources to produce anything as well. It’s a clever trick to disguise this mechanism as an upgrade, fooling the user (who may not care anyway).
Early Momentum and the Inevitable Slowdown
Going along with the plan of pulling a user into the game, Puzzle Craft makes creating the first few upgrades fairly easy. Leveling is quick, cottages and windmills emerge, and gold pours into the coffers. All the initial buildings don’t require advanced resources, so getting to levels 6-10 is a breeze. This is another fairly standard tactic to get a player interested in playing further.
However, there’s a contrast with later levels. The upgrades start to slow down, and as higher tier resources are required, the play in the game can hit a real low. One of the problems was a lack of workers, who are the sort of passive puzzle upgrades that really make getting the better resources easier. Unable to build any more cottages, I had little ways to get pigs. I resorted to spending gold in the market to get those quickly, wanting to omit the farming part and get on with town building. Two distinct game modes emerge here, and when I start preferring one, the other one suffers. I drew away from the farming, wanting to focus on town expansion. But even as I grew reluctant of the puzzle part, Puzzle Craft had its subtle ways of making me come back.
The Pull Back
I mentioned the tools earlier, right? They clear one or two kinds of a resource clean off the screen, without using a turn. They’re consumables that speed up farming and also help strategically isolate squares. They can be crafted by using small amounts of resources or bought instantaneously with gold, even during the mini games.
That’s not the real catch, however. As I somewhat drew away from the game, becoming a little bored with the gathering, nearly all the buildings created in the game periodically dropped a bonus. Those bonuses are either gold or tools, so a carrot patch will drop the carrot tool, and so on. I don’t have to do much, except turn the game on every couple of hours to tap away the yellow exclamation marks, to get the screen filled with free goodies. Free goodies that make farming easier.
This is the other subtle mechanic Puzzle Craft employs. Instead of not rewarding for not playing, the game is generous for the time not spent in it. Eventually, I had nearly 50 of most tools, so how could I not use them to break records in the farming parts? Even if somewhat begrudgingly, I started farming the chickens, stones, and carrots again, getting me out from under the low I experienced, until I could get workers again. Getting upgrades, getting tools, getting buildings, all to farm more, to get more upgrades, tools, and buildings.
Puzzle Craft can go differently for many people. Some might want to burn through it, farming for two hours straight, but I also believe that many will prefer to farm as little as possible while getting as many upgrades as possible. Still, as unwilling as I am to “comply” and work hard, I noticed all the subtle strategies it uses to keep itself just difficult enough, yet remain accessible. This is ultimately a better strategy for free- to-play games – systems that keep you interested, encouraged, and rewarded, rather than limited or compelled to pay to get ahead.