Results tagged “video games”

Magick Systems in Theory and Practice, Installment 8: Conclusion

First, I'd like to say thanks to Jason McIntosh, Kevin Jackson-Mead, and Andrew Plotkin for the opportunity to write this series; it's been extremely useful to have a forum for clarifying my own ideas on magic systems. I'd also like to thank everyone who read and commented on each blog entry. Your feedback has been very helpful, often bringing new games to my attention as well as offering helpful insights into existing games and concepts. When Jason and Kevin first mentioned the idea of guest-blogging on the Gameshelf, we agreed that a limited duration of a couple months made the most sense, in part so that other guest bloggers can carry forward the mission of the Gameshelf in many exciting ways.


And, while in one sense I'm wrapping up this particular series, I feel more like radiating outward in many directions, because the opportunity to write here has inspired so many ideas for further exploration. Magic is an explosive nexus that doesn't react well to being contained or bottled up. It's best to answer the question: where next? And the inevitable answer is: many directions. This installment is written under the aspect of the sign of chaos (as invented by fantasy writer Michael Moorcock and adopted equally in games like Warhammer 40k and Peter Carroll's occultist movement Chaos Magick). In its positive sense, chaos is a signpost pointing toward a multitude of possible paths, liberating creative energy rather than confining it.

As far as my own creative work goes, I'll be posting a new video of my Arcana Manor interface on Youtube soon, since I now have working code in the form of drag and drop elements of spell grammar feed into array, as well as a function for matching the changing contents of this array with a database of spells. Using GlovePie, I now have keyboard input controlled by voice, as well as drawing input via the Grafitti bitmap drawing library in Actionscript 3.0. I'm currently working with mouse gesture recognition libraries in order to allow drawing gestures to be fed to the array, thereby making drawing a fully integrated aspect of the interface. 

Magick Systems in Theory and Practice, Installment 7: Arcana Manor


Since this blog series is called "Magick Systems in Theory and Practice," I feel that I should talk about my own practice in terms of concrete design of magic systems. For the past year and a half or so, I've been working on a project tentatively (and perhaps temporarily) titled Arcana Manor

For the sake of consistency, I'll reproduce some of the most recent design document, starting with the game's elevator pitch.

"In Arcana Manor, the player wields a uniquely immersive and symbolic magic system to defeat the demons of a surreal Gothic mansion and unlock its secrets. Arcana Manor is a ceremonial magick simulator with an elaborate system of gestural sigils, incantations, colors, and sounds that makes players feel like true adepts, not mere button-pushers. 

The magic system has these overall goals:

• to let players feel like they are the ones casting the spells rather than watching a character cast them

• to allow players to express and re-configure symbolic ideas differently in order to warp and alter reality, i.e. the system changes and adapts to different players' behaviors and personalities
• to be learnable, in part, through experimentation and trial-and-error so that there will be mystery surrounding the system; while the system is rigorously rule-based, a part of magic should remain magical in the sense of unpredictable, hidden, and knowable only through direct experience.

The conceptual framework of the magic system is based on ideas derived from authentic mystical and occult lore, in which magic is a metaphor for the power of the creative imagination.

• Players cast spells through their mastery of arcane knowledge and the symbolic correspondences of ritual
Aleister Crowley, Liber 777: 'There is a certain natural connexion between certain letters, words, numbers, gestures, shapes, perfumes and so on, so that any idea or (as we might call it) "spirit", may be composed or called forth by the use of those things which are harmonious with it, and express particular parts of its nature.'"

A magic system is the sum total of its mechanics, interface, visual art, audio, narrative, and mythology, because a game is defined by its experience and experience consists in all of these components. Since a magic system simulates the alteration of reality by the will through the agency of metaphysical forces, all of the components of a magic system (such as visuals and audio) should ideally be pervaded by the metaphysics that the system is designed to simulate. Yet, a magic system that pushes its metaphysics to the peripheries of its art style and narrative is taking the easy way out, with the result that hardcore players will tend to ignore what they regard as mere flavor and fluff in favor of the mechanics through which they can gain concrete strategic advantage. A designer who aims to enrich her magic system through the introduction of metaphysical profundity will want to unify metaphysics and mechanics so that the understanding of esoteric concepts will improve a given player's ability to succeed in the game. Then, the hardcore gamers will tend to have the greatest, deepest grasp of the game's metaphysics because they stand to benefit most from such a comprehension.


How, then, could mechanics and metaphysics be intertwined? The conjunction between the rules and affordance of a game with its philosophical implications can sometimes best be observed in non-digital games, in which the skeleton of mechanics tend to be unobscured by moving graphics and sound. One example of intertwined metaphysics and mechanics is *Nephilim*, the French game of "occult roleplaying" alluded to in last week's blog entry.

Among *Nephilim*'s many interesting mechanics is a modifier that changes the effect of a given spell according to the astrological signs associated with hours and days of the week as they interact with various elemental correspondences. The system is sufficiently complex that a Game Master's Veil (i.e. screen) includes a pentagram-shaped dial with windows that can be placed over a complex astrological table in order to calculate the modifier every time that a spell is cast. The astrological modifier and its expression through a concrete tool of turn-by-turn gameplay is one example of a metaphysical system of celestial influence and its conjunction with a game mechanic.

The relationship between magic systems and horror is hidden and unexplored territory, as secret as the black arts that lurk within the games themselves. Horror as used here refers not strictly to the genre of survival horror, which is a marketing construct invented in association with the first Resident Evil. Rather, horror-themed games include any game whose purpose is to evoke a sense of fear, dread, and the sublimity of unknown dark forces. Horror-themed games can be first person shooters, action-adventure games, and side-scrolling beat 'em ups. Magic is rarely the core mechanic of horror-themed games, often because players are put in the position of fighting magic through firearms and melee, or using magic only indirectly through artifacts. Magic and horror are intimately wedded in terms of themes but not in terms of direct player interaction.

realmsofthehaunting.pngYet, horror games often have the most original and memorable simulations of magic in terms of atmosphere and mood. What horror games have to teach us is their atmospheric simulation of magic, the Gothic mood that they associate with magic through a combination of art style, audio, and (sometimes) haptics. If more closely melded with the core mechanics of games, magic systems in horror games can be superb examples of design and provide inspiration for other hybrid genres.

Magic appears prominently in horror games because of an endemic thematic preoccupation with the supernatural, with emphasis on its dark side as the infernal and the demonic. With this supernatural element in mind, the definition of magic systems can be further refined and extended from last week's blog entry. A magic system is a set of rules and symbols for rigorously simulating the alteration of reality through the will by the agency of a supernatural force, whether conceived of as a genuine metaphysical presence, a symbolic construct, or an energizing psychological reality. In keeping with Crowley's axiom from Magick and Theory and Practice that "any intentional act is a magical act," any act of gameplay requires the operation of the will to achieve a desired result in altering a symbolic reality; therefore, any game mechanic can potentially be looked at as magic. This definition could theoretically be extended to include snowboarding and guitar playing if the experience of these activities approached the transcendent (which according to some Rock Band devotees, it certainly does). However, those genres that most embrace the representation and simulation of the supernatural will tend to exhibit interrelated mechanics that can most rigorously be defined as magic systems.

The definition of a magic system introduced in installment one could be sharpened from "any set of rules designed to simulate supernatural powers and abilities" to "any set of rules and symbols designed to simulate the alteration of reality through the will." This definition echoes Crowley's first axiom from Magick in Theory and Practice ("magic is the science and art of causing change to occur in conformity with will"), though it can apply to games without requiring designers to buy into any particular philosophical scheme.  Rather, an appreciation of magic requires only a little reflection on the profound mystery of the will: by deciding to do something, we can make it happen. For example, we focus our will to pick up a glass of water at lunch, and we do pick it up. Magic is an extension of similar taken-for-granted acts of will into a more profound longing: to control not just our immediate surroundings through the direct use of our body, but to shape nature, technology, other human beings, and the spirit world through the force of the will.

hereirule.jpgPerhaps most specifically, the fascination with magic stems from a desire to guide and shape the forces that govern the course of our individual human lives. The exercise of will to create change in life is murky and difficult, thwarted as it often is by forces both internal and external beyond our control. But in games, there is the potential of mastery, of understanding rules and then manipulating them through strategy in order to achieve a desired outcome. "Here I rule" is the marketing slogan of Magic: The Gathering, a declaration often accompanied by depictions of a skinny adolescent smirking confidently while surrounded by the fearsome monsters. As gamers, many of us identify with that sentiment.

As magic systems in games evolve, various forms of alteration of reality become formalized into types or "schools" of magic to categorize the ways in which players can alter a simulated reality. 


Gestural input is to some extent inherent in the language of magic, as seen in the phrases to "cast a spell" and to "weave an enchantment." The fantasy of weaving magic can be vividly seen on the cover of LucasArt's Loom (1990), in which two hands weave a glowing cat's cradle out of multi-colored light. (While Loom lacked any kind of gestural interface, its unique mode of musical spellcasting and melodic feedback will figure heavily into a later blog entry on multimodal feedback and audio magic.) Gesture is also an integral part of occultist approaches to magic, ranging from the pentagrams and hexagrams traced in the rituals of the Golden Dawn and Thelemic magick, the sigils drawn by Austin Osman Spare and Buddhist kuji-in mudras later adapted in the ninja-themed anime series Naruto.


Closely related to the idea of gestural magic is the verbal component of spell-casting, which appears in colloquial speech as a magic word. From David Copperfield to Harry Potter and the 2010 Sorcerer's Apprentice remake, the image of a wizard waving a wand and intoning a word in order to release a powerful magic spell pervades public consciousness of enchantment. Magic words are a direct extension of the arcane grammars that govern ritual and the combinatorial systems of runic languages discussed in the first installment of this blog series. Voice recognition software, now a standard part of Windows and readily available in more precise programs such as Dragon NaturallySpeaking, could heighten the immersive possibilities of incantation as a spellcasting method.

abracadabra.gifGestural input, in which players use a variety of input devices to trace symbols or fashion other secret signs with hands and body, is also especially relevant from a technological perspective after the 2010 E3 unveiling of Microsoft's Kinect (formerly project Natal) and the Playstation Move. These devices offer new levels of motion sensing technology, in addition to existing alternative input methods in the Wiimote and Wiimotion Plus, the Playstation Eye, and the force-feedback controls offered by the Novint Falcon. Each technology could be leveraged for new methods of casting spells, provided that designers can break out of the prevailing tray-of-icons approach to magic represented in many popular RPG's.

Envisioning the most creative use of new gestural and verbal technologies requires, paradoxically, an enterprise of game archeology, looking back into the history of games with magic in a search for hidden gems of unusual interfaces and input methods. Retro gaming and scholarship of retro games can offer a perspective on magic systems before they hardened into a single mold and became homogenized by marketing and ease of use or implementation.

Magick Systems in Theory and Practice: Installment One

I am pleased to introduce Jeff Howard, The Gameshelf’s first guest blogger.

Jeff is Assistant Professor of Game Development and Design at Dakota State University in Madison, South Dakota. He is the author of
Quests: Design, Theory, and History in Games and Narratives. He received his B.A. from the University of Tulsa and his M.A. and Ph.D. from the University of Texas at Austin. He is currently working on a game-in-progress, Arcana Manor, and related research about magic systems.

He plans on writing about games and magic over the next couple of months here, starting with this post. Enjoy! —jmac


A magic system is any set of symbols and rules designed to rigorously simulate supernatural powers and abilities. Magic is pervasive as a game mechanic and fictional construct within games, spanning across genres (RPG, MMORPG, adventure game, action-adventure, fighter, survival horror) and decades (from the 1974 first edition of Dungeons and Dragons to World of Warcraft and beyond).

Magic is part of the very nature of why people play games: to simulate abilities that they do not possess in real life; to escape from the prison of the mundane to the realm of enchanted; to weave the chaotic forces of life into a rule-bound system that can be understood and, at least partially, controlled.

The problem is that many magic systems aren’t very magical. RPG’s, both multiplayer and single player, have the same shortcoming: players press a button on a tray of icons, then watch an animation fire, followed by a cooldown period, after which players press the same button again. This process of spamming a hotkey button or two, cued to one’s most powerful spells, doesn’t feel like magic.

Magic, as depicted in fantasy literature and occult tradition alike, is a complex and arcane art comprised of gestures and words, as well as ingredients carefully combined with ritualistic artifacts in order to draw away the veil between the natural and supernatural worlds. So, the question emerges: how could designers put the magic back into magic systems?

Jon Blow talks about the stars in Braid

Jon Blow, author of the hit indie videogame Braid, gave a talk about game design in January 2010. The talk is short, about 20 minutes, but the Q&A that followed was about an hour, and I found it to be even more interesting than the talk. In particular, he answered a question about the stars in Braid, which is a part of the game that he is usually silent about. So I thought it was worth excerpting the question and his answer (about 9 minutes total). But, if you have time to listen to the full talk and Q&A, it's got other interesting stuff too. (He initially blows off the question and takes another question, which I edited out; that question, by the way, was about Wulfram, a team-based first-person tank shooter game with some pretty cool strategic elements that he co-wrote in the mid-90s.)

Review of changes in Pokemon gameplay

It's apparently time for my yearly post. Hello everyone!

I just wanted to point at this: A Brief History of Pokemon Battling at the Ogiue Maniax blog. I'm not very familiar with the franchise, but this was a great explanation of how the gameplay of the Pokemon video game has evolved through the years.

Winceful games-for-girls marketing

On Ian Bogost's Twitter feed, we find this striking photograph by Allison Moore of a Nintendo DS game retail rack:

Yes, it's one little slice taken out of a greater visual context, and its true that I'd have no reaction either way to seeing any one of these titles sitting by itself. (And you won't hear me saying boo about Peggle, in any case.) But it's still hard to look at this particular picture and not think of another culturally representative game, albeit one from over 40 years ago...

Miles to go.

Free game | Randomness in games | IF suggestions

Wadjet Eye Games is giving away its game The Shivah (normally $5) in honor of Yom Kippur:

his weekend is the Jewish holiday of Yom Kippur! It's a special time of year when Jewish folk reflect on the past year. So, on reflection, we're giving away The Shviah for free.

From now until Tuesday, simply use the coupon code "FreeShivah" when purchasing and you can nab the game absolutely free of charge.

Greg Costikyan posted his talk from Austin GDC about randomness in games. Definitely worth checking out.
Nick Montfort posted his updated list of interactive fiction suggestions, games he suggests for people who have some interest in IF but who haven't played much.

Polygonal Fury

Polygonal Fury screenshotPolygonal Fury is a new game by a first-time game maker. In the game info, it acknowledges the influence of Boomshine and Circle Chain. The basic idea is that you click on the screen to try to start a chain reaction to destroy a certain number of the shapes on the screen. Boomshine is not a very deep game (it's mostly luck-based), but it has a really nice atmosphere, mostly provided by its excellent, soothing music. The music in Polygonal Fury isn't quite as noteworthy, but the techno beat of it fits pretty nicely with the look of the game, so it works. What makes Polygonal Fury stand out a bit is its strategy.

There are three different shapes, and each one dies in a different way. Circles explode with a certain radius, squares shoot off in one of the four cardinal directions, and triangles fire off a laser at a random other shape on the screen. The thing that makes Polygonal Fury interesting is that you can upgrade the different shapes to do things like give circles a larger explosion radius, make triangles do more damage, get supershapes that are more powerful, and get extra clicks.

It didn't take me too long to win, but the later levels did require a bit of shuffling of upgrade points and discovering the right strategies for what to click when. Definitely worth playing if you like clicky action games with a bit of strategy.

Random links

Warzone and the Neverending Tower Defense

An example of a maze in Warzone Tower DefenseI found a new tower defense game via JIG, Warzone Tower Defense. It has a standard (but nice) selection of upgradable towers, and it's an open area (like the Desktop Tower Defense games) instead of pre-defined paths (like most every other tower defense game). As the waves go on and the enemies get tougher, you're forced to build mazes (see the image), which I find kind of tedious. Now, you're forced to build mazes in Desktop Tower Defense, too, but at least that ends. Warzone Tower Defense doesn't end, apparently. It just keeps going and going until you die. Now, this is obviously interesting to some people, as their forum is full of people bragging about the levels they reached (before dying or having their browser crash), sometimes with pictures showing the various complicated mazes they've built.

So, the game is definitely fun for a while, but I really do prefer my tower defense games to be winnable, even if it takes a really long time.

Video game movie fake trailers

A brief moment of link-spamming. Which we don't do very much here at the Gameshelf, because we're all into critical analysis and deep esoteric ludic discourse 'n'all. But occasionally, I have to say, these videos from make me die laughing.

Die! With metaphorical-nonmetaphorical irony!

But they're all videogame fake movies, so it's okay.

Note: it's the soundtrack, always.

Tower Offense?

Since I've been playing and thinking about tower-defense games recently, it occurred to me that it might be interesting to have a reverse tower-defense game, where you plan out the hordes of monsters that get shot at by towers. Thinking that this was unlikely to have been a completely original thought, I searched around and found Anti-TD, a game that came out two years ago.

(It's part of the Anti Games Series by Sugar-Free Games. It also includes Anti-Match3 (I guess this could be fun if you were a fan of the genre, but it's not my thing. Although it does apparently have a two-player mode, where one person plays the dropper and one person plays the matcher, which is interesting) and Anti-Pacman (you play all four ghosts. When you're not controlling a ghost, it wanders about on its own. When you are controlling a ghost, you move it around with the arrow keys. When a ghost dies, it is gone for good, so you don't have it available for later levels. Jason, you should at least check it out for the art that it shows you between the levels. While researching this, I also ran into the game Pac-Man Vs. for GBA and GameCube, where one person plays Pac-Man and up to four others play the ghosts. They get around the inherent unfairness by letting Pac-Man see the whole board (on the GBA) but letting the ghosts only see the area around themselves (on the TV screen). When a ghost gets Pac-Man, the two players switch places).

Anti-TD is not a very good game beyond the concept. For one thing, it took me about 30 seconds to discover a winning strategy that made the game too simple to care about. Let me explain. You are presented with a board that has paths and towers on it. You can select a type of creature and an entrance, and then send it. Your goal is to get a certain number of creatures to the exit alive. There are about a dozen different creatures, and they come in five different levels each (each one slightly faster or more resistant than the last). The only stats the creatures have, however, are unit type (ground or air), speed, and resistance. In each of the 10 levels, you start with a certain amount of money. I very quickly noticed that when I sent some creatures out, even though they died, I ended up with more money than I started with. I guess you get some money just for having your creatures spend time out there or something. So I picked a fast unit and then just kept sending those out, and my money built and built. Eventually, either that unit would overwhelm the defenses or I could save up enough money to buy a bunch of the top unit and push those through. I won the game in about half an hour.

Besides being absurdly easy, there also isn't much opportunity for strategy in the game. There are different tower types, but you can't click on them to find out anything about them, and there's certainly no indication that different units are affected differently by the different types of towers. And as for picking a path, it's simply a matter of counting the number of towers on each path and picking the one with the least defense. There are also little power-ups that appear and disappear randomly, but they really don't add much to the gameplay.

So, what should a good reverse tower-defense game have? Here are some initial thoughts.

  • It should allow you to see what the towers are. Maybe it doesn't give you the full stats, or at least not until you've had a few units gunned down by that type of tower, but you should at least be able to tell what it does by clicking on it or hovering over it.
  • It should have different creature types have different strengths and weaknesses in relation to the different tower types. This can be done in any of the ways any of the various tower-defense games have done it: associate creatures with different elements, have them walking or flying, give them resistances or susceptibilities to different tower types, etc.
  • It should have some logical (or at least explained) way that you get resources. Maybe you get resources over time. Maybe you get resources for destroying towers or for getting creatures to the end of the board.
  • It should have some kind of upgrade mechanism. In Anti-TD, all of the creature types are available to you from the beginning as long as you can afford them, and you can afford most of them in the first level. Part of the fun of a tower-defense game is being able to upgrade your abilities or at least upgrade the towers. It should work similarly for upgrading monsters.
Anyone have any other ideas?

Asymmetric multiplayer tower defense might also be an interesting challenge to design. In regular tower-defense games, your goal is to slaughter wave after wave of your enemy. In a reverse tower-defense game, your goal would be to overwhelm the defenses. How would this work with one player playing the monsters and one player playing the defender? It would be a challenge to make the game fun for both people, since it's unlikely to be much fun to get all of your guys constantly slaughtered. Also, if there is any kind of planning between stages, the timing would have to be such that it doesn't take one person 10 seconds and another 3 minutes to decide what to do next (I guess a timer could easily solve that). It might be interesting to play a series of matches, where each player gets experience and is upgrading and such as the matches go on, but where the players have totally different roles. Are there games out there like this?

Balloon Invasion

I was so impressed with GemCraft Chapter Zero that I decided to check out the page of the creators, Game in a Bottle. I found Balloon Invasion there.

For everything outside of the levels, Balloon Invasion uses the same engine as GemCraft Chapter One. So, you still have a side-scrolling map, levels you have to unlock, skills to upgrade, etc., except that it's all themed for an artillery defense against an invasion of hot-air balloons and zeppelins dropping bombs.

The levels are what make this a completely different game. You are presented a side view, with your main flak gun at the lower right of the screen. Balloons of different shapes, sizes, and speeds come floating from the left to the right. You need to aim your flak gun at the balloons, leading them the appropriate amount. And exactly where you aim is important, as the flak shells need to explode at a certain point in space (so they're not like bullets or lasers, where anywhere along the trajectory is equally good). The key difference here is that you are constantly actively firing, making this game feel much more real-time than GemCraft, where you place towers and gems and then just sit back and let them shoot automatically.

To keep up the excitement and to help you out, you can also place other guns (which come in different types and which fire automatically) and call air strikes. Your other guns usually get destroyed throughout the battle, but you only lose if your main gun gets destroyed. This is the other main difference between Balloon Invasion and GemCraft (and most tower-defense games): it doesn't hurt you if the balloons make it to the other side of the screen. Yes, it hurts you if they drop a bomb on your main gun, but not all of them do (if you have other guns out, they will often drop bombs on the other guns first, and balloons have a limited number of bombs). The balloons somehow magically appear on the left again after going off the screen on the right, but I can forgive this minor unrealistic aspect.

So while Balloon Invasion probably won't keep me playing as long as GemCraft Chapter Zero did, its different gameplay mechanic makes it novel and will keep it interesting for a little while at least.

Jmac's Arcade #6 - Pac-Man

This is the first Episode of my show Jmac's Arcade that I've made since 2007, which means it's also the first one I've made since the launch of this blog. I hope you enjoy it. If you do, you will probably like the previous five videos as well.

Making this also gave me a chance to stretch my video-editing muscles as I head into a fairly ambitious Gameshelf-related project. More news on that as it happens.

Anyway: The background music is "The Annual New England Xylophone Symposium" by Do Kashiteru, and I've written about Jamey Pittman's The Pac-Man Dossier on this blog already.

GemCraft Chapter Zero: Gem of Eternity

As I mentioned in my last post, I finally won GemCraft Chapter Zero, so I feel like I can post about it now. I'll use headers for organization, since this is going to be long.

GemCraft Chapter Zero is a tower-defense game, a prequel to the original GemCraft Chapter One: The Forgotten. Zero is a vast leap over One in many ways. There are little touches that make life easier, like being able to call multiple waves early with a single click, and being able to combine gems in towers instead of needing to remove them from towers to combine. But there are also more substantive changes, like greatly expanding the number of skills, and introducing nine (well, ten) different ways to play each level.

And for a tower-defense game, there's actually a bit of a story building up over the series. (Slight spoilers ahead, but the story isn't what the game is about.) At the beginning of One, you find out that there is a wizard in the east who has unleashed monsters for some unknown reason. You battle your way across the land, clearing towers of monsters. When you get to the end, you find that something called "The Forgotten" has possessed this other wizard, but it decides that you're a better host, so it kills the other wizard and possesses you. You're then told that it is going to take you to the east, to unleash more havoc.

In Zero, you are a wizard in search of the Gem of Eternity. The wizard council tries to hide information about it and forbid you from finding it, but you ignore them and search out the gem anyway. In the end, you take the gem and realize that its power has been used to imprison an ancient, powerful evil, The Forgotten. It possesses you, and you become the mad wizard in One. You're told that The Forgotten plans to lure another wizard, and that with the power of both wizards combined, it will finally be powerful enough to fully come into the world, which you learn will be picked up in GemCraft Chapter Two.

The story is pretty dark. In both One and Zero, the protagonist ends up possessed by an unspeakable evil; not much of a reward for defeating wave after wave of monsters. But I'm definitely looking forward to Two, both to see what additional improvements are made to the game, and also to see if The Forgotten is finally defeated (and I expect a very difficult final battle).

Tower-Defense Games
Now to go into some more detail about the game. For those who don't know, the tower-defense genre, which has exploded in the past couple of years, involves placing towers in order to kill monsters that try to cross the screen. You get money for killing monsters, which you can use to buy more towers or upgrade existing towers. Key strategy points generally involve where to place the towers, which towers to purchase, and how and when to upgrade the towers.

The GemCraft Games
In the GemCraft games, you build empty towers on the board, and then you build gems, which you place in the towers. The gems fire blasts that damage monsters and that also have different special effects depending on the color of the gem (blue slows, green poisons, red does splash damage, etc.). You can build six different grades of gems, in eight different colors. Each level has from two to eight of the gem colors available, and when you choose a grade of gem to build, the color is randomly selected from those available for the level.

Combining Gems
You can combine gems to make more powerful gems. Two gems of the same grade can be combined to form a gem of the next higher grade (if you combine gems of different grades, the combined gem is the higher grade, but it's slightly better than the original higher-grade gem). Part of the strategy involves knowing when to combine gems and when to wait to buy higher-grade gems directly (it's cheaper to buy a gem than to buy the two component gems and combine them, but it also takes longer to save up for the higher-grade gem, during which time monsters might be trouncing you). Note that you can combine grade six gems to make grade seven gems, even though you cannot buy grade seven gems directly. The highest gem grade I've made is grade nine. I'm not sure if there is a maximum grade. OK, so I just spent an hour or so making a grade ten gem, so I'm guessing there's no maximum. (A grade ten gem takes 16 grade six gems. The last level requires you to throw seven grade seven gem bombs, which is 14 grade six gems, so I knew that I just had to go a bit beyond what it took to win the last level. Of course, that required gaining a few more experience levels so that I was powerful enough to do that.)

Traps in Zero replace trenches in One. A trench is built along the path, and it slows down the monsters that go over it for a little bit. It's useful to put these near your towers, so that your gems have more time to hit the monsters. Traps in Zero are basically a combination of a trench and a tower. You build them in the path, but by themselves they do nothing. Like a tower, they require a gem to activate. A gem in a trap does much less damage and has much less range than a gem in a tower, but its rate of fire increases and its specials (slow, poison, splash, etc.) are much more powerful. Throughout the game, I didn't find much use for traps, since I always felt that if I had a gem, I wanted to put it into a tower. Maybe I would have gotten through the game faster if I had used traps effectively, but I don't know. They're obviously most effective when you're faced with swarms of weak creatures, which is the case in the Swarm level type.

Gem Bombs
Besides sticking them in towers and traps, another thing you can do with gems is make bombs out of them. This concentrates their power (including their special) into a single large explosion, quite a bit more powerful than a normal blast from the gem. Now, generally, using gem bombs to destroy monsters isn't very cost-effective, since the average gem will do much more damage over its lifetime in a tower than as a gem bomb. Still, there are times when this is useful, such as during the Sudden Death level type (generally, if a monster reaches the end, it costs you some mana to banish it, and it reappears at the beginning (if you run out of mana, you die); in Sudden Death, you die if any monster reaches the end, no matter how much mana you have). However, gem bombs are useful for destroying other things on the field (auxiliary buildings where monsters can also come out, little buildings and rocks and whatnot so that you can place towers in that spot, and beacons, which negatively affect an area of the board by doing things like healing monsters, preventing you from placing towers or traps, and making monsters invulnerable (until they reach the end)). I did have occasion to experiment with an all-gem-bomb strategy a few times, and it is quite fun, but it only works on some of the lower levels.

Shrines are another feature that is present on some of the levels. Each shrine is of a particular type (damage, mana gain, armor reduction, etc.), and they are activated by sacrificing gems to them. A shrine has only a certain number of charges, so there is a limit to how many times it can be activated. They can sometimes be useful, particularly the damage ones near the end of a level (call the rest of the monsters, then kill them all with the damage shrines), and there are some fun degenerate uses of them in the Endurance level type (Endurance keeps sending monsters at you until you die, but the upshot is that you always win (you just sometimes don't get very many points); there is a shrine that gives you three times the points for up to 100 monsters on the field, so you can call all the monsters and sacrifice several gems to get points; this combines very nicely with one particular type of damage shrine; if these shrines are available on a level, it usually results in a higher score than playing the Endurance level like a normal person). However, the big use of these shrines is for the amulets.

For anyone who has spent much time at all playing casual games, amulets will be instantly recognized as equivalent to achievements. Achievements are little metagame tasks for which you get some points (or sometimes nothing at all beyond the satisfaction of getting the achievement). (And I can't pass up this opportunity to mention a fun parody game called Achievement Unlocked, which is nothing but achievements.) However, amulets in Zero are a major source of points (and points increase your level, which gives you skill points, and skill points are how you're able to beat higher levels). It's even possible to get more points from amulets than from killing monsters on some of the levels.

Amulets come in two varieties, those you can only get once and those you can get every level. The ones you can get only once are mostly for reaching certain milestones throughout the whole game (completing a certain number of a certain level type, building a certain number of towers, killing a certain number of monsters, throwing a certain number of gem bombs, etc.). The ones you can get every level include things like winning a battle without doing something (building a tower, throwing a gem bomb, building a trap); building a grade seven, eight, or nine gem; finishing the level with a certain amount of mana; and so on.

The other kind you can get every level are called shrine burst amulets. You get these by sacrificing a grade six or higher pure gem (a gem of only one color; you can combine gems of different colors, and the combined gem takes on attributes of both component gems) at a shrine, and you get one for every time you do this in a level. The points you get for these can be significant, especially in some of the later levels where there are sometimes a lot of shrines. An average base score on a level might be anywhere from 1200 to 2000 points. Each shrine burst amulet is worth 300 points, giving you the ability to sometimes get 1200 or more points just from the shrine burst amulets. As I said above, the points you get from amulets can easily be more than the points you get from simply killing monsters.

One of the most noticeable big changes from One to Zero is the greatly expanded set of skills to improve. In One, you have a set of 12 skills (things like gaining more mana, having gems cost less, getting gems at the start of a level, etc.), and at the beginning of the game, you can only spend points in one skill, having to wait until you are of a certain experience level before you can unlock the next skill.

In Zero, there are 28 different skills (one for each color of gem, three dealing with your mana pool, three dealing with gem bombs, three dealing with traps and towers, etc.), and you can advance in any of them regardless of your experience level (as long as you have the skill points). The first level of a skill costs five points (the number of points you get to spend for each experience level you gain), and they go down as you spend more, costing two points in the middle, and then going back up, costing six points for the tenth level in a skill, for a total of 36 points to get tenth level in a skill. In order to max out, you would need 36 * 28 = 1008 skill points, which you would get with 1008 / 5 = 202 experience levels, or level 203 (you start out at level 1 with no skill points to spend). To give a data point, my character who won the game (and then gained a few levels so I could verify that you can in fact create a grade ten gem) is level 93, with 460 skill points to spend. So let's just assume that no one is going to be able to max out even most of the skills, so choices have to be made.

There are some pretty obvious choices for skills to take all the time once you have the points. Maxing out the skills that allow you to build towers cheaper, to build gems cheaper, and to start a level with more mana will allow you to build a tower and a grade four gem before any monsters start showing up, which gives you a nice safety net for most levels. As you get more points, maxing out the skills that give your gems higher damage, range, and firing rate are pretty key. But there is plenty of room for variation based on the particular layout of the level, the particular level type you are playing, and your particular playing style.

Level Types
The other very noticeable change from One to Zero is the addition of level types. One encourages replay of levels by giving a score to try to beat for a level. If you do, the frame around the level on the map will "glow", and you will have a chance of unlocking a hidden level. In Zero, level types are used to encourage replay of the levels.

When you first play a level, you must play it in the Normal level type. Once you win in Normal, you may play the level in any one of eight other level types, provided you meet the experience level requirement. To play the Sudden Death level type, you must be experience level eight; to play Endurance, you must be level 16; to play Heroic, you must be level 24; and so on through Arcane at level 64. Some levels are too tough to beat on Normal at the experience level you are, so in order to gain some experience levels to be able to advance skills, you frequently need to return to lower levels and play them at different level types.

To give you an idea of the scope of the game, there are 78 different levels. In the game where I've won, only the first 18 levels have been completed in all of the level types, there are five levels where I've only completed Normal, and there are 18 levels where I haven't even completed the Normal level type. There's also a special level type that only becomes available once you've won the game, and it keeps getting tougher and tougher every time you play it for a level.

There are many possible paths through GemCraft Chapter Zero, and I could probably spend as many hours playing it to completion after having won it as I spent to win it. The sheer number of levels, level types, skills, and amulets might make the game seem daunting to some, but I found it a challenging and rewarding game. I'm very much looking forward to the next installment.

A Few Links

I finally went through my 500+ starred-item backlog on Google Reader. I'm down to 25 or so, which is pretty good. Here are a couple of things that I thought might interest more people, one on board games and one on video games.



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