Helpful Obstacles: Cookie Jam Level 69

I was playing Cookie Jam and was stuck on one of the levels for a while. Let me show you level 69:

cookie jam level 69


The level’s objective is to drop three orange cakes and three green cakes into the delivery boxes below. You’ve got 46 moves to do it. There are three types of obstacles here: The chocolates, the rats, and the cinnamon sticks. Cinnamon sticks lock up cookies, which are immobile until you make a match with them to break the locks. The chocolates are immobile and only go away if you make a match next to them. The rat moves with every move you make and eats whatever treats happen to be on the spaces he moves into. This can include the cakes you need for the delivery order!

Now, my initial gut reaction here was to remove the chocolate. They’re blocking the tile spawning points at the top of the map, so when new cakes spawn, they’ll only spawn on the edges, which are very difficult to match. I did that and failed the level over and over, and I was wondering if I just needed to be lucky enough. That’s when it hit me. The chocolate wasn’t there to get in my way. It was there to help!

If you make a match in the center of the map, the game can’t spawn new cookies to fall from above, so instead, cookies to the upper left or upper right slide in to fill the void. The cakes are in the upper left and upper right corners, but if you make a match near the center, then they’ll have to slide at least three spaces toward the center, making them much more easy to match! Of course, this strategy won’t last forever. Random tiles falling down mean that the chocolates are going to break eventually, but if you avoid breaking them for as long as you can, then you’ve got much better odds of funneling the cakes toward the center.

This is the kind of puzzle design that I love to see. It’s asking players to think of something old in a brand new way. You can’t do this all the time or you risk tiring out your players, but a revelation like this makes players feel clever and really engages them.

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Posted by on September 1, 2014 in Game Thoughts, Puzzle Design


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Escape From Midnight Mansion

This week’s game release is going to be a little different. I was sorting through my hard drive and I found an old project of mine, Escape from Midnight Mansion. I’d like to share it with you. I graduated from San Francisco State University’s industrial design department (with a focus in digital media), and for my senior project, I decided to make a board game to help encourage cooperation in children. They’ve got a host of competitive board games, so why not throw some variety at them and maybe make a positive change in their lives?

The basic concept is that you’re a group of kids locked in Midnight Mansion, and you need to get out before midnight. There’s a stack of face-down tiles with numbers and effects on them, and you lay them out, randomly generating the mansion as you explore it. At the end of each turn, you roll a 20-sided die, and ghosts appear on the rooms with numbers that match the roll. The ghosts impede your progress, but if defeated, they vanish and provide bedsheet tokens. Collect enough bedsheets and you can create a rope and Escape From Midnight Mansion.

At the start of the game, you won’t have too many rooms, so you’re less likely to run into ghosts. This is good because it leaves you with more options, but it also means you aren’t getting the resources you need. As time goes on, you’ll get more rooms and the ghosts will appear more frequently. Greater challenge, greater reward. It’s simple, but effect.


Here’s the game’s original prototype, printed out on paper. 

Here’s the game in its final form, printed in largely black and white in a nod to the horror films of the silent era, with red used to highlight important facets of the rules, such as valid paths and hours where the challenge ramps up. A quick turn summary has also been added to the components. The tiles were glued to foam core and cut apart.


I managed to find a perfectly-sized shoebox to store all of the components. I’m amazed at how lucky I was that it all worked out. I just had to repaint it to match the theme, and it was good to go. 

Here are the game’s rules and other bits for print and play, along with some pictures. The folder contains the full report I made for the class, weighing in at a total of 123 pages. The rules and print-and-play assets begin on page 100. 

Someday, I’d like to revisit Escape from Midnight Mansion. It’s probably one of my proudest achievements, but it’s been about five years since I made it. I think I could improve on it, and I think looking back, there are lessons I’m still learning thinking back on the experience.

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Posted by on August 31, 2014 in Board Games, Grant's Games


Who Would Make The Best Investigator?

I was playing some Criminal Case earlier today, and I just saw this pop up:



It brings up a pair of Facebook friends and asks you to pick one, then it puts it in the “New Recruits” box. Once you fill all ten, it asks you about sending the invitation requests to them, then says that they’ll join you soon! Of course, you can press the “skip” button, which cuts it out, but still.

This is a really clever thing to do! Most games just ask you to check off all of your friends in a gigantic list, but this turns it into an interesting game. What it’s really asking you “Who would probably be more into this game?” and shows you their pictures. Instead of a simple yes/no, it’s asking you to make a comparison and pick an answer. This is an acquisition mechanic that’s actually kind of fun!

I obviously don’t have the numbers to back it up, but my guess is that this method has a pretty sharp jump in invitations. The only thing I’m a little iffy about is that it asks you to select ten recruits at a time. A player might lose interest before completing it, and they might end up sending invitations to no one instead of the entire batch of ten. Still, this is probably the kind of thing they’re still gathering data on. I’ve been playing for a fair amount, and I only just saw this pop up today.

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Posted by on August 29, 2014 in Acquisition, Game Thoughts, Social


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Hard Currency

You’ve been playing a game for a while, and you see something that you really want. You go to buy it, and you have a look at the price. Odds are good that the price isn’t going to be in dollars or your country’s local currency. Instead, it’s going to cost you an in-game currency. There are two general types of in-game currency; Soft currency and hard currency.

Soft currency is the type of money you might expect to be in games. This is the money you win after RPG battles. You get a constant steady flow of soft currency as you play through the game.

Hard currency, on the other hand, is tough to get. In fact, in many games, you only start with a limited supply and can’t earn any more through play. The fastest way (or only) way to get hard currency is by spending real life money.  These are things like Riot Points in League of Legends or Gold in Candy Crush Saga. The best items in the game are going to cost hard currency, and this is how the game makes money.

So why use hard currency? I’ll get the cynical answer out of the way first. Converting dollars (or your local currency) into hard currency obscures the value of the real currency. $5 American gets you 650 Riot Points. That’s 130 points per dollar. The Forecast Janna skin costs 1820 Riot Points. That’s $14, but it’s not a calculation people can intuitively perform. It works, though it’s cynical, and to me, it’s the least interesting part of hard currency.

When a game has a hard currency, it opens up a lot of interesting design spaces. If you have a hard currency, you can start the players with some. It’s awkward to tell a user “We’re giving you a 60-cent credit toward in-game purchases”, but it’s natural to say “We’re giving you 100 gold.” You can also have sales and discounts on hard currency, encouraging players to fill up their account instead of making purchases as they go. You can allow players to slowly earn hard currency through gameplay without worrying about them feeling insulted at the hard currency to real currency exchange rate.

I’ll go further in depth on these things you can do with hard currency (and possibly speculate on why Valve and Blizzard don’t use hard currency in their freemium games), but for now, I hope this serves as an introduction to the possible uses of hard currency. 

What do you like or dislike about hard currency?


Posted by on August 28, 2014 in Game Thoughts, Monetization


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On Board Games

As a designer, your job is to shape human experiences. You need to keep an eye out for design lessons everywhere. It can be hard to figure out what you can learn while waiting in line at the DMV, but there’s an easy source of design influence that many people overlook: Board games.

I’ve seen a few people roll their eyes at the thought that tabletop games could teach them anything, but even if you don’t like to play board games, you can’t ignore them. Game design wasn’t invented after the transistor. Game design has existed alongside human civilization for thousands of years. If you take game design seriously at all, you need to at least consider sports and board games.

Anyway, let’s talk about practical stuff. As a designer, you need to see a lot of different games. If you stick with video games, there’s only so much of the game that you, as the player, can see. In almost every case, there’ll be some part of the game that’s hidden away in the source code, like enemy AI or exactly how random numbers are weighted. Don’t get me wrong; you should still play as many video games as you can, but recognize that there are many layers of the game that you’ll never be able to peel back.

This is not true of board games. Board games, by necessity, make all of the rules known to players. If you own a board game, you can see all of the rules. They’re all laid out for you in plain text. On top of that, board games don’t have the luxury of cutscenes or voiceovers. The art and the mechanics have to carry the the game’s themes.

There are a lot of board games out there, but I’ll give you a few for starters:

Love Letter


Love Letter is a card game with only 16 cards. It plays lightning-fast, so even if your friends aren’t normally into tabletop games, you can probably convince them to spend five minutes of their time. It’s seriously impressive what the game can achieve with so little.



Dominion is a card game where you can earn cards to put in your deck during play. The goal is to end the game with the most Victory Point cards in your deck. However, those VP cards don’t do anything to help you otherwise, and if you load up on them, your hand is going to be full of cards that don’t do anything. It’s about developing an intuition for powerful card combinations and knowing when to push for victory.



Poker really doesn’t need much of an introduction, but here’s the important stuff to pay attention to, design-wise: Poker is heavily dependent on luck, but it’s considered a sport, some players are clearly better than others, and there are actual tournaments with huge prize pools. If you want to take a good hard look at how random chance coexists with skill, look at Poker.




Before you pull out the pitchforks, hear me out; Monopoly’s box says the game takes 60-90 minutes. Have you ever played a game of Monopoly that lasted 60-90 minutes? That’s because you’ve probably never played it as written. I could dedicate an entire post to this (and I probably will at some point in the future), but I’m just going to highlight a couple points.

  • When you land on a space, you can either buy it for its listed price or auction it off.
  • No money ever gets put on the Free Parking Space, ever.

Think about what that does to the game’s length (remember: It ends when people get bankrupted), and you’ll start to scratch the surface of what the house rules variants do to the game.

You know, I like these recommendations, and I think I’ll highlight more in the future.

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Posted by on August 27, 2014 in Board Games, Game Thoughts


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Appointment Mechanics

When I talked about energy mechanics, I briefly mentioned that energy refilling with time was an example of an appointment mechanic. What is an appointment mechanic? It’s something that just tells a player “Hey, come back and play again later!”

The purpose of appointment mechanics is to make make playing the game into a habit, a routine part of your day. Remember that a free to play game lives or dies based on its ability to retain paying players, and a player is really only likely to become a paying player if they stick with the game for longer periods of time. It’s impossible to emphasize this enough. Retention, retention, retention. This isn’t limited to free to play games, either. If you’ve ever played an MMORPG, you’ve probably seen daily quests. Games with a focus on multiplayer or social elements may also have these, such as Animal Crossing’s fruit, Pokemon’s berry plants, and Nintendogs’ contests.

Come to think of it, all of those examples are from portable Nintendo games. I’ll have to examine this more closely in a future article.

Anyway, let’s look at some examples of appointment mechanics in games. I’m going to use Marvel: Avengers Alliance as an example here because it’s managed to retain me as a player for over two years, and I just hit the level cap this morning.




The game, like most free to play games, has an energy system. It costs 10 energy to initiate the core game loop (fight a battle), and it caps at 60 energy. Energy replenishes at a rate of one point per six minutes. This all boils down to a player being able to fight one battle per hour. A player gets up in the morning, burns through a few fights, goes to work, burns through some fights over lunch, returns to work, goes home, then players some more. That’s habituation right there.


Specialized Energy Systems


In addition to the regular gameplay, ranked PvP battles and puzzle-like simulator challenges also require the expenditure of energy. However, this is a specialized form of energy that does not take away from the regular energy pool, so a player that engages in PvP or simulator challenges  loses nothing by engaging in the normal mission structure. I should note that “practice” PvP matches do not cost energy, but also provide no experience.


Remote Ops


Players can use the flight deck to send their collected heroes off on remote ops missions. The heroes are unusable for a while, but when they come back, they’ll get a little experience and currency for your trouble. The experience your heroes gain might seem to break the “No experience without an energy cost” rule, but hero experience and player experience are different things. The real point here is that they bring back silver, M:AA’s soft currency. It’s like an invest/express game where you plant a crop, wait for some time, then collect your money. The real benefit here is that players get to choose their own timer and set their own appointment and expectation of when they’ll play the game again.


Training Time


When heroes get enough experience to reach their next level, they need to train before they can gain more experience. While training, a hero can’t be used, but once you’re done, you can unlock new skills or equipment slots. This gets people looking forward to coming back. The higher a hero is in level, the longer it takes to train them. A hero that’s been used a lot is going to be missed more, and the player is going to be even more invested in seeing that hero come back from training.


Helping Friends


Once per day per Facebook friend, you can go visit their cities and collect rewards. This is especially valuable when special events are running that require a special resource called Unstable ISO-8 to participate.

Gift Limits


There’s a limit on how many gifts you can claim from friends each day. This is separate from the friend-visiting mechanic. I’ll go into this in more detail when it comes to social mechanics, but the general point here is that if you see a lot of a resource that you want (especially Unstable ISO-8!), you want to claim the gifts as often as you can.

Random Daily Login Reward


It’s our old friend, the Random Daily Login Reward!


Daily PvP Quest


While a PvP tournament is running, players can earn a random daily prize if they manage to win five battles. The player isn’t just being asked to come back to the game. The player’s being asked to participate and really get involved.


Daily Consecutive Login Rewards

Not only do you get a random reward for logging in, you also get a daily reward that improves in quality based on how many consecutive days you’ve logged in. This is an extremely powerful appointment mechanic that really deserves its own article.

Whew! I covered a lot. I hope this was educational. Still, that’s ten different types of things a player is waiting for, and that’s just in this one game. On top of that, only four of those things are tied to daily resets. Everything else is on a visible timer that ticks down while players watch and wait (Or break out their wallets to fast-forward). Like with energy mechanics, these can be monetized, but their real purpose is to make a game into a habit.


Posted by on August 26, 2014 in Columns, Game Thoughts


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Match-3 Subgenres

The term “Match-3 game” gets tossed around a lot.  When you hear it, you usually think of tile-swapping puzzle games, but I’ve seen it  used to refer to a lot of other kinds of puzzle games. You could argue that they’re all basically the same genre, but I feel that’s a bit reductive. If first-person shooters and third-person shooters are considered separate subgenres, so too should these types of Match-3 games. For now, I’ll hit the three most popular subgenres:


Tile Swapping


Examples: Bejeweled, Candy Crush Saga, Cookie Jam, Candy Blast Mania

These games are characterized by selecting two adjacent tiles and swapping their positions. If three or more tiles of the same color are lined up orthogonally, then a match is created and the matched tiles are removed. If not, the tiles are immediately reverted to their previous positions. However, this is not always the case. Panel de Pon allows for tiles to be swapped without requiring a match, and the popular Puzzle & Dragons lets players touch a tile and slide it  across  the screen freely, functionally allowing for many swaps in a single swipe of a finger.


Tile Tracing


Examples: Dungeon Raid, Puzzle Craft, Candy Swipe, Paint Monsters, Fruit Splash Mania

Tile-tracing games are well-suited for touch devices. Tiles may touch in sets of three or more, but will not be removed without player action. To remove matching tiles in this genre, players must trace an uninterrupted line across tiles of the same color. Diagonals are usually accepted. Identifying matches in tile-tracing games is usually easier than in tile-swapping games, and setting up large future combos is emphasized.


Bubble Matching


Examples: Puzzle Bubble/Bust-A-Move, Bubble Witch Saga, Panda Pop, Bubble Mania

I hesitate to use the term “bubble” in a name meant to describe genre mechanics, but these games uniformly use bubbles, and I want these subgenre names to be intuitive.

Bubble-matching games have a large field of bubbles in the upper part of the screen, and a player-controlled bubble launcher at the bottom. Gravity plays a large role in this genre; bubbles will stick to the ceiling and to other bubbles. A bubble that is not being held up by another will fall and be scored. They may touch in sets of three or more, but will not be removed without player action. The player may launch bubbles upward at different angles in order to bounce them off the side of the screen to reach bubbles they may not otherwise be able to reach.

A unique feature to bubble matching games is that a player may misjudge an angle and launch a bubble to an unintended place, and this is an intended part of the challenge. A major aspect of bubble-matching level design is to create opportunities for large drops, areas where a player may knock out the support for a large block of bubbles and clear a large area of the screen at once. More than any of the other genres, bubble-matching games benefit from tall scrolling levels that a player cannot see all at once.


Other Games

These are games that meet the “Match three similar tiles” criteria that people don’t usually refer to as “Match-3”. These include Dr. Mario, Zuma, and Money Idol Exchanger. I’ll figure out names for these and cover them in more detail at a future point in time, but I just wanted to bring these up now to illustrate that the term is very broad, and tile-matching games are more diverse than people give them credit for.

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Posted by on August 25, 2014 in Puzzle Design


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