Some Thoughts on Vertex Dispenser

By Jim Rossignol on June 17th, 2011 at 2:55 pm.

Vertex Dispenser is a game by Michael “Smestorp” Brough, and it’s really rather clever. It’s an action puzzler (and I would put the emphasis on the action, despite the puzzle aspects being quite complicated) in which you battle for control of vertices across geometric territories. It’s a tricky single player game, and a fascinating multiplayer one. I have more thoughts on all this below.

Your focus in the game is a small craft which travels along a grid of vertices. This craft can only travel along a bit of the grid that it has captured by “shooting” in that direction. If a node of the grid is uncaptured then progress is fast, but if it has been captured by the enemy then the point must first be destroyed and then captured, meaning that progress is slower. If all the points of the triangle ahead have been captured then it will actively attack you back, meaning that zooming to a node that is surrounded by enemy territory will likely result in your death. Death might also occur in encounters with enemy craft, which will likely engage you in defence of their realm. Death means a few seconds out of the game before you respawn at one of your nodes. Lose all your territory and it is, of course, game over.

The single-player game in Vertex Dispenser consists in a number of challenges which explicate this strange vertex-capturing dynamic to you, while also introducing the various power ups that the game holds. These are unlocked by another layer of subtlety within the games mechanics, which is that each captured node takes on a colour. The hierarchy of these colours means that you can structure your captures in such a way that you unlock higher level powers if you capture in the right pattern. You are able to delete captured vertices at will, which means you can also correct mistakes as you go along. Sounds complex? It rather is, but that doesn’t really matter.

The reason this colour-matching puzzle tier of the game doesn’t matter too much is that the action side of things dominates. While it’s fascinating that a more cerebral layer of the game is present, the pace of the thing means that you are far more reliant on quick-thinking and timely response to what your enemy is doing than you are on any meticulously executed plan. There are a bunch of power ups that allow you to nuke enemy vertices or capture more of your own, and deploying just the most basic of these, while also choosing the right points at which to attack the enemy grid, are truly the keys to success.

The power ups are, I would say, also one of the trickiest aspects of the game to hold in your brain during play. There are keys for them all, which means you need to be able to hit a range of controls to get the effects you want, and I regular messed up, hitting x when really I wanted v, or F when I wanted G. Combine this with control method which seems you pivoting to watch direction on the grid and you find yourself stuck with a system that is fast and demanding.

If you can get past this mild unwieldiness – I can see from the comments on the demo thread that plenty of people can’t – then the game becomes totally mesmerising. There’s something about the pulse of the game – the beat of capture – that puts me in a bit of a trance. Okay, yes, it’s one of those designs that doesn’t feel quite perfect, but its nevertheless hugely engaging because of the way it delivers it challenge. It’s puzzling, but not really a puzzler, it’s an action game, but not really about shooting. It just feels so /gamey/ – that perfect abstract challenge of not quite being about the colour grids, and not really being about twitchy reactions. It /is/ a game about conflict, weird geometric vertex capturing conflict, and that’s what makes it tick. I love that, and the feel it exudes. I’ve lost several hours to the single-player game, but multi-player is, as ever with this sort of thing, where the real rewards lie, and where I hope people will focus their attention.

The multiplayer offers a range of set ups in terms of power up options and so forth, with up to twelve players on its various maps. I can scarcely imagine how hectic a game of this might be on a sphere with twelve competing parties, but I’d like to give it a go. The game is made for this kind of weird head-to-head.

I should mention that Smestorp is now promising a patch to update much of this sort of feedback, and I’ll be interested to see how the game develops now that it is direct in contact with the wider world of players. If you’ve not played this yet I’d urge you to give it a try. (Perhaps worth noting that the full game’s campaign is a better tutorial an introduction than the levels offered here.)


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  1. johnpeat says:

    I played the demo quite a bit and whilst I noticed the keyboard issues, the real problem for me was the slightly jarring gameplay (which I wonder if the full game suffers?)

    Basically you have a non-cerebral shooter aspect, a semi-cerebral RTS aspect and a mind-bending puzzle (to make the right coloured nodes) aspect and I just could not get my head around those concepts at the same time.

    Do I just go shoot something or take territory or build a unit and/or whilst doing that do I try to understand the node colouring issues and – does the single player game even care!?

    My head was hurting when I was done tbh

    • meatshit says:

      I had the same impression. The game is either too complex for the fast pace or too fast paced for the complexity, depending on your perspective.

    • LionsPhil says:

      Yeah, that’s one of the things that we seemed to vaguely agree on in the comments of the demo thread Jim linked.

    • johnpeat says:

      I think the balance for this might come from the multiplayer where you’ll need to play according to how the people you’re playing against play (and the rules you set for the game).

      Single player may be crippled by the range of options – in other words this could be a bit like TF2 or DoTA, the sort of game which NEEDS other people to make it work!?

    • pl4t0 says:

      @Johnpeat, I agree, I think that by going up against human beings with the same cerebral limitations as the player you’re significantly easing things up. An AI has no limitations and can play a perfect game, all the time, with no mistakes (barring difficulty settings), whereas a human being has to struggle with the same juggling act.

  2. frenz0rz says:

    Doesnt sound like the best game to try when hungover.

    Even so, I’ll likely give it a go at some point.

    • johnpeat says:

      Depends – the 2 games you’d think wouldn’t work for hangovers are Guitar Hero (esp Drums) and Beat Hazard and yet I find both therapeutic in that respect!!

      This does need your brain on tho – at the end of the demo I was shell-shocked in a way only Spacechem’s demo has previously managed!!

      Like Spacechem, I suspect the game may be less damaging tho – perhaps…

    • LionsPhil says:

      SpaceChem’s demo had the unfortunate effect of convincing me that it was a brilliant little puzzler…

      …that I was just not smart enough to ever complete more than a few levels of. And I’ve got a goddamn PhD.

  3. brog says:

    A steam group has sprung up to try to organise multiplayer games:

  4. Tatourmi says:

    Oh my, how am I going to put all these skills on one keyboard?

    Anyway: It seems like an interesting game but the interface kills it for me. The keyboard movment feels awful as far as I am concerned and so does the skills. That, added with the difficulty of fast paced thinking and low map visibility, makes it very hard for me to get into the game.

  5. JonasKyratzes says:

    Give it some time, folks – some games are harder to get into, but worth it.

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