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Wot I Think: SquareCells

On the grid

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SquareCells [Steam page] is the new puzzle game from Matthew Brown – he of Hexcells fame. Hexcells was a logic game where you worked out which hexagons on a grid should be blank and which should be filled in based on scraps of numerical information. John and I fell in love with it. I just checked and I have put in 51 hours across all three Hexcells titles.

SquareCells also requires you to fill in or blank out tiles (squares this time, as you might have guessed) based on numerical information scraps, but in taking advantage of square grids instead of hexes Brown has created an intriguing picross/nurikabe hybrid. Here’s:

a) Wot I Think, and
b) Wot Any Of What I Just Said Means If You Aren’t Into Logic Puzzle Books From WH Smiths.

The puzzles are presented as grids full of coloured squares. There are numbers at the top or to the side of the grid and these indicate how many squares in a particular row or column should remain coloured in at the end of the puzzle. If there’s a “4” it means there will be a continuous run of 4 coloured squares somewhere. “2” followed by a “4” means there’s a clump of two first and then a clump of four separated by at least one blanked-out square.

That’s the basic setup of Picross puzzles. Every column and row have those numbers and you use logic to figure out where the blanks and the filled in squares on a grid go in order to create pictures.

Where SquareCells differs from Picross is that not every column and row will have that information, and sometimes when they do the numbers are in square brackets. Those numbers tell you how many fiilled-in squares there are in general but nothing about how they’re organised.

That’s where Nurikabe comes in. Nurikabe is another type of square grid logic puzzle but this time it revolves around numbers in selected squares on the grid. They tell you that the square is attached to other squares horizontally or vertically in order to form an island. For example, when a square in SquareCells has a “1” in it it means you leave that square filled in and can blank out the four that are directly attached to it.

By combining those two sources of information with the information below the grid on how many squares are left to blank out you have enough to solve the puzzles.

So that’s how it works. Let’s get on to how it feels to play.

I’d say it takes a little while to settle into its groove but once it does it’s satisfying in the same way both its inspirations and Brown’s previous work are. I started on it a couple of days ago and I’ve already clocked up eight hours. That isn’t to say it took that long to complete. Getting through the 36 puzzles on offer took maybe a couple of hours. What I’ve been doing since is running through them again and again, making sure I understand the logic behind every single step, like I did with all the Hexcells puzzles. As such, the focus has been on the handful of puzzles which offered a real challenge or revolved around a sudden “aha!” moment. The rest – as with the original Hexcells – I found pretty straightforward once my brain had clicked onto the concepts involved.

There are a few design choices which feel like they get in the way or which trip the game up in basic ways, though. The first one is that the puzzles seem too small for the screen. They sit in the middle of a lot of white space for no reason I can fathom. I thought perhaps it was in preparation for far larger puzzles which might appear later, but even those are cramped up in the middle. I’d really appreciate that play space being enlarged or being something I could adjust the size of, particularly given when you identify squares as filled in all it does is produce a slight colour change and add a tiny dot to the top right of the square. It would be easier to see them on a bigger grid.

The next thing is that when you’re clicking you use the left mouse button to remove a square/blank it out and the right to mark it as correctly filled in. As someone with a history of playing these games it feels counter-intuitive. I’m used to the main action (which my head assigns to the left mouse button) being the one which fills in a square. Removal is the secondary option. Every so often – particularly if I went to get a cup of tea and came back – it would catch me out and I’d click to mark a square only to find myself tripped up by muscle memory and incur an error, thus losing my perfect three star rating and wanting to start over.

I’m not sure that will be a problem for anyone coming to these types of game fresh but for me and my crippling Nurikabe problem (I get elbow pain from playing it too much on my phone) it feels so peculiar that the puzzles are subtractive rather than additive.

A related criticism is of the counter at the bottom of the page. Instead of telling you how many filled-in squares there are left to identify it tells you how many squares there are left to remove or blank out. All of the rest of the information – the numbers at the ends of the rows and columns and the numbers in the grid squares – is about identifying filled-in squares so to use the two together you have to start doing an extra layer of calculation. It’s the only point where how the puzzle itself works feels clumsy. A mismatch of two information sources rather than an elegant mix.

To put those criticisms in context – after all I seem to have spent more words on the negatives than the positives – I would remind you I’ve still spent eight hours on the thing despite completing it fairly early on. SquareCells fascinates me. It falls short of the elegant simplicity I found in Hexcells Infinite, but not by much. It scratches that exact same itch and, promisingly, it reminds me of how I felt about the first Hexcells game. As that series progressed it also became more polished and the puzzles which had started off neat but relatively quick to solve became chunkier things which I loved tussling with. I went from two hours on the first game to 31 with Hexcells Infinite (and I’ve barely touched the Infinite mode) and I can imagine Squarecells following a similar path.

Put simply, I’m looking forward to more.

SquareCells is out today for Windows, Mac and Linux.

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Philippa Warr

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