Wot We Think: CrossCells

CrossCells

Reviewing games of the sort Matthew Brown creates – Hexcells, SquareCells, and now CrossCells [official site] – can be a strange task. His niche is numerical logic. There are elements of things like Sudoku but basic maths creeps in, making it closer to a subgenre of Sudoku: Killer Sudoku. Their pleasures come from whether you can sink into the deductive mindset you need to find a foothold and then to progress and the difficulty curves vary from person to person. When I reviewed SquareCells, once I’d described how the basic elements worked it became more a task of communicating how a solution made me feel and whether the UI was any good lest I spoil any of the actual game by talking about specific niggles or posting screenshots.

Given the puzzles are so much about individual feel it felt like a good idea to make this review more of a chat between John and me. We were both supposed to be doing other things when the code for CrossCells turned up and it’s a testament to our mutual fondness for Brown’s work that we pretty much instantly booted it up and sidelined our actual work. Here’s Wot We Think:

The game itself is about filling in or removing numbered tiles from a grid using a set of rules based on maths and logic. Some numbers tell you what total the tiles are supposed to give, others tell you how many tiles need to be highlighted. These arrangements and the interactions they generate become more complicated as the game progresses but the core ruleset stays the same and the solutions are about finding the first handhold and then building that up into a completed grid.

The game has fifty puzzles and I think it took me about four hours to complete those? Some are more akin to tutorials and serve to introduce a new rule or a new way of thinking rather than being part of the difficulty curve itself. In case it helps you orient the following discussion, I tend slightly more towards hardcore number and logic puzzles in that I enjoy things like Stephen’s Sausage Roll and flip through maths textbooks for fun, whereas John bounced off Stephen’s Sausage Roll without even sizzling a single sausage – he prefers his puzzling to be less brutal. The *Cells games are where we meet and I find it really helpful to see our experiences of the same game differ within that shared affection.

Pip: So the first thing I should probably ask is whether you’ve finished all of the puzzles?

John: I have! Last night I completed puzzle 50. I am VICTORIOUS.

Pip: In that case my next question is: how good are the forties????!

John: This is, I think, going to be the most instructive part of our discussion for any reader… I preferred the 30s! And I’ll say why, while you stare bulged-eyed at me. By the 40s the puzzles started to feel maybe just a little overwhelming. I mean, I solved them all, all on my own, so they were perfectly possible. But for me I felt a little helpless in the process. In the 30s I felt challenged but a lot more on top of things. Although saying all that, 43 was my favourite of the whole game.

CrossCells

Pip: I think this is where my car analogy comes in. You know when you’re setting off and you need to find the bite point? The 40s were my bite point. They were where I felt like I had meaningful traction with the puzzles and the pieces slotted together in a way I had to work for just hard enough to be meaningful but not so hard it was frustrating. I think the 30s had been closer to what I’d wanted but still hadn’t quite stopped feeling slack.

John: I think I’d say that CrossCells is the least fulfilling of Brown’s puzzles, despite still being often brilliant, and I would argue by far the hardest so far. After finishing the game yesterday I loaded up SquareCells again, and it’s definitely a slicker, less convoluted collection. CrossCells felt, to me, too much like an extended tutorial, still teaching what were I guess the basics of its concepts well into the 30s of its 50 puzzles. And I think the result of that was it all feeling like it comes to an end right as you’ve – as you say – found the bite.

Pip: Is this the part when I get a public admission that if you’d played SquareCells when I told you to it would have been in our advent calendar? :D

John: [hangs head] Yes. Yes it would have.

Pip: That’s all I ask. But! I see your point. For me CrossCells feels like the original Hexcells in that it’s a formula which got better in the subsequent iterations, so with both SquareCells and CrossCells I’m finding myself pleased that both exist but more excited by the potential existence of, I dunno, SquareCells Plus or CrossCells Infinite.

John: I have a suspicion that Matthew Brown might be something of a perfectionist, someone who is less interested in creating a pile of puzzles to occupy a distracted player, but rather hand-crafting each specific evolution of the concept to be refined until it shines. And that’s amazing, but it has the unfortunate consequence of meaning you burn through his curated collection too quickly. This worked with SquareCells I think because the core ideas were less complicated – it was Picross meets Minesweeper. But with CrossCells it has so much going on, so many new twists and turns, that I found myself really wishing for a big pile of repetitive versions of each before it moved on to the next. I would so love to have another 20 levels of each iteration of the game. I just don’t think Brown could bring himself to do that, as I can only imagine he’s left a giant pile of exactly those puzzles on his own computer because they didn’t meet the exacting standards. I mean, I’m wildly guessing here, but I bet I’m right.

Pip: I think for me the 40s worked so well because all the rules were in place and I felt like he and I were in the right position to play with them. I often feel like playing puzzle games is a really intricate dialogue between creator and consumer and it was only when all the rules had been laid out across the previous few dozen levels that he and I settled into that. It stopped being a tutorial and started having that free feeling of “and this is what you can actually *DO*”.

CrossCells

I think that the 40s were also when one of the key rules finally bedded into my brain in a way that didn’t come easily. It’s because at a certain point the puzzles start to revolve around following instructions in a linear way. You add a thing and then you multiply a thing and you try to get the total at the end of the line and the direction you’re working in matters. But elementary maths is so hardwired into my head that I really struggled to do multiplication anything other than first. You have to! It’s brackets, then orders, then division, then multiplication, then addition and subtraction. BODMAS. Doing multiplication in that linear way felt horrible and counterintuitive for the longest time.

John: I think the game makes a misstep that’s rare for this whole Brown universe with this, especially in puzzle 23, where it hasn’t driven home that peculiar linearity for the mathematics which means two seemingly acceptable solutions are present. Also, it wasn’t until the sums were going in two directions that I’d even realised the position of the total indicated the direction you were solving. Gosh, I can only imagine how weird these words are to people who’ve not yet played, but it rather underlines how convoluted it can get and how important clarity becomes.

Pip: YES! It was a thing which only became clear in retrospect. I’d mentally pinned it to my “things to question” list as a bizarre example of ambiguity in games which revolve around not being ambiguous and I only realised that linearity was the key later. I feel like it might be one of those things which came up when I was talking to Alan Hazelden – that sometimes you think you’ve taught players something and then it turns out that you didn’t teach them that thing at all.

John: Which only makes it more galling when one precious puzzle is used up explaining one of those concepts in an unclear way, I guess.

Pip: Something which I think is a problem rather than an issue of tutorial clarity is the decision to make any wrong step kick you out of the level immediately. It’s bothersome because sometimes it’s a genuine mistake made by me – I clicked to highlight rather than clicking to remove a tile by accident after a brief spell playing something else so my fingers were in opposite land – and the game booted me out and reset the level.

It meant that what was just an error on my part had given me some extra information which I now couldn’t forget about one of the tiles. With that in mind I had to then try to ignore that knowledge and deliberately go from first principles, wilfully shunning that tile until I reached the right moment in the logic chain to actually deal with it. But even when it’s an error in reasoning it feels utterly bizarre that it then a) rewards you with a piece of definite information and b) punishes you by stripping out all of your progress. Sometimes you’ve forgotten how you made inroads into that particular puzzle and thus resetting can feel like quite the blow.

John: I entirely agree, and I think this is a perennial issue for the *Cells games. They have always sought to penalise or highlight mistakes, rather than just let you go down the wrong alley until you hit the wall. I can see some design logic behind it, but I bet you’re exactly the same as me and with Hex and Square always restart a level after making a mistake anyway out of an madbrained need for all the stars.

Pip: I… uh… have tried to speedrun Hexcells.

John: Hehe, dork. However, such punishments are, I think, entirely unnecessary, as proven by eighty million years of paper-based puzzles. It’s fine to let the player go wrong and eventually find out, rather than start loudly counting their errors, or as with this one, so enormously throwing you out of a puzzle you might have spent half an hour picking away at.

CrossCells

Which all makes me want to say: Blimey, a game has to be good to be receiving this level of discussion. Here we are (legitimately) criticising the odd few brushstrokes by a Master, I think. This is the sort of criticism that you couldn’t even start levelling at the average puzzle game. It would be like complaining about the use of mise-en-scene in an episode of Coronation Street.

(I so wanted to say Holby City there, but decided to save my skin.)

Pip: WISE.

You comment about eighty million years of puzzles has now made me think of the caves at Lascaux as just some poor puzzle-fan trying to solve an animal-themed sudoku for hours on end.

Do you think it would be helpful to rank the *Cells series for people? Or would that encourage them to miss some ace puzzling? I feel like I love this particular iteration if only for the pleasure of the 40s when everything is in place and you can really get your teeth into the problems and I don’t want to rank it last and then ruin the chances of people getting to play those. I mean it would be last in a list of BRILLIANT THINGS. Also, I think I might actually put it above SquareCells.

John: Interesting. I think I need to start it again from the beginning, knowing what I know now, to see if it starts to become more beloved for me. And I think you’re right – putting it near the bottom of that list sends the wrong message. Because it’s actually in the top 5 of the list of all-time puzzle video games for me! Just the 5th one, with a long, long list below it. I think. Or maybe I’ll remember something else. Who cares. Shush John. I’d say, Hexcells Infinite is his best, and I’m happy sticking to that for now, and then after that insist everyone play all of the rest or I’ll kick them in their shin.

Pip: No, you have to aim higher. I get the shins on account of the height difference. You have to punch them in the arm. Where they’ve had their BCG injection.

John: Deal.

CrossCells is out on 26 May on Steam for Windows, Mac and Linux at £2/€3/$3.

25 Comments

  1. The Bitcher III says:

    Oh god.. Killer Soduku is my favourite puzzle genre. I don’t want to read the rest of the article. This guy is great.

    I just wish he’d do Android versions. I struggle with puzzle games on the big screen. Pictopix on PC just didn’t click for me, but I’ve sunk dozens of hours into the android version, despite the handicap of a smallish screen and oversized fingers.

    • bonuswavepilot says:

      I wonder why honourary-uncle Matthew doesn’t venture into doing mobile versions of these… They wouldn’t be super-complicated to code I don’t think, although having been involved in Android app releases before, maybe he just doesn’t want the headache of dealing with 6-million different screen sizes, and having to try to do tech support in the reviews.

  2. sagredo1632 says:

    I’d just like to add what is most pleasing about Mr. Brown’s collection of puzzles is the exactitude of the solutions. There is never any point at which you are *forced* to guess to arrive at the solution which might arrive at a contradiction many moves down the road (which was really problematic for some of the later PictoPix puzzles). Nor can I recall a single instance in which chance would ever play in generating an error in any of his puzzles (like you would meet in many a game of Minesweeper). Usually solutions were derived for one (or a very small set) of cells by sequential deduction, rather than having to construct a “mass test solution,” which is enormously pleasing and makes you feel smart, rather than resentful of the tedious backtracking.

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      John Walker says:

      Just to say, I’ve completed PictoPix and there’s not a single puzzle that requires guessing.

      (You can prove this to yourself by switching on the hint mode that reveals potential moves. There is always at least one.)

    • Beernut says:

      Unfortunately that doesn’t seem to be true this time. Level 46 appears to be solvable in three different ways, only one of which is accepted as valid. A shame really, because this was usually one of the greatest traits of Matthew Browns other games and the reason I like them so much.

      • timsmith says:

        I encountered the same problem but I’m sure it’s just a mistake. I’ve emailed Matthew Brown about it (and I’m probably not the one). There was an unsolvable level in Hexcells Plus when it first launched – that got updated pretty quickly.

        • Beernut says:

          Yep, it’s fixed now. And the arrows have been inverted as well, so it’s easier to tell in which ways you have to read the lines. In addition, level 22 introduces the importance of “reading-direction” with a simple multiplication-example, so that’s another annoyance fixed. And the ripple-effect can now be disabled. :)

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    Haywardan says:

    “Pip: I… uh… have tried to speedrun Hexcells.”

    Yeah, ditto. I think it’s a measure of how well-crafted the puzzles are that I do that before going to the still-great Infinite puzzles.

  4. Captain Narol says:

    There is currently a bundle at -20% on Steam of all the puzzles of Mr Brown, so I just completed my collection.

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    Dios says:

    Oh. Oooh. The order matters for multiplication…I was getting annoyed at the amount of possible calcuations o have to do in my head, which i hate. And i didn’t fancy the notion of breaking out pencil and paper.

    • LTK says:

      I had to get out my notepad for level 40. Couldn’t see any other way to progress in than than to map out all possible solutions.

  6. Velleic says:

    Squarecells never quite clicked with me, can’t wait to see where this one falls in the rankings. Being kicked out for a single mistake does sound like it would bother me. Part of what I enjoyed about Hexcells is that you could mess up and still get through – sure, I usually reset it myself instead but it really helped keep progression going when I was learning how the rules work. Anyway, can’t wait to try this.

  7. lglethal says:

    Didnt know it was available, read this article, bought it instantly. And have now spent the entire evening going through it. (Just finished puzzle 45, but i think ill save the rest for tomorrow!)

    The getting kicked out of the puzzles for making a mistake can be very frustrating especially in the later ones, and the multipication order and direction can be annoying/frustrating until it begins to click. But all in all I have to agree with everything in this article – it is a fantastic game. Not as good as Hexcells (like anything could be!), but for me this is above Squarecells.

    My recommendation – Buy this, put on an audiobook or podcast and start puzzling away. :)

    • LTK says:

      If I truly enjoyed mental arithmetic I would rank this above Squarecells too, but I don’t. Keeping possible solutions in memory and repeatedly adding and multiplying numbers is something I can do but it’s taxing enough that it becomes a bit of a chore.

      • bonuswavepilot says:

        Yeah, finding I need to keep a pen and paper to hand to solve these for similar reasons… I can count hexes with the best of them, but keeping track of how removing a term from multiple simple equations will play out is a lot harder on my short-term memory. Possibly I am just bad at numbers.

        Also, I love and will always buy Matthew’s work, but being booted after making a mistake is quite irritating.

  8. LW says:

    Man. I adore his games normally, but this one sits at a perfect right angle to the way my brain works. Something about holding even that very basic math in my head makes me bounce straight off.

    • field_studies says:

      I completely agree. I’ve played all of his other games through multiple times, on multiple platforms. But I’ve now bounced off Crosscells twice: first because I didn’t understand the basic order for multiplication and then, after reading here and in other forums and coming to understand it, bounced off a second time because I find the nomenclature/design–particularly for horizontal equations–obfuscating.

      Which is really surprising to me since if there was one descriptor I’d attach to Brown’s previous games, it’s “elegant design.”

      I’m afraid though, even if this stuff gets cleaned up, I’ll be heading for a third bounce-off, just because I’m not hot at holding many maths in my head.

  9. Caiman says:

    I love Matthew’s games, but this one has those curious design decisions which are making it a teeny bit harder to love. Not much though. I’ve always loved the ability in both Hexcells and Squarecells to solve a puzzle, and then go back and solve it perfectly without a single mistake. It doubles the playtime. There’s no such mechanic in Crosscells, which makes me sad. Being kicked back to the menu with a single misclick is symptomatic of this. The other annoying thing is the weird wavey effect which really does my eyes in. I can’t play for more than a few minutes at a time. Fortunately Matthew has said he’d introduce an option to turn this off. He’s also going to try and make it slightly clearer how the multiplication puzzles work (although I thought puzzles 21-23 taught this fairly well).

  10. widowfactory says:

    Have you tried to reach out to Brown for an interview? It would be fascinating to see if John is right about his assumptions about his character, and find out more about the man behind these brilliant puzzle games. And, to see what’s next!

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      tigerfort says:

      I also would love to see an interview with Matthew Brown, if he’s willing.

  11. thischarmingman says:

    Just to chime in: Really loved all the Hexcells and the Squarecells, but not really feeling this one. It’s too much of a chore, somehow. And also the way it kicks you out of the level on errors sucks.

    • bonuswavepilot says:

      A fair number of the Steam reviews are very similar to this sentiment. I agree on the suckiness of being kicked from the level, but despite initially not quite getting on with the game I found that once I got into the groove of it that I have been enjoying it. I wonder how much of the issues folks are having with it is just because we are a bit shit at maths…

    • cheesysmell says:

      Yeah, I’m returning it for this reason too, which sucks because I loved all the previous 4 games. Unfortunately this game is unplayable on my portable Mac, since the only way to right-click is to tap with two fingers, and this is sometimes wrongly registered as a left-click. Ctrl-click for right-click is also broken, and even the UI for selecting alternate input just hangs.

      I hope he fixes this issue so I have a chance at playing the game.