I adored Puzzle Quest. But I've yet to truly adore anything else that's followed in its wake (including Puzzle Quest 2), with the exception of 10,000,000. There is something spellbinding about 10m's distillation of the concept, simplifying the combination of match-3 with RPG, down to this fast-paced compulsive madness. (Having finished it twice, I'd like to remind creator Luca Redwood to RELEASE THE NEW CONTENT SOON.)
And then out of Ludum Dare comes Faif. Yes, Faif. It's the idea minimalised even further. It's in development now, but playable as that process goes along. New elements are being regularly added, or tweaked, and it's free to follow along.
Faif isn't a match-3, but it feels from the same mould, if that mould had been made when Puzzle Quest was forged. You have a grid of 30 tiles, and drag an select a group of five of them. The game then randomly picks one of the five selected, and that's the tile you play. Where it gets clever is how the other four selected tiles influence the result, and how you have to pick tiles that might hurt you if you want to hurt your opponent.
So, say you wanted to injure your opponent, you'd need to pick both sword tiles, and skull tiles. The more skull tiles in your five, the more HP you'll knock off the enemy should the random pick come down on the sword. However, should it land on one of the skulls, that'll injure you for 1HP instead. Clever, eh? The more violent your attack, the more risky it is to hurt you.
Things are further complicated by the rest of the tiles. So far those are hearts and gems. Should the roll get you a heart, that'll increase your HP by 1. Get a gem and it'll add the number of gems in your selection of five to your bank. Increasing HP is absolutely vital, as you start with little and the opponents will chip away at it quickly. And gems are spent in the shop, which can buy you very helpful bonuses - 2HP for a heart, 1 extra damage for a sword hit, etc. But of course trying to get these means not attacking your enemy in that turn, so it's risky.
Balancing all these elements makes what is unquestionably an extremely simplistic interface into impressively complex system. The opponents' turns play by exactly the same rules, so they too are just as beholden to the cruelty of chance to determine their actions. With each defeat you advance a level, and take on a baddie with one more starting hit-point. You carry yours on from previous rounds, meaning you can end up trying to take on an 8HP beast with just 1 of your own. Hearts! Select hearts! Different enemies have different playing styles, perhaps more aggressive, or more careful, but the threat of defeat is always present. And death is final - you lose everything, start over.
And no clearer lesson about gambling could be offered than the defeats in Faif. Everyone gets convinced that Puzzle Quest and other competitive match-3s are cheating them, fixing it to give the opponents a better chance. Infinite Interactive's argument for PQ was rather brilliant: they said they weren't good enough at coding to be able to achieve that. And of course it's just a wonderful example of selective memory on the part of the player. When things are tumbling your way, cascading connections and delivering mighty blows to the skellington hordes, it's all fair, it's only right, it's How It Should Be. When the reverse happens THE DAMNED SODDING MOTHERHUMPING GAME IS ARSEING CHEATING AGAIN. The same applies to Faif.
It's blisteringly cruel. You pick two swords, two hearts and one skull. Makes sense - you need health, but if it comes up swords, you've got a hit in. And it comes up skull. Of course it does! EVERY TIME! (Apart from all the times it doesn't that you instantly forget about.) But your opponent - he picks three skulls, a sword and a heart, and of course it lands on sword for him! EVERY TIME! (Apart from most of the time, or you'd never win any fights, would you, Mr Selective?) And it's unquestionably part of the appeal. Indignantly booming "OH COME ON!" at your monitor is the reason we bought PCs in the first place.
I do feel that at the moment, however, the consequences of random chance are a little too brutal. There's much more to be added to the game - so far it has only one "spell" (won or purchased, that when used get used up) to reshuffle the board (almost never a useful feature), and more tiles and power-ups are to come. But at the moment, it's a little too hollow. Despite the intricacies mentioned above, they are the extent of it at this point. Death comes very, very quickly, and often purely at the hand of that mean bastard probability. Losing everything to random rolls is galling, and while that's mostly a good incentive to start over and attempt to get further this time, after a lengthy run and a nice bulk of shop purchases, it can be a bit of a walk away moment. And a game this slight needs not to have those.
I think what it needs most of all is a sense of getting in deeper as you get further. Have things become less fragile as you progress, so that while death remains a vivid possibility, evading it is also more within your skills. In a poker tournament, you're always at risk of going out in any hand, but the farther you get, the more chips you have, the safer you can be in making smaller plays. Faif lacks that at the moment, and I think it would be the ingredient that propels it.
As it is, it's undeniably engaging and fun. I challenge you to have just one go of it without instantly restarting. The unlikelihood of that is why developers Beavl (they behind the compelling The Narrow Path) should know they're onto something here. I am very much looking forward to seeing where it goes.