If you're a matching game aficionado, you're probably familiar with Dungeon Raid [$1.99] and Triple Town [Free]. The first turned a pretty basic match-3 formula into a full-on roguelike, and the second layered matching into an ever-more complex system of tiered upgrades. If, like me, you lost hours to them both, think carefully before downloading Puzzle Craft [Free]. It takes some of the best parts of each of them and mashes them up into a horrifying chimera that's nearly impossible to put down.
At first glance, the game looks more than a bit like some sort of social farm-building sim, but it's not. It's more of an economy simulator that runs on the power of tile matching. You're responsible for your little town from both the top level, choosing what to build and where to build it, and the very bottom rung, harvesting the grain and mining the stone to keep things running.
Both parts of the game feed each other. First you match your way through the farm, earning wood to build tools and food for your miners. Then you match in the mine, earning stone and metal. You take all your materials and build additions that bring you money, experience, new tools and more options. Then it's back into the fields to feed your hungry citizens.
You can also hire workers, once you build the cottages and houses they inhabit. The workers make your matching more effective. Where normally it might take ten grain to make one loaf of bread, a few workers can bring that down to five. The second-tier workers help in another way—they make it easier to make better items in your mine and fields.
This is where things start to look like Triple Town. When you match, say, ten grain, you earn your bread and a carrot appears on the field. Match enough carrots and an apple arrives. Get through a string of apples, and eventually you'll earn bonus coins. And all of this takes place in the same 6 by 6 grid you begin with. The workers and buildings make all this possible. With them, it takes less produce to make the upgrades, and the better items start popping up on the field without prompting. Your town grows and the game gets better and better.
So why the need for so much efficiency? Because time, my friend, is not on your side. Each time you head out into the fields you pay your farmers for one season's harvesting. Twelve turns later, you're done. And when you delve into the mines you need to bring food for the miners—only enough for ten turns to start. You can increase these limits, but they keep pace with the difficulty of your goals. The further you get, the more complicated your fields become as well. Not only are you dealing with three or four tiers of two different materials, but obstacles like rats, wolves and poisonous gas begin to fill the board.
Managing your economy is always fun, but it's rarely a challenge. You might pick a bad build order, or spend yourself into a corner, but you're never going to be all that pressed to perform. Even if things get as bleak as they can, you can pay coins to buy materials from the market or cash to buy more coins. This only comes up if you're impatient or bankrupt, though—the IAP is so far beyond optional that it's downright forgettable.
Since the challenge never gets all that serious and your village can't really set itself apart from anyone else's, Puzzle Craft can feel a bit hollow. It also suffers from a few issues, some big and some small. A progress-devouring bug is lurking out there, for one. It's also far too easy to lose bonus items from your village by brushing your town hall or fields, something that can be devastating if that bonus happened to be your next batch of workers. And if I never have to hear that ten-second loop of music that's played in the village, it will be too soon.
As a compulsion machine, though, you can't do much better. It's incredibly hard to stop playing Puzzle Craft—I've played through several seasons while writing this. There's always something to do, end every action feeds into every goal. Materials are constantly being earned toward the next big purchase, there are always tools to prepare for the next run, and each improvement you make just makes the game that much more complex and compelling.
I'm not sure I needed a game in my life with the same hooks used by both Dungeon Raid and Triple Town—each of those alone ate hours and hours of my life. Now that I have it, though, there's no giving Puzzle Craft up. There are better games I could be playing, but there aren't many as constantly satisfying. There's a reward around every corner, and getting there is the fun part—how do you say no to that?
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