Like your body, your brain needs exercise to stay in shape, and the older you get, the more you’re fighting nature to achieve that goal. While gamers have no shortage of ways to give their grey matter a good old kicking, we rarely have to push against the limits of our short-term memory. Back in the day, we’d have to remember all kinds of stupid cheat code commands, passwords, and directions to play, but passwords and directions gave way to saves and maps, and cheat codes turned into IAP, removing quite a bit of the strain placed on that part of the brain. I mean, unless you’re a hardcore fighting game player. Those guys are pros at remembering phone numbers, I tell you. The developers of the iOS adaptation of Carcassonne ($4.99) have got a new game that will give your flabby memory a workout, though, and it’s actually quite a bit of fun.
Rules! ($2.99) has a very simple premise that you could probably make a good stab at just by reading the title. You’re presented with a board with 16 cards on it. The cards are numbered from one to ten, and each number has a picture associated with it. The game starts easily enough, asking you to tap the cards in descending order to remove them within a certain time limit. This is easy, of course, and the time limit is quite generous. After finishing the job, you’re presented with the next rule, which is to remove cards with a green picture on them. After that, you’ll have to remove cards according to the first rule to finish off the stage. The game keeps stacking rules on top and won’t remind you during play what that rule actually was, so you have to keep them all sorted in your head. If you can clear ten boards without running out of time, you’ll start another set with fresh rules and new cards added into the mix. You simply play until you run out of time, seeing how far you can get.
The rules come in the same order every time, making the whole thing seem all the more possible, but it doesn’t seem to do you much good when you’re several rules in and the clock is ticking. It’s at this point that you’ll curse your feeble memory, try to quickly wrack your brain for the answer, and maybe take a few tentative pokes at cards to see if it jogs your memory in time. When you fail, and you will, you always feel like you could have done just a little better if you only were a bit faster on the earlier rules or maybe tried a little bit harder. So you tap on that button to play again and give it another go. The farther you get, the more devious the rules get, and although I don’t want to spoil them since discovery is part of the fun, you’re going to get clocked somewhere around rule number 20. It’s certainly an interesting take on the popular ultra-hard, fast-paced style of game that has flourished on the App Store.
There are two types of Game Center leaderboards for Rules!, one that ranks you based on the highest level you’ve attained, and the other for the highest score. Depending on how quickly and accurately you complete a level, you’ll be awarded a certain number of points, so even when you’ve got the earlier rules memorized, there’s always a chance to improve your score. If you have a group of like-minded friends, it’s pretty fun to go back and forth in the rankings for this game. It’s probably the biggest boost to the game’s replay value that you’ll find, though it’s not the only way Rules! tries to keep things fresh. While each game follows the same sequence of rules, the cards you have to apply them to will be arranged a little bit differently every time, and some configurations are obviously going to be easier than others. That introduces a slight element of random luck, small enough that you don’t ever feel cheated, but big enough to have an influence how the game plays out.
The game opts for a clean graphical style that’s easy on the eyes. It’s perhaps unsurprisingly not that far removed from Threes! ($5.99) in a broad sense, but with the increase in detail you’d expect from a faster, more visually-oriented game. The game concept lives or dies on riding the fine line between being able to quickly distinguish between card pictures and confusing them for each other in the heat of the moment. Too much of the former and the game would be too easy, while too much of the latter would make it a frustrating thing to play. I feel the developers did an excellent job here, since if my brain were allowed just a half-second more, I’d be able to easily separate the cards, but that half-second is not something I’m willing to spare even if I suffer as a result.
The clear, distinct sound effects are also quite important to the game, since they let you know when you’ve satisfied a rule without having to take your eyes off the main play area, or if you’ve made a mistake. They must be doing their job well, because I found the game noticeably more difficult with the sound off. The background music offsets the rather tense pace of the game with a light, relaxed tune plucked out on a guitar. All around, the game has a simple but stylish presentation, even if it is a somewhat familiar one of late.
Rules! is kind of a surprising game, because it looks for all the world like it’s going to fit in the Threes! mold, but it actually has more in common with things like Super Hexagon ($2.99). This isn’t the sort of game you can hope to make progress in by firing it up for a round or two now and then. Rather, like an exercise regime, it’s something you need to give a fair bit of focused attention to on a regular basis. I found it to be a pretty enjoyable challenge to play, and the feeling when you’re able to break through your previous skill ceiling is immensely satisfying. The game always has some kind of new wrench to throw into the works just when you’ve got your brain caught up to the previous new rule. It’s certainly worth checking out, but be warned: it might make you feel your age, even if you’re not all that old.