Return of the iOS Roundup

As I mentioned it would, Tiger Style’s new game Lost Mars debuted at Austin’s Juegos Rancheros event. The very first report I saw made it sound to me like they were going for an emergent gameplay environment supported by interlocking systems of AI, physics, propagating stimuli and triggered response: in other words, something like a Looking Glass style simulation, if LG had made games for the iPhone. The next one sounds even more like that.

This may be me falling into the trap of attributing single authorship to Randy Smith (and attributing single authorship to something like this is almost always a trap). But I’m going to fall into that trap anyway, believing on the evidence of Spider that Randy has joined forces with like-minded colleagues.

Pai Gow FeverI’ve also been playing loads of Art Min’s Pai Gow Fever. It’s mounting a serious challenge to Boggle as my go-to iPhone app for short attention span gaming. I’m going to leave some stuff out here, but basically, in Pai Gow Poker, players are dealt seven cards, to split into a five-card hand and a two-card hand. You play exclusively against the dealer. To win your bet, both of your hands have to beat the dealer’s corresponding hand (with the usual Poker hand ranks), but you don’t lose your bet unless both hands lose.

This leads to some interesting wrinkles. Even a straight or a flush is far from a guarantee of winning the hand, depending on what two other cards it comes with, and more often than not you’ll want to break up a full house into three of a kind and a pair. There are hands which should be split one way against certain dealer hands, but another way against other ones. So you’ve got to have a decent sense of Poker odds for those decisions.

The original Chinese domino game of Pai Gow centers on splitting four dominoes into the best possible pairs for scoring totals, which makes me wonder whether Sid Sackson had it in mind when he developed the now-classic Can’t Stop. I have no doubt that he knew the game, because Sid Sackson knew everything there was to know.

Those nontrivial decisions aside, I should be clear that many of your decisions in the game are pretty obvious. But rounds of play go by so fast (and I can only imagine that play goes quickly in real Pai Gow Poker, but couldn’t be as fast as here) that you end up with the kind of flow you get out of a slot machine. It’s a very tight variable ratio positive reinforcement loop. Any game with such a strong behaviorist structure raises the question whether the motivation is aesthetic enjoyment or psychological trickery, but at least for me, the frequency of real decisions here is enough for light entertainment. And since you can play a hand in a matter of a few seconds, Pai Gow Fever is filling a distinct niche in my iPhone gaming.

Over on the other end of the attention span, I see that Wind-Up Knight has had a successful hour-long playtest. Acceptance of this use case on a mobile device seems like one of their big design risks, so … so far, so good.

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