Playing Triple Town is like hang-gliding over Hell.
Once upon a time there was a small group of friends who occasionally met up to play a campaign game of notoriously hefty dungeon-crawler Descent. The down-time during the evil Overlord’s turn was considerable, and people had brought along diverse electronic gewgaws to consult rules and generally entertain us in the meantime. I must have been looking particularly distracted during one of the dead zones, because one of my “friends” – although I use that term very loosely now – thrust an iPad into my hands to keep me occupied. This iPad had Triple Town loaded, and ten minutes later they had to physically pry it away from my hands because I was too busy frantically pawing at the screen to pay any attention to the actual game we’d all turned up to play that day.
This curious phenomenon was largely down to the mesmerising effects all modern consumer electronics have on those who are unused to them. The touchscreen technology of the iPad – and Apple devices in general – is specifically designed to seduce the unwary user into thinking it is the most awesome thing since that one species of bipedal monkey creatures decided that using sharpened rocks to beat the shit out of each other was far more efficient than doing it by hand. It didn’t really matter what I was playing on that iPad. I could have been browsing a spreadsheet on that thing and it would have had the same effect. And I think this is something that is known about and exploited by the people who develop games for the iPad and other tablet devices, since once you strip it of its glamorous little package Triple Town is an astoundingly shallow game.
The core concept is good. It’s a match-three game with a bit of a twist: you put down a variety of stuff on the board trying to make a group of three identical items, and instead of your matched items disappearing, as in Bejeweled, they instead combine to form a new higher-tier item in the place of your last played item that scores you more points. The conceit is that you’re building a city. The basic item is grass; three grass combines to make a bush; three buses combine to make a tree; three trees combine to make a hut and so on. The trick of the game is to place your crappy low tier items in places that will eventually lead them to form valuable high-tier items — incidentally clearing the way for you to put some new stuff down, which is important because the only way to end the game is to completely fill the entire board with stuff.
And this will be a sad occasion, because games of Triple Town can take upwards of an hour, you won’t lose them through any real fault of your own, and once they’re over the only thing you can really do is start another game of Triple Town. Tackling these complaints in order: making a single simple tier 4 hut will require you to match 81 pieces of grass. This takes some time, even though you can skip a few steps when you’re lucky enough to have a bush or a tree come up in your item-placement box. Getting to the point of having a few tier 7 items dotted about takes even longer (2,187 pieces of grass, although the wildcard crystals will let you avoid 729 of those if you value your sanity). It’s a natural result of the game’s exponential nature, but I swear I’ve had games of Civilization1 that were quicker to play than Triple Town is.
The second two issues are rather more insidious. Being an import from mobile devices such as the iPad, Triple Town is very into trying to turn its simple yet addictive puzzle base into a platform for people to spend as much money as possible putting down bushes and grass. That one paragraph I spent describing the game earlier? That’s all the game you get out of Triple Town. The rest of it is the attempts at monetisation, which are glaringly obvious even though I already paid money for it on Steam and they have (in theory) been removed. Present throughout the game is a shop in which I can spend fake in-game money earned from playing the game to buy bonus items that I can put down whenever I want, and in a game where you’re pretty much at the mercy of whatever the game’s item RNG spits out at you these can make all the difference between a game that finishes early after “just” twenty minutes and your all-time high score. I have absolutely no doubt that in the app version of the game the option exists to pay actual, real money for these bushes and crystals and clumps of grass – certainly the rate at which you get the fake money is, even in the paid version, laughably slow. Triple Town is the first puzzle game I’ve played where you had to grind money for two games so that you could play with maximum efficiency in one. It’s been intentionally crippled to make you spend money on it, and that’s something that translates through even though I already spent money on it. This is unforgiveable.
Even though Triple Town has a fairly addictive core gameplay mode it’s nothing that a flash game couldn’t also achieve (in fact I believe there is also a flash version of Triple Town, with grasping monetisation features fully intact) and if you ever want to move outside of that basic concept all you’re going to find is an awful lot of nothing. There’s a few different maps/boards, but beyond that all that exists is a horrific Farmville “capital city” thing where you match production buildings to create higher-tier production buildings and then come back every twenty hours (or whatever) to collect their output.
The thing that gets me about Triple Town, and that I can’t really get over, is that despite being a game sold for an up-front cost on Steam it still provides a brief glimpse of the blasted, joyless landscape of mobile apps and Facebook games. I don’t play those games2. Indeed, I go out of my way to avoid them these days, and Triple Town is a good reminder as to why. It’s a fun diversion for a few hours, but the whole time I was playing it I had this uneasy feeling that it was going to ask me to get my wallet out again. While this might be part and parcel of the free-to-play phenomenon it is something I had not hitherto experienced in a paid-for game, and that’s more than enough to consign it to the Pit in my eyes. Triple Town can rot in the Fourth Circle with the rest of the greedy and avaricious. I have better things to do with my time.
- “What do you get when you mix two parts Bejeweled with one part Civilization?” is one of the boxquotes for Triple Town, providing a neat punctuation mark to Edge Magazine’s continuing fall from grace. ↩
- I tried several mobile games when I got my smartphone a couple of months back only to discover that actually utilising touchscreen controls properly is something precious few of them were able to get right. Even then it didn’t mean they’d actually be good. ↩
It’s a bummer that the game has such an awful meta-game bolted onto it. It’s always fun to play a relatively unimpressive game which wraps itself in an engaging system which manages to make you forget that the meat of the game is pretty mediocre. I got a lot of mileage out of Grand Ages: Rome just because they had a clever little RPG system that let you break the ho-hum city-building mechanics over your knee.
See also: Puzzle Quest. Match-three systems are elegant but ultimately limited, so they either need a lot of variety with different game modes and whatnot, or else a metagame that makes the gameplay seem a little more worth it in the long run.
(For that matter even Total War’s real-time battles would get old much more quickly if they weren’t embedded in the empire map.)
Puzzle Quest (as a franchise) really needs to embrace the RPG stuff as an element of the game rather than just a way to make Bejeweled seem less like Bejeweled.
I want lockpicking and enchanting and all that stuff to actually be developed as class-specific content (or somehow related to developing skill points) rather than just a break in the action for every class.
I guess I want a Puzzle Quest that is also Fallout. I guess I’ll get to wait for Hell to freeze over.
I have yet to find a tablet game that I genuinely liked. F2P sours me on pretty much anything (even if it’s good value relatively, it still feels like I’m being hustled), and the format is flooded with trite puzzle games and/or shallow time sinks.
I’ve paid for several Android games. I hated all of them. The best Android/iOS titles seem to be the ones that are based off of boardgames, which isn’t really a resounding vote of confidence in the creative potential of the tablet format.
There is potential, I think, but the market is flooded with cutesy, manipulative crap, and the low ceiling on prices means that any developer that wants to spend time adding depth to their title is probably better off on a platform where people will spend a reasonable sum of money on a title without being conned into it by a F2P system.
Another limitation is that the market is geared towards things you can play on the bus/underground, so multi-hour epics need to be split up into ten-minute chunks. Which isn’t so bad if you consider how, say, Total War works.