Today I’m going to sing the praises of a very clever and fun word puzzle app I’ve been playing on iOS: Knotwords, by Zach Gage and Jack Schlesinger.

Knotwords is like a second cousin to crossword puzzles. You’re given a grid of rows and columns, which is broken up into sections, and for each section you’re given the letters which go into the squares in that section. So there might be a section of 5 squares, which includes pieces of 2 or 3 rows or columns, and you need to figure out which letters go where. The trick is that each row or column is a complete English word, often consisting of 2 or more sections.

Here’s a recent simple puzzle and its solution (it briefly explodes the grid when you solve it, which is what I captured for this image):

What makes Knotwords enjoyable for me is that it exploits the human mind’s ability to pattern-match, but it also allows the player to break down the puzzle into smaller pieces, building up words out of multiple sections as you go. My approach – especially with larger puzzles – is to identify the sections which appear most tractable to figure out the word, and then build out from there.

Sometimes the sections allow you to reason about the letters through knowledge of English words. For example, if there’s a section of 5 squares, with two 3-letter words which overlap, you can sometimes figure out that there are a limited number of ways to combine the letter to make valid words. Vowel placement is often key. Sometimes you can eliminate combinations, for example knowing that there’s no English word which begins with the letters ‘BK’. Knowing the 2-letter words is also helpful. The app also tells you when you’ve entered an invalid word, so you’re not just guessing. And you can ask for a hint which gives you the dictionary definition of a word you choose on the grid, but it’s rewarding to solve puzzles with a few hints as possible.

Knotwords does reward having a good vocabulary, but the words are not usually rare. I’m more likely to spell a valid word and go “What the heck is that?” and then look at it differently and realize it’s a perfectly ordinary word. I’ve solved a couple hundred puzzles so far and maybe only encountered a couple of words I didn’t know.

The system is self-correcting in a way. Sometimes you build up a valid word, but it leads to other words being invalid, and then rearranging letters to fix things up untangles the other words. You quickly develop an instinct for which words are almost certainly correct (spoiler: longer words usually have only one solution).

If that sounds good to you, then you’ll be happy to learn that there’s even more to discover. In addition to the basic puzzles, there are “twist” puzzles, where each row and column has a number indicating how many vowels are in that line. For example:

Knotwords twist puzzle

And the solution. Whenever you solve a puzzle you get a happy little bunny person in the bottom right cheering you on:

Knotwords twist puzzle solved

Usually additional constraints in puzzles like these make things easier for the player (for example the “Sudoku X” variant of Sudoku), but that also means the twist puzzles can be harder because you have more information to work with.

Every day you get a new simple puzzle, a classic puzzle which gets larger and harder each day from Monday through Sunday, and a twist puzzle which also gets harder through the week.

Each month there are two puzzlebooks, one classic and one twist, each with thirty puzzles. The later puzzles in these have additional twists, such as word themes. At first I was intimidated by the puzzlebooks as I got to the midpoint, but while they get pretty large, it’s not too hard to work through them. While it takes me upwards of 25 minutes to get through the largest ones, you can always pause and come back to it later.

Knotwords has built-in gamification, such as tracking your stats on the daily puzzles, achievements, and of course tracking your streaks – which you can recover if you happen to break one!

One thing to know is that the app does not yet support syncing your progress across devices; as a result, I play it only on a single iPad. (Apparently syncing is in the works, though!)

I’ve never really made the leap to doing traditional puzzles like crosswords and Sudoku on computer, but Knotwords fills that space nicely, and in a way that wouldn’t be nearly as good on paper. It’s free to try, with an in-app purchase to unlock the full range of puzzles. I didn’t hesitate to buy it once I finished the trial, and I hope this post helps it find a few more fans.

Zed (and other Myst-like Games)

I spent a few hours on my recent vacation playing through the computer game Zed. I’d backed it on Kickstarter a while ago, and it was eventually published with the help of Cyan Ventures, an arm of the company which produced the Myst series, which I adore.

Unfortunately, I was disappointed by Zed, though it helped clarify what I enjoy about games of this sort. While the art, sound, animation, etc., are all important elements in providing a sense of being present in the setting of the game (which was the breakthrough triumph of Myst, I think), the main factors are having an engaging story, and having interesting gameplay usually puzzles or challenges to walk through the story (and usually not combat). The gameplay also allows the player a certain amount of agency, or at least the illusion thereof.

Cyan’s games do a good job of balancing both elements, particularly in Myst and Riven, as well as the sequel (not by Cyan) Myst III Exile. Cyan’s most recent game, Obduction, also hit this sweet spot for me. (I reviewed it here, though it seems I thought some of its puzzles were a bit too far on the hard side, which I’d forgotten.)

Zed is heavy on the story but very light on gameplay. The framework is that you’re playing the role of an artist with dementia walking through memories of his life to collect ideas for a final gift for his granddaughter, but it’s a heavily guided experience where you roam regions of his memory in sequence, being exposed to the narrative of his life, and collecting a small set of objects in each area, but that’s really all there is to it. There are no puzzles, nothing else really to do, and negligible agency. It looks great, the story works pretty well, but it feels like doing a walkthrough of a game rather than playing a game. I worked through it in about 4 hours (by contrast, Obduction took me about 20 hours).

Zed is the first game of this type that I’ve played which has leaned so far in this direction; I’ve seen some which leaned too far in the other direction. I vaguely recall a 90s game called Obsidian which I played and felt was all gameplay (and surreal settings) and not much story. (I didn’t finish it.) Quern: Undying Thoughts is a more recent example: It’s full of puzzles (and takes a long time to work through them), but the story is pretty thin.

Another nuance is when the puzzles are too obscure or difficult, or which are tedious because they involve too much walking around (which takes time and is no fun if you’re not discovering anything new). Myst IV: Revelation is unfortunately an example of this, with several puzzles that made very little sense to me, and I ended up using a walkthrough for a lot of it. (The story was pretty good, though.) I suspect Myst V: End of Ages was similar, but the game was buggy enough (I think it didn’t play well with the video card I had in my Mac at the time) that I didn’t get very deep into it before getting frustrated and giving up. Quern had the too-much-walking-around problem in spades.

Anyway, I do love this style of game, and will play most games of this type that I come across as long as they’re on platforms I own (Mac and iPad, basically). Here are some others I’ve played:

  • Alida (2004) This one was pretty well balanced, with maybe a couple of puzzles that were too obscure.
  • The Talos Principle (2014): I’ve been playing on my iPad. The puzzles are pretty good, but the story is nearly nonexistent.
  • The Witness (2016): All puzzles – often very frustrating puzzles – and no story at all. I ha-a-ated this game and gave up after about 5 hours. The graphics are pretty mediocre for a modern game, too.
  • Tipping Point (2007?): Another game I’ve played on my iPad. It’s okay but I lost interest about halfway through and haven’t gotten back to it. I’m not quite sure why I haven’t found it satisfying.
  • Grim Fandango: Originally released in 1998, I bought the remastered iPad version when it came out a few years ago. I’m not sure this game really belongs in this category, though it seems adjacent at least. I didn’t get very far in it because it involved a lot of walking around from place to place, and frankly I got bored. It sure is stylish, though!

Are there are others currently available that I should try?

I’ll also try games that are clearly not really intending to quite be this sort of game but are similar in some key ways. Some games by Simogo feel adjacent to Myst but not quite the same thing. Device 6 is more of a story with a few small puzzles, as is The Sailor’s Dream. I enjoyed both, although Sailor left me feeling a bit empty at the end. I also tried Year Walk, but it felt like it was all walking around and not much progress.

Anyway, my disappointment with Zed isn’t going to dissuade me from playing more games of this sort. In fact, I backed Cyan’s next game on Kickstarter, Firmament, once they committed to a Mac version. And heck, I kinda feel like playing through Obduction again.

Tower Defense

In case I didn’t need another way to waste time, I recently discovered the tower defense genre of computer strategy games. Specifically, I discovered them for my iPhone. I think this puts me, what, about 3 years behind the curve for the genre, and a year behind for the platform?

Anyway, Tower defense games involve placing towers on a map in order to fend off invading hordes of creatures. The towers are statically placed, but they can be upgraded or torn down. You have a certain number of resources with which to build towers, but you can more resources as you fight off each wave of attackers.

I was initially intrigued when I saw the demo during this year’s WWDC of the game Star Defense (links to individual games herein will take you to the App Store in iTunes). Of course, that was months ago, and I just this weekend got around to downloading some tower defense games. I actually decided not to start with Star Defense since it seemed like a relatively advanced example of the genre, with 3-D maps where many others have 2-D maps.

A cow-orker of mine pointed me at TapDefense, in which the hordes of hell are trying to storm the gates of heaven, and your towers all have medieval or magical themes. TapDefense has the cardinal advantage of being free. It also has the advantage for a newbie of having good built-in help, as well as a tutorial.

But one of the nifty things about the App Store is that so many good products are quite cheap. So I bought two more which seemed to have good reviews: geoDefense, and Sentinel: Mars Defense, which were both only 99 cents. I ended up going right to Sentinel mainly based on this review of its sequel, Sentinel 2:Earth Defense (which itself is only $2.99).

Sentinel has great graphics and sound, but I’m glad I didn’t make it my first-ever tower defense game, since its help is pretty minimal. On the other hand, having had that first experience, it was pretty easy to figure out what to do. The bad guys come in five varieties (fast-and-wimpy, slow-and-tough, flying, teleporting, and big-slow-and-really-really-tough) and each wave consists of one type of baddies which are tougher and more numerous than the last batch you saw of that type. So you need to diversify your towers to deal with all the different types, but you get a bonus if you spend minimal resources in doing so. The Easy setting is really, really easy, while the Hard setting is pretty challenging.

The tower defense genre seems to be a comparatively passive game, where you place a tower or two, do a few upgrades, and then see if your changes deal with the attackers. If they don’t, then you may need to quickly place a few extra towers to deal with any who got by, but for the most part you’re watching the results of your handiwork, which is fun, but also a bit monotonous – in a hypnotic way. I found that a half an hour slipped by in my first game of Sentinel before I knew it – it didn’t feel that long.

As a mix of combat game and puzzle, the genre appeals to me, although the monotony makes me wonder if it will have any staying power with me. Though I’m not going to judge the whole genre on just a couple of examples, as it’s easy to envision variations on the theme. But it’s something new and different to me, and it runs on my phone – a feature of the iPhone I’ve underutilized, this game-playing thing – so I’m going to give it a whirl.