Review: Stacklands

Stacklands (PC)
Released: April 8, 2022

If you were to chart the highs and lows throughout the history of card-based computer games, you’d end up with a wild and likely murderous rollercoaster that no living human could possibly meet the height requirements to ride. Starting with faithful recreations of classic barnburners like klondike solitaire, you’d quickly move on to collectible card games like Magic the Gathering and YuGiOh. These inspired the strictly digital CCGs like Sanctum and Hearthstone and then onto this new golden age. Taking card mechanics and seeing how they can be used in traditionally non-card-based video games, games like Darkest Dungeon and Slay the Spire bringing deckbuilding to the rogue-litey dungeon-crawly genre.

Stacklands is another notable point on that wild timeline o card games. It starts off with the quaint village builder genre and makes it all cards. But not just that, it adds its own unique touches, like the simplicity of sloppily laying cards on a big green play mat. And the frantic energy of somehow having no idea where the thing you just put down a second ago is. And in the process, it’s a watershed moment in the barely written history of card-based survival village builders, a genre that desperately needs a better acronym.

Stacklands, from the Dutch studio Sokpop Collective, takes the tried-and-true mechanic of “rub everything against everything else and see what happens” and asks you to build a village with it. If you had an iPhone in the early days of the App Store you may have frequently seen a game with a similar and far simpler implementation of this idea called Doodle God. Or, if you are currently receiving AARP mailers, you may have played a DOS game in the late 90’s called Alchemy. Both games asked you to take a small number of base elements and combine them to make new ones, and then combine those with the base elements, and with each other, to create even more. Repeat until you’ve created the universe and baked an apple pie from scratch.

Stacklands starts you with cards for a villager, a rock, a tree, and a berry bush. The rest up to you. Time to start experimenting! Put the villager on the rock and watch them chip away netting you new Stone and Flint cards. Put that same villager card on that tree card and that multitalented worker yields stick cards and log cards. Maybe you’re clever and you think rubbing a flint card on a stone card might produce a fire card? Or that a couple of log cards and some elbow grease might net you something? The discoveries come quick and easy because, for the most part, the things Stacklands asks you to do come naturally and make sense.

But, like any good card game, you can’t get by on the base cards alone, no matter how much stacking and rubbing you do. What you need are injections of new ideas and resources in the form of booster packs lined up neatly in a row at the top of the screen with themes like “Reap and Sow” or “Logic and Reason”. They may lack the punchiness of “Sword and Shield: Fusion Strike” or “Urza’s Legacy”, but after just a few minutes in the world of Stacklands the mind reels at the possibilities of what could be reaped and/or sown. All that’s required is that you sell a few of your excess cards for coins, and survival games always have plenty of resources to spare, don’t they?

Layered on top of all that casual experimentation and tearing open of card packs are some very real threats. In Stacklands, as in life, the greatest enemy is the passage of time. Not just existential dread, each day in-game, called a Moon, requires that you have enough food to feed all your villagers. Anyone without enough berries and apples on their plate will be found wanting, and also found dead. So, securing a stable supply of sustenance should be your first priority. Some new days can bring with them horrible creatures to torment, and more specifically kill, your villagers if you have not properly prepared. So, making sure you’re well equipped to protect your village should be your first priority.

There’s also the card cap to keep an eye on. There’s a maximum number of cards you can have in your village, but its only enforced at the end of the day, after everyone’s been fed. This can create some incredibly difficult decisions as you’re asked to part with some of your hard-earned surplus. Do you part with some of the stone and bricks and planks you were saving for that building and try to make them up during the next moon? Do you sell some of the meager food stocks that you managed to hoard? The card cap is constantly looming over you, and increasing it, especially early on, isn’t easy. So, making sure you have proper storage should be your first priority.

If that weren’t challenge enough, the simple interface of grabbing cards and placing them in your village has its own strategic nuances. Cards can be placed and arranged freely, without any designated spots for cards or any grid to snap to. Early on this allows for some very satisfying moments of shoving currently unneeded cards in the corner thinking while you deal with more pressing issues, such as milkshake production. But just as you can place your cards untethered anywhere in your village, so can Stacklands. Any time the interaction of two cards produces a bouncing baby card, it pops out and finds the nearest gap to squeeze itself in, like a cat failing to sneak between photos and candlesticks on a crowded mantlepiece. Cards will get jostled out of the way and whatever organizational system you had quickly falls apart. Enemies and animals can do the same, wandering around your village and shoving cards out of their way. Its an interesting challenge you wouldn’t get in a non-card-based version of this game, but after a few hours you might find yourself wishing you could Right Click > Align Icons to Grid.

Finally, there’s the combat. With the latest Dark Forest update, released on November 9th, some previous issues have been very well addressed. A whole new system of equipping villagers with multiple items has been added to flesh out what had been the weakest part of the game. Villagers can now be arranged in combat to square up against the enemies they’re strongest against, making these encounters feel a lot less like sitting and watching cards shimmy and numbers go down. The update added over 100 new cards as well, meaning that the game that already floored me with its bounty of content has now pulled the floor out from below me to reveal another floor so I could get floored yet again.

Stacklands is at its best when you’re stumbling across new interactions between cards, realizing there’s still more to be discovered. Each new card that’s revealed begs you to start a new game with that foolish bravado of believing you now have the optimal strategy and can get to whatever your next goal is 10x faster. There’s a lot of excitement in building this village, card by card, and a lot of wonder in what Card-Based Survival Village Builders that Stacklands will inspire.

Review: Cribbage With Grandpas

Cribbage With Grandpas
Released 8/10/2016
Less Than Three Interactive

When it comes to traditional card games, the mobile market is lousy with options. You can find just about any game you played after school or on a family vacation or saw played on a Boy Scout campout but didn’t actually get to play because none of the other kids wanted to take the time to teach you how to play Setback even though they had plenty of time to go smoke cigarettes behind the craft supplies shed. All sorts of classic card games represented and reinterpreted half a dozen ways each.

But whether they recreate nothing more than the basic ruleset, or they explode with themed decks and animated play areas and particle effects, they’re all missing something. They’re missing one of the most integral parts of the card game experience. Grandpas.

Cribbage with Grandpas aims to correct this, and usher in a new era of pensioner-adjacent card games. It is, at its base, cribbage. It’s a faithful and accurate recreation, to be sure, but as far as actual gameplay is concerned, its cribbage. Cards move around the screen. Some of them go into your crib. Some go in the other guys’. You put cards in order or add up to 15. Scoring pegs track your score. You know that game called cribbage? It’s that.

The important, maybe even revolutionary, feature of Cribbage with Grandpas comes not from the Cribbage, but from the Grandpas. Every game of cribbage is played against a grandpa not just of your choosing, but of your own creation. You read right. Cribbage with Grandpas has what may be the world’s first fully featured, unparalleled, grandpa editor.

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While the enormity of that sinks in, look at this grandpa I made. His name is Chico. He looks a bit like my grandpa that I used to play Dominos with. Cribbage with Grandpas not only let me customize the look of my pappy, but choose the grandpa-appropriate setting for our game, and even what he’s brought with him to nosh on. I had Chico bring a fish, because if Portuguese people don’t eat fish their bones fall out.

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Remember Abe Vigoda? This one kind of looks like him, right? Customizing grandpas doesn’t end with the visual, either. Because there’s more to grandpas than just how they look. You can choose the kind of personality you want from your grandpa, and that reflects in the playful chatter and words of encouragement he gives you during each game. Want a less chatty grandpa? That’s fine too. It’s all under your control. Here’s another grandpa I made. He looks like Al Lewis, who played Grandpa Munster, who kind of looks like Ted Cruz.

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It’s extremely difficult to not be charmed by these old men who want nothing more than to spend a little time with you and play some cards. And they do a bang up job elevating what is at its root just cribbage, to a more memorable and personal experience. With so many other games leaning hard on nostalgia saying “Hey, remember gaming in the 90’s?” it’s nice that there’s a game out there willing to say “Hey, kid, remember grandpas?” And I do. Mine wore a hat.

Review: Danger Zone 2

Danger Zone 2
Released 7/13/2018
Three Fields Entertainment

Danger Zone 2 is a follow-up to Three Fields Entertainment’s 2017 arcade crash-em-up, Danger Zone, which itself was a spiritual successor to Criterion’s iconic Burnout series of arcade racing games. DZ2 promised to continue bringing back the magic of Burnout’s Crash Mode, and build on everything DZ1 got right. For fans of the original series, this new series, or fans of detonating a 20-car pile-up in slow motion, this should have been a gimme.

Danger Zone 2 continues in the tradition of driving at top speed into a busy intersection and maneuvering the resulting flaming wreckage of a cart through the air into other vehicles, making sure not to let anyone else on the road feel left out. Every dollar of property damage you do counts toward your final score, earning Bronze, Silver, Gold, and Platinum ranking if you cross their damage threshold.

While the first Danger Zone took place in a kind of parking garage meets computer simulation environment with more compact level design, Danger Zone 2 takes things back to the Burnout roots and brings the carnage out into the fresh air. Intersections take inspiration from real world locations in the US, UK, and Spain and the larger environments give each stage a bit more character, and give players some scenery to gawk at during one of DZ2’s best new features: the Run Up.

The Run Up is basically the highway drive that gets you from the place your car spawned to the place your car will become engulfed in flames. Little jaunts among other commuters not only gives you time to get used to whatever vehicle you’ve been assigned, but gives you an opportunity to earn a score bonus by completing optional Run Up objectives. From hitting every stunt jump to “traffic-checking” enough sedans into camper vans and everything in between, nailing these Run Up goals is necessary if you’re planning on ranking Platinum for every stage, and seeing your name rise up the built-in leaderboard for each level.

Crashing anywhere along the Run Up will end your run immediately. But as Kenny Loggins foretold, surviving the highway brings you right to the final intersection; the titular Danger Zone. This is where the game really should shine. Gently nudging your flaming ball of twisted metal in slow motion as it careens through the air toward the next unfortunate Sunday driver is the peak of Danger Zone 2’s excitement. Break enough stuff and you’ll charge up your “SmashBreaker” (legally distinct from Burnout’s “Crashbreaker”) and detonate your car again, hopefully picking up a few more cars in the blast and a bit more inertia to keep you moving around the intersection. You’ll need that inertia to grab pickups for additional score and additional SmashBreakers, adding a bit of tactics to the chaos you’re navigating.

Danger Zone 2 takes the road of sequel-design where you’ve already got something good, and you just add more. And in a lot of cases a good first game with a bit more added to it becomes a better sequel. But for Danger Zone 2, the additional features and larger environments lead to some clunkier intersections and haphazard crashes.

Danger Zone 1’s smaller levels, lack of a Run Up, and minimal abilities beyond crash and boom made it almost a puzzle game in Burnout clothing. You’d find yourself replaying the levels over and over to perfectly orchestrate your crash, propelling yourself precisely through every pickup, in the right order, so you could claim the huge Grand Slam Bonus and shoot up the leaderboard. Danger Zone 2’s larger levels mean less focus is on that final moment of impact. And the Run Up means there’s more to trip you up as you try to make a minor adjustment to your last attempt; completely at the mercy of the RNG-Gods.

That’s not to say every new addition takes away from the experience. Danger Zone 2 has 8 drivable cars, up from the 6 in Danger Zone 1. And unlike DZ1, these 8 feel unique in how they handle and how they crash.

But even two dozen new cars wouldn’t have distracted from the game’s biggest issue: lack of style. Launching the game for the first time you’re greeted with a main menu that wouldn’t look out of place in a budget Steam Greenlight release. Plain white text on an in-game static shot with a logo in the corner. Loading screen is more of the same white text with no flare or attempt at looking visually distinct. Nowhere in the HUD or UI is there any hint at the style and theming that Danger Zone 1 had, with its nicely animated menus and consistent design throughout.

On first loading a level in Danger Zone 1, the camera does a flyby of the entire track, with cars and roads materializing stylishly, in keeping with the theme of this all being a simulation. Danger Zone 2 just drops you at the starting point and asks if you want to start yet.

Jumping back and forth between DZ1 and DZ2 while writing this, the lack of flair and polish in DZ2 became harder and harder to look past. Even though the floaty driving from the first game has been greatly improved, the more crucial flying-scrap-heap-on-fire driving has somehow downgraded. Somehow, no matter how many times I replay a level, I simply cannot get a consistent feel for how much air and distance detonating my SmashBreaker will get me. If there’s something reliable affecting it, I sure couldn’t see it.

There’s the basis of a really good sequel in here. And the improve driving mechanics give me hope for the other spiritual successor to Burnout that Three Fields Entertainment have announced, Dangerous Driving. And sure, Menu and UI choices aren’t gameplay critical, and can always be patched later. But as it stands now there are not many people to recommend this game to. Newcomers to the Danger Zone series are better off playing the first, and fans of the first are going to have a hard time putting it out of their mind while playing the sequel.

Drink In The Nostalgia

In an effort to instill a sense of national duty and civic pride, many nations require their citizens to, upon reaching some milestone of adulthood, spend a year or two in service to their country. Formally, the United States has no such required civil service. Informally, however, each generation of American designs their own requirements to give back. Something for themselves to endure as they are ripped from the safety of their childhood bedroom, and find themselves clinging desperately to the door frame to the outside world.

Having been born in 1987, I find myself called upon now. To join the ranks of millennials past. To walk that same path blazed by thousands of brothers and sisters before me. To forge another link in an unbreakable chain of duty. To write a nostalgic piece about some bit of 90’s pop.

The 90’s was a decade made up of many things. Or at least that’s what my research turned up when I consulted people who spent those years outside of grade school. Things like Ska Music. The triumphant rise of Daniel Stern. Vague memories of toys in a JC Penney catalogue. Bill Clinton. That soda that had little balls floating in it that I’m pretending I don’t remember was called Orbit. The decline of Daniel Stern. Zima.

Oh, Zima. That enigmatic name. That sophisticated logo. That oddly corrugated glass bottle. To my child brain, Zima was hip. It was adult and metropolitan, but in a youthful sort of way. The ads for it provided a secret window into the crisp, citrus-flavored world of adulthood. Full of young sexy people laughing and flirting with other people who were young and sexy and probably going to have youthful sex later which, thanks to the child brain, could have been anything. My picture encyclopedia didn’t go into a ton of detail about that, so my knowledge of what likely came after Zima was cursory at best.

But just as I hit the age where I could legally walk into a package store and buy whatever embarrassing wine cooler or premixed cocktail in a can I wanted, Zima was pulled off the market. The powers that be determined that, as of 2008, the 90’s were officially over. It seemed I would never experience the rooftop parties and converted loft romances that Zima had been the key to unlocking.

Sure, there were other clear malt beverages, but they didn’t have that same cache in my mind. Smirnoff Ice, Zima’s girl-next-door cousin, was always there promising a different kind of evening. Something a little less urban. A little more wood paneled basement. Still enjoyable, to be sure, but for the stylish, bawdy, urban, evening I had always envisioned, I was officially too late.

Smash cut to 2017. Thanks to the courageous efforts of my millennial siblings we have, like Orpheus, softened the hearts of our corporate betters and led so many of our lost loves back to the land of the living. Surge, French Toast Crispies, Invisible Pepsi, and Hi-C Ghost Juice had all been financially coerced back to life. And so, it should have come as no surprise when, in 2017, The Coors Brewing Company announced that the (probably) fabled clear ambrosia was back again for a limited engagement.

All that build up is what left me slack jawed outside my local package store. The same local package store that had nearly 9 years prior broken my heart was now piecing it back together. Through the plate glass window, past the cooler cases, was a modest display and a full stock of six packs. One was immediately purchased and placed in the fridge before the agony of anticipation fully took hold.

What followed was a full day of Olympic Mental Gymnastics coverage with limited commercial interruption brought to you by Coors Brewing Company. Not even the rose-tinted glass cathedral built specifically to house the 90’s could protect me. But even now as I put pen to paper I can’t bring myself to unequivocally come out and say, “Zima’s kind of crap, isn’t it?”

What I want to say, what my brain is desperately trying to convince me of, is that just one sip transported me to a halcyon world of butterfly hair clips and Drew Barrymore hair flips. AOL was still relevant, and everything was right with the world. The crisp, refreshing, citrus flavor of Zima had made new episodes of my favorite childhood shows materialize from the sheer collective willpower of thousands of other 90’s kids.

What I refuse to say is that it had a taste accurately described by a friend far cleverer than I as “cheap restaurant sangria mixed with sunscreen; like you’re eating a Spree candy that someone else sucked the hard shell off of”. I can’t allow myself to accept that this is likely the unfortunate result of a suburban teenager trying to combine cheap beer and Fresca in a mad science experiment. I don’t want to feel like, instead of a sexy rooftop soiree, I’m at a bonfire where I’m the only one not being made out with, and all the ice in the coolers melted long ago.

For someone that had experienced Zima in its heyday, there is likely a “you can’t go home again” joke lurking in this somewhere. But there aren’t any appropriate trite phrases for my experience. No “you can’t go to the home you never actually lived in and only exists on a sound stage and pretend you’ve always lived there”. Maybe this is a “don’t meet your heroes” situation. Or “don’t let your heroes be sodas”. Especially when your sexy iconic classic Coke bottle turns out to be an RC Cola in disguise.

The Microsoft Solitaire Conspiracy

In 1987, Spectrum Holobyte released Solitaire Royale, the very first commercial solitaire game, at least according to Citation Needed on Wikipedia. Originally released for MS-DOS, the historical significance of this game has been largely ignored.

Some might blame this on the shameful lack of coverage that solitaire gaming and its rich history are given by the gaming press, but the proper blame is probably given, as usual, to Microsoft, and a release of theirs just a few years later, that would give birth to one of PC Gaming’s most controversial controversies.

In 1990, Microsoft was riding high with the recent release of one of their versions of the Windows operating system. Included in this release, seemingly innocuously, was their version of the much beloved Klondike variant of Solitaire.

Looking to ease Americans into the idea of Solitaire on computers, Microsoft claimed their new Solitaire program was simply to “help acclimate people unfamiliar with graphical user interfaces, and introduce them to use of the mouse”.

However, if we’re to believe their intentions were innocent, we would have to ignore the mountains of inconsistencies in their story. For example, how are so many of the elderly still functionally computer illiterate, despite an average of 27 logged hours of Solitaire per pensioner, according to some studies that can be found.

But Microsoft was unsatisfied with just one Solitaire variant. Despite their success, they immediately they began work on a secret project that would come to be known as the Microsoft Entertainment Pack. But entertainment was never its goal.

The first phase of the MEP unleashed on the public included two new Solitaire games, Golf and Cruel. The rulesets were less commonly known to most Americans, but similar enough to existing standards as to not make too many waves.

What should have seemed odd, and what did raise questions among those observant enough to notice, was the clear assistance from Chinese and Soviet interests, as indicated by the inclusion of Tetris and Mahjong Solitaire alongside Golf and Cruel.

And questions were raised, as they still are. What reason could Microsoft have had to increase their Solitaire offerings by 300% in just a few months? Who stood to gain from this increase? And who had the power and political clout to give marching orders to the PC behemoth?

Fast forward to 1991, and to Phase Two of the Microsoft Entertainment Pack, which included two new Solitaire variants to Microsoft’s already overtaxed Windows Operating System. Though they tried to distract us with games about skiing and rodents and jezzballs, Microsoft’s total Solitaire output had increased to the insane, almost reckless, 7 distinct games. Included in that 7 was Free Cell, which in their hubris they boasted an unheard-of 32,000 unique deals.

Scientists and independent researchers alike have worked with advanced computing technology and reported that all but one of the 32,000 unique configurations can be solved. All but one. Why would Microsoft include an unsolvable configuration? Was it truly unsolvable? What secrets lay behind Puzzle #11982? And how did it connect to the Russian Trials ship codenamed Project #11982?

Also included in Phase Two was Microsoft’s first public foray into Egyptian Mysticism and the occult, Tut’s Tomb. Tut’s Tomb was to be the American public’s formal introduction to the Pyramid Solitiare ruleset, and was the most thematically cohesive of all Microsoft’s Solitiare projects. Players found themselves working through an Egyptian pyramid with nothing but the power of the number 13 to guide them.

Standing at odds with Solitaire conventions of the time, Microsoft expanded on the established Pyramid ruleset by allowing players to match a card with the card directly behind it. This was known among enthusiasts as “Grave Robbing”, and was as controversial a move then as it is among Solitaire historians today.

What sparked Microsoft’s sudden interest in the occult? Why did they believe they were so beyond reproach that they could present their new rules as gospel to the general public? What were the stakes, and who stood to gain?

1995 saw the release of the aptly titled Windows 95, and the scaling back of their Solitaire enterprises. After 8 unique Solitaire games across 4 Microsoft Entertainment Packs and even an incomprehensible attempt at spreading their MEP influence onto the Game Boy Color, Microsoft all but abandoned their Solitaire project. All that remained on the operating system was Free Cell, and the original Solitaire offerings.

By 2012, all traces of Solitaire had been excised from Windows. The Great Solitaire Purge took not only their solo card games, but Minesweeper, Space Pinball, and the never popular Hearts as well. Windows 8 was released without a trace of their former offerings, and without explanation. Some in the community voiced their concerns to deaf ears, asking why had they abandoned the Microsoft Entertainment Pack project? Had they simply accomplished what they had set out to do? Or, perhaps, had some third party stepped in?

Like with so many of the changes made in Windows 8, the 2015 release came to the rescue. Or so Microsoft would have you believe. On the surface, the triumphant return of the Microsoft Solitaire Collection, with fan favorites like TriPeaks, Free Cell, and the classic Klondike seemed an olive branch from the software giant.

But who else had come along for the ride? Pyramid. And was this the faithful recreation of Tut’s Tomb one might expect? Hardly. It was still a well-made interpretation of the Pyramid Solitaire ruleset, but missing from this new release? Grave Robbing.

Why had Microsoft chosen to create a new Pyramid concept from scratch, rather than reinstating the classics like they had with the others in the Microsoft Solitaire Collection? Why, with the thousands of other enhancements and quality of life improvements did they choose not to include their signature maneuver? Why has Microsoft categorically refused to address this issue? Who benefits from the confusion generated by this change? And who are they protecting with their silence?