Different video games use failure in different ways. Some use it to shock players and teach them what not to do, while others use death as a punishment for carelessness, recklessness, or some other mistake. Super Gridland, the new mobile RPG-puzzle hybrid from Canadian developer Michael Townsend, treats failure as a journey. With each mistake, you learn something new. With each death, you start the day over better equipped to handle what the game throws at you.
Super Gridland, which landed on iOS ($1.99) and Android ($1.49) last week, is styled like a standard Bejeweled clone except it favors strategic matches over clearing the board. In the daytime, you’re building a series of houses by matching materials on the board like wood, brick, and stone. Each match moves the sun in the sky from morning to night and informs how a small pixelated figure expands his community, meaning you have to pick the right materials to help your houses grow in size. When night falls, Super Gridland transforms into a survival game, where each match can simultaneously strengthen your defenses and spawn a horde of monsters intent on killing you.
Townsend’s creation, which is a refined version of his 2014 web game Gridland, is not the first game to do pull off this mix. Puzzle Quest: Challenge of the Warlords helped pioneer the blending of modern RPG and puzzle elements back in 2007. Creator Steve Fawkner specifically set out to mix Bejeweled-style play with the narrative elements of a strategy game like Final Fantasy Tactics. Today, you can see this structure in mobile games like You Must Build A Boat, which blends the “endless runner” format with match-3 puzzle play.
What sets Super Gridland apart is both its survival twist and Townsend’s penchant for obtuse design and storytelling. The strength of the game lies in what it decides not to tell you, and how it communicates the dangers of the night and potential rewards of the daytime.
Much like Townsend’s previous title A Dark Room — a cult throwback to text-based RPGs — Super Gridland lets the narrative expand in players’ minds while complexity is layered on in subtle, powerful ways over time. In an interview with The New Yorker in 2014, Townsend refers to his design philosophy as “environment storytelling,” which “works well for games because it gives the player the feeling that they are constructing the narrative, even if they’re only discovering it.”
Instead of helping educate you through tutorials and on-screen text, Townsend’s game design excels by wordlessly guiding you with an ever-expanding set of cues. In A Dark Room, these cues came in the form of cryptic text and the unforeseen effects of your seemingly simple choices. In Super Gridland, they’re visual, ranging from the placement of the sun and moon in the sky, the type and proximity of helpful and harmful tiles on the board, and a wide range of other icons and meters.
This starts out confusing, and the lack of direction could turn off those not used to challenging mobile games. (There is a difficulty setting, which can be toggled from red to green if you so choose.) Yet after progressing some 15 or 16 days into Super Gridland, you’ll be amazed at how deft you’ve become at monitoring everything from a health bar to a weapon meter to a full puzzle grid, all as the action plays out in a small rectangle reserved for combat and construction. Soon enough, you’ll also start wondering where these monsters are coming from and what it is you’re trying to build. Throughout the game’s initial chapters, a white spire sits idly off to the side with a black orb floating at its top, a kind of mystical suggestion of where you might be headed.
The first few times I played, I perished immediately upon nightfall at the hands of an overpowering horde of black silhouettes. After noticing that time only progressed when I made matches, I realized that what I was matching was more important than how fast I was doing so. So I slowed things down and started thinking more critically about my matching. These kinds of revelations are rare with mobile games, and the feeling of satisfaction you get from cracking a game’s code is almost always worth the pain of failure.
Later on, I had connected the dots further. Matching swords and shields replenishes your weapon and armor meters can often be accomplished without spawning enemies. Those tools then let you fend off monsters when you do have to start clearing more dangerous tiles. With a little trial and error, I started progressing much faster, onto the fourth day and then the 10h day and then well into the teens.
Super Gridland is filled with these little nuances that you’ll pick up on only after sinking some time into it, and failing repeatedly. As you progress, Townsend throws in more complex elements like bombs, weapon regeneration, and potions. You also gain the ability to freeze time, accelerate the clock, or skip from day to night or vice versa, a power that can be restored only during the daytime by matching sparingly generated blue flames.
All of these added layers combine into a wildly addictive formula. I now find myself sneaking a few minutes of Super Gridland whenever I have down time throughout the day. I have no idea where the game will go. The trailer suggests there are dragons and I’m sure — given Townsend’s fascination with how game design can act as a metaphor — there is a larger message to uncover.
But right now, I’m just thinking about getting to the next day. All it takes is some careful matching and, if things don’t go smoothly, a little bit of a failure to help find my way.