What I'm Playing: Trains, Caves, and Shady Deals
$5 on iOS
Double Fine (Psychonauts, Brutal Legend) and Ron Gilbert (Day of the Tentacle, The Secret of Monkey Island) made this game so, yeah, The Cave is worth five bucks.
What? You need reasons? Fine. It's a brilliantly animated, hilarious platformer-adventure, starring a sentient cave and seven would-be explorers. They're each on a mission to find treasure, or lost love, or... generally treasure. You'll choose three, and use their distinct abilities to solve puzzles and generally explore the world around them.
As befitting a Double Fine and Ron Gilbert tag team, nothing really makes much sense and its all wonderful. Your first task, for example, involves spelunking through caverns to find trinkets worth selling at the cave's gift shop. Along the way, you'll repair a hot dog vending machine (why don't these exist?), and use said hot dog to lure a monster out of its lair and into a trap. Each character's special powers come into play at different occasions throughout the adventure, which all but demands replaying many times over to see what's in store.
The game has been out for some time on the PC and consoles, but having it in a form that's a bit more portable is quite a treat. Tap-to-move controls might take a bit of getting used to, particularly when you're pushing and pulling objects; I'll confess I'm used to maneuvering these puzzles with a PlayStation controller, yet I sussed things out after only a few minutes of tapping around. The game's charm and humor have made the transition to mobile intact and it's only $5—if you haven't played it yet, do yourself a favor and head over to the App Store.
Dead Man's Draw
$2 on iOS
I get greedy—not the best attribute to have in a card game. But streaks happen, and as you're racking up lovely little combos and whittling away at your opponent's score in Stardock's Dead Man's Draw, you'll be forgiven if you choke up a bit when an unlucky draw sees your nice little forty-point pot disappearing into the ether. The game revolves around a fifty card deck; there are ten suits, with cards worth between two and seven points. Every turn you'll draw cards—draw two cards of the same suit and you'll bust, ending your turn and forfeiting all of the cards you picked. Once you're satisfied with the cards you picked, end your turn and send those cards to stash.
Got all that? The basics are pretty simple, but rules upon rules get tossed into the mix. To start, only the highest card in a particular suit counts towards your point total—if you've got a seven of keys and a six of keys, you're only getting seven points. But every single suit has a particular ability. A cannon will blast away the highest card in a suit. An anchor card will prevent any cards directly to the left of it from being discarded when you go bust (helpful if you're greedy), while a map card will let you sift through the bust pile and immediately put a discarded card back into play.
And then there are the multiple game modes—sometimes, every card counts, instead of just highest card in a suite. Or maybe busted cards will go directly to your opponent, or the first person to gain fifty points wins the match. Then there are traits, which will enhance a particular suit's abilities. There's a dizzying array of permutations, which makes it all the more disappointing that there's no real multiplayer option—just you versus the AI, or handing your iOS device to a friend care of the pass and play mode.
There are quite a few in-app purchases, generally in the vein of letting you access new traits or unlock everything for a buck or two, and generally won't really affect competition as this is primarily going to be a single-player experience. They also don't feel necessary; they're just... pervasive, constant reminders between matches or while you're poking around traits or between rounds. Pestering aside, the game is well worth your $2—grab Dead Man's Draw on the Apple App Store.
Free on Android and iOS
Ever play NimbleBit's Pocket Planes, or Tiny Tower? It starts with pixel-people. They're adorable enough—like bipedal fish pacing back and forth across lovely little shops and airport terminals, mouths agape with wonder. You construct a world around them and they shuffle in to fill proscribed roles, whether that be hair dresser or passenger on a flight from Phoenix to Las Vegas. Coins are accrued, and exchanged for goods and services.
Pocket Trains is that, with trains. But there's a catch—there's always a catch with NimbleBit's wares. Like so many free-to-play games it feels like a time sink, something to while away a few minutes as you wait for friends to order their drinks and of course you won't be spending any money on these in-app purchases, that'd be silly. But then you start to notice little inefficiencies in your operation: Moscow to Copenhagen? That's ridiculous; better to start a new line entirely, or maybe divert the Budapest line which really hasn't been pulling its weight.
The game chugs along at a train's pace, with a steady progression of cargo to ferry between cities around the world. Longer lines require longer travel times and consume more fuel. Do you deal with waiting for trains to travel long distances, and then wait for them to refuel? Or do you segment your locomotive empire into dozens of lines criss-crossing the globe, and deal with the headaches (and astronomical cost) of micro-managing every one? These are the thoughts that keep me up at night.
There are microtransactions, but you'd do well to ignore them. A rail line built on real-cash would be horribly inefficient (thus requiring more real cash), and what'd be the fun in that anyway? Pocket Trains is available for free on your Android (Google Play) or iOS (App Store) devices.