Growing up, I spent many afternoons after school at my Dad’s office. During the MS-DOS era this wasn’t much of an issue, because you could get your games to run on pretty much anything. But when Windows 3.1 reared its head, there weren’t that many games to be found on serious computers. Except for Solitaire and Minecraft. Solitaire whiled away many hours, but I needed more to keep me entertained. So I taught myself Minesweeper.
Many of my friends thought that Minesweeper was a game of luck, where you made several guesses to try find the bombs before eventually the game resulted in a loss. While it probably would have been much faster to open the help and read a manual, I got down to working out the game’s various signs and symbols for myself and I was hooked. Soon I was blazing through puzzles, trying to see how quickly I could finish the hardest ones.
Now many years later, I am playing Hexceed instead and I am reliving that gorgeous feeling of discovery, logic and pattern recognition all over again. Developed by ToastieLabs and available for free with a very generous selection of puzzles, trying it out turned out to be one of the nicest little surprises of this year. Apparently, I have spent some 25 hours with Hexceed and I just finished every free level, so now I am only too happy to fork out some money for more levels, and I know even more are on the way soon.
Hexceed is a lot like Minesweeper, but with some important caveats. For starters, the grid is hexes instead of squares, meaning a tile could have between zero and six bombs around it, a big jump from zero to four. But that isn’t the only change. besides giving you irregular shaped levels to solve, Hexceed isn’t generating a bunch of bombs to a grid and leaving you to puzzle it out. Each puzzle is specially crafted with small nods and hints to keep you going, and little milestones to help you out as you solve things.
Instead of just having a number in a cell to tell you how many bombs are adjacent, the game slowly introduces new symbols as you progress. Instead of a cell telling you there is one adjacent bomb, it might tell you there are two bombs in a 2 cell wide radius, or 3 bombs in a line of cells. Little walls can break line of sight for some of these markers, while others ignore walls for telling you about danger or where somewhere is free to explore.
Some cells have a little shield on them, which counts down each time you correctly identify a mine. Get rid of the shield and you have a cell somewhere else to chip away at a puzzle. Often these cells are the only way to get enough information to continue without making a blind guess.
What I love about Hexceed is hitting a bomb isn’t a game over. The game beeps at you and you carry on, knowing you made a mistake. Unless you make another mistake shortly after that, there is no penalty, just a small ‘whoops’ as you realise you misclicked or you missed a vital piece of information and picked the wrong cell. Repeated mistakes remove a small amount of your progress, but the game doesn’t ever taunt you about it.
Completing puzzles makes me feel calm as you turn a massive level into tiny chunks that you are capable of managing. Get stuck in one spot? Then check if you unlocked a guarded cell somewhere that could help you. Having set start points means the game can guide you and as the various lessons become second-nature to you, I could see how the puzzles were guiding me in pretty much the same way a good level designer would in a stealth game or a platformer. Certain number combinations and placements meant the same thing would happen, and knowing where approximately a bomb had to be meant I could clear up the negative space around it until I could pinpoint the threat.
All the different markings in the cells started having the same effect on me as complex 3D games. Arrows marking a line of cells had the same connotation as a well lit, high up place with a handy yellow bar telling me I could climb up there. A cone of where bombs could be found was like being able to ‘see’ through a wall with The Last of Us’ hearing mechanic.
It is the closest I have ever come to feeling like I could look at the code in The Matrix and spot the lady in the red dress and I find myself playing a level or two during a coffee break, or when there isn’t enough time before making dinner to get into a long game that isn’t easy to put down immediately.
Hexceed is free on Steam, and the level packs are really cheap if you get pulled in. Come join me at looking at numbers and feeling like you can see the pieces of reality folding around your gaze as you solve puzzles. Or maybe that is just how I feel when I sit and play this game at 2 am.