Zach Gage’s SpellTower marries Bookworm’s Boggle-style word finding with Tetris-like pressure to clear tiles. The particular tweaks to this basic formula allow some wonderful dynamics to emerge. I expect to be playing for a long time.
Simplicity rules the day everywhere in SpellTower: clean presentation, minimal but satisfying sounds and a short ruleset. You make words by linking letters in any direction, including diagonally. Words must be at least three letters long, and may not have been used previously. Q, J, X and Z are such difficult letters that if you make any word with them, the entire row in which they occur disappears. Some squares are black–these disappear when adjacent letters disappear. Words of five or more letters clear each letter adjoining the word. Finally, letters can have a number in the corner–such letters can only be used in words of that many letters or more. All of this is conveyed clearly in a brief tutorial.
SpellTower has four play modes: Tower, Puzzle, Ex Puzzle and Rush. Tower never adds letters. Puzzle and the similar, but more difficult, Ex Puzzle add a row of letters whenever a word is matched. Rush, by far my favorite mode, adds news rows at a constant rate (subtly but effectively tracked by a thin bar along the side of the field of play).
What makes SpellTower shine is the way simple restrictions create interesting emergent patterns. The restriction to words not already used, for example, pushes the player to broaden his or her active vocabulary and inherently limits the length of a game (though the ratio of black blocks and numbered blocks also increases over time, accelerating this). An even better example is the effect of Q, J, X and Z and five-plus-letter words. Since letters on the border have fewer neighbors, and therefore fewer opportunities to join in words, it’s not uncommon for one or both sides to be the highest towers on the board. A few successive bad draws on either side can make it very difficult to find a word over there.
Because it’s possible to clear blocks on the sides with the tough letters or long words in the middle, the player is actually incentivized to avoid clearing out the center as fast as possible. If you’ve played Puzzle Fighter (well, Super Puzzle Fighter II Turbo, probably the greatest name in the history of gaming), you’ve seen this dynamic before: by accepting some obvious little risks, you gain the power to make bigger plays which can actually give you more ability to control the big risks which tend to end games. It’s a delightful tension and helps greatly in keeping you feeling like it would have been possible to manage that set of bad letter draws, if only you’d kept some more resources around.
Game Center leaderboards may help keep some people interested, but I tend to find achievements more effective and lament their absence here. It’s also unfortunate that the dictionary isn’t perfect. To put that problem in perspective, there were several words which I knew were correctly spelled that the game didn’t accept, but I’ve forgotten what words they were because I couldn’t bring myself to pause the game long enough to write them down, nor help myself from playing another game immediately afterward.
The developer made a marvelous decision to do as much as possible to get out of the way of the gameplay. I experienced no crashes or glitches, and never had trouble navigating the interface or understanding what was going on. I’m not surprised that Boggle could be improved, but I would not have predicted the extent to which Gage’s tweaks to the conventions of Tetris added to the experience without complicating it or feeling forced. It’s a little sad not to see something overarching to work towards, like achievements or RPG elements, but the joy of simply exploring SpellTower’s depth goes a long way toward easing that concern.
Review copy of the game provided by publisher.