Against all odds, we've fallen in love with this empire building game.
Enjoying Puzzle Craft? Check out our guide to this magnificent game!
Everything about AT Games' Puzzle Craft should leave me feeling deflated beyond measure: it's an empire building game (boo!), it's a paid-for game with an in-app purchase store tacked on as well (jeer!), and it's sprinkled with those ticking progress timers that make you wonder what on earth you're doing with your life (hiss!).
And yet while Puzzle Craft commits all of these well-established sins, its balance is so exquisitely refined that it can't fail to melt the heart of even the most jaded in-app purchase gamer, an audience I have to count myself a member of.
Let's start with the basics. This is a hybrid of the sort of empire-building game every man and his dog has played on his mobile at some point by now, mixed with the match-three gameplay of great titles like Dungeon Raid, where you have to draw a line through three or more icons to bring home a reward.
There's a wide range of base ingredients that need to be gathered if you're to grow your kingdom. In the farm, you can match up wheat to make bread, gather trees to make lumber and so on. Over at the mine you need to hew stone and iron from the earth so you can create more buildings. Different expansion types require different combinations of materials, so you'll need to farm specifically for your next growth spurt.
This immensely satisfying farming exercise would be worthy of high praise by itself, but where Puzzle Craft really triumphs is not just in the superb execution of the individual empire and puzzle components, it's in the way the game layers such a complex web of interactions together.
To improve efficiency in both farming and mining, you can create tools to clear out some of the less useful materials in each grid, but crafting these will subtract from the total materials you need to create new buildings elsewhere. It also costs money to put laborers to work on each puzzling attempt, and you only get a certain number of moves per 'season'. This introduces a level of strategy we've not enjoyed before in the genre.
And in giving only the briefest overview of how these systems work, we haven't even begun to scratch at the depth of freedom Puzzle Craft offers: hiring different sorts of employees gives you different performance bonuses in the fields and pits, for example, and there's even a hint of Triple Town as you build match-threes upon match-threes to open up even more complex materials.
Nothing goes to waste either, as you can head to the market to sell off any unwanted goods, and then reinvest the rewards back into the kingdom. This is a fabulous, free-flowing match-three puzzler where your performances have real consequences, and there's not even a hint of pressure to head to the cash store.
We still have niggles admittedly. It's possible to lengthen the seasons and have more turns at each attempt, but it takes a while to gain access to the necessary upgrades. Those less accustomed to move-limited match-three games will get frustrated at the brevity of the puzzle gameplay in the early days. Equally frustrated will be those who relish the opportunity for a deeper strategy, but find their attempts ending all too quickly.
Persevere though, because as well as being an outstanding game, Puzzle Craft is a wonderful example of how to attract the casual, the hardcore, the cynical, and even the most bitter cash-for-progress gamers of the world together. I am addicted to an empire-building game, and if you've read even a fraction of my previous polemic against the genre, you will know by now that this is the highest accolade I could ever bestow on the game.
What's Hot: An excellent blend of empire building and match-three strategy, with the most inoffensive pay-to-win model we've seen for a long time.
What's Not: The starting pace may be a little slow if you're familiar with either genre.