Puzzles based on right-angled reflection

IMG_0003.PNGIn my previous post I discussed puzzles in which objects have to be guided to a goal by using various forms of reflection. All those puzzles attempted (with more or less success) to present a realistic physical environment. In this post I will present another class of puzzles that also is based on reflection, but implemented in a more abstract manner. In these games reflection is only possible in right angles, and the puzzle consists of placing diagonally oriented mirrors in such a way that an object (balls, or a beam of light) will be guided to the goal (or goals).

The following puzzles in the app store implement this approach (links redirect to iTunes):

IMG_0002.PNGLumen is made by high school student Bridger Maxwell, who got some news coverage in 2008 as he had built a custom-made multi-touch interface. Lumen already existed as a desktop game before he ported it to the iPhone.

The goal of the game is to direct a light-beam through all checkpoints in any order (see the screenshot at the top of this post for a typical set of checkpoints). To make it a bit more challenging, the checkpoints have a color, and the light beam has to match this color. To reach this goal, you are equipped with a laser beam that has to be positioned on the side of the board. You have to choose the color of the laser, and then reflect the beam around through the checkpoints using diagonal mirrors. To match the colors of the checkpoints, you can use filters that change the color of the laser beam. However, the number and kinds of changes of color are limited, so you’ll have to plan their usage wisely. As an example of the complexity that can arise, the solution to the puzzle at the top of this post is shown here to the left.

The game has an editor build in, and any puzzles you design can be submitted to the online repository. There is an active community producing puzzles, so currently there are over 2000 levels available. A selection of particularly good puzzles is stored inside the game, others can be easily downloaded from inside the application. The hard levels are challenging, though far from impossibly difficult. All in all, this is a polished offering with lots of puzzling pleasure.

IMG_0004.PNGBrain Puzzle is very similar to Lumen. There is also a beam of light that has to be guided through some waypoints by placing reflectors. Differently from Lumen, the start and end position of the beam is pre-set in this game and the number of reflectors that can be used is limited. Even stronger, all available reflectors have to be used, and all reflectors that are already fixed on the board at the start of the level also have to be used. The most interesting puzzles are the ones in which it is really easy to get directly to the goal, but then you are left with one reflector. Trying to find the roundabout route including the extra reflector is a nice challenge. It doesn’t get really difficult though, which is also impossible given the small board and the few variables that have to be considered.

IMG_0002.PNGBumper Ball also uses diagonal reflection, but different from the previous two games it is used here to change the direction of moving balls. The balls in Bumber Ball move unstoppable in orthogonal direction, either left-right or up-down, bumping between walls or other obstacles. By activating a reflector (i.e. the little green corners in the screenshot shown to the right), the direction changes from left-right to up-down, or vice versa. By using these reflectors, the ball (or multiple balls in many levels) have to be guided to the goal (the yellow ‘U’ in the bottom right).

There are various obstacles and other problems to be passed, making the puzzles rather tricky at times. All reflectors are only used once, and after a ball has bumped into one, the reflector vanished again (though you can, and often have to, set one immediately there again). Also, there is no free choice of placing the reflectors (as in the previous games), but you are given the places where reflectors might be placed (as indicated by the green corners). The puzzles are mostly about finding the right order of (re)activating the reflectors. That sounds limited—and it indeed does not allow for really hard puzzles—but there is a large variety of other special effect that keep it interesting.

Visually, Bumper Ball is clearly less polished then the other offerings, but the levels are extremely well designed. Each level has a ‘trick’, a particular theme that you have to understand to be able to solve the puzzle. Once you got the trick, the level is mostly rather easily solved. However, getting the trick often evokes a really nice ‘aha’ effect, one of the hallmarks of great puzzle design. Often the name of the level also gives a hint. This approach makes for a really enjoyable puzzle-experience.

I only hope that the developers will refine the graphics, and also make it easier to place the reflectors. In many levels the timing of placing them is important, but it is rather difficult to correctly place them on the small screen of the iPhone. Still, this game was a pleasant surprise to me. From the looks, I did not expect it to be as enjoyable as it is. Don’t forget: a good puzzle is not about the polished graphics, it’s about the puzzle-structure and the level design!

[Update 7 March 2009] I have spend some more time looking for more background to these puzzles, because I expect the idea to have been around for much longer. I got a first hint through the flash game Reflections, which credits the game Aargon, originally published in 1999 by the company Twilight (sequels are still available from them). Although this puzzle likewise consists of a beam of light that has to be guided to a goal, the details seem different enough from the current iPhone games for them to be developed independently.

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2 Responses to “Puzzles based on right-angled reflection”

  1. bonfab Says:

    Twilight’s laser puzzle game Aargon has just been released on the iPhone to rave user reviews.

    Visit http://bonfab.com/aargon for more info and links to the App Store.

  2. Steve Verreault Says:

    I’m the original developer of Aargon. I’d like to make a few comments. First with regards to the origin of these sorts of games. When we originally developed Aargon we weren’t looking at any other laser games, but I did later discover that there were a few on a couple of different platforms. There was one that I think was called “mirror mirror” on Amiga, and I think another game for the the original ds. But the game-play in those titles, while having to do with reflections and light, is quite different. It’s a little like chess and checkers may look like similar games superficially. You both have square boards and eat pieces etc.. but if you play them you realize how different they are. The Aargon rule-set was quite different from those other games. Whether later games were inspired by Aargon I can’t say, but I think it’s possible that they were developed independently since the germ of the idea is certainly something I could see others coming up with. The real design aspect of the game is in the particular rules. (things like having to maintain all paths at once vs firing the laser and independently hitting several targets, or that crossed beams arent allowed etc..)

    WRT reflections, I believe that’s the only game that was a direct copy of Aargon right down to the specific puzzle designs and it was done initially without our permission. The credits were added to the game after I complained, but I did not ask them to take it down because it was a nice version and with the credit served as a little advertisement for the pc version.

    Lastly I’ll note that we have now also ported Aargon to iPhone. The game was released in the last few days. Look for it in the App store or visit bonfab.com/aargon for more info/videos etc…

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