We’ve been playing a small but charming puzzle title lately, called Action Sudoku, from Backstage. With 45,000 monthly active users on Facebook, it is one of a growing number of apps we have begun to see revolving around the decades-old puzzle game, Sudoku (pronounced soo-DOH-koo). But it stands out not just for social features, but because it gets some key details right.
Though the game itself was not popularized until 1986 by a Japanese puzzle company (Nikoli), it can actually be dated back to French newspapers during the 19th century. The basic concept is to fill a 9×9 board that is broken up into nine 3×3 sub-regions, with the numbers one through nine. However, each number can only appear once in each row, column, or sub-region.
Action Sudoku, follows these basic rules. However, it is a little different, in that it uses a few social gaming features. As players proceed through each puzzle, they can unlock new levels of difficulty by meeting different requirements (time, all time score, etc.). However, beyond this, players can form teams with friends to create a cumulative score in order to earn special titles and rewards. Unfortunately, the total score is rather high, and we’ve yet to earn that level of mastery.
Individually, players are also granted daily income, Coins, that are used to play each level, and buy power ups, such as hints each round. Obviously, these play a big role in assisting the player in earning the highest possible score (this is also improved by speed and making few mistakes – i.e. trying to place a number that is within the same column, row, or sub-region). Moreover, there are occasional bonus sub-regions that appear that grant extra points per cell for a limited time.
Of course, all this extra game play and even the social outlets (which also include leaderboards, challenges, and achievements) is, for this game, superfluous. What is truly worth taking away from it is the atmosphere. Backstage knows the game it is recreating: Calm, peaceful, and thought provoking. As such, the images and effects are subtle and not distracting. The sound effects are fitting with the Japanese theme. And the music is one of the few Facebook “scores” – as it were – that we don’t mute after a few minutes of playing.
In fact, this is something that requires some extra emphasis. More often than not, music in social games gets muted because it is some obnoxious sound loop that either (a) skips at the end of each loop or (b) is so bubbly and loud (for lack of a better description), that while it sounds good at first, it quickly gets old. Action Sudoku’s music, however, is very soft and truly helps the player focus on the task at hand. It almost coaxes thought along rather than being distracting, and frankly, without it, Action Sudoku wouldn’t be as interesting. It would just be another sudoku title but with basic social features.
However, why are there so many sudoku apps anyway? Just by typing in the word “sudoku,” one can find games such as Sudoku Stars, Challenge Sudoku, Sudoku Solver, Web Sudoku, and so on. The reason is simplicity, and though many of these games are a year, or more, old, that concept is worth bringing back to light.
For over a year now, social games have evolved and changed. They have become increasingly advanced, more complex and have greatly emulated the growth of mainstream gaming. However, the best games are those with rules that fit on less than a single sheet of paper – Chess, Othello, and Go name a few. These are games that have remained unchanged, at their core, for generations (some of them centuries). And while sudoku has not been around for quite that long, it is a puzzle game that is already pretty fun and for all intents and purposes, perfected. Backstage knows this, and rather than trying to create something from scratch, they took a simple concept and made it better.
Frankly, that is the lesson to take to heart about what is working in social gaming these days. It’s not about making something with ten tons of features, rules, and environments. It’s about making something with a few rules and features, and making each one shine brilliantly. Does Action Sudoku do this perfectly? No, of course not. However, it is still an excellent example on how simplicity can be improved and how little, subtle nuances can make an experience that much better.