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Just a Peek - Games for the Mind: Sudoku & WordSmith


- June 23rd, 2006

I'm getting old.

I guess it is inevitable; time, as we are constantly reminded, marches inexorably on, and there is little beyond the occasional face lift and tummy tuck that anyone can do about it.

Every day I'm reminded how old I am: I feel embarrassed looking at attractive young women because they are my daughter's age (I look anyway), I have grey hair in places I would have never thought any hair, much less grey hair, could grow before, and my choices of snacks now include granola bars and others with higher fiber content.

Mentally, however, I feel almost as sharp as I did 20 years ago. Scientist say that exercising the grey matter can do a lot to ward off or delay much of the natural mental deterioration that comes with age. Just as staying fit physically can help you look years younger, so will staying mentally fit help you think years younger.

There must be something to it because there are a whole slew of products out now to give the brains of aging Baby Boomers a workout.

Nintendo, for instance, has recently released Brain Age and Big Brain Academy, both are games, of sorts, for the company's portable DS game system designed to get you thinking, which, in turn, gets your synapses firing, blood to the brain flowing, and new brain cells growing. I've seen Brain Age advertised in Popular Science, Time, and other mainstream magazines read by Boomers, and it is apparently a hit.  

If you are feeling a bit rusty, mentally, but would rather sweat your psyche while sitting in front of your Mac, you may be in luck; I've stumbled across two brain teasers from Dracosoft that could be just what you need to pump you up, intellectually speaking.

Woohoo, Sudoku!

Unless you've become mentally divergent and have been existing in another plane for the past year, you can't help but notice the increasing popularity of a puzzle game called Sudoku. The game has been around for years in various forms, including those that use letters or other shapes instead of numbers, but the basic theme is the same: The object is to arrange the numbers so that no number appears twice in either row, column or quadrant (the nine squares that subdivide the puzzle board). Each puzzle starts out with some of the spaces filled in, your task is to fill in the rest. It sounds easy, and, once you get the hang of it, it is. Harder puzzles have less given numbers, which increase the possibilities for each remaining space. And, of course, there are timed puzzles too.

Dracosoft's Sudoku

Dracosoft's Sudoku is a good Mac adaptation of the game, offering you thousands of puzzles, 3 levels of play, and 3 modes from which to choose your difficulty. I've only been playing Sudoku for a few weeks now, so when I took Dracosoft's version for a spin I opted for the easy level. Once I figured out what I was doing and had come up with some strategies for solving puzzles, I was ready to move on the the 'Normal' level. The 'Hard' level is just that; trust me.

The three modes add some interesting twists: The Classic Mode is the standard 3x3 quadrant setup. In the Random Mode, the 3x3 quadrants are mutilated such that the 9 spaces in each quadrant intrude into other quadrants, but the space are contiguous, making it a bit tougher to determine which number should go where. The Chaos Mode scatters the nine spaces for each of the nine quadrant all over the grid. You must rely on the color of the space to know which quadrant you are working with at any given time. If playing the Chaos Mode at the Hard Level doesn't stretch your noodle then you either drool in your pabulum when not showing off your savant skills, or Mensa has an opening for you on its Board of Directors.

While Dracosoft's Sudoku is colorful, easy to use, and fun, but it could be a lot better.

When working a Sudoku puzzle on paper many players will mark up the empty squares with the numbers that might be used in those spaces. There are several systems of marking spaces; for instance, the 9-Dot system uses the position of a set of nine dots, arranged 3x3, to note which number to possibly use in a space, a dot in a particular position represents a number from 1 thru 9. Dragonsoft's Sudoku offers no such help in the game. This is a let-down especially since the version of Sudoku that I play on my cellphone has an automatic and manual note system built in to the game; and my cellphone version only cost me 6 bucks!

Speaking of paper, another nicety would be the ability to print out or export a puzzle. There are times when I just like to sit and think about nothing specific, and I find that Sudoku is a wonderful way to pass some time. A means of exporting the puzzle you are current solving would make this version a must have. I can only hope the Dracosoft includes this feature in the next version.

If you find that Sudoku is more confusing than fun don't bother going out to the Dracosoft Web site, there is literally nothing there to help you figure out the game. Luckily, however, there is a whole host of sites around the Web that offer Sudoku how-tos and strategies (Wikipedia has an excellent entry on Sudoku that includes hisotry and strategies). Still, running out to a Web site is a bit inconvenient and it would be nice if Dracosoft's Sudoku included more than one page of instruction. Again, my cellphone version includes boatloads of instructions offered by a little Japanese woman (she doesn't move, but she is very talkative), so I'm not understanding why Dracosoft is so economic with words.

I do like that Dracosoft decided not to include music with the game; I much rather listen to my iTunes library while playing.

I could ding Dracosoft's Sudoku for everything it doesn't have, which is a lot. I won't, though, because the basic game is there and the modes do add variety that you may not find in other versions. The game does feel more like a beta release, however, than a completed product, and that's its biggest fault.

Words Aren't Necessary. Well...

Dragonsoft's other potential mental muscle maker is WordSmith. If you've ever played Boggle or Scrabble then you have an idea how Wordsmith is played: You start off with 7 lettered tiles and you have to make a word that's at least 3 letters long with them. When you make a word you get points and new tiles. The process continues until you've made 25 words or, in the Timed Mode, until your time runs out. The object is the get the highest score.


Some letters have multipliers, so using them can really give your score a boost. If you manage to use more than 4 letters to make a word you get a bonus, but I haven't a clue how much of a bonus you'll get; again, Dracosoft is light on the instructions.

For instance, there are 3 buttons along the bottom of the play screen: 'Shuffle' will shuffle the displayed tiles, 'Drop Hand' will trash your current set of tiles and give you new ones, and 'Wordsmith' will create a word for you. Nowhere is it said that using the 'Drop Hand' button will dock your score by 300 points, or that using the 'Wordsmith' button will cost you the points the word that was created would have gotten if you had made it yourself. Neither is there any mention that you can click the little grey down arrows under a letter to discard it, or that doing so will debit your score a whopping 100 points.

OK, so these buttons were not so tough to figure out, but a brief mention of what gets affected when you use them wouldn't hurt. I'm sure that stretching the instruction page by 100 words more wouldn't have cost the developers anything but a little more time.  

Wordsmith's instruction page isn't the only place where the developers were stingy with words, the Wordsmith dictionary is woefully lacking as well. Simple words like 'swag', 'quad', and 'hey' are missing. There are more, I found several while playing the timed game and didn't remember to write them down. It is extremely aggravating to enter a word you know should be valid and find that the game won't accept it.

Wordsmith does let you add a word singly, and there is apparently a way to add a dictionary of words, but, once again, there are no instructions for how to do it. Out on the product site a FAQ explains that the next version of Wordsmith will have an improved dictionary and better ways of adding words. I sincerely hope so, a dictionary adequate for a Rhodes Scholar in not necessary, but one that would give a high schooler a decent challenge would improve Wordsmith immensely.

Once again Dracosoft seems to have been in a rush to make this game available. While the improvement needed to make this game shine are minor, they are, unfortunately, essential to elevate Wordsmith from a snoozer to a real challenge.

The Bottomline

So, after playing these two games from Dracosoft did I get a mental workout? Only in wondering why the developers decided to release two potentially stellar games too soon; the games feel unfinished, lacking polish, and have only the least amount of refinement. Dracosoft's Sudoku is usable as it is, but sorely needs some of the most basic features other computer based Sudoku games offer. Wordsmith is the lesser of the two though it could be as much fun as pricier word games if it just had a decent dictionary. And both games really could use more instructions.

There is potential in Dracosoft's Sudoku and Wordsmith, but until Dracosoft comes out with new versions of both games I'll  go sweat my grey matter elsewhere.  

Don't cross Dracosoft off your list of Mac games makers just yet, they do offer an absolutely addictive game called Avalache that may not strain your brain, but is a blast to play.

Review Item Sudoku
Manufacturer DracoSoft
Price US$9.99 Each
Any Mac running
OS X 10.2 or later

is a writer who currently lives in Orlando, FL. He's been a Mac fan since Atari Computers folded, but has worked with computers of nearly every type for 20 years.

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