When I browse around gaming forums and subreddits, I see a lot of people asking the same question:
“What are other games like _______?”
It’s a fair question, and it makes sense. People are generally aware of their own tastes, for the most part. However, without an understanding of why they like what they like, people have to instead make comparisons and just hope that’s good enough. People might call Borderlands a mashup of Diablo and Call of Duty. Unturned might be called a mashup of DayZ and Minecraft. But is the actual experience of playing any of those games really similar to the games they come from? Do you play Call of Duty for the same reasons you play Borderlands? What exactly does Unturned have to do with Minecraft? You could really go wrong making recommendations based on visual elements or theme when the primary driver of the experience is the rules of play. What you can and can’t do, what you’re asked to do, and how you decide to do those things are what shape the actual player experience much more than theming alone. With that in mind, I want to talk to you about a game where what you do is actually unlike anything else I’ve ever played – Auro: A Monster-Bumping Adventure by Dinofarm Games.
What is Auro?
Auro is exactly what it says in the title: a game in which you bump monsters around on a hexagonal grid in various ways and with various tools to one purpose – remove the monsters from the grid as efficiently as possible. It all starts with the basic bump, a simple tap that sends a monster away one hex tile and stuns it for its turn. Hey, there’s a pool behind it – sploosh! Monster gone. But here come two more, and you’ll need to deal with them more efficiently or take damage. Fortunately, you have at your disposal a number of rechargeable spells, up to five at a time, and two slots for single-use versions of the same spells. Instead of your usual fare of “different flavors of doing damage,” every single one of these spells is either a modifier for the bump, a consequence for the bump, or a different sort of bump altogether. Take, for example, the ice-spell Snowball, a spell that allows you to deliver a bump from range and freeze the target and everyone adjacent, which can include you! Oh, but that rat tried to damage you while you were frozen, did no damage, and wasted his attack, so that was good for you. Or take the aptly-named fire-spell Rotisserie, which rotates all adjacent monsters one tile around you and causes them to start trailing fire. And yes, you can bump monsters into fire to kill them that way as well. You could also use their new positioning to set up more bumps or merely run past them. Spells aren’t recharged over time but by walking over enough power tiles, which go dark when they’re collected. Each randomized board has a finite number of monsters to bump, dunk, burn, or ignore as you make your way from the left of the board to the right side. When you reach it, a teleporter will take you to the next board, which increments the difficulty by sending harder monsters after you. You repeat this process until you reach the score goal and win or run out of hit points and lose.
Now, all of this is fairly simple to understand and second nature once you get used to it. But the possibility space is anything but simple. All of the spells, effects, and even the monster abilities themselves are highly interactive, and playing well requires you to see those possibilities and expertly set them up to your advantage. You might, for example, lay down some ice with the Floe spell and then use Rotisserie to rotate someone onto the ice, which causes them to slip and slide all the way down the entire ice floe and into the water. Meanwhile, your spell slid another monster across the same ice in a different direction, and while he made it to dry land, he trails fire as he chases you. You promptly smack him back into the fire to kill him. In a completely different situation, you might trigger a Troggle to line up a charge at you, then cast Leap to jump out of the way just in time, leaving an air vortex behind. The Troggle accidentally kills another monster as he blindly charges through it, hits the air vortex, and sails through the air to land on and crush yet another hapless monster. Meanwhile your Leap spell caused you to land on a flyer who was hovering over the water, which dunks him and gives you another leap to safety, which sets you up to thank your Troggle friend with a Snowball to the face, sending him into the drink as well.
And then there my favorite monsters – the Jellies. These adorable, green mounds of pudding may be opposed to you, but having them around is often a blessing in disguise. Rather than damaging you, they have a bump of their own, and while they can certainly bump you off the stage, you can also use them to propel you forward and create distance between you and the more relentless monsters. Even more fun is the way they flatten out into a springboard when they get bumped. The first creature to walk over or land on them will get bounced through the air two tiles in the direction they were going. With enough slimes, things become a hilarious mess of ordered chaos as monsters start bouncing off slimes all over the place. You can even have monsters bounce onto your own head and give them the last alley-oop into the drink! Your first few Jelly-bounce kills will probably be by accident, but as you start to see what’s possible, you’ll start seeing them coming and setting them up on your own. There’s something both funny and satisfying about setting up a monster Rube Goldberg machine of bounces, bumps, and slides that gets a bunch of kills just the way you wanted it to.
Really, that’s what Auro is about: observing your current situation and coming up with a creative way to solve it. The randomized boards constantly thrust you into new situations, and when you find a situation that’s familiar, maybe this time you can solve it even better. That’s another thing that Auro does really well: it provides you clear feedback for how good your moves are, and it does so through its brilliant scoring system. The points you get for offing the monsters have nothing to do with what you’re killing but with how you are killing them. See, the game keeps a counter in the corner of the screen that represents how many points that you will get should you kill a monster right now. Every time you move or bump a monster, this number slowly ticks down. When you do get a kill, you not only get the points currently listed on the counter, but you also increment the counter quite a lot, making your next kill worth even more. This means that even killing the same set of creatures can give you very different point totals depending on how quickly you kill them. Good play is making successive kills rapidly with as few turns between as possible, whereas super conservative play that takes lots of time to draw out monsters and deal with them singly won’t give you many points. The scoring system is brilliant because it means that the moves that are the most awesome and the moves that are the highest scoring are the same thing. The game naturally pushes you toward the game play that is the most interesting, exciting, and sometimes downright silly.
A Clockwork Design
As a strategy game, Auro has a lot of small nuances that add up to a finely crafted game system and generate the dynamics of its game play. The first is the choice to use a hex grid instead of a square grid. Hexes already offer a great trade-off between freedom of movement and quantifying that movement as discrete spaces. They partner well with the fact that “passing” a turn by taking no action is not allowed. This is an intentional design decision – the game forces you to move instead of passively waiting for enemies to fall into your traps. Depending on the enemy spacing, you might be in position to spring your trap, or you might not! You need to carefully consider the distance the monster must travel and calculate what route you’ll have to take to be in the right place at the right time. Hexes help the player to do this by offering leeway in the route: by traveling a particular way, the player can arrive at his destination right on schedule – provided that the route is safe to travel!
Hexes are then incorporated into the entire design of the game. The Fire Trap spell lays down fire in a hexagonal pattern all around Auro, and the specific placement is such that adjacent monsters can’t be immediately pushed right into the fire – a flat, uninteresting strategy that the designers purposefully avoided. Instead, you’ll have to think a few steps ahead – Fire Trap is still extremely useful for creating choke points, and with a little set-up, you can make kills when there’s no water nearby. You just need to plan out the best way to use the fire to your advantage. Even the viewing area of the game board is a hexagon thanks to the UI, a very canny design element that ensures that you see the same distance in all directions. This is an important design choice when you consider that not knowing what’s coming is what makes certain actions risky – do you blow all your spells now for big points or do you save a little power for the off-screen monsters that are about to pursue you relentlessly?
Another design element that brings out a lot of depth is the concept of the power tile. Since your spells don’t recharge at all unless you pick up tiles, you’re incentivized to walk over them. The thing is, finding more of them generally means traveling forward on the board, which will wake up a few more monsters to deal with. While power tiles may look plentiful, the moment you see another monster on the board, you’re no longer able to move exactly how you want – you’ll need to take that monster into consideration, and sometimes that means giving more tiles a miss. Casting spells often makes you more powerful, and can get you high score totals when well executed, but it leaves you vulnerable afterward without your spells to help you. However, since collecting a single power tile decrements the cooldown of all your spent spells at once, having more spells on cooldown means each tile is more economical and you get to cast all your spells more often. It’s got a great risk/reward dynamic that takes good judgement to manage properly. Even after you deal with all the monsters on the board, going backwards to pick up more power tiles means more turns not killing anything, which drains your score multiplier. Sometimes you will have to sacrifice your score multiplier to take that time-out, but leaving the level also gives you a bit more progress towards the next tier of score multiplier. There’s a three-way tension going on all the time, a tension between your spell cooldowns, your hit points, and your score. Ultimately, the score is the most important, but if you shirk on the other two, you’ll find yourself unable to generate any more points due to lack of spells or just dying and losing entirely. You’ll have to make tense decisions about when to sacrifice what for what else, and that tension exists on basically every move you make. See, for as cute and innocent as Auro might look, it’s deceptively intense as you get to higher levels of play.
Now, don’t let this convince you that Auro is all hard all the time and too intense for you. Auro does something completely outstanding with it’s main play mode to ensure that the game, while challenging, isn’t crushingly hard to any particular individual. When you play your first (non-tutorial) game, Auro has you play a placement match. Depending on how well you do, you’ll receive a ranking to reflect your skill. This rank determines the difficulty of the game and the target score to reach when you play subsequent matches. Furthermore, when you win, you receive points towards increasing your rank and graduating to a higher difficulty. Losing ranked matches will lose you points, so if the game gets too hard and you start losing often, the game will readjust its difficulty to fit your skill. This is maybe the best part of the entire game – it gives you both a reasonable short-term goal for each match and a clear long-term measurement of your growing skill. I’ve previously written about how unbounded high-score goals tend to do undesirable things to a game’s strategy. Auro solidly fixes those problems by always giving you a reasonable score goal that causes a win-state. No longer do you have to wait for the game to give you the perfect random seed before you get to have a chance to beat your previous best score. Now you get to play the game every time! Rather than rating your skill on one-time high scores, it judges your ability to consistently score well, adjusting its expectations of you up or down as needed. It’s like a competitive ladder for single-player games, a mechanism that gives you very clear feedback for your skill. On top of this, you can get win-streaks that give you more momentum towards increasing your rank, but your rate of point loss for losing remains static. This means that there’s a slight push towards higher ranks. If you’re between two skill ranks, Auro prefers to keep you in the higher one, and it accelerates you out of ranks beneath your ability. It gives you the hardest reasonable challenge it can to provide opportunities to grow in skill and help you to rank even higher. It also stops giving you easy boards that you’ve proven you can effortlessly clear and instead skips right to the ones that you may struggle with. Most of all, it keeps games reasonably short, whereas in a high-score game, higher and higher scores-to-beat usually mean longer and longer games, Auro can increase the difficulty of the board arrangements themselves by sending tougher combinations of monsters at you, which makes the game harder even as the target score goes down! This one, simple idea fixes so many problems with single-player games – like game length, consistency of skill, and dependence on random seeds – that it’s hard to overstate how awesome it is.
Auro also solves another problem found in other games, and it makes a perhaps controversial design choice to do so: of the nine spells that exist in the game, you get five of them per game, and you do not choose which ones – they are randomized. While you’re guaranteed to get one ultimate spell (a very powerful skill with a longer cooldown) amongst the five, you have to go with whatever spells you’re given. You can’t just pick your favorite load-out. While this design choice seems to fly in the face of the common wisdom that players like to customize their game, I think that Auro teaches us something new: sometimes players need a little bump out of their strategic comfort zone. When you ask players to make performance-related choices, they tend to make choices that they think will help them to win (again, see: burden of optimal play). So if you had asked players to choose spells in Auro, what would’ve happened was that most players would’ve found a comfortable set of five spells, and they would’ve just stuck with that setup of spells without exploring any unfamiliar ones. After all, why should they use the spells that they aren’t very good at? Now, that doesn’t necessarily mean that the spells that aren’t being picked are bad – they may in fact just be harder for one player or another to understand how to use strategically. By ignoring those spells, those people would’ve gotten a less rich strategy game experience from Auro and missed out on huge parts of the complicated web of interactions that make it great. So instead of letting players choose a worse experience, the designers give players spell combinations that they’d ordinarily never choose. With only nine spells in the game, players are still likely to get at least one or two spells they’re comfortable using, and when faced with no other recourse but to use unfamiliar spells, players will start to make discoveries about those unfamiliar spells and master them after all. This very thing happened to me with the Fire Trap spell. At first, I couldn’t wrap my mind around a spell that I couldn’t use to immediately make a kill. Then, when I was down to just that spell, I started learning how you could use it to funnel monsters into lines and how effective it was against the mostly stationary Lich monsters (who were otherwise very hard to deal with!). Not only did this ultimately improve my performance despite myself, but it introduced me to strategic depth I would’ve otherwise missed. I’m going to call that a win for Auro’s design.
It’s a win because the spell combinations are what give Auro its variety and depth. Nine spells is a modest number in comparison to the excess that you tend to see in contemporary video games. Despite that, just those nine spells get tons of strategic mileage. A big reason for that is the fact that each individual spell can be used in multiple ways and for multiple purposes, even just by itself. Using the spell puts it on cooldown, so when you choose the way you’re going to use it, that means necessarily giving up the other ways it could’ve benefited you. This is a classic, efficient way to maximize the strategic depth of player abilities: your choices cause you to necessarily give up other things you could’ve chosen. The feedback loop is well paced so that you can watch the results of your actions play out before you return to the state where you can make that choice again (i.e. your spell recharges). Turn-based game play was certainly the best choice to bring that to the fore and maximize the clarity of the cause-effect relationship of players’ actions. Each turn, you get all the time you need to parse each new game state and process how what you did got you to where you are. As you get better at choosing the right use for your spells, you start to see what you could accomplish using spell combinations, and you’re all the more aware of what you’re giving up to do so. The spells themselves are considered “free actions” – monsters don’t get turns as you use them, and your score multiplier doesn’t deplete. This makes it much more intuitive to see and plan spell combinations, and it ensures that if you’re willing to spend the spells, nothing will stop you from accomplishing a well-planned combination. The elasticity of score informs you of how ultimately good your moves were, since the goal isn’t just to kill monsters, but to do so with very little space between kills. One way of clearing the board isn’t necessarily as good as another, and choosing progressively better methods provides you a clear path for improvement. The scoring itself is very tightly controlled by the designers – rather than inflating score needlessly into six to ten figures, it uses intuitive numbers like one through four. Its mechanical purpose is to cap potential score earnings at four, meaning that you can’t get too much score from a setup that generated very favorably to you. This is necessity for the procedurally-generated boards, but it also serves to make the game communicate more intuitively. Human beings have lots of trouble conceptualizing large numbers, so the smaller the numbers, the more we can instinctively understand them. The Auro designers understood this and used the smallest numbers they could that kept the game play intact. All of these elements combine to give Auro a clarity that makes it play so naturally.
Having this level of clarity is essential for Auro because it plays so differently from other games. The designers ditched the tired idea of killing monsters by depleting their hit point bars, and deprogramming players from that assumption can make the first few steps toward understanding the game a little slow. The largest part of the game’s interactions will undoubtedly come out through observation during play, and the theming of the game is quite good at communicating otherwise very strange rules. Converting a no-monster zone into a temporary monster-zone sounds a little weird until you conceptualize it as putting ice over water, which will eventually melt, and doubly so for when that heavy monster crashes through the ice! Even still, getting a good foundation is a necessary first step, especially for concepts of the ice floe and the vortex. To that end, Auro relies on an online manual, accessible from the app. Ideally, the manual would be unnecessary, and requiring one is the price you pay for exploring new mechanical territory. Ultimately Auro is worth the price of admission of having to read the rules, even if more familiar games don’t usually require it.
Speaking of the price of admission, Auro is a $2.99 paid app on mobile. It’s a bold move to release a mobile game that’s not free-to-play (actually, these days that’s bold for any platform). I appreciate the boldness, because free-to-play could’ve caused significant damage to the game. I mean let’s face it: any game where there’s a bar to fill up (rank in this case), there’s a temptation to sell players a bar-increaser-filler-upper-faster. The developers avoided this, however, because it’s not about finding the best way to monetize – it’s about making the best possible game. I always appreciate it when a developer focuses on creating value first. Auro is a strategy game first and foremost. You can see it in the way it’s monetized. You can see it in the way the bits of monster dialogue are often focused on telling the player what’s happening mechanically. Auro doesn’t apologize for what it is by adding a grand, sweeping narrative – it focuses on its core and serves its audience well.
Making it Look Easy
It’s a rare thing to see a single-player game with a lot of long-term strategic depth. Most single-player experiences boil down to finding a single path to victory, more or less a puzzle to solve that can be won the exact same way every time. This isn’t to decry the puzzle necessarily, but instead to highlight how difficult single-player strategy games are to make. Most developers reserve that type of game to multiplayer titles, relying on the variety of human opponents to continually challenge players. Rarer still is the single-player strategy game that doesn’t rely on unfair randomness, like dice rolls to resolve attacks. Despite all this, Auro manages to accomplish these rare feats and makes it seem so easy that you wonder why anyone didn’t think of this before. In a way, Auro is like a statement: “This is what video games could be.” It makes a strong case for deterministic player abilities. It’s fast, easy to play, and doesn’t mess around or waste time. It doesn’t rely on any artificial motivators like leveling systems or loot drops to prop up the game play. It just is, and that’s enough. To say that Auro is “good” seems not strong enough of a statement. To call Auro “a virtuoso piece,” while true, somehow seems too pompous. I think the most honest, down-to-earth statement I can make is that I would, without reservation, recommend Auro to anybody.