educational


Chain Factor is a new kind of puzzle game where you drop numbered/gray discs onto a game board, where it sticks, disappears, explodes, causes chain reactions, and all kinds of other exciting things. The game rules are like none I’ve seen before, and there’s three different modes plus a leaderboard already, even though it’s technically pre-BETA.

Chain Factor is looking for play testers to prepare for a BETA launch – give it ago. Math can be strangely addictive.

Play The Chain Factor.

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  • Don’t even think of cross pollinating until you’ve bought the first soil upgrade.
  • Keep a copy of all the original seeds.
  • Keep an extensive log of all cross pollinations. Make a family tree.
  • The first part of a plant’s name is the fruit/flower, and the second part is the stalk/body.
  • You can run the nursery while the game is paused.
  • Shopping: soil before water. Everything else is negligible.
  • Your rarest seeds will survive in the cheapest water and most expensive soil if you check on it often enough to check for infestations.
  • Water your plants up to the “A” and no more.
  • Go ahead and fiddle with your windows clock. Just keep all your times within 12 hours and in the PM/AM, and don’t crossover. If you’re not careful you could end up with a lot of dead plants.
  • Clicking on the tap in the main screen gives you in-game hints.

General walkthrough:

Plant all the first seeds, pollinate each to get a “pure” copy of each seed. Figure out which one will sell for the most money, and start mass producing. Once you have $850, buy the new soil. Cross pollinate and find the next most expensive breed. Save enough for the next soil upgrade. Continue until you have third generation “rare” seeds and the third soil and water upgrades, as well as the extra seed boxes. After that, cross-pollinate like crazy – just keep notes, k? You’ll regret it later if you don’t.

Plant Tycoon Review
Plant Tycoon Helper 1.0

I waited for the release of Plant Tycoon with baited breath. In 2002, when I had a palm pilot (I’ve since migrated to the PPC), I was obsessed with my virtual plants. I would water them on the subway, check them on the bus, cross-pollinate after rehearsal, and sell my plants while working behind the desk at an uptown cybercafe. When I poured coffee on the entire thing I was in shock and didn’t speak for an entire evening – mostly because I lost my Palm Pilot, but I was secretly grieving for my plants. It was a matter of time before the game would move on to a bigger screen with more detailed graphics, and time it did take. It took 5 years.

The core game of Plant Tycoon hasn’t changed much, to tell the truth. You have 3 rows of 5 pots in your little greenhouse. Into these pots go soil, water, and seed, sometimes fertilizer. As time goes by (and slowly, it does, unless you manipulate your PC’s clock – but that would be cheating, wouldn’t it?), your plants will shoot, and after some more time, they will bud. Here’s where things get interesting: when your plants are fully mature, you can start pollinating. Plants in Plant Tycoon have set of genetics for each seed. When you cross-pollinate, you create new kinds of plants that are “unknown” species until they are fully mature. The goal is to create 6 special “magic” plants. There are over 500 possible varieties. There are no hints as to what these plant varieties could be. Good luck. 🙂

Once your plants produced seeds (or not – you don’t HAVE to pollinate) you can save them to your seed box to be planted later. You can place tags on your plants to sell them in the nursery or trash them to make room. If you destroy your original plants by accident, you can always buy stock seeds from the Supplies store. It restocks once a day in case of accidents.

What I’m saying is, you better get a screen grabber and a pen and pencil ready, because in order to make this more than just trial and error, you will be taking a LOT of notes. One of the features on my wish list for the PC version of Plant Tycoon was a full family tree, or genealogy chart, as you go on through generations. What LDW gave us, however, is the same info given in the mobile Plant Tycoon – you will find out about each seed’s parents as you click on them, and that’s about all it’s going to give you. The rest? Write it down. You’ll regret it later if you don’t. One really “missing” feature is the names of plants being displayed when you click on a seed, after it has been planted and should be in a family tree. The images don’t really help much, to tell the truth.

A lot of the old features carried over: more expensive soil and water is a necessity for your fragile cross-pollinated plants, decorations brings in more customers, etc. The soil system works quite well, but I always found the nursery decorations to be little more than vanity buys. Your customers will eventually buy all your plants if you leave them there long enough, regardless of whether there are enough of them.

Since Plant Tycoon is so closely modeled after the original, it’s really the little things they added to the game that really makes it shine. In the old game, you used to have to drag the soil from the bag every time you pot, and drag and drop every tool as well. This is greatly improved by the new system where you only have to click on the soil once to pick it up, and use it multiple times before putting it back. I’m not sure if I like the new watering system that simulates the time factor in watering a plant, but some may enjoy the simulation of, uh…watering. (This is coming from someone who enjoys the simulation of plant growing because she has a black thumb, btw.) I love the Latin naming system – it’s a lot easier to keep track of my plants now!

The HUD hasn’t changed much. The old HUD was very well designed for a handheld device, but a straight transfer to PC made it look pretty cumbersome. A better approach would be having all of the specific plant related activities attached to the plant by pop-up menus. It would certainly make pollination easier. There are a lot of quirks from the old menu that was simply there because of space constraints – for example, the handy seed box only holds 8 seeds, which is a very odd number considering that there are 15 pots. Also, now that we’re on the PC, why are we restricted to 15 pots? You can get extra tanks in Fish Tycoon, so why not extra nurseries in Plant Tycoon?

Plant Tycoon adapted the Virtual Villagers collection game, with a bug net that can catch bugs as you see them going by. This works well in theory, but in reality you’d be watching your plants a lot less than your villagers. The chances of you collecting all of those bugs are pretty low, unless you spend a lot of time watching your plants.

Here we come to the core problem of Plant Tycoon. Plant Tycoon is a real time game, like the much-lauded and popular Virtual Villagers series, as well as Fish Tycoon (which all came out technically AFTER Plant Tycoon, since Plant Tycoon is more of a re-make for PC than it is a sequel of any sort). The only issue with that is, of course, that plants are very much unlike people and fish. Watching fish swim is mildly amusing. Watching people can be very entertaining. Watching plants grow is like, well, how should we put it – as much fun as watching grass grow? It was perfectly acceptable in a mobile game since it was mobile – it was a matter of whipping out the Palm to check on my plants to see if they budded yet and nurse them like my pets, but quite another to load up a program on the computer to do the same.

The only way this could’ve worked is if it was an interactive screensaver. Which it isn’t. Another way would be an active desktop extension; which isn’t there either.

Aside from a major graphical update – my, the plants are absolutely gorgeous! – and the ability to prune your plants of dead leaves, Plant Tycoon doesn’t stray far from the original. In my opinion, that may be just as well – the original was such a great addicting game, so why change near-perfection? It is definitely still one of my favorite games, and one to keep on my computer for posterity. It doesn’t exactly promote organic plant growing aside from one mention of “Bio-organic Plant Food” in the supplies, but it’s a great learning tool for patience. It only takes a few minutes to play at a time, and the problem is that a few minutes is all you’re going to get before you have to wait a few hours again.

So I do recommend Plant Tycoon, but with a warning: If you didn’t like Fish Tycoon, you’re not going to like this either.

Plant Tycoon Hints
Plant Tycoon Helper 1.0

Trevor Chan’s Capitalism 2 is hands-down the best simulation game I have ever played. Please notice that there were no categories mentioned in that last sentence: it is the best simulation game I have ever played, out of any category you can think of. It is an accurate free-market economy simulation that allows you to control a company from the agricultural, mining, manufacturing, real estate, trading, wholesale, retail, as well as the stock market sector. It is a complete overview of how capitalism works.

Somehow, through it all, Capitalism 2 makes it easy to pick up, simple to learn, and really, really hard to drop. It manages to have no pretenses about the products that you can choose to sell (by making it funny like some tycoon games try to do) or throw in extra animations and story elements to make it interesting, but comes through as an addictive game by the strength of the gameplay alone. Now, let’s tackle the details: there are many.

The most successful enterprises (President’s Choice comes to mind) tackles the entire chain of production to eliminate competition and lower the prices of the raw products. So, let’s say you want to sell cans of soda pop. You can choose to buy soda pop from 1) your competition in town who manufactures it 2) your competition overseas who are shipping it to your local seaport, or 3) buy sugar and aluminum and manufacture it yourself and the cheapest of all 5) farm your own sugar, mine your own aluminum, sell it to your own factories at cost, then manufacture it to sell exclusively to your own stores. Once you have it in store, you can either choose to market it by branding, market it by using the traditional media, or even better, acquire the local traditional media and the money all goes in your pocket.

Oh, the possibilities! That’s what makes capitalism special. You can buy a piece of land in the boonies for the cheap. You can choose to buy land that are closer to the urban center, acquire the houses already on it, and pay more. You can buy your competition out in the stock market. You can dominate real estate and expand the city by creating new residential areas. You can corner the price of gold by acquiring all the gold mines. You can build department stores and discount stores or a whole range specialty stores. You can buy condos, TV stations, Radio stations. You can manufacture and sell everything you have in the manufacturing library, and believe me – it’s huge. You can build farms and produce eggs, meat, leather, and a range of agricultural goods. You can even build a headquarters building, hire a CEO to take care of the centralized details of marketing, branding, R&D, etc etc, while you come up with more ideas on what to acquire.

What makes Capitalism 2 so easy to pick up is the 3 x 3 grid building system. Each building, be it retail, manufacturing, has 9 boxes for you to work with, and each product requires at least 1 purchasing box and 1 sales box in retail, an extra manufacturing step in factories, processing in farming and raw materials and so on. You can layout your stores however you like as long as the links between the boxes “work” so that materials travel smoothly from one point to another. If you’re stuck, there’s even an entire layout library that ranges from typical retail layouts (4 products with advertising in the middle) to complex factory layouts that produces palmtop computers.

There are many, many layers to capitalism 2. Of course, that comes with a price: a somewhat overwhelming interface full of information and a steep learning curve, both of which flat out declared it not a part of the casual games category. It does, however, comes with full built-in documentation as well as a “start up” campaign that details every aspect of the game. If you’re willing to slog through the start-up campaigns, you can easily play this game for hours a day, weeks on end, and it won’t get boring

Another setback is the graphics. Capitalism 2 is around 5 years old, and even then, the graphics can be at best described as “retro.” Some character portraits are downright ugly, the maps are sprite based, SimCity 2000 style, and the music – there’s music? But the sounds of the city, including the sounds of things being manufactured and sold as well as the humming background noise of supermarkets, are right on the money.

Capitalism 2 is well worth $20, it has built in on-line play so you can play against other players, a custom campaign so you can determine all of the win conditions as well as start-up conditions, and a full challenging campaign. This is one game I’ve played on and off over the years and always find myself looking up after an hour or four wondering where the time has gone. Easily the best simulation game I’ve ever played – highly recommended. Don’t let the bars and line graphs scare you – Capitalism 2 is the most accessible yet realistic business simulation you can find.

See what I mean? Every time you turn around, a new object hunting game materializes. Secrets of Great Art is a relatively simple one that plays very much like the basic levels in Mysteryville or Magic Academy – you have to find a LONG list of items, but every time you play through it’d be the same.

The storyline is one page long each and there are 60 entries that you can flip through just in case you’ve forgotten what it was before. It’s a bit scattered in the beginning, but start to be coherent about 15-20 pages in. In comparison to the great art of each level, the artwork drawn for the story panes seem to have been either done by a high school student taking vocational art or an adult who hasn’t drawn since elementary school but used to be really talented – apparently they’ve never heard of foreshortening or perspective.

Fortunately, both the objects that are hidden as well as the paintings that are presented are lovely. They are detailed, never blurry, and mostly well-hidden. Since these are actual paintings, the game also lets you know the name of the painting as well as the original artists for them – but really, they are just different paintings done by two different artists.

There is also a find-the-differences “mini-game” that is presented as a level that occurs about 20 out of the 60 levels. That’s still around 40 maps to hunt through that you never have to revisit. So as far as replay value goes, by the time you get back to the first level to replay, you wouldn’t remember what it looks like. However, all the levels will remain the same.

Music and sound in Secrets of Great Art are both beautifully done – understated and appropriate. It’s definitely worth the try – if you like the first hour, just figure out how much of the game you’ve completed by checking the number of levels you have went through.

[update! Big Fish Games is making a change to this game so that highlight of hints is turned off by default and it will be an option to use it.]

Having played Travelogue 360: Paris twice, I have high expectations for the second installment: Rome. Very high expectations. Perhaps unreasonably so. I expected the same gameplay with better quality graphics and sound, since the game should improve. I also expected more of a storyline, since their web site told me so long before the game was out. What I got was better graphics, a storyline that doesn’t fade into the background, more – and better – mini-games, a smaller hud, and – the only real bad part is coming up – a new built in hint system that basically ruined the game.

Let’s start with the good stuff. As far as object hunting games go, Travelogue 360 is the stuff of dreams. Instead of just a flat scene that you can find objects in, it allows you to change your view with the right mouse button – if you’ve ever played with a Quicktime VR, it’s exactly like that – and hunt for objects in the entire room, from the ceiling to the floor you’re standing on. That alone is worth the price of admission.

Objects in Travelogue 360: Rome (360:Rome) are a mixed bag: some are very well hidden, blending into the environment; some are just scattered on the floor randomly; some are so big and loud you couldn’t miss them if you try. All are realistically shaded so it doesn’t look like it’s been simply tacked onto the background. On occasion I do run across some blurry, small objects, but nothing unrecognizable. There are times when it can be unreasonable, however. In a room full of lounge chairs, I was asked to find a lounge chair. A line drawing of a lounge chair. In another instance I was asked to find a “playing card,” but not the queen of diamonds that happened to be at my feet. One other time I was asked to find a key, but only the key on the ceiling and not the key hung on the wall.

There are a great variety of mini-games in 360:Rome – I especially enjoyed Scopa. Scopa is a numbers addition game disguised in a card game, and it’s simple and takes just a bit of strategy. The other mini-games seem to have been dumbed down; jigsaw pieces are no longer rotated, and the suitcase packing game now has outlines of objects. I don’t see how this is an improvement, but Scopa made up for it. Wordsearch with images instead of words as hints is a stroke of genius, as is the memory game near the end. I won’t ruin that for you, but I think memory games should be like that from here on now and forever.

360:Rome has, by far, the best original storyline I have seen in a casual game yet. You can read the online story on their website. The game doesn’t give you the entire story, but rather snippets of it in forms of letters and postcards that you can purchase from ye Olde Emporium. Each chapter begins in the form of an old “chapter excerpt” that gives away cryptic clues to how the chapter will go, with hints of what you have to find. It’s a very nice touch. Like in 360:Paris, each time you finish collecting all the items in a location, you get a fun fact that you can read in the Travelogue at anytime. That’s a nice touch too.

Big Fish Games chopped away part of the hud in this game by 1) making it semi-transparent 2) putting the list of items in a scrolling list with arrows, and 3) making the buttons to your travelogue as well as the menu smaller. However, this doesn’t really work. The scrolling list gave me another thing to click, and it looks bigger than the hud in the last game because of the purely cosmetic navigation ball in the center of the hud, as well as the list of items which protrudes right into your field of vision on the right.

Complain, complain. What would be a better idea, you may ask? Since 360: Rome highlights only the items that are in your field of vision, why not just show only the names of items that are in your field of vision and hide the rest? There usually are only 1-5 of them visible at a time, and that would fit neatly in a single line across the bottom of the screen. The ball in the middle is purely cosmetic, and so is the giant zoom slider. To those without a mouse wheel, I’m sure we’ve learned to use the CTRL and Shift keys to zoom in and out. The hud would be half the size, and if anybody complains, that’s what a tutorial is for.

Here I come to the most disappointing part of the game for me: the items that are in your field of vision are highlighted on the list. With this built in “hint” system, all the items in a location can be found in under two minutes. I clocked myself. So instead of the long journey it promised to be, the entire game lasted less than 2 hours. Unlike other games of the genre, it didn’t feel like I was exploring an area and becoming familiar with it as well being surprised by what’s there. It felt like I was … well … dragging the screen around until an object on the list lights up. I wish there was a way to turn it off and play it without the highlighting. No such luck.

Then here is my favorite part of the Travelogue: once you’ve finished a chapter you can explore any part of the game you have already visited. That includes replaying the mini-games, checking out the sights, reading the notes and clues, and rereading those lovely snippets of chapter summaries. I could go back and play Scopa over and over again with random cards. That is awesome. I could go back and play “find the difference” with the same 6 differences. That is not. I can’t choose a location and play it with a random objects list either, and that’s rather disappointing, after being presented with the Travelogue. That’s almost like saying “you can look, but you can’t touch!”

Music in 360:Rome is lovely, and maybe because I simply don’t like the accordion, better than the music in 360:Paris. Sound effects seem to be recycled for the most part, and that’s not a bad thing. Atmospheric sounds are fitting to each location and fades into the background without jarring your senses.

When it comes down to it, with all the bells and whistles of 360:Rome, 360:Paris was a much better game. With just a few tweaks here and there, Rome could’ve been much better, but seems to be hindered in its creative process by the dreaded beast of “usability.” It may win a few fans to the genre, but to us object hunting connoisseurs (and we are many) it’s a bit of a turn-off that it’s much too easy. I beat the game in two hours, using no hints. There was never danger of failing a mission because…instead of the alloted 30 minutes, I was done in 5 minutes flat! Is it worth the trial? Yes. Install it, and if the hints highlight doesn’t bother you, go ahead and get it. Is it worth the buy? Questionable. 360:Paris lasted me for weeks. Hopefully, somebody will come up with a hack to turn it off. (Or a patch? Maybe?)

Every once in a while I come across a rare gem of a game that takes a well-known, over-used genre or setting, and turn it upside down. Secrets of Bird Island (SSA-SBI) is, in a way, a creature hunting game. The only thing you can really compare it to is Pokemon Snap. SSA-SBI manages to be both fun and educational. Best of all, you’ll be having enough fun that you (and your child) won’t notice the educational part.

Aside from a few “fantastic” elements, SSA-SBI simulates the life of a bird snapper pretty well. Usually, you start before the crack of dawn, and follow the birds in a given area for the entire day. You watch while they sleep, preen, fly, and eat. Depending on each mission, you’re required to snap photos of a specific bird doing some specific things, and when you’re done, you can fulfill requests for bonus points. While you’re doing this, your field journal will write itself. Each time you take a still or flying photo, you can choose to assign one of each to your field journal to look at later. When you snap a bird doing a bird call, you will unlock a “bird song” to listen to. Your field journal is also filled with information about these birds.

The game judges the photos base on the quality of the shot. Zooming into the shot helps, ao does using a flash at night and centering your shots. It does a pretty good job, although sometimes you might think that a leaf is hardly concealing a bird, while the game believes that the bird is completely obscured. It also gives the photo more points if the bird is performing an action – say, preening – or if the photograph contains multiple birds.

Since the game is so deceptively simple, it adds interest by providing 5 slots for power-ups. There is a bag of seeds that you can use to bring any bird into a “eating” position, a magic mirror to make them preen, a few different zoom lenses, and an x-ray filter to see through leaves, to name a few. The mission object will give you hints as to what you should bring along. For example, if it asks for 3 flying images of the American Crow during the night, you’d want to bring a mug of coffee to sharpen your reflexes, a plane to make the birds fly, a flash, and the night vision.

The graphics in SSA-SBI isn’t bad, but because it’s a simulation game, the bar is set much higher. Even at the “high” quality level, some might find their birds a little too pixelated and lacking detail. If you have an older computer, it might slow down too much during the game and you’d have to go with “low” quality, which is horrid. The music is decent – most of the game you won’t hear it since it would distract from the chirping of birds. The sounds are fantastic – the bird calls are authentic, and it really feels like a wilderness out there.

There are 114 birds that you can collect for your field journal, and each has two pages of its own with the photos you’ve taken. Even after you finish the main storyline, you will find yourself going back to take pictures that you’re missing, or to find better photos of the birds that you’ve already taken photos of.

Secrets of Bird Island ends with a cliffhanger, hinting at MORE Snap Shot Adventures to come. It’s a fantastic game that you can spend in front of the computer with your child, reading the extended information, looking at the photos, listening to the bird calls, and maybe use those skills later identifying birds on long road trips. Definitely a great buy – an hour doesn’t do it justice at all.

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