(Short Game disclaimer: There is a trial version of Galcon available in the app store, you’ll have a very good idea of what the game is like after playing it for less than five minutes.)

I got curious about Galcon when Randy Smith used it as an example in his GDC talk on “Designing to Grab and Retain Players” this year. My memory turns out to be faulty: I thought he’d talked about it as an affordance example, and I was going to quibble about that (given some surprises I had when trying to select multiple planets when first playing the game), but nope: in the “grab players” section, he rightly praised the game for the simple controls (you just tap on planets to send fleets from one to another), but he also said the affordances were weak, and that there were too many clicks before you got started. (I remember being confused by the tutorial.)

It actually turns out that Smith had more positive to say about the game in the “depth” section of his talk: the randomly generated levels, the consequences that the simple rules lead to, the different game modes for different play styles. And here too, I generally agree with Smith: I had to go through one major shift in strategy as I went up the difficulty chain in the main game mode, I’m pretty sure I would have had to make another strategic shift if I’d really wanted to make it all the way to the most advanced difficulty, and of the other game modes, one was too mellow for me, one was too frantic for me, one was too mysterious for me, one was arguably a slight improvement over the main mode, and they all brought something to the table.

All that aside, though, I think the reason why I must have bought the game is that it just looked like a neat idea. A very simple playing field with large circles and small triangles; you control the game just by touching the circles; and if there turns out to be actual depth there, what’s not to like? And I’m happy to have bought it, and it’s a good example of the sorts of design possibilities the iPhone opens up: I like the tactile feel of the game a lot more than I would have liked it if I were playing it with a mouse or trackpad, and I suspect also more than I would have liked it if I were playing with a stylus.

One aspect of my interaction with the game that I’m not sure what to make of: as you go up the difficulty levels, it doesn’t just give the enemy more ships, it also switches from showing you the count of enemy ships on planets to not showing you the count. Which rather annoyed me at the time; in retrospect, I’m not sure if I would prefer for the game to have its current design, for it to have show/hide ships to be an option that’s orthogonal to other difficulty changes, or for the game to have picked one mode or the other and stuck with it. I guess I would tentatively lead towards the latter (probably with hidden numbers, despite my general preference for visibility of that sort of thing): the game’s current design let me be actively disappointed about something that I wouldn’t have thought about at all otherwise, and in general I’m not a big option fan. (So, going back to the depth discussion from a few paragraphs up, I don’t see the multiple game modes as the most satisfying form of depth, either.)

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