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Reviews - Blokus World Tour
 
by Lee Valentine


Blokus World TourBlokus World Tour
Published by Funkitron
$19.99

Blokus World Tour (BWT) is published by a Massachusetts-based company called Funkitron, Inc., under license from Blokus' publisher Sekkoïa. Funkitron was founded in 2001 by Dave Walls. They specialize in "downloadable casual games". They have produced a variety of board game-to-PC crossovers such as Scrabble Deluxe, Scrabble Blast, and Boggle Supreme. In BWT Funkitron has made a fun solitaire program for playing Blokus.

This review assumes familiarity with Blokus' rules. For those unfamiliar with the rules of Blokus, I'll describe them in the next section, or you can click here for a full review of the Blokus board game.

Hardware requirements
BWT runs only on the Windows operating system. Funkitron notes that BWT is compatible with Windows 98, ME, 2000, and Windows XP, but does not state whether it is Vista compatible. A computer with at least a 500MHz processor, 64 megabytes of RAM, a sound card, and an SVGA-compatible graphics card is recommended for playing BWT.

Blokus overview
Blokus (pronounced "Block Us") is a tile-laying strategy board game designed to really test a player's spatial relations skills. The game is played on a grid, with the goal being to fit as many of your own shaped tiles onto the grid as possible while blocking your opponents' attempts to play their own pieces.

Each player is given 21 distinct polyominos to play with. A domino is an example of a polyomino (dominos are made up of exactly two joined squares). For readers familiar with the video game Tetris, that game uses tetrominos - polyominos made up of four square sub-units. The polyominos in Blokus are all shapes made up of groupings of congruent squares, where each square is connected to at least one other square on the piece by an edge, rather than merely on a corner. Using 21 shapes in Blokus allows for all the possible polyomino shapes that can be made from one to five sub-squares that are legally constructable based on the above specifications.

There are four colors of pieces in Blokus: blue, yellow, red, and green. To begin, each player is assigned a starting square and set of 21 distinct polyominos of a specific color. Other than color, each set of pieces is identical. A player's starting square is on a designated corner of a 20 unit by 20 unit grid. The first piece played by each player must cover his designated corner of the board. Each piece played must fit entirely on the grid without overlapping any part of another previously played piece. Each piece played after the first must have at least one square of the new piece diagonally adjacent to a square on one of your previously played pieces. However, no square of any newly played piece can be orthogonally adjacent to any square on any of your previously played pieces. There is no restriction about how your pieces can be played relative to the pieces of other players, provided that your pieces don't overlap theirs.

Players take turns in color order (blue, yellow, red, and green) playing one piece at a time. Players continue playing in this fashion, skipping over any player who can no longer legally play. When all players can no longer play, the game is scored.

Scoring is based on the number of squares in each piece that you play. BWT uses a slightly different scoring system than the classic method for Blokus scoring. BWT's scoring is discussed later in this review.

Modes of play
There are three basic modes of play in BWT. The first is Quick Play, where you just choose a game (Blokus classic, Blokus two player, or Blokus Duo), choose a number of opponents, determine their skill rating, and then play. Next, is World Tour mode, which is a series of games against computer opponents of ever-increasing difficulty. Lastly, BWT includes a Challenge mode.

In the Challenge mode, you engage in Blokus puzzles (think old school newspaper chess puzzles, but in Blokus terms). Each puzzle tests a specific skill, like being given one piece which must be placed so as to minimize the score and limit the placing options of three other computer players. Another puzzle tests your ability to score as low as possible while the computer players are trying to help to maximize your score. Each challenge hones a specific skill useful in Blokus games, or teaches you to identify a specific type of weakness in your opponents' play.

In addition to the overt Challenge section, there is a Gold Blok awards page, which gives you a little virtual trophy for overcoming certain specific challenges in the game. These are not puzzles, so much as they are reaching certain milestones in your Blokus career (like coming back from a deficit of 10 points or more in a single game). Unlike the Challenge pages, these sort of highlight your Blokus games as opposed to teaching you a specifically applicable skill.

Blokus World Tour supports classic four player Blokus (one color per player on a 20 x 20 board), classic two player Blokus (each player plays two colors on a 20 x 20 board) and Blokus Duo (each player controls one color on a 14 x 14 board). It does not support a three player mode of play, or team play involving computer opponents.

Multi-player
BWT does allow for multiple players to play the game at the same time, but it does not allow for play over the internet or over an intranet. All the players involved have to sit in front of the same computer. I think this is potentially a useful thing for couples and families, and is often left out of most multi-player games which assume that you'll always be playing against online opponents. Since all information in Blokus is public, there was no reason not to support this mode of play.

The multi-player mode does not support team play. In BWT's multi-player mode everyone plays head-to-head. Multi-player play only applies to the Quick Game mode, and not to the Challenge, or World Tour mode, or so it seems. However, the software can track skill ratings, player-by-player, for up to four different human players on the same computer.

Three human players can play at the same time on BWT, but the computer always generates a fourth computer player instead of allowing the human players to alternate playing green, as per the standard Blokus rules for three players.

Unfortunately, and this was a true disappointment for me, BWT had no option for online play, either through a Blokus server or even by using a direct peer-to-peer, client/host connection. When you play a game with "World Tour" in the title, the end user is very likely going to expect some kind of multi-player online option, so I found the title of the game somewhat misleading.

World Tour mode
There are apparently eight different difficulty levels of computer opponents in the World Tour option.

World Tour features ten tournaments, with 16 different computer players to beat. Each one is represented by a large, cartoonish avatar. Most of the avatars are well-drawn, and there is some light animation to the avatars, such as a change of expression when a given character wins the game. Oddly enough, while there are a lot of computer player avatars, there are exactly four you can choose from when picking your own avatar in the game.

Differences from classic Blokus
Blokus World Tour modifies normal Blokus scoring. Rather than scoring a negative point for each square you don't place, in Blokus World Tour you score one point for each square on each polyomino that you place. This is mathematically analogous, and is actually a bit more intuitive. The negative scoring used in classic Blokus board game play is an artifact of needing a quick scoring mechanism for counting by hand at the end of the game (where you presumably have few pieces), while positive scoring is trivial when done by computer. It's also a little more emotionally satisfying to have a score like 84 instead of -5.

Blokus World Tour introduces another scoring mechanism called the Round Score to show how good you are across multiple games in a tournament. The premise of Round Scoring is that it tries to measure you against the field of players you just played against. Consider the following example: Player A has 80 points, player B has 70 points, player C has 60 points, and player D has 50 points. For each player, the Round score starts at 0 and adds one point for every point relatively speaking you are ahead of every other player and subtracts one for every point you are relatively behind another player. So, in this example, player A is +10 ahead of player B, +20 ahead of C, and +30 ahead of D, for a total Round Score of +60. B has a Round Score of +20. C has a Round Score of -20. D has a Round Score of -60. This formula is explained absolutely nowhere in Blokus World Tour, and is something you just have to calculate for yourself. The computer uses the Round Scores to determine seatings and pairings when playing in World Tour Mode.

In addition to scoring changes, BWT introduces another rules change from standard Blokus play. BWT allows a player who just cannot figure out where to play to skip his turn, and then play continues around the table with the next player. Skipping once does not prevent you from playing on a subsequent turn. I've never found this particular option necessary given the Hint feature (see below), and given that skipping would be primarily useful to speed up multi-player online play, which does not exist in BWT.

A few bugs & oversights
A few things about the programming left something to be desired. The first error occurs while playing in full screen display mode rather than in a framed application window. In windowed mode I could easily ALT-Tab between applications with no problem. Attempting to ALT-Tab in full screen mode caused my computer to crash. This error was only apparent in the trial version I downloaded and has not been a problem with the full version of the software.

Both the trial and full versions of the software had problems operating smoothly in windowed mode. In that mode a few of the buttons (such as "Menu", "Options", and "Help") did not sense a mouse over normally, making them difficult or impossible to click. None of the in-game controls were affected in windowed mode, but to access the main menu and the Quit function I did have to exit from windowed mode using the Windows maximize button to get to full screen mode before I could hit some of BWT's menu buttons.

In addition to the aforementioned bugs, in Blokus Duo mode, there are a variety of naming errors with non-player characters. This is mostly centered on pop-up dialogs saying which player starts. For example, there is a "Name here, you start", error for computer characters in Blokus Duo mode. Similarly, I have seen the non-player character Emma called "Chip" in the same startup dialog box for Blokus Duo.

Another apparent error was the ranking of Round Scores. Nominally BWT computes Round Scores (as described earlier) while playing in World Tour mode and apparently sorts them in descending order to handle seatings and pairings. However, the program does not seem to consistently sort negative Round Scores in descending order. This seems to be an error, but the lack of documentation for this feature of the program makes it impossible to say for certain.

Another oversight, in my opinion, was a lack of any kind of an owner's manual. Without even a PDF user's manual for the product, even basic questions like, "Can you play the game with multiple, non-computer players at the same time?" and "Can you play this game over the internet with another player?" were not overtly answered anywhere. I had to find the answers through the trial and error process. This lack of an owner's manual hampers the user from finding out about the scope of the software's features. It does not, in any way, make the actual play of Blokus more difficult, and the software does a good job of explaining Blokus basics. Overall, the user interface is quite intuitive insofar as playing the game by yourself goes. Only multi-player play options (and a lack of internet play) really desperately needed to be documented.

User interface - BWT versus Blokus Online
In addition to any of the limitations of the software listed above, there is one big reason which will keep a lot of people from purchasing this game - Blokus Online. Sekkoïa, the makers of Blokus, has a large online Blokus user community that can play Blokus any time of day or night for free, right on their website. The software was programmed in Adobe Flash, meaning that it is supported by one web browser or another on most operating systems. The Flash version of Blokus Online supports classic and Duo (two players on a 14 x 14 board) versions of Blokus as well as Blokus Trigon. In the "Training Room" at Blokus Online you can play against computer AIs, or you can enter the regular rooms to play games against friends (by password protecting the game and issuing electronic invitations). The big downside to online play, in my opinion, is that a huge amount of screen real estate is dedicated to chat windows and other online elements, making the actual play space pretty small, and hard on the eyes.

The play interface offered by Blokus World Tour is much larger and much friendlier than the Blokus Online software. BWT also allows the end user to choose the difficulty of the computer AIs the player plays against, while in the Training Rooms of Blokus Online, the software's difficulty level is hard coded. Gone in the online version are the cute avatars of BWT.

BWT offers a couple of very strong features that Blokus Online effectively lacks. The first of these is a Hint feature. There are three levels of Hints in BWT. The first shows you all the legal spots that you can place a piece on the board (corners that are eligible for a new piece). The next Hint shows you all the places which your piece cannot cover. And the last stage of Hint actually suggests a play. These are fantastically useful for beginning Blokus players, for young Blokus players, and for just about anybody toward the end of the game if you don't want to spend five minutes finding your next legal move. Since the software tells you, even without asking for a Hint, if there is at least one legal move left for you, this, combined with the "show legal moves" hint, speeds play without detracting overly from the skill required to play the game; it helps curb analysis paralysis. Blokus Online has a single tier Hint system and it only shows you one randomly chosen possible play, which is generally not a very useful feature when compared to what BWT offers.

The second feature that BWT has over Blokus Online is an Undo feature, which takes back a whole series of moves to let you fix a misplay. Because of the Challenge mode, the Hint feature, the Undo feature, the ability to choose the difficulty of computer AIs, the larger and friendly user interface, and the ability to build your skills up slowly in the World Tour mode, Blokus World Tour is a really great piece of software for a beginning Blokus player. It will hone your skills in stages. A beginner will strain her eyes a lot more with Blokus Online, and will probably take longer learning the same skills.

Sekkoïa, have designed a new game called Blokus Trigon, which uses a hexagonal board and pieces that have triangular segments instead of square segments common to the standard Blokus polyominoes. Blokus Trigon is also not supported by the Blokus World Tour software even though it is supported by the free Blokus Online interface.

Conclusions
For what it is, BWT is very fun. It has a nice user interface, and the boards are large and easy to see, even on a small monitor. In contrast, I found Blokus Online annoyingly small to play on - too much screen real estate was taken up by chat windows and network-related information. So I personally prefer playing BWT to Blokus Online when I'm in the mood for a game against the computer. I'd play Blokus Online only to play against friends or to play Blokus Trigon.

If you plan on playing Blokus offline a lot (while travelling), or if you want a larger, friendlier, better interface than Blokus Online offers, then Blokus World Tour is a nice piece of software and is a good purchase. BWT is an exceptional learning environment for new players - the challenges, the wide variety of computer opponents, and interface features like "Hint" and "Undo" make this an exceptional piece of software for improving your Blokus game if you aren't already the city champ.

Some online software vendors sell BWT for as low as $9.99, but the standard going rate is $19.99. When compared to playing Blokus for free online, this is not a decision to be taken lightly, but for the right consumer, BWT is a good fit. If you are an advanced Blokus player who wants to play mostly over the internet, then Blokus World Tour is simply not for you.

 

Lee's ratings:

Overall Score: B (A for solitaire play, but some bugs and no internet play)
Documentation: B- (game rules clear, but no software manual)
Interface: B+ (great interface, but with a few bugs)
Computer Players: A (lots of good AIs of various skill levels)

 

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