The Games I Love(d): Puzzle and Dragons

Check out PAD on Android Here!

Check out PAD on iOS Here!

So, it's been a minute since I last wrote anything for the blog, and honestly, it's been a lot of personal stuff taking up the majority of my time. I'm sure nobody comes here to read about my personal life, so I'll just leave that to the side and start talking about the one game I actually get to play these days: Puzzle and Dragons.

Puzzle and Dragons is a mobile game, available on Android and iOS, it is Free-to-Play, but it is FTP in a similar way that Clash of Clans is FTP... You will find your progress stunted over time without investing actual money into the game. This isn't for a lot of people; Kris plays casually and hasn't put a dime into the game, whereas I've put in probably around a hundred dollars over the two years (off and on) that I've played. Let me talk about the game before I talk about why I've spent a hundred dollars of hard-earned cash on a free-to-play mobile game.

At its heart, Puzzle and Dragons (PAD) is a match 3 game. This probably conjured images of Candy Crush and Bejewelled; but there is a unique twist to PAD that really sets it apart from those two games. The difference is that in PAD you are able to control an orb and rather than simply moving it one space in one of four cardinal directions, you can move it around the board as much as you like for up to four seconds. You can move the orb up, down, left, right, and diagonally - transplanting orbs as you move through them.  Click here to see an example.

This small twist allows you to really control the board each 'turn' as you swish and swoop your orbs into place in order to create a cascade of combos in order to pass the level. That's another distinct difference between PAD and the other traditional match-3 games: the framework of the levels is a diablo-esque Dungeon Crawl, where you are attacking enemies with a team of monsters (or pretty anime girls), in order to defeat a boss on the final floor.

Each monster has a main attribute (colour) and by matching three orbs of that colour, the monster will do damage to an enemy equal to its attack stat. This allows small differences in similar monsters to have major impacts on your strategy as you move from floor to floor in a dungeon. Most monsters also have a sub attribute which can be the same, or a different color as the main attribute. If you match a set of orbs, each monster with that colour sub attribute will deal damage equal to ten percent of their attack stat.

The game of PAD, while being a fairly generic match-3 shell, is deep enough that you will be intrigued just by the movement and manipulation of orbs for a long time before you truly learn how to master board control. But that's only a small portion of the game.

In the tutorial, players are shown how to match orbs,and how to take advantage of every option while crawling the dungeons!

In the tutorial, players are shown how to match orbs,and how to take advantage of every option while crawling the dungeons!

I mentioned above that you are represented in the game by a team of monsters. When you begin the game, you select a dinosaur of one of three colours (red, green or blue), and you are then given a level one monster of each of the two colours you didn't select and are thrust into the world of Puzzle and Dragons. During the five-floor tutorial dungeon, you are introduced to the concepts of matching, damage, healing, skills and egg drops. Egg drops are probably the most compelling part of the game to most of us.

Each monster has a set of stats, an active skill and (most of the time) a leader skill. the stats are HP, Attack, and Recover; which represent the pool of health you have in a dungeon, the amount of damage your monsters do when you match orbs, and the amount of health you recover when you match heal orbs. The active skill can be anything from dealing direct damage, to changing orbs into the monster's colour, or even providing you a shield from damage for a turn or two. All of these begin at skill level 1, and have a pretty long cooldown before you can use them (and reuse them), but over time, with hard work, you can level up those skills and reduce the cooldown of them.

In the red box, we see Tyrannos' Leader Skill, which provides a team-wide attack bonus for Fire attribute monsters!

In the red box, we see Tyrannos' Leader Skill, which provides a team-wide attack bonus for Fire attribute monsters!

Leader skills are the backbone of team creation - generally they will involve some sort of multiplier for a particular stat - the most common being attack multipliers that allow your team to do enormous amounts of damage and let them defeat even the toughest boss monster. These are static (you cannot level them up), but as you level up your team, and evolve your monsters into more powerful forms, the leader skills often grow more powerful alongside.

Each time you defeat an enemy, there is a chance (determined algorithmically) that it will drop an egg. This egg will be a copy of that monster that is added to your collection that you can use in dungeons, or use to feed to your monsters to help them gain experience and upgrade their skills. Egg drops vary from very common monsters (such as the ones the game gives you by default) all the way up to mighty dragons and gods which will form the core of your team as you advance through the game.

This is my main account - at rank 234, I have a maximum of 133 stamina.  That might seem like a lot, but it definitely goes pretty quickly at higher tiers.

This is my main account - at rank 234, I have a maximum of 133 stamina.  That might seem like a lot, but it definitely goes pretty quickly at higher tiers.

You level up your account by defeating dungeons (your account 'rank' will determine how much 'stamina' you have which is expended on entering dungeons, as well as the max cost you can have on a team at once). As you level up your rank, new dungeons become open to you, and you are able to include more and more rare monsters on your team - you begin with 20 cost maximum allowed, and individual monsters can have a cost of up to 99!). The ranking up process can be tedious, especially when you get into the middle of the game (a wasteland between rank 150 and 200), but those who stick with the game are rewarded with a much more fun version of the game in the end.
 

Feeding these monsters to Yomi will provide her with experience, allowing her to level up and eventually evolve into more powerful forms! 

Feeding these monsters to Yomi will provide her with experience, allowing her to level up and eventually evolve into more powerful forms! 

You level up your monsters by feeding them other monsters, and each monster gives a unique amount of xp when fed. This leads to strategically feeding monsters, layers of depth within even the most mundane element of the game. When you feed a monster to one that has the same active skill, there is a chance (approximately 10%) that your base monster's skill will level up, reducing the cooldown by one turn.

It is the interplay between these various elements that makes team-building, and even farming for resources quite rewarding through most of the game. You are working towards bigger and better monsters all the time, and this is compounded by the "Rare Egg Machine" (REM), which contains all of the best cards. Often at the cost of actual dollars.

And that's the rub.

You can play this game all day every day (theoretically) and your team might just not be capable of beating all of the dungeons in the game... the monsters available in the game are at the least limited, and at the worst strictly poorer than Rare Egg Machine cards. To you, that might seem like a completely negative experience. That might be the dealbreaker that drives you away from IAP-based game economies, and that is totally fair and your prerogative. Play or don't play, but if you play, accept the truth: This game is just a Collectible Card Game.

I played Magic: the Gathering for approximately 20 years (off and on, ergo the approximately), and in that time, I spent untold thousands of dollars between boxes and singles, and travel to and from events. You start playing magic with the understanding that this is one way to take the game. There is another way - you can get some cards from an older player and enjoy hundreds of hours of fun with your friends around the dining room table.

This is not unlike the choice between IAP and non-IAP in PAD. You can play virtually forever without ever dropping a cent on the game - you are awarded magic stones (the in-game currency, used to buy rolls in the random rare egg machine, but also for refilling stamina and increasing the size of your collection of both monsters and friends), regularly! Whenever you clear a dungeon for the first time, you get a stone - and at least once a month there will be an event which offers a number of free bonus stones distributed daily.

If you save up your stones and roll them at the best opportunities (during these events, there is a two-day period when the REM is at its best by offering special exclusive cards while also offering higher distribution rates on special "god" cards), then you will be able to build respectable teams all the way through the end of the game. You might never be able to defeat the very end-game content... but that is something of a reward for those who have contributed to the development of the game with their purchases.

But some Magicians (and by proxy, PADders) buy a box of boosters when the new set comes out. You spend your hundred dollars and you see what random rares (and maybe mythics!) you get out of your box. This happens in PAD as well, as the IAP crowd is famous for their live streams of the "Packs" they buy during the best godfests. A Pack is a discounted bundle on Magic Stones, essentially offering 85 stones for the price of $50, rather than $1 per stone if bought individually.

I am not that guy. I don't spend $50 every month, I've bought two packs ever, and while I might do so again in the future, I'm not under any sort of pressure to do so in order to "keep up" with the metagame as new cards are released. I have a number of competitive teams and while I am developing them, I'm happy to just play for free.

But there are those who feel that this sort of micro-economy is a scam, that the random part of the game amounts to gambling, and should be outlawed (or at least not made into one of the central elements of the game). I disagree; but I've played random games my whole life - I started playing Magic when I was eleven! I feel as though games like this have their place, and the booster pack model has proven very lucrative for the companies that are able to keep making 'buying packs' enjoyable for the customer.

I think that PAD, while it is an imperfect game (the North American version of the game remains about two to three months behind the Japanese version), it has replaced Magic for me in many ways. It lets me scratch the "booster pack" bug when I take the chance and roll in the REM, it gives me a very deep strategy game that is both challenging and rewarding. Plus it contains a very light roleplaying element that rewards consistent gameplay, something that Magic lacks due to its non-digital medium.

All of these things have added up to a game that is fun, addictive, and easy to play in short bursts. In reality, as much as I play Netrunner, Game of Thrones, and X-Wing (and D&D, and video games, and blah blah blah), Puzzle and Dragons has been my main game for the past few months... I just don't have the time anymore to play something more resource-consuming.

Then, the real question becomes: if the game overtly rewards IAP, and much of the RPG elements boil down to random chance - what is the driving factor for long-term play? I'll tell you; it is the thrill of victory. Defeating a Legend or Mythical tier dungeon for the first time is a challenge of not just matching orbs, but also skillful team management.

The late-game content is build around dungeons in which the majority of the floors are populated by single-spawn boss monsters, many of whom have preemptive attacks. These preemptive attacks can be simple damage (at times enough to kill you as you walk through the door!) or they can bind your monsters, preventing you from attacking with them or activating your skills. The most potentially damaging preemptives are the ones that bind your skills for the whole team.

It is being able to counter these debuffs and survive the enormous amounts of damage that some boss monsters can put out requires you to build teams specifically for each dungeon. If you know that the final floor has a skill bind attack, you want to make sure you have enough monsters on your team to resist the binding. But if there are skill binds and auto-kill monsters in the dungeon, then you need to find a team that can survive both!
 

In the red box are a series of Awakenings, each providing Awoken Isis passive effects that are always in effect.

In the red box are a series of Awakenings, each providing Awoken Isis passive effects that are always in effect.

Most monsters have multiple forms, as I have touched on before, and the REM monsters have what is known as an "awoken" form, which is (to date) the most powerful form a monster can take. These require you to venture into late-game dungeons and defeat the boss, claiming its egg, and then feeding it to your monster in a specific recipe in order to turn on this extra potential. Awoken forms tend to have more passive effects (Called "awakenings" in PAD), which offer you the skill bind resistances, and passive damage shields you might need to solve the puzzle of a particular dungeon.

This is the thing that drives me onward. I know that the game is a little random. I know that sometimes I'll get completely Orb Trolled and I won't be able to make a single effective match and just die. But I've played thousands of games of Magic, and I know just how often you can get Mana Screwed in that game. It isn't a bug, it is a feature. At least, that's what Tim Cook might argue.

Is this game potentially dangerous? Absolutely! At least it is as dangerous as Magic: the Gathering, or Pokemon. In those games, it takes a strong, mature player to keep themself from spending away money they don't have. The same is true for PAD - but less so, in my opinion. As easy as mobile games make it to spend money, the game is completely accessible to you without dropping a dime!

That isn't the case in Magic. Nobody gives you free booster packs, and often you have to pay money just to participate in organized activities. GungHo provides free stones and exciting gameplay events monthly which can keep someone entertained for hours without needing to spend a penny.

Ultimately, I am a big fan of the game, and I feel very comfortable telling people that I play. Do I think that you should play? It really depends on what you want to get out of a mobile game. If you love single-player puzzle games with an RPG twist, then this could be the game for you - but if you love Starcraft and C&C, then I would suggest a Clash of Whatever instead.

There is a mobile game out there for everyone - League clones, Starcraft clones, and now I've found the one that does what I want to do - solve tricky puzzles and collect cards. This is my Magic clone. Maybe it could be yours too.

Thanks for reading and remember, always be gaming.

PS: Nobody paid me to publish this post.  I have received nothing in exchange for this article.  I love games, and Puzzle and Dragons is one of the ones I love.