|Meeple Like Us
|Medium Light [1.91]
Iota comes in an absolutely tiny tin – a tin of the size you might more realistically expect to contain paracetamol or the large-print version of the positive case for Brexit. Let me tell you though, pain-relief is exactly the entirely opposite frame of reference you need. What’s inside is only going to give you a massive headache. Iota markets itself as ‘the great big game in the teeny-weeny tin’ and that’s something I can wholeheartedly endorse. This is indeed a game with a scope far beyond what its diminutive dimensions would suggest. Its ambitions could fill boxes many times larger many times over.
Having said that, the idea of a ‘big game’ is kind of weird. What does it even mean? Is sc a big game? Is Concordia? Is Tides of Madness? What about Codenames? We have all these odd little jargonistic terms that float around our ecosystem. Fillers. Gateway games. Openers. There’s a kind of communal consensus on what games belong to these categories but articulating which belongs where is a fair bit harder. And here I am, talking about ‘big games’ as if I have any idea what’s going on. The longer I do this job the more I feel like I’m just randomly pawing words together in the hope that the mere act of shuffling imparts insight into their organisation.
Great start, Michael! Really nailing this review.
Anyway, Iota definitely feels like a big game, whatever that means, and I wasn’t expecting that. I was expecting something breezy and ephemeral. What I got was a mental hollowing out, like someone took an ice-cream scoop and dunked it inside my brains. I started off with such dismissive confidence. ‘Match colours, shapes and numbers – fine’. It’s kind of like a pre-schooler Scrabble game – you get points for using big numbers, and greater numbers of points the more of them you use. If you can add a card to multiple lines at once, you get points for all of them. If you complete a full four line (called a lot), you double the points it’s worth.
I did not have high hopes.
The main thing that makes this tricky is that there’s a restriction on which cards can placed and it’s an emergent property of the first two cards in a line. Cards have to satisfy the condition that either every trait in a line is the same, or every trait in a line is different. I mean, I know that sounds like it’s not even a rule at all but trust me – this is brutal. As long as you can satisfy that rule, you can play a full line of cards out in front of you Get rid of all your cards in a turn and you double your point total for the round once again.
Check out the image above, Here we have an orange triangle valued at one, and a green cross valued at four. Every part of these two cards is different, so that means every card that can be added will need to be different in all three categories. You can only play red and blue cards, they’ll need to have a value that is two or three, and they’ll need to be squares or circles. As soon as you place the third card, you leave only one type of card in the deck that can finish off the line.
So, a red square yeah? Nope, you can’t add that red square with a value one, because you already have a value one. Back to the drawing board, buddy.
No, you can’t add that blue triangle with the value three because you already have a triangle. Pay attention, what’s so hard about this?
Good work, your red circle with a value of two is fine, but now the only way you can complete that line is with a blue square with a value of three. Hope you draw one before your opponent does!
It looks straightforward, but this is a puzzle that unfolds like an origami rose on your table. Lines all have their own unique internal consistency and actually accomplishing any of the clever scoring goals of the game is far more challenging than you’d ever imagine. It’s like staring at a Sudoko puzzle where every number changes as soon as you mark in the next. If someone made a movie clip of Iota it would be one of those 80s style mainframe passwords where all the characters keep rotating until they eventually lock inexorably into place. As soon as you affix one piece, all the others start to get drawn into its gravity until everything smashes together into a singularity you can’t escape.
What makes this so dastardly is that any two cards when placed together are valid, and its that validity that invalidates all others that follow. If you place two green cards together, all other cards in that line have to be green. If you place two different shapes together, every other shape needs to be different. The similarity, or distinctiveness, in the three axes is something you can wield cleverly if you have the cards to back it up. If you’re really good, and can rely on your opponent not scuppering your plan, you can lay down cards that complete multiple lines at a time and reap the rewards associated. Complete a lot, you double your points. Complete two in the same turn, and you double again. Theoretically you could complete four lots in a single turn and use up all your cards in the process. One turn you might get six points. The next, six hundred.
I know that it still sounds easy, but that’s because you haven’t visited these killing fields. You have four cards in your hand and you need to fit them into a mesh of interlocking colours and numbers that act like a cheese grater on the possibility space of your options. You’re trying to create a technicolour crossword puzzle where the clues are all live landmines from your previous passage over the terrain. It’s like mine-sweeper except in reverse and weaponised for maximum cognitive overload. You could upload this to the Borg as a logic puzzle designed to eat up their spare processor cycles.
You spend a lot of time staring into the depths of this game state like you’re trying to unlock a magic eye puzzle. That’s no good though. The only thing hiding behind the layout is despair. You’re constantly trying to find suitable homes for the good cards in your hand and often coming up empty.
However, part of that is because assessing that suitability is an act of considerable calculation. That quality of being ‘a good card’ tends to be in flux and possessed of a depressingly short half-life. As soon as someone places a single card, it take a process of mental readjustment to bring yourself back into the tempo of the game. In doing so you’re going to have to form a new relationship with the cards in your hand. Some of the difficulty that comes with in Iota is simply because the game state requires constant mental curation. It’s a difficult game to play because the cards interlock in ways that are not easily assessed. Every line contains within it a R osetta stone as to its meaning, but there’s a constant act of translation going into every turn you make. That’s made even worse by the wild-cards, which adopt a shape, value and colour at the point they’re placed. They don’t contribute as a joker to every line to which they belong – they’re a wave function that collapses as soon as they are fixed in position.
This is a game that is far more cognitively challenging than you can believe until you sit down and stare in mute agony at the incomprehensible riddle in front of you. If the Sphinx was making a special effort for Pride, this might be what got put your way in one of its more spiteful mood swings. It’s opaque and indecipherable and yet you’ll always have options even if you’re not happy with any of them. That’s the mark of a game that is, at the very least, interesting. Unfortunately though so much of what defines its more engaging scenarios are situational. So much of it is a consequence of the hand of cards you have and very little of it is due to the inherently cleverness of the mechanisms.
Your choices in Iota are usually ‘play a card poorly’ or ‘discard some and redraw’. You can do that second one repeatedly until the secret third option comes up, which is ‘Play the perfect hand of cards you just so happen to have drawn, eventually’. It’s not that the only winning move is not to play, but rather the difference between a genuinely good move and an okay move is far in excess of the opportunity cost needed to bring it about. You can pass and trade any subset of your cards back to the deck, gradually refining it until it has a combination that is workable.
That might seem a little risky though. Passing in a game is usually something that carries with it a lot of psychological weight because of what you give up in the process. Here though, not so much.
In Scrabble, I aim for an average word score of twenty points. Passing my turn means I need the next word to be forty points just to make up lost ground. That means the decision to do that depends on what I see being the compounding consequences of a bad tile rack. In Iota playing a bad card might get me six, seven or eight points. If I play a good card I can take advantage of multiple intersections and multipliers and those rack up very quickly. It’s unlikely in Scrabbe that I will play a word good enough to make up for three passes in a row, and that’s part the balancing mechanism in play. In Iota, it’s not only possible for passing to be the optimal course of action, it’s common. You do this in Scrabble to clear away the problems that come from keeping bad letters and changing them one or two at a time . In Iota, good cards are so situational that you can afford to eke out the minor costs of passing without real risk.
That means Iota often has long sections where it is a game about waiting rather than playing. It centres on gradually evolving your hand until it’s time to strike. It’s still fun in those circumstances but it’s a less intense and lazier form of entertainment. It’s about hoping you can spring your trap before your opponent can ruin it. That’s a far cry from the intensity of cogitation that is demanded of the game as presumably it is designed. You can fix this with house rules of course. You can limit passing or add a point penalty. All the fix does is force all the big plays to be as a result of convenience of circumstance and that can be frustrating.
Iota is more difficult than it looks, and you can hypnotise yourself into inaction by the sheer mess of the game state in front of you. Unfortunately a lot of that difficulty is just in dealing with its intractable game state and comparatively little is because you’re presented with interesting choices. Your plays are reactive – you don’t really plan and plot and strategise. You try to find the optimal play for the cards you have, but that’s as much an act of understanding your options as it is selecting between them. In its decision space Iota is more like a jigsaw puzzle than it is a ‘game’ – it’s about putting pieces in the right place, and a lot of that is about just searching as to where they’ll fit. It’s satisfying to find that location but in the end it wasn’t really up to you where the card could go. You found a place, you didn’t create one.
I enjoyed Iota a lot more than I expected though, and while these are criticisms it’s not like they’re deal-breakers. If the comparison to a jigsaw is offputting, you can console yourself with the fact that it’s also a jigsaw that someone is basically reshuffling every time a move is made. Every time a piece is placed all the edges shift and reform themselves. I’m not a jigsaw fan though so I don’t know if that is likely to bring you back into the fold or push your farther away. Even if only for its tiny form factor though, Iota is well worth having available on your shelves and I commend it to your consideration.