Cozy minimalist puzzle games to tune out lectures to
With simple premises and rewarding gameplay, these puzzlers are perfect to play during those precious few moments of downtime
Feb 28, 2023
Lucas Le Slo
Mar 1, 2023
Konkan Coast Pirate Solutions
Mar 1, 2023
Isometric and board-based titles have long been staples of the puzzle genre, with gameplay restricted to a finite board space occupied by increasingly complex obstacle elements and rooted in a notable amount of abstraction.
These titles are defined by significant roots in computational analysis and graph theory, with many variations of the genre spawning from early analytical problems such as the Seven Bridges of Königsberg and five room puzzles as well as practical obstacles that would eventually define the Sokoban theme.
Recent titles founded on such mechanics are Rytmos, Alephant, and Konkan Coast Pirate Solutions. These games were only released at the beginning of March but have already found significant followings from their straightforward yet unique takes on the puzzle genre. Their relaxing simplicity makes them perfect for start-and-stop play during downtime hours or even during lectures (which I’ve unashamedly done multiple times already).
Rytmos: A relaxing instrumental space adventure with short and sweet gameplay
Rytmos takes its roots from early continuous-line topological puzzles such as the five-room puzzle. Unlike those classical problems, though, Rytmos — like most other games in the genre — has a well-defined solution to each passing level. The game is set in space and includes several gravitationally locked planetary systems that together comprise Rytmos’s level scheme.
The game revolves around music from various cultures and time periods, with each musical genre confined to their individual planetary systems, not unlike the genre-defined territorial boundaries of the 2016 film Trolls. Gameplay begins with Zimbabwean mbira music on the planetary system Oryx (themed as a musical group with its own unique logo, like the other systems in the game); the player is tasked to explore each of the three planets Kame, Mpopoma, and Macuse in the system (which themselves are guised as album covers by each “band”) to solve their puzzles and bring them into orbit. The same gameplay formula is then executed for each of the other six systems in the game.
Gameplay involves the player forming a closed route around a level while making use of each planetary system’s unique puzzle elements (such as a movable ice block for the Hawaiian system, portals for the German system, etc.). Those able to connect their loops to loudspeakers scattered around each level are awarded the game’s defining feature: musical instruments playable in-game. Rytmos has over twenty unlockable instruments and modifiers, which inject a particular flavor into the game (with added tangible rewards to perfecting each planet) and lengthen its two hour runtime to something approaching 20 hours — a trick that works quite well, may I add.
I was particularly impressed by the amount of attention given to representing these various cultures: in-game descriptions as well as expanded written features and studio-curated playlists in the game’s website (rytmos.club) are awarded to each genre. A lot of cultural exploration was done by the studio for this, and I am all for it.
That said, gameplay does become somewhat stale after a significant amount of playtime, and the player’s goal inevitably narrows down to acquiring the game’s musical unlockables. It is extraordinarily easy to just “accidentally” uncover each level’s solution, making it feel less like a true puzzler and more of a casual interactive music app.
Rytmos’s minimalist aesthetic is quite pleasing, but graphic effects overall are a bit lacking: shadow texturing is uncomfortable (especially on curved surfaces), but overall passable; the visual style is pop art-y and very techno in feel but not unique or polished enough to keep everything from feeling too generic. Performance is nothing to praise, either, as block movement is rather choppy and stiff, and technical issues pop up here and there with level interactables glitching out.
Overall, I found the game simple yet extremely cute — its minimalist aesthetic, visual style, cosmic theme, and fun music come together to create a short yet sweet gameplay experience.
Alephant: An enigmatic Hebrew Sokoban about elephants and language
Alephant is very much derived from the Sokoban style, but its unique style sets it apart from other games in the genre. The game is themed around the quirks and idiosyncrasies of the Hebrew language and follows the journey of a player-controlled elephant as it meets a group of Hebrew-speaking oxen. However, the oxen do not fully speak Hebrew; instead, dialogue (and the game in its entirety) is centered around the silent Hebrew letter aleph (א) and the diacritical signs it is modified with to produce sound.
The aforementioned “aleph”-ant’s task throughout the game is to learn about the different diacritical signs of Hebrew’s niqqud system (i.e. kamatz, segol, and hiriq). As such, the use of the niqqud system functions largely as a core gameplay mechanic to augment the Sokoban formula with unique mechanics.
The game hides the rich cultural history it represents in its design. The non-playable oxen symbolize the original Proto-Sinaitic glyph for the aleph (and elephant as a word speculatively shares a cognate with the aleph), the grainy textile-like aesthetic and soundtrack are reminiscent of a general Middle Eastern style, the right-to-left level progression comes from the right-to-left nature of Semitic script, and the various chapter themes (English, Greek, Phoenician, Arabic, and finally Hebrew) depict the languages’ connections to the aleph.
Alephant has a surprising amount of depth, with its deceivingly simple twists to the Sokoban formula allowing for some really expertly-crafted levels that can be very tricky to solve. Completely varied and increasingly complex techniques need to be used from level to level, a process made exponentially harder by the game’s intentional lack of tutorial, hints, and any sort of assistive mechanisms. In other words, the player is left in the dark on what to do and how gameplay elements operate, requiring a significant amount of trial-and-error and self-discovery to “learn” the game’s seemingly arbitrary rules (very similar to the process of learning a language!).
Each level includes one or more silent alephs and the corresponding number of separated niqqud tiles. The player has to connect all the alephs to all the niqqud tiles Sokoban-style. However, the core mechanics come into play as the player must make use of the various formed sounds (אָ ,אֶ, and אִ) and utilize their unique effects on the board (for example, the segol niqqud causes the player to teleport to a different aleph).
It would be interesting to see the developer tackle the other diacritics of the niqqud system in future updates and how they would interact in more complex and compounding ways, but the game is already quite engaging as is.
The main game (the middle rows of each chapter) is fairly doable with some finagling, but optional levels become exceedingly complex as the player progresses — it can take up to an hour to find the solution for a particularly difficult level. Puzzle-solving can get excruciatingly frustrating, especially when the player is struggling to figure out how to even start a level, but the intrinsically-motivated payoffs are surprisingly rewarding every time.
It’s a very unique puzzler and, to be honest, I can’t find even a single fault with the game. The exceptional level design, the remarkable and enigmatics gameplay mechanics, the cozy aesthetic, and the deeply embedded cultural representation all come together perfectly to make Alephant a standout addition to the Sokoban genre.
Konkan Coast Pirate Solutions: A literal pirate sim with fun programming-style mechanics
Developed by India-based one-person studio “chapliboy,” Konkan Coast Pirate Solutions is one of those one-in-a-hundred games with a truly bizarre premise. An interesting thematic mix of pirates and the corporate world, Konkan Coast follows the eponymous tech startup “Konkan Coast Pirate Solutions” as it works on the development of a new simulation program — which they dub the SimEngine — to help manage the flow of pirate traffic due to a “sharp increase in pirate crashes.”
The player begins the game with Swami, the new CEO of “Konkan Coast Pirate Solutions” who is tasked with testing out various scenarios and ensuring their product’s viability. As the game progresses, the SimEngine goes through new iterations, and the company’s lead designer Mani rolls out new updates while the market-savvy Rajan meets with potential investors and clients.
Konkan Coast’s simulation mechanics echo a diluted version of block-based programming in its drag-and-drop commands. Each level’s board contains black-sailed pirate ships that need to stop at pirate harbors and white-gold merchant ships that need to pass gold-filled docks; every other game element is designed to help or hinder the player (sometimes both) as they look to set up an iteration of the scenario where all ships reach their destination without crashing.
To complete a level, the player must drag and drop a “turn left,” “turn right,” or “stop” command at the appropriate locations and make sure the simulation runs with all ships completing their route. Levels are initially barebones and require little planning, but as new obstacles and components are introduced — from lighthouses to ocean currents and glaciers — they become much more complex, making it harder and harder for the scenario to run shipshape.
Gameplay does get stale after a handful of levels, and it honestly begins to feel like a slog after getting through the first set of the more complex optional levels. The best puzzlers have levels with their own individually difficult struggles and equally rewarding payoffs; Konkan Coast is not one of those games, as much as it attempts to be.
The game doesn’t offer much lore-wise, either — only revealing the barest details of Swami’s, Mani’s, and Rajan’s journey through their foray into entrepreneurship, just enough for the player to get behind its anachronistically absurd premise — but I did enjoy the trio’s interactions together in the little time they were featured on-screen.
Konkan Coast isn’t bad, nor is it particularly memorable. But for a slow-burner puzzler, it achieves exactly what it set out to do, and that’s not a bad thing.
These three puzzlers are fairly simple in premise, easy to start, and easy to stop. While likely to become tiresome on their own, their cozy aesthetics and mechanically simple gameplay elements make them perfect to serve as little throughout-the-day distractions during meetings, lectures, or whatever precious few moments of downtime an MIT student may have.
Rytmos is available on PC for $14.99 and on Nintendo Switch and macOS. Alephant is available on PC for $9.99. Konkan Coast Pirate Solutions is available on PC for $9.99. Notice: this review was written using PC game codes provided to The Tech by each game’s publisher.