The inherent problem of TwoDots and other puzzle games relying on random elements

Disclaimer: What I’m about to discuss is not specific to TwoDots – the same principles apply to games like Candy Crush Saga, although I haven’t played that as much, so I’ll use TwoDots as my example here.

Having played through the original 135 levels of TwoDots (for Android), I’ve had a growing feeling that whether I win or not is less about my skill and more about my luck. I’ve come to the conclusion that the reason I have this feeling is because it’s true. Let me explain why.

The principle of the game is that dots of different colors fall into the playing field from above, and your job is to connect dots of the same color to make them disappear. When you make dots disappear new ones fall in from the top, and you get points. If you manage to connect dots in a square, all dots of that color will disappear (and no dots of that color will fall in that time). Which colors the new dots have is random. The rest of the specifics are irrelevant for this post.

On a big playing field, the randomness of the dots add to the experience, because they let you stay creative and find new ways to connect them. The odds of there being no good moves available is small. Normally different parts of the playing field will stagnate as you exhaust the possible good moves there, so you move along to other parts where there are more good moves to be made. As you’re working on the other parts of the playing field that will slowly affect the old parts and eventually there will be good moves available there again as well. The game plays back and forth like this, and it’s fun and satisfying.

My issue with luck comes when the levels are meant to become harder. There are two main concepts being used that I will call focus points and smaller space. The latter is when you for example used to have a playing field of 5×5 dots, you now have a playing field of 4×4 dots. To explain my idea of why this becomes a problem, let’s shrink it even further, to a 2×1 playing field. Whether or not there will be a possible move is completely up to the randomness of the colors of the dots that fall in, and there’s nothing you can do to affect the outcome of the game. If we instead imagine a 100×100 dots playing field, there will probably be multiple good moves to be made at any given time, and the challenge changes from “can you do it?” to “how well can you do it?”. The smaller the space gets, the more the outcome will be affected by chance.

The second concept, focus points, is where things like ice blocks and fire are added to the game. Ice blocks are placed in certain places of the playing field and they don’t affect the dots. Once you’ve connected dots inside an ice block three times, the ice block will break. The levels require you to break all ice blocks to complete the level. This is essentially a variation of smaller space, but it’s possible to reach the ice block from farther away by connecting dots of the correct color in a square somewhere else, so there can still be a significant difference between a skilled and an unskilled player.

On a big enough playing field, focus points add to the experience, but combined with smaller space it again just lowers the chances of you getting the color dots you need to work with. Fire makes it worse, because it consumes one dot that’s next to it every turn, turning that dot into a fireball that you cannot touch. To remove the fire you need to connect dots that are next to it. I understand the wish to add another level of challenge to the game, but the problem is that when the levels are already small, whether or not you will have two dots of the same color adjacent to both each other and the fire get less and less controllable by the player. What happens is that, in a way, the strong focus point the fire creates confines the playable area to a much smaller space. If there is a lot of extra room to take dots from it might be manageable, but when there’s not you’ve pretty much shrunk the playable area to something along the lines of my earlier extreme example of a small playable area. If you can’t pull off your move in that area, you’ll have an even smaller space to work with the following turn. Whether or not you will complete the level eventually becomes so much affected by chance that you as a player can start to feel like the third wheel.

What I’m trying to say is that in a game where a main mechanic is random, the way to increase the difficulty is not to give the player fewer options. That will only make the player’s skill less relevant. Instead, what I’d like to propose is the opposite. Adding an element that can be used in many different ways and instead requiring the player to achieve more using it creates a much more interesting challenge. One thing TwoDots have done in their new level pack (which I’ve only gotten a few levels into) is add a blank dot that will turn into a dot with the color of whatever dot you connect it to. That creates a strategic element of choosing when to use blank dots and when to save them for later, which makes player strategy more important even when there are many good moves to be made. A change for the earlier levels could be to just give the player more space, but also more ice blocks to destroy.

To sum things up, when the player needs to rely on random elements to succeed, it’s best to add as many opportunities as possible to allow the player to circumvent bad luck. To increase the difficulty of the game, it’s better to add more opportunities and require more to be achieved than to try to force the player to make good moves in circumstances where the possibilities of doing so are randomized.

Something I haven’t touched upon is the reverse of this, where good luck just wins you the level, which I might discuss in a later post. Oh, and 8 paragraphs later I should add that TwoDots is a fun game and you should go play it! Thanks for taking your time to read this.