The Fool and his Money

A generation of gamers have grown up with more of an attachment to Half-Life or The Legend of Zelda over the once popular “Games” magazine.  As a result, there' are some who consider the puzzle genre to be simple “push this crate” and “flip these switches in the proper order” affairs.  It is hard to remember that, at one time, popular brain stimulation for nerds came in the form of jigsaw puzzles, cryptograms, brain teasers, and word puzzles.  It is into this environment that Cliff Johnson released The Fool and His Money in October of last year.  Self-published, The Fool and His Money is a throwback to old school gaming – with its visual puzzles, word puzzles, and brain teasers.  It is also a throwback to old school gaming with its high level of difficulty.  However, given that the genre's roots has almost disappeared over the past couple of decades, The Fool and His Money ironically feels refreshing and new.  Old school and youngin’ gamers alike will find a challenging and rewarding experience in this game, albeit one that requires a lot of patience and determination to finish.

The Fool and his Money is the sequel to the 1987 puzzle gaming classic The Fool’s Errand.  By completing each of the game's 77 puzzles, you'll receive a piece of a map, which functions as the game’s master puzzle.  With each puzzle, you also get a little piece of the story. Most of the puzzles call upon your knowledge of English in some way.  The game has cryptograms, anagrams, crossword puzzle-like variants, and numerous other puzzles that usually involve manipulating words or letters in the right order to progress.  To solve these puzzles, you'll need to know the correct sequence of unlikely words and letters lest you spend all day trying an infinite number of combinations.

If you are somebody who feels that games have become too dumbed down, you will appreciate the game's high level of difficulty.  Figuring out the solution of a puzzle can be almost as hard as executing the moves to complete it.  Some of them are so hard, in fact, that you will find yourself taking notes on them, unless you want to use the hint system (more on that shortly).  I built tools in Microsoft Excel to solve a lot of the puzzles and despite that, I needed additional resources online such as an anagram solver.  The Fool’s Errand had some hard puzzles, but they were outnumbered by the easy ones.  The Fool and His Money, however, is hard almost the entire time.

If you buy the game, you get access to a free hint system on the game’s website.  It allows you to view five or six hints for each puzzle that become progressively more useful as you click through them.  The first hint gives you a vague idea of the goal of the puzzle.  The last hint simply gives you the answer.  It is much preferable to a walkthrough, which can spoil an entire puzzle for you.  If all that you need is a little nudge to get started, the hint system is great.  Normally, this type of feature wouldn't be included in a review, but it is worth pointing out how essential it is to the experience.

As a sequel to a 1987 Macintosh game, The Fool and His Money stays true to its visual roots. The game plays in a small window on your computer screen with simple 2D graphics.  Like many of today’s retro 2D games, it is colorful, imaginative, and pleasing to the eye.  Most screens are static though, with the occasional simple animation when you complete a puzzle.   Technologically, this game would be at home on the iPad or maybe even as a browser-based flash game, which highlights one of the major criticisms that can be leveled at it.  In an era where most downloadable and/or portable games are $20 or less, The Fool and His Money weighs in with a price tag of $40.  It isn’t a deal breaker, but with the plethora of great puzzle games that have come out this generation at a lower price, it doesn’t provide the price/value ratio that you would typically expect in a 2D puzzle game.

It might cost more than you are used to playing for a 2D game, but The Fool and his Money is still a success.  It succeeds because it does what a good puzzle game should: challenge you and reward you with a riding high of satisfaction for finding the solution.  The game requires a heavy degree of engagement – more so than any other puzzle game on the market – but it pays off by giving you more good puzzles.  Very often, solving a puzzle is a matter of randomly clicking items on the screen until you figure out the rules.  If you get stuck, the hint system is especially useful, because it helps you solve the puzzles without completely depriving you of the satisfaction of solving them yourself.

Since there are 77 puzzles, it is reasonable to expect a few stinkers, and there are some here.  In particular, the Tarot card games that you play are annoying.   I also got completely stuck on one puzzle because what I thought was a “W” was actually a “U” in a funky font.  Newcomers to this type of game could be put off by how long it takes to solve some of the puzzles, and even veterans to this type of game my find themselves questioning whether it is worth finishing.  No matter how much challenge you can accept, being stuck in a game for hours is never fun, and you can expect to have that feeling a lot.

The Fool and His Money is the textbook definition of a hardcore niche game.  It is an experience catered to puzzle enthusiasts with at least an above average aptitude with the English language.  “Enthusiasts” might not be a strong enough word.  Perhaps “fanatic” is more fitting, because of the extreme level of patience that it takes to complete this game.  Undoubtedly, there are some Rain Man-like savants who can look at an eight letter anagram and solve it immediately.  For the rest of us, however, The Fool and His Money is a pretty slow-moving experience.  It is designed to be that way though, and for the most part, the game succeeds at what it sets out to do.  Whatever limited audience this game will have will be pleased with what they buy.  The price tag is a bit of a bummer, but there is no way to get this experience cheaper, because there is no other game like it.  If you are interested, but not sure if you are going to like it, then there is a good demo on the website that is representative of what is in the game.  It is worth a look.