SquareCells, Paint It Back, and Pictopix are “Nonogram”-style games (also known as Picross, Griddlers, and Hanjie). These games involve a grid of squares, and sequences of numbers lined up with each row and column of squares. Looking at a specific row/column, the sequence of numbers tells you the lengths of groupings of squares in that row/column which need to be filled in, with at least one blank space between each grouping. The puzzle is then to analyse the numbers and figure out which squares should be marked, and which ones should remain blank. Many puzzle books have these.
Such games on computer are always playable with the mouse, and sometimes with the cursor keys. These games generally grey-out the row/column numbers which have already been filled in and accounted for (meaning that you’ve put together the right-sized groupings that correspond to the grey numbers). This means not having to worry about those numbers anymore, and helps motivate by showing how far you are through a puzzle.
Moving the mouse manually makes it very easy to colour in whole lines and clear whole sections and so on, efficiently solving the puzzle. But the puzzle solving is much slower with voice recognition, requiring remembering whether or not you’re holding down the button for marking/clearing, and it’s more difficult to move from one grid point to another.
For navigating these grids, I made a set of commands of the form “[direction] [number]”, where the direction is up/down/left/right or a diagonal, and the number goes from 1 to 30 (I also include “[number] [direction]” so I can say them either way round). These command sets can be used for efficiently moving the mouse by fixed horizontal/vertical/diagonal increments on a grid:
When restricted to using the keyboard (which is slower), these commands move the selected square along a row/column by the stated number of squares:
Also needed are commands for holding down the appropriate mouse/keyboard button in order to mark several consecutive squares as definitely being part of the pattern, or definitely not being part of it.
The gameplay does involve some mental arithmetic when it comes to counting where a given square or set of squares should be. However, once you know the necessary number you can accurately move that number of squares by speaking the commands, instead of moving the cursor along counting one square at a time like most players have to.
All these games involve an escalating mental load, with puzzles taking much more time as they get larger. The biggest source of stress is that when you have unwittingly made a mistake: this alters all the calculations you make after that, leading to a wrong solution with little indication as to what the right one is. This means that on an off-day you may find the larger puzzles are unsolvable.
The rest of this article covers the logistics and difficulties of the three games mentioned, which would mostly apply to all players.
SquareCells, created by Matthew Brown, is entirely mouse-based, which allows for much faster movement, and makes diagonal movement easy to implement. The squares in each puzzle are always the same size, so only one set of mouse increments is needed, although the level selection screen has slightly larger squares. It has calming music and some interesting colors for the levels. You can choose to have it with a white background or a black background.
It does add a few extra variants to the nonogram style:
1. Sometimes it refers to connected sets of squares in the middle of the grid.
2. Sometimes it gives you the total number of marked squares in a row/column, saying only that they have more than one grouping.
3. Sometimes it leaves out some row/column numbers.
4. Sometimes it needs you to make use of the grey number near the bottom, which counts how many more squares need to be removed.
However every puzzle is still solvable. If you try clearing a square that shouldn’t be cleared, it corrects you, and counts it as a mistake.
There are only 36 levels, but because none of them carve out memorable shapes nor preview previous solutions, I find it easy to not-remember what a given puzzle is going to look like, making it very replayable.
It does get quite challenging, and it rewards you for how well you’ve done in a given level; for full marks you can only afford 1 mistake per puzzle.
Paint It Back
Paint It Back, created by Casual Labs, can be played with the mouse or the cursor keys. Each puzzle has different-sized squares, so I couldn’t use mouse increments. I was able to switch to the (remappable) keyboard controls, though it took longer to get from one place to another. One downside of keyboard controls is that moving diagonally with the keys doesn’t really work, so I was restricted to vertical and horizontal movement.
It doesn’t have many in-level music tracks (only about 9 minutes in total), so in order to not get bored it helps to load a playlist in another application.
This game has about 150 puzzles, and it took me over 70 hours to complete them all (hence needing far more than 9 minutes of music!) – the largest puzzles measured had 1200 total squares (see above) and took me about an hour each! However, if you find such large sizes too overwhelming or exhausting, you can opt to complete them in small sections one at a time (see below).
Each puzzle is generally of some sort of picture, and when you want to replay a level it shows you the completed pictures before you start, which somewhat spoils the replayability. It also has a community workshop, giving you countless more puzzles.
It rewards you for completing puzzles in their original size, though it doesn’t care about how many mistakes you make and undo. It also has a couple of modes with timed rewards, which can only be done with voice recognition by slowing the game via Cheat Engine.
Pictopix, created by Tomlab Games, can also be played with the mouse or the cursor keys. This one also has varying sizes of squares, so I used the same keyboard-pressing system I made for Paint It Back, and adjusting which keys marked/cleared a square. However the keyboard isn’t quite enough for menu navigation; for example, when selecting from the standard levels, it isn’t possible to get to the next or previous set of 15 with the keyboard, so I’ve had to use the mouse manually for selecting those.
It has 10 in-level music tracks in a jazz/lounge style, but like Paint It Back they are limited in length, and it may be preferable to play your own music.
This game has about 200 puzzles and took me nearly 100 hours to complete – partly because the puzzles go up to 40 x 40 squares, but largely because it holds a higher standard for getting full marks. Here, it wants you to play without any greyed-out row/column numbers, which means doing far more counting and double-checking for mistakes in each puzzle, enough to give me some headaches from the prolonged concentration! It allows you to make a number of mistakes proportional to the size of the puzzle (beyond which you lose a mark), but as it’s far easier to make mistakes without the greyed-out numbers, that’s not much comfort.
However, if you don’t care about getting full marks, or find that too tiring, you can leave on the option for greyed-out numbers, and even add an option which highlights in blue which rows/columns currently have something solvable in them. Together, these reduce the concentration required and make the puzzles more manageable.
While there are plenty of levels to replay, it does show you the pictures each time as you browse, spoiling some of the deduction. One solution to this is the Shuffle option, which lets you choose to play a range of size of puzzle, and this doesn’t show the pictures beforehand.
The developer has gradually added additional content for free:
1. A community workshop (like Paint It Back’s), adding many more puzzles.
2. Timed challenges, which (like with Paint It Back) are not doable with voice recognition without the assistance of Cheat Engine.
3. Endless Mode, which randomly generates puzzles. This avoids the spoiler-picture-issue from completed puzzles, though the resulting pictures are nonsense.
4. Mosaics Mode, in which there are large sets of identically-sized puzzles to solve which gradually form a large picture.
Overall, I’m fond of these types of games. SquareCells is a compact and elegant introduction to the style of game, Paint It Back increases the quantity significantly, and Pictopix is a rather punishing variant. But they are also easy to start playing once the mouse/keyboard commands are set up, generally have no time pressure, and the latter two games have ways to significantly lower the cognitive load.
The challenge in each puzzle tends to be constant throughout, up until the end when it gets easier to deal with the last few squares. It can be disheartening to spend a long time on a puzzle and not get full marks, but it always allows you to replay and try again. There are no sudden surprises or scares, and it lets you pause puzzles and come back to them another day.
If you like your logic games, this type strikes the right balance, with a good level of doable challenge, and without you needing to guess at an answer so long as you’re able to carefully count all the numbers.
And if you particularly like crunching numbers, CrossCells (by Matthew Brown) is a nonogram variant involving mathematics, where each line is an equation, and you need to remove squares to make the equations correct. Because it has the exact same grid structure as the games above, it’s very easy to adjust the commands to be able to play this, and others like it.