PentomiGo is easy to learn but tough to master

Review of PentomiGo on XBLIG: Try
This competitive puzzler’s rules and gameplay are intuitive, but its strategy is complex.

“Easy to learn, but tough to master” is sort of a cliché when talking about puzzle games, but it’s an accurate description of PentomiGo.  The basic concepts aren’t difficult—each player starts out with eighteen pentominoes (shapes made up of five square blocks).  Players score points based on “influence”—every empty square bordered by a pentominos is worth points.  In addition, any completely surrounded empty squares net a player a 15-point bonus. If a player uses all of their blocks, they get a 20-point bonus at the end of the game.  It’s a bit like Go or reversi, but the scoring system is more complex and the use of pentominos means strategy isn’t as straightforward.

The game rules (at least as they apply to block placement) are simple, and the game is both intuitive and user-friendly for beginners.  Even as I was learning the game, I didn’t feel stuck hunting around for valid moves.  Because the scoring system is complex, there’s an option to show score detail, which displays influence as a series of dots along the edge of each pentomino.  It’s doesn’t tell you exact point values at a glance, but it does provide a quick visual of what’s happening on the board.  The lowest AI difficulty level, “Schoolboy,” isn’t too aggressive—in one early game, I beat the AI by  staying out of its way and focusing on surrounding squares for the 15-point bonus.  When I engaged it directly, though, I found that it can put up a fight. 

Advanced strategy, however, isn’t quite that simple. Because scoring is based on empty adjacent squares (whereas games like Go and reversi count occupied squares), I had to wrap my head around the fact that I could, in essence, rob myself of points. Thinking ahead isn’t as easy as in Go or reversi either, since the diversity of pieces increases the number of possible moves.

It’s clear that the most effective strategy involves both building your own structures as well as engaging the enemy directly. However, trying to strike the right balance is hard, and I haven’t been able to nail down a strategy yet. (To be fair, competitive strategy is not my strong suit.) The middle AI level, “Student,” consistently schools me, although sometimes by only a tiny margin—so I haven’t even touched the hardest AI difficulty, “Scholar.”

If the AI isn’t to your liking, there’s also a local two-player mode, which is basically the same as the single-player mode. One nice touch to this mode is that two players can share the same controller or use separate controllers.

There’s not much to say about the graphics or audio in the game, although that’s actually a plus.  The interface is slick without being overpowering.  It’s not flashy or complicated; it’s professional and doesn’t get in the way of the game.

PentomiGo gets a Try. This is a solid strategy game with a friendly interface, and it shouldn’t turn away strategy newbies or lightweights. That said, unless you enjoy mastering strategy games, there won’t be much depth to the game for you.

A copy of Pentomi Go was provided to GameMarx by the developer for this review.

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