Spellwood knows what it is. Laying down letters of varying values, on an equal sided board to gain higher scores than your opponent isn’t anything new. In fact, the height of developer Three Rings’ ambition plateaus with the inclusion of cutesy, wand-throttling fauna to place the pieces. It’s a well-established format, then, and not a terribly exciting one. But it’s in its execution that Spellwood finds its place.
In a start akin to visiting a Build-a-Bear Factory, you begin by naming your very own bunny rabbit wizard – I called mine Norman Simpson, which sounds to me like the kind of guy who’d hold a doctorate in Wordology. After fending off a few of his fellow scholars at the Spellwood Academy, I released Norman upon the world with only his vocabulary to protect him (The town of Spellwood isn’t South Central L.A., after all).
For such a placid place, filled with rolling cartoon hills, there are more than enough foes taking umbrage at your attempts to scale each of the town’s monolithic structures. Each of the main game’s three gangly towers consist of up to fifteen separate tiers, increasing and varying their challenge (a bit) with each elevation. Characters come with fancy names, like Don Manchego – highlighting my own character naming failings rather nicely.
They also come with specific types of wand, hat, and a little bag containing goodies to embellish their word conjuring skills, a luxury also afforded to you. It’s with these bags of tricks that Spellwood separates itself – as much as a game that is basically Scrabble can do – from, well, Scrabble.
Each one grants a modifier of some sort, boosting your damage resistance or adding multipliers to points earned. There’s a reasonable array of applicable variables – more are unlocked as you level up – you might choose to spend one of your three options increasing your word score, or switching consonant for vowel, or using potions to top up your health.
There’s a welcome balance to the cluster of power-ups at hand. Health increases with each level gained, but you’ll usually find that your rival holds more in reserve. The bevy of scrolls and potions do a good job of offsetting your vital disadvantage, and taking note of – and reacting to – the abilities of each individual pays off, if you use the right items at appropriate times. Rather than just playing the words in front of you, this encourages a requisite level of consideration and resourcefulness.
Rules change from game to game, too. For example, you might be penalised for using a specific vowel, and issued words expire after varying amounts of time, depending on format. While there’s obviously been some thought put into trying to keep the experience varied, there’s a dichotomy in the liberal use of glitter and its application to what is essentially a samey experience.
The glitter is welcome though – playing at length would be a far more sober experience without it. Upon pushing your glowing wand icon to confirm your choice of word, your score sails upward, smacking your challenger in the face, bruising his or her furry features – ‘Eat my words, bitch’, you might mutter to yourself. It seems, too, that every slide and press is met with a glockenspiel of chimes and twinkles, akin to the sound of Disney’s Tinker Bell amid the vice-grip of a weekend-long coke-binge.
Unlike Tink’s recreational drug-use, Spellwood isn’t really a game of marathon sessions. In fact, Three Rings Design have achieved a pleasant pacing to proceedings – the average game is deep enough to take time, but not so much that a sitting couldn’t be tidied away over your average commute.
Touch control is manageable and functional, dragging and dropping letters works well, although newcomers to iOS gaming might prefer to try the more robust iPad interface first. Considering the tumult of modifiers to hand, the pop-up menus do well to keep everything accessible, without becoming intrusive. The multiplayer component achieves the minimum expected of a modern iOS experience. Pro forma, turn-based trade-offs can be arranged with friends via Game Center (Centre), or through Facebook, although random battles would have made a nice inclusion.
Spellwood achieves what it sets out to. Without departing greatly from the established format, Three Rings manage to pour just about as much whimsy as you could ask for, into the austere world of crossword-puzzle gaming. There’s substance too, though – at Spellwood’s core lies a blend of balanced challenge and functional control that justify its humble price-tag.
Audio/Visual – 3/5: Whimsy and charm aplenty, not a game ever likely to include FMV
Gameplay – 3/5: What’s there plays well. Fun modifiers, but a largely samey experience – best played in short bursts.
Innovation – 2/5: Mini-Scrabble, with animal wizards.
Value – 4/5: £1.49 on iTunes – 40+ levels in the main game, expansions available at 69p a pop are worth it, if that’s your thing.
Final Score: 3/5