It’s a bit of an insult to call Triple Town a match-three game, but technically, that’s exactly what it is. But this is no mere puzzle. It’s arguably a city-building strategy game with just enough abstraction to fool people who like puzzles into playing. Each turn you draw a random item to drop into your city. This is usually a clump of grass. When you drop three identical objects next to each other, they’ll collapse into an upgraded version of those three objects. The three grasses become a single bush. Carefully position your upgrades so they’ll further collapse into even more upgraded objects. You progress from grass, to bushes, to trees, to houses, to mansions, to castles. Okay, maybe it is just a puzzle. But it’s got just enough strategy to fool people who like strategy games into playing.

After the jump, it’s also got terrible bears!

Beyond the basic puzzle bits, there’s just enough variation to keep the game fresh over repeated plays. When bears appear, they shuffle around randomly, getting in the way. Trap them to make gravestones, then match gravestones to make churches. Crystals are wild-cards. Leaping ninja bears are a royal pain in the butt that can only be alleviated by royal means; the imperial robot will destroy any object or creature. At any given time, you can save an item to swap it out for a later draw you might not like. Keep an imperial robot handy in case of ninja bears.

The ultimate point of Triple Town is to rack up as many valuable upgraded objects as you can fit onto the grid. Your score is based on how much good stuff you’ve built. The real challenge is that as you create advanced objects for higher scores, you’re also collapsing objects and making more room. But how do you do this most efficiently without leaving empty single spaces that can’t be matched? What do you do with the bears? How do you make the best use of this relatively small grid? As someone who’s struggling to get through the 50,000 point barrier, I don’t have many answers. But that’s the appeal of Triple Town and why it feels like a city builder. How do you make the best use of limited space?

These aren’t three-minute puzzles, which is another reason it feels like a strategy game. At any given time, you’ll probably have a city going that you’ve been playing for a few sessions. When you drop the absolute last piece you can fit, your score is tallied and your city is done. You then earn gold that goes into your persistent coffers.

And here is how one of Triple Town’s best tweaks is also its undoing. At any point during the game, you can buy an item by spending the gold you’ve earned from your previous cities. Need a tree instead of the grass clump you just drew? Spend 400 gold and, voila!, instant tree. In other words, any given city isn’t self-contained. Save up enough gold and you’ll be able to buy your way to a more efficient city and therefore higher score.

What’s more — you can probably see where this is going if you play iPhone games — you can spend real-world money to buy in-game gold. In other words, this is yet another score-based iPhone game where the developer is happy to let you buy your high score. Developers, please keep your business model out of my gameplay. One of the quickest ways to get me to lose interest in a score-based game is by making the score partly a matter of how much money a player has spent. Triple Town is yet another clever game hobbled by yet another mercenary business decision.

3 stars
iOS

NOTE: I firmly believe that price has no place in a review, whether it’s a review of a movie, a TV show, a book, an album, or a videogame. The cost of your entertainment is entirely between you and your wallet, and I have no business trying to calculate what your money means to you. However, I have to say I’m astonished that Triple Town is being sold as a $7 download. You can download a “free-to-play” version which is really just a turn-limited demo. Unlocking the turn limit, also known as buying the full game, costs $7. Based on how most iPhone games are priced, this is a really odd and — to my mind — unrealistic price point for a game like this. I bring it up here not as a judgment, but because it’s unusual enough to mention.