Review: PDAMill GameBox Asia

A little while ago, my mom talked to me about a Mahjong game she was playing on the PC, and how much she liked it. Of course I played Mahjong in my life, but never spent a lot of time with it. However, I did like the game so when it was mentioned I immediately thought “Now where can I get this game for my Pocket PC?” (My mom, who doesn’t have a PocketPC, is considering getting a set of Mahjong tiles but that leads to the need of setting up the table yourself, it’s much easier to let your PPC do it!) Browsing through the catalogues of my favourite developers I found Gamebox Asia by PDAMill which contains Mahjong, Shisen-Sho (a variation on Mahjong) and Nagori which is the classic Memory game, but with Mahjong tiles. Quickly read on for the review!

Before we get started, I want to quote Wikipedia so that you all know the basic rules for Mahjong. I know that the name Mahjong is in fact used for the 4 player board game, and that the game we’re currently discussing should be called Mahjong Solitaire, but since PDAMill uses the name Mahjong, I’ll be using it as well. Anyway, from Wikipedia:

“… The 144 tiles are arranged in a special four-layer pattern with their faces upwards. A tile that can be moved left or right without disturbing other tiles is said to be open or exposed. The goal is to match open pairs of identical tiles and remove them from the board, exposing the tiles under them for play. The game is finished when all pairs of tiles have been removed from the board or when there are no exposed pairs remaining.”

A more in-depth introduction to the solitaire version of Mahjong can be read here but the game itself also includes an introduction to the game and it’s rules!

Installation and trial limitations

From the PDAMill website, a .exe download is available for download. While .cab files are not available for download over the air, there is a workaround if you’re on a desktop PC. Just download and install the .exe file available at the product page, and then find the .cab file for your screen resolution in the C:\Program Files\PDAmill\PPC\Gamebox Asia\ folder.
Installing is very straightforward, you only have to choose your screen resolution during the installation and the rest is a piece of cake. If you purchased the full version, you get to download a full version of the game. Now installation over the PC (ActiveSync) is recommended, since you will have to insert your registration key.

The trial is very feature limited. Only one layout is available, you can’t play in Tournament mode, you can’t shuffle the tiles, etc., but you can play all the games and use the layout editor. Purchasing the full game unlocks all there features.

Main menu screens

When you first start the game, you soon see that Gamebox Asia has the same classy style that Gamebox Solitaire (which I reviewed in December 2006 here) has. The first impression is always very important, and the main meny screens give the game a ‘rich’ feeling, which is a good thing.

You begin by entering your name (“spmwinkel” was just one character too long so didn’t fit), or, if you played before, pick your account from one of the three slots in the bottom. Then you are transferred to the main menu.

 

The large buttons in the center allow you to quickly pick the game you want to play, but first we will look at the smaller buttons at the bottom, except for the layout editor, which will be discussed at the end, and the Exit button, which just closes the game and therefore doesn’t need further discussion.

There is one page of settings, where you can pick the tileset (I found the second to be the most easy to the eye), and pick the shadow. The “Free tile shading” option can help you a little since it gives the tiles that are available for matching a different shade than the tiles that are still blocked by tiles that are on top or to the left/right of the tile. A tile that is “free” isn’t necessarily also a tile that can be currently matched to a similar tile, the highlight just indicates that it isn’t blocked by other tiles. You still have to find another tile to match it with IF another tile of this kind is available. So this is not a Hint setting, you can ask for individual hints during the game. The other options are for graphic and audio customization. You can control the brightness, turn off visual effects, and control both the sound effects and music (a nice Oriental themed soundtrack).

Then there is the Help section, where you can get an introduction to each of the included games and find out how to play them. An example of one of the help pages can be seen here:

And even the tile sets are introduced:

The games

As said before, three games are included: Mahjong, Shisen-Sho and Nagori (say all three names out loud 10 times!). The Mahjong game has been introduced already so we can skip that.

 

First you get to pick if you want to play a single solitaire game (Free game), play in a tournament, or play with someone else. Tournament mode shows you a piramid with the different layouts and you have to work your way to the top. You get to play other layouts than the ones available in Free game, and as soon as you finish a layout in the Tournament, it is unlocked for the Free game mode. Multiplayer mode lets you play in turns. Player 1 starts, and seconds are added to the first player’s clock until he makes a match. Then the clock of the second player starts counting, until he makes a move. Then it’s player 1’s turn again, etc. While you have to pass the device to your opponent all the time and wireless multiplayer functionality would be awesome, this is a very nice mode to play in, especially since it needs only one copy of the game.
When you start a new game, you get to pick the difficulty (On hard mode more different sets of tiles are used, and 4 of each tile can be found on the board. If you are less experienced you can set the game to have 6 of each tile, and thus less different tiles on the board). You can also disable the timer if you just want to practice without having the stress of running out of time (for example, you can have a 10 minutes limit to solve a layout). If you tap the “Free Time” setting, there will still be a clock registering the time you use to solve the layout though, so IF you beat your highscore, it will still be registered. Finally, you can also pick one of the nicely designed layouts.

 Then we get to play! As you can see, the top bar indicates the timer(s), the amount of total tiles, and the amount of removed tiles. The bottom bar lets you pause the game, shuffle the tiles if there is no move left, and even reset the entire board to it’s beginning state. If you play a Free game, you also have the options to ask for a hint (at the cost of a time penalty) and to undo your last move. The bottom right lets you disable the sounds; it’s good to also have these settings in-game and not just in the main menu screens. You can also abandon your game by tapping the small X button, which is located at the bottom right corner.

The game board shows you all the tiles, where, in this case, the ones that can be used to make a match are already highlighted. (Remember the Shadow options we talked about?) If you tap one of the tiles it starts to flash, until you tap on a tile it matches with (then both the tiles disappear) or until you tap the tile again (to cancel). Matching tiles fade away until they dissapear, which is accompanied by a nice clicking sound. 

Shisen-Sho is a variation on Mahjong where you can only remove tiles if they can be connected through three horizontal or vertical lines which may not touch other tiles. So, if you can move one stone to the left, you should be able to draw a line to the left, one line up/down parallel to the side of the board, and one line back to the right to the stone you want to match it with. Shorter paths are also allowed, so in the case illustrated below all it takes to connect the “threes” is one line to the left, and one line up. Only if such a connection is possible you can remove the matching tiles. Here you can play with specially designed layouts as well, and – again – change the difficulty, disable the timer, and play in Free game, Tournament, and Multiplayer mode.

The last game, Nagori, is the classic Memory game where you have a playing field where all tiles are placed face down. Tap one tile to turn it around, and then tap on another to see if they are the same. If they are, they disappear, and your accuracy improves. If they don’t you will need to pick two other tiles, and you see your accuracy decreased. In the example below I made one correct match, and the currently visible one is incorrect. So 50% of the matches made was correct, giving me an accuracy of 50%. No surprise (but still great to see) is that the Free game mode, Tournament mode and Multiplayer mode are available here as well, just like the difficulty setting and various layouts.

The Layout Editor 

The Editor is probably the best Extra that PDAMill could possibly add to this game (not considering the Shishen-Sho and Nagori games extra’s, which, in my view, they in fact are, since I was only looking for a Mahjong game!). You can edit prebuilt level designs, and create your own new designs. Just scroll through the available layouts (where you can immediately see the highscore for each layout)…

 

or view the large pages with thumbnails of the layouts:

When you’ve picked the layout you want to edit you can start to remove or add stones (to change between adding and removing just tap “Draw”, and it will change to “Erase” mode). You can chose between three modes: the first adds one stone at the time, and the other two modes create symmetry: one mode will add a stone at the top for each stone you add at the bottom, and the other mode will add a stone to the left for each stone you add to the right. Makes building your layout twice as fast! At the top you can see how many tiles you have currently placed, and to the left you can see the coordinates for the tile you are going to place (when your stylus is on the screen). You can save your new layout or clear the entire board if you want. The Undo function only goes back one move, unfortunately. This is a pity, but only a small issue compared to the great value the layout editor adds.

Conclusion

PDAMill Gamebox Asia most certainly impressed me. Not only do the graphics, fading effects and sound effects give the player a feeling of luxury, the game is also VERY complete, featuring three games (with three game modes each); various layouts, some of which are unlockable, providing extra goals in the game; and difficulty settings . Even a layout editor to create your own levels! There’s no criticism I can think of, just two feature requests for unlimited undo’s in the editor and wireless multiplayer mode.

Oh – I just showed my screen with with Gamebox Asia to my mother. I believe that she is now genuinly considering purchasing my Pocket PC from me when it’s time for me to upgrade to a new device, so she can play this mobile version of Mahjong as well! ;-)

Name: GameBox Asia
Version: 4.0
By: PDAMill
Platform: Pocket PC
Resolutions: QVGA portrait/landscape and VGA portrait/landscape.
Price: $14.95
Download trial or purchase!

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