Since Apple Arcade launched, I’ve meant to try out many of its games, a number of which look terrific. And yet I can’t for one primary reason: Grindstone. Aside from dabbling in What The Golf and Card of Darkness, Grindstone remains my go-to mobile game a month after launch, and I’ve developed what feels like an unusual strategy for a puzzle game: taking big risks and quitting when backed into a corner. And my greed is to blame.
Your goal in Grindstone is to take out enough enemies–ideally in long chains of like-colored groups–to open the exit door and make your way out. Standard enemies don’t pose any danger to you, but leave them on the board long enough and they’ll attack adjacent tiles if you end a turn next to them. As you progress further into the game, special enemy types pop up that are a greater threat. That includes one who steals the precious grindstones created by long combos and which allow you to shift from attacking one color of enemy to another in a single turn.
While there are ways to avoid damage, the consequences of losing health are fairly severe. You have only three health points, and any you lose have to be restored between levels by spending gems you earn by playing. This has the makings of a microtransaction-fueled nightmare, but thankfully Grindstone’s place on Apple Arcade means it’s free of any in-game purchases, and thus there’s no worry that a tough level is meant to push you to spend real-world money.
Still, I find myself avoiding a loss of health at all costs. At any time, you can quit out of the level you’re on, sacrificing any materials you’ve collected but saving yourself from a dangerous situation. And to spare myself spending any gems on health–feeding into my hoarding tendencies when playing games–I often back out of levels rather than suffer any damage, even if I could take a hit and ultimately still finish the level. Damage is not inevitable: More often than not, I can complete all three objectives in a level and safely escape without ever taking a hit. Quitting lets me take care of the perfect run I always strive for. Sure, I could return to a level to take care of a missed objective, but why not get it all out of the way on my first completion?
This strategy plays into the ultimate challenge that all players will run into in Grindstone: greed. Your primary objective in any level is to kill enough enemies to open the gate and escape, but it’s only later in a level that you’re presented with optional objectives (killing a particular enemy and, separately, obtaining a key and using it to open a chest). On top of the materials you can obtain by killing special enemies, you’re heavily incentivized not to exit a level as soon as you’re able. Instead, you’re constantly reeled back in with the prospect of further rewards–but at the risk of losing health or even death. When you see an enemy on the opposite side of the map that you’re sure you can take out (netting you further rewards), it’s hard to pass up the opportunity.
That same lure is there when you see a long chain to be executed that might land you far away from the exit–unsure of what enemies you’ll be surrounded by on the next turn and thus whether you’ll be able to make it out safely. The desire to dive back in rather than exiting is driven in large part by greed, but also the sheer satisfaction of long combos: The combination of sound effects and visuals make for an intensely delightful experience. Longer chains see your character progressively move faster as it’s executed–save for particularly heavy hits where the action momentarily slow down, not unlike landing a big hit in Monster Hunter. This is a purely visual flourish, but it feels fantastic every single time.
Other times, I can’t help but stick around just for the thrill of it. It’s not often a puzzle game with no time constraints makes me feel like I’m on the edge of my seat, and yet Grindstone is most fun when I say “screw it” to the smart choice and get the adrenaline pumping by taking big risks. That may result in the occasional retreat like a disastrous XCOM run, but the sheer exhilaration when things work out is well worth having to hit Quit once in a while.