Frivolity: Monument Valley and Slay

16 Nov

* Note: Non-food post.

I’ve been using my iPad a lot in the past year (you can see it in many of my restaurant visits), mainly using the Kindle app to read books (stranded from Amazon 2-day delivery, the immediacy of access to a Kindle book is currently an acceptable trade-off for the lack of a physical book). But this month, I’ve been trying some of the iPad games, and I’ve been really impressed by Slay and Monument Valley. (Another honorable mention: Hitman GO)


Monument Valley, a beautiful iOS piece of art masquerading as a game, released some paid DLC this weekend. I happily paid the $1.99 for the extra content of Monument Valley (though it apparently created some bad ratings for the game on the iOS app store). It surprises me that anyone would complain about the cost, because the hour of beautiful visuals that Ustwo has created is stunning. Innovative gimmicks like the twisting serpentine pillars (appendix world 2), the Escherian ending of the halcyon world (appendix world 5), and the perspective shifting world of deceit (appendix world 6) are all mind-expanding additions to the stable of impossible geometries in Monument Valley. The meditativeness reminds me of the casual game Knytt (a casual game I played about 5-6 years ago), but is way more lush.

UX Design note: I also like the not-too-responsive button in the world select, where I can press the button once, and before it fades to black (to the world), I can press the world select button again. That UX gives me a sense that the world moves at its own pace.

Game Design note: I also really like that there is no need for a reset button. That to me signifies thoughtful level design.

Monument Valley is not really a game in the sense of skill. It is a completely linear journey through a beautiful piece of art. The challenge comes from figuring out the right method of manipulating the levers and cranks on the level. But I love the world of impossible geometries it portrays.


Slay is one of the most addictive games I have played. I first played it on a friend’s Palm in 2003, constantly playing it. Then I re-encountered it in 2006-7, playing the Windows version on my Desktop. I even created a few maps for the game. I recently re-discovered the game on iOS, and have been whiling my hours away conquering imaginary islands.

For the uninitiated, Slay is a game where you are set on a single island with 5 other players, and have to conquer the entire island and make them your colour. The territory is hexagonal in nature, and you have various units (peasants, spearmen, knights, barons) that can conquer various structures (houses and castles). The basic rules are here:

The geometrically increasing food costs of the units (peasants = 2, spearmen = 6, knights = 18, barons = 54)  keeps it a brutal game, one of sudden cut and thrust. Over extend yourself, and a winning position is quickly turned into a losing one.

What is truly impressive is that Slay is the work of one Sean O’Connor, who wrote it for the Atari ST all the way back in 1989 (!) I have not seen a website detailing the Slay strategies I’ve figured out (or is that re-figured out?), so here are a handful of tips from my most recent deep-dive into Slay (on highest difficulty):

  1. Your units protect your land. So it is not always necessary to use your peasants (1st level) to find new land. Sometimes, the best use of a new unit is to protect a tenuous piece of land you already own. In the quest for the new, we risk losing the old.
  2. You don’t have to be protect every square of land you have from potential cut-off. It makes you too conservative, and the AI will grow at a faster rate than you. On the highest difficulty, the AI will make every effort to link two pieces of land (e.g. Brown) on either side of your land bridge (Light Green), in a pincer movement to establish a connection between his territories
    • But if there are two colours (say Brown and Yellow), it may not be necessary to protect the land bridge. That is a calculated risk one must take – and assume that the opponents (AI or human) are not malicious.
    • These unguarded risks are some of the most exciting parts of Slay. If the same player is on either side of your unguarded territory, it is 100% that he will try to take it, so guard it. But if different players are on either side of unguarded territory, it is quite likely that the territory will go unmolested.
  3. If you fail at a map, try and try again, to see the recurring patterns. Is Brown dominating lower right, and then overwhelming you quickly at upper left and lower left? (the situation on the map Rouft, also the win I was most proud of). Then put a castle on lower right, playing a delaying action so that the (inevitable) extinction of your territory lower right requires Brown to use his knight (3rd level) and that slows Brown down enough to link the two territories on the left side before Brown comes like a tidal wave.
  4. My favorite part of Slay is game-changing “conga line”, a strategy viable in the last third of the game, where one can churn out 3-5 new peasants per turn. In that phase, the fun part of dividing the opponent’s (there is usually only one in the end-game) territory begins, since the peasants can come out of your territory like a cheap snake and bisect/trisect/quadra-sect the opponent’s territory. Since upkeep for the biggest units increase geometrically, I much prefer using an endless rush of small units to kill the opponent’s big units (knights and barons) by partitioning territory so that they starve to death, rather than killing their big-units by creating an expensive white elephant (e.g. baron vs knight). Example: I used the conga line to defeat an opponent who already had control of the center in Rouft, by getting behind the lines of his big units. The downside of this method is that the many deaths create a thicket of trees, but you will have the little units to chop them down. At the end of that game on Rouft, the entire island was full of trees.
  5. Sprinkle in large units as Knights to maximise your chances of keeping your little men alive.
    • 1-3-1-1-3-1.
    • In this way, you can go 6-deep into an opponent’s territory. (Replace with spearmen/barons as appropriate)
    • Notice your line can only be killed by barons (4th level), or by cutting off this expensive line at the root.
  6. Use castles to maintain your hold on the conga-line. Peasants and castles are your best friend. It is analogous to a tower rush in Warcraft 3.
  7. Keep castles on the side of territories with (significantly) less than 18 hexes. This is so they can’t sustain a knight to knock it down.
  8. In the early game, link your territories as fast as is feasible, while making sure your territories are protected.
    • Your hut will protect adjacent hexes in early game, but so will other opponents’ huts. I haven’t figured out if it is better to first take hexes that next to my hut AND an opponent’s hut, or to boldly link up hexes a bit further away from my hut.
    • One possible point of improvement in my game is better consideration of the opponent’s situation. There are 6 players on any map. I usually err on the side of defensive caution in the first third, only turning heavily offensive in the last third of the game. But perhaps a better consideration of the opponent’s circumstances will allow me to take more risks in the first third of the game. So far the only systematic criterion I’ve come up to take better early-game risks is what I detail in tip 2, which is to assume non-malice when there are two different players on either side of my tenuous territory.



image image_1 image_2 image_3 image_4 image_5 image_6


Another illustration of “divide and conquer”


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