Puzzle and Dragons is a free-to-play match-three gacha puzzle MMO that has RPG and strategy elements. It is developed by Gung-Ho Online Entertainment, a Japanese video-game developer and publisher. The game is currently celebrating its 10th Anniversary and has consistently been one of Japan’s top grossing mobile games. The series has spawned its fair share of spinoffs, like Puzzle and Dragons BATTLE, an augmented reality competitive game with an e-sports scene exclusively for Japan and Puzzle and Dragons X, an 89 episode long anime.
At its core, Puzzle and Dragons is a turn-based tile-matching puzzle game, where the number of matches made contribute to the strength of the attacks. Players are given minimally 6 seconds to continuously move an orb across the board, while attempting to make as many matches of 3 as possible. Orbs come in 5 different types and follow a familiar rock-paper-scissors relationship, with monsters taking more damage to elements they are weak against and taking less damage from elements they are strong against. As with games typical to this genre, light and dark are solely weak to the other type.
Those wanting to give the puzzle mechanic a go can visit the website below. Note that the simulation can be run on mobile devices for a more authentic experience.
The Strategic part of the game comes naturally in the form of teambuilding when talking new dungeons. As this is a gacha game with a long history and almost 10,000 units to collect, players will each be equipped with a unique set of monsters each with its own strength and weaknesses, making teambuilding a unique experience for every player.
Each unit comes with an active skill, a leader skill and awoken skills. Active skills require afew turns to charge up and gives buffs, debuffs or changes the board. Leader skills boost the health and damage of the team if certain conditions are met, for example a leader skill could reduce incoming damage by 75% of 3 dark matches are made in a turn. Awoken skills improve the damage of the unit if certain conditions are met. An example of this would be the “L” awakening, that multiplies the unit’s damage output when orbs of the unit’s element are matched in an L shape.
Putting both the Puzzle and Teambuilding mechanics together, we get a highly customizable gameplay experience, where players who are more confident in their puzzling abilities can opt for leader skills that are harder to activate, whereas players less confident of their skill can opt for leaders that boost their defensive stats more, or load their team with various active skills to blast away any potential walls they may face.
Enemies in the dungeon each have an attribute and health, which are depleted as the player attacks. They also have a small turn cooldown timer to specify how many turns before the enemy next moves. More challenging dungeons see enemies using more special attacks, like voiding/absorbing damage above a certain threshold or imposing hazards like restricting the board size or preventing the player from moving orbs in an area.
Puzzle and Dragons was made in Unity back in 2012, originally released for iOS devices before being ported to android 7 months later. Since then, the game has been developed for Kindle Fire and more recently for Nintendo Switch.
The story of Puzzle and Dragons consists of numerous side stories without a clear main narrative line. Originally, these side stories were revealed in a discrete way, by revealing bits of background information in the form of Active / Leader skills and short 1-line dialogue when fighting monsters. More recently, the developers have added a story mode to more clearly relate the side stories of numerous original characters and occasionally collaboration events will have a time-limited story mode.
The lack of a story is not a hindrance especially when considering the numerous collaborations that Puzzle and Dragons has had over its long history. Instead of trying to be one coherent story, the game’s side story structure lends itself well into its collaborations that span across 100 different titles including McDonald’s, Seven-Eleven and SoftBank Mobile’s robot Pepper.
Puzzle and Dragons has not updated its sprites since its initial launch a decade ago. A majority of its character portraits are very vibrant, cartoony and all follow a similar aspect ratio. Characters from collaboration events also follow this scheme while still retaining their original art styles. In a class JRPG style, art in dungeons is limited to the enemies and backgrounds. These usually consist of a simple 2D splash with the occasional animated background and small visual effects.
The menus and UI of the game similar to an arcade style and the font used is big and rounded while still being extremely readable on smaller devices.
The Elemental Tetrad
These 4 elements as mentioned above work with each other to create a mid-core game that is easily accessible and deceptively simple. Being a game played in portrait mode, a majority of gameplay can be done with 1 hand, making it easy to play during commute. Players can also save their premade teams into different slots, allowing one to hop into a game session instantly. Having the aesthetics and story simple also lowers the barrier to entry and the great depth of mechanics and skill expression keeps players hooked for a long time.
The Lens of Reward
While there are numerous types of rewards, they can mostly be boiled down into 2 main categories.
In classic gacha style, characters that players obtain have a multitude of ways to be upgraded, which are paramount to the player’s progression. Units have to be leveled to gain stats, awoken skills need material to activate, units need more material to evolve amongst many others. The game routinely hands out these rewards, with dungeons dedicated just to farming them. These upgrade materials all come in the form of special units whose descriptions relay to the player their purpose.
To the new player, all options to improve their unit of choice are displayed when they choose to upgrade their unit. The game also filters out the types of material they will use when upgrading this unit, making it clear to the user despite the huge amount of upgrade types available.
To the more experienced player, meaningful upgrades to their units start becoming few and far between, being mainly locked behind the hardest content. While these upgrades are extremely potent, it is possible for the player to be unable to clear the content without getting better units.
The generosity of upgrades to a meaningful level means that newer players can power through content to catch up with more experienced players and experienced players are able to develop more units to test out their team compositions. As there are so many different units in the game, this frequency of rewards is nice so that players spend more time fighting harder content instead of farming easier dungeons for their rewards.
The main revenue source of the game is through magic stones which are used to pull for new units in the main, seasonal and collaboration shops. Unlike most gacha games, Puzzle and Dragons does not feature a pity mechanic, meaning players can spend hundreds of dollars trying to chase for 1 unit yet never get it.
Instead, the game is extremely generous in handing out magic stones. In the most recent Player’s appreciation event, the developers gave away $300 USD of magic stones to every player, letting the average player roll for units to their heart’s content.
As a gacha game, more premium currency is always a good thing. More magic stones means more units, which means more teambuilding and more fun. However, too many units can be an issue for newer players — while its a good problem to have, without experience to judge the strength of a unit, new players may find it overwhelming.
Lens of Skill
Puzzle and Dragons is deceptively a skill based game. To the beginner, the biggest hurdle is getting used to the orb moving mechanic, a skill that can be as simple as playing the game Candy-Crush style. The game has a long tutorial that can be skipped as well as multiple training floors for players to develop these mechanics, allowing even the newest of players to get accustomed with the unique gameplay.
As the number of units a player has grows, teambuilding starts becoming a quintessential part of the game. While some players can use their greater skill to crack through harder content, one can also as easily come up with a team specifically geared to combat the mechanics in a dungeon, reducing the skill needed to spin the puzzle.
When approaching hard content, the skill required ramps up significantly. Harder dungeons means more dungeon mechanics and harder enemies means one needs more damage, which normally comes from having leader skills that are increasingly difficult to build a team for. From here on, tougher content can be made easier by having rare units that require magic stones to acquire, or through play testing your team, getting better mechanically and refining it to suit the dungeon’s needs. This is where some players may decide to start spending money, to keep up to date with the newest and strongest units to solve their weaknesses. Players still stuck after this process would face a huge wall of difficulty, being unable to clear harder content to get stronger.
Lens of Interest Curve
The feeling of finally getting your favorite unit, clearing an exceptionally hard dungeon for the first time, or getting an exceptionally high combo count all add to memorable moments that piques the Interest curve. This is a skill based game with a myriad of random elements so naturally, things may work against or for the player.
A game with as long a history as Puzzle and Dragons would have a challenge keeping the interest of its players. However Puzzle and Dragons keeps players wanting to come back by their numerous collaborations with popular and outlandish titles alike. The developers also routinely buff older units to make it compatible with newer and harder dungeons, giving a boost for players to get past difficult walls.
To keep players sustained with content, the game pushes out harder and harder content every few months, each having more unique mechanics and twists to the standard gameplay loop. To combat this and promote new content, they equip their collaboration units with more and more buffs, resulting in a huge power creep issue over the years.
To the normal player, chasing these updates would be extremely meaningful to get the most powerful team possible. However having experienced the game from when doing a million damage was incredibly powerful, to now casually reaching the integer limit and still not be able to kill a monster, this cycle can get repetitive. Instead of a challenge, waiting a few months for power creep before reattempting a hard dungeon sometimes becomes a more enjoyable experience.
The Lens of Story Machine
One’s memories and experiences of the game varies wildly depending on the date they started playing the game. With Puzzle and Dragon’s constant updates and seasonal collaborations that may not come back, every player has access to a unique set of monsters with a unique set of solutions for every dungeon. New players with more recently released units may have the raw power to complete harder dungeons, but experienced players can still tackle them by cherry picking the perfect team from their larger pool of units, providing everyone with a unique story.
Puzzle and Dragons is a great game to have while commuting. The constant puzzle solving element gives a constant challenge, and the frequent rewards the developer pushes out allow you to constantly roll for new units even without playing the game frequently. If you are looking for a Free to play friendly gacha, or are inspired by similar games in the match 3 genre like Puzzle Quest and 10000000, this could be the game for you.