Empirically the best radio stations in the world.

If you just want the answer to that link-bait headline question, scroll down to the picture of the map with every country scratched off. Of course, methodology is critical, and you should really conduct your own study, so stick around for the details of quite how to do that.

But perhaps you’re not convinced of the need to do that, so first, as is traditional before the introduction of a ridiculous solution, let me sell you the problem.

If you listen to music in an office, the advent of Spotify is a disaster.

Superficially, of course, Spotify is clearly better than a regular music radio station, in that it has no ads, and most importantly you can put on exactly what you want to hear.

Oh yes, listening to what you actually want to hear – clearly the best of all things to listen to. Or is it???

There are two big problems with this in an office setting.

One is the burden of choice. You want perhaps 8 hours of music in a day, 5 days a week, without much repetition. That’s actually a lot of work to put together, and when trying this we perhaps better understand why people get paid to make radio happen.

The second problem is consensus. When there were five of us in the start-up I worked for, Stubble & Glasses, we discovered the only artist we all liked was Paul Simon. By the end of the first day, we knew we were going to need another office music strategy. And then we hired a bunch more people – some of whom, weirdly, didn’t like Paul Simon.

The obvious solution is also terrible

With radio, you accept that you’re not going to enjoy everything. So perhaps your office needs a communal Spotify playlist, which everyone can contribute to, and which also solves the tremendous burden of choice problem, since you’ve divided up that labour. And you like some of what you get to hear, and some you have to tolerate, but it all sort of evens out in the end.

Except that it doesn’t.

Because when you pick songs for a communal list, your individual incentives are not aligned with the group incentives. As a diverse group, your collective enjoyment will be higher if people pick the blandest, most widely-appealing artists they like. But as an individual, you want to listen to music that really speaks to you (which is usually not bland, and often not widely-appealing), and you also don’t want to “waste” your part of the list by choosing something that somebody else might add anyway. So you’ll be tempted to add the least bland, most personal, and least universally popular music you know.

And so will everyone else.

Excerpt from the office Skype chat while trying out a shared Spotify playlist strategy

And you’ll hate it, and eventually each other.

What about or Pandora, then?

Also terrible in this context. Both services are brilliantly designed for an individual, but in much the same way as the above, what’s good for one is usually bad for the group.

Unless you know how to make large physical love/ban buttons for the whole office to enjoy, but even then the service is going to get very confused if you have any diversity in music tastes.

But radio is so 19th Century!

I know, this seems insane. With all the developments in technology and music services, there just has to be a way that the internet makes the concept of radio better.

Well, there is. And I’m going to stop phrasing minor problems in a melodramatic fashion and using subheads in a faux conversational style so I can tell you about it.

What if I told you that you can listen to radio from anywhere in the world

You would probably shrug, because you already knew that. TuneIn radio and others have facilitated this for a while now. And with 70,000 radio stations, it doesn’t seem as if you’re making the burden-of-choice problem any better. How are you supposed to find anything good?

Here’s how.

Radio Station World Tour: The Plan

  • Listen to at least one radio station from every country in the world, using a scratch-off map
  • Keep notes on all the stations you listen to
  • Now simply rotate through your favourite discoveries!

Radio Station World Tour: The Details

I will immediately confess that this solution is actually insane. But it’s insane in a good way. Because as soon as you start, you run into definition problems. Delicious, arbitrary definition problems.

When we tried this at Stubble & Glasses, here’s how we solved them.

  • How long counts as a listen? 4 hours of listening per country. Long enough for you to get a good feel for the station, short enough that you can survive even the least palatable options.
  • What counts as a country’s radio station? If it’s listed as being in the country on TuneIn radio, it counts, especially if it’s wrong. (We’re not convinced that A-net radio really broadcasts from Antarctica, for example. But it definitely counts.)
  • What counts as a country on the scratch-off map? Everything that is named on the scratch-off map, especially if it’s wrong. (South Sudan isn’t marked. Obscure islands in the Arctic are named, and therefore count.)

Inevitably, definition problems resist even these seemingly simplistic answers, so if you really want to do this, check the Nitty Gritty section below.

What actually happens if you attempt this

There are 193 members of the United Nations. If you used our 4-hour minimum listen rule, you could in theory get through 10 per working week, and in this way you could be done inside of 4.5 months.

In practice, if you use the map as your guide to what counts as a country, and if you split up large countries on the basis that that would be too easy (see Nitty Gritty below), and if you accept that I’m massively overblowing this by saying it solves office radio and you only manage to listen to 3 world radio stations a week (as we aimed to do), you’re now up to 228 listens and a 1.5 year project.

Oh, but when you get towards the end, you’re going to discover all the problems with your seemingly simple and elegant definitions, as you search for radio stations for Arctic islands with populations under 1,000, and okay, you can come up with something to get around that (see Nitty Gritty), but this is going to slow you down.

So much, in fact, that the business folded when we were 1.6 years into the project and 93% done. So I took the map with me and finished it mostly alone.

Our listening progress. Note the inflection point around March 2013 when it gets much harder.

The Nitty Gritty 1 – Peculiarities of the Luckies Scratch Map

The Luckies Scratch Map we used appears to use the Gall stereographic projection of the globe. This projection attempts to compromise between accurately representing the relative areas of the countries and accurately representing their shape, which sounds like a good idea, except of course that this means it achieves neither. As usual, the problem of area is more noticeable, and although it’s not as extreme as the Mercator projection, the area of territories towards the North and South poles are significantly overstated.

Perhaps this is okay if you’re using the map to more conventionally record your travels, as getting to Antarctica or some of the isles of the far North is a pretty big deal, and the bigness of that deal is then represented by the amount of scratching you get to do (especially for Antarctica). But in the case of a radio tour, it’s unsettling.

There are also some covered rectangles below the scratch map which you are invited to remove if you’re visiting certain specific countries. It turns out these reveal a range of oddly-chosen pieces of trivia, only those for Iceland and Fiji being particularly useful if you were planning to go there.

The final rectangle is to be scratched off if you are visiting “Luckies Island”, which you may notice does not exist, but is nonetheless shown on the map in the Mediterranean. The inclusion of this kind of Mountweazel may be intended as a copyright trap of some kind, and was quite fun to discover, but it will be highly unnerving for pedants or completists.

In our case, we resolved that we could scratch off Luckies Island only once we had completed the rest of the known world. We could then finally scratch off the mysterious rectangle under “Visiting Luckies Island?”, which turned out to be a bit anticlimactic.

Of course, with all that said, it’s still an excellent product that made this entire enterprise that much more visceral and compelling, so you should probably click on this affiliate link and go buy it.

The Nitty Gritty 2 – Large countries

Some countries are much larger than others. (Actually some countries are 38.8 million times bigger than others, if we happen to choose the largest and smallest). So listening to just 4 hours of radio and then scratching off the entirety of the US or Russia seems disproportionate.

So we made an additional rule: if a country covers an area larger than one latitude/longitude grid area, then one must conduct one listen for each longitudinal band it covers, ideally to a station that originates from within that very band.

This was a mistake. Don’t do this. The challenge is ridiculous enough already, and if you worry about land masses you should really also worry about population density, and possibly representativeness-of-music, and the whole thing gets rapidly out of hand.

I mean, Antarctica, right. According to TuneIn, the only station (as I mentioned above) is A-net, which may or may not really be in Antarctica, and in practice just plays a selection of lovely acoustic guitar folk and suchlike on a loop less than 4 hours long. Now, although it has what sounds like an acoustic version of the Inspector Gadget theme (even better than this version; actually ‘Topsy’, a guitar duet by Duck Baker and Jamie Findlay, which I can’t find streamable on the internet but here’s another version), and acknowledging that the general mood of the station is ideal for crying to when your business is closing and you’re the last person left in the office still doing this, we have to face the fact that Antarctica does cover all 24 longitudinal regions, which according to the above rule means 24 listens of 4 hours each, which is 96 hours or 12 full business days of listening. Which is just silly. (We did it anyway, because you’ve got to stick with the rules you create, or where are you really).

The Nitty Gritty 3 – Countries with no radio available

The next problem is countries/regions with no detectable radio station, or in some cases any human population at all.

Rarely, there may exist some distinctive music that originates from the area in question, or at least some musician, so listening to that seems very reasonable. But having resolved to conduct a world tour on the basis of a scratch-off map, it doesn’t seem satisfactory to leave anywhere unscratched, even if there is no reasonable connection to any music. As such, we came up with the following order of preference for music selection:

  1. A TuneIn radio station classified as belonging to that country/region
  2. Otherwise, a radio station based on the country’s name, or a musical style specifically identified with that country
  3. Failing that, music from a specific artist from that country
  4. When that fails, just go with any music with any incredibly tenuous connection to the country, or just the name of the country, or the geographic location, or maybe just the weather there

For that last resort, one can just search Spotify using various related keywords and in this way construct a 4-hour playlist of tenuously related music, and so ultimately justify scratching off every part of the world map.

The best radio stations, empirically speaking

Having spent 2 years listening to radio stations from every country in the world, or in some cases music tenuously related to that country, I can now authoritatively list the Top 5 best* radio stations.

France – Fip (TuneIn / website / Wikipedia)
The station that started our entire tour. Tom Hensby (who you may know as one of the Three Englishmen) introduced us to this station, with its eclectic mix of genres and musical oddities, alongside a legally mandated portion of French music (also eclectic and odd), all introduced in French by presenters with fabulously sultry tones.

I was most impressed by the inclusion of this orchestral cover of an Amon Tobin track, which was not at all easy to get hold of at the time they played it:

To get an idea of their range, you might also find silly musical numbers from 50s musicals, or a lovely cover of Aquarela do Brasil.

We reasoned that if one such incredible radio station was accessible via the internet, surely others could also be found, and this was the main motivation to listen to music from every country. Fip set the bar against which all others would be compared, and a little sadly it turns out that Fip was impossible to beat, but four other stations came very close.

Turkey – Radyo Babylon (TuneInwebsite)
Original note in our spreadsheet: “It’s the new Fip!”
Overview: As eclectic and consistent as Fip, but more of an emphasis on songs with lyrics and a somewhat less soothing overall effect.

Example songs: Dengue Fever – Cannibal Courtship (stick around for the theremin-driven chorus at 1’15”):

Scott Matthew – No Place Called Hell

Megapuss – Duck people

Slovenia – Mars FM 95.9 (TuneInwebsite)
Original note in our spreadsheet:
“I dunno, I think I might  love this station – French rap followed by some Antony Hegarty?(5 hours of listening later…)This is an incredible radio station. So incredibly varied and weird and also great. Very little (any?) talk or adverts. Praised by at least 3 people in the office. And yes, 10. I went there.”
Overview: Also eclectic and consistently good like Fip, just not quite as many jump-out-of-your-chair-what-are-we-listening-to moments of amazement.

Example songs: Lollobrigida – Sex on TV, Sex on the radio

Public Enemy – I Shall Not Be Moved

Blind Arvella Gay – You Are My Dear (along with many others, here)

Russia – Ralph Radio (TuneInwebsite)
Original note in our spreadsheet: “This is actually… very good! Probably need more of a listen to be sure, but in it’s doing very well in terms of an eclectic mix with some random Russian thrown in there.”
Overview: The Russian language works for this station in much the same way as French does for Fip; unintelligible (to us), but pleasing on the ear. Also consistently good and highly varied, but a slightly stronger Western / pop influence, more likely to produce some songs we already loved.

Example songs: Fool’s Garden – Lemon Tree:

Galun – Kiberprostranstvo (trip-hop constructed out of the human voice?)

Presidents of the USA – Peaches

Mauritius – Radio Plus 88.6 (TuneIn / website)
Original note in our spreadsheet: “Super French Partytime in the office, great for a Friday”
Overview: The one stand-out radio station we enjoyed that wasn’t earnestly eclectic and wilfully obscure; a mix of French and/or bollywood tunes (and occasionally Western) with a consistently upbeat vibe.

Example songs: Dhat Teri Ki – Gori Tere Pyaar Mein

Honey Singh – Lungi Dance

Tropical Family – Turn Me On

Honourable mention: A-net radio (TuneIn / website)
As mentioned above, this was the only station listed on TuneIn as being based in Antarctica, and while it’s quite beautiful to imagine someone out there broadcasting a lot of chilled out acoustic guitar, it doesn’t seem plausible. But you should definitely check out their super 90s website and judge for yourself.

As an excellent and highly personal example track, I heard Isaac Guillory’s “Thanksgiving Eve” on A-net and selected it for my father’s memorial service that was being held the next day:

It’s also fun to read the comments on Guillory’s “Somewhere in your heart” to hear from other A-net fans.

A-Net’s playlist isn’t that long, so you should definitely check it out (either on TuneIn or their website) when you want to remember someone special, or if you’re closing up shop on the last day of a business that was outlasted by a project to listen to radio from every country in the world.

I’d say it’s ideal for either of those occasions, and possibly more.

The slightly sad thing is that once the joy of accomplishment wears off, you realise it just looks like a normal map now.

*”Best” based on a very limited sampling of radio stations available in each country. Ratings are also entirely subjective. As is everything, really.

Part-way through, Ben Pindar wrote about the radio world tour for our company blog, which has since gone away. I’ve put up a copy of his original post here.

Epilogue [added 12th January 2014] – what do you mean “Best”?

After posting this, I’ve seen some comments that made me realise my implied position on the definition of “best” might not be quite clear.

Typically, I think people do assume that an article proclaiming the “10 best” of anything will not actually provide the objective ultimate truth of the matter. It’s unlikely that the reviewer will have sampled the full range of contenders, and it’s certain that taste is subjective and an actual “10 best” list can never be compiled in a perfectly objective way that everyone will agree with.

In the case of our radio quest, we’ve clearly gone quite a bit further than usual, in that we made a reasonable sampling of hundreds of radio stations and combined the opinions of a few people, not just one. This still doesn’t give the objective “best stations” list, for the following reasons:

  • Not all radio stations are available on TuneIn in the first place
  • We only listened to a small number of stations per country, sometimes just one
  • We only listened to 4 hours of radio, when in fact programming can vary radically by time of day and day of week
  • The fact we were (sort of) judging as a panel meant that more varied shows were more likely to meet our collective acclaim
  • As mentioned, everything is subjective anyway!

With that said, in case it’s not clear, I do think there is something very powerful in this methodology:

  • TuneIn lists the genre of radio stations you’re browsing, and we tended to avoid generic pop / Top 40 radio shows (as these were mostly very similar). This filtered out a significant portion of radio stations we can be pretty sure wouldn’t rate highly
  • We actively chose radio stations listed as either local or “varied” in genre, hoping that these would have the best chance of being stand-out interesting
  • If a radio station was dull, we would switch to another one instead where possible. This increased our odds of finding stations that were consistently great
  • We did this hundreds of times!

So while I think it’s impossible to compile a “true” list of the best radio stations, this method does produce a shortlist of stations that I expect to be much more rewarding than the average “top 5” list.

And if you don’t find it to your taste, then you can of course conduct your own global search in much the same way. Good luck!

Tim Mannveille tweets as @metatim, and likes to overcomplicate things while on holiday as well as well.


S&G Summer Games Day – Puzzles & Polaroids at the British Museum

[This post was originally published in September 2012 on the blog of Stubble & Glasses, which sadly no longer exists.]

By day I’m a Senior Analyst at Stubble & Glasses, but outside of work you’re most likely to find me making tabletop/party/pervasive games as part of Octopus Fruitbat. So when S&G wanted a game-based away-day, Octopus Fruitbat was asked to come up with something.

We knew we wanted something that involved getting everyone out of the office, that encouraged teamwork, and that gave everyone a feeling of achievement at the end.

The game we came up with combined elements from a few others Octopus Fruitbat had run in the past:

  • The game would be set in the British Museum
  • Teams would first solve British-Museum-themed-puzzles
  • The solution to each puzzle would be a room number
  • In that room, the team would take an instant photo with a Fuji Instax camera…
  • … and the photo had to feature the team executing one of the given creative challenges (things like ‘a scene from a fairy tale’)
  • Points were awarded for correct room numbers and creative challenges successfully met
  • Bonus points were awarded for photos that combined elements of the room with the creative challenge, or that were just plain awesome

As a games designer and analyst, I’m particularly interested in the way teams are structured and balanced, and in this case I had a lot of data to work with – individual preferences for team-mates, relative strength in puzzles vs creativity, teamworking style, and competitiveness. Based on this, I had to come up with three evenly-matched teams of 4 (which is actually much harder than, say, eight teams of 5).

On the day, each team member was secretly told their team’s greeting (high-five, fist-bump, or shake-hands), and they then attempted their greetings with one another until they discovered their team-mates. I’m going to crudely caricature each team as follows:

  • Team High-Five: The Extroverts
  • Team Fist-Bump: A mini version of Stubble & Glasses (Director, PA, Tech, Analyst)
  • Team Shake-Hands: The Introverts

Who would win?

Team Fist-Bump / Mini-S&G ran into some trouble with a couple of the puzzles, which ultimately put them out of the running – but they did produce my favourite photo from the whole day, the world’s most epic fist-bump:

So it came down to Introverts vs Extroverts:

It was close, with a single point separating the two in the final reckoning, but with their commitment for some particularly insane/ambitious photos, the extroverts clinched it:

The winning team won cupcakes, but special (chocolate) gold medals were awarded for individual achievement, such as Benexecuting a perfect photobomb:

What did we learn?

The format seemed to be successful – everyone really did get to contribute something, and every team had quite a few photos they could be proud of. And actually, team Mini-S&G were only one point behind the Introverts in the end, so the team balancing seemed to work.

But what should we do next time? Given an almost entirely flawless performance in puzzles (as we might have expected from a bunch of analysts), and with photo creativity now well tested, perhaps it’s time for something else entirely…

Tim Mannveille (@metatim), writing as part of @OctopusFruitbat


Smash Cops Heat: Guide to achieving 150/150 stars

[Full disclosure: I posted this guide in August 2013. As of January 2014, I have started working for Hutch Games, partly because I loved this game so much. I’m not working on Smash Cops Heat, but I feel I should explicitly state that I’m leaving this post exactly as I originally wrote it.]

I also reviewed Smash Cops Heat here.

Smash Cops Heat can get quite tricky in the later stages of the game, and getting 150/150 stars is especially challenging. I didn’t see any advice online for the later stages of the game, so now I’ve achieved 150/150 stars I figured it would be worth sharing my tips and level strategies for anyone out there that’s having trouble!

First, one big caveat: Hutch are evidently improving and tweaking the game quite often. Over three months, I’m pretty sure the duration of a Supercop changed twice (and the power of an Instaram probably changed as well). As such, the precise number of power-ups you need to use may well differ from those I list below, depending on which version you have. Also, of course, it’s entirely possible you’ll be more skilled than me, in which case you won’t need as many!

Difficulty curve: the three phases
My playthrough experience of Smash Cops Heat had three very distinct phases, with the difficulty curve changing quite steeply with each one. These were as follows:

  1. Progress all the way up to ~119 stars (out of a total of 30 levels x 5 stars = 150) was steady and smooth, with no need for Instarams or Supercops
  2. Getting from 119 to 135 stars (to unlock the Guardian) was much harder, requiring strategic use of Instarams and Supercops on some levels and/or a lot of focus on learning felon routes
  3. The Guardian enables you to relatively easily ‘complete’ the game, getting at least 1 star on each level. At that point, the game points out you should really try to get5 stars on every level. If you want to achieve this, you’ll find the difficulty level escalates again, requiring more Instarams and Supercops, a lot of route learning, and a deeper understanding of exactly how the game calculates damage.

Even for the final stage, I got by using only the Instarams and Supercops given for free once a day. Someone less patient than me might prefer to buy them though, as my complete playthrough took about 2 months playing a little each day, and I practiced some of the later levels extensively to find out the smallest number of power-ups possible. Alternatively, someone more skilled than me might need fewer of these power-ups to begin with!

Guide and Tips
There are two things that can help you out if you’re struggling with the game: specific strategies for levels, and general tactics or tips about game mechanics. Figuring these out is a big part of the fun though, so to reduce the potential for spoilers, I’ll list both level guides and general tips in the order I needed to discover them. That way, if you’re stuck, you’ll hopefully find the one bit of advice you need by working your way down this post.

Phase 1: The quest for the Reaper

Getting the first ~119 stars and unlocking the Reaper (by collecting 20 donuts) is the first and easiest phase of the playthrough. I didn’t find I needed to use Instarams or Supercops, although they could have saved me some time on a few of the more challenging levels. That said, there’s still a few useful things to figure out on this part of the journey.

Tip #1: You don’t need to use a RAM to cause a Smash
The game heavily encourages you to damage the felons by ramming them from the side or front, which results in a satisfying slow-mo ‘Smash’. This is indeed a great way to deal damage while sustaining relatively little yourself.

However, it’s not the only way. In levels with time pressure, it’s useful to know you can also create a Smash by colliding with the felon front or side with a high closing speed – most easily, by getting in front of them and then turning around to collide head-on. In a level with a whole series of felons in a row, if you can get ahead of the pack, you can Smash each one sequentially as they attempt to drive past you. The slow-mo generated by a Smash helps you manoeuvre to pull this off.

Tip #2: Focus on the end of level report
To  get a full 5 stars for a level, you need to achieve a gold ranking for time, health, and suspects arrested (with one notable exception that I’ll get to later). By paying attention to this report, you can get an idea of how to improve your strategy to get the full 5 stars. If you’re really struggling, you might have to figure out the exact criteria for achieving gold by trial and error, so you know just how much you can compromise on the easiest criteria in order to achieve the hardest. For the levels I struggled with, I list below what I was able to work out about the exact criteria needed. Do note, though, that these might also change with future updates of the game.

Tip #3: Get the donuts
For me, the balance of skill required vs vehicle unlocked played out perfectly until around 110 stars. By this point I had the incredibly fast Raptor (unlocked at 105 stars), but was really struggling to get the additional stars to unlock the Sabre (unlocked at 120 stars). Then, even with the Sabre, it becomes extremely hard to get the additional 15 stars needed to unlock the mighty Guardian.

I assume this was deliberate, because this is exactly where the Reaper comes in. Unlike any other vehicle, you can get the Reaper once you’ve got 20 donuts.  The Reaper is very fast and strong, but has a huge tendency to drift – which actually makes it a lot of fun to master. I didn’t get anywhere with the Sabre at all – I used the Reaper pretty much all the way in order to unlock the Guardian. So, collect those donuts and unlock the Reaper as soon as you can!

Tip #4: Donut strategies
Of course, you have to find the donut pieces first. Although the potential for going off-route is high, I found the donuts were only ever just off the path you would naturally follow to complete the level, and in the majority of cases can be spotted just by keeping your eyes peeled.

Each level holds 3 donut pieces. The good news is that if you find any piece and then successfully complete the level, that piece will be locked and you’ll never have to pick it up again. The bad news is you do have to actually complete the level, and in some cases this is pretty tough (especially level 20). For those levels, you have to focus on picking up one donut piece in any given playthrough, and you might even want to use a Supercop to help you take the diversion necessary and still qualify (although I didn’t find this was necessary for any of the levels, even the later ones).

Once you have the Reaper, it’s not too hard to reach ~119 stars without using any power ups.

Phase 2: The quest for the Guardian

Pushing through to 135 stars is quite tough. I found that where before I could complete a few levels and net 5-15 stars per playing session (of about 10-20 minutes), at this stage it became more like just 1-3. There were a few levels where this took some extra effort, so I’ll list my tips for those here.

By the way, if you’ve enjoyed the game so far, this would be a good point to show your appreciation by buying a different skin for the cars! That’s what I did, anyway, and I appreciated the variety it added to the experience.

Level 20: Transfer high profile prisoner across town
Once you have the Reaper, this isn’t too bad – the important thing to note is that you’ll need to take out 3 suspects along the way to get the full 5 stars.

Level 22: Pursue and arrest the two stolen security trucks
This was the first level I encountered where it was really tough to get gold for all 3 criteria. Based on the best I did when getting silver, and the worst I did when getting gold, achieving gold needs the following:

Time: Between 1’33” and 1’35”
Health: Between 72 and 80
Felons:  You have to get both the security trucks and the green vehicle!

What makes this particularly hard is that the location of the green vehicle isn’t indicated with an arrow. It’s also quite tough to eliminate all three felons without sustaining too much damage yourself. In the end, I found that using the Reaper I needed one Instaram to take out the green vehicle, and simple route memorisation was enough to do the rest.

Level 23: Pursue and arrest the three mafia suspects
Despite initially seeming difficult, I ultimately found I could complete this level using the Reaper without any power ups – it just took a lot more route-learning and practice than earlier levels. Criteria for gold are:

Time: At least within 37″
Health: Between 81 and 76
Felons:  All 3

The most important strategy to use was the one I mentioned earlier – getting ahead of all three felons, then turning around, ramming the first, and then just colliding into the next two as they drive towards you. While they’re all recovering, you have enough time to turn around and get ahead (provided you know the route they’re going to take) in order to repeat the manoeuvre when your RAM recharges.

Level 24: Collect all the evidence in time and take out suspects
This is tough because you have to be quick, but also take down 5 suspects while sustaining very little damage yourself. After trying a few different strategies, it seemed to me the only way was to make use of two supercop powerups.

Criteria for gold are:
Time: Between 1’11” and 1’12”
Health: Between 72 and 78
Felons: 5

Fortunately, the gang of felons is ready to set upon you right at the start. I used the Reaper, and I started by using a couple of Supercops to take out the requisite 5 felons immediately (making sure to count them carefully), then set off to collect all the evidence in a roughly circular route, starting with the piece that’s immediately towards the right from the starting position.

This is still quite tough to pull off, so I practiced quite a bit first: taking out the felons without any Supercops, and speed-running the route a few times. This way I could make sure those Supercops weren’t wasted when I did deploy them. Even then I only got it on my fifth try, so burned through 10 Supercops in total.

Level 26: Pursue and arrest the two chop shop suspects
The speed and route taken by the felons make this level a bit of a challenge. I used the Reaper, and once I learned the route, I still needed one Instaram to make all the gold criteria, which are as follows:

Time: Between 1’02” and 1’17”
Health: 81 was sufficient
Felons:  2

Beyond standard route learning, this one required a bit more planning and figuring out shortcuts to get ahead of the felons. For example, at the start, I didn’t follow the suspects down the alley they turn left into but instead went straight on to take the next left and intercept them both as they emerge. This same trick can then be repeated along their route. Even then, as I mentioned above, it took one Instaram to make sure I took them out in time and without sustaining too much damage myself.

Tip #5: Damage calculation
To progress beyond this point, it’s really useful to know a bit more about how damage is calculated in the game so you can apply it for maximum advantage.

I studied physics, so at the back of my mind I had this idea that in a collision, the closing speed of the two vehicles was the most important factor, and they would both encounter a roughly equal force that would cause about equal damage to each. Granted, there will be differences based on the exact point of collision and the structure of the two cars – one car driving into the side of another will probably fare better, for example – but in general both should take some damage, a bit like this:

In practice, that’s clearly not the case in Smash Cops Heat. The game explicitly lists tiered levels of ‘ATTACK’ and ‘HEALTH’ as characteristics that vehicles possess, so we could assume a vehicle with a high Attack crashing into one with low health will deal out a significant percentage of damage while taking relatively little itself – but experimenting in the game suggests there’s actually more to it than that.

From what I can tell, in any collision there are separate damage calculations for each vehicle. You as the cop will damage the felonious vehicle in proportion to your absolute speed towards it at the moment of impact. This impact will be boosted if your vehicle has a high attack stat, and will do a higher percentage of damage to the felon if they have a lower health stat.

Meanwhile, the same logic applies in reverse. Your vehicle will suffer damage in proportion to the speed of the felon towards you, again boosted by their attack and your health stats.

What this means in practice

This is particularly important in levels where you have to take out a large number of tough felons while sustaining very little damage yourself. In particular, if you Ram a tough felon head-on, while they are driving at full speed towards you, you will take noticeable damage. Over the course of the level, this can add up and easily put you below the ~80 or so health you’ll need to get gold.

So in those kind of levels, you’ll need to focus on ramming felons when they have a relatively slow speed coming towards you. This is most easily done when they’re turning a corner, but it’s also very advantageous to ram them while they are briefly stationary immediately after righting themselves after a successful smash. While this is very unlikely to cause another smash, it should still do a good deal of damage while you suffer none yourself, and is especially useful if time constraints are tight.

Level 27: Pursue and arrest the four race drivers
This is pretty much the definitive level for the strategy of getting ahead of the pack, then ramming them all in sequence as they approach you. It took some practice, but in the end I achieved 5 stars using the Reaper without using any power-ups.

Time: Between 1’12” and 1’40” (when I eventually made it, I did so by a big margin!)
Health: between 70 and 79
Felons:  4

The first 15 seconds of this level are crucial. I wait briefly for the other cop to pass on the left, then take the immediate left turn and follow around to the right in order to intercept the felons head on. Having smashed them all (ideally as they’re all cornering, as per Tip #5 above), it’s possible to quickly get ahead and repeat the process on the next bend. At this point you should be able to quickly finish off one or maybe two of them, before going on to chase the rest down. If you’ve learned their route and take some shortcuts, you can take them all out before any of them even cross the bridge.

That said, I think I got pretty lucky on the playthrough in which I eventually achieved 5 stars, and that was after a lot of practice. It would probably help a lot to use a Supercop or two near the start to reduce the need for so much trial and error.

Level 28: Smash away the offensive protest signs
This level is very different to any of the others, and is a lot of fun. In terms of achieving 5 stars, the biggest difference is that you don’t need to get a gold for speed. This is because the difference between a bronze and gold for speed is just 400 points, whereas you get 100 points for every sign you smash. As such, the only real criteria for 5 stars is this:

Smash between 193 and 204 signs.

Naturally, you’ll want to use the Raptor – it’s very hard to even qualify without it. Given the above, the key strategy is to swerve all over the road to take out as many signs as possible, while still making it to the end in time. But also be aware that there’s some street furniture which is easy to mistake for signs, so try not to waste time smashing into that.

Timing of Rams is crucial – it’s tempting to use one to get a jump-start at the beginning, but I found that didn’t work out so well. It’s pretty much essential to use a RAM to help quickly get around the sharp corner towards the end.

It took quite a bit of practice, but in the end I got 5 stars without any power ups. It’s possible that a Supercop or two would make this slightly easier, since they increase your speed.

Unlocking the Guardian

By this point you should have been able to unlock access to the final levels. It’s very hard to get more than one or at most two stars on these without the Guardian – although those stars are still useful of course for helping you edge closer to unlocking it. Level 31 is just fine with the Reaper though, so I’ll cover that as the last part of this section.

Level 31: Destroy as many containers as you can
In the first instance, it’s quite easy to get a few stars out of this level just by avoiding the felons and smashing all the containers you can find. Getting 5 stars is quite tough though, and I used the Reaper and one Supercop to do so.

Time: At least within 1’59”
Health: between 71 and 83
Containers:  All 12

What makes this level hard is the three very tough felons, who make it very difficult to finish with sufficient health to get gold. The advantage is that they won’t start to chase you until you go near them. Because of that, I went with a strategy of smashing all the unguarded containers first, then smashing the guarded ones in quick succession to reduce the likelihood of being damaged before getting them all. Unfortunately, one container is placed in a cramped corner where it’s difficult to avoid getting hit – this is where I used the Supercop.

What’s critical therefore is the route that you take. I drew my own crummy little map of every container and felon and planned my route out based on that, and I found this worked pretty well. I’m not about to share that map here, because I’d be embarrassed, and also, I don’t want to take away the fun of making a map from you. I mean, how often do you have to do that in game these days? It’s proper old-school!

Phase 3: The quest for 150 stars

Given the above, you should now have unlocked the Guardian. It should be pretty easy to finish off the remaining levels with at least one star and technically ‘complete’ the game. But of course what you want to do now is get a full 5 stars for every level. This is going to take even more practice and power-ups than the previous levels – but is eminently possible. Here’s how I did it.

Tip #6: Get the rest of the donuts anyway
Even though you don’t need them for anything, I found it really beneficial to hunt down the remaining donut pieces using the Guardian.  This turned out to be a great way to get used to its handling, learn a bit about the pathing on the final levels, and practice taking out the felons. As such it provided an achievable-yet-challenging objective that’s not quite as hard as getting the last stars.

Level 29: Stop the three runaway carnival floats
The difficult part here it taking out all three floats quickly enough, as they’re quite fast and wily. I did it using the Guardian, but had to use 5 supercops and 4 instarams to take them out quickly enough while sustaining little damage!

Time: Between 2’01” and 2’04”
Health: 85 was enough
Suspects:  All 3

Routing and order is crucial to finish within the gold time. Here’s what worked for me. Start by turning immediately left, then turning into the 3rd parking lane (the one before the end) and ramming the head of the hilarious runaway monster float. Turn straight back on yourself and you should be able to run into the float’s body coming up behind you. Now, you can alternate back and forth between the head and body Ramming, Instaramming, or just driving into each one in turn. If you’re lucky (or very skilled) you can even have them run into each other.

Eventually they’ll manage to slip past (they are wily, after all). At this point, focus on the head – you should be able to eliminate it with a few more rams. If you’ve done this quickly enough, you should now be well placed to intercept the already-weakened body along its route, and take that out with a few more rams.

Finally you just have to hunt down the tail. Remember damage calculation as described above – it’s advantageous once you’ve smashed it to quickly get distance then drive into it again, even without a ram of any kind. This way you should be able to keep it pinned and finish it off pretty quickly.

I practiced the above route quite a bit without using any power ups, until I could do it reliably – but I’d always end up with at most 20 health. I then played it seriously, deploying a bunch of Supercops each time I was attacking a float, and instarams from time to time. I used a total of 5 Supercops and 4 Instarams, and got the five stars right away.

Level 30: Get to the picket line and arrest anyone in your way
This level took me more practice and attempts than any other, and is where I finally needed to figure out the damage calculation (as described above). You can snag 2 stars using the Raptor and just dodging all the cement mixers on your way to the finish, which is pretty fun, but to get the full five stars, you really do have to arrest anyone in your way. Using the Guardian, I was only able to do it with the help of 5 Supercops and 4 Instarams.

Time: Between 2’04” and 2’11”
Health: Between 93 and 74
Suspects:  All 5!

Damage control is a huge challenge here: even if you use a Ram, if you’re driving into a cement mixer coming towards you at full speed, you’ll take damage. Because of this, you’ll want to make sure you’re either using a Supercop, or ramming them while they’re stationary or turning a corner.

There’s one other good trick here: the cement trucks are slightly faster than the Guardian, so if you’re driving directly away, they’ll creep up behind you and drive into your rear end, nudging you slightly. This gives you a slight boost in speed and slows them down, so if you spin on the spot and ram them at that moment, they’ll be slow enough that you don’t take any damage.

In terms of route, it’s already defined, so it’s just a matter of where you make your stand. After ramming the first truck, I would turn around to drive into it one more time (not causing a Smash, but dealing some free damage), then using the above damage control techniques to slowly take it down while following the route, and finishing it off before reaching the next set of trucks on the bridge.

On the bridge, after ramming through the blockade (it’s possible to hit both with one ram if you’re lucky), there’s just time to turn around and re-ram, drive past, then turn around and hit them again on your way back along the route.

Similarly when you reach the next two trucks you can ram them, then turn around and hit all four of the trucks now on your tail, then turn around and hit them all again on your return to the normal direction of the route.

From this point it’s a matter of continuing along the route and using the damage control methods to whittle them down – keeping careful count of how many are left (I would count down from 5), as you need to make sure you destroy them all.

Finally, in terms of practice, I tried doing all the above without power-ups until I could make it in within gold time and take out all 5 trucks (while sustaining a huge amount of damage). Then I tried properly, replaying until I successfully took out the first truck without any power ups or taking much damage, then using Supercops and Instarams to help with the remaining four. Even then, I burned through pretty much all the Supercops and Instarams I had accrued by this point re-playing it until I finally got the full five stars. Fortunately, you don’t actually need any more after this. (Unless you count the bonus levels!)

Level 32: Stop the five trucks intent on destruction
The final level looks initially almost impossible. You have to take out 5 garbage trucks, all of which are dropping garbage on the road to damage you and slow you down. Fortunately, with the right route, it’s possible to 5 star this with the Guardian without even using any power ups!

Time: Between 2’03” and 2’20”
Health: Between 77 and 72
Suspects:  All 5

Two of the trucks make an immediate right – follow them, ramming the one that’s slightly behind. That one will continue to head off to the right, and you should pursue it and ram it (while the other one splits off) – with a few rams, and charging back into it while it recovers from a ram (as per the damage calculation tip above), you should be able to finish it off quite quickly.

At this point, just following the arrows should allow you to meet the remaining 4 head on and all in a line – a perfect opportunity to ram the first and smash into the others in sequence. Once you become familiar with their route, you can even make sure to do this while they’re cornering and so at their lowest speed, significantly reducing the damage they do to you as you smash into them. You can then take the time to quickly finish one of them off as you did the first.

Once again, if you follow the arrows and get familiar with their route, it’s quite easy to get ahead of the remaining 3 once again all in a line, and as they corner, allowing you to ram and smash them in sequence, and finish one or even two of them off on the spot. From that point it’s quite simple to chase down any left over.

If you’re not done by 2’30”, you may as well start over, since it’s mostly about finding and practicing that initial route. As I mentioned above, if you catch them on the corners, you can do without power-ups entirely, although I imagine using a Supercop at those points would help a lot too.

Well, that’s it! The congratulations message is a little underwhelming, but it’s the achievement that counts.

If you’re on iOS, you could go on to try the next in the series at this point – Smash Bandits.

Bonus Missions
Once you’ve unlocked all the vehicles, 5-starring the bonus missions is pretty easy, with the exception of B2 – “Get to work on time”!

Since it’s all about speed, you’ll naturally want to use the Raptor. However, without using power-ups, my best time was 35.95″ – still a bronze. Using Supercops almost continuously and with instarams used on pretty much every straight, I eventually got gold. Based on my best scoring silver, I can therefore state the gold time is as follows:

Time: Between 31.11″ and 32.34″

So, that’s it. If you have any questions or comments, go ahead and add them below.


[Full disclosure: I posted this guide in August 2013. As of January 2014, I have started working for Hutch Games, partly because I loved this game so much. I’m not working on Smash Cops Heat, but I feel I should explicitly state that I’m leaving this post exactly as I originally wrote it.]


Smash Cops Heat: Post-completion review

[Full disclosure: I posted this review in August 2013. As of January 2014, I have started working for Hutch Games, partly because I loved this game so much. Given the chronology (and lack of influence this blog actually has), you can see that this should be objective review, but I’ll let you be the judge of that!]

Succinct and factual contextual opener: Smash Cops Heat (iOS | Android) is the free-to-play incarnation of the original Smash Cops (iOS only) by Hutch.

The game involves chasing down criminal vehicles and “arresting” them (or as below, cautioning illegally parked cars) by repeatedly ramming them until they blow up. So, the theme is clearly compelling.

In terms of controls, there’s something rather innovative happening: wherever you put your thumb on the screen, your vehicle will try to drive away from it. This leaves your other thumb free to hit the RAM button which will give you a brief burst of speed, which, if you were so moved, you could use to smash into another vehicle to assist with an arrest. And this turns out to be rather brilliant, with a nice learning curve and the potential to develop a lot of skill.

On top of all that, the game is free. Free!

But of course at this point, even if you’ve bought into the above, this freeness does mean some alarm bells start ringing. The criticism levelled at many free-to-play skill games is that as you progress, they try to slowly turn into a ‘pay to win’ game without you noticingby ramping up the difficulty to the point where paid power-ups are the only way to progress.

In theory, Smash Cops Heat is doing exactly this. It does offer you things you can buy to make it a little easier, and ramps up the difficulty with periodic gates to new content. But it’s actually fine. I’ll explain why I think it’s fine later, but first, here’s how the paying bit works.

Things to buy
That RAM button takes a little while to recharge, but at the start of the game you are given a small number of ‘Instarams’, which you use by hitting the RAM button while it is in a recharging state (which is therefore very tempting to do). You’re also given some ‘SuperCops’, deployed by hitting another button, that will make your vehicle practically invincible and a little faster for a short time.

Once per day you are given 4 Instarams and 2 Supercops, and you can of course also buy these power-ups in much larger quantities. So, the scene is set for ‘buy to win’.

Difficulty ramp / gating
When you complete each level you get a star rating out of 5. Later groups of levels are only unlocked when you achieve a certain cumulative total number of stars. But more compellingly, better vehicles are unlocked for achieving certain (different) numbers of stars.

Therefore, if you’re a few stars shy of unlocking a new vehicle, maybe you want to use some Instarams and Supercops to get there, and then the new, better vehicle will let you achieve more stars – and so unlock more levels.

What actually happens
Despite the above, what really matters is just how difficult the levels get (against your own skill at the game), and just how many Instarams and Supercops you need, given that you get a small number for free each day.

To their credit, Hutch have actively been updating and optimising the game: the difficulty curve is pretty smooth (at least for the first 2/3 of the game), and the duration of Supercops and power of Instrams  was even increased by around 50% in an update that came mid-way through my playthrough.

As such, with some effort, I was ultimately able to achieve the maximum star rating for all the levels, without paying for any additional power-ups. The game is therefore definitely not buy-to-win – it’s at least possible, albeit not easy, to do everything without paying.

Incidentally, since I was getting a huge amount of fun out of it, I went ahead and paid for some of the cosmetic upgrades as a way to show appreciation to the developers. In particular, I went for the gold chrome skin, which is twice as expensive as the other skins, but as you can see is much more than twice as good:

Just a standard-issue police Ferrari
The UK version, which being a Brit, I found pretty hilarious
Gold Chrome police Ferrari. If you’re going to arrest people by ramming them until they blow up, this is the best way to do it.

Difficulty curve: the three phases
My playthrough experience had three very distinct phases in which the experience of playing the game was quite different. These were as follows:

  1. Progress all the way up to ~119 stars (out of a total of 30 levels x 5 stars = 150) was steady and smooth, with no need for Instrams or Supercops – so I ended up accruing quite a few due to the daily allowance of these.
  2. Getting from 119 to 135 stars (to unlock the Guardian, which is a, er, police articulated lorry) was much harder, requiring strategic use of a few Instarams and Supercops on some levels and/or a lot of focus on learning felon routes
  3. The Guardian vehicle enables you to relatively easily ‘complete’ the game, getting at least 1 star on each level. At that point, the game points out you should really try to get 5 stars on every level. If you want to achieve this, you’ll find the difficulty level escalates again, requiring many more Instarams and Supercops (pretty much the entire supply I’d built up to this point), a lot of route learning, and a deeper understanding of exactly how the game calculates damage.

As I said, I got by using only the Instarams and Supercops given for free once a day. Someone less patient than me might prefer to buy them – my complete playthrough took about 2 months playing a little each day, and I practiced some of the later levels extensively to find out the smallest number of power-ups possible. Alternatively, someone more skilled than me might need fewer of these power-ups to begin with!

Overall, I’d highly recommend it as one of the best mobile games I’ve played. It involves real skill, has an enjoyable learning curve, and is balanced in such a way that you don’t have to buy the power-ups if you’re prepared to take the time to improve your skills and strategies. Perhaps most importantly, doing so felt like a real achievement (unlike finishing a lot of mobile games), to the point where I feel more proud of these pixels than is sensible:

(I’ve now posted a guide to getting all 150 stars here).


[Full disclosure: I posted this review in August 2013. As of January 2014, I have started working for Hutch Games, partly because I loved this game so much. Given the chronology (and lack of influence this blog actually has), you can see that this should be objective review, but I’ll let you be the judge of that!]