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.

-Tim

[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.]

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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).

-Tim

[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!]

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Playing Urban Nightmare: A live-action thirty-player semi-co-op zombie-outbreak simulation game

“So let me get this straight, chief,” I said, 5 minutes in to my first day as the Chief of Staff at the State Police, “you’ve had no formal training and have only been in the job for a month; and the only reason you hired me and the deputy is because nobody with any real experience actually applied.”

“That’s about right. But things are pretty quiet round here! We’ll have plenty of time to pick things up as we go along.”

Little did they realise that in nearby Romero City, a zombie outbreak was already beginning…

***

This was no ordinary game. This was Urban Nightmare, a Megagame with 30 odd players representing 8 key organisations, simulating a realistic official response to a zombie outbreak over 6 hours, representing 3 days of time in the game. It was intense, challenging, and eye-opening in so many ways.

At the time of writing, another run of this game is planned for Leeds on Saturday 17th November 2012 – you can read about it and sign up here (although you’ll need to do so pretty quickly). I’ll give an overview of what Megagames are, and write up my experience of Urban Nightmare below – keeping spoilers to a minimum.

What are Megagames?

The strapline of the Megagame Makers website calls them ‘multi-team multi-player wargames’. The closest similar game I’ve seen is Diplomacy, but megagames investigate the mechanics of conflict and co-operation at a much deeper level. They are large (20-50 players), and long (lasting one or two days).

I first came across the idea through a friend-of-a-friend, who described a megagame he’d designed to recreate the key factions and power mechanics of a certain period of Anglo-French history. He was particularly excited that at one point some players tried to stage a coup, but it failed – and this was exactly what happened in the actual historical period!

Obviously, I found that idea very exciting.

Megagames explore a whole area of gameplay I’ve never seen before: a very large number of players making a lot of tactical and strategic decisions, over a long period of time.

It seems like a way to gain genuine understanding of how organisations and society work. If a historically accurate failed coup can naturally arise with the right starting conditions and game mechanics, this seems like a genuinely powerful way to simulate and understand such systems.

Unsurprisingly, this is not a new idea: it’s part of the spectrum of military simulations which have been tried in one form or another for as long as humans have been making war.

On the downside, it superficially sounds a bit dry and difficult for the players. The introductory leaflet I received upon registration listed some of the key things players enjoy about these games:

  • There’s no score, which is great for players that are averse to highly competitive games
  • To a large extent you set your own goals – you may want to try to do outdo your historical counterpart, or just find out what happens if you stick to a particular strategy that you’re curious about
  • You feel like you’re part of momentous events, in a way that smaller scale games with momentous event themes (like Pandemic) can’t achieve.

***

“Was that someone from the city police? What did he want?”

“They had a few trouble-makers this morning, sounds like they were high on something. Took a surprising amount of effort to contain them, apparently.”

“Why are they telling us this?”

“No idea.”

***

How is Urban Nightmare different?

This particular Megagame, being concerned with a zombie outbreak, does not in fact directly reflect an actual historical event. The designer, Jim Wallman, observed that in most zombie fiction, the focus is on individuals, and the government seems largely useless – until towards the end, when the military usually comes in. He wanted to know: how does that happen exactly?

Brilliantly, he used as a starting point a megagame he’d made earlier that dealt with a similar issue (in terms of official response to an unexpectedly large scale civic problem), although I won’t reveal what it is because I think it’s best for players to be as unprepared as possible. However, there were quite a few key changes, and the version I attended (Saturday 17th March 2012) was the first time it had been run.

Urban Nightmare in brief

Players could select from one of the following teams: the City Police, State Police or National Guard; the Emergency Services, City Hall (Democrat) or State Governor’s Office (Republican); The Press, or an intriguing corporation with a major research office in the city called Necrotech. There was also a fairly large Control team, who ensure the smooth running of the game.

Brilliantly, through a mix of self-selection and active choice on the part of the designer working with the regular players, many of the roles were extremely well cast. In this case, the state governor and city mayor roles were taken on by people that seemed like they could have legitimately held those jobs in real life (as opposed to twenty-somethings with an abnormally large sense of entitlement), and three key roles at Necrotech were taken up by a trio of players notorious within the Megagame player base as being somewhat shifty and traitorous, who all turned up wearing suits and suitably sinister shades.

The game was planned to take place over 6 hours, with each ‘turn’ (in which each team collects information and makes decisions) taking 20 minutes of real time and representing 4 hours of in-game time. In total, 18 turns would represent the first 3 days of the outbreak.

My experience: briefing

After registering, I received a comprehensive briefing pack in the post consisting of:

  • Cover letter
  • Maps
  • Newbie Guide
  • Overview of Urban Nightmare
  • Team Briefing (state police)
  • Attendee/Cast List

I diligently read through all this material, and was only slightly alarmed by the repeated reminders in the newbie guide that it was only a game and some people might come across as surprisingly abrasive while playing, but this isn’t personal and in reality everyone is definitely really friendly.

I wasn’t too worried as I’d signed up with a friend (albeit one who hadn’t played a megagame before either), and we chose junior roles in the State Police, a team we anticipated wouldn’t be as critical to the co-operative zombie-fighting effort as most of the others.

The instructions also said that although we knew going in that the game was about ‘zombies’, we should try not to use this unnatural precognition in our initial choices in the game, and in particular we shouldn’t make any assumptions about the nature of the infection (if it was an infection) or how it was transmitted (if it was transmitted). I was very happy to do that, because I was really interested in the premise of the game: realistically, how would a zombie invasion play out? Quite obviously, in the initial stages, there would be a big barrier of disbelief. How does that barrier eventually get overcome?

My experience: On the day

I got to Anerley Town Hall at 9am, and relatively few others had arrived. I was welcomed by Jim Wallman, the game’s designer, I bought myself an all-day tea subscription from the service hatch, and started to put some faces to the names I’d already seen on the roles sheet that came with the welcome pack.

It wasn’t long before we had our whole State Police team together: myself as Chief of Staff, my friend as the Deputy, and a guy who had played one megagame before as the Chief – a quite significantly inexperienced team. Our table was set up with a state map, a city map, and and an overwhelming stack of counters representing our units.

***

“That was the city police again – er, apparently their HQ is under seige and they’ve lost several units.”

“Lost? As in killed?”

“Yep”

“What on earth is going on?”

“I have no idea. But we should probably send in a few units to see if we can assist. Not too many though, we’ve got a state to look after here.”

***

The first few turns played out much as I’ve described in the fictionalised interludes so far. The game then began to switch gear (for us), and it felt like we were receiving new information, discussing plans, writing out orders, liaising, and most exhaustingly making decisions just about constantly after that. Occasionally there would be a brief lull, during which time I could take advantage of my tea subscription.

Brilliantly, one of the ways we became aware of developments was through the media – a one-page ‘newspaper’ was distributed every hour, and occasionally press conferences were held in which key figures put out their official story (to some heckling).

I remembered that the instructions had warned: “The game can get very complex, try to remember that it’s just as tough for everyone” – and that was a useful idea to cling on to when it started to feel overwhelming.

If you want to attend the upcoming run and avoid any spoilers, you should probably stop reading now, but in any case I won’t reveal much more other than my favourite moment, when my friend said…

***

“If what we’re hearing is right, the City Police have lost half their units in the last 24 hours.”

“That’s… very serious.”

“I’m taking this straight to the governor.”

***

My Observations

Maps Maps Maps
I remember once reading somewhere “the map is not the territory,” which sounded like good general advice, but through my experience of video games where the map really is the territory, I didn’t internalise it. Here, the map only updates when you yourself update it, and you have partial or even incorrect information on how to do that. This was a fascinating problem, made slightly more difficult by the fact that our city map really wasn’t big enough to arrange the counters on it clearly.

Pacing
Once things took hold, it was incredibly hectic – more hectic, Jim later revealed, than he had anticipated. This created its own problems: the Control team had a hard time keeping up, and as a result turns began to start later and later, but with no big public announcement of when they were, so we had to frequently find someone to tell us what turn we were in right now. It seems like turns could be more efficiently communicated – if nothing else with a big flip chart with the current turn number indicated at one end of the hall (and ideally someone ringing a giant gong to announce the end of a turn).

A second problem is that I think you’re generally supposed to hear back from Control what happened to your units as a result of the instructions you issued. But they had such a hard time keeping up with everything that very often we’d hear nothing back, making it much harder to understand what was happening. Eventually I found I would more reliably get some feedback if I livened the instructions up a bit with phrases like “for the love of God” and “try to do [x]… if that fails, pray.”

Scale
Due to the above issues, it felt like the game was at the limit of its scale, but if they could be addressed (and if players could be found) it could get even bigger. In particular, just from the cast list and arrangement of the hall, we knew the game couldn’t really accommodate a major outbreak in another city within the State. But because we were interested in a realistic simulation, we as the State Police considered that a real possibility, and held units in reserve just in case. (That did come in handy later for another reason, but probably wasn’t a good strategic decision).

I really liked the idea of introducing a surprise element of the game though – a secret part of the hall we were playing in being revealed to have players and a map representing another city at the moment it starts to get zombied up – or maybe towards the end when/if our containment attempts have failed, a bunch of people in zombie makeup run into the hall and start trashing the place. But that’s probably just me.

Conclusion

I had read before about decision fatigue, in which it becomes hard to make decisions if you have recently made a bunch of other (not necessarily related) choices. This aspect of the game was so intense and so prolonged (near-constant decision making for around 6 hours) that I found myself unable to cope with most decisions for the next two days, which was a bit inconvenient, but also, fascinating!

If you have an interest in large-scale games, human-based simulations, or a very practical approach to zombies, I would highly recommend taking part. As I mentioned at the start, another run of the game is due to take place in Leeds this Saturday 17th November. You can find out more about other upcoming megagames, or megagames in general, at their site.

UPDATE! (13th April 2014)
I didn’t realise this at the time, but James Kemp commented on the progress of the outbreak from his perspective with the emergency services team in real time. So if you want to get an idea of how the outbreak played out, you should check that out! Follow that up with his post-script in which he switched to a Federal role and had a very different set of concerns.

-Tim Mannveille, of Octopus Fruitbat

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Competitive Sandwich Making at the Weekender

We came up with Competitive Sandwich Making for a Hide&Seek Sandpit event back in August 2011, and ran it a few more times with friends later. We were keen to develop the game further, so were delighted when Hide&Seek invited us to run the game as part of their 2012 Weekender event (which at the time of posting still has Sunday to go).

In particular, based on previous runs, we knew that the piece design could be improved. There were a few pieces that were almost never chosen by players, so they were made slightly more appealing. We also thought there were a few too many small pieces, as we noticed that games could drag out at the end while players filled in their last few gaps with no real effect on their relative scores; also, whenever a player tried the strategy of grabbing all the small pieces early, this took them far too many turns, ultimately leaving them in too weak a position to be in with a chance of winning.

We also wanted to improve the permanence of the ranking system, so we upgraded the Earl of Sandwich stickers to badges:

Finally, the original run of the game didn’t have a very high player throughput: it took about 15 minutes for 4 players to be briefed, play a practice game, then a real game, meaning we could reach at the most 16 players per hour.

One quick fix for this was to run two instances of the game side by side – and we roped in a couple of friends to help us with the additional supervision needed (big thanks to Deb and Phil, standing in the pic below, which also features the key phrase players have to utter if they wish to exchange a piece).

Secondly, as noted last time, the game took as long to explain as it did to play, which isn’t great. Effectively using the dimensions of this problem against itself, we incorporated the player briefing into the players’ first playthrough of the game.

With both of these improvements in place, players could learn and then play the game within about 12 minutes, giving us a maximum throughput of 40 players per hour – much better!

As an added bonus, Hide&Seek provided us with a volunteer to help us run the game for the whole evening, which meant we could rotate supervision and get to play some of the other amazing games on offer. Thanks guys!

So, how did it go?

The in-game briefing part worked well (once we learned where to put the emphasis and which parts needed repeating), and we were pretty consistently busy, so we ultimately had 108 players take part (with 4 winners returning for a Big Cheese match, the winner receiving the first Earl of Sandwich badge), which gave us 32 an hour – excellent!

The improved piece design also had the desired effect – no pieces were systematically ignored, play rarely stalled in the endgame, and one player took the small pieces early and won as a result. We also got a lot of positive feedback on the game from a wide demographic mix of players. Hooray!

Where next for Competitive Sandwich Making?

We’ll continue to find opportunities to run the game (mostly just to get enough Earls of Sandwich that can ultimately face one another to achieve the still-secret ultimate ranking), but more satisfyingly, the piece design is now at a point where we can look at upping the production quality, most likely using a 3D-printer to create much more robust playing pieces, and perhaps one day even putting the game in a box and selling it. Stay tuned!

-Tim and Clare, aka Octopus Fruitbat

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