Lok Out!

Not included: worm things. Except as illustrations, that is.

A few months back, I found myself unexpectedly delighted by Blaž Gracar’s All Is Bomb, an 18-card microgame that felt ten times its size thanks to some serious puzzling and a bevy of expansions. Since then, I’ve been playing through one of Gracar’s puzzle books, the pocket-sized LOK.

And when I say “playing,” I mean “fumbling.” In a good way.

I love it when puzzles look like crazy person sketches.

A simple one.

In its early pages, LOK doesn’t put up all that stiff a challenge. The first few pages aren’t even puzzles so much as tutorials, breezy explanation of how the game works. At first glance it could pass for a distant cousin of the crossword and word search families. Presented with a basic grid, your task is to fill in every square.

The twist is that your tools are, well, LOK. The word. “LOK.” It’s nonsense as far as I can tell, although that might be my ignorance of Slovenian showing. By marking off LOK, you also get to fill in one other square, whether that square should be blank or filled with another letter. Once the cells separating them are marked, any adjoining letters now become adjacent. Bit by bit, the word LOK transforms a clean grid into a penned-in mess. The mess of success.

But it isn’t long before LOK justifies the inclusion of a dry-erase sheet. Unlike your run-of-the-mill crossword, any given puzzle requires multiple attempts to complete. After a few pages, a new keyword appears. TLAK, like LOK, fill in spaces. Two in this case, and they must be adjacent. Like that, Gracar’s puzzles double in complexity. He’s only getting started. By the third chapter, you’ll learn the rules of yet another keyword from observation alone. By the fourth… well, I’d rather not spoil it.

I’ve always adored puzzle games, especially those that ask their players to break out of the box. In that regard, LOK joins a recent wealth of puzzle games, many of them digital, that revel in trial and error, exploration, even the wild delight of realizing when a puzzle might spill over from the cage that previously confined it. There’s a bond between Gracar and his readers, a mutual trust, that when he declares you can learn a new rule by fiddling with an example or two, absorbing a page of openly unsolvable situations, and maybe letting your subconscious chug along while you sleep on it, you can solve everything he throws at you. And if not, the solutions are freely available at the back.

As strange as it might sound, it’s also cozily familiar, at least for anyone who’s also tinkered with All Is Bomb. They’re playful in a similar way, adding new elements until the whole thing feels unsolvable, only to rebound like a cracked whip when everything falls into place. It maybe helps that its nonsense language has a way of standing out against the page, nudging you to look for commonalities. Helping my daughter with her third-grade word searches, my eyes inevitably settle onto LOKs and TLAKs and LOLOs, like the objective is to scribble the entire page black with a crayon.

In which I draw reminders of the tools I've been given. Now I keep a reminder card as a bookmark.

Getting trickier.

Its one weakness, I suppose, is that it isn’t a game that brooks delay. More than once I’ve left it sitting for a week only to return to find my puzzle-solving skills gone to dirt. I’ve begun working through it on a schedule, one or two puzzles a week, doing my darnedest to explore its deepest reaches without getting too dizzy. I’m almost there. The end is so close. I’m almost hesitant to finish.

But I will get there. LOK is too good to leave alone. One more reason Gracar has become one of the up-and-coming designers I’m most eager to watch develop.

 

(If what I’m doing at Space-Biff! is valuable to you in some way, please consider dropping by my Patreon campaign or Ko-fi.)

A complimentary copy was provided.

Posted on December 15, 2022, in Board Game and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. 7 Comments.

  1. “There’s a bond between Gracar and his readers, a mutual trust, that when he declares you can learn a new rule by fiddling with an example or two, absorbing a page of openly unsolvable situations, and maybe letting your subconscious chug along while you sleep on it, you can solve everything he throws at you.”

    This line sent me back to the wonderful hours I’ve spent playing Jonathan Blow’s The Witness, which I would qualify as the best puzzle game i’ve ever played without hesitation (if you haven’t plyed it or Braid, his first game, I would heartily recommend it). Both are videogames, but The witness in particular feels very close to pen and paper for a big part, and the way it teaches you its rules by making you practice easy puzzles before making things harder is very well made.

    • I haven’t published it yet, but I had the pleasure of interviewing Blaž for the podcast. He mentioned The Witness as an inspiration. (I’ve played both it and Braid as well.)

      • Neat, i’m looking forward to listen to the podcast, it’s always a great moment (you even managed to make me interested in Marvel snap wih the last one, and that was a long reach).

  2. A lot of games that you review are somewhat hard for me to access but you make me kind of fall in love with the designers.

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