The best use of four days since showering and eating regularly

I thought I could do it. It had been a while since I had fallen off the wagon. All the devices in my house were purged of Triple Town, and I hadn’t been caught in public screaming about “ninja bears” for quite some time. So when Spry Fox released their newest game, Leap Day, in a browser beta, you have to believe me when I say that I genuinely thought I could just take a quick look…so you’ll lend me the money for some extra crowns, right?

Besides being the reason I’m writing this review unkempt and in bed, Leap Day is Spry Fox’s latest attempt to use free-to-play mechanics for the powers of good instead of for the forces of evil. And a very successful one at that. It’s been described offhand as “Farmville meets Trainyard,” but in true Spry Fox fashion proves to be so much more than the sum of anything which may have inspired it. Ultimately, it harnesses the most fun elements of resource management, and mashes them together with strategy, puzzling, and spacial negotiation to deliver something that will have you asking why no one’s thought of it before.

Leap Day

Speaking of before, we last checked in on the project at 2012’s Casual Connect in Seattle, where Spry Fox’s David Edery broke the news to us about an exciting game codenamed Hoppington, which would have players working together to harness resources towards a common goal in sessions of play that splayed out over seven real-time days. Since then, the title’s been refined into what you see online right now at leapdaygame.com. Seven days has been shortened to four, and the vague promise of co-operative harvesting and building has been sharpened into a wonderfully clever premise.

Lay down lengths of track to direct adorable marshmallowy creatures around a plot of land collecting wood, fruit, stone, and more to deliver them to a central mallow monarch. Optimize delivery to yield a higher coin payout, and you’ll be able to afford more advanced infrastructure and expand your domain outward. For good reason, too! The world is plagued with the constant threat of takeover by barren icy terrain, and the monstrous icy baron who lives within it. Over four real-time days, players work together with up to seven others to lay claim to enough land to fight off eternal winter, with success depending on the smart observation of your fellow players’ actions, as well as a healthy dose of passive and active cooperation.

Leap Day

It’s been a painfully long while since I could say this about any free, browser-based game set among greenery, but practically everything about Leap Day is unique. Right off the bat, Spry Fox does away with the standard compulsion loops that plague the “pay to advance” subgenre of freemium, instead crafting an environment in which satisfying playfulness is always possible. Instead of being limited by cool-down times of any sort, players have a bank of coins that defines their access to resources, and topping up that bank depends on wrangling the open environment with carefully laid track that maximizes access to resources and to the central drop-off point. What could have been taken for granted as an auto-pilot mechanic is instead harnessed as one of the most crucial, interesting parts of the game, turning Leap Day into a delight for players of thought provoking puzzlers and real-time strategy titles. In this way, Edery’s original mention of influences like Ticket to Ride and Settlers of Catan still stands true in the game’s near-complete form. 

Spry Fox also show off their consummate design chops with a great internal structure that breaks the game down into meta-days known as “leap days” that operate independent of the game’s ongoing countdown to damnation. Vastly truncated periods of time, leap days are silent monitors of your success, showing you in tangible terms how well you’ve plotted your tracks to collect resources by illustrating clearly how well you can do in a set period of time. In the least heavy-handed way possible, the game uses internal constraints to apply the pressure you need to rethink your strategies, make necessary changes, and gain huge satisfaction from your incremental improvements. Make no mistake: Leap Day is no cake walk, proving dishearteningly hard for the spacially noviced at first, but the manufactured progress of night and day makes the game feel like a genuine journey, and puncuates the moment where the sun rises in view of your finally perfected set of tracks, working like the well-oiled machine they should. 

Leap Day

That really is the core joy of Leap Day, for me – the creation of perfectly interlocking machinations. The buildup from a set of basic tracks that lead past a tree and to the central hub, up to a humming circuit in which items harvested from one end of your plot are passed systematically across a network of cranes, and refined into dazzling gems before being deposited to the prince. This is to say nothing of the game’s robust roster of item combinations, which will have players scratching their collector’s itch in an attempt to engineer for maximum item variety, and mine the game for new money makers. In this way, Leap Day manages to bring actual meaning to the buzz words of being for “hardcore and casual” players alike, with an experience that is sure to delight skeptics and devotees of freemium across the board. 

In some ways, the game’s true staying power will be put to the test when it emerges from beta, is given more marketing muscle from Spry Fox, and perhaps arrives on other platforms like Android and iOS. The early experience of ambient co-op is reminiscent of all things that made Journey‘s unobtrusive multiplayer wonderful, with priority given to observation and respect over griefing of any sort. Huge bonus points to Spry Fox for making a line of communication a costly coin sink in the form of an expensive telephone booth. Want to troll somebody against the spirit of the game? That’ll cost you! Mainly, though, I need this thing to gain wider circulation so I don’t have to draw awkward glances as I babble on about this great new game I’m playing. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have some flyers I have to print off and distribute around town.