Just before they closed their doors and merged with the Sims guys, EA’s Casual division partnered with the Dummies franchise to bring gamers a new, higher quality of educational entertainment (otherwise known as edutainment). With two PC titles and one DS one, it was EA’s goal to deliver a fun—but educational—gaming alternative for the “non-gamers” out there, and maybe even teach the regular core gamers a thing or two.
The DS release in the series, Travel Games for Dummies, seems to be the most fun-oriented of the bunch. Unfortunately, for the most part, it’s anything but.
For those of you with long commutes on public transportation each day, let me start off with this warning: Travel Games for Dummies is not worth its initial price tag of $29.99, especially if you’re buying it to play games you already enjoy. The title is literal for this game; it’s only going to be enjoyed and appreciated by those who have no experience with the three included games: Sudoku, Crossword and Solitaire.
Each of the three games is broken up into three sections: How-To, Practice and Play. The How-To mode is the main purpose behind this game, and its goal is to simply teach you how to play the game you’ve selected. This takes place in the form of demonstrative and interactive lessons in both gameplay tactics and terminology. For example, if you’re going through the How-To Play Sudoku lessons, you’ll learn what the little rows and columns of boxes are called.
Sudoku and Crossword also teach you how to write the letters and numbers on the touch screen, if you’re so inclined. Each letter and number can be written in approximately five different ways, so unless your writing is as atrocious as mine, chances are the game will recognize what you want to do. If it IS as atrocious as mine, you can always pull up a display of letters or numbers on the side and just tap which ones you want.
While the Sudoku and Crossword How-To sections are fairly obvious if you’ve ever even tried the games (really, does it take that many steps to explain how a crossword puzzle works?) the How-To section for Solitaire is actually fantastic and informative. If you’re like me, you’re probably only familiar with two forms of solitaire: Klondike and Spider. (Klondike is the default one on most computers.) While it does explain how Klondike solitaire works (is that necessary?), Travel Games also teaches you the basics and rules of nine other forms of solitaire: Pyramid, Scorpion, Penguin, Golf, Canfield, Yukon, Monte Carlo, Accordion and Free Cell. I had no idea so many versions of the game existed, and after playing some of them and seeing how they’re played, I’m a little saddened at the lack of my options on my PC.
After you’ve mastered (or skipped) the How-To sections, you have two choices: go to the Practice mode, or skip and start playing. The Practice mode gives you several puzzles in your game of choice, and helps you put what you’ve learned to practice. Basically, it’s exactly what it sounds like.
Finally, there’s the third and final mode: Play. For both Sudoku and Crossword, you’re able to select which difficulty level you want to play at; newcomers can play on easy, experts can play on hard, and the rest of us can play between the two. For Solitaire rather than offer various difficulty levels, you’re able to select any of the solitaire games and are given a generated layout of cards, much like you’d get when you start the game on your computer during work.
My main issue with the Play section has to do with difficulty. For some games, even hard seems too easy at times; specifically with Crossword. Neither I nor the other people I had trying the game had much difficulty clearing puzzles on hard. On the flipside, the game modes in Solitaire can be brutal, and it’s quite possible to go a dozen plays without winning. I’m no expert on Sudoku, but it seemed to be on par with the puzzles I’ve completed in newspapers and books.
So how does the “edutainment” as a whole function? That’s really hard to say. On one hand, I can see people who want to learn how to play Sudoku and solitaire learning better from interactive and visual demonstrations. (I don’t even want to picture the person who needs a lesson in how to complete a crossword puzzle.) On the other hand, at $30 it’s really hard to justify paying the price. You can easily get daily crosswords and Sudoku puzzles in newspapers or cheap $1 books from the grocery store—and those have many more puzzles. Like the books, the purpose of this game is to teach those who aren’t familiar with the subject how to play them. If that’s you and you’ve got $30 to spend on what amounts to electronic lessons, go for it. If you’re just looking for more Sudoku puzzles, crossword puzzles or some quick solitaire to play, you’d be better off buying a couple of $1 crossword and Sudoku books from the grocery store, and buying a $5 electronic solitaire handheld. It’s a better value, and you’ll get more bang for your buck in terms of entertainment.