The Flans aren't having a lot of luck running their kingdom, possibly because unless you're reading Hannibal Lecter's recipe book flans typically don't have brains. Fortunately, they're more than willing to let you take the reigns in Leap Day, a puzzling real-time strategic online cooperative multiplayer simulation from SpryFox and Sparkypants, who combined forces to make the most devastatingly adorable game about sentient puddings ever. From your palace, you'll help the Flans grow and develop a thriving economy by building the land up around them, developing homes, roads, and finding recipes to create factories. Of course, you'll also have to defeat the evil snowy fortresses threatening the land along the way, but luckily for you you'll be working and growing alongside other players also striving to banish the cold. (Note that playing Leap Day requires you to register a free account.)
Each game is a cooperative session where a certain number of players can freely join and work together to win within a certain number of real world days. Presented in top-down Omnipotent-o-Vision, Leap Day is presented as an open field on which you can build if you have the cash and freely develop your kingdom. At the left is a panel of all the building options available and the gold you have. Just click an option, then click anywhere onscreen where you're given a green square to build it, using the "pickup tool" to reclaim it if you made a mistake. Leap Day is divided up into day and night cycles. Each day, Flans emerge from their homes and begin work. If their path passes by a resource like food or water, they'll snap it up and continue to your palace, where they'll sell it for gold you can use to build more things. At the end of each night, all resources replenish themselves. Since your basic everyday foraging isn't worth that much, however, you'll have to build factories. When placed, factories contain a number of receptacles, and passing Flan will drop whatever they're carrying in an open one. Find the right combination of raw materials and you'll unlock a recipe which the factory will begin crafting, allowing you to deliver these new, fancified goods to the palace for an even bigger payoff. Make sure to check your Recipedia (the little hammer icon) for a list of discovered recipes, as well as some clues to others.
So far so simple, right? Well, here's the thing about Flans. They'll always proceed in a straight line, but if given a choice, they'll always turn right unless they can't, in which case they'll turn left. They won't turn around, they won't stop and ask directions. They can only follow the paths you set out for them, and as such, running a successful kingdom comes down to figuring out how to lay out the proper configuration of paths that will take each Flan by the resource you want, to the place you want, without them getting stuck. It'll take a lot of careful planning to get things running smoothly, and once you add things like cranes into the mix, which allow you to transfer goods a certain way along paths, it becomes even more important to lay out your landscape efficiently. Don't worry, you'll unlock more things to build with as you play! To defeat the dark forces in each game, you have to deliver certain goods to certain altars, building Fire Towers to melt the snow so you can build your way forward. You'll be working with other players who also have their own kingdoms to run and are trying to do the same things you are. As a result, you'll all be on the same field working towards the same goals, so feel free to peep on someone else's progress for hints and tips on how to optimize your own. Since there is rare "loot" (building materials) to win for defeating bosses and minibosses, you'll definitely want to work together!
Analysis: Leap Day is, in a nutshell, exactly the type of free social multiplayer game we need more of. It's casual, it looks great, it's easy to pick up, but most importantly, it's also far more clever and involved than almost any other game of this type out there. It's one thing for a game to just keep you busy and entertained for a few minutes, but quite another to actually engage you and make you think, and Leap Day deserves some serious props for trying to do both when so few others even bother. It manages to be both approachable and simple in a way that will drag in new players of all experience levels, yet still unexpectedly challenging in a way that will keep fans of titles like Manufactoria happily busy for hours. And then they went and made it really, really cute too, the fiends!
As of this writing Leap Day is currently in Beta, which means there are still a few kinks to be ironed out, like messages not vanishing when you click them and other minor bugs. It's also not the sort of game for players who don't like planning, since just plopping down paths and structures without taking stock of your surroundings won't really get you anywhere. Especially when the cost for everything from roads to houses increases with each purchase. Further, the game's tutorial is only helpful as far as grasping the basics go, and newcomers to this sort of puzzle/strategy hybrid will be lured in by the stellar visual appeal only to be intimidated by both the pressure of real-time gameplay and mechanics only briefly touched upon in the instructions. You'll have to be willing to stink at it a little the first time, but this is where Leap Day's unobtrusive co-op functions can be a blessing. While you might be embarrassed to see someone's utopian society chugging along like clockwork beside your disorganised mess, it provides a great opportunity to learn by example and observation. You're working together, after all, not competitively, and once you get used to that you'll have a much easier time of things.
The game does, of course, implement microtransactions, and while you can play for free as long as you want, the only way to start a new game is to either wait for your current one to finish or spend crowns to "produce a new heir". The problem with this is that currently, crowns can only be gotten by purchasing them with real world cash, putting the cost of getting a new heir at around ten bucks US. This isn't really a huge issue since everything you need to win can be earned in game with careful planning and strategy, but it would be nice if you could earn crowns on your own slowly over time to purchase some of the neat booster packs and new heirs.
But if practice makes perfect, then the future is bright indeed for Leap Day. Stick with it and learn the ropes and you'll find it's as hard to put down as it is fun to watch. Perfectly casual and brilliantly clever, it's a wonderful example of how games can implement cooperative gameplay in a rewarding fashion. If you love puzzle games, then you'll definitely want to check this one out. The kingdom needs a hero, after all... and a city planner.