The Wand - Arthur DiBianca

Summary: Whimsical, rock-solid puzzle game with a stripped-down Enchanter mechanic

It’s become something of an IFComp tradition: the rock-solid puzzlefest by Arthur DiBianca, with a cleverly stripped-down parser and only the barest veneer of a story. Art’s first entry was the unique but tepidly received Excelsior, followed by Grandma Bethlinda’s Variety Box, which earned positive reviews and attracted so much traffic it nearly crashed the IFComp server. Last year’s entry, Inside the Facility, was a novel movement-only game that won the Miss Congeniality award and received two XYZZY nods (Best Puzzles and Best Individual Puzzle).

So what has Arthur DiBianca put forward this year? The Wand, and it’s pretty good. The Wand revisits Excelsior’s seemingly bland milieu - “a wizard sets up puzzles in a tower” - but this time with far better results.

One of Excelsior’s problems was that it wasn’t always clear what the “use” verb would actually do. (“use statue”?) The Wand adopts the Enchanter mechanic, where you progressively learn spells that interact in interesting ways, but strips it down to just the spells with no other verbs except for movement. This creates a very effective experience where it’s always clear what you’re attempting to do, but the consequences of your actions can be unexpected.

Another of Excelsior’s problems was the lack of a story or any real context for the puzzles; I kept wondering “why is this here?”, and the ending felt like a disappointing afterthought. The Wand avoids this by being entirely upfront about its concept. I’m reminded of Emily Short’s “Action and Interaction”:

This idea permeates The Wand, from how the concept is presented to how puzzles are hinted. The game continually and progressively teaches you what to expect, while offering little surprises along the way. (Case in point: the brilliant way the game handles the “use” verb.)

In many ways this is the driving idea of the limited-parser movement, of which DiBianca is a vanguard: people are quite happy to play by the rules of the game you establish, but when there’s a mismatch between their own idea of the rules and the game’s idea of the rules, they can be disappointed. Thus, stripping down the parser and saying upfront “yeah, don’t expect a story” can actually increase immersion. (Indeed, going into the game with no expectation of context or story made those elements pleasantly surprise me where they did appear.)

I must admit I am not a full convert to the minimalist school. The call of the verb is strong. But there is much of value in this way of thinking, and The Wand does it well.

Other strengths: DiBianca’s writing is terse, but whimsical and evocative. (What is a baltavakia, and how do you slice one? I’m still not really sure I know, but the mental images that section conjured were fantastic.) Puzzle design is strong, mostly of the satisfying “oh! now I can do that!” variety. Puzzles are often “themed” and make sense within the context of their environment, which is small enough to keep everything nearby but large enough to offer a few different avenues to explore if you get stuck. Hinting is strong, with a mix of obvious solutions and head-scratchers - although I did have to check the walkthrough to realize I couldjust walk past the dragon. The adorable, adorable dragon.
I do have a few minor critiques, e.g. I’m not sure about the wand mechanic. Spells take two turns to input, and wand settings are hard to remember without writing them down, especially since the color abbreviations can be unexpected. I do wonder if Enchanter-style magic words would work better, but as a mental concept, “one wand and two verbs” has its perks.

IMHO, what would have made this game even better is 1) deeper spell interaction, and 2) deeper worldbuilding. You can levitate rocks; what if you could levitate anything? The wizard has a pet kimpert; why? But I acknowledge that these thoughts are driven more by my personal affinity for games like Counterfeit Monkey than by any practical considerations.

Note: This game has hidden content that is not mentioned in the walkthrough.


I’ve posted a review and some transcripts here:

Here’s the excerpt ahead of the spoilery bits:

Another fine puzzlefest from Arthur. Many of the tasks are of the sort that you know what to do immediately upon receiving a new ability or seeing a new problem, but two or three are exceptionally clever, in this short game.

The requirement of having to set the wand to a certain color combination before pointing it at something effectively turns each command into two, which feels a little clunky. The color settings could have just been implemented as transitive verbs. But interestingly, a few puzzles rely on precise timing where the double-action comes into play, which is a fair enough justification.

Like Arthur’s other games, any semblance of a story here is only a thin shell, but it’s a formula that he does well and with great success. Still, I’d prefer just a little something going on in the background to stoke my interest. The final puzzle in this one feels like you’re just getting started. The tread barely gets worn on the mechanics stemming from the Wand, too. I don’t think it would take much writing to add another dimension to the experience. All you need is for something outside the premise to happen. This one never even thinks about going off the rails.

One specific suggestion:
There’s a cabinet in the Reception Room that can’t be opened (with the wand). That threw me off so badly that I didn’t examine it at first, missing an important clue. I would rework the representation of this clue such that it bears examination but not opening, which is really all you can do at that point.

Edit: oh, never mind. Someone wrote a full walkthrough that’s on the IFDB page. Yeah. I would never have thought of that. :slight_smile:

Can anyone point me in the right direction for figuring out the color Cycle that is needed for the content that isn’t covered in the walkthrough? It seems that, when setting the wand, [spoiler]the first color is the “verb” and the second two give the object type that the spell works on. You’re apparently supposed to start at the first color and follow some pattern to determine the second two based on the object type. But I’m not seeing it at all.

We have “The cycle is a chain that never ends”, “The wand itself will teach you the cycle” and “Uniformity is the key”. As a mathematician, the logical thing to me would be to have a prime number of colors, and then you can just count by 1s, 2s, 3s, etc. around the circle and always get a different sequence which covers the whole set of colors. But it doesn’t seem to use uniform skips, because “restore broken objects” is YOO, so whatever the order, it must start on Y, move to O, and then stay at O. So maybe each object type has a pattern that it follows?

You’re apparently supposed to be able to figure it out from the two fire spells (ABK = summon fire and KGP = dispel fire), and then generalize on tool spells, from RKO = use tool, to P?? = transform tool. I’ve tried both the (reverse alphabetic) order given in the WAND command (YWRPOGANBK), and the order in which you discover the spells (ROAYPKGNWB) and neither of those has even skips (or the same two skips) for the two fire commands. ABK on reverse alphabetic order moves (2,1), while KGP moves (6,8). On the discovery order ABK is (7,6) while KGP is (1,8). I’ve also looked at the two “living object” spells (NWK = reduce weight and OGA = displace object) and neither of those fits anything that’s obvious to me either. I brute-forced the transform tool spell and it’s PWY.

Since the crystal star on the tip of the wand has five points, I tried playing a little with a double cover of the star. Didn’t see anything immediately obvious there, either with a straight pentagon or the usual “draw a five-pointed star without lifting your pen” path. Help?[/spoiler]

Am I being particularly dense here?

The Wand is a pure puzzler, and makes no pretensions otherwise. There is a thin veneer of plot around your exploration of a wizard’s castle, but for the most part, the game is simply about solving puzzles using one mechanic: a wand, with three dials that you can set to different colors, that casts a different spell depending on the colors you have chosen. As you explore the castle, you learn new color combinations that allow you to solve and access more puzzles.

The disadvantage of the color scheme is that spell names are less memorable. To play the game I had to keep a Notepad window open with a list of spells I had learned and their color combinations, which was disruptive to gameplay. Exacerbating the problem is the choice of multiple colors with the same first initial, so that the letter abbreviations for the colors are not obvious. Is there some way to keep a table of known color combinations open at the top or right of the screen during play? That would be ideal, I think.

For the most part the puzzles tread well-explored territory, and involve the usual types of spells that levitate objects, light them on fire, teleport them, etc. In no way should this be interpreted as negative feedback: “Enchanter-esque” spell-based puzzlers work extremely well in the IF medium, with a rewarding feeling of progression as the player unlocks more spells and becomes more powerful, and I am always happy to see more authors write games in this style. A few puzzles in particular stand out: the balance puzzle at the end (which I was at first convinced was impossible, even though I understood the mechanics of how all of the spells interacted with the puzzle pieces), the potion-cooking in the kitchen, and the door puzzle in the kitchen.

One advantage of the color scheme is that it provides a systematic way of parameterizing the space of all possible spells. I was sure that this would end up being used as a puzzle in the game: that at some point, the player would have to stop playing the puzzles, where you apply the spells given to you to set-piece obstacles, and solve a meta-puzzle, where the player must make a deductive leap about how the rules of the fictional world and its magic system interact, and exploit that insight. For example, spells could have been paired so that reversing the colors reverses the effect of the spell; the player would have to notice this pattern and then use it to discover new spells. Or the colors could have had some meaning that had to be deciphered (for example the first color could have been the “verb”, i.e. levitate or teleport; the second color the “object”, i.e. a metal object or a living object, and the last color an “adjective”/“adverb”, all of which had to be inferred by the player). Or complementary colors could have had opposite effects, and players had to notice this pattern, and infer the existence of “hidden colors” that the wand could use that weren’t listed at the start of the game. Etc etc—there are many possible options here, but unfortunately the game didn’t explore any of them (at least as far as I noticed in my play-through.)

Other than the lack of a meta-puzzle, my biggest problem with the game is that it is too short; the final timing-based puzzle is a good one, but I was disappointed when the game ended. Though I suppose it’s a good thing the game wasn’t much longer, since I would have had trouble putting it down and playing the other competition entries. The Wand is an unambitious, but laser-focused and polished puzzler, which makes good use of the IF medium and the parser. To be great, the game would need to explore its mechanic in greater depth; as it is it’s still thoroughly entertaining and one of the best entries of the competition.


I wanted to keep my mouth shut during the judging period, but I’ll confirm now that there is more to The Wand than meets the eye.

If you’re interested, it may be helpful to think about what you were told at the very beginning of the game.

(If you would like further guidance, feel free to email me: a_dibianca at yahoo.)

The way that I would do this would be to have a command that recapped every combination you’d used that had an effect. There might be some ambiguity with how to specify the effects, but even a list of combinations would help. I don’t know if you’re planning a post-comp release, Arthur, but that would be my number one suggestion for one.

I have to confess I cheated myself a little bit on this, because I got stuck early on and hit the author-provided walkthrough:

When I got to the small and large books it was not apparent to me that one of them had a clue I could solve right away and the other required a spell. I think at that point the only way to make any progress is by deciphering the clue from the story about the animals, but I didn’t find the clue super obvious even when it was explained… though it’s hard for me to judge right now because the game isn’t accessible.

But having spoiled myself once I wound up using the walkthrough for a few more puzzles when I needn’t have.


I totally missed the hidden content till I looked at David Welbourn’s walkthrough and was like “Wait, what’s this half of the map?” Very clever. I’d like to take another whack at it when it comes back online, though if there’s a post-comp release that keeps track of combinations that would reeeeallly help.

Intriguing! I’ll have to revisit the game once it’s back up.

You can download it from the archive.

I expect this one to be very underrated in the final rankings. It’s really written for people to discuss and compare notes and say “Wait a minute, you did what?” Conversation between players didn’t happen much during the comp, alas. I think the field was too big and people just kept moving onward.

We compared notes on this one in the authors’ forum, and it really was a group effort to puzzle out the game’s secrets and find everything. It was a lot of fun, too - both the puzzling out and doing so in a group.

The game is now posted at IFDB.

Just wanted to let you know that I went back and beat the second half of the game, and enjoyed it greatly.