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Review: Set card game on the iPhone is oh so close to the perfect puzzle app

The idea behind Set, the now-classic card/puzzle game, can be mind-numbingly difficult to explain. Some people just can't wrap their heads around the "all the same or all different concept." Of course, some people get it right away. For both types, the new Set app [$2.99] for the iPhone and iPod touch is a fine challenge, even if it's not perfect in all aspects.

Here's the gist of the game: each card in the 81-card deck has between one and three images on it. These images come in three shapes (diamond, oval, and squiggly), three colors (red, green, and purple), and three levels of shading (solid, lined, and empty). Every possible combination is available on one single card.

The goal is to find sets from a collection of cards laid face-up on the table. A set is any three cards where each of these four features are, independently, either all the same or all different? So, a single red solid diamond, a single green solid diamond, and a single purple solid diamond make a set (in that example, the number, shading, and shape features are all the same while the colors are all different). Also, a single empty purple squiggle, two lined green diamonds, and three solid red ovals make a set. Got that? Good. If not, click through the gallery of images from the app starting here to see how the game's designers explain things.

If you want to give Set a try for free, you can try an online daily puzzle here, or download the very limited lite version of the iPhone app here. For learning the game, the app's tutorial is tremendously helpful. Keep reading to find out more about how the game works, or doesn't, on the iPhone.




The Game

First released in 1988, Set is a perfect light card came. Part puzzle, part race, watching players who enjoy the game stare intently at a table with the 12 cards played out in front of them and shout "Set!" is an absolute joy. The first person to see a set calls it out, takes the tree cards into their score pile and three new cards are laid out. If there is ever a situation where the 12 cards do not contain a set – something that is geekily fun to prove – you simply deal three more cards and go from there. If someone misidentifies a set, they lose three cards from their score pile back into the deck. The game ends when all the cards have been dealt and all the possible sets have been found. Whoever snagged the most cards wins. Reshuffle, deal 'em out again and play it again and again until everyone's sick of staring at squiggly lines and stripes.

The App


What's most frustrating about this app, the first offering from Pockent (also available for Android, apparently), is that it's so close yet maddeningly far from perfect. With just a little more effort, the app could completely replace the deck of cards. We'd need a way to enter the number of players, name them, and a method of play that goes through the deck. When someone sees a set, they'd hit a "found" button, identify which player they are, and then touch the cards they think are a set. Sounds great, right? Well, that style of play is not available in the app.

Instead, the app is built for single-player use only. Sure, you can kind of shoehorn in ways to play with friends, but none of the app's game modes truly recreate the intense thrill of going head-to-head with friends.

The app comes with four modes, with basic or advanced play available in each mode. Basic just means that one of the features (shading) doesn't make an appearance and only nine cards a dealt. In advanced mode, all four features matter and 12 cards are dealt. The four game modes include:
  • Arcade: You have just one minute to find sets but, if you find enough to reach the next level (which changes as the game goes on), you're given more time. Cards are replaced as you find sets.
  • Classic: Find ten sets as quickly as possible. Cards are replaced.
  • Puzzle: Nine (or 12) cards are laid out and you need to find all four (or six) sets hidden in them. No time limit and the cards dealt stay on the table.
  • Timed: You have two minutes to find as many sets as you can. Cards are replaced.
So, with the Arcade, Classic or Timed mode, it is kind of possible to play two (or more) player Set, but it's not quite the same deal. Here's hoping any possible iPad version of this app respects its roots and allows real multiplayer games with the full deck of cards.

The app's clear graphics and simple look work great. The only problem, carried over from the card game, is that people who are red-green colorblind might have difficulty identifying colors correctly. The app really should include an option to set the three colors on the cards to whatever a player wants, making it possible for anyone to enjoy. Well, anyone who can get what a set is, anyway.

Something about Set just screams higher level math. And yet, when you're playing, it's simply fun. But, speaking of getting geeky with Set, check out this paper (PDF) about the ACTSet program for Mac OS X called "How to Construct a Believable Opponent using Cognitive Modeling in the Game of Set." Whew.


The idea behind Set, the now-classic card/puzzle game, can be mind-numbingly difficult to explain. Some people just can't wrap their heads...