This is the one hundred twenty-first entry in the Scratching That Itch series, wherein I randomly select and write about one of the 1741 games and game-related things included in the Bundle for Racial Justice and Equality. The Bundle raised $8,149,829.66 split evenly between the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund and Community Bail Fund, but don’t worry if you missed it. There are plenty of ways you can help support the vital cause of racial justice; try here for a start. Lastly, as always, you may click on images to view larger versions.

Our next random selection from the Bundle for Racial Justice and Equality arrived by swapping positions with other games. It’s A Day In The Woods, by RetroEpic Software, and its tagline in the bundle reads:

Guide Red through the woods to help her find grandma’s house.

Ah yes, just a nice walk through the spooky woods to visit grandma. I’m certain there won’t be any ravenous wolves lying in wait.

A Day In The Woods is a puzzle game, with a wonderful handmade tabletop miniature aesthetic. Each puzzle is a small grid of hexagonal tiles, containing open ground, obstacles like rocks or trees, hazards like wolves or bears, and of course Red herself. But that grid is set up on a table, atop a painted cloth mat and with a painted backdrop hung behind, and each tile appears to be made of wood. Objects on tiles, including Red herself, are represented by hand-carved wooden figurines, their paint wearing thin at their angular edges from long years of handling. Some are even animated, like the woodcutter who occasionally appears with his axe arm swiveling in its socket, or the campfires with their flame cutouts that rock back and forth. When starting a puzzle, all these pieces drop into place with pleasing little clicks and clacks. It’s all gorgeous to behold.

The puzzles themselves were confusing at first. The goal of each is to move Red around to collect all the flowers (by standing adjacent to their tiles), and then get her to the cottage, but players cannot move Red directly. Players actually control a faerie, who occupies a blank space on the board, and can only affect the board by swapping positions with an adjacent tile. So it’s not possible to simply move Red, one must swap positions with Red. This is a bit odd, because it takes a lot of swaps to get Red to keep moving in a straight line, since the faerie must get back into position by making several other swaps first. It took me a long time to get used to it. Since each puzzle is small, and many tiles are fixed and can’t be swapped, it’s easy to swap oneself into a dead end, before realizing the convoluted series of swaps required to make the simplest of movements. Fortunately, there’s an unlimited “undo” button that lets players rewind their progress, and a handy reset button to start a puzzle over if that’s quicker.

Complications are steadily introduced over the course of the 60 puzzles on offer. Red cannot be moved next to bears or wolves, so these predators must be moved out of the way, or distracted (with honey or rabbits, respectively) so Red can move past them safely. But bears and wolves will not move next to campfires. The woodcutter will chop down any trees he moves next to, making their tiles swappable, but like Red he will not move next to predators, and he’s also allergic to bees so he won’t move next to beehives either. Trapdoor spiders cannot be moved, but swap a rabbit next to them and they’ll eat it, closing the hinged wooden lid on their holes and leaving Red and the woodcutter alone. There are many touches like this, that evoke the dark undertones of the fairy tale theming, which I loved.

Each puzzle awards a single star for completion, another if players managed to snag the bonus berries from their bush, and a third if the puzzle was completed in fewer moves than the “par”. The early puzzles are simple enough that I was able to get all three stars for them, but I soon gave up on trying to finish under par. I was always surprised by just how many swaps are needed to reposition Red and other creatures, and I usually needed to start making swaps to explore possibilities before I’d be able to figure out the solution. I could have gone back and optimized those solutions with the absolute minimum number of swaps, but didn’t feel inclined to do so. Others may enjoy the optimization challenge, but I preferred to figure out how to get the berries in each puzzle, which can be surprisingly tricky. There are subtle things that become critical in later puzzles, like the fact that tiles with flowers cannot be swapped until after Red collects the flowers, or the fact that the woodcutter will happily chop down the berry bush, whether or not Red has picked the berries yet.

All the puzzles are enhanced by lovely little details. Flowers and berries give a little wiggle at the start of each puzzle to make them easier to spot. Trying to move Red into danger causes her to gasp in fright instead of moving, and beasts will similarly growl or whine when players try to force them into an illegal swap. It becomes a running theme that Red keeps finding the wrong cottage, but the residents of each offer a brief quip of encouragement, or a comment on the puzzle that was just completed. Earning stars from puzzles unlocks customization options for the player’s faerie, and different seasonal art for the puzzles themselves, carpeting the ground in the yellow and orange fallen leaves of autumn, or blanketing it wintry snow. Great stuff.

The puzzles can start to feel repetitive, and I found myself playing in short spurts rather than long sessions. The best puzzle games generate moments of excited epiphany when players grasp the concepts needed to solve them, and I never quite felt that from A Day In The Woods. But it’s such a beautiful, playful thing that it was hard to begrudge it for this. If some light puzzling with lovely wooden pieces sounds good to you, definitely check this one out. If you missed it in the bundle, it’s sold for a minimum price of $4.99.

That’s 121 down, and only 1620 to go!