This is the one hundred ninety-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 one hundred ninety-first random selection from the Bundle for Racial Justice and Equality is cobbling together advanced magical artifacts out of raw materials. It’s Brushwood Buddies, by Steven Colling, and its tagline in the bundle reads:

An unusual puzzle game about crafting with a lovely atmosphere and some…

To solve these puzzles, we’re going to have to get crafty.

Crafting. If you’ve played a game in the last two decades, you’ve probably encountered it. These days, pretty much any game that has an inventory system also features crafting, so players will be collecting all sorts of bits and bobs and then smooshing them together to make other bits and bobs which can then be combined with some detritus to make something useful. Oft maligned for generating busywork, crafting systems can have players work backwards from what they want only to end up with a lengthy list of chores. In order to make that cool weapon they need an advanced alloy, which means they need two types of refined ore, which means they need to find some unrefined ore and combine it with four types of magical dust, which can only be obtained from special crystals made by infusing several raw minerals with holy water… Crafting can be compulsive, but I rarely find it compelling. It mostly boils down to keeping track of a ton of different items in menus, which isn’t that exciting to me.

Brushwood Buddies is a puzzle game about crafting. Since each stage is a puzzle about working out the correct recipe to create a specific item, and the logistics needed to execute that, it elegantly avoids a lot of the problems that often plague crafting systems in games. There’s no collecting of a million ingredients, there’s just what’s available in each single-screen stage, and the challenge is how to use those limited resources to make what you need. There’s still a surprisingly deep set of recipes to uncover, starting with simple tools like knives or saws and building up to strange creatures and magical potions. But the focus is about exploring that possibility space, about making stuff you need to make more stuff, emphasizing why crafting systems can engage players in the first place. I came to respect Brushwood Buddies and often enjoyed playing it, but unfortunately a few frustrating design decisions mar the experience.

One of those frustrating things is the fact that Brushwood Buddies doesn’t explain its mechanics well. Early stages act as a tutorial, but even with their on-screen messages I was confused about how everything worked. So I’ll explain it here. Each stage has a grid of locations (it’s usually 3×4, but early stages have fewer locations), and each location contains exactly one item. Initially these will be natural resources: forest tiles will have trees or the titular brushwood, plains tiles will have grass or bushes, rocky areas will have rocks. Click on one of these to select it and an indicator underneath the “craft” button will show what can be made from it. Trees, for example, can be crafted into sticks or apples. Hit that crafting button, and the apple will replace the tree on the tile. Select multiple items and hit that craft button to combine them together; a flint and a whetstone make a sharpened flint, a sharpened flint and a stick make a knife.

The confusion comes with the “destroy” button. Once I’ve made a knife, if I decide I no longer need it, I can select it a click destroy. But it took me ages to realize that this does not disassemble it into its component parts, i.e. give me a stick or a sharpened flint back. No, instead it clears the knife off of the tile it’s currently occupying, and respawns one of the natural resources that occur on that tile. This means that where one builds things is critically important. Let’s say I built that knife on the only forest tile, and then realized I needed a tree for something. To get that tree back I’ll have to destroy the knife, and maybe rebuild it somewhere else.

Generally — but not always! — an item is built on the tile of the last ingredient selected, so players can choose where to put it. But it’s easy to miss this, or to simply make a careless mistake by not realizing that a particular tile is critical for another part of the multi-step recipe. Then there’s nothing for it but to destroy all that hard work and start over. It’s always possible to recover from this, but it is annoying, because there’s no way to choose the specific natural resource that will appear after destroying an item. Let’s say I built something fancy but put it on a forest tile and then realized I need an apple (from a tree) for the next step of the puzzle. I guess I have to destroy my fancy item so a tree will spawn. Wait, no, it spawned brushwood instead. Now I have to destroy that… another brushwood. Destroy it again… OK, got the tree! Now to craft it… wait, it crafted into a stick instead of an apple. Destroy that, try again… brushwood again, destroy it again… a tree this time! It crafted into another stick!? You have got to be kidding me.

There were times when I had the whole puzzle solved except for one thing I needed and I just had to sit there destroying things over and over — and watching the several-second animation each time — until I finally got the correct item. This is not fun. And, it gets worse! Items in Brushwood Buddies are not crafted out of thin air, technically they’re crafted by the slowly growing cast of titular buddies, who automatically move around the screen as players click on items. Aside from the first buddy Woodie, they all dislike it when players destroy items. Do that enough times, and they’ll get depressed and won’t craft. They’ll need to be cheered up first, by making some other item they happen to like.

In hindsight, I see why this bit of design is there. Without it, the game would just be figuring out and executing recipes, which could get rote fast. But it’s communicated poorly, and the items that each buddy likes are not shown. If I hadn’t found a list of these (hidden behind spoiler tags, don’t worry) I would not have persevered. Even with the list, it’s annoying. Often a puzzle requires making a bunch of ingredients and then assembling a final item using all of the available buddies. But if I got into a situation described above, where I had to keep destroying stuff before the game would spawn what I needed, then when I finally do get it, all my buddies are depressed and I have to figure out how to cheer each one up before I can finish the puzzle. Even once I worked out ways to do this reliably, it’s hard to see which buddies are depressed so I was half-guessing even at the end of the game.

I persevered despite these frustrations because Brushwood Buddies has a certain charm. Its cute aesthetic is undercut when, as soon as it has taught players to make rabbits, it has them kill the rabbits for their hides. There’s a streak of darkness running underneath everything, with the buddies traveling to spookier locations and crafting ever more complex and arcane things as the stages progress. There are even little hints of story and worldbuilding dropped here and there, although players should not expect much in the way of narrative.

I was intrigued by all of this, but wasn’t solely motivated by seeing what would come next. The crafting itself is compelling, distilled as it is to its very core. Cobbling items together is a snap, and soon even multi-step recipes can be executed in seconds, with barely a thought. Brushwood Buddies also gets more flexible — and therefore less annoying — later in the game, introducing carts that let players move items around the grid, and new locations that can spawn advanced items so players don’t need to build them from scratch every time. I also learned a few tricks and some alternate ways to get certain items that make things easier. Some pro tips: destroying isn’t the only way to clear tiles, players can use an item in a simple crafting recipe instead if they need to get it out of the way. And if players do need to destroy things, they can select multiple items and destroy them all in one go. Buddies only get upset each time the “destroy” button is pressed, they don’t care if that destroyed a single item or five at once.

I was enjoying myself more in the final third of the game, then, but I can’t fully forgive Brushwood Buddies’ faults. Some of its design elements feel tedious as best and punitive at worst, especially early in the game when players aren’t that experienced yet and don’t have access to more advanced mechanics. It’s also strange how some items are only ever crafted once, while others are used again and again. The joy of solving a complex recipe for an advanced item wanes a bit when the next stage asks players to immediately build it again, as the first step towards something else.

Still, there is some joy to be had here, and fans of crafting may adjust to Brushwood Buddies’ idiosyncrasies more quickly than I did. If you think that might be you, it’s worth giving it a try. If you missed it in the bundle, Brushwood Buddies is available for a minimum price of $3, including versions for Windows and Linux.

That’s 191 down, and a cool 1550 to go!