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by Andrew Vestal - July 25, 2006

I recently replayed The Fool’s Errand for more-or-less the third time. Astoundingly, this nearly 20-year-old Macintosh adventure game still holds up today; probably because there’s never been anything like it before or since. If you’re curious, it’s available for free download.

Roughly speaking, The Fool’s Errand is a collection of puzzles. Some are fairly standard: word searches, substitution ciphers, mazes. Others are trickier, like inversions (turning “on” and “off” overlapping shapes to create pictures), polygon lettered tiles, and string manipulation/concatenation. There are a few head-wracking meta-puzzles involving the game’s structure and interface.

One of the more famous puzzles, the Wheel of Fortune, pits you against an old man at a card game to which he knows the rules, and you don’t — at least at first.

Yet if the game were only puzzles, even good ones, it would hardly still be remembered fondly so many years after its release. The game has a lot of extra pieces holding its puzzles together, and it’s this which elevates it from a clever diversion to a gaming classic. All of the puzzles in The Fool’s Errand are based around cards of the Tarot. Major Arcana become the primary characters and locations; additionally, the Fool’s path takes him through four “Kingdoms,” each related to one of the Tarot’s suits. The writing which ties together the various puzzles is colorful and amusing, providing much-needed context for each abstract puzzle.

Also, the solutions to most puzzles are words or phrases that tie into the next puzzle that is unlocked, providing a sense of continuity between the different kinds of challenges. This is important because the puzzles are unlocked in “non-linear” order, and the player is free to jump around within The Fool’s Errand and solve puzzles in whatever order the solutions come.

When all of the puzzles have been solved, however, the incredibly clever “meta-puzzle” design of the game becomes apparent. The completed “scroll” of the story is coherent and complete in ways not apparent during the unlocking phase. Also, when each puzzle is solved, the player receives a piece of the Sun’s Map.

After solving all of the puzzles, the Fool’s task is to assemble the map — no mean feat. Small clues on each piece relate to each puzzle; though seemingly impossibly obtuse, a careful reading of the scroll reveals the order and relationship between the pieces. Astoundingly, all of the pieces fit together in a single, winding path with no cheats or shortcuts, and the Fool’s apparently wandering path is revealed to be completely continuous.

Here, the final stage of the game begins, as the Fool searches for the “14 Treasures of the Land,” meta-puzzles exposed by assembling the Sun’s Map require the player to revisit the scroll and the puzzle solutions and to manipulate them in new and unexpected ways. Puzzles you had thought “solved” are shown to have extra layers of meaning related to the 14 Treasures. These final, most challenging puzzles draw together not only the earlier puzzles, but elements of the narrative, as well. Previously unnoticed connections between characters and geography are brought to the forefront.

And once the 14 Treasures are found, there’s still the Grand Finale.

The game is just awesome. If you like puzzles, the Tarot, or really clever game design, then you’ll probably enjoy The Fool’s Errand. Much to my pleasant surprise, I learned that the author, Cliff Johnson, is working on a sequel, The Fool and his Money. Considering how little there’s been like The Fool’s Errand since its release, another game in the series is welcome indeed.

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