Grow games are browser puzzle games with a unique set up: you're looking at a cartoon scene, and there are some buttons along the edges. Each button can only be pressed once. Press one, and it'll add that element to the world, and possibly cause it to react with whats already there, developing the scene based on what you picked. When all that is finished happening, you press another one. The trick is to work out the best order so that the world gets fully developed.
The first one I played was Grow Cube . There's a big cube of dirt, and you've got some arbitrary knicknacks, water, fire, and a dude. Put the dude down first and he does nothing, because there's nothing to do. Put the water down next and an underground reservoir appears - and the guy starts digging down to reach it. It starts to look like Minecraft , actually, although when I stumbled onto Grow, Minecraft was still just a glint in Notch's eye.
It's a puzzle, so you immediately want to crack it. You'll play around with different combinations, and by the time you've run out of buttons to press you'll notice that some elements have hardly advanced since the beginning, while others have transformed into massive, central features. You try pressing the late bloomers first, and that helps - your cube is more colourful, the treehouse is bigger, etc - but it's not just a matter of giving things enough time to grow on their own. Some elements only interact when they've both reached critical junctures in their evolution. Others can be forced into a sudden and violent transformation that fully develops them in just one turn. From seed to mighty oak because you had the right colourful junk lying around.
Grow RPG takes the idea further. Now you're fighting against an enemy - you make the world, and he destroys it, turn for turn, by using his own set of unseen abilities. You'll drag a little town onto the map, then he'll pound the earth, making big chasms. You'll pick the water next, and he'll send a little blue blob out to guard his evil fortress. Your town upgrades itself, but his blob grows an eye and horns. When you're done with your icons, the game is done - you'll know if you've maxed everything or not - but you can sit and watch roughly ten minutes of adventuring in your world that highlights the areas you could have developed. Your little RPG man walks to the town, and if it's fully upgraded enough, he'll buy a sword. He'll go to the castle, and if it survived the world's genesis, it'll have loot for your guy to equip. It culminates in a battle with the evil one, and if you did max everything while building the world, your little guy will get his vanquishing on.
Late last week, the ever lovable IndieGames.com pointed me at the newest Grow game, Grow Valley . It's a sequel to Grow Island , and does a better job of explaining the rationale behind Grow. As with Island, the seven symbols have names - Engineering, Mechanics, Design, and that sort of thing. You can start off with Design, then have Architecture lay the groundwork for hydroelectric power while Design mulls things over, add Information Systems to get people ringing eachother on their cell phones, and work from there.
While you're just spawning these little guys, each a champion of a particular school of applied science, you're also making rational choices. It starts to make sense, but it never stops being this mad playground - flying to the moon through a cut-out in the sky, building underground apartments and a flying train, a chemistry lab built like a giant beaker, dragonfly cars, and a bizarre commiseration ending for doing the worst job possible.
The unique simplicity of play, combined with the great visual pay-off for even the poorest decisions, make the Grow series ideally suited to having some other folk crowded around your monitor. There are tons of these games on the Eyezmaze site , and a few other games of a more traditional ilk too. If you get really stuck and don't want to go all Beautiful Mind with pages and pages of combinations you've tried, try some investigative journalism .