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Bridge Builder is a simulation game for the PC (Windows 95 and above). It was first released as freeware on February 20, 2001 by Alex Austin, who programmed the game in his spare time. The final version was released on May 15, 2001 and the game itself has not been developed since.

The object of the game is relatively simple. Each level consists of a cross-section of a river. You must build a bridge capable of getting a 4-carriage train from one side of the river to the other safely. The bridge consists of struts which have a restricted length and cost $100 each. Your budget on each level is limited according to the difficulty of the level. As well as being dependent on the width of the river, the difficulty is dependent on the position of anchor points in the level. Anchor points are fixed points to which the bridge is attached, and as you progress through the game they are placed further and further apart to force your designs to become stronger. After designing the bridge, the train travels across it. During this time, the stress on each individual strut is represented by its colour - red for stressed, green for unstressed. This useful feature allows the designed to see which parts of the bridge need to be strengthened and which can be deleted safely.

The game is relatively short at 15 levels, although the last five take longer than they initially appear. The real challenge comes in making the cheapest bridge possible that still delivers the train safely to the other side. Often, the best (and most fun to watch) designs take advantage of the fact that the bridge does not have to stay together after the train has passed. Soon after the game was released, two level editors were released. The two editors are both relatively mature, and one includes the ability to export files to DXF, which is a format used by CAD software.

The new levels were a welcome addition to the game, since after a certain point the player realises that the original levels can all be beaten easily by using a triangular pattern of struts as follows...

Train goes along here
   / \    / \    / \
  /   \  /   \  /   \
.       .      .      .

...and adapting it to the anchor points and shape of the river baisin. The new levels include some clever and inventive tricks - for instance, there is a level where the train is made to fly off a ski jump, and the player has to build a bridge capable of withstanding the impact of the train from a great height.

I really enjoyed this game when it came out and still play it now. Although the game is simple, this means that it is also very open-ended. The game length is very variable, an advantage if you just want something to occupy you for a couple of minutes. The interface is also very intuitive - simply left click from an exisitng point to a new point to create a strut, and right click a point to delete it and all the struts connected to it.

However, some people found the game graphically bland, and wanted more control over the bridge's structure. These concerns were addressed when Alex Austin left his job to form Chronic Logic, a games company. Their first release was Pontifex, an updated version of Bridge Builder. Some of the new features included:

  • Different building materials - heavy steel, light steel, cable and deck.
  • Full 3D - although Bridge Builder used OpenGL, the bridge was designed in 2D. In Pontifex it is possible to rotate right around the bridge and design it in 3D.
  • Multiple passes - the train has to pass over the bridge twice in both directions before the level is completed.
  • Integrated level editor.

Although Pontifex was technically superior to Bridge Builder, it was flawed in several ways. The learning curve in the original game was completely destroyed, and the initial Pontifex levels are much too easy. The 3D aspect of the game is non-intuitive and takes some getting used to. I prefer the elegant simplicity of the first game.

Bridge Builder is a fun and very original game that everyone should try at least once. It requires Windows 95 or above with DirectX 6, and works reasonably well on a Pentium 166. A graphics card that supports OpenGL is vital, as the game is painfully slow otherwise. It has also been reported to work flawlessly under Wine. Bridge Builder is available as a 122k download from www.bridgebuilder-game.com, along with level editors and several map packs. Also at the site is a list of records for each level, with some designs that have to be seen to be believed. A demo version of Pontifex is available from www.chroniclogic.com.

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Sources: http://www.bridgebuilder-game.com

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