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Fool Me Twice: PC Puzzle Game Guru (Finally) Makes a Sequel

By David Kushner

Cliff Johnson’s 1987 puzzle game The Fool’s Errand was a lo-res masterpiece.

Now Cliff Johnson has a cold. “I haven’t worked in a week,” the sniffling 55-year-old confesses over the phone from his home in Bristol, Connecticut. You can almost hear gamers groan in unison. Johnson is the cult hero of Macintosh puzzle gaming, and his feverish fans need him at his keyboard. For the past six years, he’s been slaving away at coding a new title, The Fool and His Money. He has no publisher or financial backer; his funding comes from friends and what he calls “True Believers” — scores of players willing to preorder a $40 game that’s been “almost finished” since 2005.

What could possibly inspire such loyalty and trust (especially given the cautionary title of the project)? Enduring adoration for the maestro’s mind-bending creation, The Fool’s Errand, no doubt.

Johnson got into game design while monkeying around on a Mac 512K in the mid-1980s. “It’s an ideal medium to stage an illustrated storybook of puzzles,” he says. He constructed a series of simple tableaus about a character called the Fool. To help the Fool on his quest, players had to crack scores of devious brainteasers, culminating in a meta-puzzle that linked them all. “You had to earn the story,” Johnson says.

When The Fool’s Errand appeared on platforms like Amiga, MS-DOS, and Mac Plus, it caused a sensation, selling around 250,000 copies — and, he says with a chuckle, “ten times as many hint books” (software piracy goes way back). Johnson went on to make other games, consulted for Disney and Mattel, and designed a $100,000 treasure hunt that was embedded in a book by magician David Blaine. But creating a follow-up to his seminal 1987 hit has become his raison d’Ítre.

Game technology has changed a lot since the Reagan era, but apart from the addition of color, Johnson’s sequel looks strikingly similar to his maiden effort. “It won’t appeal to everyone, but I’m confident that the people who have kept my games alive for the past two decades will be thrilled. There are memory challenges, word jumbles, letter ciphers, sentence constructions, and patchwork pictures. I want players to enjoy the ‘aha!’ of solving a puzzle. I want them to succeed.”

And fans want him to succeed. He insists that The Fool and His Money will be done this summer — for real this time. Then he can get started on the capstone of his projected trilogy, The Fool’s Paradise.