Some day in the early 1980s, Cliff Johnson bought himself a pack of the Rider-Waite tarot, the first one to have all the cards illustrated, instead of just the usual Major Arcana ones. Fiddling with the cards, he arranged them in such a way that he was able to witness a story unfold. There were kings and queens of magical kingdoms, a wanderlust fool, a treacherous high priestess and a helpful sun.
Inspired by Kit Williams' puzzle book Masquerade, he designed a handful of home-made books himself, telling the story of the Fool and filled with brain-teasers where the artwork was an integral part of the puzzles. The idea was to design a challenge that, unlike that of Kit Williams, would not lead to a real-life treasure and could therefore be solved in a few sittings. Johnson wanted something that was fun to play, "a game that appealed to Dr. Watson, not Sherlock Holmes". He offered those books to his friends and family for Christmas. Some solved it easily, others were stuck, but they all loved it.
A few years later, Johnson decided to buy a brand-new 512k Macintosh computer, which he first used to draw up spreadsheets to calculate his film budgets, his first passion. Then he got acquainted with the programming language BASIC, and decided to port all the individual puzzles of his book onto his Mac. When ZBasic came along, he was able to tie them all together to create The Fool's Errand, thus creating the very first video-game meta-puzzle, where the solution of each individual puzzle serves in solving the grander, most complex general one, tying all the pieces together in a grand finale.
The story begins with the Fool, on a personal quest to seek the fourteen treasures of the land (the exact natures of which remain a mystery until the very end of the game). The Sun decides to help him by providing a map. Unfortunately, the map is a 9x9 square grid, with only 21 pieces already available (although not correctly placed). It is up to you to explore the land in order to find all of the remaining pieces of the map, and arrange them in a way that will finally lead you to the lost treasures.
The game is set in a magical realm comprising four distinct kingdoms: the Cups, the Wands, the Pentacles and the Swords. The Fool's voyage is represented through 80 scrolls, being as many little scenes, each based on the simple picture of one of the tarot cards. This makes for sometimes very odd, sometimes very silly, but always very poetic descriptions. We have a hanging man, philosophizing on who's upside-down, a man juggling with two pentacles to prevent two enemy ships from landing on the shore, a magician in a cave and talking objects, among other things.
When starting the game, however, the story is as jumbled as the puzzles themselves. You have immediately access to twenty scrolls/puzzles, and are free to choose whichever you want to try and solve, which is very welcome should you encounter one you are unable to solve. These first scrolls tell you very little about the general story, but introduce you to a few characters from the tarot cards and provide you with enigmatic and seemingly meaningless words that will only make sense after completion of the map. Upon completing any one puzzle, one or more other scroll is made available, as well as one piece of the Sun's map.
After a little while, you manage to piece together parts of the story. The four kingdoms used to be at peace, but the High Priestess has cast an enchantment to conceal the treasures from the sight of their owners, thus causing each kingdom to accuse another for having stolen what is rightfully theirs. The Fool is apparently the only person wise enough to take up the task of defeating the High Priestess and finding all the lost treasures.
As far as the music is concerned, there is none. The only sounds to be heard are the occasional bleeps and bloops that are present apparently for no reason in certain puzzles, bringing absolutely nothing to the game. Some background music would have been nice, but you'll have to provide your own, or on the contrary keep the game silent in order to devote your full attention to trying to understand how to solve that one puzzle you just can't seem to understand.
The graphical style of the game is one of its most striking features. All the characters - including the cinematic scenes - are represented in silhouettes, a design choice directly inspired by The Adventures of Prince Achmed, a 1926 animated film by Charlotte Reiniger. The Mac version (Johnson's favorite) is the one that allows that particular style to shine brightest, thanks to the stark monochrome rendering. The other computer ports have added color, which is sometimes welcome, but most of the time just takes away quite a lot of the original charm. The Mac version also has a much better resolution, at 640x480, compared to the 320x200 of the ports. This makes for a clearly more detailed and agreeable look and maybe does add to the challenge of the jigsaw puzzles and the Sun's map, as it is harder to recognise a bit of the ocean when it's all in black and white. "The MS-DOS conversion felt to me like a "bizarro world" counterpart. Keep in mind, I spent nearly two years perfecting a look and feel that took best advantage of the Mac's high resolution black & white. To then see the game close up in gaudy IBM colors and chunky oblong pixels gave me the willies. But viewed from 15 feet away, it looks okay. Kinda.", says Johnson.
Also of note are the two cinematic scenes of the game, one for the prologue and one for the finale. The first one you can watch any time you want, but the finale will remain inaccessible until you have solved the very last puzzle. The prologue is barely 30 seconds long and doesn't explain much except that apparently the High Priestess is the villainess of the piece. The ending video is about three minutes long, wraps things up nicely story-wise, and is done entirely in the silhouette style so characteristic of the game. In that final scene one can see the Fool gathering all the fourteen treasures of the land and confronting the Priestess one last time. These two videos are very nicely done (especially the finale one) and showcase Johnson's talents as a story-teller and film-maker.
But the meat of the game is of course the puzzles themselves. That kind of game can sound or look as best as is technically possible, if the difficulty is too high or too low, or the puzzles are all boring, it's all for nothing. In The Fool's Errand, there are ten different sorts of puzzle forms encountered more than once:
Here you are given a theme (countries, for example), and have to find a pre-determined number of words relating to that theme in a grid of letters. Incidentally, this is where the game shows its age, as it has "Yugoslavia" as one of the countries.
In these you have to rearrange shuffled letters in order to form words. Most of the time definitions are provide to help you (although not telling you which line they apply to), but some times you don't.
The jigsaw puzzles are quite straightforward and consist in recreating a picture. Like any jigsaw puzzle, the only difficulty here is trying to predict what the picture will be, as you can switch two tiles with no restriction.
In labyrinths, the goal is to reach the exit, of course. One labyrinth has got sliding walls that allow you or prevent you from passing through, another has a fog of war (invisible walls until you bump into them) and random teleporters, and in the final one you must bring specific objects to specific characters so that they'll let you pass (three pearls to the dwarf, a daisy to the pixie, etc.).
Polyominoes are multiple squares joined edge to edge. Here you have to assemble them together to form a sentence or series of words, and have everything fit in a frame.
You are presented with a cryptic phrase, where each letter may need to be changed into another so that the final result is understandable. Most of the time there is a starting word or phrase that acts as a key, although that is not always the case.
The tic-tac-toe with words is a 3x3 square where all letters but the one in the middle are movable. You have to shuffle them around so as to form six three-letter words, down and across. The scrolls of the four queens all consist of that puzzle type.
These ones have the solution hidden one way or another into the very picture. You may have to simply hunt the letters with your mouse, or infer the solution by looking at the visual clues.
You can turn each of the letters at the bottom "on" or "off", thus making portions of the screen black, in hope to shape letters which will form from a three-letter word (sometimes meaningless). Areas that overlap are turned white again.
These are by far the most common puzzles you will encounter, but some are different, like "Justice", where you need to fill an area by folding and unfolding squares which interact with each other or "The Humbug", where you travel with your mouse along a certain path to connect the beginning to the end. This makes for an irregular difficulty, where you will solve some scrolls in a few seconds while others may seem incomprehensible at first glance. There is also the scroll of "The Wheel of Fortune", which is a game of tarot, here called the game of Thoth. You are playing the game against "The Old Man", and have not only to win the game, but also to understand the rules first, which can be quite frustrating and tedious, but rewarding in the end. With this challenge you also get to see the illustrations of the tarot cards that artist Brad Parker did exclusively for the game. This scroll is also the only instance where the rules are different between the original Mac game and the ports. In the ports you need to score over 700 points in order to win, whereas in the Mac version the number is 666. What that says about Apple, one can only wonder.
Solving the puzzles, you will come across the three "Keys of Thoth". These will help you lift the enchantments that the High Priestess has cast upon the book of Thoth. Without these, you would have no idea about what to do in order to get access to the book in the High Priestess' scroll. Well, except for the very first enchantment. This one has got to be the most tiresome of all. What happens is 99 buttons fill up the screen, randomly scattered around and half covering each other. When it gets to the final one, the screen is refreshed in a sort of blink, the buttons turn black and you can't click on them any more. The process repeats and you have to constantly scan the screen to find the next button. The goal here requires as much brain-power as hoovering - you have to click on each button, counting down from 99 to 1. When it comes down to just a few buttons, they start jumping around the screen, appearing and disappearing in the blink of an eye, making it even more annoying. Once you're done with that, you can unlock the book by dispelling the other three enchantments using the knowledge you gained in your adventure (the keys).
And then there is the final and hardest puzzle, the one that makes The Fool's Errand the very first meta-puzzle video game - the Sun's map. Once you have collected all the pieces of the map (or preferably after you have solved each puzzle), you have to assemble them to form a complete map of the Fool's journey, where each piece represents what he saw or did then and there. To help you do that you have to go back to the scrolls and read them anew, which will also make the story perfectly clear now that all the events can be witnessed in chronological order.
Once you have done this, you can finally access "The Book of Thoth", which is actually a sort of crossword grid which you have to fill in with the names of the fourteen treasures. You get a little clue for each line, then it is up to you to search the map and the corresponding scrolls to finally find the names of these much sought-after items. This is indeed the most fiendishly convoluted and rewarding puzzle this game has to offer, and can literally take you days to complete. That is if you can resist the Siren's call of the hint book...