PN Product Review: Zendo Expansion #2

[Note: I received a free copy of this game in exchange for a fair, unbiased review. Due diligence, full disclosure, and all that.]

Even the best designed games need a little sprucing up from time to time. This is especially true of logic/deduction games, where after a while, it can feel like you’ve seen every trick either the game or the other players can offer.

And there are very few game companies that consistently deliver great expansions. It’s a brutal tightrope to walk; you have to add to the established game in an interesting or fresh way, but without breaking the rules, introducing problems that players won’t know how to handle mechanically, or betraying in some manner the spirit of the original game.

For the team at Looney Labs, though, creating an expansion pack seems like another day at the office. We’ve reviewed expansion packs in the past for Fluxx (Fluxx Dice), Just Desserts (Just Coffee/Better with Bacon), and Star Trek Fluxx (the Bridge Expansion), and each one revitalizes the game and adds delightful new wrinkles without hampering any of the qualities that made the original game such a treat.

Today, we’re looking at a new expansion pack for one of the company’s most immersive and challenging puzzle games: Zendo.

In Zendo, the players pull pieces from a communal pile in order to build different structures, using pyramids, wedges, and blocks. One player, the moderator, chooses a secret rule for the players to uncover, and builds two structures. One of these structures follows the secret rule, and one does not, and both are marked as such.

Secret rules can be as simple as “must contain all three shapes” or “must contain exactly four pieces.” They can be as complex as “must contain more blue pieces than blocks” or “must contain at least one yellow piece pointing at a blue piece.” Some rules involve how pieces touch, or how they’re stacked, while others demand no touching or stacking whatsoever. The field is wide open at the start of the game.

Players then try to deduce the secret rule by building structures themselves, arranging pieces from the communal pile into various patterns and asking the moderator for more information.

So, how does Zendo Expansion #2 affect the original?

[Here are two sculptures: one that follows the secret rule and one that doesn’t. Can you figure out the secret rule? Is it about shapes? Colors? Placement? More?]

Zendo Expansion #2 is a ten-card deck of new secret rule cards that allow the moderator to create fresh challenges for the other players to unravel. The structures and arrangements may look the same, but players must reexamine what they think they know and observe to figure out the new secret rules.

Because, you see, the cards offer more than just the new rules. They demand greater cleverness from the moderator, in order to create designs that are fair for the players — not immediately obvious, but not impossible to discern either. It’s a difficult task for moderators.

And the challenge is even greater for players. After all, it’s not just about the shapes and how they interact, but all aspects of what the players see. Zendo Expansion #1 had cards where the rule involved the shape of the structure’s shadow. You could look at the pieces, the colors, how they’re placed, where they’re placed, how close, how far away, how many of each, and the shape of the shadow could NEVER occur to you.

[Here’s another sculpture that removes blue pieces as a possible
element in the secret rule. Have you figured it out yet?]

With one medium rule card and nine difficult rule cards (as opposed to the easy-to-difficult range of the first expansion pack), the game will only become more surprising and thoughtful from here.

These cards include rules about relationships between pieces, conditional rules (example: something that’s true of the sculpture if something else happens theoretically), and even rules regarding something that ISN’T happening in a particular sculpture. Players will have to wrack their brains and truly example both sculptures from every angle to puzzle out these new rules.

There are even decoy tags on certain cards, to make players think the card has more variables than there actually are! Diabolical!

Although I’m a moderator far more frequently than a player, I’m excited to try out both sides of these new rule cards. After all, with the base set and two expansions’ worth of cards, there’s no way I can remember ALL of the possible combinations available. I’m as likely to be outwitted and outpuzzled as the next player.

[One more chance. Here’s a much simplified version that DOESN’T
adhere to the secret rule. What can we learn from this one?]

And that’s the charm of Zendo. From a small gathering of pieces and rules, you can make practically any scenario you wish. Will the players figure it out first try, or will the moderator’s ability to reinvent their sculptures as needed be put to the ultimate test?

Zendo is at once the most collaborative and one of the most curiously devious puzzle-games in the Looney Labs catalog, and with this expansion pack, only the truly inventive and observant will thrive. What a treat.

[Zendo and the new Zendo Expansion #2 are available from Looney Labs, and the expansion pack is only $5!]


Oh, and if you figure out our secret rule for the post, we’ll send you a Zendo-themed prize!


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The Newest Twist on Twisty Puzzles!

history

[Picture courtesy of Rubiks.com.]

Rubik’s Cubes and other twisty puzzles come in all shapes and sizes. With the advent of 3-D printing and innovative home designs that can be shared with a few clicks, the field is constantly evolving. This is a huge plus for puzzle fans.

Naturally, there are puzzle designers who aspire to make the largest twisty puzzle possible. In previous blog posts, we’ve chronicled some of these ambitious endeavors.

One of the first to draw the attention of online solvers was Oskar van Deventer’s 17x17x17 cube known as the “Over the Top” Rubik’s Cube.

Here’s a video of someone solving this diabolical design:

This was later topped by a design by corenpuzzle, who created a 22x22x22 cube. The build was so complex that the cube actually exploded (twice!) during construction.

But it’s not only cube-style twisty puzzles that are drawing the attention of designers. There’s also the minx series of twisty puzzles.

These are dodecahedrons rather than cubes. A dodecahedron is a 12-sided shape formed from pentagons. The smallest of this form is known as a kilominx.

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The megaminx version (pictured above) was the first to attract greater attention in the puzzle world. It had 50 moving parts, as opposed to the 20 movable pieces of a standard Rubik’s Cube. You can find all sorts of solving videos on YouTube featuring megaminx puzzles.

The quest to build the largest minx-style twisty puzzle has taken puzzling to strange new places. Gigaminx, Petaminx, and more followed as the puzzles grew increasingly complex.

For a while, the champion of these puzzles was Matt Bahner, who created the Yottaminx. It’s a basketball-sized twisty puzzle that took four months to build. With 2,943 parts, it’s the twisty equivalent of a 15x15x15 cube.

Here you can see Bahner showing off his creation:

No record stands forever, though, and corenpuzzle recently returned to the top of the leaderboards with Atlasminx, the new record holder.

This 19-layer dodecahedron weighs in at over 17 pounds, and was assembled from 4,863 moving parts.

Skip to 1:53 to see the finished version of the puzzle and see it in action.

You could literally spend a lifestyle twisting and turning that puzzle and never reach the end.

These mindbending designs continue to wow solvers everywhere while pushing the creative envelope in clever new ways, and I’m definitely not alone in saying we cannot wait to see what comes next.


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How People Used Puzzles and Games to Endure the Pandemic

Puzzles and games have been there for many people during the pandemic.

Many puzzle and game companies offered (and continue to offer) “COVID discounts” and giveaways to help people financially impacted by the crisis. Companies released free online or zoom-compatible versions of their products to help people get by.

There are all sorts of articles out there about how Dungeons & Dragons and other roleplaying games have served as critical socializing tools in virtual hangouts. Bar-style trivia, zoom games, Jackbox, Board Game Arena, Fall Guys, Among Us… lots of communal activities went virtual as puzzles and games filled a rapidly growing niche.

Whether solved alone or with other members of the household, jigsaw puzzles sales increased 500% or more. Online sites to coordinate trades sprang up, allowing people to swap puzzles they’d solved before for ones new to them.

At a terrible time for many people, puzzles and games helped us cope.

And honestly, if you know the history of games and puzzles, it makes sense. Many of them have been born out of unpleasant circumstances.

Monopoly was a hit during the Great Depression, offering an escape and the illusory feeling of being rich. The game itself only cost two dollars, so it was a solid investment with a ton of replay value.

Candy Land was created to entertain children with polio (although that fact wasn’t commonly known for 50 years). Clue was designed during air raid drills as a way to pass the time. The Checkered Game of Life (later The Game of Life) was inspired by Milton Bradley’s own wild swing of business misfortune.

Risk and other conflict-heavy games weren’t popular in postwar Germany, so an entire genre of games that avoided direct conflict was born: Eurogames.

It’s just as true in the modern day. What game was flying off the shelves during COVID-19 lockdowns? Pandemic.

That combination of escapism and social interaction is so powerful. Games are low-stakes. They offer both randomness (a break from monotony) and a degree of control (something sorely missing during lockdown).

Puzzles too assisted folks in maintaining their mental health. And isn’t it interesting that crossword solving, something viewed by many as a solitary endeavor — I guess they never needed to ask someone else 5-Down — helped fill a crucial social role for people?

Constructors stepped up in interesting, inventive ways. The sense of community fostered by online crossword events like Crossword Tournament From Your Couch (which filled the void of ACPT in 2020) and the Boswords Themeless League was absolutely invaluable to puzzlers who couldn’t attend some of the highlights of the puzzle calendar year.

As I said before, there are numerous articles out there celebrating the benefits of roleplaying games like Dungeons & Dragons, Pathfinder, and more.

Roleplaying games certainly helped keep me sane during lockdown. It might sound ridiculous, but dealing with world-threatening threats, fiercely dangerous monsters, and sinister plots that I could DO something about was medicinal. It was escape in its truest form. It recharged me, allowing me to lose myself in storytelling with friends.

The last 18 months were hard. There may be hard months ahead. But I’m grateful for the puzzle/game community — and the many marvelous pastimes they’ve created — for helping me and many others get by. To smile. To cope. To socialize. And to enjoy.

What games and puzzles have helped you deal with unpleasant circumstances, fellow puzzlers? Let us know in the comments section below. We’d love to hear from you.


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Indianagrams and More: A Puzzly Hashtag Game!

A quick reminder before we start today’s post:

Lollapuzzoola is tomorrow, Saturday, August 21st, and you have until midnight Eastern tonight to sign up for this marvelous virtual crossword tournament!

Click here for full details! And happy puzzling!


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You may be familiar with the board game Schmovie or hashtag games on Twitter.

For years now, we’ve been collaborating on puzzle-themed hashtag games with our pals at Penny Dell Puzzles, and this month’s hook was #PennyDellPuzzleGeography. Today’s entries all mash up Penny Dell puzzles, magazines, and products with geographical terms, famous places, map features, and more!

Examples include Stepping Stonehenge, Sri Linkwords, and Istanbul’s-Eye Spiral.

So, without further ado, check out what the puzzlers at PuzzleNation and Penny Dell Puzzles came up with!


DiagramAtlas

E-Quote-or

Longitudinal Division

Escala-Terrain

Insert-a-World

Globe-servation Post

Arctic Circle Sums

Across and Down Under / Across and Down East

Compass Rose Garden

South of the Borderline

Finland the Fours / Finish the Forest

Grand Turin / Rio Grande Tour

Bricks and Mauritania

Hohokus-Pocus

“The Land of the Midnight Sunrays”

SiliConnections Valley

Annapolisgrams

The Bermuda Triangle Seek

Foggy Top to Bottom

OkefenoKeyword Swamp / O-Keyword-Fenokee Swamp

Orkeywords Islands

Florida Keywords

Plateau-psy Turvy Fill-In

LogiC-artography

Calming Color-ado River

Sudo-Kuwait

Themeyscira

Archi-Dell-ago

Penn-solve-ania

Niagara Quotefalls

Giant’s Crossway

Match-Up Picchu

Tropic of Kanter


Naturally, one of our intrepid contributors went above and beyond, penning this delightful description of a particularly puzzly place:

I don’t know much about Geography, but I do know to take Three from Nile when visiting the Foursome Corners, which of course is where Utah the Odds, Colorado by Numbers, Pair Off-izona, and some oddball called New Mexico come together. Not sure how New Mexico even belongs in the Foursome Corners but there it is, Crypto-Geographically speaking, sorta makes it a Mystery State if you know what I mean. I learned about is when Dora the Exploraword pulled an atlas out of her backpack.


Did you come up with any Penny Dell Puzzle Geography entries of your own? Let us know! We’d love to see them.

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PN Product Review: Gemji

gemji main

There’s an ongoing quest for the perfect all-in-one game/puzzle kit.

Over the years, we’ve seen games and puzzles come and go that attempt to build an all-in-one play set that allows for new variations and still remains portable. The Dark Imp has their 6-in-1 Christmas cracker set, for instance. Knot Dice offers numerous games and puzzles to accompany their beautiful dice. Looney Labs has their Looney Pyramids, complete with an ever-growing online archive of new games developed by fans.

Those games are all terrific, but so far, the simplest remains a deck of cards. You can play an endless number of games with it, and it fits in your pocket.

But people keep trying, and some of those projects are worth checking out.

So when I stumbled across Gemji on Kickstarter, I was definitely intrigued.

gemji 4

It’s a magnetic tile set that promised all sorts of building and play options, and it really seemed to allow for much more than any magnetic set I’d seen before.

I finally received my Gemji set in the mail a while back, and I’ve been playing with it on and off for the last few weeks, testing out all sorts of ways to play with it.

And today, I’m going to share my thoughts with you and let you make up your own minds.

gemji car

The base Gemji collection includes 70 magnetic tiles (black on one side, white on the other), a folding base to build on, and two manuals.

It’s a building toy, a plaything, a puzzle set, and a game kit all in one. You can play magnetic versions of chess, Stratego, Battleship, Othello/Go, and many others. You can play tangram-style shape-making games (in 2-D and 3-D). You can make dice and play dice games. Dexterity games, stacking games, building games, strategy games… there are all sorts of options.

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In addition to the numerous games and activities suggested in the two accompanying booklets — Play and Build, respectively — it’s infinitely adaptable, so you can’t help but start making your own games and puzzles out of it.

For instance, one of our first ideas was to build a small platform and play a Catch the Moon-style balance game with it.

gemji 1

We built a die to roll that would determine if you had to add one tile or two to the sculpture in the center of the platform.

gemji 2

And when the sculpture inevitably collapsed, it simply clicked and clacked together on the platform, rather than crashing to the floor in a cacophony like Jenga would.

gemji 3

That’s a big plus.

Play can be as elegant or as silly as you like. For one game, we made “dice” again, and laid out a field of tiles randomly across the table. Then we tossed our dice one at a time and saw how many tiles we could pick up Katamari Damacy-style. Naturally, the game became more complex — adding obstacles to avoid, adding or losing points depending on tiles picked up, lost, or recovered — and we’d quickly lost half an hour of lunchtime.

gemji dog

All in all, I think Gemji has built a solid foundation for puzzle gaming. It will be a treat to see how other players develop new games and innovative ways to use the tiles in puzzly ways.

[Gemji is not yet commercially available, but they’re hoping to be on sale in time for the holiday season. Check out their website for further details.]


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Fairness and Accessibility in Puzzles?

We love crosswords here at PuzzleNation. Crosswords are our bread and butter, as well as our pizza, our salad, and our desserts.

We strive to keep our puzzles as accessible as possible for solvers of all ages. And that’s tougher than non-puzzlers might think.

Recently we discussed a never-ending debate in crosswords as we delved into the many, sometimes contradictory, goals of creating a great crossword. You want entries to appeal to older solvers without alienating younger solvers, and vice versa. Some people despise pop culture references and proper nouns, while others embrace them.

Abbreviations, partial phrases, fill-in-the-blank clues, wordplay clues, clues that reference other clues… there’s a vast swathe of crossword qualities that must be balanced, and no matter how good a job you do, you’re probably still going to have a few dissenting voices who believe you should do better.

As a hobby still very much viewed as the purview of older white men — despite the many worthwhile voices of women, people of color, and members of the LGBTQIA+ community that contribute to the world of crosswords in increasing numbers — the language featured in crosswords MATTERS.

It reflects our society, serving as a microcosm of the current day and our culture as a whole. Older solvers might not know new slang or black artists or trans performers or any number of references that are growing more commonplace AND gaining greater visibility. But updating the vocabulary of crosswords is a constant effort, and a worthwhile one.

But I said a lot of this in that previous post, so why am I returning to the topic now?

Well, because I find this continuing democratization of crosswords interesting, because it’s something required of crosswords, but not of many other types of puzzles.

Word seeks (except for some variations) give you the starting list, and then you go hunting for answers. Fill-Ins do the same thing, leaving you the empty grid to fill but requiring no specialized knowledge. Everyone gets the same running start.

(I snagged this helpful image from www.logic-puzzles.org.)

Traditional logic puzzles are also presented on an even playing field. You’re presented with information (say, hints about various names, places, times, and activities), as well as an end goal to figure out (the correct schedule of who did what, where, and when).

You don’t have to bring any foreknowledge or previous experience to the table. Given the opportunity, everyone should have an equal chance of solving the puzzle.

Naturally, this equality depends on the assumption that you, the solver, can read the language the puzzle is presented in.

Which brings me to, perhaps, the most democratically fair paper puzzle of all: Sudoku.

The rules are simple, even if the puzzles can be very challenging: place the numbers 1 through 9 in every row, column, and cell.

Even at a glance, without knowing the puzzle, pretty much anyone would have an idea of what’s going on and what needs to be done. Language doesn’t matter, so long as you can identify the nine different symbols to be placed. (This is why word and color variations of Sudoku exist, because the numbers themselves are irrelevent. You just need nine different things.)

Anyone can pick up a pen, a pencil, or a stylus and solve a Sudoku.

And we should strive for the same thing with crosswords.

Sure, all of those other puzzles require practice to get GOOD at them. But at a baseline, everyone who approaches them has a fair shot. Crosswords demand that solvers bring their own knowledge and info and trivia and vocabulary to the table.

But crosswords as a whole should seek that same democratization: Accessibility. Representation. That inviting X factor.

There’s already a touch of that in the medium. Anytime I see someone solving a puzzle on a train, or in an airport, or in some public place, there’s always someone else sneaking a peek or stealing a glance.

Have you ever seen someone complete a crossword for the very first time? I have, and it’s awesome. It’s a magnified version of the delicious a-ha moment when you unravel a tricky clue.

Do you remember the joy in your heart the first time you conquered a New York Times puzzle on a difficult day? The first time you solved a puzzle type you’d never bested before? The first time you cracked the meta lurking in the background of an already devilish design?

Everyone should get that feeling.

No crossword will ever be everything every solver wants it to be. And that’s fine. But I do look forward to the day when everyone looks at a puzzle and at least one of the clues speaks to them, makes them feel seen and heard and represented.

Puzzles should be for everyone.

[Thank you to ThinkFun and Michelle Parrinello-Cason for inspiring this post.]


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