PuzzleNation Product Review: Zendo

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

Experienced puzzlers are familiar with deduction as a puzzle-solving method. They may know it from solving logic puzzles, determining who brought what to Thanksgiving dinner. They may know it from asking questions in Clue in order to eliminate possibilities and figure out who killed Mr. Boddy, where, and how. They may know it from brain teasers, riddles, puzzles, or card games.

But they’ve probably never tried their hand at a deduction puzzle game quite like 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.

[Can you tell what the rule is by looking at these two structures?]

They can do so in one of two ways. The first is by saying “Tell,” wherein the moderator marks the player’s structure with either a white token or black token, depending on whether the structure fits the secret rule.

The second is by saying “Quiz,” wherein every player guesses whether the given player’s structure fits the rule. Every player who guesses right gets a guessing token.

Guessing tokens, as you might suspect, are spent to guess the secret rule. But the moderator doesn’t answer with a simple yes or no. The moderator instead must build a new structure, which will either fit the secret rule (but not the player’s guess, and get marked with a white token) or fits the player’s guess (but not the secret rule, and gets marked with a black token).

This back-and-forth between players can be frustrating or informative, depending on how specifically you frame your guesses. It also tests the creative mettle of your moderator, which adds a curious wrinkle to the game. Not only are you competing with your fellow players to figure out the secret rule, but you have to deal with the often crafty skills of the moderator.

[Does this second sculpture give you any hints?]

It’s an ever-evolving puzzle that can change in an instant with a new bit of information. You might confirm you’re on the right track, or realize you’ve been looking at the structures incorrectly all along, and you’re back to square one (or, you know, pyramid one or wedge one).

But thankfully, Zendo is easily scalable for solvers of any age or solving skill level. You can keep the secret rule simple or make it complex, depending on who is playing. And if you’re the moderator, you have a free hand in determining how much information your structures reveal.

Like Fluxx and other games under the Looney Labs umbrella, Zendo has tons of replay value, and it’s a puzzle-game that ages well, since solvers with more experience are not only better players, but more devious moderators as well. This is some seriously puzzly fun.

Zendo is available from the crafty crew at Looney Labs, and it’s also featured in this year’s Holiday Puzzly Gift Guide!


Thanks for visiting PuzzleNation Blog today! Be sure to sign up for our newsletter to stay up-to-date on everything PuzzleNation!

You can also share your pictures with us on Instagram, friend us on Facebook, check us out on TwitterPinterest, and Tumblr, and explore the always-expanding library of PuzzleNation apps and games on our website!

Meet the Daily POP Crosswords Constructors: Robin Stears

One of the Daily POP Crosswords app’s best features is the level of involvement from topnotch constructors. We’ve assembled one heck of a team when it comes to creating terrific, exciting, fresh themed crosswords.

And over the next few weeks, we’ll be introducing you to some of them. Some names you may know, some you may not, but they’re all doing amazing work on these puzzles and deserve a little time in the limelight.

In this installment, allow us to introduce you to constructor Robin Stears!

How did you get started in crosswords?

I’ve been constructing crossword puzzles for about 25 years, since my first daughter was born and I had to figure out a way to work from home. I’ve always enjoyed solving puzzles, ever since I was a child. Constructing puzzles is even more fun.

My puzzles have been in many Penny Press and Dell magazines – they’re my favorites – and also in The LA Times, Games Magazine, and of course, the Daily POP Crosswords app. The restrictions, like not being able to use any crosswordese or even slightly difficult words, adds a bit of a challenge, which of course makes it even more fun!

Personally, I prefer easier-to-medium puzzles rather than very difficult ones. I think puzzle solvers should have a good time and maybe learn something new. There’s nothing more frustrating than not being able to finish a crossword – and there’s nothing more satisfying than filling in that final square with the very last answer.

I want everyone who solves one of my puzzles to be able to finish it and enjoy that feeling of a job well done. And, at least once while they’re solving, I’d like them to look up and say, “Wow. That’s cool. I never knew that.”

What do you enjoy about working on Daily POP Crosswords?

The best thing about Daily POP Crosswords is what a joy they are to create. I’m a pop culture fan from way back in the day when I used to read comic books and go to Star Trek conventions, and I still love watching movies and TV shows, listening to music, reading books, and checking out the latest fashions. I still go to two or three pop culture conventions every year.

Recently, I decided to go back to college to finish the degree I started thirty-some years ago, and I find that hanging out with young people helps keep my pop culture knowledge up-to-date. Between classes, we hang out and spill the tea, and mentally I’m taking notes for future crossword puzzles.

Is there a particular theme day that appeals to you most or that you enjoy working on?

I don’t have a particular theme day that I love above all others – I love all kinds of pop culture. I have so much fun deciding who or what is “worthy” of a crossword tribute, and then researching why they’re famous. I do like to celebrate big anniversaries, like the fifty-year birthday that both Hawaii Five-O and Laugh-In will celebrate next year.

So far, my favorite Daily POP Crosswords puzzle is the one I made for Thanksgiving about the Macy’s parade balloons. I learned so much about the balloons, and I was delighted to pass along all the trivia I discovered to my fellow parade fans. I hope everyone enjoyed solving it as much as I enjoyed constructing it.


A huge thank you to Robin for her time! Be sure to keep your eyes peeled for her puzzles in the Daily POP Crosswords app, free to download for both iOS and Android users!

Thanks for visiting PuzzleNation Blog today! Be sure to sign up for our newsletter to stay up-to-date on everything PuzzleNation!

You can also share your pictures with us on Instagram, friend us on Facebook, check us out on TwitterPinterest, and Tumblr, and explore the always-expanding library of PuzzleNation apps and games on our website!

PuzzleNation Product Review: Doctor Lucky’s Mansion That Is Haunted

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

Some board games are known for their iconic characters. You know the Monopoly guy, all the folks from Candyland, the mouse from Mouse Trap, the cast of suspects from Clue, and more. But one of the flagship characters from Cheapass Games might be new to you. His name is Doctor J. Robert Lucky, and players have been trying to kill him for twenty years now.

The game Kill Doctor Lucky has taken many forms over the decades — including several versions where players tried to save the infamous doctor instead — but the newest variation takes things in a spookier direction.

In today’s review, we look at Doctor Lucky’s Mansion That Is Haunted.

[Just half of the new game board.]

This expansion includes a new game board and new instructions, but that’s all; everything else you need to play is contained in the Deluxe 19.5th Anniversary Edition of Kill Doctor Lucky, including cards and tokens.

The endgame is also the same: kill Doctor Lucky before another player does. And while the same rules apply — you have to be alone in the room with Doctor Lucky and out of sight of every competitor — this expansion adds one curious wrinkle: all of the players are ghosts.

You see, in Doctor Lucky’s Mansion That Is Haunted, Doctor Lucky is trying to sell off his famous mansion, but the ghosts who also reside there wish for Doctor Lucky to stay, and they’ll go to any lengths to keep him around.

And you might not think that one curious wrinkle could radically change a game, but you’d be wrong. The fact that you’re a ghost means you can pass through walls, ceilings, and floors. That is a huge alteration in both strategy and game mechanics.

You can more quickly maneuver into a room with the Doctor, but you can also thwart your opponents by sneaking into a neighboring room and spoiling their murder attempt by observing the proceedings through an open door.

After all, it saves a lot of time to pass through a wall instead of leaving a room, moving down the hall, and entering the next. (Passing between floors is an even bigger time saver! Slipping through the ceiling and dropping in on someone is a marvelous feeling.)

Factor in the secret portals connecting several of the rooms, and suddenly the mansion is much more accessible.

This expansion harkens back to the early days of Cheapass Games — when they would send you the necessary pieces for their game and encourage you to harvest the extra bits (like dice and tokens) from games you already owned, thereby saving money all around — while adding new touches and revitalizing a game you already know quite well.

Plus, if Kill Doctor Lucky seems less family-friendly than you’d prefer, you can always call this Spook Doctor Lucky and give it a Scooby-Doo-esque twist.

Doctor Lucky’s Mansion That Is Haunted (and the Deluxe 19.5th Anniversary edition of Kill Doctor Lucky) are available from Cheapass Games. And the expansion is also featured in this year’s Holiday Puzzly Gift Guide!


Thanks for visiting PuzzleNation Blog today! Be sure to sign up for our newsletter to stay up-to-date on everything PuzzleNation!

You can also share your pictures with us on Instagram, friend us on Facebook, check us out on TwitterPinterest, and Tumblr, and explore the always-expanding library of PuzzleNation apps and games on our website!

Meet the Daily POP Crosswords Constructors: Angela Halsted

One of the Daily POP Crosswords app’s best features is the level of involvement from topnotch constructors. We’ve assembled one heck of a team when it comes to creating terrific, exciting, fresh themed crosswords.

And over the next few weeks, we’ll be introducing you to some of them. Some names you may know, some you may not, but they’re all doing amazing work on these puzzles and deserve a little time in the limelight.

In this installment, allow us to introduce you to constructor Angela Halsted!

How did you get started in crosswords?

I solved crosswords off and on when I was a kid but it wasn’t until 2006 that I got obsessed with them. I don’t even remember what puzzle I was doing, but I was Googling for an answer and came upon the Rex Parker blog. I loved the blog and I loved all the commentary, and that made me want to solve puzzles every day so I could participate.

The first time I decided to comment on the blog, I was required to have a username. I wasn’t very creative and I just felt like I was in a hurry to share my thoughts, so I typed in “PuzzleGirl.” Pretty boring. But it’s stuck all these years!

I submitted my first puzzle to The New York Times in December 2008. It was… terrible. But I knew it was something I could be good at if I kept trying. My first published puzzle was a collaboration with Michael Sharp in The Los Angeles Times in January 2011. Since then, I have had puzzles published in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The AV Club, The Wall Street Journal, and other venues. Most of those are collaborations with Doug Peterson, though I’ve also collaborated with Jeff Chen and Erik Agard.

The part I have the most trouble with when constructing is coming up with the theme. I think that’s why I collaborate so much. For me, it’s a lot easier (and more fun) to brainstorm and hone a theme with a partner.

What do you enjoy about working on Daily POP Crosswords?

Oh, speaking of themes, one reason I like writing puzzles for Daily POP Crosswords so much is that the themes can be very simple, which I can handle! Also, I feel like I’m getting a lot of practice generating themes so maybe I’ll get better at it with puzzles for other venues too.

But the best thing about writing for Daily POP Crosswords is working with Patti Varol. She is a phenomenal editor. She is so smart, so efficient, and so motivated. I have a blast talking with her about puzzles and I’m learning a LOT from her.

I also really love being a part of this project because the puzzles are accessible to new solvers. That’s who these puzzles target and I hope they appeal to people who might be really interested in trying crosswords but are intimidated by harder puzzles.

When I had my first Friday themeless published in The New York Times earlier this year, I couldn’t really distribute it to my co-workers, you know? It was hard and probably would have just made them feel bad about themselves. But I’m constantly telling people about Daily POP Crosswords because I know the puzzles are accessible to new solvers and there’s a possibility they’ll get hooked!

I guess the last thing I want to mention is that Patti has assembled a great group of constructors that includes many women. She is also very open to themes about women. And I like that because crossword publishing and construction are generally male-dominated.

Now, don’t get me wrong. Some of my best friends are male crossword constructors. But it’s nice to see someone branching out a little. I hope Daily POP Crosswords will inspire women solvers to take up constructing. That would be amazing.


A huge thank you to Angela for her time! Be sure to keep your eyes peeled for her puzzles in the Daily POP Crosswords app, free to download for both iOS and Android users!

Thanks for visiting PuzzleNation Blog today! Be sure to sign up for our newsletter to stay up-to-date on everything PuzzleNation!

You can also share your pictures with us on Instagram, friend us on Facebook, check us out on TwitterPinterest, and Tumblr, and explore the always-expanding library of PuzzleNation apps and games on our website!

PuzzleNation Product Review: Deluxe Pairs and BRAWL

[Note: I received free copies of these games in exchange for fair, unbiased reviews. Due diligence, full disclosure, and all that.]

Today, we’re looking at two card games that demand very different approaches to player strategy. The first requires you to patiently and craftily outlast your fellow players, while the other focuses on outmaneuvering your opponent as quickly as possible.

Today, we’re reviewing Deluxe Pairs by Hip Pocket Games and BRAWL by Cheapass Games.

The goal of Pairs is to avoid getting points, and you get points when you draw matching pairs of cards throughout the game.

It’s a bit like Blackjack, except the deck is designed to favor some cards over others. You see, a Pairs deck has one 1 card, two 2 cards, three 3 cards, and so on, all the way up to ten 10 cards. So not only is drawing a 10 dangerous because of its high point value, but it carries the additional risk of being more likely to come up in a deck than, say, a 2 or a 3.

As the dealer works his way around the table, you have the option to either fold or take a card. If you fold, you accept the lowest value card in play, and add those points to your total. If you take a card and end up with a pair, you end up with the value of that paired hand in your total.

The total score to avoid depends on the number of players, but the first person to reach or exceed that score loses, ending the game. So, essentially, this is less a game about winning and more a game about lasting longer than everyone else.

Deluxe Pairs expands on this idea by including a Companion Book with over 30 additional rulesets and variations. Originally, some of these variations were tied to Pairs decks of a specific theme (Deadfall was originally created for a wild west-themed deck, for instance).

But the revamped version of the Fruit Deck — the original Pairs deck — allows you to play all sorts of variations without needing those specialty decks.

BRAWL is about playing out combat in real time between two characters, each with their own strengths and weaknesses.

Each character’s deck is made up of hits, clears, blocks, bases, presses, and freezes. Your goal is to score as many hits as possible on your opponent by the time the match is over.

A match starts with each player placing one base card on the table. These represent combat encounters, so you need to play your hits, blocks, and other cards on the base cards for them to work. If you can’t play them, you must place them in your discard pile instead.

Hits and blocks are color-coded, so you have three different kinds: blue, green, and red. Once you’ve played one color on a base, you can only play further hits and blocks of the same color on that base. For instance, if there are only two bases up, and you’ve played a red hit on one and a blue hit on the other, then any green hit cards must be discarded until a third base is played.

Since your deck is shuffled, you won’t know what card you have to play until you draw it, making for a hectic game that mixes strategy with luck and speed. The faster you can react and take advantage of the cards as they come up, the more likely you are to outmaneuver your opponent and score hits.

Once the freeze cards at the bottom of the deck come up, the match is over, and you count up the number of hits on each base. Whoever has more hits wins the base, and whoever wins the most bases wins the game.

Similar to Slapjack and other quick-reaction card games, but with greater options and depth of play, BRAWL is frenetic, but fun. And with six player decks to choose from, experimenting to see which decks work against other decks makes for some serious replay value.

For starting players, I highly recommend using the Bennett and Chris decks in training mode, since they’re more balanced and forgiving for newer players, and the turn-based nature of training mode helps build confidence and experience in spotting opportunities for using your cards.

As you grow more familiar with the game’s mechanics, you can experiment with the nuances of the other characters, as well as introducing additional speed AND additional players in tournament mode.


I thoroughly enjoyed both of these games. They were very different play experiences, obviously, but both forced me to think tactically while remaining quick on my feet. Both games would be welcome additions to any puzzler’s social game collection.

Deluxe Pairs is available here from Hip Pocket Games and the six BRAWL character decks are available here from Cheapass Games. And both of these games are featured in this year’s Holiday Puzzly Gift Guide!

Next week, we’ll be reviewing another game from the Cheapass Games library: Dr. Lucky’s Mansion That Is Haunted.


Thanks for visiting PuzzleNation Blog today! Be sure to sign up for our newsletter to stay up-to-date on everything PuzzleNation!

You can also share your pictures with us on Instagram, friend us on Facebook, check us out on TwitterPinterest, and Tumblr, and explore the always-expanding library of PuzzleNation apps and games on our website!

Meet the Daily POP Crosswords Constructors: Mark McClain

One of the Daily POP Crossword app’s best features is the level of involvement from topnotch constructors. We’ve assembled one heck of a team when it comes to creating terrific, exciting, fresh themed crosswords.

And over the next few weeks, we’d like to introduce you to some of them. Some names you may know, some you may not, but they’re all doing amazing work on these puzzles and deserve a little time in the limelight.

For our first installment, allow us to introduce you to constructor Mark McClain!

How did you get started in puzzles?

I’m a longtime fan of crosswords, but I only started constructing puzzles about four years ago. That probably makes me the newbie of the Daily POP Crosswords constructors. But I’m not a newbie otherwise, in fact I may be oldest of the crew (I was in college when the Beatles hit the music scene in the US).

My first published puzzle appeared in October 2014 in the Los Angeles Times, and since then I’ve sold nearly 200 puzzles to over a dozen venues, including a few in Penny Press magazines and The Crosswords Club.

Believe it or not, there are many crossword constructors who don’t really spend much time solving puzzles. I’m not one of them. I solve nearly every puzzle published by the venues that I regularly contribute to. It’s not only fun, but also keeps me up to date on what publishers are using both in terms of themes and vocabulary.

What do you enjoy about working on Daily POP Crosswords?

Patti Varol is a great editor and a lot of fun to work with. She published my very first “Sunday-size” puzzle in the Uptown Puzzle Club in February 2015 (it was a collaboration with Brad Wilber). I was thrilled when she invited me to work on this project.

It’s great that we have resolved to avoid using the crosswordese and obscure entries that still permeate some crossword outlets. This keeps the Daily POP Crosswords puzzles accessible to just about anyone who tries to tackle them. If there’s a word in there you don’t know, then I want it to be one you can actually use in real life once you’ve learned it.

I hate that some crossword constructors and editors seem to be stuck in the ’70s (or worse), and Daily POP Crosswords is the antithesis of that with the focus (mainly) on the current pop culture scene. Sure, there was a lot of great stuff way back when, but today there are so many talented musicians, actors, athletes and writers, and I’m glad to be involved in casting some light on their work in a fun puzzle format. Keeps me feeling young.

Having said that, I also appreciate that we have the “Remember When” category where we can reprise some of those great performers and events of yesteryear (I have one coming next month on the 50-year anniversary of one of my favorite movies of all time).

Is there a particular theme day that appeals to you most or that you enjoy working on?

I particularly appreciate the “Sports and Games” category, as I’m a big sports fan, and hate getting my wrist slapped for having too many sports references in puzzles (God forbid you’d actually submit a sports-themed puzzle).

I love trivia and lists (my partner Diana sometimes calls me List Man). It is really fun digging into the various resources to ferret out a good set of entries that will make a theme for a Daily POP Crosswords puzzle. I find it to be a lot more enjoyable than coming up with one of those tricky wordplay themes that many editors like to use these days.

The app is dynamite (does anyone still say that?). I already had the Penny Dell Crosswords app from PuzzleNation, which I use fairly often, so I was familiar with the basic design. I must admit that most of the time I am a paper solver, but I will definitly be on the Daily POP app on a regular basis.


A huge thank you to Mark for his time! Be sure to keep your eyes peeled for his puzzles in the Daily POP Crosswords app, free to download for both iOS and Android users!

Thanks for visiting PuzzleNation Blog today! Be sure to sign up for our newsletter to stay up-to-date on everything PuzzleNation!

You can also share your pictures with us on Instagram, friend us on Facebook, check us out on TwitterPinterest, and Tumblr, and explore the always-expanding library of PuzzleNation apps and games on our website!