A Game Kerfuffle in Wisconsin Politics?

We have a game day in the office once a week. Wednesday has been known as Game Day around here for years now, and we have a small group of regulars who use their lunch hour to eat, socialize, and play games. It’s a marvelous way to break up the work week, meet new friends, try out new games, and relax a little.

Those are all positives. It has never impacted productivity or caused any problems, save for the occasional scheduling snafu when people need the conference room.

But apparently, similar activities are causing problems in the Wisconsin State Senate.

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[Image courtesy of Wikipedia.]

According to a reporter for the Wisconsin State Journal, the legislative pages have been playing games during work time.

There are conflicting reports about how much time has been spent playing games; some folks are upset with people playing games on company time, while others point out that downtime is common and as long as their duties are being performed capably, what’s the big deal?

Well, the game they’re playing is probably what’s raised eyebrows.

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[Image courtesy of the New York Times.]

It’s called Secret Hitler, and given the emotionally charged political climate in the United States, it’s understandable how this particular choice of game might be controversial.

For the uninitiated, Secret Hitler is a social deduction game, similar to Werewolf, Mafia, and other games, where the goal is to root out a hidden traitor among the players.

Only in this case, as the game’s title states, instead of a mafia member or a werewolf, it’s a Secret Hitler lurking among the players, as well as players trying to place the Secret Hitler into a position of power.

More controversially still, there’s an expansion pack to the game that adds members of the current administration to the game.

It’s unclear which version of the game has been making the rounds in the Wisconsin State Senate offices. After all, in February 2017, free copies of Secret Hitler were shipped to all 100 members of the United States Senate by the game’s creator.

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[Image courtesy of TabletopFinder.]

Now, I am purposely not going to make any statements about this administration, regardless of my personal feelings. I make a point of not getting into politics in this blog. It’s supposed to be a place for puzzle and game fans to find out news, read reviews, and revel in all things fun and puzzly about the world.

That being said, I’m sure the choice of Secret Hitler was deliberate.

Maybe it was intended as a way to blow off steam in a political climate that is more tense than ever. That certainly wouldn’t be the most diplomatic choice, but you can easily see how it would make for a tongue-in-cheek way to defuse office stresses.

On the other hand, maybe it was intended as a statement, a sly shot at the current administration and ill feelings towards particular people in the government or political limelight. I don’t know.

But it’s pretty clear to me that it’s the game that got these pages in trouble, not the act of playing games. If they were playing Forbidden Island or Fluxx or Chutes & Ladders or any of a hundred other games in their downtime, it probably wouldn’t be a big deal.

I’m curious to see what the fallout from this story will be. According to reporter Riley Vetterkind, the game has been confiscated and HR is investigating the matter.

I hope nobody loses their job because of a game, whether it’s a political statement or just a ballsy choice of time-wasting and indulgence.

But it makes you wonder if any other games are popular in political offices and whether they’d prove as controversial as this one.


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Forget 3-D Chess and Try 4-Directional Tetris!

[Image courtesy of Eurogamer.]

Tetris is the ultimate puzzle game. If you somehow haven’t played it, you’ve at least heard of it. The brainchild of Alexey Pajitnov conquered the world, not only making Nintendo’s Game Boy a bestselling video game platform, but turning millions of puzzlers into gamers and gamers into puzzlers as well.

Those iconic little Tetromino shapes are instantly recognizable, and the music can still induce panic and nervousness in players decades after the first time they heard those infamous notes.

And it serves as a brilliant template for ambitious game designers and puzzlers to add their own twists to the Tetris formula.

The basic concept is simple: try to arrange the constantly falling Tetromino blocks so that they make complete lines in the play area. If they do, that line disappears.

Of course, just because the concept is simple, that doesn’t mean the game is. As your play area fills up with Tetrominos, the music speeds up, amping up the tension. And as you progress through different levels, the pieces fall faster and faster. You need quick reflexes and ice in your veins to handle the higher difficulty levels.

Thankfully, you only need to worry about the blocks falling from one direction.

But a new variation on Tetris quadruples the gameplay area in a very devious way.

Say hello to Schwerkraftprojektionsgerät, Stephen Lavelle’s take on Tetris. In Schwerkraftprojektionsgerät, Tetromino blocks appear in the center of the play area, and you control where the piece is placed in each of the four directions.

No, the blocks do not fall automatically, nor is there a time limit that forces you to place the blocks quickly. Yes, you can spin each piece before placing it.

But each block goes into all four play areas simultaneously, and in the same position on the opposing sides.

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As you can see, the straight piece lands flat in the east and west grid spaces, but standing upright in the north and south grid spaces. You have to work along each axis to find the best case scenario for all four of your play areas.

Yes, you’re trying to complete lines in four different directions at the same time. The T-shaped Tetromino will land in four different arrangements (flat, on one side of the T-bar, on the other side of the T-bar, and on the long end of the T-bar) with a single keystroke.

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It’s mind-blowing how challenging this makes the game, but it’s challenging in a good way.

I mean, in a regular game of Tetris, you need several dozen completed lines to conclude a level and feel like a champion. In Schwerkraftprojektionsgerät, you feel like a genius if you can get two completed lines in each of the four play areas before the game is over!

Just as addictive as the original, yet offering a totally new twist on the familiar style of puzzling, I foresee a lot of office hours being lost to this engaging four-directional experiment in space efficiency.

You can try Schwerkraftprojektionsgerät for yourself here, and check out all of Stephen’s games here. (He also has a YouTube channel featuring some of his creations.)

After 35 years, it’s cool to see there are still new ways to make Tetris feel fresh again.


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PuzzleNation Product Review: Astronomy Fluxx

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

There are plenty of games that center around space, whether you’re forming constellations, repairing your ship, traveling the galaxy, escaping a black hole, or building a civilization. But while you’re worrying about air supply, celestial objects, or other aspects of life in space, you’re rarely reminded of the incredible wonders that can be found beyond the Earth.

It’s unusual indeed for a game to evoke that sense of awe, no matter how fun the actual gameplay may be. Which makes Astronomy Fluxx, the latest offering from the crew at Looney Labs, such a delight.

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For the uninitiated, Fluxx is a card game where you collect keeper cards and put them into play. Different combinations of keeper cards complete different goals, and each player has the chance to put different keeper cards and goal cards into play in order to win. So you might find yourself working toward completing the goal at hand when suddenly somebody plays a new goal, and the object of the game changes.

Along the way, players affect how the game is played by utilizing action cards and new rule cards which alter what players can and can’t do. Suddenly, you’ll have to trade your hand with another player, or start drawing three cards each turn instead of one.

In Astronomy Fluxx, the gameplay is simplified from previous editions of the game — there are no ungoals or creepers complicating play this time around — but the gameplay doesn’t suffer in the slightest.

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Before I get into the rule cards and other ephemera of the game, I have to mention how blown away I was by the art. Using NASA images as photographic source material (instead of the usual charming drawings usually seen in Fluxx games) really infuses the theme of the game into every aspect of the gameplay. The planets burst to life in every keeper card, and the goal cards are eye-catchingly gorgeous.

Some of the goal cards reference specific events from the history of space exploration — from the first man in space and the moon landing to more recent endeavors like the New Horizons spacecraft flyby of Pluto — which certainly brings a smile to this astronomy buff’s face each time I play.

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In addition to the usual rule change cards regarding how many cards to draw, how many to play, hand limits, and so forth, they’ve introduced rules to make use of bonus educational information at the bottom of each keeper card. One card allows you to draw additional cards if you can name the year certain events happened, and another offers a bonus card per turn for a constellation you can name. These cards continue the tradition of Math Fluxx, Chemistry Fluxx, and Anatomy Fluxx of rewarding players for learning about the subject of the game.

Astronomy Fluxx also incorporates the planets into the gameplay in a unique way with certain rule cards that involve planetary orbits and centers of gravity that move from player to player during the game. Each adds an intriguing mechanic that I’ve never really seen before in a Fluxx game, and it really creates a fresh challenge, even for experienced Fluxx players.


All in all, I was absolutely wowed by the depth of creativity that went into the latest offering from Looney Labs. This is a game that lives up to the chaotic, replayable spirit of Fluxx, but with innovative gameplay, solid educational information, and a game-changing shift in artistic style. Their educational Fluxx series continues to impress.

Astronomy Fluxx is available now from Looney Labs and select retailers!


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A PuzzleNation First Look: Setka

Making a new puzzle is challenging. You have to strike a balance between established solving styles (those that are familiar and effective) and innovative twists, mechanics, and variations, all without making the puzzle too convoluted, too tedious, too easy, or too hard.

In the world of crosswords, some variant success stories include Double Trouble, cryptic crosswords, Brick by Brick, and diagramless. With Sudoku, there are variants like Extreme Sudoku (aka X-Sudoku or Diagonal Sudoku), Samurai Sudoku, and Word Sudoku.

I’m always on the lookout for new puzzles and variations to try out, so when the folks behind Setka contacted me, I was more than happy to try out their puzzle brand and explore their signature attempt to combine Sudoku and clued-puzzle elements.

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In short, Setka puzzles start with a single word. The consonants of that word not only form the answers to the clues, but also provide the letters to place in the accompanying grid.

For example, if the starting word was INFORM, the key letters would be N, F, R, and M. Every clue answer would feature one or more of those letters. The answer words, like the starting word, ignore the vowels. So you could have answers like NeaR, MoRoN, or MaiNFRaMe. (In the case of duplicate letters, like ReRaN, any duplicates are dropped, so the key letters here would be RN.)

And since there are four letters, there would be an accompanying 4×4 grid for you to fill in, where no letter is repeated in any row or column, Sudoku-style.

To place the letters, the clues are numbered, and the relevant cells in the grid are numbered to match. So, for NeaR (let’s say it’s clue 2), there would be two neighboring cells in the grid with a number 2 in them, and you could place the letters as RN or NR. Words that are three letters or above can read backward, forward, or in an L-shape in the grid.

This mechanic separates Setka from other clued or letter-placement puzzles, because you need both the clue answer AND the Sudoku no-repeats rule in order to complete a grid. Without the clue answers, there can be alternate solves where grid letters swap. And without the Sudoku-style placement, it would be virtually impossible to actually place the answer letters into the grid, because there’s more than one way to do so.

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The cluing style alternates between standard crossword-style clues (but usually longer and a little more conversational or trivia-based) and fill-in-the-blank clues. The clues also fit the theme established by the starting word. For instance, the clues above all have to do with kids, which fits the puzzle’s theme word, CHILD.

It takes time to get used to seeking out answer words from the given consonants (since you have to supply any vowels or duplicate consonants missing in order to come up with the correct answer word), but once you’re a few puzzles in, it becomes second nature and a fun component to the solving experience.

Setka puzzles range in size from 4×4 to 7×7, with its signature size being 5×5. Honestly, 5×5 is really where it becomes a proper puzzle. With a 4×4 grid, once you have a few letters placed, it becomes an elementary logic puzzle and you don’t really need the clues.

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[A selection of Setka sizes and themes.]

The puzzle itself is reminiscent of another puzzle we tried late last year — Cluedoku — but Setka’s letter-based theme and smaller grids make for a far more sustainable puzzle going forward, and the mechanic of placing the words in the grid (rather than just individual letters/numbers) adds an intriguing wrinkle to the solve.

All in all, I enjoyed trying out Setka — I solved a half-dozen or so puzzles to get a feel for different sizes and difficulties — and I think they’ve forged an engaging and clever combination of crossword-style cluing and Sudoku-style solving.

You can try Setka for yourself on their website, either playing interactive versions of Setka on the site or printing and solving PDF copies of Setka puzzles. They also offer a subscription where you can receive a Setka puzzle each week along with news and updates.

What do you think of Setka, fellow puzzlers and PuzzleNationers? Let us know in the comments below! We’d love to hear from you.


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Acts of Puzzly Charity: Fight Fires With Games!

Puzzlers have many admirable qualities, and one particular trait that’s common amongst constructors and puzzle fans alike is generosity.

In the past, constructors and game companies have teamed up for wonderful charitable efforts on behalf of women’s rights / women’s health, the LGBTQIA+ community, education and STEM programs, mental health, and other worthwhile causes.

Puzzlers donated time and creative energies to puzzle packets like Queer Crosswords and Women of Letters, as well as puzzles, games, and other products for raffles, Humble Bundles, and other projects.

And now, once again, puzzlers are stepping up to help others. In this case, it’s the victims of the wildfires in Australia.

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DriveThruRPG, a website loaded with resources, adventures, and other materials for roleplaying games, is partnering with dozens of game publishers, content creators, writers, artists, and designers for Fight Fires With Games!

Fight Fires With Games offers eight different charity bundles packed with deeply discounted RPG content, with all of the proceeds going to Red Cross of Australia and World Wildlife Fund Australia to aid in brushfire relief.

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The bundles range in price from $9.99 to $29.99, and often include hundreds of dollars in discounted content. So, if you’re an RPG enthusiast, it’s a win-win all around!

Every little bit helps, and it always warms my heart to see puzzlers step up again and again to support others in times of need.


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PuzzleNation Product Review: Minecraft Magnetic Travel Puzzle

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

Minecraft is one of the biggest indie video game success stories of the last twenty years. A simple block-style game about building things (and destroying things) is now a multimedia empire, complete with toys, LEGOs, and of course, video games across numerous platforms.

It was only a matter of time before it made the leap to puzzles, and as it turns out, the clever folks at ThinkFun were just the designers to bring Minecraft into a puzzlier world.

Minecraft Magnetic Travel Puzzle pits the player against devious deduction puzzles with elements of the Minecraft universe included. By using the clues provided on each challenge card, the player must arrange three swords, pickaxes, and pieces of armor (all different colors, making nine unique game pieces) on the 3×3 crafting table in a particular pattern.

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Completing the grid is the only way to bypass the ender dragon (who is placing these challenge obstacles in your path) and continue onto the next world in your journey.

The instructions, puzzles, solutions, game board, and pieces are all contained within the single spiral-bound game book, making this one of ThinkFun’s most portable products yet. The magnetic pieces are fairly sturdy, as is the game board, so it will hold up nicely to the rigors of travel (and being stuffed into various carry-on bags).

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The gameplay itself is all about interpreting the clues provided with each challenge card. Some clues offer hints on where to place pieces according to color, others according to shape. Additional clues center around a given piece’s location on the grid or in relation to another piece.

For instance, in Beginner Challenge #5 in the image below, the solver gets two hints: one about color and the other about the game pieces.

All three of the blue pieces will be placed along the diagonal, according to the first hint. And according to the second hint, a piece of armor will be in the upper right corner and a pickaxe will be in the middle square. Combining these two hints tells us where to place the blue armor and blue pickaxe. And since only one blue gamepiece is left, the blue sword goes in the lower left corner.

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Similarly, the combination of the yellow square in the center of the top row in the first hint and the sword image in the center of the top row in the second hint tells us where to place the yellow sword. Once that’s in place, we look at the remaining sword image on the second hint and know where to place the gray sword.

The gray square in the upper left corner of the first hint and the pickaxe image in the upper left corner of the second hint point to where to play the gray pickaxe (and the yellow pickaxe by process of elimination).

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With two game pieces left and one unoccupied yellow square in the first hint, the solver can easily complete this challenge, besting the ender dragon’s latest obstacle and moving forward.

Once you graduate from the Beginner and Intermediate difficulty levels, you’ll face a new wrinkle: negative clues. Negative clues are layouts that must be avoided, so instead of telling you where to place a piece, they tell you expressly where NOT to place a piece, ratcheting up the difficulty.

For instance, in Advanced Challenge #25, the negative hints tell us that a gray gamepiece can never be directly below and to the right of a blue gamepiece, or above and to the left of a yellow gamepiece.

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These restrictions will prove to be valuable hints going forward, often telling a savvy solver more about the layout of the crafting table than the regular clues!

By gradually teaching deductive reasoning — slowly introducing new ways to provide information and eliminate possibilities — the solver quickly grasps a key component of strategy and planning: “If this, then that” thinking.

This sort of cause-and-effect observation allows a solver to hold several pieces of information in your head at once, eliminating red herrings and unhelpful possibilities until you’re left with one solution that fits all the requirements. (Just as every Sudoku puzzle is an exercise in deduction, so is every challenge card in Minecraft Magnetic Travel Puzzle.)

Fun for younger solvers and older alike, ThinkFun’s latest deduction puzzle game turns Minecraft into Mindcraft, adding a valuable puzzly tool to the arsenal of every solver.

Minecraft Magnetic Travel Puzzle is available from ThinkFun and certain online retailers.


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