PuzzleNation Product Review: The Abandons

What is it about exploring a maze that is so satisfying? We’ve covered labyrinths before — in book form, in wood form, even in LEGO form — but we’ve never sampled something quite like The Abandons.

The Abandons is a one-player labyrinth-building game that is different every time you play. And unlike most labyrinths that are predetermined for you (and are observed from above), you have to explore it room by room, dealing with the surprises and consequences revealed by your choices.

[A sampling of the cards you’ll see; clockwise from upper left: an item card, a stairs card, the card backing, a corridor card with choices, the end card, the beginning card.]

This quick-play game is simple to learn, simple to set up, and difficult to conquer. Locate the beginning and end cards, remove them from the deck, then shuffle the remaining 48 cards. Once they’re shuffled, place the end card at the bottom of the deck. This is now your draw pile.

Place your beginning card down on the table. You’ll notice it has a diamond at the door. The diamonds represent how many cards you draw in order to move forward. With one diamond, you simply draw the next card and play it. With two, you discard one card and play the next. With three, you discard two cards and play the third. And so on.

[Sometimes you reach a quick dead end.]

As you pull cards from the draw pile and add them to the labyrinth, you’ll come to intersections that allow for multiple paths. You’ll pick one direction and follow it. If you come to a dead end, you can retrace your steps back to the nearest intersection with an unexplored path and continue your journey.

But if you encounter enough dead ends, you’ll find yourself without any unexplored paths, and you lose, having trapped yourself in the labyrinth forever. Bummer.

You can see in this playthrough, we were lucky with our first cards, as we drew an item card immediately (and set it aside for later), followed by an intersection card with three paths to choose from. We went left, drew another intersection card, and then had a choice to make.

If one of those paths leads to a dead end, we’re still in good shape since there are currently four unexplored paths to fall back on. Options are life in this game.

Unfortunately, we went right, drew another intersection card, and then went left, drawing the collapse card.

If you draw this card, you wipe all of your progress from the play area and go back to the start, as if you’ve fallen into a lower level of the labyrinth and must start your search anew for an exit. (This is one of two cards that can cause this game reset. The other, the stairs card, gives you the choice of continuing with your current path or going back to the start. It’s slightly more pleasant than the collapse card.)

So you don’t just have dead end cards to worry about. Sometimes you’ll be pretty deep into your explorations, and suddenly, you’re back at the start. It’s a kick in the teeth, to be sure.

Now here’s a game where we’ve gotten pretty far. You can see in the top left and the bottom center areas of your screen, a few dead end cards have appeared. But we have several unexplored paths to fall back on, as well as three item cards.

The item cards offer different options depending on how many you have. If you have one, you can spend it to look at the top three cards of the draw pile (as if you’ve found part of a map of the labyrinth). If you have two, you can spend them on a bomb to blast your way through a dead end or another wall, giving yourself another unexplored path (and another chance for escape). And if you have three, you can spent them on a magic mirror that allows you to return to the start and take a new path.

Overall, I really enjoyed playing this game. Many explore-a-world games require lots of setup, whereas this one gets going in seconds and plays out in about ten minutes or so. The mix of strategy and luck makes each game unpredictable — even if it’s a bit frustrating to draw a dead end card early on that squashes the whole game. The item cards allow for some solid tactical planning — I’m a huge fan of bombing my way through walls — which offsets the randomness of the draw pile.

Yes, it’s true that this isn’t really a game that you can master, since randomness will always be a big part of the gameplay, but it’s certainly a game you can get better at playing. After just a few tries, you start to get the hang of how to choose your paths and try to make the draw pile work for you, not against you. (In that way, it becomes a puzzly version of poker where you’re playing against the deck itself.)

It’s a terrific solo solving experience, a great intro game for younger players (I certainly think you can go younger than the 14+ recommended by the designers), and small enough to fit in your pocket. This is one quick-play game that won’t sit on the shelf for very long.

The Abandons is available from Puzzling Pixel Games and select online retailers.


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A World of Puzzles and Games at Norwescon 42!

Your friendly neighborhood puzzle blogger took a trip across the country to attend Norwescon, the premiere fantasy and science fiction convention in the Pacific Northwest.

This was the 42nd edition of the convention, and if you know your sci-fi novels, then you’re not surprised that there were all sorts of references to The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. (The number 42 is a big part of the first novel.)

The convention’s subtitle was “Don’t Panic” (another HHGTTG reference), and lots of convention attendees were in their bathrobes or carrying towels, representing the two main characters of the series, the bathrobe-wearing Arthur Dent and the towel-toting alien tourist Ford Prefect.

As with any convention, the costuming was amazing. There were fairy godmothers, vikings, mermaids, Daleks, folks in Seahawks-colored finery (it was Seattle, after all), a Predator offering free hugs, an inflatable T-rex costume with those robotic grabber arms, and even photo ops with Krampus and Santa! (And Easter Krampus on Sunday.)

One of the oddest moments for me was seeing a group of people in uniforms I didn’t recognize, and realizing they weren’t con attendees, they were the flight crew for an international airline. (The hotel was across the street from the airport.)

Although many of the convention’s panels and events have a writerly focus, plenty of attention is also given to art, films, games, and pop culture, so there was loads for puzzle and game fans to enjoy at the event.

The dealers room — the main area to shop for costumes, books, fabric, t-shirts, memorabilia, collectibles, and more — had several game shops represented, toting loads of games at good prices. (Several of which we’ve reviewed on the Blog in the past, and some that will be reviewed in the future.)

[All hotel nooks and crannies were stuffed with thematic exhibits, including this delightful leave-a-book, take-a-book mini-library a la The Restaurant at the End of the Universe.]

Board game demos were available all day, complete with skillful players to introduce newbies to various games, as well as tabletop roleplaying adventures in all sorts of settings and systems, from Dungeons & Dragons and Vampire: The Masquerade to Pathfinder and more. In fact, one of the gaming spaces was right down the hall from my hotel room, and it was PACKED morning ’til night with enthusiastic roleplayers telling stories, rolling dice, and battling monsters.

There were open games as well as sign-ups for specific games and adventures, including a multi-table multi-hour battle for gang supremacy in the fictional city of Waterdeep.

One of the most intriguing puzzle/game experiences available to try at the convention was Artemis.

Artemis is a spaceship bridge simulator that allows a group of players to essentially play out a Star Trek-esque adventure. Each player has instructions, controls, and a laptop in front of them, as well as a big screen for everyone to view (much like the main viewer on the bridge of the Enterprise).

Two teams, each piloting their own ship (the Artemis or the Intrepid) must battle foes, trade goods, dock with space stations, and explore the galaxy, all while maintaining their weapons, shields, energy usage in the ship, and piloting control, as well as communicating with their sister ship through headset.

I moved back and forth between the two “ships,” watching as the players navigated different challenges, cooperated (and disagreed) on command decisions, managed their resources, and ventured between the stars, all while some pretty impressive graphics tied the whole play experience together.

What really struck me about the Artemis style of play was how much communication was required for success. It is a co-op game in the same vein as Castle Panic!, Forbidden Island, or Spaceteam, but with a lot more personal responsibility. Plus the laptop interfaces for each station were slick and well-designed, bringing that polished Star Trek: The Next Generation feel home.

I was also responsible for some of the puzzliest events at the convention. Although I did participate in some panels on writing, literature, roleplaying games, and movies (both good ones and the worst of b-movies), the two events that were the main focus of my time were a LARP/scavenger hunt based on The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and an escape room based on Star Wars.

The HHGTTG event was built as an in-universe scavenger hunt where players (who were all expected to bring their towels, of course), had to complete five tasks. The completion of each task led to a rune for the players to record on their gamesheet. and earn five runes, then spell them out in a secret location using their towels, in order to ask an important question.

Some of the tasks included:

  • finding HHGTTG character names in a word search grid, then reading the remaining uncircled letters as a secret message
  • singing karaoke to the mermaids at the hotel pool
  • assisting a Vogon poet with her terrible poetry

They had to earn all five runes, then find me in a secret location and spell out the runes with their towels. If they did so correctly, they would bring one of the missing dolphins back to Earth (and received a small stuffed one for their efforts).

[A bag full of dolphins, awaiting a possible return to Earth.]

The Star Wars event was a traditional escape room with puzzles to solve, boxes to unlock, combinations to find, keys to uncover, and a room to escape under a time limit. Designed for the teenaged attendees, the escape room was set on a bounty hunter’s ship, and all of the players were recently captured by the bounty hunter, awaiting transport to an Imperial prison.

But the bounty hunter has fallen victim to one of his own security protocols, so all of the “prisoners” have a chance to escape, if they disable the (Nerf gun-)armed droid blocking the escape pod, as well as either shut off the radiation leak near the pod OR gather enough bacta to heal themselves from radiation damage in order to actually survive the escape.

[Nerf guns and five shipped boxes. An embryonic escape room.]

[The contents of said shipped boxes. An escape room mid-construction.]

Although some of the boxes were opened out of order (by brute force, rather than proper solving) and one of the puzzles had an unfortunate printing error, the players unraveled the mysteries of the bounty hunter’s ship and escaped with only seconds to spare before the Imperials arrived. SUCCESS!

(Plus friend of the blog Jen Cunningham cooked up some lovely victory certificates for the players, which was a cool bonus. Thank you Jen!)

More importantly, despite the hiccups encountered during both events, everyone had fun while playing (either walking away with a small dolphin or a certificate).

The entire convention was a blast (an exhausting one, but a blast nonetheless), and I highly recommend attending Norwescon next year to any fans of horror, sci-fi, fantasy, writing workshops, games, roleplaying, and of course, puzzles.


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Our Annual TableTop Tournament Starts Next Week!

With International TableTop Day fast approaching, we are once again teaming up with our pals at Penny Dell Puzzles to put together an in-house TableTop Tournament to celebrate the upcoming holiday (Saturday, April 27).

It’s a 12-person two-week tournament with different games to play every week, and round 1 kicks off next Tuesday. (This is actually the fourth year of the tournament, with all three previous champions competing again this year.)

One of the things I like about the layout of the tournament is that there are no one-on-one match-ups until the final. Instead of a single-elimination tournament, competitors are slotted into groups of three. Each group of three will play two games, and the two winners (one from each game) from each trio and move on to the next round.

So to survive round 1, I’ll need to win either Timeline or On the Dot.

Timeline is a card game where every card depicts a different moment in history, and the players are trying to place cards from their hand into a historically correct timeline. Players take turns adding cards to the timeline, placing them before or after previously played cards. You don’t have to know the exact year the event on a given card took place; you simply have to figure out when it happened in relation to the other events that have already been played.

You play your card, and then flip it over to reveal the actual year the event occurred. If you’re correct, the card stays, and you have one fewer card in your hand. If you’re wrong, the card is removed from the timeline and you draw a new card. The first player to place every card in their hand wins.

On the Dot is a pattern-matching game. Each player has four clear cards with randomly placed colored dots on them, and it’s up to the player to arrange all four cards so that the colored dots showing match a given pattern. The first player to match three patterns moves on to the next round.

Timeline can be a bit of a crapshoot, depending on your knowledge of a given subject and whatever cards you draw. I suspect I’ll have a better chance of making the second round with On the Dot; I’m fairly quick with pattern recognition and manipulation, and actually won three games in a row last year to secure my spot in the next round. Hopefully I can repeat the same feat this year.

But you never know. With new competitors and returning champions in the tournament this year, there are sure to be some diabolical surprises.

Here’s hoping when it’s all said and done, I’ll be wearing the Game Geek crown and holding the scepter high…


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International TableTop Day Is Coming Soon! (Or Is It?)

As a board game enthusiast, I look forward to those days during the year when we can gather around the table and indulge in some group game fun.

One of the highlights of the gaming calendar is undoubtedly International TableTop Day, a worldwide celebration of the simple idea that taking a little time to gather friends and family around the table for a few puzzles or board games makes the world a better place.

But this year, TableTop Day has become the subject of some unexpected controversy.

You see, originally, International TableTop Day was started and organized by the creators behind Geek & Sundry, a YouTube channel dedicated to all things nerdy.

They designated the last Saturday in April as TableTop Day, and helped to organize events, livestreams, and special promotions to spread the good word of tabletop gaming.

Naturally, as events like these often do, it grew far beyond its original dimensions. More game shops, hobby shops, RPG groups, libraries, game companies, and all sorts of other groups got into the spirit with every passing year. And whether you celebrated on the last Saturday of the month, as had become TableTop Day tradition for many, or combined it with Board Game Day (celebrated in the first week of April), you knew that when March was gone, TableTop Day fun was looming large.

But this year, as the days and weeks of 2019 continued to pass, many tabletop fans (myself included) waited for the official announcement of exactly when TableTop Day festivities would kick off.

Finally, word arrived and many of those excited, enthusiastic groups were nonplussed to discover that this year’s TableTop Day was scheduled for…

June 1st.

Confusion reigned. People were trying to organize what had become beloved annual events, and couldn’t confirm whether TableTop Day would be April 6, April 27, or June 1.

And you know what? TableTop Day has become an annual event around here at PuzzleNation, and we’re sticking with the end of April.

And we’re not alone. Many event organizers are similarly sticking to what has become the traditional date for the day, leaving behind the original organizers and forging their own paths. And I salute them.

Later this month, I’ll be posting listings for various International TableTop Day events, so be sure to let me know what YOUR plans are for TableTop Day so I can include them! Is your local library or game shop hosting an event? Are you playing for charity, or making new friends?

As for us, we’re celebrating as only we can: with a two-week game tournament leading up to our annual TableTop Day in-office puzzlegamepalooza! (And, of course, we’ll have some game or puzzle for you to enjoy through the blog as well.)

TableTop Day is bigger than any single group — even the group that started it — and I’m happy to once again welcome a day dedicated to the fun, warmth, community, and collaborative joys that come with playing games.


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PuzzleNation Product Review: Time Breaker

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

Criminals are bad enough as it is, but time criminals… they’re the worst. Not only can they screw up the present, but they can screw up the past AND the future as well. As a member of the Time Repair Agency, it’s your job to travel through time to apprehend these miscreants — these time breakers — and set things right.

But be careful. You’re not the only TRA agent on the hunt, and every criminal captured is a feather in that agent’s cap, so don’t be surprised if other TRA agents try to interfere with your efforts.

Whether you’re searching the dawn of time or the year 3000, the life of a TRA agent isn’t easy.

[The intrepid agents of the Time Repair Agency and the dastardly Time Breaker.]

That’s the concept behind Time Breaker, the newest card game from the inventive crew at Looney Labs, and honestly, I think it’s their best game yet.

Time Breaker not only improves upon some of the ideas behind Chrononauts, but incorporates strong elements from the Fluxx games in order to add more choice and more excitement to the game play.

The game board consists of 25 tiles arranged randomly in a 5×5 grid pattern. 24 of these tiles represent specific moments in time. The 25th is the Time Repair Agency, and it’s always the center tile. It’s your job to navigate the board, capture the Time Breaker, and return to the Time Repair Agency with your quarry.

You do so by playing various cards that dictate your movements. (Players experienced with Fluxx will recognize the idea of Action cards, as well as some of the actions you can perform.)

There are move cards that allow you to move from tile to tile, regardless of where those moments are in time. There are jump cards that allow you to move to a specific tile. And there are action cards that allow you to perform different tasks, including playing extra cards from your hand, or traveling backwards in time. There are also Stop Time cards, which cancel other players’ actions, and Breaker cards that alter the game board or affect how the criminal moves.

Since the game is a race to see who reaches the Time Breaker first, it’s clever to allow the players multiple ways to navigate the board. You can move your piece across tiles (like any normal board game), you can jump to certain times with the cards, and you can navigate time itself by moving either backward or forward in time.

You see, since each tile is a moment in time, there are two arrows on the tile — one going forward, one going back. Those arrows can help you jump around the board. For instance, if you’re on the tile 13,800,000,000 BCE (the start of the universe), following the green arrow forward takes you to 4,500,000,000 BCE (the formation of the sun), which due to the random nature of the game board’s layout, could be anywhere, not just the next tile over.

Or you could follow the red arrow backward in time, if you have the proper card for it. (Since we’re talking about the first card in our timeline, it turns out time is cyclical, and going backward takes you to the future, the year 3069 (the colonization of Alpha Centauri).

Time Breakers manages to pack a lot of strategy and choice into a small package, ensuring that the game has major replay value. That’s no surprise, of course, since replayability is a hallmark of the Looney Labs brand.

But by combining a playing space that’s different every time (similar to Fluxx: The Board Game or Forbidden Island), the randomness of the cards you draw, and the ability to manipulate the board by closing access to certain time tiles, you have a dynamic game that always feels fresh.

All those elements could make for an uneven playing experience, but the cards are perfectly balanced, meaning no matter what cards you draw, you’re going to have a fair shot of winning the game. Luck is always a factor, but strong strategy and an ability to adapt on the fly will take you far.

And Andrew Looney makes juggling all of these elements look easy.

Complimented by a jovial art style, rich in bright colors and whimsy — not to mention a prediction of world peace only a few centuries away! — Time Breaker continues the innovative, enjoyable tradition long established by games like Fluxx, Just Desserts, and Get the MacGuffin. This game is great fun.

Time Breaker is available from Looney Labs and participating retailers on February 28, but you can preorder it by clicking here!


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PuzzleNation Product Review: Mary Engelbreit Loonacy

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

If you’re looking for frenetic, quick-play card games, they don’t come much quicker or more chaotic than Loonacy.

In Loonacy, players compete to dump all of the cards in their hand by dropping them one-at-a-time into various piles. They do so by matching one of two symbols on their card with the symbol atop the discard piles. For instance, if you’ve got a card with an owl and a queen on it, you can drop that card onto a pile with an owl on top or a queen on top.

But since every player in the game is doing the same thing at the same time — there’s no taking turns here — it’s a race to drop a matching card from your hand before any of the other players can drop a card from theirs.

Looney Labs has published two previous editions of the game — Loonacy and Retro Loonacy — but neither is as eye-catching, as lovely, as charming, or as unexpected as the latest edition, Mary Engelbreit Loonacy.

Unlike the cartoony character-centric images of the original or the nostalgia-fueled artsy icons of the retro version, Mary Engelbreit Loonacy brings a peaceful, almost folksy sense of style and humor to the game.

The imagery is gorgeous and heartwarming, depicting uplifting images that would fit in with any kitchen or living room. Words of wisdom like “She who laughs, lasts” and “Sooner or later, we all quote our mothers” mix with scenes of familial bliss, childhood innocence, or simple pleasures.

In a game that’s all about observation, decision making, instantaneous pattern matching, and rapid reflexes, juxtaposing that sort of anxiety-inducing gameplay with these peaceful, fun images is a stroke of genius, one that forces you to pause, even for just a moment, in order to simply enjoy Engelbreit’s delightful art.

Mary Engelbreit Loonacy bridges the gap between the kid-oriented silly imagery of the original and the adult-oriented artsy feel of the sequel, making the best of both in one family-friendly package.

Mary Engelbreit Loonacy is available from Looney Labs and other participating retailers.

It’s also featured in our Holiday Puzzly Gift Guide, alongside all sorts of terrific puzzly gift ideas, including other Looney Labs products like Zendo, Get the MacGuffin, Star Trek Fluxx, and more!


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