How Puzzles and Games Evolve to Reach New Audiences

evolution

I am always intrigued when a puzzle, puzzle game, or board game makes the leap to a different medium. What changes will need to be made in order to adapt the puzzle/game to this new style? Does the puzzle lose something in the translation, or become something entirely different? Or does moving into this new medium prove to be a renaissance, a revitalization, for a puzzle or game that had grown stale?

The classic Nintendo puzzle game Dr. Mario recently made the leap to mobile apps as Dr. Mario World, for example, and the transition left the game relatively unscathed.

For the uninitiated, Dr. Mario is all about clearing your screen of virus characters in various colors by lining up pills of the same color to eliminate them. Much like Tetris, the pills fall from the top of the screen, and successfully clearing parts of your screen can cause headaches for your opponent in head-to-head battles.

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[Image courtesy of CNET.]

Sure, the mobile version changed some aspects of the game. You only have a certain number of pills available to clear a given stage (unless you buy more with real-world cash) as opposed to the never-ending supply of the original. And Dr. Mario isn’t the only playable character, as other Mario characters are also doctors in this game (Dr. Peach, Dr. Bowser) with different abilities.

Time will tell if this translation is a success for Nintendo. But naturally, they’re not the only ones experimenting with new ways of bringing their puzzles and games to market.

Our friends at Looney Labs currently have two new projects underway, both of which are reinventing familiar styles of gameplay in fresh exciting ways.

Readers of the blog are familiar with the card game Fluxx, which is one of Looney Labs’ flagship products. The card game with the ever-shifting rules is coming to iOS and Android phones with Playdek’s Digital Fluxx!

fluxx-mobile

[Image courtesy of Pocket Tactics.]

Launching in the next few days, Digital Fluxx promises both offline play and online play for 2-4 players (including human and AI opponents) and multiple language options for international players.

It’s apropos that a game where the rules and goals are constantly changing would continue to adapt in new and exciting ways, and I look forward to seeing how a digital version of the now-classic card game brings new eyes to the Looney Labs library of games.

But that’s not all.

Looney Labs has also teamed up with the game-publishing resource The Game Crafter to allow fans of the card-matching game Loonacy to create their very own custom Loonacy decks!

You can pick and choose from their library of possible card images or upload your own and create a truly unique Loonacy deck for yourself. I think it’s an awesome idea, one that makes a perfect gift for fellow game fans, and I can’t wait to see what sorts of clever creations Loonacy fans come up with through The Game Crafter.

Between a DIY design template for a fast-paced relative newcomer and a digital version of one of the mainstays in modern card games, Looney Labs is demonstrating two ways that puzzlers and game companies can find new, enticing ways to keep their products accessible.

I can’t wait to see what other companies and puzzlemakers come up with next.


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PuzzleNation Product Review: Codenames

codenames0

There are all kinds of games where communication is crucial.

In You’ve Got Crabs, you must employ a secret non-verbal signal to inform your partner that you’ve completed a task, but without the other team spotting your signal and intercepting. In Taboo, you have to get a teammate to state a particular word, but without using several words closely associated with the answer.

But other games ratchet up both the creativity necessary to win and the difficulty involved in doing so. Imagine having to communicate volumes with a single word.

In today’s product review, we delve into the world of spycraft and put our communication skills to the test as we try out the card game Codenames.

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In Codenames, two teams (the red team and the blue team) are tasked with identifying all of their secret agents before their opponents can locate their own agents from the same list. But in order to do so, they must pick those agents out of a field of 25 possible individuals.

In each group, there are red agents, blue agents, innocent bystanders, and an assassin. Each possible individual is marked with a codename that is viewable by all of the players.

So, where does the wordplay and communication come in?

Each team selects one player apiece to serve as the spymaster. The spymaster for each team looks at one of the secret patterns determining which cards/codenames represent blue agents and which red agents.

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So it’s up to the spymaster to point the players in the right direction, but it’s up to the players to actually choose a given person in the field of 25 and label them an agent.

Each round, the spymaster comes up with a one-word clue for the other players on their team that points to their secret agents (as well as a number representing the number of agents in the field that the clue applies to). The word must be specific enough to point them in the right direction, but that can be difficult depending on the words in your play area.

For instance, in our example grid, the clue “royalty: 1” could point toward KING, or QUEEN, or HEAD, or even REVOLUTION, depending on what the other players associate with the word “royalty.” But suppose that you want your players to choose KING and not QUEEN. Then “royalty” is no good, because it’s too vague.

The number aspect of the clue is also important, because it offers the opportunity to gain an advantage over your opponents. For instance, if you wanted both KING and QUEEN to be labeled as your agents, the clue “royalty: 2” would be good, because those would probably be the two most likely choices based on that clue.

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In our example grid, the red team went first, and the spymaster said “dishes: 2.” The other player on the red team chose GLASS and WASHER from the grid, and both were correct and marked with red agent cards. This was a smart play, but also a risky one, as PAN could also be associated with “dishes.”

The blue team responded with the clue “rasp: 1,” choosing specificity and a single possible answer for the sake of certainty, rather than risk trying for more than one agent in this turn. The blue player correctly selected FILE, and that card was marked with a blue agent card.

The next turn for the red team didn’t go nearly as well. The spymaster used the clue “big: 1” and instead of choosing SHOT (the intended answer), the player opted for MAMMOTH. The card was revealed to be an innocent bystander, and the red team’s turn was immediately over for failing to ID an agent that turn.

And that is one of the big strategic challenges of Codenames. Do you stick to 1 agent per turn with a greater chance of success, or do you try to get more creative and bold by going for less certain clues that could lead to multiple agent IDs in one fell swoop? Do you risk uncovering the assassin (and immediately losing the game) with a clue that could suggest him as well as a secret agent for your team?

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The field of codenames in the play area can also lead to unexpected challenges. In one game, I was playing the spymaster for my team. The words JUPITER and SATURN were both in the grid, but only JUPITER was one of our agents. So a clue like “planet” was out. Unfortunately, other clues (like “biggest” or “god”) were excluded because they also applied to other codenames in the play area, including the dreaded assassin.

A mix of tactics, efficiency, association, vocabulary, and luck, Codenames is a terrific game that will test your wits, your communication skills, and your ability to make every word count.

The sheer volume of possible codenames (as well as the increased variety offered by each card being double-sided) ensues a huge amount of replay value is built into the game. And not only is it great as a group game, but the two-player version is just as fun!

Codenames, playable for 4 to 8 players (with variant rules for 2 or 3 players) is available at Target, Barnes & Noble, and many online retailers.


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Solo Solving and Single-Player Board Game Fun!

Have you ever been in the mood to play a board game or do some non-paper-and-pencil puzzling, but you don’t have anyone around to play with?

Well, there’s no reason to fret, fellow puzzlers, as there are plenty of options out there for solo gamers and puzzlers.

Today, we’d like to suggest a few options for a terrific single-player solving experience!


The Abandons

I’ll start us off with one of our most recently reviewed games. The Abandons is a one-player maze game where you’re exploring a labyrinth that’s different every time you play. You’re at the mercy of the draw pile for the most part, but the more you play, the better you get at managing your meager resources and exploring the seemingly endless corridors. Can you find your way out?

[If you’re looking for a similar gaming experience, you can also try One Deck Dungeon or Brad Hough’s The Maze.]

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Puzzometry

For a more traditional solving experience, Puzzometry presents classic puzzle-solving with a modern twist. This next-level jigsaw-style solving will push your Tetris skills as you twist, turn, and maneuver the pieces into seemingly endless combinations, trying to find the one solution that completes the grid.

There are several different Puzzometry puzzles — the standard one, an easier junior one, and a squares-based one — but each offers its own challenges.

Knot Dice

Can you twist, turn, and spin these dice to complete beautiful, elaborate patterns inspired by Celtic knots? That’s the name of the game with Knot Dice, a dice game as challenging as it is gorgeous.

This is one of those games I find tremendously relaxing as I trace the various patterns and try to form different designs.

Chroma Cube

Deduction puzzles have never been so colorful! Each challenge card offers a different layout of set cubes, along with clues to unravel in order to place all twelve cubes. The clues grow trickier with every card, ensuring that you’ll constantly find new challenges as you solve.

Thinking Putty Puzzle

Our friends at ThinkFun are masters at putting together single-player puzzle-game experiences, and Thinking Putty Puzzle is just one example. It sounds simple at first: connect two colored dots with a length of stretchable putty. But when you have multiple colors on the board and you can’t overlap your paths, suddenly it’s a much more challenging deductive endeavor.

Lightbox

A puzzle box unlike anything you’ve ever seen, Lightbox creates different patterns of shadow and light as you shift and arrange the various plastic plates that make up the box. As you twist and reset them, different electrical connections are made, and different plates light up.

This is another puzzle game that I find quite soothing, even if I can be frustrated by the seemingly endless combinations available.

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Pandemic

Although co-op games are designed to bring together several players as they work to defeat the game itself, many co-op games also offer satisfying single-player campaigns. Pandemic allows you the chance to singlehandedly save the world from four deadly outbreaks, if you’re quick and clever enough!

[Forbidden Island, Castle Panic!, and other co-op games are also worth your time if you enjoy this kind of gameplay.]

Do you have any suggestions for good single-player puzzles and games, fellow puzzlers? Let us know in the comments section below! We’d love to hear from you!


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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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