Board Games: A Good Reason to Gather

Are board games the cure for what ails ya?

According to Quartz writer Annaliese Griffin, they just might be.

She suggests that board games provide a “temporary respite from the problems of 21st-century life.”

By bringing people together — something often lacking from today’s increasingly isolated lifestyles where people interact more through social media than face-to-face engagement — board games become a community builder, a catalyst for socialization.

From the article:

A good board game builds in enough chance so that any reasonably skilled player can win. Even in chess, famously associated with warfare and military strategy, the emphasis is not on who ultimately wins, but on the ingenuity that players display in the process.

In all of these ways, board games release players — however temporarily — from the maxim that life is divided into clear, consistent categories of winners and losers, and that there is a moral logic as to who falls into which category. As film and media studies professor Mary Flanagan tells The Atlantic, board games prompt us to reflect on “turn-taking and rules and fairness.”

[Image courtesy of Catan Shop.]

What’s interesting to me about the article is that she mentions Euro-style games like Settlers of Catan and Carcassonne — which are two of the industry leaders, no doubt — but still games that pit players against each other.

What’s interesting to me about an article that’s meant to be about how board games can make you “a nicer person with better relationships” is that the author focuses exclusively on competitive games. I am a huge fan of a smaller subsection of board games — cooperative games — which invite the players to team up against the game itself. You collaborate, strategize, and work together to overcome challenges, succeeding or failing as a group.

In cooperative games, the glow of your successes are heightened because you get to share them with your teammates. And the failures don’t sting as much for the same reason.

[Image courtesy of Analog Games.]

Co-op games like SpaceTeam, Castle Panic!, Forbidden Island, The Oregon Trail card game, and Pandemic — not to mention many roleplaying games like Dungeons & Dragons — reinforce the positive, social qualities of all board games. I highly recommend checking them out.

And with the rise of board game cafes like The Uncommons in New York and Snakes and Lattes in Toronto, plus play areas at conventions like Gen Con and events at your Friendly Local Game Shop, there are more opportunities than ever to engage in some dice rolling camaraderie.

You can even make it a regular thing. Every Wednesday, we play a game at lunch time, and it quickly became one of the highlights of the week. (This week, we celebrated winning Forbidden Desert on our Instagram account! I always intend to post something every Game Wednesday, but I often forget because I’m so focused on playing the game.)

Take the time out to enjoy puzzles and games. You won’t regret it.


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PuzzleNation Product Review: Nanofictionary

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

We’re used to puzzles where you have to combine pieces to reveal a picture, or you use clues to complete a grid, or you employ deduction to unravel a series of events. It’s far less common for puzzlers to put those skills to use telling a story.

The latest offering from the crafty crew at Looney Labs challenges players to do precisely that: tell a story. More specifically, Nanofictionary tasks you with telling the best story possible from the ingredients available.

And you better do it quickly. Imagine you’re pitching a movie and you’ve only got the length of an elevator ride to sell it to a producer.

Nanofictionary offers up to six players a selection of four decks of cards: characters, settings, problems, and resolutions. Each player draws a starting hand, consisting of two characters, one setting, one problem, and one resolution. Players then try to build an entertaining narrative from the options at hand, by drawing and discarding cards, before declaring themselves ready to pitch.

Here is the first element of strategy in the game: deciding when you’re ready to present your story. If you do so quickly, you secure an earlier slot than the other players. Although this means other players can add additional cards to their hands (and thereby enhance their stories), it also means that ties are settled in favor of players who readied their stories faster. It’s a tradeoff, more cards in the short term vs. a tactical advantage in the long term.

After everyone has assembled their stories, each player has a turn performing their elevator pitch, doing so in the order in which they declared themselves ready. After all the stories are shared, the players then vote for their favorite story. (Naturally, to prevent every player from doing so, you cannot vote for yourself.)

Nanofictionary is an intriguing mix of strategy, luck, and ingenuity. The strategy involves not only when to declare your story ready, but what choices you make to get there. Do you choose the unexpected new card on your turn, or rifle through the cards discarded by the other players? Do you wait for a few other players to declare their stories ready, allowing yourself access to more cards in your hand, or do you go for the tie-breaking advantage you might need?

Luck, of course, comes into play with the cards you randomly draw. Perhaps you’ll end up with elements that quickly form an entertaining tale in your mind. Or perhaps you’ll struggle to ditch the pieces that don’t inspire you, hoping to trade them for a more exciting setting or a problem that makes the most of the characters in your hand.

But, as you might expect, the ingenuity side is where the game comes alive. Just sitting back and watching these delightfully brief (and yet hilariously detailed) stories come to life is a real treat, and quite honestly, it makes the voting aspect so hard. Because with the right group of players, virtually any combination of cards can turn into gold with the right storyteller.

The designers fit a surprising amount of variety and reusability into these four small decks of cards, allowing storytellers to run wild with tales as fantastic as they are ridiculous. It’s not your usual puzzle game, but that’s part of the charm.

Nanofictionary is available now from Looney Labs and select participating retailers for $16.


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PuzzleNation Product Review: Chemistry Fluxx

chemistryfluxx

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

As a puzzle and game guy, people ask me for recommendations a lot. Sometimes, they like a particular type of puzzle or style of game play, but they want to try something new in that vein. Other times, they want to try a one-player puzzle or game experience, but in a group setting.

More and more, though, I get requests from parents and grandparents for puzzles and games that educate or reinforce learning without sucking all the fun out of playing.

And if you want a fun card game that mixes real-world science with chaotic, enjoyable gameplay, Chemistry Fluxx might be just what you’re looking for.

chemfluxx1

The latest edition of Fluxx from the designers at Looney Labs, Chemistry Fluxx takes an elementary approach to the game. Literally. You have to combine different elements in order to secure victory in this game.

For the uninitiated, Fluxx is a straightforward card game. 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.

chemfluxx2

But instead of matching images like you do in most versions of Fluxx, in Chemistry Fluxx players have to use keeper cards with elements or lab equipment on them in order to complete different compounds or procedures.

The subject of chemistry is a brilliantly appropriate fit for Fluxx. Elements are literally the building blocks of everything around us, so to make them the keepers and various molecules and compounds the goals of the game is seamless.

But the game’s creators didn’t stop there. They went all out with chemistry lab trappings, introducing new rule cards that reward you for actually wearing a lab coat during game, for speaking in a high voice when the Helium card is in play, or granting you bonus cards by testing your knowledge of chemistry.

chemfluxx3

The goal cards even display the actual elemental chains formed by these combinations of elements at the bottom, reinforcing the chemistry information on the cards and helping to build associations between the keeper cards and the compounds they form. It’s subliminal learning, which keeps the game fun while still offering chances for parents and families to encourage the young minds around them.

Chemistry Fluxx combines the best of education-based games and Looney Labs’ signature brand of madcap immersive gameplay to create a fun and accessible way to bring STEM concepts and learning home. Even if you’re just looking for a quick round of chaotic cards, you might find yourself learning anyway.

Chemistry Fluxx will be available May 25, but you can preorder it from Looney Labs by clicking here! And to check out all of our reviews of Looney Labs games and products, click here!


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The Best of All Possible Puzzle/Game Worlds?

[A sampling of the wide variety of modern puzzles and games. Fluxx cards, Bananagrams tiles, a wooden puzzle box, Pairs cards, David Steinberg’s Juicy Crosswords from the Orange County Register, Timeline cards, last month’s edition of The Crosswords Club, Puzzometry pieces, Cards Against Humanity cards, multi-sided roleplaying dice.]

This is the most exciting time in history to be a puzzler or board game enthusiast.

Think about it. If you want to play a game or solve a puzzle, you don’t have to go any farther than your pocket, since a plethora of puzzly goodness awaits you on your smartphone.

Puzzle apps are our bread and butter here at PuzzleNation, so this might feel like a cheap plug, but honestly, it boggles my mind how much more accessible puzzles and games are now than they were even five years ago.

And the app revolution is only one part of the story.

I was reading a book the other day, as I am wont to do on the long train rides to and from PuzzleNation HQ. Titled The Revenge of Analog, it was all about the cultural response to digital media, highlighting the resurgence of vinyl records, film, and other tangible alternatives to electronic formats.

In the chapter “The Revenge of Board Games,” the author discussed the social aspect of tabletop gaming, and how sitting down with people and playing a game is a far different, more rewarding experience than online gaming and other social media-based interactions. (A fine point to consider, what with International TableTop Day a little more than a week away.)

While I do think that’s partially true, I also think that downplays the ingenuity of the puzzle/game community. I think we’re the best of both worlds.

I mentioned in my Tak review last week that puzzles are being created today that could not have been five or ten or twenty years ago. The advent of 3-D printing and laser cutters for homes and small businesses has brought design, construction, and promotion literally to the doorstep of entrepreneurial puzzlers.

Just last week I received a new edition of Puzzometry in the mail, a perk for supporting a team for a school robotics competition. This laser-cut plastic jigsaw will keep me guessing for hours (if its puzzly siblings are anything to go by), and it was designed and manufactured by a single individual.

Old and new styles are meshing as never before. Many puzzle constructors are partially or fully supporting themselves via email puzzle subscriptions and direct sales to the customer. Events like the Connecticut Festival of Indie Games are organized and advertised mostly online.

Crowdfunding has leveled the playing field for many companies and designers in both puzzles and games, allowing more products than ever before to enter the market. (According to Kickstarter, tabletop game projects raised $52 million dollars in 2013, and that number has surely gone up in the meantime.)

You’ve got a proper board game renaissance as classic games and styles of play are meshing with new technology, and games from across the world are shared on YouTube, at Friendly Local Game Shops, or even in puzzle cafes like Toronto’s Snakes and Lattes or New York City’s The Uncommons.

Whether you’re a pen-and-paper solver or a Penny Dell Crossword App devotee, a fan of classics like Chutes and Ladders or a proud tabletopper experimenting with the newest games, this is an amazing time to be a puzzler or board gamer.

So keep playing. Keep puzzling. And share that with others.


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PuzzleNation Product Review: Slapzi

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

One of my favorite games that we featured in our New York Toy Fair posts was the dice game Tenzi. The mix of strategy, luck, and quick reaction times made for a perfect storm of chaotic fun.

So, when I found out that the team behind Tenzi also had a card game, Slapzi, I figured it was worth a look.

Slapzi’s concept is simple. There are two kinds of cards: picture cards and clue cards.

You are dealt five picture cards, each one bearing a picture of an object on the front and a picture of a different object on the back. Your goal is get rid of the five cards in your hand.

Each turn, a clue card is flipped over, revealing a quality of certain objects (“Not sold in a hardware store”) or a quality of certain objects’ names (“Two of the same letter together”).

You need to quickly look at your picture cards and determine which one fits the clue card. The first player to slap a picture card down over the clue card successfully gets rid of that card.

The sheer variety of objects on the picture cards — ranging from “hammock” and “teddy bear” to “eagle” and “sandwich” — means that there are plenty of chances to match the clue cards as they come up, but only if your reflexes are fast enough.

The creators also included plenty of variant rules, including ones where you match two clue cards at the same time, ones where you avoid matching the clue cards, and even one where every clue card is in play at the same time, with all players racing to empty their hands first.

Naturally, we couldn’t resist putting a slightly puzzlier spin on the game by playing with only one side of each picture card available to players. This added a level of strategy to the game, since you had to decide which objects might prove most beneficial.

After all, if you don’t have a living creature in your hand, you could find yourself out of luck with many of the clue cards. This restrictive gameplay introduced a more tactical element than some of the other rule variants.

That being said, every version of the game that we tried was a lot of fun. The rush to slap cards down, the excitement as your hand dwindles, and even the occasional pause where someone tries to justify an odd choice (like “teddy bear” for “thinner than a pizza box” by arguing about teddies who have lost their stuffing) made for great moments and plenty of laughs.

If you’re looking for a quick-reaction card game for all ages with loads of variation for more strategic solvers, Slapzi is an excellent choice.

Slapzi is available on Amazon, at various online retailers like The Good Toy Group, and in stores now.


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Kickstarter Roundup!

I’ve covered a lot of puzzle-centric Indiegogo and Kickstarter campaigns in the blog, because I think it’s fascinating how many puzzle variants there are, and how many puzzle-loving creators are enthusiastically seizing the opportunity to add their own delightful gaming and puzzling twists to the market.

In previous posts, we’ve seen Baffledazzle‘s jigsaws with a twist, Completely Puzzled‘s community-building outreach, and 64 Oz. Games‘ campaign to adapt popular board games and card games for vision-impaired players. Some very creative and worthwhile projects have been realized with the help of crowdfunding.

Heck, several of the games and puzzles showcased at last month’s New York Toy Fair were brought to life thanks to crowdfunding!

So here are a few more projects that I think are worth your time.

The Maze is a series of Choose Your Own Adventure-style books with a curious puzzly twist: they place the reader inside a labyrinth and challenge you to read through the book and escape!

It’s an extended spacial-awareness puzzle where you need to visualize where you are in the maze at all times, overcoming obstacles and pitting your memory against the labyrinth itself.

A third of the way to its funding goal, The Maze envisions a series of mazes of varying difficulties for readers to tackle. It’s an intriguing take on a classic puzzle genre.

For a more traditional puzzle product, there’s The Grid. This multi-colored visual delight challenges players to place all of their tile pieces on the board before their opponents, mixing luck and strategy in a Qwirkle-style battle.

The Grid combines clever tile design with visually arresting gameplay, and the campaign has already reached its initial funding goal, meaning that additional donors are helping to refine the game with higher quality pieces and other add-ons.

From the elegant to the gloriously silly, our next campaign is Munchkin Shakespeare.

This latest edition of Munchkin from the team from Steve Jackson Games adds a literary touch to its famous line of puzzly card-battle games, as players do their best to team up, betray each other, and run amok in the hopes of gaining loot and escaping combat intact.

The bard himself and characters from his most famous plays are unleashed in cartoon form, ready to wreak havoc in all sorts of creative ways, wielded by cunning players and puzzlers with a penchant for sword-swinging nonsense in iambic pentameter.

This is another campaign where the initial funding goal has already been reached, and with only a day or two left in the campaign, they’re pushing towards some exciting stretch goals.

Our last campaign combines logic and deduction with mechanical puzzles, as the crew from ThinkFun launches their very first Kickstarter to bring Roller Coaster Challenge to life!

In the spirit of Gravity Maze and Laser Maze Jr., Roller Coaster Challenge presents players with some of the pieces of a puzzle and tasks them with completing a working model with their remaining pieces. This time around, you’re building a roller coaster track, with all the soaring loop-de-loops and plunging slides you’d expect from the theme park attraction.

With expansions including Kickstarter-exclusive roller coaster cars and additional pieces to create even taller, more complex models, this one could be a winner. Will you be able to complete the numerous twisting, turning variations, or will the perfect roller coaster track elude you?

But before I go, I want to revisit a previous Kickstarter success story that we’ve covered in the past: The Maze of Games.

Mike Selinker’s interactive puzzle novel has been on the market for a few years now, and as far as he knows, no one has conquered the final maze in the book.

And to give solvers a better chance at completing the book, the diabolical puzzlesmith has created The Theseus Guide to the Final Maze, a tie-in story with hints for cracking the most diabolical puzzly labyrinth that giant tome has to offer.

It’s only available for a short time, so if you’re hoping to one day best The Maze of Games, be sure to snag a copy!

And let us know if any of these puzzly Kickstarters piqued your interest! With so many worthy projects and products in the pipeline, hopefully one of them catches your eye and receives your support!


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