PuzzleNation Product Review: Chessplus

Chess is one of the all-time classic games. Alongside Checkers, Go, Tic-Tac-Toe, and mah-jongg, chess is one of the cornerstones of the genre, one of the first games we’re introduced to, and one of the formative games upon which we build concepts of strategy, timing, and opportunity.

Over the centuries, there have been numerous attempts to reinvent chess or find new ways to play. We’ve talked about puzzly variations on chess in the past, all of which can be played with a standard chess set. (Except for that guillotine set we featured last year.) But if you’re looking for a truly unique chess experience, the team at Chessplus have a simple, elegant game for you.

Chessplus is played under standard chess rules, but with one crucial difference: you can combine your pieces into more powerful ones.

Do you want a pawn that can make less-expected moves, or a knight that can play conservatively? Combine a knight and pawn into a single piece with the abilities of both. Do you need to keep your queen where it is, but still want a versatile piece that can command the board? Easy. Combine a rook and a bishop, and you’ve got a new piece that works just like a queen.

[Only the king is a solid piece. Every other piece can be combined with others.]

Merging pieces not only allows you to take advantage of each component’s abilities, but it can also allow you to more swiftly transport pieces across the board. Instead of a pawn crawling across the board one square at a time, combine it with a rook who can send it straight across the board, where it is then promoted to a queen! Or combine two pawns so you only have to escort one piece across the board safely, then split them again and voila! Two pawns promoted into new queens.

Oh yes, merging the pieces doesn’t link them forever. You can split them at any time. That feature adds another layer to your gameplay, since putting one merged piece into play deep in your opponent’s territory can suddenly become two separated pieces again.

Now, this piece-combining mechanic is a double-edged sword. Yes, you have a more powerful, mobile game piece. (I was very excited to try out combining a knight and a queen, just to make the queen even more dangerous.) But if someone takes a merged piece, you lose BOTH halves, making them as vulnerable as they are valuable. Imagine an opponent capturing my merged knight/queen, so I lose a knight AND a queen in one turn. That could be a devastating loss.

As you’d expect, it took a little while to grow accustomed to these new variant pieces. With so much to keep track of during a normal chess game, pieces with greater mobility make strategy — both offensive and defense — a bit more complicated.

But it was also great fun. Early Chessplus games tend to be faster, more aggressive, because of the greater mobility allowed by some of the merged piece combinations. But once you’ve played a few games, your more traditional chess mindset settles in, and gameplay tends to become more measured and tactical.

Just imagine. A single change that offers a world of new possibilities and challenges. That’s brilliant, in my estimation. Chessplus is a wonderful way to reinvigorate chess if the game has lost its luster for you. And if you are a dedicated player, I think Chessplus will prove to be a welcome change of piece from the traditional game.

[Chessplus sets start at $35.95 (for just the pieces) and are available from the shop on Chessplus.com.]


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Monopoly: Pondering the New Cheaters Edition

Monopoly is probably the most famous branded board game in the world. (I include the word “branded” because you can easily argue that Chess or Go or Mah-jongg are equally famous and/or played by as many people.)

There are hundreds of themed variations covering everything from state landmarks to Star Wars. It seems like everyone owns a copy of the game, even if it doesn’t seem to be all that popular these days.

Maybe that’s because we play it wrong. After all, in the instruction book, it plainly states that if a player lands on an unowned property and doesn’t wish to buy it, it immediately goes to auction to the highest bidder. Did you ever play with that rule? It certainly seems like it would speed things up!

And did you know that Edward Parker, former president of Parker Brothers, was quoted as saying that forty-five minutes was the appropriate length for a game?

Forty-five minutes? I can’t remember a single Monopoly game that lasted fewer than two hours.

Then again, maybe it doesn’t matter anymore. Things are about to change. The game is in the news once more after the announcement that Hasbro will be releasing a Cheaters Edition of the game.

[Cheaters that get caught are handcuffed to the board itself!
Image courtesy of USA Today.]

You might consider this to be a shameless attempt to cash in by being “edgy” or lean on cynicism already rampant regarding a game that seems to encourage selfish capitalist choices. That has certainly been the reaction of some game enthusiasts on the Internet.

I read a comment on Facebook where someone was disillusioned by this news, since “by buying this, you acknowledge that you’re playing a board game with someone who is likely enough to cheat that you bought a special version of the game with that exact expectation.”

The commentor went on to share his disappointment in the idea that “your response to that person cheating is not to stop playing games with them, but instead is to shame them by clipping them to the board game as though that were somehow more shameful than getting caught cheating your friends in a game with literally zero at stake.”

That’s certainly one way to look at it — though I suspect that’s partially colored by the fact that this person clearly didn’t enjoy the game in its original form to begin with.

[Image courtesy of Grey Mass Games.]

Of course, there’s an alternative view, one that encourages crafty gameplay over the monotonous steamrolling that many of us experienced in the past with a game like this. (Who doesn’t remember landing on the developed property of an older sibling and getting taken to the cleaners?)

Instead, the game encourages you to think outside the box. In that way, it could become something more akin to a poker game with tells and bluffing, or the casual manipulations you’d find in a round of Sheriff of Nottingham.

According to USA Today, “the game features naughty tasks to complete, such as skipping spaces or removing another player’s hotel from their property without them noticing.”

Since the game’s not out yet, we don’t know how far you’re allowed to go with your chicanery.

I’m sure some players will try to take more than $200 when they pass Go, but what about…?

  • Can you hide cash up your sleeve in order to avoid playing more Luxury Tax at 20%?
  • Can you gaslight players into forgetting that you mortgaged that property, flipping it over and collecting rent on it once more?
  • Can you bribe other players into letting you pass through their properties without paying?
  • CAN YOU SOMEHOW CHARGE FOR FREE PARKING?

[Image courtesy of Monopoly.wikia.com.]

We’ll have to wait and see.

Will you be picking up the Cheaters Edition of Monopoly, fellow puzzlers? Let us know in the comments section below!


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PuzzleNation Product Review: Less

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There are many games out there that pair nicely with food or drink. Many party games even revolve around this mechanic, like Jason Anarchy’s alcohol-fueled roleplaying game Drinking Quest.

But I think Less is the first game where the playing tiles intentionally double as coasters for your drinks. It feels like a game that could be played in a tavern at a moment’s notice, which lends its minimalist style an old-world gaming charm.

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But I’m getting ahead of myself here. Less is a strategy game that combines the tactical planning of chess with the dynamic maneuverability of checkers.

The game consists of 12 tiles and 8 game pieces, 4 white and 4 black. The players randomly select 9 of the 12 tiles and arrange a 3×3 game board. (With 12 tiles and four ways to place each tile, you’re virtually guaranteed a different game board every time you play.)

One player sets up their 4 game pieces in one corner, and the other player sets up their game pieces in the opposite corner. The goal of the game is to move all 4 of your pieces into your opponent’s corner before your opponent can occupy your corner.

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To do so, you are allowed three moves per turn. You can use all three moves for a single game piece, or spread them out over multiple game pieces. Moving a piece from one square to a neighboring square is one move. Jumping over a game piece to the next open square is also one move. (Here’s where checkers-style planning comes in handy.)

By now, you’ve probably noticed those blue walls on some of the tiles. Those walls require an extra move to traverse, so moving a game piece over a wall requires two moves. (And if neighboring squares each have a wall between them, jumping that double wall requires all three moves that turn.)

This three-move system offers players loads of options going forward, but your best bet is to arrange a sequence of leapfrog jumps to move your pieces as efficiently as possible across the board. (Unlike chess or checkers, there is no capturing or removing your opponent’s pieces from the board.)

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[Here, black has more pieces near the opposing corner, but that blue wall will make it harder to occupy the corner efficiently. Meanwhile, more of white’s pieces are farther away, but there are fewer obstacles to slow those pieces down.]

Mixing a tactical approach with the improvisation that comes with reacting to your opponent’s movements makes Less a very engaging gaming experience, even if a game routinely lasts less than ten minutes. And on the puzzle side of things, figuring out the most efficient way to navigate a path toward your opponent’s corner is great fun, since every game is different, and your opponent has different obstacles to tackle than you do, given the random placement of walls on the board.

Plus, if you’re willing to invest in two copies of the game, you can play with four players, as you and your partner coordinate your efforts across a 4×4 game board in the hopes of occupying your opponents’ corners first.

It’s a game that takes a few minutes to learn and offers near-infinite replayability. It might be called Less, but it feels like a very complete, very satisfying challenge.

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Less is published by InventedFor and is available online at less-game.com (with numerous coaster designs for the reverse side of the tiles). Click here for full details.


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Rise of the Machines!

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I don’t mean to alarm you, fellow puzzlers and PuzzleNationers, but the machines may be taking over.

First, there was Deep Blue, defeating Russian chess grandmaster Garry Kasparov under standard chess tournament time constraints.

Then, there was IBM’s supercomputer Watson, sitting at the buzzer on Jeopardy!, besting previous champions Brad Rutter and Ken Jennings to nab a million-dollar prize.

An AI program called Deep Mind can play several Atari games with superhuman proficiency.

These days, you can design robots with LEGOs that are capable of solving Rubik’s Cubes in seconds flat.

And, of course, crossword fans probably know of Dr. Fill, the crossword-solving computer program that competes at the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament each year. In a matter of five years, it has jumped from 141st place in the 2012 tournament to 11th place in the 2017 tournament.

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Now, the machines are coming for Go players next. Google has developed an artificial intelligence known as AlphaGo which twice conquered Ke Jie, the 19-year-old Go tournament champion ranked number one in the world.

This strategy board game is played with white and black gamepieces called stones, and the objective is to surround a greater total amount of territory on the game board than your opponent. Along the way, you can surround your opponent’s pieces in order to capture them and remove them from play.

Wikipedia aptly describes the depth and difficulty of the game:

Despite its relatively simple rules, Go is very complex, even more so than chess, and possesses more possibilities than the total number of atoms in the visible universe. Compared to chess, Go has both a larger board with more scope for play and longer games, and, on average, many more alternatives to consider per move.

go-game

People have been playing Go for over 2,500 years, and yet, machines have already surpassed our greatest player.

Science fiction movies have been warning us about this for years. I just never expected them to come after our games and hobbies first.


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This chess game will cut you to the quick!

chess

When it comes to games, chess is a certified classic, the benchmark against which many tactical games are still measured to this day.

We’ve discussed chess several times in the past here on the blog, whether we’re talking products inspired by chess, like All Queens Chess and Scrimish, or tackling puzzles using chess boards, like knight’s tours or other chess-based brain teasers.

In today’s post, we’ll be looking at a new variation on chess, one meant to dissuade players from careless gameplay by use of a historically appropriate method of enforcing the rule of law: the guillotine.

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Fellow puzzlers and PuzzleNationers, say hello to Tour De Force chess.

According to the creators:

Tour De Force chess entices the players to strategize and invest more thought into the game by introducing consequence in the form of a guillotine that beheads captured pieces. Based on early testing with a rough and ready model we confirmed that this game addition makes the prospect of losing a piece unsavory enough to motivate more careful strategy.

You see, in Tour De Force chess, a captured piece isn’t gone immediately. It goes into the stockade until another piece is captured. There are two stockades, which means that once your opponent captures a third piece, that first piece goes to the guillotine, loses its head, and is gone for good.

Not only is this meant to enhance the feeling of loss that comes with having a piece taken, but it introduces an interesting mechanic to the game: saving pieces from a nasty end.

chess_set_guillotine_custom_card_board_game_analoggames_analog_games_04

According to the official rules, “a player can save a captured piece that has not yet been beheaded by taking a higher value piece with a pawn. That pawn is then substituted with the piece closest to beheading.”

Although the higher-value rule means that there’s no saving your captured queen (unless you capture the king, which of course, ends the game anyway), it is an intriguing wrinkle to standard chess that could definitely alter your gameplay. Do you continue to play as you always would, immediately accepting the consequences when a piece is lost? Or do you try to rescue that piece, diverting temporarily from your primary goal of capturing your opponent’s king?

What do you think, PuzzleNationers? Is Tour De Force chess a welcome variation to the game, or an unnecessary twist on a classic? Sound off in the comments below!


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PuzzleNation Product Review: Lunar Landing

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

ThinkFun has emerged as the premiere vendor of logic puzzles for solvers of all ages. Whether they’re challenging you with marbles, lasers, or electronic circuits, their complete-the-path games offer lots of puzzly fun.

Their latest offering, Lunar Landing, seems at first to fall into the same pattern, but as you learn the rules and begin tackling the challenge cards included, you quickly realize there’s more than meets the eye at play.

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In Lunar Landing, your goal is to pilot the red shuttle to an emergency entry port in the center of the landing grid. Sounds easy enough, right? But the twist is how you get there.

Scattered across the landing field are helper bots which help your shuttle move around the landing field. The shuttle can only move toward one of the helper bots in the same row or column. The shuttle must move from helper bot to helper bot until it reaches the emergency entry port.

Because Lunar Landing is set in space, the shuttle can’t just stop wherever it chooses. Once the shuttle is set on a path toward a helper bot, it continues along that path until it reaches that bot. This means you can pass right over the emergency entry port unless there’s a helper bot in the correct position to stop the shuttle on that red square.

solvell

This movement mechanism is the engine behind each of the 40 challenge cards in the deck. Progressing in increasing difficulty from beginner to intermediate to advanced to expert, the challenge cards provide you with the starting layouts for each landing grid. You place the shuttle and helper bots as instructed, and then try to puzzle out how to complete the task at hand.

The early scenarios are all about moving the shuttle from place to place. In later challenges, you’ll have to move the helper bots as well, positioning them to form a path that’ll bounce your shuttle to the center of the grid.

The helper bots move in the same way as the shuttle — toward another helper bot along a row or column — and as the scenarios evolve, you’ll rely on moving the helper bots more and more.

It’s a bit like a sliding-tile puzzle, since you can only move the shuttle along certain paths, as determined by the locations of the helper bots. Many of the challenge cards can only be conquered by setting up a chain reaction, which gives Lunar Landing the feeling of a one-person chess game: You’re trying to see several moves ahead, looking for the perfect sequence of moves that will let you achieve victory.

Taking a simple scientific concept — objects in motion tend to stay in motion — and building a logic game around it is very clever, and it makes for a solving experience that feels new and challenging. Since each piece can potentially move, depending on the challenge card layout, there are more variables at play here than in previous ThinkFun logic puzzles.

helperbot

The helper bots are modeled on classic robot designs from the 1940s and 1950s, and that adds to the game’s charm, as if the vivid Technicolor visions that predated the Space Race have finally been realized.

The landing grid doubles as storage for the challenge cards and game pieces, making for an easily transported puzzle game that can be enjoyed anywhere at the drop of a hat.

Lunar Landing continues the fine tradition of ThinkFun puzzle games, keeping even experienced puzzlers on their toes with inventive gameplay and outside-the-box thinking. What a treat.

Lunar Landing is available from ThinkFun through Amazon and other online retailers. Click here to check out other ThinkFun product reviews!


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