PuzzleNation Product Review: Less

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.

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.

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.)

[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.

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!

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.

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.

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!

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.

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.

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

[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.

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.

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.

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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Apps you can play in a snap!

Last week, I did a rundown of board games and card games you can play in under 15 minutes. Games that were travel-friendly were also highlighted, since they tend to be quick-to-play and easy-to-learn.

But when it comes to quick-play games that are travel-friendly, you can’t get much easier or more accessible than the puzzle and game apps on your phone! Whether you’re stuck in traffic, trapped at the dentist’s office, or hiding in the bathroom during a family gathering, these are always ready to play!

Naturally, we have to start with the Penny Dell Crossword App! Not only do you have smart navigation to move you to partially filled-in entries and dozens upon dozens of the best crosswords around, but there’s the free daily puzzle for all app users! Plus, it’s available for both Android and iOS users!

For the dice game fans in the readership, Farkle is a quick-play version of Yahtzee. You roll six dice, looking for three of a kind, three pairs, and other key combinations in order to earn points. It’s an easy game to pick up whenever you wish, making it ideal for players on the move.

If you’re a word seek or word search enthusiast, Wordbrain might be right up your alley. This Boggle-style game is all about finding words spelled out in grids. As the grids get bigger, more words are hidden inside, and the difficulty level increases. But when it comes to quick-play games, the early rounds of Wordbrain are tough to match for sheer speed.

[The Boggle variant Ruzzle was also mentioned by several PuzzleNationers.]

7 Little Words is a clued puzzle where you assemble the answers from two- and three-letter chunks in the grid below. It’s a clever variation on crosswords, and it can be surprisingly challenging to cobble together the correct words when you stare at odd letter combinations like NHO or OOV.

For a quick-play resource management game, there’s Mini Metro. It’s up to you to construct and maintain a subway line for commuters. The more you can deliver between stations efficiently, the better. It’s a bright, colorful, engaging way to test your puzzly skills.

[Other puzzly building games include Triple Town, where you combining matching items in threes to build up a neighborhood into a town, and City2048, which applies the same tile-matching as the number game 2048, but in order to build a city.]

Bejeweled Blitz also got several recommendations from members of the PuzzleNation readership. It offers the same pattern-matching that made Bejeweled and Candy Crush such big hits, but does so with only sixty seconds of gameplay. So if you’re looking for some match-3-style gaming without a big time commitment, this might be the puzzle app for you.

Finally, we’ve got Really Bad Chess, a puzzly take on the classic game. The main difference? You don’t know what pieces you’re going to end up with until you start a match. It completely upends most of the strategy that goes along with traditional chess, which makes it endlessly replayable.

Honorable mentions go to QuizUp (a Trivial Pursuit-style trivia game) and Joon Pahk’s Guess My Word, as well as all the board game adaptations like Settlers of Catan, Ticket to Ride, and Splendor, that experienced players could play quickly, but don’t necessarily fit the bill.

Are there any favorite quick-play apps of yours that I missed? Let me know! I’d love to hear from you!


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PuzzleNation Review: Pyramid Arcade

Today’s review is going to be a little bit different, because I’m not reviewing a game… I’m reviewing 22 of them in one fell swoop.

That’s right, Pyramid Arcade represents the latest evolution in the Looney Pyramids series of puzzle games, combining and refining years of Looney Labs games and innovations into one sleek package. You see, when Andrew Looney started the Looney Pyramids series of games, his goal was to develop a puzzle game as infinitely adaptable as a deck of playing cards.

Pyramid Arcade is the next step in that process, amassing 22 games — some previously released, some new — in one massive rulebook. And everything you need to play is included, from game boards and dice to sets of pyramids in ten different colors.

[Two piece-placement games, Pharaoh and Petal Battle. Pharaoh is built around controlling the center square and the neighboring squares, while Petal Battle is about controlling five adjacent petals.]

Honestly, there’s a game in here for every type of puzzler. There are one-player games as well as games for 2-6 players, and even games for 10 players. There are combat games, collaborative games, wagering games, games of chance, balance games, and more. Some games require all 90 pyramids in the set!

And although some of the games are a little abstract — I’m still wrapping my head around Martian Chess — sitting down and actually playing through all the different options brings even the abstract concepts down to earth. You might be playing an insect in one game or a germ in another, but traditional puzzle skills and board-game styles rule the day here.

[Two strategy games, the Risk-inspired World War 5 and the miniature chess game Hijinks, which we previously reviewed as the standalone game Pink Hijinks.]

Stacking games like Hijinks are where the Looney Pyramids really shine as puzzle games. Being able to move beyond the two-dimensional play that defines so many board games adds a great deal of strategy and style to the gameplay. Whether you’re building rockets in Launchpad 23 or Jenga-like towers in Verticality, the pyramids become more than simple game pieces.

Although the price tag is higher than the usual board game or puzzle game fare, Pyramid Arcade is worth it. Not only do you get over twenty different games, but the rulebook includes a history of Looney Pyramids products, challenges for you to make your own Looney Pyramids games, and teasers for 22 additional games created by fans and submitted to Looney Labs online.

It’s impressive, all that you can accomplish with these curious little pyramids.

[Pyramid Arcade is available from Looney Labs and featured in our Holiday Puzzly Gift Guide!]


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