It’s Follow-Up Friday: Schools and Spheres edition!

Welcome to Follow-Up Friday!

By this time, you know the drill. Follow-Up Friday is a chance for us to revisit the subjects of previous posts and bring the PuzzleNation audience up to speed on all things puzzly.

And today, I’d like to return to the subject of Kickstarter philanthropy!

[Image credit: for-preneur]

I’ve written about crowdfunding a lot in this blog, because over the last few years, platforms like Kickstarter and Indiegogo have changed how many puzzles and games are created, funded, and brought to market.

There’s a virtual board game and card game renaissance stemming from these websites, and many puzzle constructors are bypassing traditional publishing formats and taking their puzzle suites and projects straight to the audience this way.

But there’s also the opportunity to give back to your community in meaningful ways.

I recently stumbled across the Kickstarter campaign for StrataSphere, a strategy puzzle game from Family Games America that really caught my eye.

Like a next-level version of Connect Four and KerPlunk, StrataSphere challenges you to place your sliding tabs in various slots around the cube, then use them to drop your spheres to the bottom layer first.

But what most intrigued me about the project wasn’t the puzzle itself, but one of the crowdfunding options being offered. Instead of just pledging for a copy of the game for yourself, you could pledge a little more money and donate a copy of the game in your name to a school of your choosing. Puzzle philanthropy.

I reached out to the team at FGA to find out more about the project, and had the opportunity to chat with Paulette Hall, communications director for FGA.

Where did the idea for StrataSphere come from?

The game was originally envisioned and developed by German designer Claudia Herz, who originally named it BallCube. Claudia remembers that after spending time sketching and offering the idea to other game publishers she finally made a handmade sample of acrylic glass and presented it at a trade-show not too far from her home.

The reaction and feedback was overwhelming. People wanted to know everything about the game and know where it can be purchased. This is what encouraged her to pursue the project. With a combination of inspiration from Claudia and outer-space, we renamed the game StrataSphere 2.0.

For people unfamiliar with FGA, what sort of puzzles and puzzle-games are your bread and butter? Is StrataSphere a traditional FGA-style puzzle, or is it a new direction for you?

FGA’s tag-line, Learning Through Laughter, has been been incorporated into all of our gift, game, and puzzle products since being established in 1987. StrataSphere 2.0 is not so much a puzzle but a strategy tabletop game that is a more contemporary modern addition to our line of products.

Our more popular items include eco-friendly wooden games and puzzles like Cathedral, Don’t Break The Bottle, and our wood and wire puzzles. While this strategy game is new to FGA, FGA is not new to strategy games.

The option for supporters to donate an additional copy to a school of their choosing is one I’ve never seen before, and I’m surprised more Kickstarter campaigns haven’t utilized it. Is this the first product that has incorporated this sort of program? Is this a long-term goal for FGA going forward?

FGA helped raise funds for actor Ted Danson’s American Oceans Campaign in the late ’80s and early ’90s with their environmental games and puzzles such as Endangered and Colorful Kingdom. A percentage of sales was also given to the ASPCA.

Donations of FGA products go out yearly to schools and organizations. A big part of FGA is our ability to give back, and we wanted to start 2016 with a campaign that will help us continue to do that. Our students are our future, and the state of our school systems has geared our focus of this campaign to get valuable learning material back into our schools and into their hands.

I think this is not only a really exciting puzzle game, but a worthwhile cause as well. You can check out all the details on the StrataSphere Kickstarter page. They’re more than halfway to their funding goal, and I sincerely hope they make it there and beyond.

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Touching a Piece of Puzzle History

Friend of the blog Peter Kanter came by the other day and showed me this curious piece of puzzle history that his brother had stumbled upon in a garage sale or a flea market.

Little did I realize I would soon be holding a puzzle that predates the crossword puzzle by over twenty years.

According to the instruction manual — which features rules for ten different spelling and anagramming games, one or two of which bear no small resemblance to Bananagrams in play style and spirit — this game was copyrighted in 1890 by McLoughlin Bros.

According to one of their catalogs, this game “consists of a box full of letters, so selected as to be most useful in a number of exceedingly interesting spelling games. The letters, printed on cardboard, are easily distinguished and handled. The box label is unusually bright and attractive.”

Yes, thanks to the wonders of the Internet, I’ve been able to do a little research on this marvelous find.

McLoughlin Bros. was a publishing firm based in New York that operated from the mid-1800s until the early 1900s. They specialized in children’s books and picture books, but also published linen books, games, paper dolls, puzzles, and toys.

They were among the first publishing houses to employ color printing techniques in products marketed specifically for children. (They also helped popularize the works of Thomas Nast, curiously enough.)

[A sampling of McLoughlin Bros.-style art, a style definitely reflected in the box art of the anagram game above.]

As it turns out, after the death of one of the founders, the company was sold to none other than Milton Bradley — makers of Battleship, Axis & Allies, Candyland, Connect Four, Operation, and Jenga, among many many others — who had continued success with some of the McLoughlin Bros. products, including mechanical paper toys called “Jolly Jump-Ups.” (You might know “mechanical paper toys” better as pop-up books.) Production of those toys was halted, however, during World War II, presumably to save materials for the war effort.

There is now a collector’s market for McLoughlin products — check out this listing for a game board produced by the firm — and if this anagram game is any indication, the color and striking artistic designs from a century ago still hold up today.

And although I can’t definitively say that this exact game predates the crossword, there’s no doubt that this sort of wordplay was delighting kids and adults alike well before Arthur Wynne’s “Word-Cross” puzzle saw the light of day.

How cool is that?

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PuzzleNation Product Review: Rush Hour Shift and All Queens Chess

ThinkFun has always specialized in games that educate as you play, from the optics and angles of Laser Maze and the chain problem-solving of Gravity Maze to the coding-for-kids gameplay of Robot Turtles and the mental agility challenges of their Brain Fitness line of puzzles-for-one.

Two of their newest products bring the best of those puzzles-for-one brain fitness games into the realm of head-to-head competitive solving for two players aged 8 to adult. And while All Queens Chess and Rush Hour Shift focus on two different styles of puzzle-solving, they both highlight the pluses of two-player puzzle games in their own unique ways.

Rush Hour Shift

There have been numerous variations on Rush Hour in the past, all of which center around the same tile-shifting mechanic: moving a series of cars around the board in the proper order to allow your car to escape the traffic jam.

Rush Hour Shift adds a new wrinkle to the puzzle by pitting two players head-to-head in a race to escape the traffic jam. But not only can players shift a personal car (known as the hero car) and the many cars in the way, they can also shift entire sections of the board in order to maximize their efforts to escape or thwart those of their opponent.

[Sometimes, you end up literally head-to-head.]

Your moves are dictated by the cards you draw from a small deck of options. You can either move a certain number of spaces, slide a vehicle as far as it will go before hitting an obstacle, or shift one side of the board or the other in order to create openings for yourself and further obstacles for your opponent. So not only are you solving an ever-evolving maze for your own car, but you’re trying to make your opponent’s maze more challenging.

My one caveat when it comes to Rush Hour Shift is that the game is incredibly dependent on which cards you draw. Between shifting the grid and moving both your hero car and all of the other cars, you have lots of options.

But if your opponent is drawing high-number cards and you’re not, there’s only so much you can do to slow them down or maneuver yourself in the hopes of staying in the game. A few good cards in a row can form a nearly insurmountable advantage.

That being said, Rush Hour Shift is a clever spin on a familiar formula, and a terrific way of introducing kids to the tile-shifting style of puzzle solving.

All Queens Chess

Many of the best games have extremely simple rule sets that still allow for major replayability and inherently complex gameplay, and All Queens Chess absolutely fits that bill.

You’ve got a 5×5 playing field, six queens each, and you’re trying to place four of your queens in a row Connect Four-style while preventing your opponent from doing the same. Each queen moves according to standard chess rules, except there’s no capturing of your opponent’s pieces. This puzzle game is all about placement and strategy.

And when you consider that the game pieces occupy nearly half of the playing area, it’s remarkable that there’s so much maneuverability and tactical potential in such a confined space.

Moreover, my expectation that, after a few games, the inability to capture and remove pieces from the board would prove tedious or frustrating was completely misproven. Six pieces is enough to strike a strong balance of offense (trying to place four in a row) and defense (preventing my opponent from doing so). I never felt locked into a few token moves.

This is a rare open-the-box-and-go puzzle game, and it’s an absolute treat.

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