PuzzleNation Product Review: Chicken War

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

The farm is no longer the quiet, idyllic escape you pictured when learning the sounds barnyard animals make. Instead, it has fallen to factional fury and un-cooped combat between various groups of chickens vying for victory. Such is the setting for ThinkFun‘s latest brain-training game, the colorful and crafty tile game Chicken War.

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There are two ways to win Chicken War. You can either be the last player standing or the first player to complete their army. To be the last player standing, your opponents’ leaders must be identified. To be the first player to complete your army, you have to have nine other chickens with two traits in common with your leader.

As you can see, Chicken War’s hybrid style of play combines the player observation of a game like Throw Throw Burrito or Scrimish with the deductive reasoning of a game like Clue.

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Each player is trying to recruit chickens for their army, and must do so in full view of the other players. This means that you have to strategize not only your recruitment process, but how to do so without revealing too much to your opponents. Plus you have to do all that while keeping an eye on your opponents’ efforts to recruit!

First, you select your leader from the ten starting chickens in your yard. Optimally, you’ll pick a leader where many of the other starting chickens already share two traits, which gives you a leg up in building your army.

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You’ll hide your leader token under that particular chicken to mark it, using your screen to do so away from the prying eyes of other players.

Remember, that’s two traits and only two traits in common.

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The four possible traits, as shown above, are weapon, shirt color, eyewear, and footwear. Each trait has three variations. For instance, shirt color can be blue, red, or green. Eyewear can be sunglasses, mask, or none.

(Keep those four traits in mind. Body type, pose, and style of tail are all irrelevant, but can be distracting.)

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As you can see here, the top two chickens have two traits in common: shirt color and eyewear. (Footwear and weapon differ.) The two bottom chickens have three traits in common: shirt color, eyewear, and footwear. Therefore, if 05 and 06 are leaders, 05 has a recruit, but 06 does not.

How do you recruit chickens? By drawing from the discard pile. You either keep the new chicken and discard one of the chickens from your yard, or you immediately discard the new chicken.

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The only other ways to recruit chickens are to use the two special tiles: steal and infiltrate.

Steal lets you take a chicken from another player’s yard and discard one of your unwanted chickens into the discard pile. This not only gives you a new chicken, but leaves your opponent one chicken short. This can be a strategic advantage, because any player with fewer than 10 chickens can’t lob an egg and cannot win the game, even if their remaining chickens all match the leader.

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Infiltrate allows you to swap one of your chickens with one of your opponents’ chickens. That player must then tell you one trait your chicken (the one placed in their yard) has with their leader. If there are no traits in common with the leader, they must tell you that instead. And if you accidentally trade for their leader, they must pick a new leader and start over. So in any case, you gain a new chicken and important knowledge about your opponent’s game.

If multiple players gang up on a single player, the Infiltrate card can prove very dangerous, eventually outing the player’s leader and making them easy pickings for an egg and elimination from the game. (This tactic is more likely to catch new players, as more experienced players would endeavor to repeat the same revealed trait over and over, whenever possible.)

So each turn, you must either draw a chicken from the discard pile or lob an egg.

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Lobbing one of your three eggs means you place your egg on a chicken in another player’s yard that you suspect is their leader. If you’re correct, that player is out.

But if you’re wrong, you lose an egg and have to discard two chickens from your yard, leaving yourself two chickens short of victory. (Also, as we stated before, you can’t win the game or lob an egg with fewer than 10 chickens in your yard.)

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The two methods of winning can often lead to two different styles of gameplay. Either a player focuses on their recruitment, hoping to be the first to complete their army, or they focus on eliminating another player by sussing out who their leader chicken is.

This adds a lot of variety to the game, particularly when it comes to repeat playthroughs. Figuring out your opponents’ tactics can inform your own, and yet, you don’t want to tip your hand.

Once I had one or two playthroughs behind me, I really started getting invested in the gameplay and trying to get into my opponents’ heads. (Also, there’s something delightfully demented about these chickens all being armed with “weapons” we would use to make breakfast from their eggs. That’s a nice touch.)

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Although it makes for a tense, enjoyable one-on-one game, the full potential of Chicken War comes alive with all four players involved. It forces to split your attention, retain a lot of information, and constantly adapt your strategy to an ever-shifting landscape.

As you can see, there’s a surprising amount of thought, strategy, and complexity behind this so-called guessing game, and it makes Chicken War a terrific gateway game to other board games in the same style, but with more complex rulesets or player choices. War is hell, but Chicken War is healthy brain-fueled fun.

[Chicken War is available from ThinkFun and other retail outlets.]


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PuzzleNation Product Review: Are You a Robot?

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

Whether you’re playing a board game like Clue or a card game like Werewolf or Mafia, you and your fellow players have accepted the challenge of a very different form of puzzle gaming: the social deduction game.

Social deduction games operate under a simple premise — the cards determine the role you play — and from that point forward, you’re trying to determine who is secretly a danger to you and others in the game.

In this particular case, there might a robot lurking among the humans aboard your space station.

You see, in Are You a Robot?, all of the players randomly select a card. There’s always a human card for every person playing the game, plus one robot card. (So, for instance, if five people are playing, you have five human cards and one robot card in the deck.) You shuffle the cards, deal out one to each player, and put the last one aside. Everyone looks at their card (but doesn’t show anyone else) and discovers their role for the game.

Now, at this point, there’s between zero and one robots in the game, and the rest of the players are human. The humans want to suss out if there are any robots disguised as humans, and the robot wants to get the humans to accuse each other and whittle down their numbers so the robots can take over.

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[A whole lot packed into a little envelope.]

This is the social aspect of the game. There are three things players can do in order to figure out who is who: shake hands, shoot a laser gun at another player, or talk. If the players all agree that there are no robots in play, two players can agree to shake hands. If there are no robots in the game after all, the humans win. If a robot is present after all, the humans lose.

Humans can shoot other players, but robots cannot. If a robot is shot, it’s gone from the game and the humans rejoice. If a human is shot, three things happen: the shooter is immediately removed from the game, the human who was shot comes back to life and returns to the game, and there’s a chance another robot slips into the game.

This element of chance involves all of the players closing their eyes, any robots secretly revealing themselves, and all of the remaining players turning in their cards. Those cards are shuffled randomly, a robot card is introduced, and the cards are redistributed to the surviving human players.

It’s possible everyone remains human, and it’s possible one of the humans is now a robot in disguise.

The game now resumes, and the players must once again figure out if there are any robots in their midst. (And your mind immediately begins spiraling out with possibilities. “Did so-and-so not shoot me because he believes that I’m human? Or because he’s a robot and can’t shoot me?”)

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[The set up for a four-person game: instructions, four human cards, and one robot card.]

Play continues until either the humans have eliminated any possible robots (and have shaken hands to confirm this) or the robots have overwhelmed the game and the humans have been whittled down to a single player.

In my estimation, Extended Mode, designed for 5 or more players, is the most interesting version of the game. The core game is for two or three players, consisting of two human cards and one robot card. Adding a second game allows for up to four players, a third game allows for up to six, and so on.

Our Extended Mode testing involved eight players (and four copies of the game), which allowed for multiple rounds of play, the introduction of several possible additional robots, and so on, making for a deeper, more engrossing (and nerve-wracking!) play experience.

And that’s the beauty of Are You a Robot? when compared to similar social detection card games like Mafia and Werewolf. Not only can you have satisfying play experiences with fewer people but the element of randomness that comes into play with more players adds tension to the game. (In Mafia and Werewolf, the number of antagonists is set at the start of the game. In Are You a Robot?, the number might increase, or it might not. It’s a simple change that adds so much.)

An elegant balance of silliness and suspenseful, consequence-loaded gameplay, Are You a Robot? is a winner with any number of players. Bring your laser gun, bring your skepticism, and bring along a couple of sets so everyone can play.

[Are You a Robot? is available (for $2!) from Looney Labs and other participating retailers.]


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PuzzleNation Product Review: Chroma Cube

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

As longtime readers know, puzzle games centering around logic and deduction can come in many different forms, from cats milling around a living room to abstract shapes interacting in curious ways. They often have many moving parts and solving mechanics to keep in mind.

But other logic puzzles strip away flashy trappings and overly elaborate designs and take a minimalistic approach to puzzling. The subject of today’s product review, Chroma Cube, falls neatly into the latter category.

Chroma Cube boils a deduction puzzle down to its essentials, employing pleasing design that seems basic, but allows for great depth and challenge nonetheless. All you need to tackle Chroma Cube is a game board, twelve colored cubes, and your challenge cards.

The object of the puzzle is simple: complete each challenge card by placing all 12 cubes in the correct positions on the board.

Most of the challenge cards place some of the colored cubes for you to get your started. Once you’ve set up your board to match the starting pattern on the card, it’s up to you to use the clues provided to figure out how to place the remaining cubes.

The challenge cards ease the solver into the puzzle at first, relying mostly on clues about positioning on the board, referring to rows, columns, and neighboring cubes.

As you might expect, with each new challenge card, the puzzles increase in difficulty, and the clues grow more complex and inventive. Some refer to colors only by the first letters — leaving you to ponder whether it applies to Brown or Black, for instance) — while others offer contextual clues, like a rule that the cubes in each row should be in alphabetical order from the left to right.

A few even rely on knowledge outside the puzzle game itself, like knowing the colors in the Irish flag. These clues are rarer, but add a nice bit of crossword-style flavor to an otherwise Sudoku-like solving experience.

The team at Project Genius did an excellent job of keeping the clues fresh and interesting, constantly introducing new rules and wrinkles to the puzzles. By the time you’re encountering puzzles with no set cubes, or ones that require you to swap set cubes with newly placed cubes — a very clever twist on the idea of “set” pieces — you realize that no matter how many tricks you’ve figured out, the challenge cards have new ones waiting for you.

(Naturally, these are only some of the clue mechanics you’ll encounter. I don’t want to spoil some of the really inventive and challenging ones.)

Chroma Cube’s later challenge cards offer plenty of difficulty and cluing craftiness to keep established puzzlers coming back for more, but without alienating new solvers that have developed and honed their deductive talents by playing through the game’s earlier scenarios.

I was thoroughly impressed by how much the creative team at Project Genius got out of 12 colored cubes and a wooden board to place them on.

Not only that, but the game is beautiful, eye-catching in its presentation. The wooden pieces have a weight to them, and solving is a delightfully tactile experience. (The challenge cards can be tucked away in a slot within the board, making it a breeze to move around the house.

Heck, you could easily leave it on your coffee table as a puzzly conversation piece and it wouldn’t look out of place.

Chroma Cube is a wonderfully visual take on classic deduction-style solving, one that will keep you on your toes from the first challenge card to the last.

Chroma Cube, distributed by Project Genius, is available at Barnes & Noble and other participating retailers.


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