PuzzleNation Product Review: Hacker

[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.]

All of the puzzles and games produced by ThinkFun have one thing in common: learning through play. Whether you’re solving logic problems with lasers, creating unique patterns with color wheels, or deducing the culprit of a feline crime, you’re learning valuable skills through puzzling.

Several ThinkFun games are designed with computer coding in mind, as the gameplay mimics some of the rudimentary concepts of preparing and entering commands, then seeing how those commands can interact with an environment.

If you’re familiar with Robot Turtles, or any of their puzzle games from the //Code series, like On the Brink, you’ve already experienced this for yourself or seen someone else putting newfound puzzly skills to the test.

But Hacker offers a new twist on this concept.

[The various game pieces: agents, data files, exit points, commands to move the agent and rotate parts of the playing grid, and others, including the virus, alarm, and locks.]

As ThinkFun’s newest logic game, Hacker goes above and beyond those introductory coding games, challenging players to add their own coding to an established scenario in order to complete a specific task.

Then the players have to locate vulnerabilities and correct them before they can move on to the next challenge.

But by working your way through the various difficulty levels — Beginner, Intermediate, Advanced, and Expert — the game introduces new elements and challenges to the player gradually, allowing younger solvers to develop their skills and learn new tricks as they work out increasingly complex scenarios.

Let’s look at one Intermediate-level challenge to give you a better idea of how the game works.

The first part of each challenge is the coding. Each challenge card presents you with the initial layout of the grid, as well as which commands are hard-coded into the scenario (listed on the Platform line), and the openings for you to code movements for your agent (shaded in on the Red Agent line).

In this scenario, the agent must retrieve a single data file and deliver it to the exit point.

[The commands I “coded” in order to complete the scenario.]

You will use the arrow tiles to indicate where you want the agent to move. The rotation tiles are hard-programmed at certain times, so you can’t move them; you have to plot your path and code your agent to take advantage of those rotation commands.

[A full scenario ready to go. Clockwise from the upper left, we have the Challenge Booklet, the playing grid, the coding Control Panel, and the Solutions Booklet.]

As the scenarios grow more complex, those hard-coded rotation tiles will offer greater challenges, forcing you to become more creative and more tactical in your programming.

In addition to handling the rotation tiles, you must pick up the data file and reach the exit point while avoiding any contact with the virus.

[Here, the command as coded plays out. The agent moves left and acquires the data file, then moves down. The platform rotates twice, and then it’s a straight shot right to the exit point.]

And by using the special answer flipbook — which separates each challenge into three different pages for Code It, Hack It, and Fix It, so you can look at each individually without spoiling the rest of the solve — we can confirm our coding is correct.

The second part of the challenge is an element I haven’t seen in any previous ThinkFun release: hacking.

In this stage, you’re trying to debug your coding by seeking out vulnerabilities in the code that would allow the agent to encounter a virus. You’re essentially troubleshooting yourself!

To do so, you have to play the role of a malicious hacker hell-bent on corrupting your coding and delivering the agent directly into the hands of the virus.

This part of the game is more like a traditional sliding-tile puzzle, as you try to manipulate the tiles already in place to engineer a different outcome. In this case, I’ve moved the platform command forward and the down movement command over, altering the agent’s path.

As you can see here, by “hacking” our code, we picked up the data file and delivered it right to the virus, corrupting the entire program. Although our original program avoided the virus entirely, it isn’t safeguarded against hacking. Yet.

That brings us to the third part of the challenge, fixing, which allows you to correct the flaws you identified in the second part.

You can do so by placing an alarm on an open tile, which prevents the agent from encountering the virus; but you must do so without interfering with the successful completion of the original coding’s goal. In more difficult scenarios, you can also fix your coding by using a link token to link certain commands together, so a hacker has to move them as a whole, rather than as individual commands.

So in order to have a successful fix, you should be able to play through the original coding and succeed, but the hacked coding should be thwarted by the changes you’ve made.

[Below the blue agent and the blue exit point, you have the primary tools used in the Fixing phase of gameplay: the transaction link and the alarm.]

It’s an effective metaphor for the amount of review and beta-testing that goes into actual coding, since tiny mistakes can have dire consequences. By requiring younger players to review the same data in three different ways, you’re subconsciously encouraging diligence and care in one’s programming.

It’s a simple lesson, but an important one, and the gameplay promotes it without feeling preachy or heavy-handed. Instead, you’re almost partners-in-crime with the game as you develop new tricks to outwit each scenario.

Hacker is one of ThinkFun’s most complex and immerse logic games yet, one that never forgets to be great fun and an engaging, multilayered puzzly challenge, even as it educates. Other ThinkFun games might look flashier at first glance, but I think they’ve truly outdone themselves this time around.

Hacker is available from ThinkFun and participating retailers, starting at $24.99.


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May the Fourth Be With You!

Hello fellow puzzlers and PuzzleNationers! It’s Star Wars Day, and what better way to celebrate than with a puzzly Star Wars brain teaser!

A fellow Star Wars fan and puzzler sent in this delightful little logic puzzle, and we decided to share it with you! Can you crack this SW gift mystery?


Three friends had three kids who were all named after Star Wars characters. For Star Wars Day one year, all three kids (Han, Leia, and Luke) got different Star Wars LEGO sets as gifts (the Millennium Falcon, an AT-AT, and an Imperial Star Destroyer).

Each set had a different number of pieces (1345, 1432, or 1569) and each kid took a different amount of time to complete the model (2, 3, or 4 hours). Using the clues below, can you figure out which kid got which model, how many pieces it had, and how long it took them to build it?

1. The model with the most pieces took the most time to complete, but the model with the least pieces did not take the least amount of time to complete.

2. The models weren’t to scale, so the Millennium Falcon actually had more pieces than the Imperial Star Destroyer, a fact that Luke was upset to learn since he likes bigger models.

3. Han spent the three hours between opening his gifts and lunch building his model.

Good luck, fellow puzzlers! Although the puzzle is a bit easier if you’re familiar with the Star Wars Universe, any solver should be able to crack this puzzle with the clues provided!

Let us know if you solved it in the comments below! And May the Fourth Be With You!


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PuzzleNation Product Review: ThinkFun’s Cat Crimes

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

ThinkFun is a company that excels at creating logical deduction puzzles for solvers of all ages. Whether it’s moving robots toward a rocket ship in Lunar Landing, completing electrical circuits in Circuit Maze, or placing mirrors to reflect a laser’s beam in Laser Maze Jr., these clever puzzly challenges introduce classic puzzle concepts to younger solvers in engaging, unique ways.

But with their latest release, they’ve taken a step back from more high-concept, high-tech puzzles and embraced a more traditional logic puzzle format.

In Cat Crimes, you’re given a series of clues, and it’s up to you to place the six cat characters around the living room in order to determine which one has been up to some destructive mischief.

For instance, a given challenge card will list the crime in the upper right corner — a flowerpot that’s been knocked over, for instance — and the clues listed beneath will tell you which cats are your suspects, along with hints for where to place them in the living room.

The living room is covered with little bits of visual evidence — scratches on the floor, paw prints, mouse toys, etc. — that can be used to help you figure out where each of the cats were sitting when the crime was committed.

The beginner-level mysteries start out simple, with the clues mostly focused on the placement of the cats (across from a sock or next to some catnip, for instance). As the mysteries cards grow more complex — moving from beginner and intermediate levels of difficulty to advanced and, finally, expert — more options emerge. A cat could be in one of two places, or is only referenced with regards to another cat it’s sitting next to or across from.

Higher-level challenge cards will also refer to qualities of the cat suspects themselves. Some wear bows or have bells on their collars, while others are referenced by eye color. Solvers need to keep increasingly greater amounts of information in their head in order to place all of the cats in their proper positions and solve the crime.

I repeatedly found myself discussing possibilities out loud as I solved. “Well, if Sassy is between two of these cats, it can only be Mr. Mittens and Ginger, and Ginger can’t be in front of a scratch mark, so…”

With only six possible crimes and six possible suspects, you’d think that repeated play would lead to player burnout or quickly exhausting the possible permutations, but that’s not the case here at all. As you ascend through the deck of challenge cards, the ThinkFun team throw new twists and cluing styles at you, keeping you on your toes. A lot of creativity and hard work went into the cluing here, and it shows.

[Image courtesy of Logic Puzzles.org.]

It’s not only an absolutely adorable way to bring logic puzzle solving to a new audience, it’s also a refreshing change of pace for solvers accustomed to traditional logic puzzles (complete with those tables where all of the possible permutations are listed, and you can simply cross off the incorrect ones as you go). Cat Crimes requires you to keep more of that information in mind as you determine where each cat goes.

With up to six feline suspects to place per crime and 40 different crimes to solve, Cat Crimes will keep your deductive skills sharp, even as the easier challenge cards introduce younger solvers and logic newbies alike to a different style of puzzle-solving. Cat Crimes is not just one of the cutest puzzle games I’ve played in a long time, it’s the perfect gateway puzzle to strip away some of the intimidation factor of logic problems.

[Cat Crimes is available from ThinkFun and other select retailers for $12.99!]


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Two Puzzly Events: One Soon, One Today!

If you’re looking for puzzly events in the very near future to keep your solving skills sharp, then this is the post for you.

After all, the 41st annual American Crossword Puzzle Tournament is only six weeks away! Yup, on March 23rd to the 25th, puzzlers shall descend on the Stamford Marriott Hotel once again to put their puzzly skills to the test in what is lovingly known as “the Nerd Olympics.”

I’ve attended the event for several years now, and it is always one of the highlights of the puzzle year. The tournament itself takes place over two days, with six puzzles to solve on Saturday, followed by one on Sunday. Then the top three finishers in the A, B, and C brackets solve the championship puzzle on whiteboards in front of the audience.

On Friday and Saturday night, there are puzzle events, demonstrations, and panels by top puzzlers and figures in the puzzle world as well.

It’s a terrific way to not only see how you’d fare in a tournament setting, but also to meet many of your fellow puzzlers, including prominent constructors and previous tournament winners!

(Click here to read our rundown of last year’s event, and click here to visit the Facebook page for attendees and new solvers to share info and learn more about the event!)

But maybe March is too far away for you. What if you’re looking for a puzzly challenge right now?

Well then, The World Puzzle Federation has you covered, because The WPF Puzzle Grand Prix returns today!

With similar rules to the Sudoku Grand Prix (which kicked off last month), the Puzzle Grand Prix consists of multiple rounds over the course of the year, spanning all types of puzzles, including kakuro, deduction puzzles, and more.

And although only members of the WPF are active competitors for those rankings, you can still solve each round’s puzzles and see how you fare against the best in the world!

The Turkish team have prepared the puzzles for Round 1, which will be available from noon on February 9, 2018 (GMT + 1 hour) to 11:59 PM on February 12, 2018 (GMT + 1 hour).

So what do you say, PuzzleNationers? Do you accept the challenge of the Puzzle Grand Prix?

Let us know in the comments below! We’d love to hear from you!


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PuzzleNation Review: Topple Magazine

One of the best things about being a puzzle constructor these days is the level of access solvers have to you and your puzzles. Many constructors create and maintain their own puzzle subscription services, funding them through tips, crowdfunding, subscription fees, or direct-to-solver sales. When puzzly skills and a knack for self-promotion meet, you have the opportunity for real success in building a reputation and an audience.

So when constructor Gregory Gray reached out to me regarding his puzzle e-magazine, Topple, I was all ears. Whether it’s print books, downloadable puzzle packets, or Kickstarter campaigns, I’m always happy to spread the word about puzzle projects that I think the PuzzleNation audience will enjoy.

Gregory sent me the latest edition of Topple (issue VII) to review, so let’s dive right in.

Issue 7 offers a variety of different puzzles to try out. Anagramming and word-forming challenges, trivia, a rebus, some deduction, find-the-path games, and more can be found across these 12 pages of puzzles (plus solution pages, obviously).

I was immediately impressed with all of the different solving styles on display. Shying away from classics like crosswords, word seeks, and fill-ins, Topple opts for puzzles that offer greater opportunities to incorporate art and interesting layouts.

From the anagram rings of ‘Gram Crackers to the alphabet blocks of Blockhead, a great deal of work has clearly gone into not only the puzzles, but the presentation of them, which makes for a very eye-catching solving experience.

The mix of art and puzzles also presents a more welcoming tone for new solvers, who might find a denser arrangement of puzzle grids to be more off-putting or daunting. Each puzzle is given plenty of space to establish itself, so even unfamiliar puzzle types seem more inviting.

But solvers who prefer a bit more challenge will also find something worth their time in this issue of Topple, as a two-page spread of Japanese-style deduction puzzles awaits you in the middle of the book. Whether you’re connecting the dots in Masyu and Hashi or deducing the placement of numbers in Kakuro or black square in Nurikabe, these were easily the most challenging puzzles in the entire magazine, a pleasant change of pace for a more experienced solver.

[Examples of Hashi and Nurikabe puzzles.
Images courtesy of Conceptis Puzzles.]

To be fair, the book isn’t perfect. Some of the blurbs explaining the rules of each puzzle are a bit clunky, which can lead to moments of solver confusion. For instance, it’s not immediately clear in Blockhead if you can anagram the letters in each given word, or if those letters stay in place while you add a letter from the options below.

But those hiccups are few and far between, and for the most part, I found solving issue 7 of Topple to be a very enjoyable solving experience. I breezed through some puzzles, while others put my puzzly skills to the test.

And with Topple, you get quite a bang for your buck. Literally: Each issue of Topple is only $1, and when you consider both the variety of puzzles and the production quality of the book, it’s a steal.

So if you’re looking to try something new without breaking the bank, Topple is an excellent place to start.

The complete Topple collection, along with a free downloadable sampler pack of puzzles, can be found here. You can also subscribe to Topple through Patreon, and be sure to keep up with all things Topple-related on their Facebook page.


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PuzzleNation Product Review: Zendo

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

Experienced puzzlers are familiar with deduction as a puzzle-solving method. They may know it from solving logic puzzles, determining who brought what to Thanksgiving dinner. They may know it from asking questions in Clue in order to eliminate possibilities and figure out who killed Mr. Boddy, where, and how. They may know it from brain teasers, riddles, puzzles, or card games.

But they’ve probably never tried their hand at a deduction puzzle game quite like Zendo.

In Zendo, the players pull pieces from a communal pile in order to build different structures, using pyramids, wedges, and blocks. One player, the moderator, chooses a secret rule for the players to uncover, and builds two structures. One of these structures follows the secret rule, and one does not, and both are marked as such.

Secret rules can be as simple as “must contain all three shapes” or “must contain exactly four pieces.” They can be as complex as “must contain more blue pieces than blocks” or “must contain at least one yellow piece pointing at a blue piece.” Some rules involve how pieces touch, or how they’re stacked, while others demand no touching or stacking whatsoever. The field is wide open at the start of the game.

Players then try to deduce the secret rule by building structures themselves, arranging pieces from the communal pile into various patterns and asking the moderator for more information.

[Can you tell what the rule is by looking at these two structures?]

They can do so in one of two ways. The first is by saying “Tell,” wherein the moderator marks the player’s structure with either a white token or black token, depending on whether the structure fits the secret rule.

The second is by saying “Quiz,” wherein every player guesses whether the given player’s structure fits the rule. Every player who guesses right gets a guessing token.

Guessing tokens, as you might suspect, are spent to guess the secret rule. But the moderator doesn’t answer with a simple yes or no. The moderator instead must build a new structure, which will either fit the secret rule (but not the player’s guess, and get marked with a white token) or fits the player’s guess (but not the secret rule, and gets marked with a black token).

This back-and-forth between players can be frustrating or informative, depending on how specifically you frame your guesses. It also tests the creative mettle of your moderator, which adds a curious wrinkle to the game. Not only are you competing with your fellow players to figure out the secret rule, but you have to deal with the often crafty skills of the moderator.

[Does this second sculpture give you any hints?]

It’s an ever-evolving puzzle that can change in an instant with a new bit of information. You might confirm you’re on the right track, or realize you’ve been looking at the structures incorrectly all along, and you’re back to square one (or, you know, pyramid one or wedge one).

But thankfully, Zendo is easily scalable for solvers of any age or solving skill level. You can keep the secret rule simple or make it complex, depending on who is playing. And if you’re the moderator, you have a free hand in determining how much information your structures reveal.

Like Fluxx and other games under the Looney Labs umbrella, Zendo has tons of replay value, and it’s a puzzle-game that ages well, since solvers with more experience are not only better players, but more devious moderators as well. This is some seriously puzzly fun.

Zendo is available from the crafty crew at Looney Labs, and it’s also featured in this year’s Holiday Puzzly Gift Guide!


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