PN Product Review: Gemji

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There’s an ongoing quest for the perfect all-in-one game/puzzle kit.

Over the years, we’ve seen games and puzzles come and go that attempt to build an all-in-one play set that allows for new variations and still remains portable. The Dark Imp has their 6-in-1 Christmas cracker set, for instance. Knot Dice offers numerous games and puzzles to accompany their beautiful dice. Looney Labs has their Looney Pyramids, complete with an ever-growing online archive of new games developed by fans.

Those games are all terrific, but so far, the simplest remains a deck of cards. You can play an endless number of games with it, and it fits in your pocket.

But people keep trying, and some of those projects are worth checking out.

So when I stumbled across Gemji on Kickstarter, I was definitely intrigued.

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It’s a magnetic tile set that promised all sorts of building and play options, and it really seemed to allow for much more than any magnetic set I’d seen before.

I finally received my Gemji set in the mail a while back, and I’ve been playing with it on and off for the last few weeks, testing out all sorts of ways to play with it.

And today, I’m going to share my thoughts with you and let you make up your own minds.

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The base Gemji collection includes 70 magnetic tiles (black on one side, white on the other), a folding base to build on, and two manuals.

It’s a building toy, a plaything, a puzzle set, and a game kit all in one. You can play magnetic versions of chess, Stratego, Battleship, Othello/Go, and many others. You can play tangram-style shape-making games (in 2-D and 3-D). You can make dice and play dice games. Dexterity games, stacking games, building games, strategy games… there are all sorts of options.

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In addition to the numerous games and activities suggested in the two accompanying booklets — Play and Build, respectively — it’s infinitely adaptable, so you can’t help but start making your own games and puzzles out of it.

For instance, one of our first ideas was to build a small platform and play a Catch the Moon-style balance game with it.

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We built a die to roll that would determine if you had to add one tile or two to the sculpture in the center of the platform.

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And when the sculpture inevitably collapsed, it simply clicked and clacked together on the platform, rather than crashing to the floor in a cacophony like Jenga would.

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That’s a big plus.

Play can be as elegant or as silly as you like. For one game, we made “dice” again, and laid out a field of tiles randomly across the table. Then we tossed our dice one at a time and saw how many tiles we could pick up Katamari Damacy-style. Naturally, the game became more complex — adding obstacles to avoid, adding or losing points depending on tiles picked up, lost, or recovered — and we’d quickly lost half an hour of lunchtime.

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All in all, I think Gemji has built a solid foundation for puzzle gaming. It will be a treat to see how other players develop new games and innovative ways to use the tiles in puzzly ways.

[Gemji is not yet commercially available, but they’re hoping to be on sale in time for the holiday season. Check out their website for further details.]


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PuzzleNation Product Review: ThinkFun’s Block Chain

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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.]

Mechanical brain teasers can be incredibly complex, requiring many steps all taken in a particular order to achieve a goal. They can be devious, hiding components from sight and forcing you to deduce or luck your way into maneuvering the brain teaser in a certain fashion or from a certain angle.

But they can also be fairly simple in design and still retain a level of challenge and difficulty that makes the a-ha moment when you solve it just as sweet.

One of the traits that most ThinkFun puzzles or brain teasers have is accessibility. There’s nothing hidden from the solver. What you see is what you get, even if the path forward isn’t exactly clear.

The only thing that separates success from failure with a ThinkFun brain teaser is patience and puzzly skill. From age 8 to age 80, everyone starts on the same playing field.

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This is exemplified by their latest brain teaser, Block Chain.

The concept is simple. You have three linked four-sided blocks. You can rotate each one independently of each other to show different faces.

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You can also tilt the outside blocks in the chain up or down so that they slide over the center block, or swing the outside blocks so that they slide into the center block.

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By swinging one block in and tilting the other block over, you create a single cube with different images on each face. Your job is to spin, swing, tilt, and tinker with each block chain until you form a cube that fulfills a certain condition.

And each package contains three different challenges for solvers to tackle.

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One simply requires you to make all six sides match to fit one of two possible themes. For instance, this pirate-themed one could be all gold coin patterned, or all treasure chest patterned, depending on which side you twisted, swapped, and slid into place. So there’s two puzzles here, one on each side.

The second follows a more Rubik’s Cube-style solve style, as you have to manipulate the block chain so that a different color appears on every side of the cube.

The third involves multiple paths on each four-sided block, so you have to twist and maneuver the blocks so that the paths line up properly along each edge where the paths “meet.”

This was the most difficult of the three, because the patterning required much more attention from the solver. After all, you aren’t just matching a side — like the colored or themed ones — so the positioning of each block in the chain is more exact and deliberate than it is for the other cubes.

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Block Chain brain teaser sets come in different themes — pirate, robot, and unicorn, for instance — adding a really fun visual aesthetic to what could be a fairly bland-looking puzzle. And their relative simplicity helps them serve as marvelous introductory puzzles for new solvers.

Although older solvers will blow through these fairly quickly, I definitely found myself returning to them more than once, enjoying the simple tactile joys of maneuvering the blocks around and over each other to make different shapes. They’re essentially a puzzly little fidget cube you can idly toy with as you solve!

Once again, ThinkFun has managed to walk that tightrope and balance simplicity of design with satisfying solving to create a delightful puzzling experience. Block Chain brain teasers have already become a welcome addition to my desk, keeping my hands occupied while I puzzle over the day’s obstacles.

[Block Chain costs $10.99 and is available through ThinkFun and Amazon.]

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