PuzzleNation Product Review: ThinkFun’s Potato Pirates

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

Most of ThinkFun‘s coding-based puzzle games are either solo endeavors or head-to-head races to complete tasks. Potato Pirates adds a marvelous new wrinkle, since 3 to 6 players are required to take to the high seas for some swashbuckling spudly fun!

Potato Pirates is a tactical game where players compete to outlast their opponents and become the most dominant potato pirate the world has ever known, a Dread Pirate Roberts of starchy goodness. You do so by either collecting all seven Potato King cards, or by eliminating every other player at the table.

Each player starts with two ships and twenty potato crew members, along with a hand of five cards. There are control cards, action cards, and surprise cards (along with the aforementioned Potato King cards).

The coding aspect of the game allows you to battle your fellow players. The control and action cards can be combined into commands that you program one round and activate the next in order to attack the other players.

Action cards indicate damage dealt to the potato crew of your target, while control cards indicate conditions for that action, like multipliers to cause more damage or how many ships you can target with one command. (Surprise cards can be played at any time, even when it’s not your turn.)

And that coding structure makes Potato Pirates more strategic and tactical than a lot of other card games where you can play any card at any time. Since you can code a command or modify a command on one turn, and have to wait for the next to activate it, you may leave yourself open to attack during that turn you spend coding.

An important thing to remember is that you code and deploy each ship separately, so since you have two ships to start, you can take the tactic of coding one ship while attacking with the other, and then switching during the next round, so you’re never totally on defense. (My fellow players and I immediately adopted this tactic, which lengthened the gameplay and made things slightly more frantic. That’s two big bonuses for this game.)

[Two commands in progress. The first is ready to go next round, the second is currently attacking this round.]

Since players burn through the coding cards so quickly, reshuffling the deck can slow things down from time to time, but otherwise, the game is nicely designed, and once you’ve read and played around with the control cards for a little while, the concepts become second nature to you and you can really start plotting some devious attacks on the other potato buccaneers at the table.

Oh, and speaking of, making the little potato pirates balls of fuzz is both an adorable aesthetic choice and a kid-friendly way to make the game approachable for young players. Leading off with cards and coding can be a bit daunting, but once they’re divvying up their potato pirates across different ships (with delightful punny names), younger players are hooked.

Although the coding aspect of the game isn’t as predominant here as it is in games like Robot Turtles, Hacker, or On the Brink, the fun gameplay offered here — and the desperate need you feel to play again if your ships sink! — ensures that these basic coding commands and ideas will become familiar through sheer repetition.

And getting saluted each time you find a Potato King card is pretty great as well.

One of these days, fellow PuzzleNationers, I shall be the Potato King. I promise you that.

Potato Pirates is available from ThinkFun and other participating retailers.


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Complex Puzzles and the Importance of Double-Checking

Puzzles are constantly evolving, and in the age of the Internet, the only thing more impressive than the multi-stage brain-melting complexity of some puzzles is the ability of people to work together to solve them.

There are the in-person examples, like escape rooms, scavenger hunts, and puzzle hunts, where people gather together to unravel a series of puzzles in order to accomplish a task.

But when it comes to the hidden challenges concealed within some video games, the Internet itself becomes the gathering place for dedicated puzzlers to come together and crack these ingeniously devised brain teasers.

We’ve talked about several of these puzzle hunts in the past. There was the Gravity Falls cipher hunt that led to an actual statue of the show’s villain Bill Cipher in the woods of Reedsport, Oregon. (And a mayoral position for the first person to find him and shake his hand!)

There was the puzzle-turned-global-scavenger hunt from Trials Evolution that won’t be completed until 2113 at the base of the Eiffel Tower. And there was the Destiny 2 puzzle hunt that led to a replica of one of the game’s most famous weapons.

[Just one of the codes employed in the Trials Evolution puzzle.]

What’s amazing about these elaborate puzzly challenges is the complexity involved. There are different codebreaking techniques applied, levels upon levels of deduction, bits of word association, pattern recognition, and more, all of which must be executed to perfection in order to arrive at the correct solution.

But as a puzzle editor myself, I can’t stop focusing on how that complexity only increases for the puzzlesmiths themselves. After all, they have to create these clues, reverse engineering a challenging, multi-layered series of puzzles resulting in the answer they want, and along the way, make sure that it’s actually solvable.

I mean, creating a challenge is one thing. But striking a balance is remarkably difficult. You have to offer breadcrumbs and clues so that solvers know how to proceed (or that they’re on the correct path), and you can’t make it too easy, or it doesn’t feel like a worthy challenge. But make it too hard, and you risk solvers becoming frustrated, or worse, not discovering your creation at all, which feels like a wasted effort.

Threading the needle in this fashion is an awesome task in every sense of the word, and every time I see one of these puzzle hunts unearthed and completed blows my mind. The folks who solve them are the coolest, and the folks who create them are badasses.

But with all these elaborate puzzles, I couldn’t help but wonder… what happens when something goes wrong?

I mean, we’ve all seen crosswords with incorrect clues, or cases where more than one answer to a riddle or a puzzle makes sense. These things can happen, no matter how hard you try, or how often you test-solve and beta-test.

Recently, that question was answered.

The crew behind Destiny 2 — the same game that featured the impressive Warmind puzzle from last year — unleashed a new fiendish puzzle as part of their Black Armory content pack. That puzzle, Niobe Labs, served as a lock, and until the puzzle was solved by at least one player, none of the online players could access the adventures that lay beyond it.

The puzzle was released last Tuesday, and last Thursday — less than two full days after the release — the company decided that it was unfair to have regular players waiting for those with world-class puzzly skills to unravel the secret behind the puzzle, and they opened the full download for everyone.

Now, that might seem like a knee-jerk reaction, given that it was less than two days afterward. But it’s worth noting that these online crowd-solving efforts can work remarkably quickly, since so many people are not only trying it, but sharing their discoveries with each other.

In fact, in less than 24 hours after the original release, players had completed six out of the seven puzzles in Niobe Labs, involving complex ciphers, visual patterns, and references to sources as disparate as “Frere Jacques” and Victor Hugo.

Level Seven had the entire community stymied. And with good reason.

The puzzle was broken.

As it turns out, a piece of coding connected to the Level Seven puzzle had been deleted from the game’s code, making the puzzle unsolvable.

The Destiny 2 designers offered a new hint late Friday night to solvers, consisting of six cryptic sentences. And within hours, the intrepid solvers pooled their collective skills and knowledge to crack the final puzzle.

It never ceases to amaze me what puzzlers can accomplish when they put their minds to it, particularly when they work together.

And, of course, it makes me grateful for the test-solvers and beta-testers out there making sure our puzzles actually work as intended. Although this might’ve been embarrassing for the crew behind Destiny 2, it’s a valuable lesson.

Don’t be afraid to have someone check it one more time.


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Kickstarter Roundup!

Oh yes, it’s that time again.

For years now, crowdfunding platforms like Kickstarter and Indiegogo have been hotbeds of innovative puzzle and game design, and I’m always happy to spread the word about worthy projects that I think will delight and intrigue my fellow PuzzleNationers.

So let’s take a look at some projects that are currently seeking funding and see if any pique your interest!


The first is Peter Gordon’s Fireball Newsflash Crosswords.

Culturally timely clues and entries are a hallmark of this marvelous variation on Gordon’s long-running Fireball Crosswords brand, and you can be guaranteed that each Fireball Newsflash Crossword grid will be well-constructed and cleverly clued.

With twenty puzzles sent to you by email — one every two to three weeks — you’ll always have some terrific puzzling to look forward to.

Gordon has a knack for melding flowing grid design with sharp, topical entry words, and much of the time, you’ll not only be impressed by how much material makes it into the grid, but by what major and minor events you’ve missed recently! Gordon’s history of topnotch puzzles is all the incentive you need to contribute.

He’s already at one-third of his target goal, and he only launched a few days ago. I suspect Peter’s got another successful project on his hands here.

For the roleplaying-game enthusiasts out there, our second offering is right up your alley: Treacherous Traps.

Designed for the 5th edition of Dungeons & Dragons — but easily adapted for all sorts of other RPG systems — Treacherous Traps offers obstacles and surprises for players of any experience level.

Whether you’re selecting one of the specially tailored decks or the hardcover book containing all 250(!) traps, you’re sure to find plenty of devious ammunition to toss at your players.

Treacherous Traps has blown way past its original goal, but there’s still plenty of time to get in on the ground floor of some fun and crafty additions to any roleplaying campaign.

For our third and final offering today, we’ve got a new board game with ancient ties.

Enso Koi is a strategy game where each player tries to capture their opponents’ koi fish while protecting their own. As players navigate the pond, seize and maneuver stones, and eliminate the rival fish, they’ll have to devise tactics while playing both offense and defense.

A mix of piece-capturing games like chess and territory-control games like Risk, Enso Koi offers an elegant new take on classic board game tropes.

It’s about a third of the way funded already, and for a first-timer on Kickstarter, that’s pretty impressive!


Have any of these games hooked you? Let us know which ones you’re supporting in the comments section below! And if there are any campaigns you’re supporting that we missed, let us know!

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Escape Room Tips Galore!

The movie Escape Room opens today in theaters, so naturally, I’ve got escape rooms on the brain.

For the uninitiated, an escape room is an interactive series of puzzles or challenges set in a closed space. The group needs to explore the room and complete various tasks in order to escape the room within the allotted time.

Escape rooms have exploded in popularity over the last few years, so it’s likely you’ve either already participated in one or at least heard of them.

But the idea of being locked in a room with a fixed time limit and an unknown number of tasks to accomplish can be intimidating or discouraging.

So today, I thought I could offer some helpful tips to get you going.

#1 Communication

Whether it’s your first escape room or your twentieth, communication is always key. There’s a room to search, puzzles to solve, and tasks to complete, and everyone is going to have their own unique insights.

So speak up! Point out things you notice, keep everyone informed of what you’re doing or trying to do, and let people know if you’ve solved or discovered something.

And if you need help or you’re not sure about something, ask. It’s a team game.

#2 Note-taking

Most of the escape rooms I’ve done usually give you a whiteboard and a marker or a notepad and pencil to take notes with. This is an incredibly useful tool in solving the room, because it lets you keep track of code words, number chains, and possible combinations for the various locks you’ll encounter. And once you’ve used a code to unlock something, you can cross it out so nobody wastes time reusing a code you’ve already figured out.

If there’s not some way to physically keep track, you can always ask someone to try their best to mentally keep track of which ones you have used or might need in the future.

#3 Organization

There’s a lot going on in any escape room, so keep things simple by setting up two areas: puzzles in progress and puzzles solved.

Many puzzles or tasks you encounter in an escape room take time to fully form. For instance, you might get a keycard in one color, and not know what it’s for. But as you explore the room and solve a few puzzles, you find more keycards in other colors. Suddenly, you’ll find the use for ALL of them in a new puzzle. So have a designated place to keep things you find that you haven’t used yet. You’ll be glad you did.

Also, once a puzzle is complete or a clue is used, put it into your “puzzles solved” area. You don’t need extraneous clutter confusing you, and it’s a good way to discard solved locks, used keys, and other parts of the game you’ve completed in a way that won’t slow you down moving forward.

Doing so is also part of good communication, since everyone will immediately know what’s still in play and what’s been handled.


That should be enough to get you started, but if you’d like more advice, check out this terrific breakdown of more escape room tips that can make your solving experience more fruitful:

Whether you’re enjoying a friendly day of solving or tackling a monstrous challenge like the characters in the Escape Room film, these clues are bound to come in handy.


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The PN Blog 2018 Countdown!

It’s one of the final blog posts of the year, so what do you say we revisit all of 2017 with a countdown of my ten favorite blog posts from the past year!


But before we get to the countdown, I want to briefly mention two interesting landmarks for the blog in 2018.

In January, we were cited as a source in a college term paper, which is pretty gratifying.

And in April, we were name-dropped in a CNET article about friend of the blog Hevesh5.

Okay, enough bragging. Let’s get to the countdown!


#10 Robot Invasion

With the rise of puzzle-solving programs like Dr. Fill and game-playing AIs like AlphaGo, we’ve been joking for years about machines trying to topple humanity from the top spot as Earth’s resident puzzle-solving masters.

But this year, it kinda stopped feeling like a joke. With Scrabble-playing robots, self-solving Rubik’s Cubes, and a computer program that might’ve cracked one of the most celebrated unsolved mysteries in puzzles, the machines might just be taking over.

#9 Crossword Fun

Crosswords are still the #1 paper puzzle in the world. With more than a hundred years of creativity, cluing challenge, and cunning construction behind them, they continue to fascinate and frustrate us. And we had a lot of fun with crossword topics this year in the blog. Two of my personal favorite entries were asking questions about common crossword clues and the post where we explored the brief-lived moral panic sparked by crosswords.

#8 Holiday Puzzly Gift Guide

Every year, one of my favorite activities is putting together our Holiday Puzzly Gift Guide. I get to include the best products sent to me for review by top puzzle and game companies, mix in some of my own favorites, and draw attention to terrific constructors, game designers, and friends of the blog, all in the hopes of introducing solvers (and families of solvers) to quality puzzles and games.

#7 Unsung Heroes

They say history is written by the victors, and that’s true in the short term. But in the long term, history belongs to truth, and more and more, unsung heroes are coming to the fore and getting the well-deserved recognition denied to them earlier.

This is true in the world of puzzles as well, and this year, we had the privilege of putting the spotlight on two iconic women from puzzle history that had previously been lost to time and revisionism: codebreaking visionary Elizebeth Smith Friedman and spymaster Alexandrine, the Countess of Taxis.

#6 Citizen Shoutout

Interacting with the puzzle community is one of the highlights of doing social media for PuzzleNation. And some of the most enjoyable blog posts from this year involved focusing on members of the community and giving them kudos for their contributions to PuzzleNation and the world of puzzles in general.

As such, we created our Citizen Shoutout series to honor those folks, and along the way, we’ve thanked game shops, local escape rooms, and dedicated solvers who make the puzzle community a better place.

#5 PNVR

April Fools Day pranks are an Internet tradition at this point. Some websites go all out in celebrating the holiday. (Heck, ThinkGeek has started using the holiday to tease the public’s interest level in “fake” products, going on to actually release some of those April Fools pranks as real items later in the year!)

So after last year’s Puzzles for Pets gag was a big hit, we couldn’t resist getting in on the pranking fun again this year. The result — PNVR, a fake virtual reality puzzling experience — was as layered as it was silly, complete with fake quotes, splash pages, photos of people riding bikes while playing, and more. The visuals were amazing and hilarious.

#4 Puzzle Events

There are few things better than spending time with fellow puzzlers and gamers, and we got to do a lot of that this year. Whether it was cheering on our fellow puzzlers at the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament or putting our hands dirty with some knock-down, drag-out, game-playing ferocity during our Tabletop Tournament, these interactions were both invigorating and encouraging. Events like these really help solidify the spirit of community that comes with being puzzly.

#3 International Puzzle Day Puzzle Hunt

And speaking of interacting with fellow puzzlers, for International Puzzle Day this year, we masterminded a little online puzzle hunt for PuzzleNation solvers. Involving clues hidden in both that day’s Daily POP Crosswords puzzle and Penny Dell Crosswords App free daily puzzle, solvers had to anagram and solve their way around the website in order to earn a prize. It was a serious challenge to design, and great fun to unleash on the world.

#2 Women in Crosswords and Roleplaying Games

Using the blog as an amplifier to get the word out about important causes and worthwhile projects is one of the best things about writing here. And this year in particular, we can be proud of doing our damnedest to vocalize the incredibly valuable role that women have played (and continue to play) in the puzzle/game community.

Whether it was discussing the gender disparity in published constructors in the major crossword venues or pulling back the curtain on misogynist gatekeeping in roleplaying games, we were privileged to ally ourselves with a brilliant, underappreciated contingent of the puzzle community.

#1 Wordventures

There’s nothing more exciting than getting to announce the launch of a product that has been months or years in the making, so picking #1 was a no-brainer for me. It had to be the announcement of Wordventures.

But it’s not just the app, it’s everything behind the app. I’ve watched it grow and evolve in development, and it’s truly unlike anything we’ve released before. The mix of music, imagery, storytelling, and puzzle-solving is so atmospheric and engaging.

It may sound self-serving or schlocky to talk about our flagship products as #1 in the countdown, but it’s something that we’re all extremely proud of, something that we’re constantly working to improve, because we want to make our apps the absolute best they can be for the PuzzleNation audience. That’s what you deserve.

And it’s part of the evolution of PuzzleNation and PN Blog. Even as we work to ensure our current products are the best they can be, we’re always looking ahead to what’s next, what’s on the horizon, what’s to come.

Thanks for spending 2018 with us, through robots and Rubik’s Cubes, through discoveries and daily delights, through puzzle launches and landmark moments. We’ll see you in 2019.


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You can also share your pictures with us on Instagram, friend us on Facebook, check us out on TwitterPinterest, and Tumblr, and explore the always-expanding library of PuzzleNation apps and games on our website!

PuzzleNation Blog Looks Back on 2018!

2018 is quickly coming to a close, and as I look back on an eventful year in the world of puzzles and games, I’m incredibly proud of the contributions both PuzzleNation Blog and PuzzleNation made to the puzzle community as a whole.

Over the last year, we explored board games and card games, strategy games and trivia games, dice games and tile games, do-it-yourself puzzlers and pen-and-paper classics. We met game designers, constructors, artists, YouTubers, and creative types of all kinds.

We unraveled math puzzles and diabolical brain teasers. We pondered optical illusions, Internet memes, and more, even questioning our place in the world of puzzles as AI and solving robots continued to rise in capability.

We delved into puzzle history with posts about ancient board games from centuries ago, Edgar Allan Poe’s secret codes, and the legacy of influential female codebreakers and spymasters previously lost to revisionist history like Elizebeth Smith Friedman and the Countess Alexandrine. We brought to light valuable examples of puzzles in art, comic strips, animation, music, television, film, and popular culture.

We spread the word about numerous worthwhile Kickstarters and Indiegogo campaigns, watching as the puzzle/game renaissance continued to amaze and surprise us with innovative new ways to play and solve. We shared worthy causes like Queer Crosswords and Women of Letters, as well as amazing projects like new escape rooms, puzzle experiences like The Enigmatist, online puzzle quests, and long-running unsolved treasure hunts.

We celebrated International TableTop Day, offered up puzzly suggestions for Valentine’s Day, attended the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament, and dove deep into an ever-expanding litany of puzzle events like the Indie 500, BosWords, and Lollapuzzoola.

We found puzzly ways to celebrate everything from Halloween, Thanksgiving, and Christmas to Star Wars Day and the anniversary of the Crossword, and we were happy to share so many remarkable puzzly landmark moments with you.

It’s been both a pleasure and a privilege to explore the world of puzzles and games with you, my fellow puzzle lovers and PuzzleNationers. We marked six years of PuzzleNation Blog this year, I’m closing in on my 1000th blog post, and I’m more excited to write for you now than I was when I started.

And honestly, that’s just the blog. PuzzleNation’s good fortune, hard work, and accomplishments in 2018 went well beyond that.

Every month, we delivered quality content for both the Penny Dell Crosswords App and Daily POP Crosswords. Whether it was monthly deluxe sets and holiday bundles for PDCW or the world-class topical puzzles by some of the industry’s best constructors for Daily POP, hundreds of topnotch crosswords wended their way to our loyal and enthusiastic solvers.

And a little more than a week ago, we launched our newest puzzly endeavor — Wordventures: The Vampire Pirate — bringing you a unique, story-driven puzzling experience, complete with gorgeous visuals, atmospheric music, and an immersive mystery to keep you solving!

But whether we’re talking about crosswords, Sudoku, or Wordventures, I’m proud to say that every single puzzle represents our high standards of quality puzzle content crafted for solvers and PuzzleNationers.

And your response has been fantastic! Daily POP Crosswords is thriving, we’re very excited about the response to Wordventures, the blog has over 2300 followers, and with our audience on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and other platforms continuing to grow, the enthusiasm of the PuzzleNation readership is both humbling and very encouraging.

2018 was our most ambitious, most exciting, and most creatively fulfilling year to date, and the coming year promises to be even brighter.

Thank you for your support, your interest, and your feedback, PuzzleNationers. The new year looms large, and we look forward to seeing you in 2019!


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You can also share your pictures with us on Instagram, friend us on Facebook, check us out on TwitterPinterest, and Tumblr, and explore the always-expanding library of PuzzleNation apps and games on our website!