Farewell, Stephen.

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[Image courtesy of Vanity Fair.]

Most people know him as a titan of Broadway and the American stage, the composer and lyricist behind dozens of iconic works, spanning decades. West Side Story. Gypsy. Into the Woods. A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. (My personal favorite? Assassins.)

Even as someone with a degree in theater, I don’t feel qualified to discuss or summarize his impact on the stage. It’s monumental. Incalculable. Iconic.

But as a puzzle enthusiast, I do feel qualified to discuss his influence in that realm. You see, Stephen Sondheim occupies a curious space in the history of puzzles.

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He created cryptic / British-style crosswords for New York Magazine in the late 1960s, helping to introduce American audiences to that devious and challenging variety of crosswords.

In fact, he famously wrote an article in that very same magazine decrying the state of American crosswords and extolling the virtues of cryptic crosswords. (He even explained the different cluing tricks and offering examples for readers to unravel.)

Sondheim was an absolute puzzle fiend. His home was adorned with mechanical puzzles, and he happily created elaborate puzzle games. Some of them were featured in Games Magazine! In his later years, he was also an aficionado of escape rooms. (Friend of the blog Eric Berlin shared a wonderful anecdote about Sondheim here.)

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He also represents another link in the curious chain that seems to connect musicians with crosswords. Prominent constructors like Patrick Blindauer, Brian Cimmet, and Amanda Rafkin, as well as top crossword tournament competitors like Dan Feyer and Jon Delfin also have musical backgrounds.

In the crossword documentary Wordplay (and quoted from the article linked below), former New York Times Public Editor Daniel Okrent mentioned why he felt that musicians and mathematicians were good fits as crossword solvers:

Their ability to assimilate a lot of coded information instantly. In other words, a piano player like Jon Delfin, the greatest crossword player of our time, he sits down and he sees three staffs of music and he can instantly play it. He’s taken all those notes and absorbs what they mean, instantaneously. If you have that kind of mind, and you add it to it a wide range of information, and you can spell, you’d be a really great crossword puzzler.

Sondheim certainly fits the bill.

He will forever be remembered for his musical creations, and that legacy far overshadows his work in puzzles. But as someone who opened the door to a new brand of puzzle solving for many people, Sondheim will also have the undying loyalty, respect, and admiration of many puzzlers around the world.

We wholeheartedly include ourselves in that crowd of admirers.

Farewell, Stephen. Thank you.


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How to Define Success vs. Failure in Roleplaying Games

Roleplaying games are some of my absolute favorite pastimes. The simple act of telling a story with friends is rejuvenating for me. I love sitting at a table — or on a Zoom call — with friends and collectively creating an adventure in our imaginations.

I know that the dice and the rulebooks and all the numbers can be daunting for new players, but honestly, they’re just the laws of physics, fate, and chance given form. In the simplest form, roleplaying games consist of you telling the gamemaster / dungeon master / game runner what you want to do, and the dice determining how it goes.

In many RPGs, there’s a success/failure line. If you roll above a certain number, you succeeded. If you roll below it, you failed.

[Image from Stranger Things courtesy of The Verge.]

That’s certainly simple enough. But it can be frustrating for some players, new and old. After all, if you had to beat a 15 and you rolled a 14, why should the result be the same as if you’d rolled a 2? The 14 is much closer, after all.

Some roleplaying games stick to the strict success/failure model. But others have a different approach that players might find more rewarding.

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Fantasy Flight Games offers a Star Wars-themed roleplaying game that has one of my favorite dice systems. There are different colored dice that represent different aspects of the game (your character’s ability to do something, the difficulty of the action they’re attempting, advantages and disadvantages to their action at the time, etc.), and the dice don’t have the traditional number values you’d expect.

Instead, they have symbols that represent success, failure, advantage, threat, triumph, and despair.

So, depending on the dice roll, it’s not just a success or a failure. You can have an overwhelming success, or an overwhelming failure, or many things in between. You can fail at the task, but end up with something unexpected and advantageous still happening. Or you can succeed, but with some consequence.

It opens up the narrative floodgates WAY beyond the success/failure binary option, and it has led to some of my absolute favorite moments in roleplaying.

Naturally, this requires a little more creativity from both the player and the game runner, but together, you can tell some fantastic adventures.

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Ninja Burger is a humorous quickplay roleplaying game that uses standard six-sided dice. In the game, you’re a ninja secretly delivering fast food. It’s very silly and great fun.

One rule in the game that can lead to enjoyable chaos AND take the sting out of the traditional success/failure mechanic of roleplaying games is that you are instructed to act as if you never fail. Even if you’re failed a roll.

So, say you’re using wujenitsu (ninja magic) to pretend to be a bag of golf clubs to sneak into a country club. But you failed your roll. The caddy who grabbed you is clearly carrying a ninja on his back, not a bag of golf clubs.

But you must proceed as if you succeeded, no matter how ridiculous things get.

Sure, failure has consequences in any game, even silly ones, but if you’re in on the joke, then failure isn’t so bad. Especially if you can find a way to make your friends laugh along the way.

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Dread is a roleplaying game that doesn’t use dice at all. Instead, you set up a Jenga-style tower of blocks, and to accomplish certain tasks, you have to pull a certain number of blocks from the tower without collapsing it.

It’s a brilliantly simple way to add tension to a game AND put your fate in your own hands. There’s no single unlucky dice roll that can condemn you to defeat. Just gravity and your own steady (or unsteady) hand.

And of course, as the game continues and the tower grows unsteadier — and your options for wood blocks to pull become fewer and fewer — the tension mounts and mounts.

Eventually, the tower — and your character’s chances — collapse in a clatter.

[Image courtesy of Lewis Brown.]

Of course, the rules of every roleplaying game are eventually up to the people running/playing the game. If you decide that the success/failure rules of your game should be more nuanced, you can do something about it immediately.

But for new players and new game runners, sometimes it helps to remind them there are always other options available. Whether you ditch numbers entirely for narrative dice like in FFG Star Wars, pretend failure isn’t failure at all in Ninja Burger, or ignore the dice completely with something like Dread, you can still build tension and tell some wonderfully fun, exciting, and action-filled stories.

Good luck, and happy roleplaying, everyone!


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PN Product Review: Zendo Expansion #2

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

Even the best designed games need a little sprucing up from time to time. This is especially true of logic/deduction games, where after a while, it can feel like you’ve seen every trick either the game or the other players can offer.

And there are very few game companies that consistently deliver great expansions. It’s a brutal tightrope to walk; you have to add to the established game in an interesting or fresh way, but without breaking the rules, introducing problems that players won’t know how to handle mechanically, or betraying in some manner the spirit of the original game.

For the team at Looney Labs, though, creating an expansion pack seems like another day at the office. We’ve reviewed expansion packs in the past for Fluxx (Fluxx Dice), Just Desserts (Just Coffee/Better with Bacon), and Star Trek Fluxx (the Bridge Expansion), and each one revitalizes the game and adds delightful new wrinkles without hampering any of the qualities that made the original game such a treat.

Today, we’re looking at a new expansion pack for one of the company’s most immersive and challenging puzzle games: 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.

So, how does Zendo Expansion #2 affect the original?

[Here are two sculptures: one that follows the secret rule and one that doesn’t. Can you figure out the secret rule? Is it about shapes? Colors? Placement? More?]

Zendo Expansion #2 is a ten-card deck of new secret rule cards that allow the moderator to create fresh challenges for the other players to unravel. The structures and arrangements may look the same, but players must reexamine what they think they know and observe to figure out the new secret rules.

Because, you see, the cards offer more than just the new rules. They demand greater cleverness from the moderator, in order to create designs that are fair for the players — not immediately obvious, but not impossible to discern either. It’s a difficult task for moderators.

And the challenge is even greater for players. After all, it’s not just about the shapes and how they interact, but all aspects of what the players see. Zendo Expansion #1 had cards where the rule involved the shape of the structure’s shadow. You could look at the pieces, the colors, how they’re placed, where they’re placed, how close, how far away, how many of each, and the shape of the shadow could NEVER occur to you.

[Here’s another sculpture that removes blue pieces as a possible
element in the secret rule. Have you figured it out yet?]

With one medium rule card and nine difficult rule cards (as opposed to the easy-to-difficult range of the first expansion pack), the game will only become more surprising and thoughtful from here.

These cards include rules about relationships between pieces, conditional rules (example: something that’s true of the sculpture if something else happens theoretically), and even rules regarding something that ISN’T happening in a particular sculpture. Players will have to wrack their brains and truly example both sculptures from every angle to puzzle out these new rules.

There are even decoy tags on certain cards, to make players think the card has more variables than there actually are! Diabolical!

Although I’m a moderator far more frequently than a player, I’m excited to try out both sides of these new rule cards. After all, with the base set and two expansions’ worth of cards, there’s no way I can remember ALL of the possible combinations available. I’m as likely to be outwitted and outpuzzled as the next player.

[One more chance. Here’s a much simplified version that DOESN’T
adhere to the secret rule. What can we learn from this one?]

And that’s the charm of Zendo. From a small gathering of pieces and rules, you can make practically any scenario you wish. Will the players figure it out first try, or will the moderator’s ability to reinvent their sculptures as needed be put to the ultimate test?

Zendo is at once the most collaborative and one of the most curiously devious puzzle-games in the Looney Labs catalog, and with this expansion pack, only the truly inventive and observant will thrive. What a treat.

[Zendo and the new Zendo Expansion #2 are available from Looney Labs, and the expansion pack is only $5!]


Oh, and if you figure out our secret rule for the post, we’ll send you a Zendo-themed prize!


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PN Product Review: Godzilla: Tokyo Clash

Today’s board game review was selected by the PuzzleNation readership through polls on social media!

Would you like more polls to determine reviews, pop culture recaps, and other blog content? Let us know in the comments section below. We’d love to hear from you!


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Godzilla returned to theaters this year for the umpteenth time with Godzilla vs. Kong, and after 67 years of cinematic dominance, the King of the Monsters is still an incredibly popular figure in pop culture.

That being said, Godzilla’s board game resume isn’t nearly as impressive. In fact, it’s mostly the pits. Surprisingly, making a good board game about monsters fighting each other is harder than you’d think. (Only two come to mind — King of Tokyo and Smash City — and sadly, neither features cinema’s most iconic city-smashing monster.)

Perhaps even more surprising is the fact that this dilemma might’ve just been solved by a very unlikely source, a company more famous for their collectible figurines than their games: Funko.

In today’s blog post, we’re reviewing a Godzilla game that finally got it right, as we explore Godzilla: Tokyo Clash.

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Not only do you have four famous film kaiju (aka monsters) to choose from — Godzilla, Mothra, King Ghidorah, and Megalon — but the game board is different every time you play, thanks to the tile design that allows for numerous different arrangements.

Each of the monsters has a special ability unique to that monster, as well as a deck of action cards that are specifically designed for your monster. Whoever is playing as Godzilla will have different moves, tactics, and attacks than the person playing as Mothra, King Ghidorah, or Megalon, and this adds further replay value to the game.

Plus you randomly choose two ways that the city tries to fight back against the monsters, adding further variety to the wrinkles that color the game play on multiple playthroughs.

You have an energy bar, which is used to control how much you attack the vehicles, buildings, and other kaiju around you. So, in addition to planning for the moves other players make — as well as the moving vehicles on the game board — you also have to manage your attacks based on your available energy.

Smashing buildings and vehicles gives you energy, which you can use to attack the other monsters on the board. Successful attacks give you trophies, which count toward your overall Dominance point total. Whoever has the most points at the end of the game wins.

That’s right! Every player stays active for the whole game — unlike many other monster-fighting games, where players can be eliminated and then you just sit around and watch the rest of the game.

The art is gorgeous, evoking a vibrant style inspired by classic Godzilla movie posters (and don’t worry, the instructions are in English). The miniatures are marvelously detailed, and the game is loaded in references to the films. You don’t have to know them to play the game, but for diehard Godzilla fans like myself, it’s vindication after years of mediocre kaiju-themed games.

And the game is very reasonably priced, considering the quality of the miniatures, the game board tiles, and the overall art. This ticks a lot of boxes for both board game fans and Godzilla enthusiasts.

That being said, the game does have some downsides. The two-player version is far less engaging than the three- or four-player versions, because your tactics are so limited by just throwing vehicles back and forth at each other and smashing buildings. The strategic moves and planning are deeper and far more enjoyable with more targets, threats, and things to consider.

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It might sound silly, but in this game about monsters smashing things, it’s simply more fun when there are other people smashing stuff too.

Also, I’m not a huge fan of the Dominance system, since it’s a little distracting  to have two sets of numbers to keep track of — the energy and the victory points — but I confess I can’t think of another mechanic that would still allow all of the players to keep playing.

All in all, I was very impressed by this game. It’s easy to pick up, fun to master, and offers a ton of variety for new and experienced players. Plus there’s a surprising amount of tactical puzzling involved, which elevates the game beyond a simple you-go-then-I-go mentality.

This game is a win.

[Godzilla: Tokyo Clash is available from Funko Games and other participating retailers.]


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It’s International Tabletop Day!

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It’s International Tabletop Day!

Whether you play board games, role-playing games, card games, dice games, puzzles, or logic games, this is the holiday for you, family, and friends to come together and enjoy games.

So, to celebrate, we’ve got a grab-bag of different ideas for you today. Want to learn more about games through video playthroughs? We’ve got you covered. Want to solve a Mix and Match puzzle all about games? We’ve got you covered. Want to play something similar to Monopoly that’s not Monopoly? We’ve got you covered.

Please enjoy this somewhat chaotic sampling of board game-themed goodness in honor of Tabletop Day!


monopoly

Monopoly is the most famous board game in history. We really can’t discuss the topic of board games without mentioning Monopoly.

But Monopoly has its issues. It takes a long time to play, and if you fall behind, it’s incredibly difficult to catch up. Plus, if you get eliminated, it’s not fun to watch other people keep going.

So what do you do if you like some of the game mechanics in Monopoly but not the total package? Easy! Use our handy-dandy guide to find other games that do part (or ALL) of Monopoly better than Monopoly!

Maybe you enjoy buying property and building it up with enhancements and making money with it. That’s great. You should check out Lords of Vegas.

It’s a casino-building game set in the early days of Las Vegas. It’s got play money, dice, all sorts of strategy, plus a gambling mechanic where you can make up for monetary shortfalls. It’s a brilliant game and so so much fun.

Maybe it’s collecting valuable cards, negotiating and trading with other players that you enjoy most about Monopoly. Terrific! You should try Sheriff of Nottingham.

In Sheriff of Nottingham, players collect cards with different goods to take to market — apples, chickens, bread, and cheese — as well as cards of contraband items (like spices, mead, and weapons). Each turn, one player is the Sheriff, trying to stop the other players from sneaking contraband into the market. So you can bluff, or bribe, or try to sneak goods past the Sheriff, or just play it straight with regular goods.

The game allows for trading, cutting deals, being sneaky, and bonuses for being the person with the most of certain goods (apples, for instance) at the market. It’s so much fun, and allows for lots of fun interaction throughout the game, since nobody is ever eliminated.

Do you like completing colored sets of items? Outmaneuvering other players? Claiming valuable property that other players want? Pretty much everything involved in Monopoly is also part of Ticket to Ride.

In Ticket to Ride, players collect cards and play train cards on a map in order to complete different train routes to earn points. Not only can you score by completing those routes under your banner, but you gain bonus points if you can connect distant locations through your railways.

It covers a lot of the strategy and craftiness that made Monopoly famous, but in a sleeker, quicker package.

Oh, and if you want a totally off-the-walls Monopoly-inspired game, there’s always The Doom That Came to Atlantic City.

In this game, you crush houses to claim properties, play Chants (instead of Chance) cards, and basically try to be the best doomsday cultist at the table, summoning your monstrous god to end the world before the other players can.

It’s delightfully tongue-in-cheek, great fun, and a hilarious inversion of a lot of classic Monopoly tropes. I highly recommend it.


Oh, were you looking for some great video content? We’ve got you covered!

If you’re looking for great recommendations and playthroughs of games that your family will love — like Sushi Go, Codenames, Tak, or Takenoko — Girls’ Game Shelf is one of my favorite YouTube channels. The hosts (Kiki and AnnaMaria) are brilliant and insightful, the players are hilarious, and the game choices are topnotch.

It’s been a few months since they’ve uploaded, but there’s a load of terrific content already waiting for you there. Check out Girls’ Game Shelf!

And for slightly less-family friendly — but still fantastic — fare, No Rolls Barred‘s game playthroughs are uproariously funny. Whether they’re bickering over Telestrations, betraying and misleading each other in epic-length games of Blood on the Clocktower, or simply pitching insane products with Snake Oil, their videos are incredibly entertaining.

Plus the channel has top ten lists of games by genre or play-style, skits, and glimpses of game history. They recently passed 50,000 subscribers on YouTube, and their content keeps getting better. Check them out!


Yes, it’s a puzzle on International Tabletop Day. Hey, we’re PuzzleNation, we’ve got to include some puzzly fun, don’t we?

Today, we’ve got a Mix and Match puzzle for you. Can you anagram these phrases into the names of characters from famous board games, and then match them up with their board game?


How are you celebrating International Tabletop Day? Let us know in the comment section below! We’d love to hear from you.

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Saving Puzzle Games for Posterity

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[Image courtesy of Medium.]

One of the coolest things about the Internet is how it facilitates the gathering of information. Not only does it connect you to valuable sources around the world — experts, researchers, scholars, and collectors — but it grants you access to libraries and repositories of knowledge unlike anything the world has seen before.

I mean, think about it. Looking for a famous text? Google Books or Project Gutenberg probably has you covered. A movie? The Internet Movie Database is practically comprehensive. Different fandoms and franchises have their own individual Wikis that cover episodes, characters, and more.

Although there’s no single repository for all things puzzly — though we here at PuzzleNation Blog certainly try — there are some online repositories of puzzle knowledge available, like XwordInfo, the Pre-Shortzian Puzzle Project, and Cube Index.

And other place online that’s helping to preserve puzzle history is The Internet Archive.

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[Puzzling out a jailbreak in The Secret of Monkey Island with a curious piece of equipment. Image courtesy of Final Boss Blues.]

The Internet Archive is a nonprofit digital library that archives computer games, books, audio recordings and videos. In terms of computer games, that means everything from text adventures to more well-known ’80s and ’90s games, and even early experiments with 3D modeling.

Recently, more than 2,500 MS-DOS games were added to the Archive. Adventure and strategy games were among the numerous entries included in the latest update, as well as a fair amount of puzzle games, both famous and obscure.

“This will be our biggest update yet, ranging from tiny recent independent productions to long-forgotten big-name releases from decades ago,” Internet Archive software curator Jason Scott wrote on the site’s blog.

In addition to Sudoku, Chess, and Scrabble games, there were loads of Tetris variants (like Pentix), a crossword-inspired game called Crosscheck, and even TrianGO, a version of the classic game Go played on a hexagonal field.

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[Image courtesy of Google.]

In this update alone, you can find virtually every kind of puzzle to enjoy. If you like building Rube Goldberg devices, there’s The Incredible Machine 2. If you’re looking for a puzzly version of the beloved Nintendo game Bubble Bobble, then try Puzzle Bobble.

You can building dungeon romps with The Bard’s Tale Construction Set or crack challenging cases in Sherlock Holmes: The Case of the Serrated Scalpel. You can find your way out of maze-like platforming traps in Lode Runner or enjoy the tongue-in-cheek humor and devious point-and-click puzzles of one of my personal favorites, The Secret of Monkey Island.

There are even iconic horror puzzlers like Alone in the Dark and I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream if you’re looking for something a bit spookier and more sinister.

This is a treasure trove of old puzzle-game content, and it’s all available with the click of a button. These games will be joining such previously archived classics as Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego? and The Oregon Trail in the Internet Archive’s vast and ever-growing library.

And thanks to their efforts, more than a few puzzle games will be saved from obscurity or oblivion.


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