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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Wendy’s Viral Marketing Victory (with a side of French fries)

Some of my all-time favorite puzzling experiences have been part of roleplaying games, so it warms my heart to see more and more people discovering Dungeons & Dragons and other tabletop RPGs. Not only are they a wonderful way to connect with friends and tell stories, but they inspire me to create new and innovative puzzles.

Both the Netflix series Stranger Things and the CBS sitcom The Big Bang Theory have helped bring roleplaying games to greater mainstream attention (as shows like Community and Freaks and Geeks did in the past), and now, even fast food chains are getting in on the pencil, paper, and dice-loaded pastime.

Yes, Wendy’s has created its own roleplaying game.

Feast of Legends is a self-contained roleplaying adventure that is both staggeringly detailed and shamelessly self-promotional. This NINETY-SEVEN page downloadable PDF contains the rules for building your character, equipment, rules, setting details, and different character classes (like the Order of the Frosty or the Order of the Spicy Chicken Sandwich), each with their own bonus abilities.

It’s actually a terrific introduction to roleplaying games as a whole, discussing concepts like how many actions you can take on a given turn, how combat works, and which dice to use.

They even created an online dice roller for you to use if you don’t own roleplaying dice!

(For RPG aficionados, the system is reminiscent of both D&D’s fourth and fifth edition rulesets, though not nearly as involved, obviously.)

Once you’ve created your character — an easy task, given the streamlined (but effective) character creation instructions in the first half of the handbook — there’s an entire campaign included to play through!

Yes, a five-part adventure awaits players willing to explore Freshtovia, battle the evildoers who seek to force frozen beef on people across the land, from Costa del Spicy to Roast Beach, from The Box to Biggie Vale.

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Oh, you were curious about the shameless self-promotion? Trust me, we’re getting to that.

It starts with the setting — the mythical land of Freshtovia, in the realm of Beef’s Keep, where Queen Wendy requires your help to battle the monstrous threat of frozen beef. You can arm yourself with various implements (the spork caught my eye) as you prepare to do battle with the Ice Jester (a thinly veiled take on Ronald McDonald) and his minions, including violent versions of the Hamburglar (aka the Beef Bandit) and the Fry Guys.

Not only that, but there are rules regarding the bonuses you get for eating Wendy’s food while you play (as well as minuses for any characters eating from a different fast food chain during the game).

It’s seeded throughout the game, and on the website as well. On the page explaining how RPGs work, readers will find this text:

Beef’s Keep is a wide open world waiting for you to explore it. Make the world your own, expand your adventure, and most importantly, buy Wendy’s. Wait, we meant to say have fun. Also, buy Wendy’s.

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As a writer and a content creator, I was a little disappointed to see that this voluminous and impressive PDF was lacking in one crucial detail: credits for all the hard work that must’ve gone into it.

Yes, there is a brief credit near the end — illustrations by Alex Lopez, maps by Collin Fogel — and a few signatures and identifying marks hidden in some of the art, but what about the writing? What about the well-crafted adventure? What of all the puns?!

I really had to go hunting in order to track down who exactly deserves the kudos for this engagingly ridiculous endeavor. The credit belongs to the company VMLY&R and their Wendy’s team, including @TonyMarin and @SmugKeck.

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Designed to launch in time for New York Comic-Con — coinciding with a play-through on the popular webseries/podcast Critical Role — Feast of Legends seems like a rousing viral success.

Yes, there is naturally some pushback on the Internet — some for campaign donations made by the CEO of Wendy’s, some for how Wendy’s employees are treated — and some directed at the RPG itself, viewing it as a thinly-veiled propaganda tool (or an anti-union screed designed to brainwash the puny minds of roleplayers).

Politics and social issues aside, I’m calling this project a win. People that have never played a roleplaying game before have asked me about it, and roleplaying games in general are in the news because of this. If this brings more people into one of my favorite activities and opens up a new world of puzzles and games for them, then I thank Wendy’s for making that possible.

And yes, we’re probably going to end up playing this at the office at some point.


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PuzzleNation Product Review: Domino Maze

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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.]

What is it about dominoes that makes watching them fall such a satisfying experience? Is it the meticulous prep work required for a domino display? The balance and hand-eye coordination required to place each one? The danger of upsetting the whole thing before all the pieces are in place? The potential energy harnessed and ready to be unleashed as soon as the last domino is set up?

Whatever it is, it makes for one heck of a conclusion to a logic puzzle.

The creative minds at ThinkFun have conjured up a delightful twist on their traditional complete-the-path brand of logic puzzles, incorporating not just gravity, but the click-clack cacophony of a chain reaction in a new challenge for younger puzzlers and more experienced ones alike.

In today’s product review, we’re taking a look at Domino Maze.

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[One Challenge Card’s preset pieces in place. Note the three gates, each already balanced to topple over when the domino path crosses through.]

Domino Maze builds on the usual domino-stacking skills and tricks — splitting the path, making sharp turns, redirecting kinetic energy — by adding sequential gates that your domino path must pass through in order to complete each challenge.

The gates are numbered one through three, indicating the order in which you must hit your targets. (The gates are carefully balanced, so when a domino hits the target, the weight on top flips over, raising the numbered flap high AND knocking over the next domino in your chain.)

Similar to other ThinkFun games, the puzzle includes Challenge Cards, which increase in difficulty as you work your way through the deck. Beginner and Intermediate Challenges give way later to Advanced and Expert puzzles that will have you wracking your brain to employ the required number of dominoes, build your path, and hit the gates in precise order.

Note: Be aware that you need a completely flat surface for this game. The grooves will hold the domino, but the slightest mistake could send them tumbling. That’s particularly true when the staircases are involved. There’s no need to add a level of frustration beyond the natural challenge of the game by fighting gravity AND the designers’ puzzles.

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The Beginner-level cards are your introduction to the puzzle, taking you through the motions of how to place the dominoes, utilizing the numerous grooves in both the base and the elevated platform. As you proceed, the game adds new wrinkles to the game, like using the two pivot pieces (allowing you to change direction in a single move), splitting your path with the diagonal grooves.

That elevated platform is an especially devious and clever addition, since it not only requires more dominoes (to traverse one or both of the staircases that connects the platform to the base), but requires multi-dimensional thinking, like starting your path underneath the platform versus atop the platform. In this manner of solving, Domino Maze echoes other top-down logic puzzles in the ThinkFun library like Gravity Maze and Roller Coaster Challenge.

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[Two different angles of the same Challenge Card, mid-solve.]

You also slowly develop a sense of what I call “domino math,” the ability to look at the number of dominoes you have to work with, and immediately limit your choices and potential solutions based on what you know. For instance, three dominoes in a straightaway can cover half the board, but it costs three dominoes to make a 90-degree turn in one square, so you begin to recognize where resources MUST go vs. where they COULD go.

That’s a huge benefit down the line, when your dominoes (through splits and other maneuvers) must maximize their usefulness. It seems daunting when you look at a Challenge Card and see that you have to place 18 dominoes, but honestly, that’s less intimidating than looking at a card with gates scattered all over, and seeing you only have seven or eight dominoes to work with.

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But whether you’re a younger puzzler just getting started with logics, an experienced puzzler who likes the idea of combining a little hand-eye coordination with your solving, or a domino enthusiast looking for a new challenge, you’re bound to find the ever-escalating gameplay of Domino Maze to be a treat. (And just imagine the challenging pathways you could construct with two sets. Or a Rube Goldberg device made of ThinkFun puzzles.)

Watching those dominoes fall and those gates flip with the push of a single fingertip is a very fun and satisfying way to confirm that your puzzling skills are up to snuff. Plus there’s the sound, and the tactile sense of accomplishment with a path well-deduced and well-built.

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Very few puzzles offer that kind of fanfare for a proper solve, and the logical foundation behind cause-and-effect is rarely as enjoyable as it is in Domino Maze.

Domino Maze is available from ThinkFun and other participating retailers.


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How Dungeons & Dragons Brings Us Together

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One of my favorite things about puzzles and games is the way they bring people together. It could be gathering around a table for a session of Dungeons & Dragons, enlisting a friend in unraveling a tricky crossword clue, or swapping jigsaws with a fellow enthusiast to share the wealth.

Recently, a story about Dungeons & Dragons went viral, but if you haven’t seen it, I’ll happily summarize.


A Twitter user named Antoine H. delivered his grandmother’s eulogy after her sad passing, but wasn’t able to devote the time he wanted to one important aspect of her life, so he took to Twitter later to do so.

At 75 years old, in the last year of her life, she started playing D&D at his suggestion.

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Her first character? A male forest gnome named Terminatur (a combination of “termite” and “nature”).

She helped her fellow players cleanse a haunted house, then made it a home, including inventing a new fruit that became quite popular. (It led to membership in an interplanar ecology organization, The Circle of the Green Hand.)

She even gave the adventuring party its name: “les Bijoutiers Fantaisistes,” the Fanciful Jewelers.

Although her cancer treatment would limit her opportunities to play regularly, she still kept on with the campaign whenever possible, adding delightful new wrinkles to her character.

Her last words to him? “Never change, never lose your family spirit, and keep on playing Dungeons & Dragons.”


As a longtime D&D player, I love this story. Because, as much fun as it is to play the game, it’s the connections you forge DURING play that mean the most. In fact, my favorite roleplaying game memory isn’t from an actual play session.

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It’s from a lazy afternoon hanging out with some of my players, just listening as they shared stories about their favorite moments from the game. (Since each of them had individual adventures, in addition to group adventures, they got to share stories the others hadn’t experienced.) Their reenactments were a pleasure to watch, knowing I had helped craft adventures that they enjoyed so much, they wanted to share them with others.

Getting to tell stories with my friends is an incredible gift, and I can only imagine how much joy it brought both Antoine and his grandmother to find this lovely, unexpected common ground.

You can (and should) click here to read the entire Twitter thread. It’s wonderful.

Also, please share your own stories of how games, puzzles, and RPGs have improved your life and friendships. I’d love to hear them.


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PuzzleNation Product Review: Star Trek Chrono-Trek

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[Image courtesy of Trekcore.]

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

Some of the most important moments in the Star Trek franchise center around altering the past through time travel. Choosing to save Edith Keeler in the original series, the Enterprise-C sacrificing itself to bring peace to the Klingons and the Federation in Star Trek: The Next Generation, or Sisko preventing a Tribble bomb from killing Kirk in Deep Space Nine… iconic scenes both humorous and galaxy-changing involved rending the fabric of time and space. (Heck, the new film franchise was based entirely on changing the timeline from what we knew previously!)

So when I heard that Looney Labs updated their time-jumping strategy card game Chrononauts to include elements from the Star Trek universe, it seemed like a perfect fit. How did they do? Find out today as we review the new Star Trek Chrono-Trek card game.

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[A sample of each of the 11 different types of cards in the game.]

Much like its inspiration Chrononauts, Chrono-Trek is all about the cards. You’ve got assignment cards, ID cards, timeline cards that make up the playing space, artifact cards, cards that change history (and others that change it back), as well as cards that can help or hinder your fellow time travelers.

At the beginning of the game, the timeline cards are laid out in a 4×9 grid that represents the historical timeline from the Star Trek shows and films. Each player then draws an ID card representing a Star Trek character. Each character has certain victory conditions — some combination of events that must be preserved or changed in the timeline and artifacts to be acquired during play — that must be met for you to win the game. The ID cards are ranked by difficulty, indicating how complex the victory conditions are.

As for the other cards available to the player, they allow you to manipulate time, find artifacts, or manipulate the cards in your opponents’ hands. (For Fluxx players, some of these Action cards will seem very similar, as will the artifact cards, which are played just like keepers in Fluxx.)

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[A small glimpse of the timeline.]

The history-changing aspect is the puzzliest part of the game, as you determine what moments to change (and which to protect from your opponents) in order for your timeline to come to pass. But you must be careful, because you also need to ensure that you don’t accidentally end the game by allowing the anomaly from the series finale of Star Trek: The Next Generation — the Anti-Time Devron Anomaly — from preventing life on Earth. (In nearly every scenario, that’s a game over for all players. Pretty daunting, to say the least!)

And although bending time to your will and winning is certainly fun, watching the effect ripple down through the cards after making a bold history-altering move is arguably the best part of the game.

It will take one or two playthroughs — with easier ID cards only — to get used to the game mechanics, but after that, it’s a quick and easy deep-dive into the more complex victory conditions and a much more immersive and challenging play experience. (The game can go a bit too rapidly if you’re only using two players, so I’d recommend playing with four or more players to get the most out of the game.)

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[A comparison of a one-pip (easy) ID card and a four-pip (complex) ID card. Kirk simply requires you to protect one moment, invert another, and collect an artifact. Meanwhile, Evil Spock requires you to find the Fracture card, manipulate two events just to place the Fracture, and still maintain another moment AND acquire an artifact. That’s a much taller order.]

The designers did an impressive job figuring out which moments from the 50 years of Star Trek history to include in the timeline, which characters to offer as ID cards, and so on. For a Star Trek enthusiast, there are great references and little callbacks galore to favorite moments from the series. Not only that, but the game ups the ante from the original Chrononauts formula, keeping all of the best aspects of that game while making this one feel unique.

I posed the question in the intro asking how Looney Labs did marrying Star Trek and Chrononauts. The answer? They boldly went where no Star Trek card game had gone before, and created one heck of a fun adventure.

[Star Trek Chrono-Trek is available from Looney Labs and other participating retailers.]


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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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