On Jeopardy!, It Pays to Know Your Trivia

Whether you’re a casual game show watcher or a dedicated trivia buff, you’ve probably heard the name James Holzhauer by now.

The professional sports gambler has dominated Jeopardy! for weeks now, increasing viewership and sparking debate with his aggressive play style and confident wagering. By going after the highest-value questions first and purposely bouncing around the board in search of Daily Doubles to pad his bankroll, he appears to have “cracked” the Jeopardy! code unlike any other contestant in history.

Holzhauer has amassed 20 consecutive victories as of last night, becoming only the second contestant in history to pass the million-dollar mark on the show. His winnings currently stand at $1,528,012.

But his single-game performances are just as impressive. Not only does he hold the top score for most money won in a single game — $131,127 — but he holds the top ten positions on the board for single-game winnings. (The amounts in the top ten range from his top score of $130k to $80,006.)

He is the only person to earn more than $100,000 in a single game. In fact, he has done so on FIVE separate occasions. (For some context, the previous single-game record was $77,000, a record which stood for nine years before Holzhauer obliterated it.)

How do I know all this? Easy. Jeopardy! has launched an official tracker to keep viewers up-to-date on his stats.

With an impressive amount of knowledge behind him, the guts to wager big money, and the rapid-fire reaction time to buzz in first more often than not, he is a Jeopardy! triple threat, a juggernaut that shows no signs of slowing down.

In an interview with The New York Times, he credited his profession with preparing him for game-show dominance:

The fact that I win and lose money all the time helps desensitize me, so I can write down $60,000 as the Final Jeopardy wager and not be trembling at the thought of losing that money.

But it’s not always big money that makes the difference. On Monday’s show, he won by a mere $18 in a heartstopper of a Final Jeopardy.

And, despite his mind-blowing performance thus far, he has awhile to go before he surpasses Jeopardy!’s top money earner, Ken Jennings.

Jennings holds the all-time record with $2,520,700, which he amassed over the course of 74 victories in 2004. But Jennings was more conservative in his wagering than Holzhauer, who has closed the gap between them to less than $1 million dollars in just 20 days. Statisticians postulate that he is on track to pass Jennings’s total after 34 games. (Fewer than half the number of games won by Jennings!)

What does host Alex Trebek think of all this? According to reports, he’s not a fan of Holzhauer’s Daily Double hunting and aggressive betting, but I suspect he’s more than pleased with the boost in ratings and notoriety for the long-running game show.

Of course, Alex might be miffed for another reason. On average, Holzhauer is making more money than the estimated $50,000 per episode that host Alex Trebek earns.

Holzhauer might want to start tipping the host from time to time, just to keep him happy.


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Our Annual TableTop Tournament: Recap!

We wrapped up our fourth annual in-house tabletop tournament last week, and as you probably expected, it was loaded with all sorts of board game goodness.

So what went down?

Well, it was a 12-person two-week tournament with different games to play every round. With four competition days across two weeks, it was a virtual gauntlet of gaming to determine who is the best in the company.

One of the things I liked about the layout of the tournament was how there are no one-on-one match-ups until the final. Instead of a single-elimination tournament, competitors were first slotted into groups of three. Each group of three played two games, and the two winners (one from each game) from each trio moved on to the next round.

So to survive round 1, you had to win either Timeline or On the Dot.

In the first bracket, former champ Kevin and last year’s defending champ Nikki moved on. In the second bracket, yours truly was bested in On the Dot by newcomer Ryan AND in Timeline by perennial top contender Rick. In the third bracket, Gordon and Sam moved on in impressive fashion. And in the fourth bracket, former champ Jen and newcomer Laura each earned a spot in the next round.

So right away, all three former champs were in the running, along with some new blood and some tough competition with tabletop experience. This was shaping up to be one heck of a tournament.


Round 2 began the following Thursday, and this time around, competitors were slotted into groups of four. Each group of four played two games, and the two winners (one from each game) moved on to the next round.

So to survive round 2, you had to win either Noueni or Guillotine.

Guillotine is a card game for 2 to 5 players set during the French revolution. As the royals are marched to the guillotine in one big line, you play cards in order to switch the royals around so that the most valuable royals are beheaded on your turn, adding their scores to your pile. (You can also manipulate the hands of the other players by forcing them to give you cards or discard them.)

Played over three rounds, the player with the highest score (i.e. the most valuable royals beheaded) wins.

Noueni is a card game for 2 to 4 players that involves pattern-matching, color-based scoring, and cards that can either overlap or sit next to other cards. Your score is determined by how many of your scoring orbs are on the board at the end of the game.

Each card has two colored scoring orbs and a pattern of black lines emerging from them. Those lines are the connectors, and they determine how the cards are placed in the play area. Any card played must link up with the other cards on the board, whether there’s zero, one, two, or three connectors along that neighboring edge.

Noueni was a new experience for all of the players, though it is similar to Qwirkle, which the competitors had played before.

All of the players quickly took to Guillotine, deftly maneuvering valuable royals into their score piles. Noueni proved to be a tougher play experience, as many players devoted so much time to covering up the colored orbs of other players that they neglected to play simpler moves to add colored orbs to their own scores. Too much defense can be a bad thing if it hinders your offense.

In the end, four more players were eliminated from the field, including the first two tournament champions. After this colorful round of play, only Rick, Gordon, Laura, and returning champ Nikki remained.


Round 3 began the following Tuesday, and the remaining players were collected into one final group of four. But they would all play the same game, and the top two point-scorers would move on to the finals.

The game for round 3? Sheriff of Nottingham.

Sheriff of Nottingham is a card game that mixes strategy, resource management, and bluffing. The 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 of these cards is worth points, and the contraband goods are worth more than the legal goods. Of course, the contraband goods are illegal, so if you’re caught bringing them to market, there’s a penalty.

And, unfortunately, in order to get your goods (legal or otherwise) to market, you have to get past the Sheriff.

For example, in a four-player game, let’s say the first player is the Sheriff. The other three players will each place up to five cards in their bag, then snap it shut, and declare what’s inside to the Sheriff. A player may be telling the truth about the contents of her bag, or she may be lying. The Sheriff can choose to either let a bag pass through unchecked or open and inspect the contents of any bag.

Anything that gets through the Sheriff goes into your market stand and is worth points at the end of the game. If the Sheriff chooses to check your bag, one of two things happens. If you were honest about what’s in the bag, the Sheriff pays you the value of those items. If you lied about the contents of your bag and the Sheriff catches you, you must pay him a penalty, and any contraband goods in the bag are seized.

Of course, you can always negotiate with the Sheriff before the bag is opened. Bribes (of coin, product, or favors) can be offer, and deals can be made.

Once the Sheriff has either let the players’ bags through or finished the inspections, everyone settles their goods in the marketplace, the next player takes over as Sheriff, and the cycle starts again.

The game ends after every player has been the Sheriff twice. Then the players count up the value of everything they’ve brought to market — including any contraband they’ve snuck through — as well as their coin piles. (Plus, there are bonus points to be gained if you brought the most of any product to market. For instance, the person who brought the most apples is King of Apples, and the person who brought the second-most is Queen of Apples. Both titles are worth points.)

Once starting coins and cards were allotted to each player (plus a few coins extra to encourage wheeling-and-dealing/bribery), the game commenced. In the end, only two of the four players at the table would be moving on to the finals. What combination of Nikki, Rick, Gordon, and Laura would face off for the championship?

As it turned out, a game all about duplicity can be won with transparency. In this cutthroat round, honesty reigned supreme as most players opted to avoid contraband and move only legal goods through the Sheriff to market. Rick, as the most suspicious Sheriff, ended up paying some hefty fines to players whose bags he checked.

(Personally, I probably would have cut a deal with one of the other players and promised to allow whatever they wanted through when I was Sheriff, in exchange for the same treatment from them. That way, you could move a LOT of valuable contraband one round, and play it safe the other rounds. But I am nefarious that way.)

After a tense game, the judges swooped in to count everyone’s haul, and the players stepped away from the table to enjoy some marvelous cookies and treats provided by the judges… and await their fate.

In the end, Nikki and Gordon had accumulated the top two scores, and they would be moving on to the finals.

Or would they? In the end, there was one more wrinkle!

It turns out that Laura had forgotten to empty her bag of goods in the last go-round, and with her additional contraband, she had outearned Gordon! Shock and heartbreak!

It would instead be Nikki and Laura in the finals.

Now, given that this was our fourth annual tournament, we’d finally amassed some proper stats and trivia regarding the event. You see, not only had no previous champion ever repeated as champion, but no previous champion had ever made it to the finals again!

So already, Nikki had set a new precedent as the only previous champion to return to the finals. Would she be our first repeat champion (back-to-back, even!) or would we have our fourth new champion in four years as the newcomer Laura ascended to the throne?

Let’s find out.


Unlike the previous rounds, this was a head-to-head match-up, winner-take-all. So, naturally, we made posters to hype the event like a prizefight.

And to survive round 4, the finalists would need some help from the audience, as they played a round of the card game Cult Following.

Cult Following is a card-based improvisation game, similar to Superfight, wherein you have to draw several cards that dictate what your cult is about, and then improvise your answers to various questions posed by the other players, who are potential recruits for your cult. Once the round of questions is over, the potential recruits vote on which of the cults they’d rather join, and the cult with the most recruits wins.

To make the task even more daunting, both players had to stand in front of the audience and plead their case.

Nikki’s cult centered around saving the planet from toxic waste (and yes, she did acknowledge the possibility that you might gain superpowers from said toxic waste). Laura’s cult centered around the magical ability to transform yourself into any animal you wished.

Although many potential recruits in the audience were wowed by this idea, I couldn’t get past the very real danger that you could end up as prey rather than simply enjoying life as an animal.

After answering questions from the audience about recruitment, rules, cult theme songs, and more, both competitors turned their backs to the audience so the audience members could vote for the cult of their choice.

Nikki made a valiant effort to retain her crown, but unfortunately, the cards were not in her favor, and more potential recruits opted for Laura’s were-cult. (Not me, though. I was a toxic avenger all the way.)

And thus, Laura dethroned the previous champion in impressive fashion to become the new tabletop tournament champion!

The traditional crown, scepter, and Game Night Gift Pack awaited the new champion, as did an enthusiastic round of applause and a well-earned chance to sit down after the fierce improvisational back-and-forth.

Alas, we must bring this marvelous recap to a close. With a new queen atop the tabletop throne, what will her reign be like? Peaceful? Warlike? Boastful? Quiet? Only time will tell.


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The Puzzly Legacy of the Game Boy

This week marks thirty years since Nintendo’s handheld travel-friendly Game Boy system launched in stores. This small gray machine with the two-tone greenish-yellow screen, affectionately known as The Brick for its shape and weight, is a part of not only many childhoods for puzzlers and gamers my age and younger, but part of the foundation of mobile gaming as we know it today.

It’s not uncommon for people to play games or solve puzzles away from home these days. A myriad of options now live in your pocket thanks to smartphones — including PuzzleNation’s Daily POP Crosswords and Wordventures! (Oh, I simply cannot resist a shameless plug.)

But the entire mobile gaming/puzzling industry hit the big time because of the Game Boy. From its Nintendo successor the Game Boy Advance and rival Sega’s Game Gear all the way to tablet games, the Playstation PSP, the Nintendo Switch, and app games galore, it all kicked off with the Game Boy.

There are many seminal Game Boy titles — Kirby’s Dream Land, Pokemon Red/Blue, The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening, Wario Land, Super Mario Land 2: Six Golden Coins — many of them topping “best of” lists across the Internet, but you cannot have a conversation about the success of the Game Boy without discussing the iconic puzzle game that was packaged with the system.

Tetris.

I can hear the music right now as I type this blog post.

You can’t help but wonder if the Game Boy would have been as successful or popular without the insanely addictive puzzly gameplay of Tetris packaged with it. I found several comments on the Internet on related articles that stated they would’ve happily glued their Tetris cartridge directly to the Game Boy, because they never played any other games.

Granted, there were plenty of other puzzle titles for the mobile game platform. Alleyway, Boxxle, Catrap, and Pipe Dream come to mind, along with ported classics like Q*bert and some of the early Yoshi games.

But can any of them hold a candle to the puzzly legacy of those seven blocky game pieces and that inimitable music?

Doubtful.

I mean, it’s not coincidence that Tetris has its own dedicated board on our Pinterest page and not any of those other puzzle games.

Really, Tetris and the Game Boy were a match made in heaven. You had one of the most addictive puzzle games of all-time and the perfect long-lasting mobile device to ensure you could keep playing the game wherever and whenever you wished.

And thirty years later, the mobile puzzle game revolution that dynamic duo started is alive and well.

Thank you, Tetris. And thank you, Game Boy. You’re part of PuzzleNation history.


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A World of Puzzles and Games at Norwescon 42!

Your friendly neighborhood puzzle blogger took a trip across the country to attend Norwescon, the premiere fantasy and science fiction convention in the Pacific Northwest.

This was the 42nd edition of the convention, and if you know your sci-fi novels, then you’re not surprised that there were all sorts of references to The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. (The number 42 is a big part of the first novel.)

The convention’s subtitle was “Don’t Panic” (another HHGTTG reference), and lots of convention attendees were in their bathrobes or carrying towels, representing the two main characters of the series, the bathrobe-wearing Arthur Dent and the towel-toting alien tourist Ford Prefect.

As with any convention, the costuming was amazing. There were fairy godmothers, vikings, mermaids, Daleks, folks in Seahawks-colored finery (it was Seattle, after all), a Predator offering free hugs, an inflatable T-rex costume with those robotic grabber arms, and even photo ops with Krampus and Santa! (And Easter Krampus on Sunday.)

One of the oddest moments for me was seeing a group of people in uniforms I didn’t recognize, and realizing they weren’t con attendees, they were the flight crew for an international airline. (The hotel was across the street from the airport.)

Although many of the convention’s panels and events have a writerly focus, plenty of attention is also given to art, films, games, and pop culture, so there was loads for puzzle and game fans to enjoy at the event.

The dealers room — the main area to shop for costumes, books, fabric, t-shirts, memorabilia, collectibles, and more — had several game shops represented, toting loads of games at good prices. (Several of which we’ve reviewed on the Blog in the past, and some that will be reviewed in the future.)

[All hotel nooks and crannies were stuffed with thematic exhibits, including this delightful leave-a-book, take-a-book mini-library a la The Restaurant at the End of the Universe.]

Board game demos were available all day, complete with skillful players to introduce newbies to various games, as well as tabletop roleplaying adventures in all sorts of settings and systems, from Dungeons & Dragons and Vampire: The Masquerade to Pathfinder and more. In fact, one of the gaming spaces was right down the hall from my hotel room, and it was PACKED morning ’til night with enthusiastic roleplayers telling stories, rolling dice, and battling monsters.

There were open games as well as sign-ups for specific games and adventures, including a multi-table multi-hour battle for gang supremacy in the fictional city of Waterdeep.

One of the most intriguing puzzle/game experiences available to try at the convention was Artemis.

Artemis is a spaceship bridge simulator that allows a group of players to essentially play out a Star Trek-esque adventure. Each player has instructions, controls, and a laptop in front of them, as well as a big screen for everyone to view (much like the main viewer on the bridge of the Enterprise).

Two teams, each piloting their own ship (the Artemis or the Intrepid) must battle foes, trade goods, dock with space stations, and explore the galaxy, all while maintaining their weapons, shields, energy usage in the ship, and piloting control, as well as communicating with their sister ship through headset.

I moved back and forth between the two “ships,” watching as the players navigated different challenges, cooperated (and disagreed) on command decisions, managed their resources, and ventured between the stars, all while some pretty impressive graphics tied the whole play experience together.

What really struck me about the Artemis style of play was how much communication was required for success. It is a co-op game in the same vein as Castle Panic!, Forbidden Island, or Spaceteam, but with a lot more personal responsibility. Plus the laptop interfaces for each station were slick and well-designed, bringing that polished Star Trek: The Next Generation feel home.

I was also responsible for some of the puzzliest events at the convention. Although I did participate in some panels on writing, literature, roleplaying games, and movies (both good ones and the worst of b-movies), the two events that were the main focus of my time were a LARP/scavenger hunt based on The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and an escape room based on Star Wars.

The HHGTTG event was built as an in-universe scavenger hunt where players (who were all expected to bring their towels, of course), had to complete five tasks. The completion of each task led to a rune for the players to record on their gamesheet. and earn five runes, then spell them out in a secret location using their towels, in order to ask an important question.

Some of the tasks included:

  • finding HHGTTG character names in a word search grid, then reading the remaining uncircled letters as a secret message
  • singing karaoke to the mermaids at the hotel pool
  • assisting a Vogon poet with her terrible poetry

They had to earn all five runes, then find me in a secret location and spell out the runes with their towels. If they did so correctly, they would bring one of the missing dolphins back to Earth (and received a small stuffed one for their efforts).

[A bag full of dolphins, awaiting a possible return to Earth.]

The Star Wars event was a traditional escape room with puzzles to solve, boxes to unlock, combinations to find, keys to uncover, and a room to escape under a time limit. Designed for the teenaged attendees, the escape room was set on a bounty hunter’s ship, and all of the players were recently captured by the bounty hunter, awaiting transport to an Imperial prison.

But the bounty hunter has fallen victim to one of his own security protocols, so all of the “prisoners” have a chance to escape, if they disable the (Nerf gun-)armed droid blocking the escape pod, as well as either shut off the radiation leak near the pod OR gather enough bacta to heal themselves from radiation damage in order to actually survive the escape.

[Nerf guns and five shipped boxes. An embryonic escape room.]

[The contents of said shipped boxes. An escape room mid-construction.]

Although some of the boxes were opened out of order (by brute force, rather than proper solving) and one of the puzzles had an unfortunate printing error, the players unraveled the mysteries of the bounty hunter’s ship and escaped with only seconds to spare before the Imperials arrived. SUCCESS!

(Plus friend of the blog Jen Cunningham cooked up some lovely victory certificates for the players, which was a cool bonus. Thank you Jen!)

More importantly, despite the hiccups encountered during both events, everyone had fun while playing (either walking away with a small dolphin or a certificate).

The entire convention was a blast (an exhausting one, but a blast nonetheless), and I highly recommend attending Norwescon next year to any fans of horror, sci-fi, fantasy, writing workshops, games, roleplaying, and of course, puzzles.


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Our Annual TableTop Tournament Starts Next Week!

With International TableTop Day fast approaching, we are once again teaming up with our pals at Penny Dell Puzzles to put together an in-house TableTop Tournament to celebrate the upcoming holiday (Saturday, April 27).

It’s a 12-person two-week tournament with different games to play every week, and round 1 kicks off next Tuesday. (This is actually the fourth year of the tournament, with all three previous champions competing again this year.)

One of the things I like about the layout of the tournament is that there are no one-on-one match-ups until the final. Instead of a single-elimination tournament, competitors are slotted into groups of three. Each group of three will play two games, and the two winners (one from each game) from each trio and move on to the next round.

So to survive round 1, I’ll need to win either Timeline or On the Dot.

Timeline is a card game where every card depicts a different moment in history, and the players are trying to place cards from their hand into a historically correct timeline. Players take turns adding cards to the timeline, placing them before or after previously played cards. You don’t have to know the exact year the event on a given card took place; you simply have to figure out when it happened in relation to the other events that have already been played.

You play your card, and then flip it over to reveal the actual year the event occurred. If you’re correct, the card stays, and you have one fewer card in your hand. If you’re wrong, the card is removed from the timeline and you draw a new card. The first player to place every card in their hand wins.

On the Dot is a pattern-matching game. Each player has four clear cards with randomly placed colored dots on them, and it’s up to the player to arrange all four cards so that the colored dots showing match a given pattern. The first player to match three patterns moves on to the next round.

Timeline can be a bit of a crapshoot, depending on your knowledge of a given subject and whatever cards you draw. I suspect I’ll have a better chance of making the second round with On the Dot; I’m fairly quick with pattern recognition and manipulation, and actually won three games in a row last year to secure my spot in the next round. Hopefully I can repeat the same feat this year.

But you never know. With new competitors and returning champions in the tournament this year, there are sure to be some diabolical surprises.

Here’s hoping when it’s all said and done, I’ll be wearing the Game Geek crown and holding the scepter high…


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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 (and puzzliest!) entry in today’s list is a reinvention of something PuzzleNation Blog readers already know: Eric Berlin’s Puzzle Your Kids subscription service.

Eric realized that the clever puzzles he was creating worked for both younger AND older solvers, and has reimagined the subscription service to provide all sorts of quality variety puzzles to solvers.

Now known as Puzzlesnacks, it’s the perfect way to keep the puzzler in your life busy with fun, unique variety puzzles, no matter what their skill level.

With 23 days to go, the project is already funded, so any further funding just means more puzzles and even greater quality going forward!

Our second project is something for the murder mystery fans in the audience: A Note for Murder.

This game plays on classic murder mystery tropes, as players piece together the crime —  identifying the suspect, the murder weapon, and the scene of the murder. The twist? The crime hasn’t happened yet!

Plus you’re competing with your fellow players. Although it takes working together to solve the crime, only one person can get the credit for preventing the crime. Will it be you?

With 23 days to go, the project is one-third funded, but I suspect this intriguing spin on traditional murder mystery board games like Clue will meet its funding goal.

Our third campaign celebrates the history of one of the most unique game companies in the market today: Cheapass Games.

The company originally marketed its games by selling only what you need to play the game, allowing you to save money by scrounging up your own dice, tokens, and more from the games you already have. It was a genius approach that led to dozens of fantastic, unusual gaming experiences.

And now, they’re bringing that history to life with Cheapass Games in Black and White, a book collecting the rules and histories of every game offered by the company during the Black and White era.

The book is already funded, but with 21 days left, this project is still worth your time.

We delve into a peculiar true story from history with our fourth entry: Potemkin Empire.

As Empress Catherine tours the towns and villages in her domain, each player competes to convince her that they have the most prosperous and worthy village. And a bit of chicanery is needed, as everyone is setting up empty building facades to enhance the look of their individual towns.

The game quickly becomes a battle of cons, ruses, bluffs, and betrayal, as players try to expose the fake buildings of others while concealing their own false fronts. This looks like a terrific strategy game with some devious poker elements, built in the same vein as Sheriff of Nottingham and other social games.

There’s less than 36 hours left in the campaign, so contribute now. The game is fully funded and pushing towards some worthwhile stretch goals in the home stretch!

Our fifth and final entry today adds a macabre sense of humor to an iconic storytelling world.

Gloom of Thrones combines the mystique and grandeur of Game of Thrones with the namesake card game’s twisted humor and clever gameplay. As each player takes control of a noble family, they endeavor to make them as miserable as possible to score points, and then kill them off when the time is right.

The transparent cards allow for all sorts of playing combinations as you torment and mistreat the parody characters. And naturally, you can derail the other players by causing nice things to happen to their characters. There’s really nothing quite like playing Gloom.

With 20 days to go, the game is fully funded and pushing onward toward stretch goals, so don’t miss out on this hilariously brutal spin-off.


Have any of these projects 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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