PuzzleNation Product Review: Chessplus

Chess is one of the all-time classic games. Alongside Checkers, Go, Tic-Tac-Toe, and mah-jongg, chess is one of the cornerstones of the genre, one of the first games we’re introduced to, and one of the formative games upon which we build concepts of strategy, timing, and opportunity.

Over the centuries, there have been numerous attempts to reinvent chess or find new ways to play. We’ve talked about puzzly variations on chess in the past, all of which can be played with a standard chess set. (Except for that guillotine set we featured last year.) But if you’re looking for a truly unique chess experience, the team at Chessplus have a simple, elegant game for you.

Chessplus is played under standard chess rules, but with one crucial difference: you can combine your pieces into more powerful ones.

Do you want a pawn that can make less-expected moves, or a knight that can play conservatively? Combine a knight and pawn into a single piece with the abilities of both. Do you need to keep your queen where it is, but still want a versatile piece that can command the board? Easy. Combine a rook and a bishop, and you’ve got a new piece that works just like a queen.

[Only the king is a solid piece. Every other piece can be combined with others.]

Merging pieces not only allows you to take advantage of each component’s abilities, but it can also allow you to more swiftly transport pieces across the board. Instead of a pawn crawling across the board one square at a time, combine it with a rook who can send it straight across the board, where it is then promoted to a queen! Or combine two pawns so you only have to escort one piece across the board safely, then split them again and voila! Two pawns promoted into new queens.

Oh yes, merging the pieces doesn’t link them forever. You can split them at any time. That feature adds another layer to your gameplay, since putting one merged piece into play deep in your opponent’s territory can suddenly become two separated pieces again.

Now, this piece-combining mechanic is a double-edged sword. Yes, you have a more powerful, mobile game piece. (I was very excited to try out combining a knight and a queen, just to make the queen even more dangerous.) But if someone takes a merged piece, you lose BOTH halves, making them as vulnerable as they are valuable. Imagine an opponent capturing my merged knight/queen, so I lose a knight AND a queen in one turn. That could be a devastating loss.

As you’d expect, it took a little while to grow accustomed to these new variant pieces. With so much to keep track of during a normal chess game, pieces with greater mobility make strategy — both offensive and defense — a bit more complicated.

But it was also great fun. Early Chessplus games tend to be faster, more aggressive, because of the greater mobility allowed by some of the merged piece combinations. But once you’ve played a few games, your more traditional chess mindset settles in, and gameplay tends to become more measured and tactical.

Just imagine. A single change that offers a world of new possibilities and challenges. That’s brilliant, in my estimation. Chessplus is a wonderful way to reinvigorate chess if the game has lost its luster for you. And if you are a dedicated player, I think Chessplus will prove to be a welcome change of piece from the traditional game.

[Chessplus sets start at $35.95 (for just the pieces) and are available from the shop on Chessplus.com.]


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Monopoly: Pondering the New Cheaters Edition

Monopoly is probably the most famous branded board game in the world. (I include the word “branded” because you can easily argue that Chess or Go or Mah-jongg are equally famous and/or played by as many people.)

There are hundreds of themed variations covering everything from state landmarks to Star Wars. It seems like everyone owns a copy of the game, even if it doesn’t seem to be all that popular these days.

Maybe that’s because we play it wrong. After all, in the instruction book, it plainly states that if a player lands on an unowned property and doesn’t wish to buy it, it immediately goes to auction to the highest bidder. Did you ever play with that rule? It certainly seems like it would speed things up!

And did you know that Edward Parker, former president of Parker Brothers, was quoted as saying that forty-five minutes was the appropriate length for a game?

Forty-five minutes? I can’t remember a single Monopoly game that lasted fewer than two hours.

Then again, maybe it doesn’t matter anymore. Things are about to change. The game is in the news once more after the announcement that Hasbro will be releasing a Cheaters Edition of the game.

[Cheaters that get caught are handcuffed to the board itself!
Image courtesy of USA Today.]

You might consider this to be a shameless attempt to cash in by being “edgy” or lean on cynicism already rampant regarding a game that seems to encourage selfish capitalist choices. That has certainly been the reaction of some game enthusiasts on the Internet.

I read a comment on Facebook where someone was disillusioned by this news, since “by buying this, you acknowledge that you’re playing a board game with someone who is likely enough to cheat that you bought a special version of the game with that exact expectation.”

The commentor went on to share his disappointment in the idea that “your response to that person cheating is not to stop playing games with them, but instead is to shame them by clipping them to the board game as though that were somehow more shameful than getting caught cheating your friends in a game with literally zero at stake.”

That’s certainly one way to look at it — though I suspect that’s partially colored by the fact that this person clearly didn’t enjoy the game in its original form to begin with.

[Image courtesy of Grey Mass Games.]

Of course, there’s an alternative view, one that encourages crafty gameplay over the monotonous steamrolling that many of us experienced in the past with a game like this. (Who doesn’t remember landing on the developed property of an older sibling and getting taken to the cleaners?)

Instead, the game encourages you to think outside the box. In that way, it could become something more akin to a poker game with tells and bluffing, or the casual manipulations you’d find in a round of Sheriff of Nottingham.

According to USA Today, “the game features naughty tasks to complete, such as skipping spaces or removing another player’s hotel from their property without them noticing.”

Since the game’s not out yet, we don’t know how far you’re allowed to go with your chicanery.

I’m sure some players will try to take more than $200 when they pass Go, but what about…?

  • Can you hide cash up your sleeve in order to avoid playing more Luxury Tax at 20%?
  • Can you gaslight players into forgetting that you mortgaged that property, flipping it over and collecting rent on it once more?
  • Can you bribe other players into letting you pass through their properties without paying?
  • CAN YOU SOMEHOW CHARGE FOR FREE PARKING?

[Image courtesy of Monopoly.wikia.com.]

We’ll have to wait and see.

Will you be picking up the Cheaters Edition of Monopoly, fellow puzzlers? Let us know in the comments section below!


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Rise of the Machines!

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I don’t mean to alarm you, fellow puzzlers and PuzzleNationers, but the machines may be taking over.

First, there was Deep Blue, defeating Russian chess grandmaster Garry Kasparov under standard chess tournament time constraints.

Then, there was IBM’s supercomputer Watson, sitting at the buzzer on Jeopardy!, besting previous champions Brad Rutter and Ken Jennings to nab a million-dollar prize.

An AI program called Deep Mind can play several Atari games with superhuman proficiency.

These days, you can design robots with LEGOs that are capable of solving Rubik’s Cubes in seconds flat.

And, of course, crossword fans probably know of Dr. Fill, the crossword-solving computer program that competes at the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament each year. In a matter of five years, it has jumped from 141st place in the 2012 tournament to 11th place in the 2017 tournament.

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Now, the machines are coming for Go players next. Google has developed an artificial intelligence known as AlphaGo which twice conquered Ke Jie, the 19-year-old Go tournament champion ranked number one in the world.

This strategy board game is played with white and black gamepieces called stones, and the objective is to surround a greater total amount of territory on the game board than your opponent. Along the way, you can surround your opponent’s pieces in order to capture them and remove them from play.

Wikipedia aptly describes the depth and difficulty of the game:

Despite its relatively simple rules, Go is very complex, even more so than chess, and possesses more possibilities than the total number of atoms in the visible universe. Compared to chess, Go has both a larger board with more scope for play and longer games, and, on average, many more alternatives to consider per move.

go-game

People have been playing Go for over 2,500 years, and yet, machines have already surpassed our greatest player.

Science fiction movies have been warning us about this for years. I just never expected them to come after our games and hobbies first.


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Vikings: Warriors in Life, Warriors in Dice

[Image courtesy of Arlington Viking Fest.]

Board games have been around a long time, longer than most people realize. Chess can be traced back to the 7th century in India, and Go has been played in China for more than 5,500 years!

And it turns out that board games were important to the Vikings as well. Not only were they valued in life, but in the afterlife as well.

An article in the UK’s Daily Mail details the discovery of a Viking grave site known as a boat burial where board games were among the items interred with the dead. And apparently, this was not an uncommon occurrence.

[Image courtesy of The Times.]

From the article:

Mark Hall, a curator at Perth Museum and Art Gallery, has published a new study on Viking board game burials across Northern Europe.

He says there have been 36 burials where board games of some description have been found in the graves around Northern Europe.

This grave site, dating back to the 9th century, grants intriguing insight into how the Vikings viewed board games as a learning tool. After all, board games require strategy and a level of initiative, which are both qualities found in accomplished Viking warriors, so it’s believed that including a board game among the effects of the deceased signals not only their skill and status as a warrior, but their preparedness for the afterlife itself.

So what sorts of games did the Vikings play?

The game pieces were used in multiple games. Researchers believe the dice were used in a game called tabulal alea, which is reminiscent of backgammon.

Many of the bigger pieces were used in a chess-like game known as hnefatafl. In hnefatafl, each player has a king protected by defender pieces, and the goal is for your king to reach the edge of the board before the other player takes him out.

Just imagine what the Vikings could have learned from a game like Risk.

[This story was brought to my attention by Kim Vandenbroucke.]


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Kickstarter Round-up!

International TableTop Day is this Saturday, a day where we celebrate getting together with family and friends to play games! Board games, card games, role-playing games, puzzles…anything that involves gathering in person and having fun around a table fits the bill!

But we simply can’t wait until Saturday — plus the office is closed that day — so we’re hosting our PuzzleNation’s TableTop Day event in-house TODAY! And I figured what better day could there be for a round-up of puzzly crowdfunding campaigns marking some of the newest and most intriguing projects in the puzzle-game industry today!

I’ve covered various campaigns for board games, card games, and puzzle projects across the Kickstarter and Indiegogo crowdfunding platforms over the years, and today I’d like to share three more that could use your attention.

The first is the strategy game Tak.

Tak is a collaboration between game designer James Ernest, head honcho of Cheapass Games and Hip Pocket Games, and author Patrick Rothfuss, creator of the Kingkiller Chronicle series, to bring to life a game featured in Rothfuss’s novel The Wise Man’s Fear.

The premise sounds simple: build a road of pieces connecting opposite sides of the board. By using some pieces as parts of your road and others as walls to block your opponent, this mix of chess, Stratego, and Go is all about strategy. Plus, the game is adaptable, playable on square boards as small as 3×3 and as large as 8×8.

This is a new pub game that feels like a timeless classic, and it looks perfect for puzzlers of all ages.

Now let’s move from the pub to outer space with another Kickstarter campaign, Avoid the Void.

This is a different sort of strategy game, since it’s all about outlasting your opponents, not completing a task first. In Avoid the Void, whole sectors of space are being replaced with black holes, and everyone is scrambling to gather resources and elude these hungry death traps.

You’ve got an ever-changing gameboard, intriguing alien races (including one resembling a piece of cake), and all the reason in the world to deceive, outmaneuver, and betray your fellow players, just so you can stay in the universe a little while longer.

This is a game designed for replayability, allowing you to indulge in all of the diabolical selfishness of games like Monopoly, but without the huge time commitment. After all, the universe is collapsing and there’s no time to waste!

And speaking of replayability, the makers of this last Kickstarter campaign are known for puzzle games with high replay factor. Let’s talk about Pyramid Arcade from Looney Labs.

We normally talk about Looney Labs card games like Fluxx or Loonacy, but their original product line revolved around the Looney Pyramids system: various games you can play with their signature colored pyramids.

Now, they’re launching Pyramid Arcade, covering TWENTY-TWO different games and encompassing 90 pyramids of various colors. It’s their largest release ever, and with all the variants and mini-games they’ve created for these game pieces over the years, this promises to be a game set with endless possibilities.

Pattern-matching games, chess- and Tic-Tac-Toe-inspired games, bluffing games, strategy games, and even a tower-building game…Pyramid Arcade literally has something for everyone.


These are three intriguing and very worthy projects, and I hope you contribute to one or more of them. As someone who has become a regular donor to various Kickstarter and Indiegogo campaigns, I am proud to have funded some marvelous new ideas and watched them take shape over the months that followed.

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