A Writing Prompt with a Puzzle/Game Twist!

I’m always on the hunt for different ways that puzzles have found their way into pop culture and society in general, and it never ceases to amaze me how ubiquitous puzzles can be.

I recently stumbled across a puzzly reference in a list of writing prompts intended to spark some creative scribbling:

A long while back, the world came to an end, and with it your favourite newspaper. For years you’ve been filling the idle hours between scrounging and scavenging by solving crosswords puzzles. You’ve got 50 years worth of backlogs, but now you’ve completed every single one.

Every single one except the most recent one. The final one, that is. The crossword puzzle that never got released because the world ended.

So now you’re on a journey through the post-apocalyptic wasteland to find the last puzzle, and finally complete your collection.

A dystopian tale with a puzzly hook? Sounds like a can’t-miss YA book to me!

It’s an intriguing pitch — for a story or a roleplaying campaign — and one that reminds me of David Steinberg and the Pre-Shortzian Puzzle Project, as they’re still on the hunt for 142 missing New York Times crosswords that weren’t published in New York.

And, naturally, since my mind has wandered to puzzle-and-game-fueled scribblings, I simply must include this board game-inspired take on the classic Abbott and Costello routine “Who’s on First?” that a friend of mine penned. Enjoy!

Customer: Excuse me, do you sell this particular board game whose name I’ve forgotten, it’s like Parcheesi, only smaller and has a Pop-O-Matic dice rolling bubble in the middle.

Clerk: Are you looking for Trouble?

Customer: What? No! Sorry.

Clerk: Ah, we do have that. But without the dice popper.

Customer: What?

Clerk: Sorry.

Customer: No, it’s fine. I just want your opinion of the other game you have, if it’s no trouble.

Clerk: Well, it kind of is. According to some people.

Customer: Sorry?

Clerk: Yes.

Customer: You are fast becoming a source of aggravation.

Clerk: Oh, we have that one, too!

Customer: Argh! What. Game. Were you talking about before, and what’s your opinion?

Clerk: Sorry, and it’s no Trouble, if you ask me.

Customer: Well, great.

Clerk: So do you want that?

Customer: Huh?

Clerk: Or would you prefer Aggravation?

Customer: I’d rather you gave me a clue!

Clerk: Well that game’s nothing like Parcheesi.

Customer: Then why bring it up?

Clerk: I didn’t, you did!

Customer: Look, just… go.

Clerk: We don’t have that, but what about Othello?

Customer: ARGH!


As always, puzzles and games make everything better.

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The Curious World of Ancient Board Games

A few weeks ago, we delved into the surprisingly deep history behind games still commonly played today, like Go, chess, and various dice games. But we barely scratched the surface when it comes to ancient gaming. There are numerous games that fell out of favor centuries ago, only to be resurrected in the modern day by game enthusiasts and historians.

In today’s blog post, I’d like to dust off a few of these ancient games and briefly discuss what we know about them. It’s game history time!

[Image courtesy of Wikipedia.]

A popular Viking game whose heyday was between the fourth and twelfth centuries, Hnefatafl was a popular game throughout Scandinavia. This mouthful of a game — sometimes called Viking chess by modern game fans — was so ubiquitous back then that it was mentioned in several of the Norse Sagas.

Amazingly, although game pieces and fragments of game boards have been recovered, no one is entirely sure how the game is played, so rules have been reconstructed based on a similar game called Tablut.

Translated as “board game of the fist,” Hnefatafl is part of a family of games called Tafl games, all of which take place on a checkerboard-style play space with an uneven number of game pieces.

[Image courtesy of Wikipedia.]

Unlike Hnefatafl, the Royal Game of Ur has survived the centuries pretty much unscathed, thanks to a copy of the rules recorded on a Babylonian tablet. Played in the Middle East centuries ago — in places like Syria and Iran — the Royal Game of Ur was clearly popular, as evidence of the game has been found as far away from the Middle East as Crete and Sri Lanka.

The game and its trappings penetrated deep into Middle Eastern society. An Ur game board was carved like graffiti into a wall in the palace of Sargon II (dating back to the 700s BC). The Babylonian tablet indicates that certain game spaces were believed to be good omens, and could be interpreted as messages from the beyond.

The game was eventually either supplanted by backgammon or evolved into a version of backgammon, depending upon different historical accounts.

[Image courtesy of Chess Variants.com.]

Tori Shogi dates back to 1799 in Japan. Also known as Bird chess — thanks to game tiles named after phoenixes, cranes, and swallows — Shogi is played on a board seven squares wide and seven squares deep.

Unlike many chess variants, Tori Shogi allows for captured pieces to return to play, a nice twist that deepens the familiar gameplay style.

[Image courtesy of Bodleian Libraries.]

But chess and backgammon aren’t the only games with centuries-old precursors. The geographical game Ticket to Ride also has an aged forebearer in Binko’s Registered Railway Game, which was built around a map of the United Kingdom.

An educational game about placing trains on the map and determining how far they travel, this game has survived the decades relatively unscathed by time.


Those are just four examples of games that were either lost and then rediscovered, or games that fell out of favor, only to be resurrected by curious modern players.

And once again, these games are just the tip of the iceberg. There are centuries-old versions of The Game of Life, Parcheesi, a dating game, checkers, and more when you start digging!

As you can see, games have been a part of human civilization dating back millennia. We were always meant to play puzzles and games, it seems.


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The (Increasingly Lengthy) History of Games

Being a student of history means constantly discovering amazing new things about our world, our culture, and ourselves. There are so many unexpected twists and turns, synchronicities, coincidences, and flat-out mind-blowing facts waiting to be uncovered.

And when you’re a student of history with an interest in puzzles and games, it means you get to discover just how long humans have been dabbling in baffling brain teasers and friendly competition.

Board games, for instance, have been around a long time, longer than most people realize. There is evidence that Go has been played in China for more than 5,500 years!

And many other games also have shockingly long lineages. Chess can be traced back to the seventh century in India. Game boards have been found in king’s courts, university halls, and even former houses used by the Knights Templar, as pictured above.

We’ve previously explored that Viking gravesites from the ninth century reveal that board games were not just a pastime for the Vikings, but that their win-loss records were important enough to be recorded for posterity!

Check this out. It’s an ancient Greek painting on a vase, dating back to 530 BCE. This piece is an example of the black figure technique where images painted on clay turned black when the clay was fired. It depicts the two mightiest warriors of the Trojan War, Achilles and Ajax, playing a board game to keep themselves busy during the siege of Troy.

It’s unclear what game they’re playing, though many historians believe the warriors are rolling dice in the image. That would make sense, since astragali (the knuckle-bones of goats and sheep) were used in ancient Greek gambling games.

Dice have an equally ancient history. The Egyptian game of Senet, which was played with dice, dates back over 5,000 years.

Dice games have been uncovered in Mesopotamian tombs (some as far back as the twenty-fourth century BC), and a Vedic Sanskrit text known as the Rigveda, which dates back to India in 1500 BC, also mentions dice.

Tile games have a similarly deep history.

Chinese Dominoes can be traced back to writings of the Song Dynasty, nearly a thousand years ago. Dominoes as we know them first appeared in Italy during the 1800s, and some historians theorize they were brought to Europe from China by traveling missionaries.

Another tile game, Mahjong, has been around for centuries, but there are several different origin stories for the game, one tracing back to the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), another to the days of Confucius (500 BC).

Perhaps at some point, I’ll try to put together a historical timeline of gaming (similar to the crossword timeline I created around the 100th anniversary of the crossword).

In the meantime, I’ll settle for being utterly fascinated with just how long humans have been socializing, relaxing, and competing through the medium of games.


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Computer Program Teaches Itself to Solve Rubik’s Cubes!

I tried to warn you, fellow puzzlers.

I wrote posts about computer programs that play chess, Scrabble, Go, Atari games, and Jeopardy! I wrote posts about programs that solve crosswords. I even wrote posts about robots that solve Rubik’s Cubes in a fraction of a second.

And they’re getting smarter.

Say hello to DeepCube, an AI program that is now the equal of any master Rubik’s Cube solver in the world at solving 3x3x3 cubes.

And unlike other AI programs that have learned to play games like chess and Go through reinforcement learning — determining if particular moves are bad or good — DeepCube taught itself to play by analyzing each move, comparing it to a completed cube, and reverse-engineering how to get to that move.

It’s labor-intensive, yes, but it also requires no human intervention and no previous information. Chess-playing programs like Deep Blue work by analyzing thousands of previously played games. But DeepCube had no previous history to build on.

It started from scratch. By itself.

And became a Rubik’s Cube master.

In only 44 hours.

Compare that to the 10,000 hours it supposedly takes for a human to become an expert in anything, and that’s a mind-blowing accomplishment.

[Image courtesy of YouTube.]

From the Gizmodo article on DeepCube:

The system discovered “a notable amount of Rubik’s Cube knowledge during its training process,” write the researchers, including a strategy used by advanced speedcubers, namely a technique in which the corner and edge cubelets are matched together before they’re placed into their correct location.

Yes, the program even independently recreated techniques designed by human speed-solvers to crack the cubes faster.

The next goal for the DeepCube program is to pit it against 4x4x4 cubes, which are obviously more complex. But supposedly, deposing human puzzle solvers as the top dogs on the planet isn’t the finish line.

No, this sort of three-dimensional puzzle-solving is only an intermediate goal, with the ultimate endgame of predicting protein shapes, analyzing DNA, building better robots, and other advanced projects.

But first, they’re coming for our puzzles.


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PuzzleNation Product Review: Deblockle

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

Chess, checkers, backgammon, Go, Othello… all of the classic board games rely upon the idea that both players know how the pieces can and will move from round to round. That way, they can strategize, they can prepare defenses, they can circumnavigate your attempts to flummox them. To outmaneuver someone, you have to know how they can maneuver.

But what if your opponent could potentially move in five different ways? How would that alter your strategy? How would that alter your gameplay?

Beware, fellow puzzlers… one-on-one board gaming just got a little more complicated with Deblockle.

Masterminded by the team at Project Genius, Deblockle pits two players head to head to see who can remove their four blocks from the board first.

That’s right, there aren’t sixteen pieces to keep track of, like in chess, or twelve, like in checkers. There are just four blocks for you, and four blocks for your opponent.

But here’s where things get tricky. Each turn, you have two moves. The first move is to roll one of your blocks into an adjacent space (either vertically or horizontally).

The second move is to place your block according to whichever symbol that landed face-up because of that roll.

There are six symbols, each with a corresponding action:

  • Stop: your turn is over, there is no second move
  • Cross: move your block one space either horizontally or vertically
  • X: move your block one space diagonally
  • Hoops: move your block three spaces (vertically or horizontally) in any combination, including backtracking over a space you just occupied
  • Slider: move your block either vertically or horizontally until you reach the end of the row or column, or until you’re stopped by another block

With each of those second moves, you’re not rolling the block to reveal a new symbol; you’re picking it up and placing it into its new position.

And yes, there are six symbols, and I only listed five above. That’s because the sixth symbol, the star, can only be revealed if you’re rolling onto one of the star spaces on the board. By rolling the block star-side-up onto a star space, you remove the block from play.

That’s the only time you can roll your block star-side-up, and the only time you’re allowed to occupy a star space with your block.

There are only two star spaces on the board, and you can only remove your blocks from the game if you utilize the star space opposite you.

And that’s when things get really tricky. Because it’s entirely likely that your opponent’s blocks will prevent you from rolling onto the symbol you wanted. So you’re puzzling out how exactly to roll and move your blocks so you’ll end up adjacent to the star space with the star symbol waiting to be rolled face-up, and also playing defense to impede your opponent’s efforts to navigate and manipulate the board to their own advantage.

It’s a lot to keep track of, and it makes for an immensely engrossing, engaging puzzle duel for two players. You’ve got the resource management of Risk, the piece placement mechanics of chess, and the defensive gameplay of Stratego and other strategy games.

And since the blocks are placed in their starting positions by your opponent — after rolling them randomly to see which symbol is face-up to start — every game of Deblockle is different. Opening gambits — like those you can learn in chess — are useless, because you won’t know how you can move your blocks initially until your opponent places them.

There is a wonderfully fresh challenge factor to Deblockle that many other head-to-head board games lack. While playing the game over and over will allow you to develop techniques and skills for how to better move your blocks, there are no shortcuts to becoming a better player through sheer repetition, because each opening setup is different.

Project Genius has managed to stuff a massive amount of gameplay, strategy, and style into those four little blocks, and they’ve got a real winner on their hands here.

[Deblockle is available from Project Genius and other participating retailers, for players starting at 8 and up!]


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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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