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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A Shift in Puzzly Perspective

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I’ve had 3-D puzzling on the brain for a few days now, after a conversation about video games with a well-informed friend of mine.

What do I mean when I say 3-D puzzling? Well, I don’t just mean a puzzle that exists in three dimensions. I mean a puzzle where the solving experience requires all three dimensions.

Think about your average maze or a jigsaw puzzle. Although they’re three-dimensional objects, the solving is two-dimensional. Yes, there are certainly variations on these themes, like maze cubes where you navigate a marble from one place to another, or 3-D jigsaw puzzles that allow you to reconstruct famous landmarks. But these still rely heavily on two-dimensional solving.

Compare that with the iconic puzzle video game Portal, for instance. Portal requires you to accomplish different tasks, and you can only do so with your portal gun, a device that allows you to connect two different locations on the map.

[Image courtesy of Game Informer.]

That requires a complete realignment of your perspective, because you can walk in a straight line through one portal and emerge above, below, or at a 90-degree angle from where you started. This isn’t two-dimensional thinking anymore.

Between 3-D printing techniques and the constantly evolving engines behind video game systems, we’re seeing more and more examples of three-dimensional thinking in puzzles, and I’m perpetually amazed by what creators and designers come up with.

Check out this video of gameplay from the new puzzle game Etherborn:

Your character navigates elaborate three-dimensional landscapes, and gravity is wholly dependent on how your character is oriented at the moment. So you need to be clever enough to use the landscape in order to move your character in very unorthodox ways.

It’s fascinating, a step beyond some of the puzzles seen in previous games like Portal and Fez. (In those games, gravity still only worked in one direction, whereas Etherborn breaks even that fundamental baseline.)

I think this sort of puzzling appeals to me so much because the change in perspective that comes from solving in an additional dimension completely rewrites the rules we thought we knew.

Imagine for a second that you’re inside a corn maze. Now think about the paper mazes you’ve solved. See the difference? In the first scenario, you’re beholden to the meager information you get from following each path, whereas in the second, you can plan a route from above because you have much more information. You can see dead ends and avoid them.

The three-dimensional scenario is far more challenging than the 2-D solving you’re doing with the paper maze.

ThinkFun managed a similar feat with Gravity Maze, a puzzle game that required you to move a marble from the starting cube to the ending cube. The main challenge was that you had to build the path with only the given materials, and then just drop the marble in. All the puzzling happened at the beginning, and then you became a bystander as the marble traversed the solution you built.

This isn’t just plotting a path like in a normal maze, it was understanding a chain of events you were setting in motion, like cause and effect. It’s like building a simple Rube Goldberg machine and watching it go.

But whether you’re manipulating portals, shifting perspectives, dropping marbles, or solving corn mazes, you’re pushing your puzzly skills into new dimensions. And that’s just the puzzles we have now. Imagine what comes next.


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PuzzleNation Product Review: Roller Coaster Challenge

ThinkFun’s products are all about learning through experimentation. Whether you’re making music note-by-note with Compose Yourself, mastering the basics of programming in Robot Turtles, or tackling complete-the-path puzzles with marbles, lasers, robots, or electronic circuits, kids and adults alike get the chance to put their puzzly chops to the test.

Roller Coaster Challenge is the largest, most ambitious ThinkFun puzzle game to date, featuring several dozen pieces and challenge cards galore to test your ability to bend momentum and gravity to your will as you complete unfinished roller coaster tracks!

[With multiple track lengths, posts for building support pylons, 90-degree turns to navigate, and even a loop you can construct, you’ve got all the ingredients you need for a roller coaster worthy of the name.]

The concept is fairly simple. You have challenge cards that offer a starting layout. You’re given the beginning and ending points of the track, and some pieces in between. You are also told which pieces you’ll need to use to bridge the gaps and finish the track. Now it’s up to you to place them correctly and then test your creation with the little red roller coaster car.

Not only is the building plate bigger than those in any previous ThinkFun puzzle game, but the sky is the limit as you build onwards and upwards in order to solve your challenge card and give your little roller coaster car the ride of its life!

The challenge cards serve as the perfect introduction to solving the game’s puzzles, teaching the solver how to identify pieces by length, how to avoid missteps, and even how to get the most out of the available pieces.

But the challenge cards are just the beginning. Roller Coaster Challenge encourages you to develop your own roller coaster layouts, and even share them with the company!

After battling my way through numerous challenge cards of all difficulties — ranked from easy to super hard — I began indulging my creative side by constructing my own layout.

Naturally I had to go above and beyond, trying to weave two tracks together so one would use the loop, and the other would rocket the roller coaster car through the loop and over a gap before reuniting with the track itself.

[OSHA would shut down my roller coaster so fast…]

In terms of scale, creativity, and sheer visual panache, Roller Coaster Challenge is the most ambitious and impressive ThinkFun puzzle game to date. The DIY encouragement built into the solving experience really adds something extra to the enjoyable (and sometimes challenging) layouts provided by the game’s designers.

Roller Coaster Challenge was the result of ThinkFun’s first venture into crowdfunding, and when it came time to go big or go home, they went big, and solvers reap the benefits with this dynamic, fun product.

Roller Coaster Challenge is available through ThinkFun and other vendors for the very affordable price of $29.99.


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PuzzleNation Product Review: Lunar Landing

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

ThinkFun has emerged as the premiere vendor of logic puzzles for solvers of all ages. Whether they’re challenging you with marbles, lasers, or electronic circuits, their complete-the-path games offer lots of puzzly fun.

Their latest offering, Lunar Landing, seems at first to fall into the same pattern, but as you learn the rules and begin tackling the challenge cards included, you quickly realize there’s more than meets the eye at play.

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In Lunar Landing, your goal is to pilot the red shuttle to an emergency entry port in the center of the landing grid. Sounds easy enough, right? But the twist is how you get there.

Scattered across the landing field are helper bots which help your shuttle move around the landing field. The shuttle can only move toward one of the helper bots in the same row or column. The shuttle must move from helper bot to helper bot until it reaches the emergency entry port.

Because Lunar Landing is set in space, the shuttle can’t just stop wherever it chooses. Once the shuttle is set on a path toward a helper bot, it continues along that path until it reaches that bot. This means you can pass right over the emergency entry port unless there’s a helper bot in the correct position to stop the shuttle on that red square.

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This movement mechanism is the engine behind each of the 40 challenge cards in the deck. Progressing in increasing difficulty from beginner to intermediate to advanced to expert, the challenge cards provide you with the starting layouts for each landing grid. You place the shuttle and helper bots as instructed, and then try to puzzle out how to complete the task at hand.

The early scenarios are all about moving the shuttle from place to place. In later challenges, you’ll have to move the helper bots as well, positioning them to form a path that’ll bounce your shuttle to the center of the grid.

The helper bots move in the same way as the shuttle — toward another helper bot along a row or column — and as the scenarios evolve, you’ll rely on moving the helper bots more and more.

It’s a bit like a sliding-tile puzzle, since you can only move the shuttle along certain paths, as determined by the locations of the helper bots. Many of the challenge cards can only be conquered by setting up a chain reaction, which gives Lunar Landing the feeling of a one-person chess game: You’re trying to see several moves ahead, looking for the perfect sequence of moves that will let you achieve victory.

Taking a simple scientific concept — objects in motion tend to stay in motion — and building a logic game around it is very clever, and it makes for a solving experience that feels new and challenging. Since each piece can potentially move, depending on the challenge card layout, there are more variables at play here than in previous ThinkFun logic puzzles.

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The helper bots are modeled on classic robot designs from the 1940s and 1950s, and that adds to the game’s charm, as if the vivid Technicolor visions that predated the Space Race have finally been realized.

The landing grid doubles as storage for the challenge cards and game pieces, making for an easily transported puzzle game that can be enjoyed anywhere at the drop of a hat.

Lunar Landing continues the fine tradition of ThinkFun puzzle games, keeping even experienced puzzlers on their toes with inventive gameplay and outside-the-box thinking. What a treat.

Lunar Landing is available from ThinkFun through Amazon and other online retailers. Click here to check out other ThinkFun product reviews!


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Kickstarter Roundup!

I’ve covered a lot of puzzle-centric Indiegogo and Kickstarter campaigns in the blog, because I think it’s fascinating how many puzzle variants there are, and how many puzzle-loving creators are enthusiastically seizing the opportunity to add their own delightful gaming and puzzling twists to the market.

In previous posts, we’ve seen Baffledazzle‘s jigsaws with a twist, Completely Puzzled‘s community-building outreach, and 64 Oz. Games‘ campaign to adapt popular board games and card games for vision-impaired players. Some very creative and worthwhile projects have been realized with the help of crowdfunding.

Heck, several of the games and puzzles showcased at last month’s New York Toy Fair were brought to life thanks to crowdfunding!

So here are a few more projects that I think are worth your time.

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The Maze is a series of Choose Your Own Adventure-style books with a curious puzzly twist: they place the reader inside a labyrinth and challenge you to read through the book and escape!

It’s an extended spacial-awareness puzzle where you need to visualize where you are in the maze at all times, overcoming obstacles and pitting your memory against the labyrinth itself.

A third of the way to its funding goal, The Maze envisions a series of mazes of varying difficulties for readers to tackle. It’s an intriguing take on a classic puzzle genre.

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For a more traditional puzzle product, there’s The Grid. This multi-colored visual delight challenges players to place all of their tile pieces on the board before their opponents, mixing luck and strategy in a Qwirkle-style battle.

The Grid combines clever tile design with visually arresting gameplay, and the campaign has already reached its initial funding goal, meaning that additional donors are helping to refine the game with higher quality pieces and other add-ons.

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From the elegant to the gloriously silly, our next campaign is Munchkin Shakespeare.

This latest edition of Munchkin from the team from Steve Jackson Games adds a literary touch to its famous line of puzzly card-battle games, as players do their best to team up, betray each other, and run amok in the hopes of gaining loot and escaping combat intact.

The bard himself and characters from his most famous plays are unleashed in cartoon form, ready to wreak havoc in all sorts of creative ways, wielded by cunning players and puzzlers with a penchant for sword-swinging nonsense in iambic pentameter.

This is another campaign where the initial funding goal has already been reached, and with only a day or two left in the campaign, they’re pushing towards some exciting stretch goals.

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Our last campaign combines logic and deduction with mechanical puzzles, as the crew from ThinkFun launches their very first Kickstarter to bring Roller Coaster Challenge to life!

In the spirit of Gravity Maze and Laser Maze Jr., Roller Coaster Challenge presents players with some of the pieces of a puzzle and tasks them with completing a working model with their remaining pieces. This time around, you’re building a roller coaster track, with all the soaring loop-de-loops and plunging slides you’d expect from the theme park attraction.

With expansions including Kickstarter-exclusive roller coaster cars and additional pieces to create even taller, more complex models, this one could be a winner. Will you be able to complete the numerous twisting, turning variations, or will the perfect roller coaster track elude you?

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But before I go, I want to revisit a previous Kickstarter success story that we’ve covered in the past: The Maze of Games.

Mike Selinker’s interactive puzzle novel has been on the market for a few years now, and as far as he knows, no one has conquered the final maze in the book.

And to give solvers a better chance at completing the book, the diabolical puzzlesmith has created The Theseus Guide to the Final Maze, a tie-in story with hints for cracking the most diabolical puzzly labyrinth that giant tome has to offer.

It’s only available for a short time, so if you’re hoping to one day best The Maze of Games, be sure to snag a copy!

And let us know if any of these puzzly Kickstarters piqued your interest! With so many worthy projects and products in the pipeline, hopefully one of them catches your eye and receives your support!


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PuzzleNation Reviews: ThinkFun’s Circuit Maze and Clue Master

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

Deduction is one of the most powerful puzzle-solving skills, and honestly, it’s a difficult one to develop.

“If this, then that” thinking involves holding several pieces of information in your head at once, eliminating red herrings and unhelpful possibilities until you’re left with one solution that fits all the requirements. (Every Sudoku puzzle is an exercise in deduction, after all.)

And today, we’ve got two new ThinkFun products to review that are centered around learning the art of deduction in different ways: Clue Master and Circuit Maze.

Clue Master is centered around a 3×3 grid that the solver must fill with nine dog toys: three bones, three balls, and three bowls. Each symbol comes in three colors — green, red, and blue — leaving us with nine unique pieces to place in our grid. (The solving style is very similar to their Brain Fitness puzzle game Chocolate Fix.)

Completing the grid is the only way to open the secret door of Tippy the dog’s doghouse, returning the friendly, blocky puppy to his rightful place in the back yard. (Hence the dog toys.)

The instructions, puzzles, solutions, game board, and pieces are all contained within the single spiral-bound game book, making this one of ThinkFun’s most portable products yet. The magnetic pieces are fairly sturdy, as is the game board, so it will hold up nicely to the rigors of travel (and being stuffed into various carry-on bags).

The gameplay itself is all about interpreting the clues provided with each challenge card. Some clues give you colors only, others shapes only, and the occasional clue is centered around a given piece’s location on the grid.

Once you graduate from the Beginner and Intermediate difficulty levels, you’ll face a new wrinkle: negative clues. Negative clues are layouts that must be avoided, so instead of telling you where to place a piece, they tell you expressly where NOT to place a piece, ratcheting up the difficulty.

Clue Master truly lives up to the “8 to adult” age range of the product. The Beginner puzzles walk you through simple deduction techniques, allowing younger minds and new solvers alike the chance to get accustomed to that sort of if-then chain-solving.

For a bit more of a challenge, let’s check out Circuit Maze.


ThinkFun has a solid track record when it comes to maze games that involve some level of logic or deduction, whether it’s learning optics with Laser Maze Jr. (or the original Laser Maze) or navigating the three-dimensional twists, turns, and drops of Gravity Maze.

Now, they’ve turned their attention to current and electricity with Circuit Maze, challenging solvers to use switches, connective pathways, and light-up relays to complete the partially-built circuits on each of the game’s challenge cards.

One of the more intriguing twists built into Circuit Maze is that your starting and ending points are a pair of connected pieces: the blue positive piece containing the batteries and the blue negative piece that closes the circuit. The current has to flow from positive to negative, so that means your light-up relays (which are also marked with + and – paths) can only be placed in certain configurations.

To add to the difficulty, oftentimes one of the two blue starting and ending pieces is NOT set in the challenge cards, so you won’t necessarily know what your starting or ending point is, placing another obstacle between you and successfully closing the circuit and ensuring your relays light up as needed.

The switch is another delightful wrinkle on the ThinkFun logic maze formula, since each setting can have its own unique requirements.

For instance, the above setup requires a different relay to light up for each switch setting (meaning that the switch’s first setting lights up the red, its second setting lights up the yellow, and its third setting lights up the green). These multiple goals make building your pathway more challenging and really forces you to think about how to use each piece to its utmost.

[Here the completed circuit causes each relay to light up with a flip of the switch.]

The challenge cards range from Beginner, which offers introductory tricks and lessons, to Intermediate, Advanced, and Expert puzzles, each with their own obstacles.

Sometimes, you know where a piece is placed, but not which direction it should face. Other times, you have to create pathways that will allow multiple relays to light up at once, and others where nothing lights up at all.

In the Advanced-level challenge card below, the solver has to make sure that the red relay always lights up, no matter what setting the switch is on, but other switch settings also have to light up either the yellow or green relays. It’s quite a mental workout!

Circuit Maze definitely rivals Gravity Maze as the most challenging ThinkFun product to date, but it’s a very worthwhile challenge to tackle. This is next-level deductive thinking, plotting out paths that accomplish different tasks at different times, all while maintaining a complete circuit and matching positive and negative current paths.

This serves as a strong follow-up to the deduction lessons new solvers learned in Clue Master, making for a solid one-two punch of logical puzzling the whole family can enjoy together (or you can play by yourself)!

Clue Master and Circuit Maze are both available this holiday season at Amazon or Target!


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