PuzzleNation Product Review: Hacker

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

All of the puzzles and games produced by ThinkFun have one thing in common: learning through play. Whether you’re solving logic problems with lasers, creating unique patterns with color wheels, or deducing the culprit of a feline crime, you’re learning valuable skills through puzzling.

Several ThinkFun games are designed with computer coding in mind, as the gameplay mimics some of the rudimentary concepts of preparing and entering commands, then seeing how those commands can interact with an environment.

If you’re familiar with Robot Turtles, or any of their puzzle games from the //Code series, like On the Brink, you’ve already experienced this for yourself or seen someone else putting newfound puzzly skills to the test.

But Hacker offers a new twist on this concept.

[The various game pieces: agents, data files, exit points, commands to move the agent and rotate parts of the playing grid, and others, including the virus, alarm, and locks.]

As ThinkFun’s newest logic game, Hacker goes above and beyond those introductory coding games, challenging players to add their own coding to an established scenario in order to complete a specific task.

Then the players have to locate vulnerabilities and correct them before they can move on to the next challenge.

But by working your way through the various difficulty levels — Beginner, Intermediate, Advanced, and Expert — the game introduces new elements and challenges to the player gradually, allowing younger solvers to develop their skills and learn new tricks as they work out increasingly complex scenarios.

Let’s look at one Intermediate-level challenge to give you a better idea of how the game works.

The first part of each challenge is the coding. Each challenge card presents you with the initial layout of the grid, as well as which commands are hard-coded into the scenario (listed on the Platform line), and the openings for you to code movements for your agent (shaded in on the Red Agent line).

In this scenario, the agent must retrieve a single data file and deliver it to the exit point.

[The commands I “coded” in order to complete the scenario.]

You will use the arrow tiles to indicate where you want the agent to move. The rotation tiles are hard-programmed at certain times, so you can’t move them; you have to plot your path and code your agent to take advantage of those rotation commands.

[A full scenario ready to go. Clockwise from the upper left, we have the Challenge Booklet, the playing grid, the coding Control Panel, and the Solutions Booklet.]

As the scenarios grow more complex, those hard-coded rotation tiles will offer greater challenges, forcing you to become more creative and more tactical in your programming.

In addition to handling the rotation tiles, you must pick up the data file and reach the exit point while avoiding any contact with the virus.

[Here, the command as coded plays out. The agent moves left and acquires the data file, then moves down. The platform rotates twice, and then it’s a straight shot right to the exit point.]

And by using the special answer flipbook — which separates each challenge into three different pages for Code It, Hack It, and Fix It, so you can look at each individually without spoiling the rest of the solve — we can confirm our coding is correct.

The second part of the challenge is an element I haven’t seen in any previous ThinkFun release: hacking.

In this stage, you’re trying to debug your coding by seeking out vulnerabilities in the code that would allow the agent to encounter a virus. You’re essentially troubleshooting yourself!

To do so, you have to play the role of a malicious hacker hell-bent on corrupting your coding and delivering the agent directly into the hands of the virus.

This part of the game is more like a traditional sliding-tile puzzle, as you try to manipulate the tiles already in place to engineer a different outcome. In this case, I’ve moved the platform command forward and the down movement command over, altering the agent’s path.

As you can see here, by “hacking” our code, we picked up the data file and delivered it right to the virus, corrupting the entire program. Although our original program avoided the virus entirely, it isn’t safeguarded against hacking. Yet.

That brings us to the third part of the challenge, fixing, which allows you to correct the flaws you identified in the second part.

You can do so by placing an alarm on an open tile, which prevents the agent from encountering the virus; but you must do so without interfering with the successful completion of the original coding’s goal. In more difficult scenarios, you can also fix your coding by using a link token to link certain commands together, so a hacker has to move them as a whole, rather than as individual commands.

So in order to have a successful fix, you should be able to play through the original coding and succeed, but the hacked coding should be thwarted by the changes you’ve made.

[Below the blue agent and the blue exit point, you have the primary tools used in the Fixing phase of gameplay: the transaction link and the alarm.]

It’s an effective metaphor for the amount of review and beta-testing that goes into actual coding, since tiny mistakes can have dire consequences. By requiring younger players to review the same data in three different ways, you’re subconsciously encouraging diligence and care in one’s programming.

It’s a simple lesson, but an important one, and the gameplay promotes it without feeling preachy or heavy-handed. Instead, you’re almost partners-in-crime with the game as you develop new tricks to outwit each scenario.

Hacker is one of ThinkFun’s most complex and immerse logic games yet, one that never forgets to be great fun and an engaging, multilayered puzzly challenge, even as it educates. Other ThinkFun games might look flashier at first glance, but I think they’ve truly outdone themselves this time around.

Hacker is available from ThinkFun and participating retailers, starting at $24.99.

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