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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PuzzleNation Product Review: The Oregon Trail Card Game

For gamers and puzzlers of a certain age, there are many fond memories of a certain historical journey that tested your wits, your luck, your tactical skills, and your endurance. I’m speaking, of course, of The Oregon Trail, a computer-game classic that not only taught millions of young minds about the perilous journey, but probably introduced most of them to the concept of death by dysentery.

Ick.

For those not in the know, The Oregon Trail was a computer game designed to explore 19th-century pioneer life on the long journey between Independence, Missouri, and Oregon’s Willamette Valley. Players would manage food, supplies, and the pace of the trek in their covered wagon, occasionally dealing with dangers like disease, thieves, broken equipment, accidents, and treacherous rivers to cross.

A classic in the eyes of many, this beloved game has made the jump from the digital realm to the analog one with a card-game variation released this year by Pressman Toys.

Pressman Toys have outdone themselves with this nostalgia-fueled adaptation. The trail cards themselves evoke the classic black-and-green screen of old-school computers, while the supply and calamity cards are pixelated in a style more akin to 8-bit video games.

I daresay, though, that the card game is harder than the computer game. I don’t know that I’ve ever encountered a game that stacks the deck against the player quite so brutally.

To make the journey to Oregon successfully, players must traverse 50 trail cards, avoiding illness and unpleasant twists of fate along the way (represented by the calamity cards that come up all too often), managing meager supplies, and testing their luck against river crossings (where a roll of the die determines your fate).

This quickly becomes a strategic battle of resource management, trying to hold onto fort and town cards for as long as possible (since they provide some of the rare opportunities to gain new supplies), playing trail cards (which must link up in a continuous line), and deciding whether it’s better to spend medicine and clean water supplies on saving fellow players stricken by illness or letting players die and hoarding supplies for the survivors.

I’ve played the game a few times now — each session has lasted about 30 minutes, with the team failing to reach Oregon both times (though we made it more than halfway on the second try) — and it remains an engaging, enjoyable play experience. Yes, it can be disheartening to see a player die early on (as I did by rattlesnake bite in my very first turn one game), but the group play experience — pitting all of you against the game itself — is only enhanced by the difficulty.

There are some aspects of the computer game — hunting, for instance — missing from the card-game experience, but I suspect the development of simple house rules (like spending a bullet card and letting a handful of dice rolls determine your success hunting, to more closely recreate the computer game’s hunting mechanic, for instance) would enrich the gameplay.

Whether you’re a fan of the classic computer game or a newcomer to the franchise, I suspect The Oregon Trail will delight you (and challenge you!) like few card games ever have.

[The Oregon Trail Card Game is available at Target stores and through online outlets.]


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Rube Goldberg Overload!

A Rube Goldberg machine, for the uninitiated, is a device designed to accomplish a simple task in as many unnecessary, ludicrous steps as possible. The name comes, appropriately enough, from Rube Goldberg, a cartoonist and inventor most famous for his cartoons featuring singularly silly and elaborate machines like the one pictured below.

We’ve posted videos of Rube Goldberg machines in the past, because they’re a perfect example of a mechanical puzzle in action. Only when things happen in a precise order does the machine complete its task.

And they’ve been around long enough that we’re starting to see fun variations on the concept. Beyond simply accomplishing a task, many Rube Goldberg devices tell stories or center around a given theme. (We even featured one that was designed to take weeks to complete!)

And today, I’ve got four videos of Goldbergian goodness to share with you.

First off, another terrific entry from Purdue University. The school has really made a name for itself in the Rube Goldberg field over the last few years, and perhaps my favorite device of theirs is this record-setting machine charting the progression of human history:

From human history to racing history, we now turn our attention to this car part-themed device from the team at Arrow FiveYearsOut, complete with an unexpectedly zippy finale:

When it comes to devices with many moving parts in complex interactions, it’s hard to top watches with their myriad of miniature gears, wheels, and other intricate details.

So it should come as no surprise that Seiko has gotten into the Rube Goldberg spirit with their own timepiece-themed device, “The Art of Time.” Involving over 1,200 individual watch pieces, this might be the smallest, most elegant Rube Goldberg device I’ve ever seen:

And finally, we have my favorite of my recent discoveries. This video from YouTuber Kaplamino has been making the rounds on Facebook — uncredited, unfortunately — and it’s a marvel. It’s entitled “Magnets and Marbles,” but should really be called “Magnets and Marbles and Momentum and a Metric Buttload of Patience.”

Built on a tilted table, “Magnets and Marbles” is not a true Rube Goldberg device — there was never one complete uninterrupted run — but it remains a thoroughly impressive design.

According to the creator, “Each screen was recorded separately, and even like that, some of them only work 10% of the time. I can’t give you a number because I didn’t count the fails, but I think it’s over 100.”

Nonetheless, the clever use of magnets makes this one of the most dynamic and creative machines I’ve seen in quite a while:

Rube Goldberg devices are only growing more ambitious, audacious, and creative, and I cannot wait to see what people come up with next.


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The Story Behind Bletchley Park

It’s amazing when you consider the impact one of the most common forms of puzzle solving, cryptography, has had on world history. From the Revolutionary War to World War II, codebreaking was a battlefront as crucial and as exhausting as any contested piece of land on the map.

This was brought into stark clarity recently when I read The Secret Lives of Codebreakers by Sinclair McKay, which chronicles the work and lives of the team members at Bletchley Park who dedicated themselves to cracking the German Enigma code. It’s been said that Bletchley Park’s achievements shortened the war by two or three years. That’s no small feat.

(You know the decryption work done at Bletchley Park was good if it inspired parts of two of Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels. The film The Imitation Game barely scratched the surface.)

From The Secret Lives of Codebreakers:

Here, in these grounds fifty miles to the north of London, they would be introduced to the gravest secret of the war. Every intercepted enemy message — every signal from every captain, commander, military division, battleship, U-boat — all these encrypted communications, jumbled up into seemingly random letters in groups of four and five, and transmitted by radio, were gathered by the many listening posts around the British coastline.

From the Battle of Britain to the Blitz, from Cape Matapan to El-Alamein, from Kursk to the V-1 flying bombs, to D-Day and Japan, the work of Bletchley Park was completely invisible, yet right at the heart of the conflict. It was a key player whose presence, at all times, had to be kept utterly hidden from the enemy.

Imagine working these incredibly intensive sessions, obsessively looking over bits of code for hours at a time, knowing that the fate of the world rested on your shoulders, and a simple transcription mistake could cost lives. It’s a mind-boggling concept.

And the book shed a great deal of light on the decryption work itself. For instance, I had no idea how many variations of the Enigma code they were expected to crack.

The German rule was that no message should be more than 250 letters in length; if it was necessary to send a longer message, it should be split into multiple parts. This was designed to make life more difficult for codebreakers: the longer the message, the easier it might be for such a person to see patterns of letters forming among the apparent chaos.

Thanks to preambles in each Enigma message, codebreakers could at least be organized under different color keys: yellow, green, red, and blue. When they ran out of colors, they named keys after marine life, then birds, then elephants, then insects.

This was a war, and organization was key, no pun intended.

The first big break is known as the Herivel Tip, when one of the Bletchley Park crew deduced that some Enigma machine operators might choose the new day’s settings based on the letters used the previous day. This became a valuable jumping-off point for daily decryption attempts with their own coding device, the bombe machine.

In 1941, the first major Enigma-style code, the Abwehr code, was broken by Bletchley Park. In June of 1941, they broke the Vulture key, which revealed German activity on the Eastern front.

But the Germans were constantly adapting and refining their codes. German paranoia led to submarines using a different code than surface naval vessels. So “Dolphin,” the surface naval code, was not the only code troubling Bletchley Park. “Shark,” the submarine key, was a new concern. Thankfully, when U-559 sank in 1942 and its crew abandoned ship, its Enigma machine and a book of current “Shark” keys was salvaged by Allied forces without German knowledge.

In 1943, they broke “Porcupine,” giving them access to all German air force messages for a few weeks.

Around this time, the German High Command began using another method to transmit encrypted messages, and this became yet another focus of Bletchley Park. The “Fish” or “Tunny” communications were between generals and the Fuhrer himself.

This led to the development of the big brother of the bombe machine, Colossus, which combined the logic engines of a Turing machine with electronic valves that allowed it to read 5000 characters a second, five times faster than the previous top machine.

(While this was going on, Turing himself was developing a new speech encipherment system, Delilah, so named because she was a deceiver of men.)

In January 1945, efforts were still going strong, as Bletchley Park not only cracked the “Puffin” and “Falcon” keys of the German army, but effectively countered attempts by the Luftwaffe to implement new encryptions. By this point, dozens of variations of Enigma had been unraveled by the team.

Of course, decryption wasn’t the only thing accomplished at Bletchley Park.

The grand deception that led to the Normandy invasion was also managed there. They gradually fed false data to German Intelligence about military groups like the First United States Army Group preparing to enter France via the Pas de Calais and the Twelfth British Army into Scandinavia and Turkey. This allowed for D-Day to proceed, as German attention was diverted.

But The Secret Lives of Codebreakers goes beyond their wartime victories. McKay takes us behind the scenes of Bletchley Park to share not only the hard-won achievements of the cryptographers there, but also what daily life was like on the isolated estate. From living conditions and several romances to rivalries and petty feuds caused by high tensions, the book catalogues the realities of such stressful work in richly detailed fashion.

I think my favorite discoveries were related to the off-time of the recruits:

Oliver and Sheila Lawn have especially fond memories of the way that Bletchley-ites contrived to use their leisure time: “There was music,” says Mr. Lawn, “Play readings. And play actings. Quite a bit of amateur dramatics. And concerts of all kinds.”

Highland dancing, madrigals, creating palindromes…they were offered all sorts of activities to help keep spirits up after grueling decryption sessions. Certain musical artists were even invited up to perform there!

When you consider how important their work was and how many years they were sworn to silence about Bletchley Park, these revelations become all the more stunning. This isn’t just a fascinating work of puzzle history, this is history itself.


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PuzzleNation 2015 Holiday Puzzly Gift Guide: By Category

Welcome to the PuzzleNation Blog 2015 Holiday Gift Guide!

We’re overjoyed to have so many tremendously fun and puzzly products to share with you this year. We just might be your one-stop shop for all things puzzly!

This guide is broken down into categories for ease of searching. We have puzzle apps, puzzle books, downloadable puzzles and puzzles by mail, jigsaw puzzles, puzzle games, board games, card games, and party games. We’re sure you’ll find the perfect gift for any puzzler on your list!


Puzzle Apps

Naturally, you’ll forgive us for starting off with a link for a familiar puzzle app!

The Penny Dell Crossword App not only features bundles of terrific puzzle content, but it offers a free daily puzzle to all users! You can check out the full details on the PuzzleNation website!


Puzzle Books

Pencil-and-paper puzzles are alive and well, and we’re happy to share some of our favorites with you.

 

 

Our friends at Penny Dell Puzzles have put together some outstanding holiday collections with puzzles galore to be solved!

Whether it’s the Colossal Grab-a-Pencil Book of Brain Boosters ($10.50, also available with Logic Puzzles!), the Splash of Color Christmas Special (and its sister title, Flying Colors, both $6.99), the Logic Problems Spectacular collecting more than a hundred brain teasing puzzly challenges ($8.99), or their Super Grab-a-Pencil Pocket series — with a crossword edition (pictured above), a Fill-In editiona Sudoku edition, and a Word Seek edition ($7.95 each) — Penny Dell has you covered.

And be sure to check out their deals on Facebook and Twitter for the entire holiday season. 15% off all sorts of puzzle bundles and books!

And for more specialized puzzle books, some high-level constructors have books of their own for your perusal! With New York Times and Los Angeles Times crosswords to their credit, you’re sure to find some puzzlers within these pages!

–Ian Livengood’s Sit & Solve® Sports Crosswords ($5.95)

–Rich Norris’s A-to-Z Crosswords ($8.95)

–Doug Peterson’s Easy ABC Crosswords ($8.95)

–Jeff Chen’s puzzles for bridge enthusiasts ($12.95)

–Brendan Emmett Quigley’s Sit & Solve® Marching Bands ($5.95) and Diagramless Crosswords ($20.98)

–Patrick Blindauer’s Sit & Solve® Quick-As-A-Wink Crosswords ($5.95) and Wide-Screen Crosswords ($8.95)

–Dale Maron’s Pentdoku Puzzles: Volume 1 ($12.95)

The Maze of Games by Mike Selinker

And we simply have to mention one of the most innovative puzzle books released this year, the interactive puzzle novel The Maze of Games! Now going into its second edition, this delightfully challenging read allows solvers to choose their own path through various labyrinths and challenge themselves to dozens of puzzles, this is a one-of-a-kind solving experience. Factor in the Wil Wheaton-read audiobook and Austin Wintory’s soundtrack, and you have a real winner here. ($49.95 in hardcover, $20 in ebook form)

[Click here to check out our full review!]

Collins Little Book of Bananagrams

Are you a Bananagrams fan who’s looking for something to give you an edge? The Collins Little Book of Bananagrams might be just what you need! With a list of puzzle words you might not otherwise think of, suggestions for other games to play with Bananagrams tiles, and techniques for speeding up your gameplay, you’re sure to be Top Banana with this handy guide in your pocket. ($9.95)


Downloadable Puzzles and Puzzles by Mail

Many top constructors and organizations market their puzzles directly to solvers, so between by-mail offers and downloadable puzzle bundles, you’ve got plenty of quality choices!

The Uptown Puzzle Club (puzzle bundles by mail) ($35 for 12 issues)

The Crosswords Club (puzzle bundles by mail, available in both regular and large print; $39.95 for 12 issues, $59.95 for large print)

David Steinberg’s Chromatics (color-themed puzzles)

The American Values Crossword (subscription and daily puzzles) ($20 for 1 year)

–Matt Gaffney’s Weekly Crossword Contest ($26 per year)

–Bassey Godwin’s Will Sudoku (PDF puzzle bundle, full review here!) ($10)


Jigsaw Puzzles

Puzzometry

For a next level jigsaw-style challenge, Puzzometry is tough to top. These beautiful pieces can be combined in seemingly endless combinations, and yet, there’s only one solution. Available as Puzzometry ($16), Puzzometry Jr. ($11), and Puzzometry Squares ($16), you’ve got three distinct challenges appropriate for different ages!

[Check out the full review of Puzzometry by clicking here!]

Tavern Puzzles

These hand-forged beauties are ready to challenge your dexterity and cleverness, as you accept the Tavern Puzzles challenge. Whether you’re trying to free your heart from the tangled pieces of Heart’s Desire or remove the ring from the Iron Maiden, you’re sure to put your skills to the test. ($22)


Puzzle Games

These one- and two-player puzzle games are perfect to train your brain and keep you guessing!

Houdini, Gravity Maze, and Laser Maze Jr. (ThinkFun)

ThinkFun meshes learning and gameplay with three logic games ready to challenge kids and adults alike. Whether it’s the ropes and locks challenging nimble fingers in Houdini ($19.99), the marble-dropping path-building of Gravity Maze ($24.99), or the study of optics and mirrors with an actual laser in Laser Maze Jr. ($29.99), young minds and older minds will soon be in fighting trim for puzzling!

[Check out our full product reviews of Houdini by clicking here, Gravity Maze by clicking here, and Laser Maze Jr. by clicking here!]

Word Winder (David L. Hoyt)

Word Winder (also available in app, puzzle book, and GIANT versions!) is a game of finding chains of hidden words in an ever-changeable grid! Put your strategy and spelling skills to the test! ($19.95)


Board Games

Some of the puzzliest games on the market today are being made by top-flight board game companies, and we’ve got some marvelous games that will appeal to puzzlers of all ages!

Stuff and Nonsense (Cheapass Games)

Many games are about grand adventures, but only Stuff and Nonsense is about pretending to go on grand adventures while scamming your fellow would-be adventurers. Can you sneak around London and gather the props you need for your impressive lie, all while avoiding the fiendishly clever Professor Elemental? Great fun and quick to learn. ($25)

[To check out the full review of Stuff and Nonsense, click here!]

Castellan (Steve Jackson Games)

Build a castle and then occupy it in Castellan, a game of strategy and opportunity. With great modeled pieces that really add to the aesthetic, Castellan has style and substance. ($34.95)

[Check out our full product review here!]

Zip It (Bananagrams)

Bananagrams is already pretty travel-sized, but if you’re looking for a game you can play on an airplane tray table, you need to check out Zip It. This 24-cube game works on Bananagrams rules AND allows you to use the carrying case to keep score! For puzzling in your pocket, you can’t go wrong. ($12.99)

Tsuro: The Game of the Path (Calliope Games)

A path-laying game with tons of style and historical spirit, Tsuro casts up to eight players as flying dragons, and tasks you with laying out your path with special tiles. Your goal is to avoid meeting another dragon or flying off the board. It’s a simple mechanic with plenty of replay value, and perfect for quick games with large groups. ($29.99)

Walk-By Scrabble Board, Lexicographer’s Extended Scrabble, and Drawing Room Scrabble (Hammacher Schlemmer)

Hammacher Schlemmer has several Scrabble variants available, including the Lexicographer’s Extended Scrabble for those with mega-syllabic ambitions ($29.95) and Drawing Room Scrabble for those with swankier taste ($149.95) — not to mention the mindboggling World’s Largest Scrabble Game for $12,000! — but few are as clever or as convenient as the Walk-By Scrabble Board! Designed as a family game for people on the go, it’s a perfect way to bring back Board Game Night for busy families! ($29.95)

[Check out our full product review of the Walk-By Scrabble Board here!]

Qwirkle (MindWare)

A wonderful mix of Uno and Mexican Train Dominoes, Qwirkle is all about placing your tiles to maximize points and minimize helping your opponents. With six bright colors and six different shapes to match up, Qwirkle is endless fun that’s so easy to jump right into! ($34.99)

Tak•tak (Twizmo Games)

If you’re looking for a game that combines the strategy of chess and the mechanics of Upwords, Tak•tak is right up your alley. Score points by stacking and attacking your opponent’s pieces in this game that’s more than meets the eye! ($18.95)

[Check out our full product review of Tak•tak by clicking here!]


Card Games

These card games add a bit of friendly competition to some splendid strategizing for puzzlers of all sorts!

Pairs (Hip Pocket Games)

A simple card game with a lot of strategy behind it, Pairs is about NOT scoring points and avoiding pairing your cards at all costs. With new deck styles arriving all the time — like the Goddesses of Cuisine deck and the Lord of the Fries deck — complete with numerous variant games available, Pairs is a perfect group card game you can pick up quickly. ($10)

Give Me the Brain (Cheapass Games)

In this revamped version of a lesser-known classic, you and your fellow players are zombies running a fast food joint, competing to complete your tasks first. Unfortunately, there’s only one brain for all of you to share. A mix of strategy and luck, Give Me the Brain is the most fun you can having working in fast food, undead or not! ($25)

[Review coming soon!]

The Stars Are Right (Steve Jackson Games)

Build an army of followers and change the stars themselves in The Stars Are Right, a thoroughly enjoyable card game where the goal is summoning an elder god and destroying the world. As you do. ($27.95)

[Check out our full product review here!]

Batman Fluxx, Retro Loonacy, and Just Desserts (Looney Labs)

The folks at Looney Labs are all about games where the rules can change in an instant. They’ve broadened their library of Fluxx card decks with a marvelous Batman-fueled version ($20), as well as putting a new twist on their fast-play matching game with Retro Loonacy ($15)! Plus, you can always put your culinary skills to the test in the deliciously busy Just Desserts! ($18)

[Check out our full product reviews of Batman Fluxx here, Retro Loonacy here, and Just Desserts here, plus reviews for Adventure Time Fluxx and Fluxx Dice here!]

Timeline (Asmodee Games)

Timeline pits your knowledge of history against a growing timeline of important events, inventions, and historical moments. You don’t have to know exact dates; you just need to know if something happened before OR after something else. Was the toothbrush invented before or after the syringe? Which came first, language or agriculture? Timeline is a fast, fun way of learning (or relearning) history! ($14.99)

Adorable Pandaring (Asmadi Games)

We can all agree that pandas are adorable, but in Adorable Pandaring, you only earn points if your pandas are adorable, so you need to change the rules to favor the pandas in your hand. This game might have some mighty cute art, but don’t be fooled — it is all about timing and strategy. ($12)

[Check out the full review of Adorable Pandaring by clicking here!]

Compose Yourself (ThinkFun)

For a card game that’s marvelously musically different, try your hand at Compose Yourself. It’s designed to teach people of all ages the magic of music, and you can use the cards included to compose your own pieces, performed by an actual orchestra! I sincerely doubt you’ve ever seen — or heard — anything like it. ($14.99)

[Check out the full review of Compose Yourself by clicking here!]


Party Games

Some puzzles are best enjoyed in groups, so here are a few fun options for party puzzling!

Schmovie (Galactic Sneeze)

Are you the funniest, punniest one in your group of friends? Find out by playing Schmovie, the party game that pushes you to scribble down the best name for an imaginary movie created on the spot! Now redesigned in a sleeker box and playable by all ages, this is the movie game for everyone. ($19.95)

[Check out our full product review of the original version of Schmovie here!]

ROFL! (Cryptozoic)

Challenge your friends to decode famous movie lines, catchphrases, and song lyrics in Cryptozoic’s game ROFL!, created by Dork Tower‘s John Kovalic! Put your texting and abbreviation skills to the test in this laugh-out-loud party treat! ($35)

[Check out our full product review here!]


Thank you to all of the constructors, designers, and companies taking part in our holiday gift guide!

Thanks for visiting PuzzleNation Blog today! Be sure to sign up for our newsletter to stay up-to-date on everything PuzzleNation!

You can also share your pictures with us on Instagram, friend us on Facebook, check us out on TwitterPinterest, and Tumblr, and explore the always-expanding library of PuzzleNation apps and games on our website!

PuzzleNation 2015 Holiday Puzzly Gift Guide: By Age

Welcome to the PuzzleNation Blog 2015 Holiday Gift Guide!

We’re overjoyed to have so many tremendously fun and puzzly projects to share with you this year. We just might be your one-stop shop for all things puzzly!

This guide is broken down by age group, so we’re sure you’ll find the perfect gift for puzzlers of any age on your list!


For Ages 5 and Up

Laser Maze Jr. (ThinkFun, puzzle game)

Nothing brings home the study of optics and mirrors quite like an actual working laser! In Laser Maze Jr., ThinkFun has redesigned their classic reflective puzzle game, not only making it more accessible for young minds, but safer too! ($29.99)

[Check out our full product review of Laser Maze Jr. by clicking here!]


For Ages 6 and Up

Qwirkle (MindWare, board game)

A wonderful mix of Uno and Mexican Train Dominoes, Qwirkle is all about placing your tiles to maximize points and minimize helping your opponents. With six bright colors and six different shapes to match up, Qwirkle is endless fun that’s so easy to jump right into! ($34.99)

Compose Yourself (ThinkFun, card game)

For a card game that’s marvelously musically different, try your hand at Compose Yourself. It’s designed to teach people of all ages the magic of music, and you can use the cards included to compose your own pieces, performed by an actual orchestra! I sincerely doubt you’ve ever seen — or heard — anything like it. ($14.99)

[Check out the full review of Compose Yourself by clicking here!]


For Ages 7 and Up

Zip It (Bananagrams, board game)

Bananagrams is already pretty travel-sized, but if you’re looking for a game you can play on an airplane tray table, you need to check out Zip It. This 24-cube game works on Bananagrams rules AND allows you to use the carrying case to keep score! For puzzling in your pocket, you can’t go wrong. ($12.99)

Collins Little Book of Bananagrams (puzzle book)

Are you a Bananagrams fan who’s looking for something to give you an edge? The Collins Little Book of Bananagrams might be just what you need! With a list of puzzle words you might not otherwise think of, suggestions for other games to play with Bananagrams tiles, and techniques for speeding up your gameplay, you’re sure to be Top Banana with this handy guide in your pocket. ($9.95)


For Ages 8 and Up

Batman Fluxx, Retro Loonacy, and Just Desserts (Looney Labs, card games)

The folks at Looney Labs are all about games where the rules can change in an instant. They’ve broadened their library of Fluxx card decks with a marvelous Batman-fueled version ($20), as well as putting a new twist on their fast-play matching game with Retro Loonacy ($15)! Plus, you can always put your culinary skills to the test in the deliciously busy Just Desserts! ($18)

[Check out our full product reviews of Batman Fluxx here, Retro Loonacy here, and Just Desserts here, plus reviews for Adventure Time Fluxx and Fluxx Dice here!]

Pairs (Hip Pocket Games, card game)

A simple card game with a lot of strategy behind it, Pairs is about NOT scoring points and avoiding pairing your cards at all costs. With new deck styles arriving all the time — like the Goddesses of Cuisine deck and the Lord of the Fries deck — complete with numerous variant games available, Pairs is a perfect group card game you can pick up quickly. ($10)

Timeline (Asmodee Games, card game)

Timeline pits your knowledge of history against a growing timeline of important events, inventions, and historical moments. You don’t have to know exact dates; you just need to know if something happened before OR after something else. Was the toothbrush invented before or after the syringe? Which came first, language or agriculture? Timeline is a fast, fun way of learning (or relearning history)! ($14.99)

Tsuro: The Game of the Path (Calliope Games, board game)

A path-laying game with tons of style and historical spirit, Tsuro casts up to eight players as flying dragons, and tasks you with laying out your path with special tiles. Your goal is to avoid meeting another dragon or flying off the board. It’s a simple mechanic with plenty of replay value, and perfect for quick games with large groups. ($29.99)

 

Walk-By Scrabble Board, Lexicographer’s Extended Scrabble, and Drawing Room Scrabble (Hammacher Schlemmer, board games)

Hammacher Schlemmer has several Scrabble variants available, including the Lexicographer’s Extended Scrabble for those with mega-syllabic ambitions ($29.95) and Drawing Room Scrabble for those with swankier taste ($149.95) — not to mention the mindboggling World’s Largest Scrabble Game for $12,000! — but few are as clever or as convenient as the Walk-By Scrabble Board! Designed as a family game for people on the go, it’s a perfect way to bring back Board Game Night for busy families! ($29.95)

[Check out our full product review of the Walk-By Scrabble Board here!]

Word Winder (David L. Hoyt, puzzle game)

Word Winder (also available in app, puzzle book, and GIANT versions!) is a game of finding chains of hidden words in an ever-changeable grid! Put your strategy and spelling skills to the test! ($19.95)

Houdini (ThinkFun, puzzle game)

The master escape artist is in your hands in HoudiniTackle dozens of tricky scenarios as your nimble fingers and puzzly wits are pitted against ropes, locks, and other obstacles to Houdini’s freedom! ($19.99)

[Check out our full product review of Houdini by clicking here!]

Tak•tak (Twizmo Games, board game)

If you’re looking for a game that combines the strategy of chess and the mechanics of Upwords, Tak•tak is right up your alley. Score points by stacking and attacking your opponent’s pieces in this game that’s more than meets the eye! ($18.95)

[Check out our full product review of Tak•tak by clicking here!]

Gravity Maze (ThinkFun, puzzle game)

Can you bend gravity to your will? Gravity Maze pits the solver against increasingly difficult puzzles where the goal is to place the towers so that a dropped marble will end up in the red goal square. Can you unravel each maze without losing your marbles? ($24.99)

[Check out our full product review of Gravity Maze by clicking here!]

ROFL! (Cryptozoic, party game)

Challenge your friends to decode famous movie lines, catchphrases, and song lyrics in Cryptozoic’s game ROFL!, created by Dork Tower‘s John Kovalic! Put your texting and abbreviation skills to the test in this laugh-out-loud party treat! ($35)

[Check out our full product review here!]


For Ages 10-12 and Up

Castellan (Steve Jackson Games, board game)

Build a castle and then occupy it in Castellan, a game of strategy and opportunity. With great modeled pieces that really add to the aesthetic, Castellan has style and substance. ($34.95)

[Check out our full product review here!]

Adorable Pandaring (Asmadi Games, card game)

We can all agree that pandas are adorable, but in Adorable Pandaring, you only earn points if your pandas are adorable, so you need to change the rules to favor the pandas in your hand. This game might have some mighty cute art, but don’t be fooled — it is all about timing and strategy. ($12)

[Check out the full review of Adorable Pandaring by clicking here!]

Puzzometry (puzzle game)

For a next level jigsaw-style challenge, Puzzometry is tough to top. These beautiful pieces can be combined in seemingly endless combinations, and yet, there’s only one solution. Available as Puzzometry ($16), Puzzometry Jr. ($11), and Puzzometry Squares ($16), you’ve got three distinct challenges appropriate for different ages!

[Check out the full review of Puzzometry by clicking here!]

Give Me the Brain (Cheapass Games, card game)

In this revamped version of a lesser-known classic, you and your fellow players are zombies running a fast food joint, competing to complete your tasks first. Unfortunately, there’s only one brain for all of you to share. A mix of strategy and luck, Give Me the Brainis the most fun you can having working in fast food, undead or not! ($25)

[Review coming soon!]

The Stars Are Right (Steve Jackson Games, card game)

Build an army of followers and change the stars themselves in The Stars Are Right, a thoroughly enjoyable card game where the goal is summoning an elder god and destroying the world. As you do. ($27.95)

[Check out our full product review here!]

Stuff and Nonsense (Cheapass Games, board game)

Many games are about grand adventures, but only Stuff and Nonsense is about pretending to go on grand adventures while scamming your fellow would-be adventurers. Can you sneak around London and gather the props you need for your impressive lie, all while avoiding the fiendishly clever Professor Elemental? Great fun and quick to learn. ($25)

[To check out the full review of Stuff and Nonsense, click here!]


For Ages 13-14 and Up

The Maze of Games by Mike Selinker (puzzle book)

And we simply have to mention one of the most innovative puzzle books released this year, the interactive puzzle novel The Maze of Games! Now going into its second edition, this delightfully challenging read allows solvers to choose their own path through various labyrinths and challenge themselves to dozens of puzzles, this is a one-of-a-kind solving experience. Factor in the Wil Wheaton-read audiobook and Austin Wintory’s soundtrack, and you have a real winner here. ($49.95 in hardcover, $20 in ebook form)

[Click here to check out our full review!]

Schmovie (Galactic Sneeze, party game)

Are you the funniest, punniest one in your group of friends? Find out by playing Schmovie, the party game that pushes you to scribble down the best name for an imaginary movie created on the spot! Now redesigned in a sleeker box and playable by all ages, this is the movie game for everyone. ($19.95)

[Check out our full product review of the original version of Schmovie here!]

 

Tavern Puzzles (jigsaw puzzles)

These hand-forged beauties are ready to challenge your dexterity and cleverness, as you accept the Tavern Puzzles challenge. Whether you’re trying to free your heart from the tangled pieces of Heart’s Desire or remove the ring from the Iron Maiden, you’re sure to put your skills to the test. ($22)


For Ages 18 and Up

Most puzzle books would probably fall in the Age 9-10 and Up range, but oftentimes, the cluing is geared toward an older audience, so to avoid confusion, I’ve bundled the majority of the puzzle books here.

 

 

Our friends at Penny Dell Puzzles have put together some outstanding holiday collections with puzzles galore to be solved!

Whether it’s the Colossal Grab-a-Pencil Book of Brain Boosters ($10.50, also available with Logic Puzzles!), the Splash of Color Christmas Special (and its sister title, Flying Colors, both $6.99), the Logic Problems Spectacular collecting more than a hundred brain teasing puzzly challenges ($8.99), or their Super Grab-a-Pencil Pocket series — with a crossword edition (pictured above), a Fill-In editiona Sudoku edition, and a Word Seek edition ($7.95 each) — Penny Dell has you covered.

And be sure to check out their deals on Facebook and Twitter for the entire holiday season. 15% off all sorts of puzzle bundles and books!

And for more specialized puzzle books, some high-level constructors have books of their own for your perusal! With New York Times and Los Angeles Times crosswords to their credit, you’re sure to find some puzzlers within these pages!

–Ian Livengood’s Sit & Solve® Sports Crosswords ($5.95)

–Rich Norris’s A-to-Z Crosswords ($8.95)

–Doug Peterson’s Easy ABC Crosswords ($8.95)

–Jeff Chen’s puzzles for bridge enthusiasts ($12.95)

–Brendan Emmett Quigley’s Sit & Solve® Marching Bands ($5.95) and Diagramless Crosswords ($20.98)

–Patrick Blindauer’s Sit & Solve® Quick-As-A-Wink Crosswords ($5.95) and Wide-Screen Crosswords ($8.95)

–Dale Maron’s Pentdoku Puzzles: Volume 1 ($12.95)

And that doesn’t even cover the many great by-mail and downloadable puzzle books and sets available this holiday season!

Many top constructors and organizations market their puzzles directly to solvers, so between by-mail offers and downloadable puzzle bundles, you’ve got plenty of quality choices!

The Uptown Puzzle Club (puzzle bundles by mail) ($35 for 12 issues)

The Crosswords Club (puzzle bundles by mail, available in both regular and large print; $39.95 for 12 issues, $59.95 for large print)

David Steinberg’s Chromatics (color-themed puzzles)

The American Values Crossword (subscription and daily puzzles) ($20 for 1 year)

–Matt Gaffney’s Weekly Crossword Contest ($26 per year)

–Bassey Godwin’s Will Sudoku (PDF puzzle bundle, full review here!) ($10)

And naturally, PuzzleNation offers a terrific puzzle app for the discerning puzzle solver!

The Penny Dell Crossword App not only features bundles of terrific puzzle content, but it offers a free daily puzzle to all users! You can check out the full details on the PuzzleNation website!


Thank you to all of the constructors, designers, and companies taking part in our holiday gift guide!

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