PuzzleNation Product Review: Strata Sphere

In today’s product review, we look at a puzzle game with a simple premise: get your spheres from the top level of the grid to the bottom before your opponent does. All that stands between you and victory? Four levels of sliding walls and a wily opponent.

Today, we tackle the multi-layered challenge of Strata Sphere.

Strata Sphere is a puzzle game for two players that challenges you to outthink and outmaneuver your opponent in order to get your four spheres through the grid first. Imagine the gravity-fueled fun of Ker-Plunk with the chain-reaction planning of chess, and you’ve got something approximating Strata Sphere.

This game is all about tactics and adaptation. First, you and your opponent take turns placing the twelve sliders into the grid. There are four levels to the grid, each level accommodating three sliders.

As you can see, some of the sliders have holes in different places, and others have no holes at all. Placement of these sliders is only part one of the game, but it’s a crucial one.

Once all twelve sliders are in place, the players choose their color spheres (red or black), and take turns placing them into the columns atop the grid, one sphere per column.

[As you can see, some of the spheres have already dropped to level 2,
thanks to the placement of holes in several of the sliders in level 1.]

Now the real strategy begins, because with each turn, a player may select any slider and pull it out of the grid one notch. (Each slider has three notches, allowing it to interact with three different columns.) As the game progresses, players can also push sliders in one notch.

Whether the slider moves out of the way of a sphere or moves a hole into place so a sphere may drop through, each move has the potential to drop a sphere a level (or two!) closer to freedom.

After one or two games, we actually ended up putting the game on a lazy susan, so we could rotate it, observe the grid more easily, and gain better access to all the sliders.

This form of three-dimensional puzzle-solving is a real challenge, because you’re not just dealing with your opponent’s next move, you’re dealing with all the setup (slider placement, sphere placement) that preceded it. Here’s where your ability to adapt comes into play, because all that strategy can go completely out the window at a moment’s notice.

Tension ratchets up quickly as you and your opponent maneuver back and forth, manipulating the sliders and helping gravity guide your spheres through the grid and toward the open tray below. The first player to free all four of their spheres wins.

Strata Sphere is a puzzle game that’s easily explained to younger players, but one that offers a great deal of complexity for older players as well, taxing your tactical abilities, spatial awareness, and your ability to seize unexpected opportunities when they arise.

Being forced to take turns makes long-term planning more difficult, and the four levels of gameplay will push your visualization skills to the max. (Planning out moves on a chess board is one thing, the multi-tiered slider system of Strata Sphere is quite another.)

The gameplay is engaging, the design is simple and elegant, and I daresay there’s no more satisfying sound than the click of a well-earned sphere hitting the tray, freed. What a treat.

Strata Sphere is for ages 8 and up, available now from Family Games America.

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It’s Follow-Up Friday: Schools and Spheres edition!

Welcome to Follow-Up Friday!

By this time, you know the drill. Follow-Up Friday is a chance for us to revisit the subjects of previous posts and bring the PuzzleNation audience up to speed on all things puzzly.

And today, I’d like to return to the subject of Kickstarter philanthropy!

[Image credit: for-preneur]

I’ve written about crowdfunding a lot in this blog, because over the last few years, platforms like Kickstarter and Indiegogo have changed how many puzzles and games are created, funded, and brought to market.

There’s a virtual board game and card game renaissance stemming from these websites, and many puzzle constructors are bypassing traditional publishing formats and taking their puzzle suites and projects straight to the audience this way.

But there’s also the opportunity to give back to your community in meaningful ways.

I recently stumbled across the Kickstarter campaign for StrataSphere, a strategy puzzle game from Family Games America that really caught my eye.

Like a next-level version of Connect Four and KerPlunk, StrataSphere challenges you to place your sliding tabs in various slots around the cube, then use them to drop your spheres to the bottom layer first.

But what most intrigued me about the project wasn’t the puzzle itself, but one of the crowdfunding options being offered. Instead of just pledging for a copy of the game for yourself, you could pledge a little more money and donate a copy of the game in your name to a school of your choosing. Puzzle philanthropy.

I reached out to the team at FGA to find out more about the project, and had the opportunity to chat with Paulette Hall, communications director for FGA.

Where did the idea for StrataSphere come from?

The game was originally envisioned and developed by German designer Claudia Herz, who originally named it BallCube. Claudia remembers that after spending time sketching and offering the idea to other game publishers she finally made a handmade sample of acrylic glass and presented it at a trade-show not too far from her home.

The reaction and feedback was overwhelming. People wanted to know everything about the game and know where it can be purchased. This is what encouraged her to pursue the project. With a combination of inspiration from Claudia and outer-space, we renamed the game StrataSphere 2.0.

For people unfamiliar with FGA, what sort of puzzles and puzzle-games are your bread and butter? Is StrataSphere a traditional FGA-style puzzle, or is it a new direction for you?

FGA’s tag-line, Learning Through Laughter, has been been incorporated into all of our gift, game, and puzzle products since being established in 1987. StrataSphere 2.0 is not so much a puzzle but a strategy tabletop game that is a more contemporary modern addition to our line of products.

Our more popular items include eco-friendly wooden games and puzzles like Cathedral, Don’t Break The Bottle, and our wood and wire puzzles. While this strategy game is new to FGA, FGA is not new to strategy games.

The option for supporters to donate an additional copy to a school of their choosing is one I’ve never seen before, and I’m surprised more Kickstarter campaigns haven’t utilized it. Is this the first product that has incorporated this sort of program? Is this a long-term goal for FGA going forward?

FGA helped raise funds for actor Ted Danson’s American Oceans Campaign in the late ’80s and early ’90s with their environmental games and puzzles such as Endangered and Colorful Kingdom. A percentage of sales was also given to the ASPCA.

Donations of FGA products go out yearly to schools and organizations. A big part of FGA is our ability to give back, and we wanted to start 2016 with a campaign that will help us continue to do that. Our students are our future, and the state of our school systems has geared our focus of this campaign to get valuable learning material back into our schools and into their hands.

I think this is not only a really exciting puzzle game, but a worthwhile cause as well. You can check out all the details on the StrataSphere Kickstarter page. They’re more than halfway to their funding goal, and I sincerely hope they make it there and beyond.

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Puppy Puzzling!

Most of the time when I write about puzzles, I write about humans solving them, because we are, by a long shot, the biggest consumers of puzzles and games in the world.

But, from time to time, I learn about other species that also have a knack for solving puzzles, and I welcome them to the puzzle-solving community. In the past, we’ve talked about crows, cockatoos, and octopuses solving various mechanical puzzles.

And then a friend of the blog brought another puzzle-solving species to my attention: dogs!

I shouldn’t have been surprised by this. After all, one of my dogs has a knack for getting his tennis ball stuck in the strangest corners and beneath furniture that shouldn’t allow a tennis ball at all!

So I did a little research, and it turns out, there’s an entire puzzle-solving industry devoted entirely to dogs. They’re almost exclusively mechanical puzzles with food rewards, just like the puzzles we’ve seen birds and octopuses solve, but they involve the same sort of step-by-step chain puzzle-solving. And some of it gets pretty complicated!

There are one-step devices, like the Trixie Dog Activity Poker Box, which involves four boxes that open in different ways.

There are two-step devices, like the Jigsaw Glider, which requires the dog to open pieces on either side and then shift the center piece back and forth in order to nab every treat inside.

In a similar vein, there’s the Doggy Brain Train 2-in-1, a food-centric version of a sliding tile puzzle, where the dog must deduce that there’s food beneath each disk, and slide the disks aside to acquire the treats beneath.

And the puzzles only grow more complex from there. In the Dog Activity Gambling Tower, the dog has to pull away three floor pieces in order to make the treats drop, like a snacky version of Ker-Plunk.

Various companies produce each of these products. But the queen of puppy puzzles is clearly Nina Ottosson, who has a fleet of food-puzzle products to put your puppy to the test.

Check out this one, the MixMax Puzzle B:

It’s the second difficulty level in a series of toys, where the dog has to rotate the center piece, push out one of the cones (with treats inside), rotate the piece again, and finally free the cone and the treats. That is a LOT of work for a few treats.

She also has ones where the dog has to remove one element to unlock a little drawer containing a treat. In this video, a dog named Amos solves the Dog Casino, a Nina Ottosson food-puzzle toy that uses this puzzle style:

We can officially add dogs to the elite puzzle-solving ranks of crows, cockatoos, octopuses, and humans, though I must admit, it’s a little embarrassing to realize that those other four species are all smart enough to do their own puzzle-solving for treats. No one ever gives me a treat for solving a puzzle.

Hmmm. Maybe they’re even smarter than we thought.

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!