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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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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PuzzleNation Product Review: ThinkFun’s Laser Maze Jr.

Whether you’re unraveling locks and ropes in Houdini, bending gravity to your will in Gravity Maze, making music note-by-note with Compose Yourself, or mastering the basics of programming in Robot Turtles, playing with the puzzle games by ThinkFun always encourages you to learn while you solve.

Today, we see if Laser Maze Jr. matches the high standard set by those other puzzly products.

Now, for those of you familiar with the original Laser Maze, you might be expecting a simplified version, akin to the Jr. versions of Rush Hour or other puzzle games where the difficulty lessens but the game remains the same. Worry not. Laser Maze Jr. is actually a heavy redesign that keeps the best aspects of the original and tailors itself to players as young as 6, both in gameplay and in safety.

Perhaps the biggest change from the original is the board itself.

Not only is the laser fixed in place, but the board is surrounded by red plastic barriers that both protect young eyes and highlight where the beam is projecting at any given time. You would have to seriously tamper with the game to endanger your eyes with this layout; with the original, there was a greater (though still quite slim) chance that unmonitored gameplay could lead to an accident.

The laser also has a switch instead of a button to press, so if you choose, you can leave the laser on and see the beam’s path change as you add elements to the game board. As a learning tool, this is a super-helpful feature for younger minds. (The original encouraged more of a wait-and-see approach to placing the elements.)

The final change to the board’s layout involves the cards that provide the specifics of each puzzle. Instead of small cards that tell you which elements are fixed and which you add in order to solve the puzzle and light up the targets, the new cards actually slide into place beneath the board, showing you where to place the set pieces. Again, ease of setup and play is a main consideration.

The game pieces also got retooled. Instead of the gateway piece that players had to direct the laser beam through en route to the targets, Laser Maze Jr. has large rocks that block the laser’s path. This is a simple, effective way of providing obstacles for younger solvers to overcome.

The three light-up targets have been replaced with two light-up rockets. While this does eliminate some of the most complex puzzles from the original game, that’s forgivable, given that this is intended for younger solvers.

I was slightly disappointed with the laser, though. It’s less powerful than the previous one (either that or the rockets don’t light up as brightly as the original targets), and to be honest, part of the appeal of the puzzle is seeing your targets light up when you’re done!

[Taken at night with most of the lights off. Unless you’re willing to play in near-darkness — and use the night feature on your camera — the end result won’t be as bright.]

The 40 puzzles (2 on each challenge card) range from easy to super-hard, and solving them in order is a great way to slowly introduce new players to the game. Although “super-hard” is clearly a ranking for kids, not adults, the challenge of placing the beam splitter properly and avoiding the rocks is still a lot of fun for an older solver.

(Be careful when getting started, though; one of the explanatory graphics in the instructions is wrong. ThinkFun is aware of the error, and they’ll be correcting it on their next printing.)

In the end, I was pretty impressed with Laser Maze Jr. and the many changes made to tailor it to younger solvers, both in terms of safety and gameplay. While the laser is a little underwhelming, it doesn’t impact the gameplay too much, and the same solid foundation of logic and experimentation that drove the fun of the original is alive and well here.


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