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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PuzzleNation Reviews: Laser Maze

Here at the PuzzleNation blog, we love spreading the word about great new puzzle-solving experiences of all sorts, so when the creative folks at ThinkFun passed along a free copy of their latest puzzle game, Laser Maze, we were all for testing it out.

And I’m pleased to say that Laser Maze is a terrific puzzle game.

The concept is deceptively simple. All you have to do is set up the mirrors, gateways, and other game pieces and light up your targets with the laser. Some pieces allow you to bounce the beam at a right angle, others allow you to split the beam in two, and still others can double as both reflecting mirrors and light up targets. An impressive amount of adaptability is packed into 11 game pieces.

There are 60 challenge cards that range in difficulty from beginner to expert. In the earliest challenges, there are only a few pieces on the game board, and you’re given both their location and the direction each piece faces, and it’s up to you to complete the laser’s path by adding only the pieces listed on the card.

In later challenges, you get less information. You might know a piece’s location on the board, but you don’t know which direction it should face. The number of targets to light up with the laser increases, and the solutions become more complex.

laser maze 2

But the genius of Laser Maze is that the beginner and intermediate puzzles teach you the fundamentals necessary to tackle the harder puzzles to come. Like the best puzzle games, Laser Maze allows you to learn by doing, building your skills, your deductive reasoning, and your bag of game-piece-centric tricks as you become more proficient at using the mirrors and beam-splitters to direct the laser precisely where you need it.

Plus, the gameplay itself is intuitive. With just a brief skim of the instructions and a minute to familiarize myself with the symbols key for the puzzles, I was in.

I played through a number of beginner, intermediate, advanced, and expert puzzles. As a pretty puzzle-savvy guy, I expected to breeze through the early challenges, but a few of the intermediate puzzles made me pause and restrategize. By the time my confidence grew and I was sure none of the intermediate puzzles would stymie me, I still didn’t WANT to move on to the next level. I was having too much fun.

I progressed through the advanced challenges and into the expert puzzles, and then went back to the intermediate puzzles to test the game’s replay value. And that’s when I discovered another facet of Laser Maze.

Once you’ve solved a given puzzle, you clear the board and prepare for the next one. By design, you start with a clean slate. But you’re also forced to completely ignore any preconceived notions you have about the puzzle to come, because each one has its own challenges.

As I played through puzzles I knew I’d played before, they still FELT like fresh challenges, because of the sheer adaptability of the game pieces. This wasn’t going to end up a one-time playing experience.

You’ll no doubt note similarities between Laser Maze and the popular game Khet, which also features a laser. That’s to be expected, since they were both invented by devious puzzlesmith Luke Hooper. But while Khet is a strategy game to played against an opponent, Laser Maze pits a single player against the game itself. It’s a learning experience disguised as an incredibly fun game.

Plus, every time I’ve played, I’ve attracted family and friends as onlookers and collaborators. It might be designed for one player, but it’s hardly a solitary endeavor.

Of course, I’m covering the gameplay as an adult solver, and Laser Maze is designed for ages 8 and up. (Plus, there’s an actual REAL laser, so safety first, fellow solvers.)

Fellow PuzzleNationer Fred took the game home and unleashed his kids on the game, and as you can see, he had ample time to snap a pic of his very focused son Max, ready to activate the laser and solve his latest challenge.

All in all, Laser Maze is both great fun and an engaging puzzle-solving experience. ThinkFun really knocked it out of the park with this one.

(Check out Laser Maze on ThinkFun or on Amazon!)