PuzzleNation Product Review: Domino Maze

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

What is it about dominoes that makes watching them fall such a satisfying experience? Is it the meticulous prep work required for a domino display? The balance and hand-eye coordination required to place each one? The danger of upsetting the whole thing before all the pieces are in place? The potential energy harnessed and ready to be unleashed as soon as the last domino is set up?

Whatever it is, it makes for one heck of a conclusion to a logic puzzle.

The creative minds at ThinkFun have conjured up a delightful twist on their traditional complete-the-path brand of logic puzzles, incorporating not just gravity, but the click-clack cacophony of a chain reaction in a new challenge for younger puzzlers and more experienced ones alike.

In today’s product review, we’re taking a look at Domino Maze.

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[One Challenge Card’s preset pieces in place. Note the three gates, each already balanced to topple over when the domino path crosses through.]

Domino Maze builds on the usual domino-stacking skills and tricks — splitting the path, making sharp turns, redirecting kinetic energy — by adding sequential gates that your domino path must pass through in order to complete each challenge.

The gates are numbered one through three, indicating the order in which you must hit your targets. (The gates are carefully balanced, so when a domino hits the target, the weight on top flips over, raising the numbered flap high AND knocking over the next domino in your chain.)

Similar to other ThinkFun games, the puzzle includes Challenge Cards, which increase in difficulty as you work your way through the deck. Beginner and Intermediate Challenges give way later to Advanced and Expert puzzles that will have you wracking your brain to employ the required number of dominoes, build your path, and hit the gates in precise order.

Note: Be aware that you need a completely flat surface for this game. The grooves will hold the domino, but the slightest mistake could send them tumbling. That’s particularly true when the staircases are involved. There’s no need to add a level of frustration beyond the natural challenge of the game by fighting gravity AND the designers’ puzzles.

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The Beginner-level cards are your introduction to the puzzle, taking you through the motions of how to place the dominoes, utilizing the numerous grooves in both the base and the elevated platform. As you proceed, the game adds new wrinkles to the game, like using the two pivot pieces (allowing you to change direction in a single move), splitting your path with the diagonal grooves.

That elevated platform is an especially devious and clever addition, since it not only requires more dominoes (to traverse one or both of the staircases that connects the platform to the base), but requires multi-dimensional thinking, like starting your path underneath the platform versus atop the platform. In this manner of solving, Domino Maze echoes other top-down logic puzzles in the ThinkFun library like Gravity Maze and Roller Coaster Challenge.

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[Two different angles of the same Challenge Card, mid-solve.]

You also slowly develop a sense of what I call “domino math,” the ability to look at the number of dominoes you have to work with, and immediately limit your choices and potential solutions based on what you know. For instance, three dominoes in a straightaway can cover half the board, but it costs three dominoes to make a 90-degree turn in one square, so you begin to recognize where resources MUST go vs. where they COULD go.

That’s a huge benefit down the line, when your dominoes (through splits and other maneuvers) must maximize their usefulness. It seems daunting when you look at a Challenge Card and see that you have to place 18 dominoes, but honestly, that’s less intimidating than looking at a card with gates scattered all over, and seeing you only have seven or eight dominoes to work with.

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But whether you’re a younger puzzler just getting started with logics, an experienced puzzler who likes the idea of combining a little hand-eye coordination with your solving, or a domino enthusiast looking for a new challenge, you’re bound to find the ever-escalating gameplay of Domino Maze to be a treat. (And just imagine the challenging pathways you could construct with two sets. Or a Rube Goldberg device made of ThinkFun puzzles.)

Watching those dominoes fall and those gates flip with the push of a single fingertip is a very fun and satisfying way to confirm that your puzzling skills are up to snuff. Plus there’s the sound, and the tactile sense of accomplishment with a path well-deduced and well-built.

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Very few puzzles offer that kind of fanfare for a proper solve, and the logical foundation behind cause-and-effect is rarely as enjoyable as it is in Domino Maze.

Domino Maze is available from ThinkFun and other participating retailers.


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PuzzleNation Product Review: Invasion of the Cow Snatchers

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

Nobody does deduction and logic puzzle games quite like the folks at ThinkFun. We’ve wielded lasers, electrical circuits, robots, and even putty in order to conquer some of their most recent and diabolical puzzles. But they always have some new tricks up their sleeves, and their latest offering is positively magnetic.

So join us as we give the full PuzzleNation Blog review treatment to Invasion of the Cow Snatchers, a puzzle game all about bringing species together… with magnets.

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The challenge is deceptively simple: you’re an alien, and your job is to maneuver your UFO around the farm and pick up all of the cows, then finally the bull, before leaving the area.

Sounds easy, right? You’re a member of an advanced alien species, you can travel the galaxy. Picking up a few curious Earth creatures should be a cakewalk.

Well, obviously, the crew at ThinkFun already thought of that. And you’ll have plenty of obstacles to navigate and overcome before you can complete your task. Not only is there a silo you can never pass over, but there are barriers of varying heights that can impede your path.

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[Here, we’ve captured one cow, so we can pass over the green row of crops. In the second pic, we’ve captured our second cow. In the background, you can see the silo (which we can’t pass at all) and the white fence, which we can pass over with up to 2 cows.]

For instance, if you’ve already captured one cow, you can’t carry it over a barn wall, but you can carry it over the row of crops. (The walls allow between 0 and 3 cows to be carried over them, depending on their height.)

Note: Be aware that you need a completely flat surface for this game. The magnets are powerful, and they’re liable to shift and move when the UFO comes near. The bull is especially prone to this.

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Each Challenge Card requires you to navigate the grid in a specific way in order to capture all of the cows and be successful. After all, once a cow is captured, you can’t drop it. Demanding that the bull be collected last adds another wrinkle to the gameplay, since you cannot pass over the bull until all of the cows are collected, which requires creative thinking and good planning.

Honestly, I can’t think of another ThinkFun puzzle to date that requires this much movement or utilizes the full space of the board as effectively as Invasion of the Cow Snatchers.

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[Continuing the challenge card from above, we pass over the white fence, pick up our third cow, and pass over the hay bales, before rounding the corner, capturing the bull last, and making our escape.]

Finally, you have to escape the board, and there are no walls that allow you to pass with more than three captured cow tokens, so your escape route also has to be considered.

The Challenge Cards increase in difficulty as you work your way through the deck. Easy and Medium Challenges give way later to Hard and Super Hard puzzles that will have you wracking your brain to stealthily maneuver your UFO around the farm setting.

This is probably my favorite design I’ve seen from ThinkFun. The clever use of magnets, the plastic casing that separates the UFO from the rest of the board, and the impressive variety of challenges they’ve conjured with relatively few obstacles makes for a game with tons of replay value and puzzles that are always engaging, never frustrating. You KNOW there’s a path to victory. You just have to be cagey enough to find it.

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Oh, and remember how I said you can’t drop any of the cows? Well, you can if you accept the challenge of the twenty Genius level Challenge Cards that are also included. These cards utilize everything you’ve learned up to this point, but add crop circles where you can drop off cows (but not the bull) temporarily.

Why? Because it’s not just about capturing all of the cows, then the bull, then escaping. Now you must capture the cows in a very specific order. (Suddenly, the color coding of the cow tokens becomes more than a fun design choice. It becomes an integral part of the puzzle.)

This new gameplay option completely reinvents the concept. Before, it didn’t matter what in order you captured the cows, only that you got them all. It almost feels like you’re starting over from scratch, because the walls aren’t the primary obstacle anymore (though they can still offer some intriguing challenges to this new gameplay model).

The crop circles are another delightfully tongue-in-cheek addition to the already fun design of the game, playing nicely on the alien abduction gimmick.


All in all, I was thoroughly impressed by ThinkFun’s latest logic puzzle game. The concept is hilarious, the colorful and clever pieces make for fun reactive gameplay, and the puzzles are harder than you’d expect. Watching the cows fly up and snap! against the plastic as the UFO captures them never gets old!

It’s simple enough for the youngest puzzlers to get into, but there’s plenty here for parents and older puzzlers as well. (Some of the Genius level Challenge Cards really tax your brainpower!)

[Invasion of the Cow Snatchers is for ages 6 and up, available from ThinkFun and other participating retailers.]


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PuzzleNation Product Review: Chroma Cube

[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.]

As longtime readers know, puzzle games centering around logic and deduction can come in many different forms, from cats milling around a living room to abstract shapes interacting in curious ways. They often have many moving parts and solving mechanics to keep in mind.

But other logic puzzles strip away flashy trappings and overly elaborate designs and take a minimalistic approach to puzzling. The subject of today’s product review, Chroma Cube, falls neatly into the latter category.

Chroma Cube boils a deduction puzzle down to its essentials, employing pleasing design that seems basic, but allows for great depth and challenge nonetheless. All you need to tackle Chroma Cube is a game board, twelve colored cubes, and your challenge cards.

The object of the puzzle is simple: complete each challenge card by placing all 12 cubes in the correct positions on the board.

Most of the challenge cards place some of the colored cubes for you to get your started. Once you’ve set up your board to match the starting pattern on the card, it’s up to you to use the clues provided to figure out how to place the remaining cubes.

The challenge cards ease the solver into the puzzle at first, relying mostly on clues about positioning on the board, referring to rows, columns, and neighboring cubes.

As you might expect, with each new challenge card, the puzzles increase in difficulty, and the clues grow more complex and inventive. Some refer to colors only by the first letters — leaving you to ponder whether it applies to Brown or Black, for instance) — while others offer contextual clues, like a rule that the cubes in each row should be in alphabetical order from the left to right.

A few even rely on knowledge outside the puzzle game itself, like knowing the colors in the Irish flag. These clues are rarer, but add a nice bit of crossword-style flavor to an otherwise Sudoku-like solving experience.

The team at Project Genius did an excellent job of keeping the clues fresh and interesting, constantly introducing new rules and wrinkles to the puzzles. By the time you’re encountering puzzles with no set cubes, or ones that require you to swap set cubes with newly placed cubes — a very clever twist on the idea of “set” pieces — you realize that no matter how many tricks you’ve figured out, the challenge cards have new ones waiting for you.

(Naturally, these are only some of the clue mechanics you’ll encounter. I don’t want to spoil some of the really inventive and challenging ones.)

Chroma Cube’s later challenge cards offer plenty of difficulty and cluing craftiness to keep established puzzlers coming back for more, but without alienating new solvers that have developed and honed their deductive talents by playing through the game’s earlier scenarios.

I was thoroughly impressed by how much the creative team at Project Genius got out of 12 colored cubes and a wooden board to place them on.

Not only that, but the game is beautiful, eye-catching in its presentation. The wooden pieces have a weight to them, and solving is a delightfully tactile experience. (The challenge cards can be tucked away in a slot within the board, making it a breeze to move around the house.

Heck, you could easily leave it on your coffee table as a puzzly conversation piece and it wouldn’t look out of place.

Chroma Cube is a wonderfully visual take on classic deduction-style solving, one that will keep you on your toes from the first challenge card to the last.

Chroma Cube, distributed by Project Genius, is available at Barnes & Noble and other participating retailers.


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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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PuzzleNation Product Review: ThinkFun’s Kaleidoscope Puzzle

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

Clear, or transparent, cards are a rarity in puzzles and games, but they offer a terrific gameplay mechanic: the ability to stack cards without obscuring information.

The clear cards in the storytelling game Gloom allow players to add and subtract points from various characters as the grim and whimsical stories unfold. The quick-play pattern-matching game On the Dot — which was part of last month’s Tabletop Tournament — challenges players to properly arrange four clear cards — each with randomly-placed colored dots — in order to match a given pattern before their opponents do.

Now, the creative minds at ThinkFun have put a wonderful, vibrant twist on the clear-card genre of puzzles and games with their latest release: Kaleidoscope Puzzle.

[Two of the six kaleidoscope tiles.]

In Kaleidoscope Puzzle, you have six octagonal tiles, each with its own pattern of tinted and clear quadrants. It’s up to the solver to arrange either two or three of the six tiles in order to recreate the patterns on the challenge cards.

First off, I want to say that this might be the most aesthetically pleasing puzzle I’ve ever solved. Just turning the kaleidoscope cards in my hands in front of a light is enjoyable, letting the snowflake-patterning on each card blur and come into focus anew as the cards line up, each time matching and mixing the various colored quadrants to create eye-catching effects. It’s brilliant in its simplicity, and unlike any color-based puzzle I’ve seen on the market today.

It almost feels like putting together a stained-glass window, particularly as the challenge cards progress and the patterns grow more elaborate.

[One possible combination of those two tiles.]

The Beginner challenge cards help to familiarize you with the gameplay. You quickly figure out placement and color combinations. As you transition into the Intermediate challenge cards, the patterns grow more elaborate, and honestly, more beautiful. It’s amazing the combinations you can conjure with just two of the six possible kaleidoscope tiles!

Halfway through the Intermediate challenge cards, they ratchet up both the possibilities and the difficulty, as you now have to create the patterns with three kaleidoscope tiles. Now you’re trying to cover all four quadrants with color patterns, and it becomes about maximizing what each tile offers.

But it’s in the Advanced challenge cards that the game really separates itself from On the Dot-style solving, because Kaleidoscope puzzle has the color-mixing element as well. Not only are you manipulating the kaleidoscope tiles to place the basic colors where you need them, but you also need to create green, orange, and purple patterns as well.

Toward the end of the Advanced challenge cards, you start to deal with eighths instead of quadrants, divvying up the field into increasingly more complicated designs, reminiscent of pie charts.

Sometimes, you might discover alternate ways to form the patterns, which is very satisfying indeed. It also speaks to how adaptable the six kaleidoscope tiles are, since you can arrange them in seemingly endless combinations.

By the time you reach the Expert challenge cards, you’ll be turning, flipping, and rearranging these tiles like crazy to form the intricate patterns on the cards. It’s an unexpectedly relaxing form of puzzling, a meditative mix of challenge and aesthetics.

[The same pattern coming to life under a desk lamp.]

I cannot say enough good things about this puzzle. Mixing the resource management of how to get the most out of each tile you choose with the striking visuals of the kaleidoscope tiles makes for a unique solving experience.

Puzzles that are as satisfying to look at after the solve as they are to solve in the first place… that’s a true rarity. What a treat.

[Kaleidoscope Puzzle is available from ThinkFun and participating retailers, starting at $9.99!]


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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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