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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A Deduction Puzzle for Independence Day!

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[Image courtesy of NWI Times.]

It’s Independence Day, and is there any better way to celebrate the history of America than with a little deduction puzzle based on some classic American symbols? I hardly think so!

Good luck and Happy Fourth of July!


To celebrate America’s birthday, a group of five enthusiastic vexillologists — devotees of the study of flags — decided to stage five days of presentations about different flags from American history.

Each person presented a different flag’s history each day (the thirteen-star flag, the fifty-star flag, the Don’t Tread on Me flag, the Marine Corps flag, or the Coast Guard flag), and the presentations were performed in a different order each day (first, second, third, fourth, or fifth).

Each vexillologist presented one flag per day, and none of them repeated a flag presentation across the five days. Similarly, none of the flag presentations happened in the same order each day. So, for instance, if a flag was first in the order on July 3rd, it wouldn’t be first in the order any other day.

Can you complete the schedule of flag presentations below?

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Are you having any puzzly celebrations for Independence Day? Let us know in the comments section below, we’d love to hear from you!


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PuzzleNation Product Review: Thinking Putty Puzzle

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

ThinkFun has been pushing the envelope for years when it comes to logic puzzles. Whether we’re talking lasers, electrical circuits, colors, shadows, or gravity, they continue to find innovative ways to test the puzzly skills of their customers.

And the subject of today’s review is no exception. It takes a very simple idea — connecting colored dots on a grid — and adds a tactile, intriguing twist.

Let’s take a closer look at their newest offering, Thinking Putty Puzzle.

In Thinking Putty Puzzle, the solver has to connect the colored dots to their matching counterparts on the grid. They do so by bending, stretching, and shaping packets of putty into lines that connect the dots.

But those paths cannot cross. That would be too easy. Instead, the solver must map out how to connect the dots without crossing.

(There are bridge pieces that allow the putty paths to pass over or under each other, but otherwise, the paths cannot interact.)

And so, a simple connect-the-dots game becomes an engaging puzzle that involves careful planning and use of the grid space.

It looks like a lot of available space, but it fills up faster than you’d think with six paths to draw.

As you can see, the puzzle consists of a playing grid (which doubles as storage for the game and the putties), six colors of Crazy Aaron’s Thinking Putty (including a ThinkFun exclusive Binary Blue color), three bridge pieces, three blocking pieces (representing obstacles to be circumvented), and the 60 challenge cards.

The Challenge Cards 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 twist, turn, and maneuver your six putty paths around the playing grid.

Each Challenge Card tells you where to place the colored dots to connect, as well as any bridge or blocking pieces are part of the grid.

From there, it’s all up to you. How do you proceed with 12 points to connect?

Maybe you start by connecting the nearest ones in order to figure out how to best use the remaining space.

Or perhaps you work out which dots will need to use the outermost paths and place those, so that the interior remains open for trickier maneuvering.

It’s easy to pull the putty until it’s stringy, which makes it harder to manipulate. Instead, I found it worked best to pull quickly and forcefully, almost suddenly, rather than gradually. It makes quite a satisfying SNAP sound when you’ve done it right, and there’s no stringy mess to clean up.

Also, be careful to avoid letting the various colors touch. The putty happily sticks to itself, so any pieces that intermingle are VERY difficult to separate.

That being said, the putty doesn’t adhere at all to the playing area, making the set up for the next puzzle — or clean up when you’re done puzzling — easy as could be.

(I, for one, was grateful that the sparkles in the Binary Blue didn’t rub off. When I first saw the glitter, it gave me Christmas card flashbacks.)

In terms of the actual puzzle-solving, strategy plays a bigger role here than you might expect. Honestly, it’s more like playing Risk or Chess than your solving usual logic puzzle.

For instance, once you’ve placed the red path in our example, your eyes naturally turn to the upper left corner, where green, orange, and yellow dots await. You need to place the green path in such a way that it doesn’t block or cut off access to the yellow or orange dots.

By thinking about the spaces needed to get in or out of those dots, it helps you eliminate bad paths to take, because in this puzzle, knowing where your path SHOULDN’T be is just as valuable as knowing where it should be.

Thinking Putty Puzzle takes the satisfaction of jigsaws and other physical puzzles to another level. While placing a jigsaw puzzle piece is cool, it’s not as cool as kneading the colored putty into a new path and tracing it onto the grid as part of your solve.

I expected to get a little bored with it after a while, but I didn’t. Watching the grid fill up with completed paths and seeing the puzzle come together never got old. On the contrary, the escalating difficulty made it all the more fulfilling to conquer each card and squish the putty back into a single lump while I prepped the next Challenge Card.

So, if you’re looking for a fun and accessible way to get younger solvers into puzzles — or you just prefer your logic puzzles to be more hands-on than the usual pencil-and-paper variety — then you’re sure to enjoy Thinking Putty Puzzle.

[Thinking Putty Puzzle is available from ThinkFun and other participating retailers.]


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The Gold Bar Logic Puzzle!

[Image courtesy of Pinterest.]

As many of our long-time readers know, we’re happy to accept the challenge of any brain teaser, riddle, mind tickler, or puzzle that is bedeviling one of our fellow PuzzleNationers.

So when someone suggested that I tackle the Birthday Paradox brain teaser, I said it was a terrific idea for a post. (As such, I mentioned it in the Facebook post I write every Monday running down the upcoming blog posts for the week.)

I sat down to write it… and I had this unshakable sense of deja vu. I thought maybe I was just overly familiar with the topic, since I’ve explained it to other puzzle fans before, just not here.

But the idea just kept nagging at me. And with good reason.

A quick blog search later, and it turns out the Birthday Paradox brain teaser is a terrific idea for a post. Which is why I wrote a blog post about it. Nearly four years ago.

My apologies to everyone expecting the Birthday Paradox brain teaser today, but I’d rather not double-down on this faux pas.

Thankfully, that wasn’t the only brain teaser someone has suggested to me recently.

[Image courtesy of Law.com.]

So, in lieu of a brain teaser we’ve already covered, let’s look at another devious brain teaser. Join me as we tackle the challenge of the Gold Bar Logic Puzzle.

You’re out traveling and stumble upon a quaint little hotel.

You decide to stay there for seven nights. For some reason, the only currency you have with you is a solid gold bar that is notched into seven separate segments, sort of like a candy bar.

[Kinda like this. But gold.
Image courtesy of American Icons Temple.]

Luckily, the front desk agrees to let you pay in gold segments. You need to pay the hotel daily for each night you stay.

What is the fewest number of times you must cut your gold bar so that one segment is paid to the hotel every day?

I’ll give you some time to consider the puzzle before breaking down the answer for you.

Good luck!

Hint: You are allowed to ask for change, but the only gold they have is what you’ve given them. This isn’t a quaint little inn in Dubai.

And no, you can’t just give the hotel clerk the whole bar (or what hasn’t been cut off previously) each day and make the clerk do the cutting. The whole idea is that you’re the one doing the cutting.

Did you get it? Good!

And if not, no worries, I’ll meet you halfway.

The answer is two cuts. Just two.

Can you figure out how to cut the gold bar to make your stay work out?

Okay, hopefully you’ve unraveled the puzzle by now, because it’s answer time. Here we go!

You need to cut the gold bar in order to pay the clerk each night, but you don’t need to waste a lot of time slicing through gold. You just need to be clever in how you distribute it.

  • Night One: Cut off one notch of gold from your bar and pay the clerk. You have 6 notches of gold left.
  • Night Two: Cut off two notches of gold from your bar and pay the clerk. Since you’ve paid double, the clerk gives you back your notch from Night One as change. You have 5 notches of gold left (the block of 4 notches and the single notch).
  • Night Three: Pay the clerk with the single notch of gold. You have 4 notches of gold left (in one uncut block).
  • Night Four: Pay the clerk with your four-notch bar of gold. Since you’ve overpaid, the clerk gives you back your notch from Night Three and the two-notch block from Night Two. You have 3 notches of gold left.
  • Night Five: Pay the clerk with the single notch of gold. You have 2 notches of gold left (in one uncut block).
  • Night Six: Pay the clerk with the two-notch block of gold. Again, you’ve paid double, so the clerk gives you back your single-notch block.
  • Night Seven: Pay the clerk with the single notch of gold.

Two cuts, seven nights. Pretty efficient if you ask me!


So, how did you do? Let us know in the comments below, we’d love to hear from you!

[Note: In doing a little research, it appears this logic puzzle was created by Ray Epstein and Ben Kovler, and it appears in their book Fundrum My Conundrum: A Book of Riddles.]


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PuzzleNation Product Review: Zendo Expansion

[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.]

Expansion sets have become an integral part of the gaming experience. Whether they offer new wrinkles to an established game, allow you to add additional players, or create new ways to use the same game pieces, they revitalize games that might’ve become less fun or interesting after lots of play.

It’s difficult to strike a balance with expansion sets, since they must respect the game that came before and add to it in a meaningful way, but without introducing any game-breaking mechanics or otherwise compromising what made the original game fun in the first place.

The designers at Looney Labs are absolute pros when it comes to balancing their expansion packs. Each one enhances the gameplay without sacrificing any of the original game’s clarity or cohesiveness.

In the past, we’ve looked at Looney Labs expansions like Fluxx Dice (which add further mayhem to an already chaotic game of Fluxx), the Just Coffee and Better with Bacon expansions for Just Desserts (which add new dishes and characters to deepen gameplay options), and the Bridge Expansion for Star Trek Fluxx and Star Trek: The Next Generation Fluxx (which allow you to combine both games into one).

Today, we’re looking at an expansion pack for one of the company’s most immersive and challenging puzzle games: Zendo.

In Zendo, the players pull pieces from a communal pile in order to build different structures, using pyramids, wedges, and blocks. One player, the moderator, chooses a secret rule for the players to uncover, and builds two structures. One of these structures follows the secret rule, and one does not, and both are marked as such.

Secret rules can be as simple as “must contain all three shapes” or “must contain exactly four pieces.” They can be as complex as “must contain more blue pieces than blocks” or “must contain at least one yellow piece pointing at a blue piece.” Some rules involve how pieces touch, or how they’re stacked, while others demand no touching or stacking whatsoever. The field is wide open at the start of the game.

Players then try to deduce the secret rule by building structures themselves, arranging pieces from the communal pile into various patterns and asking the moderator for more information.

So, how does the Zendo Expansion affect the original?

[The gray areas of the card are variable options to choose from, meaning each card offers several different possible rules depending on the moderator’s choices.]

The Zendo Expansion is a ten-card deck of new secret rule cards that allow the moderator to create more complex and challenging structures for the other players to unravel.

But these ten cards offer much more than just the rules themselves. They encourage both the moderator and the players to be more creative, considering not just the shapes and how they interact, but the overall look of the structure.

One of the cards requires players to shape the structure’s shadow into a given shape. Moving beyond the pieces themselves and incorporating the light and shadow of the play area is a clever and unexpected way to use the Zendo pieces.

It immediately sends your brain in new directions, both as a player trying to deduce other secret rules in later game sessions and as a moderator looking for new ways to prove or disprove players’ theories with your own builds.

Not only does the Expansion deck add all sorts of new twists on the original game, but it makes you want to be more ambitious and clever in your guesses and structures the more you play.

With new rule cards ranging from easy to difficult, players of all skill levels will benefit from adding this set of cards to their puzzle game arsenal.

Zendo and the Zendo Expansion are available from Looney Labs, and both are featured in this year’s Holiday Puzzly Gift Guide!


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