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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Solo Solving and Single-Player Board Game Fun!

Have you ever been in the mood to play a board game or do some non-paper-and-pencil puzzling, but you don’t have anyone around to play with?

Well, there’s no reason to fret, fellow puzzlers, as there are plenty of options out there for solo gamers and puzzlers.

Today, we’d like to suggest a few options for a terrific single-player solving experience!


The Abandons

I’ll start us off with one of our most recently reviewed games. The Abandons is a one-player maze game where you’re exploring a labyrinth that’s different every time you play. You’re at the mercy of the draw pile for the most part, but the more you play, the better you get at managing your meager resources and exploring the seemingly endless corridors. Can you find your way out?

[If you’re looking for a similar gaming experience, you can also try One Deck Dungeon or Brad Hough’s The Maze.]

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Puzzometry

For a more traditional solving experience, Puzzometry presents classic puzzle-solving with a modern twist. This next-level jigsaw-style solving will push your Tetris skills as you twist, turn, and maneuver the pieces into seemingly endless combinations, trying to find the one solution that completes the grid.

There are several different Puzzometry puzzles — the standard one, an easier junior one, and a squares-based one — but each offers its own challenges.

Knot Dice

Can you twist, turn, and spin these dice to complete beautiful, elaborate patterns inspired by Celtic knots? That’s the name of the game with Knot Dice, a dice game as challenging as it is gorgeous.

This is one of those games I find tremendously relaxing as I trace the various patterns and try to form different designs.

Chroma Cube

Deduction puzzles have never been so colorful! Each challenge card offers a different layout of set cubes, along with clues to unravel in order to place all twelve cubes. The clues grow trickier with every card, ensuring that you’ll constantly find new challenges as you solve.

Thinking Putty Puzzle

Our friends at ThinkFun are masters at putting together single-player puzzle-game experiences, and Thinking Putty Puzzle is just one example. It sounds simple at first: connect two colored dots with a length of stretchable putty. But when you have multiple colors on the board and you can’t overlap your paths, suddenly it’s a much more challenging deductive endeavor.

Lightbox

A puzzle box unlike anything you’ve ever seen, Lightbox creates different patterns of shadow and light as you shift and arrange the various plastic plates that make up the box. As you twist and reset them, different electrical connections are made, and different plates light up.

This is another puzzle game that I find quite soothing, even if I can be frustrated by the seemingly endless combinations available.

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Pandemic

Although co-op games are designed to bring together several players as they work to defeat the game itself, many co-op games also offer satisfying single-player campaigns. Pandemic allows you the chance to singlehandedly save the world from four deadly outbreaks, if you’re quick and clever enough!

[Forbidden Island, Castle Panic!, and other co-op games are also worth your time if you enjoy this kind of gameplay.]

Do you have any suggestions for good single-player puzzles and games, fellow puzzlers? Let us know in the comments section below! We’d love to hear from you!


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A Coin Puzzle: My Two Cents (Plus 97 More)

Our friends at Penny Dell Puzzles recently shared the following brain teaser on their social media:

Naturally, we accepted the challenge.

Now, before we get started with this one, we have to add one detail: which coins we’re allowed to use. It’s safe to assume that pennies, nickels, dimes, and quarters are available, but the question doesn’t say anything about half-dollar coins.

So we’re going to figure out the correct answer without half-dollar coins available, and then with half-dollar coins available.

Let’s begin.


[Image courtesy of How Stuff Works.]

The easiest way to get started is to figure out the smallest number of coins we need to make 99 cents, since that’s the highest number we need to be able to form. Once we have that info, we can work backwards and make sure all the other numbers are covered.

For 99 cents, you need 3 quarters, 2 dimes, and 4 pennies. That’s 25 + 25 + 25 + 10 + 10 + 1 + 1 + 1 + 1 = 99.

Right away, we know we’re close with these 9 coins.

You don’t need more than 3 quarters, for instance, because your possible totals are all below $1.

Now, let’s make sure we can form the numbers 1 through 24 with our chosen coins. (If we can, we’re done, because once we’ve covered 1 through 24, we can simply add one quarter or two quarters to cover 25 through 99.)

Our four pennies cover us for 1 through 4. But wait, there’s 5. And we can’t make 5 cents change with 4 pennies or 2 dimes. In fact, we can’t make 5, 6, 7, 8, or 9 cents change without a nickel.

So let’s add a nickel to our current coin count. That makes 3 quarters, 2 dimes, 1 nickel, and 4 pennies. (Why just 1 nickel? Well, we don’t need two, because that’s covered by a single dime.)

Our four pennies cover 1 through 4. Our nickel and four pennies cover 5 through 9. Our dime, nickel, and four pennies cover 1 through 19. And our two dimes, one nickel, and four pennies cover 1 through 29. (But, again, we only need them to cover 1 through 24, because at that point, our quarters become useful.)

That’s all 99 possibilities — 1 through 99 — covered by just ten coins.

[Image courtesy of Wikipedia.]

But what about that half-dollar?

Well, we can apply the same thinking to a coin count with a half-dollar. For 99 cents, you need 1 half-dollar, 1 quarter, 2 dimes, and 4 pennies. That’s 50 + 25 + 10 + 10 + 1 + 1 + 1 + 1 = 99.

Now, we make sure we can form the numbers 1 through 49 with our chosen coins. (Once we can, we can simply add the half-dollar to cover 50 through 99.)

Once again, we quickly discover we need that single nickel to fill in the gaps.

Our four pennies cover 1 through 4. Our nickel and four pennies cover 5 through 9. Our dime, nickel, and four pennies cover 1 through 19. Our two dimes, one nickel, and four pennies cover 1 through 29. And our one quarter, two dimes, one nickel, and four pennies cover 1 through 54. (But, again, we only need them to cover 1 through 49, because at that point, our half-dollar becomes useful.)

That’s all 99 possibilities — 1 through 99 — covered by just nine coins.


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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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