PuzzleNation Product Review: Star Trek Chrono-Trek

chronotrekheader

[Image courtesy of Trekcore.]

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

Some of the most important moments in the Star Trek franchise center around altering the past through time travel. Choosing to save Edith Keeler in the original series, the Enterprise-C sacrificing itself to bring peace to the Klingons and the Federation in Star Trek: The Next Generation, or Sisko preventing a Tribble bomb from killing Kirk in Deep Space Nine… iconic scenes both humorous and galaxy-changing involved rending the fabric of time and space. (Heck, the new film franchise was based entirely on changing the timeline from what we knew previously!)

So when I heard that Looney Labs updated their time-jumping strategy card game Chrononauts to include elements from the Star Trek universe, it seemed like a perfect fit. How did they do? Find out today as we review the new Star Trek Chrono-Trek card game.

chronotrek2

[A sample of each of the 11 different types of cards in the game.]

Much like its inspiration Chrononauts, Chrono-Trek is all about the cards. You’ve got assignment cards, ID cards, timeline cards that make up the playing space, artifact cards, cards that change history (and others that change it back), as well as cards that can help or hinder your fellow time travelers.

At the beginning of the game, the timeline cards are laid out in a 4×9 grid that represents the historical timeline from the Star Trek shows and films. Each player then draws an ID card representing a Star Trek character. Each character has certain victory conditions — some combination of events that must be preserved or changed in the timeline and artifacts to be acquired during play — that must be met for you to win the game. The ID cards are ranked by difficulty, indicating how complex the victory conditions are.

As for the other cards available to the player, they allow you to manipulate time, find artifacts, or manipulate the cards in your opponents’ hands. (For Fluxx players, some of these Action cards will seem very similar, as will the artifact cards, which are played just like keepers in Fluxx.)

chronotrek1

[A small glimpse of the timeline.]

The history-changing aspect is the puzzliest part of the game, as you determine what moments to change (and which to protect from your opponents) in order for your timeline to come to pass. But you must be careful, because you also need to ensure that you don’t accidentally end the game by allowing the anomaly from the series finale of Star Trek: The Next Generation — the Anti-Time Devron Anomaly — from preventing life on Earth. (In nearly every scenario, that’s a game over for all players. Pretty daunting, to say the least!)

And although bending time to your will and winning is certainly fun, watching the effect ripple down through the cards after making a bold history-altering move is arguably the best part of the game.

It will take one or two playthroughs — with easier ID cards only — to get used to the game mechanics, but after that, it’s a quick and easy deep-dive into the more complex victory conditions and a much more immersive and challenging play experience. (The game can go a bit too rapidly if you’re only using two players, so I’d recommend playing with four or more players to get the most out of the game.)

chronotrek3

[A comparison of a one-pip (easy) ID card and a four-pip (complex) ID card. Kirk simply requires you to protect one moment, invert another, and collect an artifact. Meanwhile, Evil Spock requires you to find the Fracture card, manipulate two events just to place the Fracture, and still maintain another moment AND acquire an artifact. That’s a much taller order.]

The designers did an impressive job figuring out which moments from the 50 years of Star Trek history to include in the timeline, which characters to offer as ID cards, and so on. For a Star Trek enthusiast, there are great references and little callbacks galore to favorite moments from the series. Not only that, but the game ups the ante from the original Chrononauts formula, keeping all of the best aspects of that game while making this one feel unique.

I posed the question in the intro asking how Looney Labs did marrying Star Trek and Chrononauts. The answer? They boldly went where no Star Trek card game had gone before, and created one heck of a fun adventure.

[Star Trek Chrono-Trek is available from Looney Labs and other participating retailers.]


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PuzzleNation Product Review: Are You a Robot?

ayar0

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

Whether you’re playing a board game like Clue or a card game like Werewolf or Mafia, you and your fellow players have accepted the challenge of a very different form of puzzle gaming: the social deduction game.

Social deduction games operate under a simple premise — the cards determine the role you play — and from that point forward, you’re trying to determine who is secretly a danger to you and others in the game.

In this particular case, there might a robot lurking among the humans aboard your space station.

You see, in Are You a Robot?, all of the players randomly select a card. There’s always a human card for every person playing the game, plus one robot card. (So, for instance, if five people are playing, you have five human cards and one robot card in the deck.) You shuffle the cards, deal out one to each player, and put the last one aside. Everyone looks at their card (but doesn’t show anyone else) and discovers their role for the game.

Now, at this point, there’s between zero and one robots in the game, and the rest of the players are human. The humans want to suss out if there are any robots disguised as humans, and the robot wants to get the humans to accuse each other and whittle down their numbers so the robots can take over.

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[A whole lot packed into a little envelope.]

This is the social aspect of the game. There are three things players can do in order to figure out who is who: shake hands, shoot a laser gun at another player, or talk. If the players all agree that there are no robots in play, two players can agree to shake hands. If there are no robots in the game after all, the humans win. If a robot is present after all, the humans lose.

Humans can shoot other players, but robots cannot. If a robot is shot, it’s gone from the game and the humans rejoice. If a human is shot, three things happen: the shooter is immediately removed from the game, the human who was shot comes back to life and returns to the game, and there’s a chance another robot slips into the game.

This element of chance involves all of the players closing their eyes, any robots secretly revealing themselves, and all of the remaining players turning in their cards. Those cards are shuffled randomly, a robot card is introduced, and the cards are redistributed to the surviving human players.

It’s possible everyone remains human, and it’s possible one of the humans is now a robot in disguise.

The game now resumes, and the players must once again figure out if there are any robots in their midst. (And your mind immediately begins spiraling out with possibilities. “Did so-and-so not shoot me because he believes that I’m human? Or because he’s a robot and can’t shoot me?”)

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[The set up for a four-person game: instructions, four human cards, and one robot card.]

Play continues until either the humans have eliminated any possible robots (and have shaken hands to confirm this) or the robots have overwhelmed the game and the humans have been whittled down to a single player.

In my estimation, Extended Mode, designed for 5 or more players, is the most interesting version of the game. The core game is for two or three players, consisting of two human cards and one robot card. Adding a second game allows for up to four players, a third game allows for up to six, and so on.

Our Extended Mode testing involved eight players (and four copies of the game), which allowed for multiple rounds of play, the introduction of several possible additional robots, and so on, making for a deeper, more engrossing (and nerve-wracking!) play experience.

And that’s the beauty of Are You a Robot? when compared to similar social detection card games like Mafia and Werewolf. Not only can you have satisfying play experiences with fewer people but the element of randomness that comes into play with more players adds tension to the game. (In Mafia and Werewolf, the number of antagonists is set at the start of the game. In Are You a Robot?, the number might increase, or it might not. It’s a simple change that adds so much.)

An elegant balance of silliness and suspenseful, consequence-loaded gameplay, Are You a Robot? is a winner with any number of players. Bring your laser gun, bring your skepticism, and bring along a couple of sets so everyone can play.

[Are You a Robot? is available (for $2!) from Looney Labs and other participating retailers.]


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How Puzzles and Games Evolve to Reach New Audiences

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I am always intrigued when a puzzle, puzzle game, or board game makes the leap to a different medium. What changes will need to be made in order to adapt the puzzle/game to this new style? Does the puzzle lose something in the translation, or become something entirely different? Or does moving into this new medium prove to be a renaissance, a revitalization, for a puzzle or game that had grown stale?

The classic Nintendo puzzle game Dr. Mario recently made the leap to mobile apps as Dr. Mario World, for example, and the transition left the game relatively unscathed.

For the uninitiated, Dr. Mario is all about clearing your screen of virus characters in various colors by lining up pills of the same color to eliminate them. Much like Tetris, the pills fall from the top of the screen, and successfully clearing parts of your screen can cause headaches for your opponent in head-to-head battles.

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[Image courtesy of CNET.]

Sure, the mobile version changed some aspects of the game. You only have a certain number of pills available to clear a given stage (unless you buy more with real-world cash) as opposed to the never-ending supply of the original. And Dr. Mario isn’t the only playable character, as other Mario characters are also doctors in this game (Dr. Peach, Dr. Bowser) with different abilities.

Time will tell if this translation is a success for Nintendo. But naturally, they’re not the only ones experimenting with new ways of bringing their puzzles and games to market.

Our friends at Looney Labs currently have two new projects underway, both of which are reinventing familiar styles of gameplay in fresh exciting ways.

Readers of the blog are familiar with the card game Fluxx, which is one of Looney Labs’ flagship products. The card game with the ever-shifting rules is coming to iOS and Android phones with Playdek’s Digital Fluxx!

fluxx-mobile

[Image courtesy of Pocket Tactics.]

Launching in the next few days, Digital Fluxx promises both offline play and online play for 2-4 players (including human and AI opponents) and multiple language options for international players.

It’s apropos that a game where the rules and goals are constantly changing would continue to adapt in new and exciting ways, and I look forward to seeing how a digital version of the now-classic card game brings new eyes to the Looney Labs library of games.

But that’s not all.

Looney Labs has also teamed up with the game-publishing resource The Game Crafter to allow fans of the card-matching game Loonacy to create their very own custom Loonacy decks!

You can pick and choose from their library of possible card images or upload your own and create a truly unique Loonacy deck for yourself. I think it’s an awesome idea, one that makes a perfect gift for fellow game fans, and I can’t wait to see what sorts of clever creations Loonacy fans come up with through The Game Crafter.

Between a DIY design template for a fast-paced relative newcomer and a digital version of one of the mainstays in modern card games, Looney Labs is demonstrating two ways that puzzlers and game companies can find new, enticing ways to keep their products accessible.

I can’t wait to see what other companies and puzzlemakers come up with next.


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PuzzleNation Product Review: Time Breaker

[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.]

Criminals are bad enough as it is, but time criminals… they’re the worst. Not only can they screw up the present, but they can screw up the past AND the future as well. As a member of the Time Repair Agency, it’s your job to travel through time to apprehend these miscreants — these time breakers — and set things right.

But be careful. You’re not the only TRA agent on the hunt, and every criminal captured is a feather in that agent’s cap, so don’t be surprised if other TRA agents try to interfere with your efforts.

Whether you’re searching the dawn of time or the year 3000, the life of a TRA agent isn’t easy.

[The intrepid agents of the Time Repair Agency and the dastardly Time Breaker.]

That’s the concept behind Time Breaker, the newest card game from the inventive crew at Looney Labs, and honestly, I think it’s their best game yet.

Time Breaker not only improves upon some of the ideas behind Chrononauts, but incorporates strong elements from the Fluxx games in order to add more choice and more excitement to the game play.

The game board consists of 25 tiles arranged randomly in a 5×5 grid pattern. 24 of these tiles represent specific moments in time. The 25th is the Time Repair Agency, and it’s always the center tile. It’s your job to navigate the board, capture the Time Breaker, and return to the Time Repair Agency with your quarry.

You do so by playing various cards that dictate your movements. (Players experienced with Fluxx will recognize the idea of Action cards, as well as some of the actions you can perform.)

There are move cards that allow you to move from tile to tile, regardless of where those moments are in time. There are jump cards that allow you to move to a specific tile. And there are action cards that allow you to perform different tasks, including playing extra cards from your hand, or traveling backwards in time. There are also Stop Time cards, which cancel other players’ actions, and Breaker cards that alter the game board or affect how the criminal moves.

Since the game is a race to see who reaches the Time Breaker first, it’s clever to allow the players multiple ways to navigate the board. You can move your piece across tiles (like any normal board game), you can jump to certain times with the cards, and you can navigate time itself by moving either backward or forward in time.

You see, since each tile is a moment in time, there are two arrows on the tile — one going forward, one going back. Those arrows can help you jump around the board. For instance, if you’re on the tile 13,800,000,000 BCE (the start of the universe), following the green arrow forward takes you to 4,500,000,000 BCE (the formation of the sun), which due to the random nature of the game board’s layout, could be anywhere, not just the next tile over.

Or you could follow the red arrow backward in time, if you have the proper card for it. (Since we’re talking about the first card in our timeline, it turns out time is cyclical, and going backward takes you to the future, the year 3069 (the colonization of Alpha Centauri).

Time Breakers manages to pack a lot of strategy and choice into a small package, ensuring that the game has major replay value. That’s no surprise, of course, since replayability is a hallmark of the Looney Labs brand.

But by combining a playing space that’s different every time (similar to Fluxx: The Board Game or Forbidden Island), the randomness of the cards you draw, and the ability to manipulate the board by closing access to certain time tiles, you have a dynamic game that always feels fresh.

All those elements could make for an uneven playing experience, but the cards are perfectly balanced, meaning no matter what cards you draw, you’re going to have a fair shot of winning the game. Luck is always a factor, but strong strategy and an ability to adapt on the fly will take you far.

And Andrew Looney makes juggling all of these elements look easy.

Complimented by a jovial art style, rich in bright colors and whimsy — not to mention a prediction of world peace only a few centuries away! — Time Breaker continues the innovative, enjoyable tradition long established by games like Fluxx, Just Desserts, and Get the MacGuffin. This game is great fun.

Time Breaker is available from Looney Labs and participating retailers on February 28, but you can preorder it by clicking here!


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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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PuzzleNation Product Review: Mary Engelbreit Loonacy

[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.]

If you’re looking for frenetic, quick-play card games, they don’t come much quicker or more chaotic than Loonacy.

In Loonacy, players compete to dump all of the cards in their hand by dropping them one-at-a-time into various piles. They do so by matching one of two symbols on their card with the symbol atop the discard piles. For instance, if you’ve got a card with an owl and a queen on it, you can drop that card onto a pile with an owl on top or a queen on top.

But since every player in the game is doing the same thing at the same time — there’s no taking turns here — it’s a race to drop a matching card from your hand before any of the other players can drop a card from theirs.

Looney Labs has published two previous editions of the game — Loonacy and Retro Loonacy — but neither is as eye-catching, as lovely, as charming, or as unexpected as the latest edition, Mary Engelbreit Loonacy.

Unlike the cartoony character-centric images of the original or the nostalgia-fueled artsy icons of the retro version, Mary Engelbreit Loonacy brings a peaceful, almost folksy sense of style and humor to the game.

The imagery is gorgeous and heartwarming, depicting uplifting images that would fit in with any kitchen or living room. Words of wisdom like “She who laughs, lasts” and “Sooner or later, we all quote our mothers” mix with scenes of familial bliss, childhood innocence, or simple pleasures.

In a game that’s all about observation, decision making, instantaneous pattern matching, and rapid reflexes, juxtaposing that sort of anxiety-inducing gameplay with these peaceful, fun images is a stroke of genius, one that forces you to pause, even for just a moment, in order to simply enjoy Engelbreit’s delightful art.

Mary Engelbreit Loonacy bridges the gap between the kid-oriented silly imagery of the original and the adult-oriented artsy feel of the sequel, making the best of both in one family-friendly package.

Mary Engelbreit Loonacy is available from Looney Labs and other participating retailers.

It’s also featured in our Holiday Puzzly Gift Guide, alongside all sorts of terrific puzzly gift ideas, including other Looney Labs products like Zendo, Get the MacGuffin, Star Trek Fluxx, and more!


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