The Puzzly Magic of Marbles!

As regular readers well know by now, I’m a huge fan of Rube Goldberg devices. They are my favorite form of mechanical puzzling, because they not only require innovation and creativity, but it’s immediately obvious whether the device actually works or not.

It’s amazing how many different ways people have concocted to move marbles, lift objects, circumvent physical obstacles, and span distances with everything from household items to living creatures.

An intriguing variation on the Rube Goldberg device has been gaining steam on YouTube, though, and today, I’d like to shine a bit of a spotlight on the crafty designers behind them.

Essentially, these devices are as complex as Rube Goldberg devices, but they use fewer materials. The goal is to simply get the marble from one end to the other.

But restricting themselves to marbles, wooden blocks, tubes, magnets, and so on hasn’t limited their creativity in the slightest. If anything, it’s made them more inventive!

As you can see, each device is built on a slightly tilted table, so that gravity does the work of moving the marbles. But everything else, from slingshots to moving parts and triggers, is activated through clever mechanics.

The combination of timing, positioning, and creativity is entrancing at times, leaving you dumbfounded at how they’d ever conceived of these delightful obstacle courses to begin with.

Some are set to music while others tell little stories of adventure and romance, but all of them are mind-bendingly entertaining, often taking several viewings to catch everything going on!

And hopefully, these puzzly creations by Kaplamino and DoodleChaos brought a smile to your face today.

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The First Viral Handheld Puzzle Game?

It’s fair to say that PuzzleNation knows a little something about the world of mobile puzzling. Mobile apps are our bread and butter, after all, and whether you’re talking about our Daily POP Crosswords App or the Penny Dell Crosswords App, we are connoisseurs of puzzles that fit in your pocket.

Of course, puzzle apps are a relatively new addition to the genre. Mobile puzzles, like matchstick puzzles, have existed for centuries.

In fact, more than a hundred years ago, a mobile puzzle game went “viral” and became a cultural sensation. (And it has made a recent return to prominence thanks to the HBO drama Westworld.)

Today, let’s talk about Pigs in Clover.

Pigs in Clover is a ball-in-a-maze puzzle invented in 1899 by toymaker Charles Martin Crandall. Although puzzle historians aren’t sure if Pigs in Clover was the first ball-in-a-maze puzzle created, it was definitely the first to capture the imagination of consumers.

You’ve probably solved a ball-in-a-maze puzzle at some point in your life. From the flat disc and labyrinth-inspired models to spherical and more complicated three-dimensional versions, they’re a fun test of both dexterity and strategic thinking.

A quick Google image search turns up dozens of variations on the concept, including an iPhone case with two ball-in-a-maze puzzles built into it!

Pigs in Clover was a simpler design, involving only three rings and a center “pen” to herd the “pigs” into. But it’s one that was supposedly so popular upon launch in January of 1889, it impacted the actual operation of the U.S. government.

But how popular was “popular” in 1889?

Well, according to the Waverly Free Press, “The toy works are turning out eight thousand of ‘Pigs in Clover’ a day, and are twenty days behind with their orders.” According to some sources, over a million games were sold by late April 1889!

And one of those games found its way into the hands of William M. Evarts, senator from New York. Depending on the version of events you read, he purchased a copy of Pigs in Clover from either a street vendor or, curiously, an aggressive street fakir.

He then took it home and played with it for hours. At work the next day — and by work, I mean the Senate of the United States — another senator, George Graham Vest, borrowed it and went to the cloak room to try to solve the puzzle game.

Yes, a sitting U.S. senator went and hid in the coats to play this game. It’s sorta like hiding under all the coats at a Christmas party and playing Angry Birds, except in fancier clothing.

Oddly enough, Vest was soon joined in the cloak room by four other senators — Pugh, Eustis, Walthall, and Kenna — who were also interested in trying their hands at the popular game. Apparently, they were too impatient to share Evarts’ copy of the game, since a page was enlisted to go out and buy five more copies of Pigs in Clover for the distracted senators.

Once each had his own game in hand, they engaged in a pig-driving contest. It must’ve been harder than it looks, since it took Vest 30 minutes to herd all of his pigs into the pen.

Yup, at least half an hour of senate business was derailed by a few little metal balls in a cardboard maze. Amazing.

Naturally, the story got out, and a political cartoon in the New York World on March 17th commented on this peculiar delay in President Benjamin Harrison’s agenda, likening the political landscape to the game. With the White House as the pen and various lawmakers as the pigs, the cartoon asked, “Will Mr. Harrison be able to get all these hungry pigs in the official pen?”

It makes you wonder just how many man-hours were lost to Pigs in Clover! After all, a simple game — solved by many — can prove costly.

Remember the Google Doodle in 2010 that allowed you to play Pac-Man? It’s estimated it cost $120 million dollars, and nearly five million hours, in terms of productivity.

Sounds like President Harrison should count himself lucky it was just a half-dozen senators… as far as we know.

[Sources for this article: The Strong Museum of Play, Eli Whitney Museum and Workshop, Le Roy Historical Society, Antique Toy Collectors of America, Wikipedia, and A History of Video Games in 64 Objects.]

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The 2017 New York Toy Fair, Part 2!


On Tuesday, I gave you a general rundown of what it was like exploring the massive spread of puzzles and games on display at this year’s New York Toy Fair.

In today’s post, I’d like to highlight some of the puzzles and games that most impressed me. I think many of these will also appeal to many of my fellow puzzlers and PuzzleNationers as well.

So let’s dive right in!


One of the prime spots in the Launchpad area for first-time attendees was given to the team at Steamforged Games Ltd., who have brought the video game franchise Dark Souls into the board-game realm.


Between one and four players can test their mettle against various creatures, battling to capture their souls and use them to make your character stronger and more capable. The impressive array of miniatures, player cards, and tokens makes for an interactive experience that should satisfy both video game fans and board gamers alike.


For a more traditional family-friendly puzzle game, the crew at Befuddled Games has you covered with Kerfuddle and Tree Top Hop, both of which are suitable for solvers of any age group.

Kerfuddle combines a touch of Boggle with the ever-changing gameplay of Fluxx. Roll the dice and use them to form words, but be careful — the “Shake It Up” cards can make your word forming much more challenging.


Tree Top Hop is a great intro game for young players, as they move around the tree top, spelling words on their cards and racing to the treasure at the center of the board. By combining word-building and strategy, this is a terrific gateway game for new players.


Along the same lines as Kerfuddle is Twizmo! Words, except instead of dice, you have a Rubik’s Cube-style Twisty puzzle providing you with the letters you’ll use to build your word list. Designed by the same team who brought us Tak•tak, Twizmo! Words is a strong quick-play game for any Boggle fans in your household.


Snippets takes the list-building idea in another direction. Instead of random letters, you’re given a three-letter snippet of a word, and it’s up to you to come up with as many words containing that snippet as possible. So, if you’ve got TRA, you can write down EXTRA, TRAIN, STRAP, and so on.


And to close out this collection of word-forming games, we have Letter Tycoon, which adds a monetizing mechanic that really spices up the gameplay. Here, not only are you making money by forming words, but you can patent letters so that when other players use them, you cash in as well. It’s a really clever take on the word-building genre of games.


We now move on from combining letters to combining jigsaw pieces. The puzzles from Palmetto Puzzle Works all center around tessellations — shapes that repeat and interlock in many different ways.


Whether you’re trying to fit the pieces into a given space or you’re connecting them freestyle, these well-made wooden puzzles bring an M.C. Escher touch to the world of jigsaw-style solving.


Beasts of Balance, on the other hand, has players using game pieces in a different way, as solvers stack the animal shapes and try to keep their ever-growing tower of creatures and artifacts from toppling over. The game has a tablet interaction feature that enhances both the gameplay and the storytelling aspect of the game, making the most of new school and old school puzzling.


But if you’re looking to do some puzzly building in a different way, Maze by Seedling is a solid choice. Here, you can map out and design your own marble maze, and then tackle your own creation with a fully-functioning labyrinth board, complete with marbles, walls, and holes to avoid.


And while we’re on the subject of do-it-yourself puzzling, the crew behind Pinbox 3000 have designed a build-your-own pinball game system that allows for infinite customization. They give you everything you need to build a functioning game, and then leave the theme, bells, and whistles totally up to you.

I wrote about this one back when it was a Kickstarter project, and it was cool to see the brand continuing to thrive and grow.


Another gaming classic with a modern twist is Tatsu, which combines Asian-inspired mythology with backgammon-style gameplay. Designed by the same creative team as the tile-placement game Hive, Tatsu is a clever, elegant game all about strategy and guile. It’s easy to learn and tough to master, and I suspect it will do quite well.


If you’re looking to combine strategy with rapid-fire gameplay, Tenzi is for you. In Tenzi, you’re given ten dice, and you have to keep rolling them until all ten match. It’s like Speed Yahtzee! But with dozens of additional variant games at your disposal, from stacking to scoring to rule-shifting games, this dice game has legs and is easy to tote around to play anywhere.


If you’re looking to take your card games anywhere, the team at Narrows Hill have a great solution for you. The Card Caddy is not only a protective case for any deck of cards, but it opens up into a perfect card-dealing and sorting setup for ease of play.


We also got an early glimpse of a forthcoming addition to the Fluxx family of card games. Since Fluxx is celebrating 21 years on the market this year, the crew at Looney Labs is celebrating with Drinking Fluxx, a spirits-soaked version of their famous chaotic rule-shifting card game.

You can mix and match the various ingredients to try to create a winning formula (and perhaps a sideline as a bartender for your fellow players). Just make sure you call a cab after playing.


Whereas Tenzi and Fluxx are quite portable, Banana Bandits from CMON Games requires some space, since you have an entire 3-D building to set up as your game board. As you and your fellow players try to prove yourselves as worthy successors to the boss of the Banana Bandits, you’ll climb and explore the building, collect coins, and tangle with opponents, all on an impressively realized game space.

Will you be top banana, or is it time for you to split?


And the last game I’ll be discussing today is Doctor Who: Time of the Daleks, an elaborate galaxy-spanning game where you play as one of six Doctors traveling across time and space in order to complete missions, save the innocent, thwart your enemies, and generally wreak timey-wimey havoc.


Between the terrific miniatures and the expansive options available for players, this was one of the highlights of Toy Fair for me, and I can’t wait to see how they incorporate additional Doctors into the game later down the line.


Obviously this is just a small sample of all the fantastic, eye-catching puzzles and games that graced New York Toy Fair this year. But nonetheless, it’s an impressive group, covering so many different aspects of the puzzle and game world, and constantly blazing new trails in terms of creativity and innovation.

I have no doubt you’ll be seeing more about some of these projects as 2017 rolls onward.

[You can check out our full gallery of photos from New York Toy Fair on Facebook by clicking here!]

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PuzzleNation Product Review: Back Spin by ThinkFun

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

Imagine someone hands you a small puzzle game. You twist and turn it this way and that way, trying to line up all the different colored components so that they match, spinning and manipulating it so that one particular piece falls into place, but by doing so, three others end up somewhere else, and now you have to chase them down.

It probably sounds like I’m describing solving a Rubik’s Cube, but the same description fits cracking the latest puzzle game from ThinkFun: Back Spin.

And you know what? Back Spin is the younger sibling of the Rubik’s Cube that I wish I could’ve tried out first.

[Both sides of Back Spin, with the spheres all mixed up between the two.]

Designed for solvers aged 8 and up, Back Spin only features two sides (front and back) to Rubik’s six, but each of those sides has six small colored chambers, intended to hold matching colored spheres. Rotating the front or the back allows you to line up these chambers and swap spheres between them.

As for the spheres, there are nine different colors to sort; red, yellow, and orange are on both sides, but each side has a different shade of blue, green, and pink/purple, meaning some spheres can go on either side, but some are only meant for the front or the back.

Whether you’re moving colored spheres from back to front or rotating them in overlapping chambers to shift the spheres’ positions within the chamber — a la the sliding tiles in one of those picture puzzles — this is an introduction to chain-thinking and solving, a step up from simpler mechanical brain teasers, but not nearly as daunting as Rubik’s infamous cube.

[Alright, it’s solved! Oh, no, wait, this is only one side. Darn.
There are still spheres misplaced on the other side of the puzzle.]

And although the game is marketed as a single-solver puzzle, you really need two: one to mix all of the spheres up, and the other to unravel it. It’s much more satisfying to conquer the challenge someone else sets out for you than one you set for yourself, because you can’t help but retain some of the steps involved in mixing up the puzzle.

Having someone else mix up the spheres not only allows for a tougher solve, but the process of mixing them up for another solver is just as valuable a puzzling experience as solving it.

[Okay, this time I’ve got it. All the spheres properly placed on both sides. Phew!
(You can also see that there are only two purple spheres, since one chamber
has to allow a sphere to pass from back to front for the puzzle to be solvable.)]

Back Spin is a wonderfully vivid variation on a classic style of puzzle solving, one whose simple mechanics — a wheel that goes back and forth and holes that line up — allow for deep, meaningful, logic-based puzzling.

It encourages exploration and experimentation, staving off both the boredom and the frustration that more difficult brain teasers often spark. It’s a terrific addition to the ThinkFun line-up of puzzle games that teach while you play.

Back Spin is available for $14.99 on the ThinkFun website. To check out previous ThinkFun product reviews on PuzzleNation Blog, click here.

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PuzzleNation Product Review: Gravity Maze

This week, we’ve got mazes on the brain, so it’s only appropriate that the folks at ThinkFun sent us a maze-based puzzle game to try out. Join me as we give the full PuzzleNation Blog treatment to Gravity Maze.

In a previous review, I accepted the challenge of ThinkFun’s Laser Maze, a logic game requiring players to direct, divert, and split an actual laser beam with mirrors in order to light up various targets on the board. You had to map out the beam’s path in your head and figure out how to place the game pieces in order to hit every target.

Impressively, Gravity Maze has raised the stakes, building on Laser Maze’s premise and adding a third dimension. Whereas Laser Maze only operated along length and width to cross the board, Gravity Maze’s falling marble has to be shuttled across the board while descending from its launch point as well.

With color-coded tower pieces of various heights and configurations — some levels have ramps to the next lowest level, others have open spaces, and still others house turns for the marble to navigate — it’s up to the solver to add only the pieces listed on the card in order to build the marble’s path to the red target box, each tower clicking into place.

There are 60 challenge cards that range in difficulty from beginner to expert. In the earliest challenges, there are only a few pieces on the board, and there’s a clever black dot system telling you which direction each set tower faces. But as you get accustomed to using the towers and move from beginner to intermediate cards, a new wrinkle is added: sometimes, a tower must be placed horizontally in order to complete the path.

And as you progress into advanced and expert cards, you have to get craftier. The marble often has to double-back, passing through the same tower multiple times on its way down.

Check out the path the marble takes to reach the red target box in this one:

[It’s hard to draw a line in three dimensions.]

You can see the colored ramps that direct the marble from the blue tower to the yellow to the green, and then back across. The marble then drops out of the blue tower and into the purple one beside it, where it makes a right turn, passes through the yellow tower, drops into the gray tower, and lands in the red target box.

This next-level spatial awareness offers a serious challenge to puzzlers of all ages, and I admit, some of these advanced and experts had me stymied for a bit.

Heck, sometimes, a tower must be used horizontally, but above the game board itself.

Gravity Maze is easily the most challenging ThinkFun product I’ve had the chance to tinker with, but that didn’t make it any less fun. The box says “Ages 8 to adult,” and I agree wholeheartedly. Puzzlers of any age will enjoy tackling these three-dimensional logic problems and seeing the marble wend its way into the target box.

[To check out other PuzzleNation reviews of ThinkFun products, click here.]

Thanks for visiting PuzzleNation Blog today! You can share your pictures with us on Instagram, friend us on Facebook, check us out on TwitterPinterest, and Tumblr, and be sure to check out the growing library of PuzzleNation apps and games!