A Different Sort of Checkered Flag…

As you know, from time to time we host puzzly contests. Oftentimes, those contests involve not only our in-house personnel (as well as our friends at Penny/Dell Puzzles), but the marvelous PuzzleNation community as well.

This time around, we switched things up a bit and hosted a visual contest rather than a wordy one. The challenge? To create flag designs for either Penny/Dell Puzzles or PuzzleNation, and we thought we’d collect them here for everyone’s enjoyment!

Shall we see what visual delights our fellow puzzlers cooked up for us? Let’s do!


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[A twist on the “Don’t tread on me” flag, with a potential second caption of “Don’t Bother Me: I’m Solving Puzzles.” Colors TBD. This flag is suitable for flying outside a tree house or she-shed, as need arises. It could be turned into an icon for use on-line, similar to the “away” icons on IM-type situations.]

The same designer submitted a second creation, and I feel the description captures the idea nicely:

[Three simple illustrations on a white banner. As Ina Garten prefers white dishes for food to stand out, a white background allows simple illustrations to stand out. Proportions of illustrations will be similar to the Canadian maple-leaf flag. From left to right: a penny, an index finger touching a big red button with cartoon-style puffs of air indicating motion of finger pressing down, and a puzzle-book page. This flag is more for flying at public events, company gatherings, and such.

It should go without saying that text for both flags shall be in Helvetica, the finest and most readable typeface in all the land.]

Now, back to the visual goodness:

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[Here is a simple design based on the classic clown icon that decorated Penny Press books for many years.]

ppflag2

[This flag celebrates some of the most crucial pieces of the Penny Press company puzzle.]

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[This flag combines the traditional Penny Press banner with a crossword grid and a tongue-in-cheek new company slogan.]

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[This flag not only highlights some of the flagship Penny Press puzzles, but puts a nice puzzly twist on the vintage skull and crossbones imagery of pirate flags.]

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[Here we have two variations on a theme, one in black and white, one in checkerboard red and black. Each features gleeful Vanna White-esque pencils with eraser hard hats.]

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[PuzzleNation wasn’t ignored in the contest, though, as we received this fun design placing our logo smack dab in the middle of a crossword, right where we belong.]

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[We also received this interesting entry, where some of our most popular puzzle apps are represented in an array of icons similar to the stars on the Australian or New Zealand flag. Those icons offset the simple, warm backdrop of our blog site’s background.]

What do you think of the designs, fellow puzzlers and PuzzleNationers? Do you have a favorite? Or a suggestion for another flag idea?

Let us know in the comments section below! We’d love to hear from you!


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PuzzleNation Product Review: ThinkFun’s Potato Pirates

[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.]

Most of ThinkFun‘s coding-based puzzle games are either solo endeavors or head-to-head races to complete tasks. Potato Pirates adds a marvelous new wrinkle, since 3 to 6 players are required to take to the high seas for some swashbuckling spudly fun!

Potato Pirates is a tactical game where players compete to outlast their opponents and become the most dominant potato pirate the world has ever known, a Dread Pirate Roberts of starchy goodness. You do so by either collecting all seven Potato King cards, or by eliminating every other player at the table.

Each player starts with two ships and twenty potato crew members, along with a hand of five cards. There are control cards, action cards, and surprise cards (along with the aforementioned Potato King cards).

The coding aspect of the game allows you to battle your fellow players. The control and action cards can be combined into commands that you program one round and activate the next in order to attack the other players.

Action cards indicate damage dealt to the potato crew of your target, while control cards indicate conditions for that action, like multipliers to cause more damage or how many ships you can target with one command. (Surprise cards can be played at any time, even when it’s not your turn.)

And that coding structure makes Potato Pirates more strategic and tactical than a lot of other card games where you can play any card at any time. Since you can code a command or modify a command on one turn, and have to wait for the next to activate it, you may leave yourself open to attack during that turn you spend coding.

An important thing to remember is that you code and deploy each ship separately, so since you have two ships to start, you can take the tactic of coding one ship while attacking with the other, and then switching during the next round, so you’re never totally on defense. (My fellow players and I immediately adopted this tactic, which lengthened the gameplay and made things slightly more frantic. That’s two big bonuses for this game.)

[Two commands in progress. The first is ready to go next round, the second is currently attacking this round.]

Since players burn through the coding cards so quickly, reshuffling the deck can slow things down from time to time, but otherwise, the game is nicely designed, and once you’ve read and played around with the control cards for a little while, the concepts become second nature to you and you can really start plotting some devious attacks on the other potato buccaneers at the table.

Oh, and speaking of, making the little potato pirates balls of fuzz is both an adorable aesthetic choice and a kid-friendly way to make the game approachable for young players. Leading off with cards and coding can be a bit daunting, but once they’re divvying up their potato pirates across different ships (with delightful punny names), younger players are hooked.

Although the coding aspect of the game isn’t as predominant here as it is in games like Robot Turtles, Hacker, or On the Brink, the fun gameplay offered here — and the desperate need you feel to play again if your ships sink! — ensures that these basic coding commands and ideas will become familiar through sheer repetition.

And getting saluted each time you find a Potato King card is pretty great as well.

One of these days, fellow PuzzleNationers, I shall be the Potato King. I promise you that.

Potato Pirates is available from ThinkFun and other participating retailers.


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Puzzles in Pop Culture: NCIS: New Orleans

Last week, a murder investigation turned into a puzzly treasure hunt for a group of NCIS investigators, a team who investigates criminal cases involving members of the military. So join us as we rundown the events of “Treasure Hunt,” episode 17 of season 4 of NCIS: New Orleans.

The episode opens during a pirate-themed festival, as two women search for the secret entrance to an exclusive costume party. Unfortunately, instead of drunken revelry, they stumble upon a dead body, strung up inside a warehouse on the waterfront.

The NCIS team soon arrives, and the coroner identifies the victim as an oceanographer, Lt. Commander Elaine Dodd. Dodd was beaten before her death, and her arm was partially skinned, perhaps as part of an interrogation.

Dodd’s oceanographic work centered around Grande Isle, the former stomping grounds of the infamous pirate Jean LaFitte. The team makes contact with Dodd’s father, Tom, a former Green Beret. He expected her to show up at his house in Florida after an excited phone call, but she never arrived. This leads the team to believe that Dodd’s death had something to do with a treasure hunt, one of the things she and her father bonded over.

Forensic analysis reveals that her arm was skinned to remove a tattoo, but they’re able to reconstruct the image: a simple compass and some coordinates. These confirm the treasure hunt theory: Dodd had apparently made some progress in locating the lost Napoleon Fleur de Lis, a jewel-encrusted emblem stolen by Jean LaFitte and hidden away.

Following the coordinates to a church, Special Agent Pride and lab tech Sebastian search the area, finding their way upstairs to a lofted storage area. But someone has beaten them to the punch, opening fire and sending the agents scurrying for cover.

Pride chases the two suspects, but they get away, and when he doubles back to the loft, he finds Sebastian examining a statue stored in the church attic. Once the statue is removed from its pedestal, a secret compartment opens, revealing a wooden puzzle book wrapped in cloth.

The puzzle book is marked with a fleur de lis and bears an inscription of Jean LaFitte’s signature. The investigation of Dodd’s murder has officially become a treasure hunt.

Back at the field office, Agent Gregorio would prefer to use a knife to crack open the book, but Sebastian insists on solving the cipher to open the book, as some puzzle books include a vial of acid inside that would destroy the book if tampered with.

While he works on the puzzle book, cameras outside the church help the agents ID one of the suspects, a mercenary for hire. Dodd’s father Tom enters the office, hoping for progress, and recognizes the suspect. He points the agents toward the mercenary’s usual employer, a specialist in deep-sea diving and sunken galleons. Dodd’s father offers to arrange a meeting, and the team is wary, but takes him up on his offer.

Meanwhile, Sebastian and Gregorio check Dodd’s phone records and find several calls to a local professor, Michelle Faucheux, an expert in LaFitte and pirate history, who they believe helped Elaine find the coordinates. But when they arrive at her home, it has been ransacked, the professor locked in a closet. After they release her and calm her down, she confirms she’d been talking to Elaine.

Tom makes good on his word and lures his contact to a bar with the agents in tow. But the man, Walton, claims he hasn’t worked with either of the suspects in months. He warns Tom and the team away from the treasure hunt, clearly spooked by the ruthlessness he’s observed.

Sebastian and Gregorio bring Michelle back to the office, and she’s stoked to see the puzzle book. The cover of the puzzle book is encrypted, and they have to turn a dial in order to unlock it. But they need a key word to help solve the cipher. After trying out various words, they focus on LaFitte’s brother, Pierre — the most likely person to be hunting for LaFitte’s treasure. This leads them to try the word “Cabildo,” the jail in which Pierre had been incarcerated.

Using that as the key word — and a Vigenere cipher to crack the code — leads them to the answer “fleur de lis”, and they unlock the puzzle book’s cover. The iris in the center opens, revealing a latch, and they open the puzzle book.

On the left page is a clock puzzle, and on the right is a map with smaller code dials beneath it, along with a plate reading BLF6.

Agent Pride calls them, informing Gregorio that the two suspects are camped out right down the street from the office. He and the team are en route, but they expect trouble soon.

Oddly enough, the suspects simply hang back and wait as the team reunites. The agents suspect the mercenaries are waiting for the team to lead them to the fleur. So the team focuses on the riddle, hoping for a chance to gather more info on whomever is bankrolling the gun-toting baddies.

The riddle “Move as the clock” offers a hint for how to find which code letters to enter, but they’re not sure where to start. Pride theorizes that BLF6 could point toward Barthelemy Lafon, an architect and city planner from the 1700s who also palled around with the LaFitte brothers. He is buried in a local cemetery, in a crypt located at F6 on the map.

Gregorio, Sebastian, and Michelle head to the crypt while Agents Percy and LaSalle keep their eyes on the suspects, getting close enough to clone their phones and gain access to their calls and text messages. Pride and Dodd’s father are back at the field office, trying to figure out who would literally kill to have the artifact.

The puzzle book trio spot an engraved fleur de lis over the letter L in “Lafon”. They try “moving as the clock” by moving clockwise to the next crypt. Another fleur de lis over another crypt engraving gives them the final letter they need, unlocking a compartment in the book and revealing both the suspected acid vial and a piece of paper. It’s a partial map with another riddle written in French. Michelle quickly translates it as “enter this last crypt to find the fleur de lis” and runs off.

At this point, all of the viewers become very suspicious of Michelle. I mean, come on, the riddle was four lines long, and given how tough the puzzle book had been to crack thus far, this seemed too easy.

Meanwhile, the suspects leave after receiving a text that the fleur is NOT in the cemetery. As you might have suspected, Michelle texted the suspects and has been behind everything the whole time. But the viewers are clearly one-up on the agents, who blindly follow Michelle to another crypt, where Michelle traps them inside and runs off.

We get some unnecessary backstory on Michelle involving a dead brother and being scammed out of treasure by the Spanish government, but who cares, what about the treasure hunt?

Pride and Tom go after Michelle while Percy and LaSalle hunts for the easily bamboozled agents, who are trapped in the crypt and running out of air. Pride and Tom head out to Fort Macomb, a repurposed, then abandoned, base which was formerly known as Chef Menteur. (It’s unclear whether they solved the map clue that Sebastian photographed and sent them before being trapped or if they just followed the hired goons.)

But nonetheless, they’re en route to the treasure while Gregorio and Sebastian set a fire inside the crypt, hoping the smoke will escape and lead their fellow agents to them before they suffocate. Their plan works, and they’re rescued.

At Fort Macomb, Pride orders Tom to stay with the car, and heads into the fort, getting the drop on Michelle. Unfortunately, her goons capture Tom, and Pride loses the standoff. In classic villain fashion, Michelle has Pride dig up the treasure for her.

At her moment of triumph, Tom puts his Green Beret training to work, taking out one of the hired thugs as Pride dispatches the other. Since we’re running on full cliche at this point, Tom has a chance to kill the woman who killed his daughter, but spares her after a speech from Pride. The better man and all that.

The episode closes with the team admiring the bejeweled source of everyone’s consternation. Tom decides to donate the fleur to the city, because that’s what his daughter would have done. Nice closer.

All in all, I was a little underwhelmed by the episode, because the plotline twists failed to keep up the same interest level that the treasure hunt did. Once they were done with the puzzle book, the cliches rapidly took over.

Who stops in the middle of a treasure hunt to tattoo a clue on themselves? Why wasn’t the tattoo artist a suspect? That would have been a nice touch. Also, Michelle’s transparent villainy wasn’t nearly as fun as her geeky schoolgirl excitement at cracking puzzles alongside Sebastian. That was easily the show’s highlight.

I do want to give a special shout-out to the Codex Silenda team, who created the specially weathered-looking puzzle book for the episode. I wrote about them back in August of 2016 when their wildly-successful Kickstarter campaign originally closed. They’ve been busy fulfilling orders for Kickstarter backers ever since, and they were clearly excited to see one of their puzzle books on a national stage like this.

What’s more amazing is that the puzzle book cracked by the NCIS team in this episode was only a few pages deep. The full Codex Silenda is much larger and more intricate! No doubt the real Jean LaFitte would’ve splashed out for the complete Codex in order to bamboozle potential treasure hunters.

Still, it’s always nice to see crime shows explore the possibilities that puzzles offer. Splicing up the occasional murder with a puzzle (or better yet, a treasure hunt) is a pleasant change of pace for the procedural genre. Nicely done, NCIS: NO.


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PuzzleNation App Reviews: Pirate Ring

Welcome to our second edition of PuzzleNation App Reviews! Today we continue our quest to delve into the world of puzzly games and apps for your tablet or smartphone!

Our resident App player and puzzle fiend Sherri has another intriguing game for us today, so without further ado, let’s explore her review of Pirate Ring!


Who doesn’t want to be pirate? Sailing the seas; hunting for treasure. Well, Pirate Ring is an iOS game that will allow you to test your strategic mettle against AI pirates.

This is a really tough game. It is all about strategy. There are two modes: one-player against an AI opponent and a two-player mode, in which you can play against a friend. (In the two-player mode, you swap the iDevice back and forth.)

I played the one-player mode, and the AI opponent was a beast! In one-player mode, you play as gold versus silver. Your goal is to recruit more ships than your opponent does. There are three levels of gameplay: Beginner, Journeyman, and Captain. Beginner is practice mode, and you earn rewards in Journeyman and Captain modes.

There is serious strategy involved in this game. To win, you compete in a best-of-five tournament, in which you use gold rings to recruit your ships and use gold coins to block your opponent’s rings. You have spots where you can turn coins into rings or rings into coins. (If you have trouble winning a game with enough ships, you can earn three ties per game for a win.)

Once you have enough ships for the win, move one of your pieces, a ring or coin, to the pirate in the center. Then, the battle commences!

I am not a huge fan of strategy games, but I found myself playing this game over and over and over because I just wanted to win. The graphics, while simple, are intricately detailed. You feel like you are strategizing over a table. If you want a game that really taxes your brain, this is a good one to play.

Ratings for Pirate Ring:

  • Enjoyability: 2/5 – I found the game to be frustratingly difficult. Apparently, I’m not much of a strategist. Those who enjoy strategy games would want to check out this game.
  • How well puzzles are incorporated: 3/5 – This is a very strategic game. You always need to think several steps ahead in order to beat your opponent. Good luck!
  • Graphics: 3/5 – You play on a static map. I, personally, loved the game board. For a brief time, it made me feel like a good pirate.
  • Gameplay: 2/5 – There isn’t much that changes, so it’s pretty monotonous, though I wanted to keep playing to win!

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