PuzzleNation Product Reviews: Martian Chess

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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.]

There are an unbelievable number of chess variants out there.

You can play with narrower boards and fewer pieces (TrimChess), or wider boards and additional pieces (Capablanca Chess). You can play All Queens chess, 3-person chess, or that multi-level chess game from Star Trek. In previous posts, we’ve discussed variations like ChessPlus (with pieces that merge and can move like two different chess pieces) and Tour de Force chess (where pieces can be recovered after being captured, or beheaded by a guillotine).

After years of writing this blog, I felt fairly confident that I’d seen pretty much everything that could be done with chess.

And then Looney Labs introduced me to Martian Chess, and showed me that the iconic piece-capturing strategy game has plenty of gas still in the tank, especially where creative game designers are concerned.

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Martian Chess only employs three types of game pieces — a large pyramid, a medium pyramid, and a small pyramid, based on Andrew Looney’s infinitely adaptable Looney Pyramids — and each piece moves a certain way.

Small pyramids (or pawns) move diagonally like a bishop, though only one space at a time. Medium pyramids (or drones) move vertically or horizontally like a rook, though only one or two spaces at a time. Large pyramids (or queens), just like queens in Earth chess, can move in any direction any number of spaces.

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You maneuver your pieces in order to capture whichever of your opponent’s pieces you can, and that goes for any piece. Martian Chess does away with the concept of checkmate, since there is no king to capture here. No, Martian Chess is all about scoring points (1, 2, or 3, based on which piece you capture) and outmaneuvering your opponent. The player with the most points at the end of the game wins.

Oh, there’s one more important wrinkle here: you can only control pieces in your zone.

Each player in Martian Chess has a 4×4 game board in front of them. You can move pieces from your game board to your opponent’s board, but as soon as you do, that piece becomes theirs to control.

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[Two possible moves. On the left, I move a drone one space and retain control. On the right, I move a drone two spaces into my opponent’s zone, and it becomes hers to control.]

This absolutely changes the way you approach the game. In Earth chess, you’re encouraged to push forward and press your advantage. In Martian Chess, though, you have to be far more strategic, because as soon as your piece crosses the canal into the other player’s zone, they can use it however they like.

I confess, my brain melted during my first few games of Martian Chess, because I had to deprogram myself from years of previous chess playing. It completely changes how you look at attack and defense. Sure, if you’re going to cross the canal and lose control of a piece, you probably want to do so while capturing one of theirs for points. But sometimes, that sacrifice can serve to block one of their upcoming attacks, or provide a screen for one of your own.

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[We’ve each captured one pyramid, but mine is valued 1
and hers is valued 2, so she’s ahead on points.]

The game ends when one player has no more pieces in their zone. This adds another fresh element to the game, because you’re managing both your resources in terms of game pieces in your zone and the number of points you’ve scored.

If you’re ahead in points, but low in game pieces, it might be strategically worth it to push those remaining few pieces over the canal and empty your board, cashing in your lead early.

Other times, you’ll want to play it slower, looking for opportunities to zoom ahead in points and then take advantage.

One of the things I like about Martian Chess is that it feels like you’ve immediately been pushed into the tense second-half of a chess game. In Earth chess, the early rounds can be a little drab as players start pushing pieces into position for bigger moves down the line, but all the action comes later. In Martian Chess, you’re immediately in the deep end. I really dig that.

Easy to learn but hard to master, Martian Chess is a sharp reimagination of a game we all know, but one that feels intriguingly unfamiliar each time you break out the box and give it another go. It really does feel like chess from another world.

[Martian Chess is available now from Looney Labs as part of their Pyramid Quartet, and will be part of this year’s Holiday Puzzly Gift Guide, launching next Tuesday, so keep your eyes peeled for all sorts of puzzle and game fun!]


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PuzzleNation Product Review: Top Trumps Pub Quiz

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

One of the flagship games under the Winning Moves UK umbrella is Top Trumps, a one-on-one game similar to War where you try to capture all of your opponent’s cards with your own. Superior value wins. But unlike War, Top Trumps cards have multiple attributes based on the theme of the set.

For instance, The Mummy — a card from Ancient Egypt Top Trumps — has an age of 3,330 but a beauty of 2. You’re pitting the attribute scores on your card against those on your opponent’s card. So if you want to capture the card in your opponent’s hand, you’ll probably want to ask their age and not their beauty ranking.

The Top Trumps game cards feature lots of different ranked scores, but the cards are also rich in trivia and interesting facts. So it’s only natural that Top Trumps would breed a trivia-based spinoff game, Top Trumps Quiz with a Twist. Each Top Trumps Quiz with a Twist game is based on a particular topic: dinosaurs, Disney, Star Wars, World of Sport, etc.

That’s all well and good — especially if you’d happily pit your top-notch dinosaur know-how against that of your friends and loved ones — but what if you’d like more variety in your trivia topics?

Well, Top Trumps has got you covered there as well with their latest spin on the brand: Top Trumps Pub Quiz.

Each team opens their drawer on the carrying case and removes five cards, each with a different topic. The teams then go back and forth with trivia questions, one at a time.

If both teams answer Question 1 correctly, they move on to Question 2, and so on until the card is complete or your results differ.

If both teams answer Question 1 incorrectly, they move on to Question 2, and so on until the card is complete or your results differ.

If one team answers correctly and the other doesn’t, then both cards are captured by the team with the correct answer. That’s one pair. You need three pairs to win.

And if both teams manage to make it through a card without one side or another capturing the pair, those cards sit on the table as an unclaimed pair, and will be captured by the team with the first correct. So it’s possible that a single correct answer could wildly swing the progression of the game from one team to the other, or even determine the victor entirely!

There’s also a memory-testing feature built into the game, if you so choose. You simply gather up the ten cards from this particular round, shuffle them, redistribute them, and quiz each other again. How well do you retain information you just learned? You’ll find out with the Memory Game Twist!

The trivia obviously ranges in difficulty depending on the subject, but for the most part, it’s a fair middle-of-the-road test of general knowledge across a vast array of categories. But a key thing to remember is… this game was developed in the UK. So American trivia hounds might be surprised by specific references to English geography, pop culture, and so on.

For instance, the football category isn’t American football, it’s soccer. (A serious weakness in my trivia game, as it turns out.) In another example, the first card our team drew referred to Battersea Power Station, which most of the opposing team had never heard of.

It might throw you off slightly, but it’s also an interesting challenge. How much do you really know about the world outside your bubble? And it’s the luck of the draw, after all. Someone on the other team might know European football inside and out, but struggle with a Star Wars question. You never know.

The cards are in full color, offering some eye-catching visuals to accompany the quintet of trivia questions on each card. And while we’re discussing aesthetics, I can’t talk about the game without mentioning the carrying case.

This container is one of my favorite game designs I’ve encountered recently. The carrying case feature two separate drawers to keep trivia cards separate. You can use this to maintain your distance from your opponents and prevent any accidental answer peeking, or leave the drawers open to keep score, or simply use them to organize your cards and prevent you from reusing trivia cards too soon.

But the visual aspect is what really sells it. With its amber casing with sparkly flecks that catch the light, plus the solid white top, the case resembles a freshly-poured glass of beer, the perfect accompaniment to a pub quiz atmosphere. The drawers snap open and tilt outward, as if you’re about to toss back some knowledge. It’s simple, yet utterly perfect, a clever twist on their standard Top Trumps Quiz with a Twist storage case design model.

All in all, Top Trumps Pub Quiz is portable, engaging, and nicely replicates the variety and spontaneity of a pub quiz. It’s quick to play, requires no game board, and will keep you coming back for more. What a treat.

[Top Trumps Pub Quiz is available from Winning Moves UK and certain online sellers, and is part of this year’s Holiday Puzzly Gift Guide, launching next week, so keep your eyes peeled for this game and more terrific puzzly products!]


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PuzzleNation Product Review: Star Trek Voyager Fluxx

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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.]

The mission statement of Star Trek, through all its different iterations in film, television, novels, comic books, and other media, has been plain as day: to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no one has gone before.

Cue the theme song.

So it’s only fitting that the designers at Looney Labs continue to do the same with their Fluxx library of games. They explore strange new words — from Adventure Time and Batman to anatomy and astronomy. They seek out ways to breathe new life to their now classic card game by tying in different entertainment universes. And they boldly take the game where it has never gone before.

Again, cue the theme song.

Now, they’re venturing into the Delta Quadrant with their latest Star Trek-inspired twist on Fluxx — Star Trek Voyager Fluxx — so let’s take a look, shall we?

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For the uninitiated, Fluxx is a straightforward card game. You collect keeper cards and put them into play. Different combinations of keeper cards complete different goals, and each player has the chance to put different keeper cards and goal cards into play in order to win. So you might find yourself working toward completing the goal at hand when suddenly somebody plays a new goal, and the object of the game changes.

Along the way, players affect how the game is played by utilizing action cards and new rule cards which alter what players can and can’t do. Suddenly, you’ll have to trade your hand with another player, or start drawing three cards each turn instead of one.

The game can turn against you or spin in your favor in an instant; that’s both the challenge and the fun of playing Fluxx.

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[In this sample game, we have both Keepers we need to fulfill the goal, but we’re prevented from winning because we possess the Creeper card as well.]

Star Trek Voyager Fluxx marries the chaotic gameplay of the card game with familiar characters and themes from the iconic science fiction franchise to create an enjoyable play experience that shifts at warp speed. Even long-time Fluxx players are kept on their toes by the constant tweaks and variations each new set introduces, this one included.

Like the other Star Trek Fluxx games, Voyager Fluxx has a unique font for the card titles — allowing you to complicate the game by mixing it with other versions, and still quickly locate the cards for each set when you’re done — as well as Goals, Keepers, Creepers, Actions, and Rule cards based on the TV show.

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[From top to bottom, you’ve got the unique fonts for Star Trek Fluxx,
Star Trek: TNG Fluxx, The Bridge Expansion, and Voyager Fluxx.
(Not pictured: Star Trek: DS9 Fluxx)]

Whereas the Holodeck often came into play in the TNG edition of the game, Voyager Fluxx features coffee (Captain Janeway’s favorite), as well as the different time-travel ships Voyager encountered. (This plays into not only Keepers and Goals, but Action cards as well that affect the rules going forward.)

Some of the Keeper cards also grant additional actions to the players who use them — like taking additional cards, resolving Creepers that would prevent you from winning the game, etc. — that make them more desirable and handy than Keepers in other editions of the game.

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Not only that, but the cards are loaded with inside jokes and references to events from the series. Classic lines are quoted, and the cards cover everything from various friendships and romances from the show’s history to some of its most controversial moments; I for one cannot believe they mentioned the episode where they broke the warp 10 barrier and turned into weird little lizards.

Heck, the Caretaker that kicked off the show’s seven-season storyline even appears, and can disrupt the game as powerfully as he disrupted Voyager’s first episode.

Fluxx has always been a game that invites opportunism, chaos, and flexibility, but even by Fluxx standards, Star Trek Voyager Fluxx might be the most malleable edition yet. The game shifts constantly, and long-time players will find themselves as uneasy and paranoid as newcomers to the game. (Given Voyager’s long trip through unfamiliar space, that seems like quite an appropriate mood to evoke. Well done on that one, Looney Labs.)

Every time I think like I’ve seen every trick Fluxx has to offer, they manage to surprise me. Although this isn’t the most complicated version of Fluxx I’ve ever seen — the absence of Ungoals is nice, though balanced by the Surprise cards that can be used at any time — it’s sufficiently fresh enough to keep players of all experience levels coming back for more.

[Star Trek Voyager Fluxx is available from Looney Labs and certain online retailers, and will be featured as part of this year’s Holiday Puzzly Gift Guide, launching next week, so keep your eyes open!]


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PuzzleNation Product Review: Sword in Stone, Cathedral Door, and Grecian Computer

Puzzles come in many forms, all shapes and sizes, but there’s probably no puzzle genre that offers more variety and range in difficulty than mechanical brain teasers.

The physical element adds so much to the solving experience that cannot be replicated in other puzzle styles. Whether you’re assembling pieces into a given shape, manipulating two pieces to separate them (or put them together), or twisting and turning a puzzle until it becomes the desired shape, mechanical brain teasers offer a world of possibility.

And in today’s product review, we’ve got three different varieties of brain teaser to test out, all courtesy of the creative minds at Project Genius. All three are part of their True Genius line of wooden brain teasers, rated for ages 14 and up, and each has its own ranking on a scale of 1 to 5 in difficulty.

Without further ado, let’s get solving!

Our trilogy of puzzle styles begins with a 3-out-of-5-star difficulty brain teaser. To conquer Sword in Stone, you must live out the legend of an ancient knight who plunged his sword into a stone and must remove it from its new home.

The sword can move up or down depending on how you twist the hilt back and forth, hoping to outmaneuver a maze of different paths you cannot see. It’s a marvelous little puzzle where you have to build a model of its interior in your mind by process of elimination, turning the sword this way and that, lifting and lowering it in stages until it’s free.

[Yes, I’m posting this to prove I solved it.
But I’ve hidden the key’s details to prevent spoilers.]

You really do feel like a champion once you’ve made the final twist and the sword slips from its forever tomb. There’s a playful give-and-take between you and the brain teaser that encapsulates the patience, determination, and deductive skill necessary to be a strong puzzler.

But then, once you’re completed the Herculean task, you have to put it back into place. And despite the fact that you’ve literally just performed the last few steps, doing them in reverse and returning the blade to the stone is even harder.

I thoroughly enjoyed tackling his mechanical puzzle. It hit the sweet spot of challenge and satisfaction without taking up too much solving time. It won’t take you 900 years to crack this one, but that doesn’t make it any less worthwhile.

For a more traditional jigsaw-style solving experience, you can try Cathedral Door, a 4-out-of-5-star difficulty brain teaser. Again, the challenge laid before you sounds simple: reassemble this beautiful door by placing all of the pieces of wooden adornment into the stained glass pattern.

Yes, this one even helps you place the wooden pieces by offering a color pattern to follow, with various shapes leaving outlines for you to complete with the many wooden jigsaw-style pieces.

Of course, these pieces are unique in shape and design, some of them squat and complex, others long, thin, and rangy. It’s amazing how many ways you can place these puzzle pieces that seem to fit the pattern to a tee. With seemingly infinite permutations, how will you ever put them all back?

And yet, when you place a piece properly, it immediately feels right. It’s a very curious solving sensation — knowing for sure that a piece FITS somewhere, even if the other pieces around it haven’t been placed yet — but it’s one that makes solving Cathedral Door a very engaging challenge. I didn’t find it all that much harder than Sword in Stone, so I’m not sure a full star in difficulty difference is warranted, but this remains an eye-catching and challenging puzzle.

We round out our trifecta of brain teasers by maxing out the difficulty scale with this 5-out-of-5-star-ranked mathematical puzzle, Grecian Computer, created as a spiritual successor of the Antikythera Mechanism. And undoubtedly, this puzzle might leave people just as baffled as the piece that inspired it.

You must spin and twist this wooden “computer” until the numbers in all twelve columns add up to 42 at the same time. That’s daunting in and of itself. But it’s more than just spinning various dials.

There are cut-outs in some wheels where the numbers below can be shown, flaps that block other numbers, and joined pieces that spin together. Each of the four wheels — plus the base — have numbers at all 12 clock positions, and even a small rotation can vastly change the arrangement of numbers in front of you.

It genuinely feels like the mathematical equivalent of a Rubik’s Cube, each twist bringing one column to completion while leaving others further than ever from a unified solution. There are a lot of variables at play here, and it can be a little frustrating.

And yet, you never despair. You never feel like giving up. Each small victory, each alignment that makes sense in your head, inches you closer, and before long, you’re spinning and twisting like a dervish, eliminating false paths and unhelpful combinations en route to victory.

This brain teaser most definitely deserves the 5-out-of-5 difficulty rating, and it’s also beautifully engineered. The bottom wheel spins at the barest touch, and while others have more resistance, you can’t help but marvel at this well-made and devious machine.


Sword in Stone, Cathedral Door, and Grecian Computer are all available through Project Genius as well as certain online retailers.

Whether you’re looking for a deduction puzzle, an assembly puzzle, or a twisty puzzle, one of these impressive brain teasers from Project Genius is sure to hit the spot. And all three are part of this year’s Holiday Puzzly Gift Guide, coming soon, so be sure to check it out!

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


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PuzzleNation Product Review: Knot Dice and Knot Dice Squared

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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.]

You can easily lose yourself in a Celtic knot design if you stare long enough. Elaborate unbroken paths, formed within circles, crosses, and other shapes, weave together in compelling patterns.

There are many dice games on the market today, but none of them capture the same intricate flow and beauty found in Celtic knots. Except for one, that is, which just so happens to be the subject of today’s review: Knot Dice.

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[The six faces of a Knot die. Top row: end-cap, chain, branch;
Bottom row: sharp corner, rounded corner, crossing.]

In the puzzle game Knot Dice, you have eighteen identical six-sided dice featuring a different pattern on each face of the die. In order to form a completed design — in either one dimension or three dimensions — a solver uses the patterns on each face to form unbroken paths.

You can create designs both simple and complex as you play around with these gorgeous dice. I’ve seen players just freeform different patterns as they explore the potential of the dice in front of them, their imagination coming to life as they tinker with all six sides.

There are two rulebooks included, one for single-player puzzles, and the other for single-player and multi-player games that utilize both the dice and a small selection of tokens.

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The puzzles center around completing designs by moving dice, sliding them, or rotating them, depending on the puzzle, and many of the puzzles begin with starting patterns provided by the game designer. These puzzles are simple and quite elegant, making wonderful use of the various patterns on each die.

The games are a bit more inventive, many of them centered around Celtic history and mythology. Whether you’re collaborating with other players to build elaborate knotworks, racing to complete different knots, or capturing your opponent’s token, there are numerous clever and creative ways to employ the patterned dice to their fullest potential. (There’s even a game board and a score sheet included in the rulebook.)

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And those possibilities only expand when you incorporate Knot Dice Squared, a second set of dice that offer new puzzle opportunities and game options for solo solving and multi-player engagement.

Designed to work in conjunction with the original Knot Dice, Knot Dice Squared offers 26 dice with fresh patterns to create more elaborate designs and more involved gameplay styles.

Unlike the dice in the base game with their standard six-sides, the dice in the expansion consist of four types of knot dice: crossed, squared, rounded, and bridge. Not all of these dice line up perfectly with the originals, meaning you have to be more creative to complete the various designs as presented. This adds a delightful new wrinkle to each of the games already familiar to Knot Dice solvers.

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It cannot be overstated how beautiful these dice are. They’re arguably the best part about this game. Whether you’re using the classic green shading or the alternate blue dice (pictured below), the richness of color makes the intricate patterns pop, drawing the eye immediately.

The original game took almost a year to deliver to Kickstarter backers, and much of that time was spent making sure that the mass-produced dice for the game met the high standards of Matthew O’Malley’s early designs. He wanted the dice to be vivid, polished, and usable for the numerous puzzles and games that had been devised for the set. That rigorous attention to detail and demand for perfection has clearly paid off; it’s obvious in the dice, the packaging, the rulebooks, and the overall presentation of the entire product.

The end result is a truly eye-catching game as fun to look at as it is to play.

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Knot Dice and Knot Dice Squared take a step back from traditional dice games, injecting a patient, methodical, aesthetic style of puzzly engagement to the usual luck-of-the-draw rolling. By doing so, it puts a new twist on the genre, allowing for fluid gameplay and design that appeals to both puzzlers and game fans alike.

[Knot Dice and Knot Dice Squared are available from Black Oak Games and will be part of this year’s upcoming Holiday Puzzly Gift Guide, launching in a few weeks!]


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PuzzleNation Product Review: 13 Monsters

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It’s nearly Halloween, and monsters are a seminal part of the season’s festivities.

Maybe you’re hunting them alongside Buffy, the Winchester brothers, or agents Mulder and Scully. Maybe you’re trying to survive them, like any number of nubile teens at parties, secluded cabins, lakeside retreats, or after hours at the school.

Or maybe, you’re making them.

There’s a grand tradition in pop culture of monster-making, from Dr. Frankenstein and Dr. Moreau to Rita Repulsa and Mr. Sinister.

And who hasn’t wanted to make their own monster at one time or another?

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Well, you get your chance in 13 Monsters, a cutesy-spooky build-’em-and-fight-’em game with a load of skill and a little luck required.

13 Monsters combines the attentiveness of Memory, the dice-rolling skills of Yahtzee or Tenzi, and the tactical timing of Bears Vs. Babies or Fluxx to create an enjoyable gameplay experience that’s more fraught with tension than you might expect from a game featuring such heartwarming big-eyed monsters.

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And while we’re on the subject, the art for these thirteen monsters is out of this world. The creatures are visually striking, gorgeously rendered onto the tile pieces, and so vivid that they practically pop out into 3-D.

Each has a distinct flavor, adding horns, fangs, wings, and all sorts of tiny details to hint at the deeper, darker worlds they might inhabit. I cannot say enough good things about the art direction behind this game.

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The game starts with a 9×9 grid of tiles, all face down. The pieces of thirteen different monsters are scattered across this grid, and you must find matching pairs of monster pieces to build your gruesomely adorable fighters. If you flip two tiles and they don’t match, your turn is over.

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Once you locate a pair — the two tiles making up the top of the head, the two tiles making up the eyes, or the two tiles making up the body — you place it in the play area in front of you, and you may draw again. You can keep drawing until you fail to make a match.

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If you have all three sets — no matter if they’re from the same monster or their element symbols match — you combine them to form a full monster.

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Once you have a full monster, you can attack your opponents with the goal of taking one of their matched pairs for yourself. (This is one way to assemble a complete, matching monster.)

Different monster combinations have different powers as well, depending on how many of your sets match. This can grant you the power to swap parts between your monsters, freeze tiles on the memory board to prevent other players from taking them, or look at additional tiles on the memory board.

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As you can see, there’s a lot going on at once, and the more monsters you assemble, the more options you have available. You need to keep track of what tiles have been revealed, what pairs your opponents have, what pairs you need, how dangerous their monsters are, and how dangerous your monster is. (There’s also the threat of the thirteenth monster out there, which is the most powerful.)

Testing your memory, your ability to assemble the best monster from the pieces you have available, and gauging when to strike for maximum effect, this game will keep board gamers and puzzle fans alike on their toes.

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We were impressed by how much gameplay was packed into what seemed like a simple memory/combat mashup game. The wealth of options available, the stunning artwork, and the addictive gameplay quickly made it a hit at the gaming table.

Plus the relative family friendliness of the monsters ensured that younger players could get into the game as well, exposing themselves to several different gameplay styles all at once.

While it may remind you of Dr. Frankenstein’s famous creation, 13 Monsters is no cobbled-together stroke of luck. It’s a well-assembled machine.

[13 Monsters is available from 13-monsters.com and select European outlets.]


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