PuzzleNation Product Review: Codenames

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There are all kinds of games where communication is crucial.

In You’ve Got Crabs, you must employ a secret non-verbal signal to inform your partner that you’ve completed a task, but without the other team spotting your signal and intercepting. In Taboo, you have to get a teammate to state a particular word, but without using several words closely associated with the answer.

But other games ratchet up both the creativity necessary to win and the difficulty involved in doing so. Imagine having to communicate volumes with a single word.

In today’s product review, we delve into the world of spycraft and put our communication skills to the test as we try out the card game Codenames.

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In Codenames, two teams (the red team and the blue team) are tasked with identifying all of their secret agents before their opponents can locate their own agents from the same list. But in order to do so, they must pick those agents out of a field of 25 possible individuals.

In each group, there are red agents, blue agents, innocent bystanders, and an assassin. Each possible individual is marked with a codename that is viewable by all of the players.

So, where does the wordplay and communication come in?

Each team selects one player apiece to serve as the spymaster. The spymaster for each team looks at one of the secret patterns determining which cards/codenames represent blue agents and which red agents.

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So it’s up to the spymaster to point the players in the right direction, but it’s up to the players to actually choose a given person in the field of 25 and label them an agent.

Each round, the spymaster comes up with a one-word clue for the other players on their team that points to their secret agents (as well as a number representing the number of agents in the field that the clue applies to). The word must be specific enough to point them in the right direction, but that can be difficult depending on the words in your play area.

For instance, in our example grid, the clue “royalty: 1” could point toward KING, or QUEEN, or HEAD, or even REVOLUTION, depending on what the other players associate with the word “royalty.” But suppose that you want your players to choose KING and not QUEEN. Then “royalty” is no good, because it’s too vague.

The number aspect of the clue is also important, because it offers the opportunity to gain an advantage over your opponents. For instance, if you wanted both KING and QUEEN to be labeled as your agents, the clue “royalty: 2” would be good, because those would probably be the two most likely choices based on that clue.

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In our example grid, the red team went first, and the spymaster said “dishes: 2.” The other player on the red team chose GLASS and WASHER from the grid, and both were correct and marked with red agent cards. This was a smart play, but also a risky one, as PAN could also be associated with “dishes.”

The blue team responded with the clue “rasp: 1,” choosing specificity and a single possible answer for the sake of certainty, rather than risk trying for more than one agent in this turn. The blue player correctly selected FILE, and that card was marked with a blue agent card.

The next turn for the red team didn’t go nearly as well. The spymaster used the clue “big: 1” and instead of choosing SHOT (the intended answer), the player opted for MAMMOTH. The card was revealed to be an innocent bystander, and the red team’s turn was immediately over for failing to ID an agent that turn.

And that is one of the big strategic challenges of Codenames. Do you stick to 1 agent per turn with a greater chance of success, or do you try to get more creative and bold by going for less certain clues that could lead to multiple agent IDs in one fell swoop? Do you risk uncovering the assassin (and immediately losing the game) with a clue that could suggest him as well as a secret agent for your team?

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The field of codenames in the play area can also lead to unexpected challenges. In one game, I was playing the spymaster for my team. The words JUPITER and SATURN were both in the grid, but only JUPITER was one of our agents. So a clue like “planet” was out. Unfortunately, other clues (like “biggest” or “god”) were excluded because they also applied to other codenames in the play area, including the dreaded assassin.

A mix of tactics, efficiency, association, vocabulary, and luck, Codenames is a terrific game that will test your wits, your communication skills, and your ability to make every word count.

The sheer volume of possible codenames (as well as the increased variety offered by each card being double-sided) ensues a huge amount of replay value is built into the game. And not only is it great as a group game, but the two-player version is just as fun!

Codenames, playable for 4 to 8 players (with variant rules for 2 or 3 players) is available at Target, Barnes & Noble, and many online retailers.


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PuzzleNation Product Review: The Abandons

What is it about exploring a maze that is so satisfying? We’ve covered labyrinths before — in book form, in wood form, even in LEGO form — but we’ve never sampled something quite like The Abandons.

The Abandons is a one-player labyrinth-building game that is different every time you play. And unlike most labyrinths that are predetermined for you (and are observed from above), you have to explore it room by room, dealing with the surprises and consequences revealed by your choices.

[A sampling of the cards you’ll see; clockwise from upper left: an item card, a stairs card, the card backing, a corridor card with choices, the end card, the beginning card.]

This quick-play game is simple to learn, simple to set up, and difficult to conquer. Locate the beginning and end cards, remove them from the deck, then shuffle the remaining 48 cards. Once they’re shuffled, place the end card at the bottom of the deck. This is now your draw pile.

Place your beginning card down on the table. You’ll notice it has a diamond at the door. The diamonds represent how many cards you draw in order to move forward. With one diamond, you simply draw the next card and play it. With two, you discard one card and play the next. With three, you discard two cards and play the third. And so on.

[Sometimes you reach a quick dead end.]

As you pull cards from the draw pile and add them to the labyrinth, you’ll come to intersections that allow for multiple paths. You’ll pick one direction and follow it. If you come to a dead end, you can retrace your steps back to the nearest intersection with an unexplored path and continue your journey.

But if you encounter enough dead ends, you’ll find yourself without any unexplored paths, and you lose, having trapped yourself in the labyrinth forever. Bummer.

You can see in this playthrough, we were lucky with our first cards, as we drew an item card immediately (and set it aside for later), followed by an intersection card with three paths to choose from. We went left, drew another intersection card, and then had a choice to make.

If one of those paths leads to a dead end, we’re still in good shape since there are currently four unexplored paths to fall back on. Options are life in this game.

Unfortunately, we went right, drew another intersection card, and then went left, drawing the collapse card.

If you draw this card, you wipe all of your progress from the play area and go back to the start, as if you’ve fallen into a lower level of the labyrinth and must start your search anew for an exit. (This is one of two cards that can cause this game reset. The other, the stairs card, gives you the choice of continuing with your current path or going back to the start. It’s slightly more pleasant than the collapse card.)

So you don’t just have dead end cards to worry about. Sometimes you’ll be pretty deep into your explorations, and suddenly, you’re back at the start. It’s a kick in the teeth, to be sure.

Now here’s a game where we’ve gotten pretty far. You can see in the top left and the bottom center areas of your screen, a few dead end cards have appeared. But we have several unexplored paths to fall back on, as well as three item cards.

The item cards offer different options depending on how many you have. If you have one, you can spend it to look at the top three cards of the draw pile (as if you’ve found part of a map of the labyrinth). If you have two, you can spend them on a bomb to blast your way through a dead end or another wall, giving yourself another unexplored path (and another chance for escape). And if you have three, you can spent them on a magic mirror that allows you to return to the start and take a new path.

Overall, I really enjoyed playing this game. Many explore-a-world games require lots of setup, whereas this one gets going in seconds and plays out in about ten minutes or so. The mix of strategy and luck makes each game unpredictable — even if it’s a bit frustrating to draw a dead end card early on that squashes the whole game. The item cards allow for some solid tactical planning — I’m a huge fan of bombing my way through walls — which offsets the randomness of the draw pile.

Yes, it’s true that this isn’t really a game that you can master, since randomness will always be a big part of the gameplay, but it’s certainly a game you can get better at playing. After just a few tries, you start to get the hang of how to choose your paths and try to make the draw pile work for you, not against you. (In that way, it becomes a puzzly version of poker where you’re playing against the deck itself.)

It’s a terrific solo solving experience, a great intro game for younger players (I certainly think you can go younger than the 14+ recommended by the designers), and small enough to fit in your pocket. This is one quick-play game that won’t sit on the shelf for very long.

The Abandons is available from Puzzling Pixel Games and select online retailers.


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Kickstarter Roundup!

Oh yes, it’s that time again.

For years now, crowdfunding platforms like Kickstarter and Indiegogo have been hotbeds of innovative puzzle and game design, and I’m always happy to spread the word about worthy projects that I think will delight and intrigue my fellow PuzzleNationers.

So let’s take a look at some projects that are currently seeking funding and see if any pique your interest!


The first (and puzzliest!) entry in today’s list is a reinvention of something PuzzleNation Blog readers already know: Eric Berlin’s Puzzle Your Kids subscription service.

Eric realized that the clever puzzles he was creating worked for both younger AND older solvers, and has reimagined the subscription service to provide all sorts of quality variety puzzles to solvers.

Now known as Puzzlesnacks, it’s the perfect way to keep the puzzler in your life busy with fun, unique variety puzzles, no matter what their skill level.

With 23 days to go, the project is already funded, so any further funding just means more puzzles and even greater quality going forward!

Our second project is something for the murder mystery fans in the audience: A Note for Murder.

This game plays on classic murder mystery tropes, as players piece together the crime —  identifying the suspect, the murder weapon, and the scene of the murder. The twist? The crime hasn’t happened yet!

Plus you’re competing with your fellow players. Although it takes working together to solve the crime, only one person can get the credit for preventing the crime. Will it be you?

With 23 days to go, the project is one-third funded, but I suspect this intriguing spin on traditional murder mystery board games like Clue will meet its funding goal.

Our third campaign celebrates the history of one of the most unique game companies in the market today: Cheapass Games.

The company originally marketed its games by selling only what you need to play the game, allowing you to save money by scrounging up your own dice, tokens, and more from the games you already have. It was a genius approach that led to dozens of fantastic, unusual gaming experiences.

And now, they’re bringing that history to life with Cheapass Games in Black and White, a book collecting the rules and histories of every game offered by the company during the Black and White era.

The book is already funded, but with 21 days left, this project is still worth your time.

We delve into a peculiar true story from history with our fourth entry: Potemkin Empire.

As Empress Catherine tours the towns and villages in her domain, each player competes to convince her that they have the most prosperous and worthy village. And a bit of chicanery is needed, as everyone is setting up empty building facades to enhance the look of their individual towns.

The game quickly becomes a battle of cons, ruses, bluffs, and betrayal, as players try to expose the fake buildings of others while concealing their own false fronts. This looks like a terrific strategy game with some devious poker elements, built in the same vein as Sheriff of Nottingham and other social games.

There’s less than 36 hours left in the campaign, so contribute now. The game is fully funded and pushing towards some worthwhile stretch goals in the home stretch!

Our fifth and final entry today adds a macabre sense of humor to an iconic storytelling world.

Gloom of Thrones combines the mystique and grandeur of Game of Thrones with the namesake card game’s twisted humor and clever gameplay. As each player takes control of a noble family, they endeavor to make them as miserable as possible to score points, and then kill them off when the time is right.

The transparent cards allow for all sorts of playing combinations as you torment and mistreat the parody characters. And naturally, you can derail the other players by causing nice things to happen to their characters. There’s really nothing quite like playing Gloom.

With 20 days to go, the game is fully funded and pushing onward toward stretch goals, so don’t miss out on this hilariously brutal spin-off.


Have any of these projects hooked you? Let us know which ones you’re supporting in the comments section below! And if there are any campaigns you’re supporting that we missed, let us know!

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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: Thinking Putty Puzzle

[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.]

ThinkFun has been pushing the envelope for years when it comes to logic puzzles. Whether we’re talking lasers, electrical circuits, colors, shadows, or gravity, they continue to find innovative ways to test the puzzly skills of their customers.

And the subject of today’s review is no exception. It takes a very simple idea — connecting colored dots on a grid — and adds a tactile, intriguing twist.

Let’s take a closer look at their newest offering, Thinking Putty Puzzle.

In Thinking Putty Puzzle, the solver has to connect the colored dots to their matching counterparts on the grid. They do so by bending, stretching, and shaping packets of putty into lines that connect the dots.

But those paths cannot cross. That would be too easy. Instead, the solver must map out how to connect the dots without crossing.

(There are bridge pieces that allow the putty paths to pass over or under each other, but otherwise, the paths cannot interact.)

And so, a simple connect-the-dots game becomes an engaging puzzle that involves careful planning and use of the grid space.

It looks like a lot of available space, but it fills up faster than you’d think with six paths to draw.

As you can see, the puzzle consists of a playing grid (which doubles as storage for the game and the putties), six colors of Crazy Aaron’s Thinking Putty (including a ThinkFun exclusive Binary Blue color), three bridge pieces, three blocking pieces (representing obstacles to be circumvented), and the 60 challenge cards.

The Challenge Cards increase in difficulty as you work your way through the deck. Beginner and Intermediate Challenges give way later to Advanced and Expert puzzles that will have you wracking your brain to twist, turn, and maneuver your six putty paths around the playing grid.

Each Challenge Card tells you where to place the colored dots to connect, as well as any bridge or blocking pieces are part of the grid.

From there, it’s all up to you. How do you proceed with 12 points to connect?

Maybe you start by connecting the nearest ones in order to figure out how to best use the remaining space.

Or perhaps you work out which dots will need to use the outermost paths and place those, so that the interior remains open for trickier maneuvering.

It’s easy to pull the putty until it’s stringy, which makes it harder to manipulate. Instead, I found it worked best to pull quickly and forcefully, almost suddenly, rather than gradually. It makes quite a satisfying SNAP sound when you’ve done it right, and there’s no stringy mess to clean up.

Also, be careful to avoid letting the various colors touch. The putty happily sticks to itself, so any pieces that intermingle are VERY difficult to separate.

That being said, the putty doesn’t adhere at all to the playing area, making the set up for the next puzzle — or clean up when you’re done puzzling — easy as could be.

(I, for one, was grateful that the sparkles in the Binary Blue didn’t rub off. When I first saw the glitter, it gave me Christmas card flashbacks.)

In terms of the actual puzzle-solving, strategy plays a bigger role here than you might expect. Honestly, it’s more like playing Risk or Chess than your solving usual logic puzzle.

For instance, once you’ve placed the red path in our example, your eyes naturally turn to the upper left corner, where green, orange, and yellow dots await. You need to place the green path in such a way that it doesn’t block or cut off access to the yellow or orange dots.

By thinking about the spaces needed to get in or out of those dots, it helps you eliminate bad paths to take, because in this puzzle, knowing where your path SHOULDN’T be is just as valuable as knowing where it should be.

Thinking Putty Puzzle takes the satisfaction of jigsaws and other physical puzzles to another level. While placing a jigsaw puzzle piece is cool, it’s not as cool as kneading the colored putty into a new path and tracing it onto the grid as part of your solve.

I expected to get a little bored with it after a while, but I didn’t. Watching the grid fill up with completed paths and seeing the puzzle come together never got old. On the contrary, the escalating difficulty made it all the more fulfilling to conquer each card and squish the putty back into a single lump while I prepped the next Challenge Card.

So, if you’re looking for a fun and accessible way to get younger solvers into puzzles — or you just prefer your logic puzzles to be more hands-on than the usual pencil-and-paper variety — then you’re sure to enjoy Thinking Putty Puzzle.

[Thinking Putty Puzzle is available from ThinkFun and other participating retailers.]


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