PuzzleNation Product Review: Anatomy Fluxx

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

When compared to the staggering number of pure-entertainment games out there, the number of educational games — that are still lots of fun — is pretty small. But it is growing steadily, and the team at Looney Labs is at the forefront of that endeavor with a series of education versions of their classic card game, Fluxx.

With Math and Chemistry covered by previous editions, the Looney Labs crew looked inward for inspiration for the next edition in the series, Anatomy Fluxx, and they’ve struck gold.

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.

So here, you’re combining different organs and body parts (your keeper cards) to form different bodily systems (your goals). But creating Anatomy Fluxx wasn’t simply a matter of swapping out keepers and goals with biology references.

In addition to the usual rule change cards regarding how many cards to draw, how many play, hand limits, and so, they’ve introduced rules to make use of bonus educational information at the bottom of each keeper card.

These rules offer bonus card draws if:

  • you can name an organ after hearing the facts about it
  • you can recite the facts for a given organ
  • you can offer an alternative, true fact about a given organ

There’s even a meta rule you can use to ensure that at least one educational card is in play at all times, if you really want to reinforce the trivia provided!

And the innovations don’t stop there. They’ve built upon the concept of creeper cards — detrimental keeper cards that can prevent you from winning — by introducing ungoals: goal cards where all players LOSE when the wrong combination of creeper cards are played.

Not only do the ungoals offer additional stakes to the game, but they serve an educational purpose as well; the ungoals highlight actual medical dangers. If you have the Mutation creeper, alongside either the Lungs keeper or Prostate keeper, the Cancer ungoal is met and everyone loses. (The poignant fact at the bottom of the Cancer ungoal states “Breast cancer is most common, followed by lung and prostate.” Sobering, but true.)

But that’s not to say that all of the new features of the game are dour. Take, for instance, the Heartbeat rule card: if someone has the Heart in play, and they perform a heartbeat sound during the other players’ turns, they’ll earn bonus cards. That’s the sort of silliness that makes Fluxx great fun.

All in all, I was impressed by the depth of creativity that went into the latest offering from Looney Labs. This is a game that lives up to the chaotic, replayable spirit of Fluxx, but with new tactics, solid educational information, and some important messages to take away from the game as well. Their educational Fluxx series continues to impress.

Anatomy Fluxx is available now from Looney Labs!


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PuzzleNation Product Review: ThinkFun’s Kaleidoscope Puzzle

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

Clear, or transparent, cards are a rarity in puzzles and games, but they offer a terrific gameplay mechanic: the ability to stack cards without obscuring information.

The clear cards in the storytelling game Gloom allow players to add and subtract points from various characters as the grim and whimsical stories unfold. The quick-play pattern-matching game On the Dot — which was part of last month’s Tabletop Tournament — challenges players to properly arrange four clear cards — each with randomly-placed colored dots — in order to match a given pattern before their opponents do.

Now, the creative minds at ThinkFun have put a wonderful, vibrant twist on the clear-card genre of puzzles and games with their latest release: Kaleidoscope Puzzle.

[Two of the six kaleidoscope tiles.]

In Kaleidoscope Puzzle, you have six octagonal tiles, each with its own pattern of tinted and clear quadrants. It’s up to the solver to arrange either two or three of the six tiles in order to recreate the patterns on the challenge cards.

First off, I want to say that this might be the most aesthetically pleasing puzzle I’ve ever solved. Just turning the kaleidoscope cards in my hands in front of a light is enjoyable, letting the snowflake-patterning on each card blur and come into focus anew as the cards line up, each time matching and mixing the various colored quadrants to create eye-catching effects. It’s brilliant in its simplicity, and unlike any color-based puzzle I’ve seen on the market today.

It almost feels like putting together a stained-glass window, particularly as the challenge cards progress and the patterns grow more elaborate.

[One possible combination of those two tiles.]

The Beginner challenge cards help to familiarize you with the gameplay. You quickly figure out placement and color combinations. As you transition into the Intermediate challenge cards, the patterns grow more elaborate, and honestly, more beautiful. It’s amazing the combinations you can conjure with just two of the six possible kaleidoscope tiles!

Halfway through the Intermediate challenge cards, they ratchet up both the possibilities and the difficulty, as you now have to create the patterns with three kaleidoscope tiles. Now you’re trying to cover all four quadrants with color patterns, and it becomes about maximizing what each tile offers.

But it’s in the Advanced challenge cards that the game really separates itself from On the Dot-style solving, because Kaleidoscope puzzle has the color-mixing element as well. Not only are you manipulating the kaleidoscope tiles to place the basic colors where you need them, but you also need to create green, orange, and purple patterns as well.

Toward the end of the Advanced challenge cards, you start to deal with eighths instead of quadrants, divvying up the field into increasingly more complicated designs, reminiscent of pie charts.

Sometimes, you might discover alternate ways to form the patterns, which is very satisfying indeed. It also speaks to how adaptable the six kaleidoscope tiles are, since you can arrange them in seemingly endless combinations.

By the time you reach the Expert challenge cards, you’ll be turning, flipping, and rearranging these tiles like crazy to form the intricate patterns on the cards. It’s an unexpectedly relaxing form of puzzling, a meditative mix of challenge and aesthetics.

[The same pattern coming to life under a desk lamp.]

I cannot say enough good things about this puzzle. Mixing the resource management of how to get the most out of each tile you choose with the striking visuals of the kaleidoscope tiles makes for a unique solving experience.

Puzzles that are as satisfying to look at after the solve as they are to solve in the first place… that’s a true rarity. What a treat.

[Kaleidoscope Puzzle is available from ThinkFun and participating retailers, starting at $9.99!]


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PuzzleNation Product Review: Get the MacGuffin

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

There are all sorts of different card games out there. Some require you to empty your hand of cards before your opponents can. Some are about accumulating the right cards to accomplish certain tasks, reach certain totals, or match certain patterns and images.

Today’s card game is a little different, because it’s not about emptying your hand, accomplishing goals, or matching images… it’s all about outlasting your opponents.

In today’s product review, we explore the latest offering from the crew at Looney Labs: Get the MacGuffin.

At first glance, this might simply seem like a scaled-down version of Fluxx. You have action cards (which affect how you and other players play the game) and object cards (which are placed down in front of you, like the Keepers and Creepers in Fluxx).

As you might expect from the name of the game, getting the MacGuffin is a worthwhile accomplishment, but it’s not the true endgame here. It’s just one very attractive way to reach the endgame.

Between the action cards and object cards, you’re simply trying to keep cards in your hand or in play in front of you while your opponents whittle down their own meager stashes of cards. If you run of cards, you’re out of the game.

And this happens faster than you’d think. With only 23 cards in the deck — 7 object cards and 16 action cards — you could run out of cards in only a few turns. You see, each player starts with the same number of cards. But there’s a big difference between the minimum number of players (two, which means you each get 5 cards, leaving 13 cards out of play) and the maximum number of players (eleven, which means you each get 2 cards, leaving 1 card out of play).

The cards vary wildly in value. Some are very silly; play The Shrugmaster, for instance, and you simply shrug, using up a turn. Otherwise, you don’t affect the game or the other players in any way.

Compare this to a valuable card, like The MacGuffin, which can be picked up and played again over and over. As long as you have that card in play in front of you, you will always have another turn. In a game where every turn can cost you cards, The MacGuffin is a powerful card to wield.

Players familiar with Fluxx will find some of the actions and object card powers familiar, as they allow you to randomly remove cards from other players’ hands, swap cards (or hands) with other players, and even block other cards from being used.

The balance of cards and actions is impeccable. While some cards are very influential, there is always another card in the deck that can remove it, shift it, or neutralize it. (For every MacGuffin, there is not only a Backup MacGuffin, but also a Fist of Doom.)

This adds tons of replay value to a card game that at first blush might seem limited. But the level of card interaction — like the Rock, Paper, and Scissors cards pictured above — make each game an unexpected treat.

Plus it’s a hugely different game based on the number of players. With a big group, you need to be more aggressive, because you could run out of cards in a few minutes. With a smaller group — or just a pairing — you have to strategize more, protecting your valuable cards while trying to prevent your opponents from taking advantage early. Or, heaven forbid, getting the MacGuffin.

Not only that, but the art on each card is terrific. The random characters on the object cards in particular — everyone from The Merchant and The Spy to The Thief and The Assassin — hint at a larger narrative, a bigger storytelling world that the game seems to only scratch the surface of. They feel like the misfits from a particularly wacky Guy Ritchie heist movie, adding a fun element of whimsy to the often-dastardly proceedings.

Get the MacGuffin is a quick-play game that you’ll want to play over and over again.

[Get the MacGuffin is available from Looney Labs and other participating retailers, starting at just $10!]


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PuzzleNation Product Review: ThinkFun’s Cat Crimes

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

ThinkFun is a company that excels at creating logical deduction puzzles for solvers of all ages. Whether it’s moving robots toward a rocket ship in Lunar Landing, completing electrical circuits in Circuit Maze, or placing mirrors to reflect a laser’s beam in Laser Maze Jr., these clever puzzly challenges introduce classic puzzle concepts to younger solvers in engaging, unique ways.

But with their latest release, they’ve taken a step back from more high-concept, high-tech puzzles and embraced a more traditional logic puzzle format.

In Cat Crimes, you’re given a series of clues, and it’s up to you to place the six cat characters around the living room in order to determine which one has been up to some destructive mischief.

For instance, a given challenge card will list the crime in the upper right corner — a flowerpot that’s been knocked over, for instance — and the clues listed beneath will tell you which cats are your suspects, along with hints for where to place them in the living room.

The living room is covered with little bits of visual evidence — scratches on the floor, paw prints, mouse toys, etc. — that can be used to help you figure out where each of the cats were sitting when the crime was committed.

The beginner-level mysteries start out simple, with the clues mostly focused on the placement of the cats (across from a sock or next to some catnip, for instance). As the mysteries cards grow more complex — moving from beginner and intermediate levels of difficulty to advanced and, finally, expert — more options emerge. A cat could be in one of two places, or is only referenced with regards to another cat it’s sitting next to or across from.

Higher-level challenge cards will also refer to qualities of the cat suspects themselves. Some wear bows or have bells on their collars, while others are referenced by eye color. Solvers need to keep increasingly greater amounts of information in their head in order to place all of the cats in their proper positions and solve the crime.

I repeatedly found myself discussing possibilities out loud as I solved. “Well, if Sassy is between two of these cats, it can only be Mr. Mittens and Ginger, and Ginger can’t be in front of a scratch mark, so…”

With only six possible crimes and six possible suspects, you’d think that repeated play would lead to player burnout or quickly exhausting the possible permutations, but that’s not the case here at all. As you ascend through the deck of challenge cards, the ThinkFun team throw new twists and cluing styles at you, keeping you on your toes. A lot of creativity and hard work went into the cluing here, and it shows.

[Image courtesy of Logic Puzzles.org.]

It’s not only an absolutely adorable way to bring logic puzzle solving to a new audience, it’s also a refreshing change of pace for solvers accustomed to traditional logic puzzles (complete with those tables where all of the possible permutations are listed, and you can simply cross off the incorrect ones as you go). Cat Crimes requires you to keep more of that information in mind as you determine where each cat goes.

With up to six feline suspects to place per crime and 40 different crimes to solve, Cat Crimes will keep your deductive skills sharp, even as the easier challenge cards introduce younger solvers and logic newbies alike to a different style of puzzle-solving. Cat Crimes is not just one of the cutest puzzle games I’ve played in a long time, it’s the perfect gateway puzzle to strip away some of the intimidation factor of logic problems.

[Cat Crimes is available from ThinkFun and other select retailers for $12.99!]


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PuzzleNation Product Review: Chessplus

Chess is one of the all-time classic games. Alongside Checkers, Go, Tic-Tac-Toe, and mah-jongg, chess is one of the cornerstones of the genre, one of the first games we’re introduced to, and one of the formative games upon which we build concepts of strategy, timing, and opportunity.

Over the centuries, there have been numerous attempts to reinvent chess or find new ways to play. We’ve talked about puzzly variations on chess in the past, all of which can be played with a standard chess set. (Except for that guillotine set we featured last year.) But if you’re looking for a truly unique chess experience, the team at Chessplus have a simple, elegant game for you.

Chessplus is played under standard chess rules, but with one crucial difference: you can combine your pieces into more powerful ones.

Do you want a pawn that can make less-expected moves, or a knight that can play conservatively? Combine a knight and pawn into a single piece with the abilities of both. Do you need to keep your queen where it is, but still want a versatile piece that can command the board? Easy. Combine a rook and a bishop, and you’ve got a new piece that works just like a queen.

[Only the king is a solid piece. Every other piece can be combined with others.]

Merging pieces not only allows you to take advantage of each component’s abilities, but it can also allow you to more swiftly transport pieces across the board. Instead of a pawn crawling across the board one square at a time, combine it with a rook who can send it straight across the board, where it is then promoted to a queen! Or combine two pawns so you only have to escort one piece across the board safely, then split them again and voila! Two pawns promoted into new queens.

Oh yes, merging the pieces doesn’t link them forever. You can split them at any time. That feature adds another layer to your gameplay, since putting one merged piece into play deep in your opponent’s territory can suddenly become two separated pieces again.

Now, this piece-combining mechanic is a double-edged sword. Yes, you have a more powerful, mobile game piece. (I was very excited to try out combining a knight and a queen, just to make the queen even more dangerous.) But if someone takes a merged piece, you lose BOTH halves, making them as vulnerable as they are valuable. Imagine an opponent capturing my merged knight/queen, so I lose a knight AND a queen in one turn. That could be a devastating loss.

As you’d expect, it took a little while to grow accustomed to these new variant pieces. With so much to keep track of during a normal chess game, pieces with greater mobility make strategy — both offensive and defense — a bit more complicated.

But it was also great fun. Early Chessplus games tend to be faster, more aggressive, because of the greater mobility allowed by some of the merged piece combinations. But once you’ve played a few games, your more traditional chess mindset settles in, and gameplay tends to become more measured and tactical.

Just imagine. A single change that offers a world of new possibilities and challenges. That’s brilliant, in my estimation. Chessplus is a wonderful way to reinvigorate chess if the game has lost its luster for you. And if you are a dedicated player, I think Chessplus will prove to be a welcome change of piece from the traditional game.

[Chessplus sets start at $35.95 (for just the pieces) and are available from the shop on Chessplus.com.]


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PuzzleNation Review: Topple Magazine

One of the best things about being a puzzle constructor these days is the level of access solvers have to you and your puzzles. Many constructors create and maintain their own puzzle subscription services, funding them through tips, crowdfunding, subscription fees, or direct-to-solver sales. When puzzly skills and a knack for self-promotion meet, you have the opportunity for real success in building a reputation and an audience.

So when constructor Gregory Gray reached out to me regarding his puzzle e-magazine, Topple, I was all ears. Whether it’s print books, downloadable puzzle packets, or Kickstarter campaigns, I’m always happy to spread the word about puzzle projects that I think the PuzzleNation audience will enjoy.

Gregory sent me the latest edition of Topple (issue VII) to review, so let’s dive right in.

Issue 7 offers a variety of different puzzles to try out. Anagramming and word-forming challenges, trivia, a rebus, some deduction, find-the-path games, and more can be found across these 12 pages of puzzles (plus solution pages, obviously).

I was immediately impressed with all of the different solving styles on display. Shying away from classics like crosswords, word seeks, and fill-ins, Topple opts for puzzles that offer greater opportunities to incorporate art and interesting layouts.

From the anagram rings of ‘Gram Crackers to the alphabet blocks of Blockhead, a great deal of work has clearly gone into not only the puzzles, but the presentation of them, which makes for a very eye-catching solving experience.

The mix of art and puzzles also presents a more welcoming tone for new solvers, who might find a denser arrangement of puzzle grids to be more off-putting or daunting. Each puzzle is given plenty of space to establish itself, so even unfamiliar puzzle types seem more inviting.

But solvers who prefer a bit more challenge will also find something worth their time in this issue of Topple, as a two-page spread of Japanese-style deduction puzzles awaits you in the middle of the book. Whether you’re connecting the dots in Masyu and Hashi or deducing the placement of numbers in Kakuro or black square in Nurikabe, these were easily the most challenging puzzles in the entire magazine, a pleasant change of pace for a more experienced solver.

[Examples of Hashi and Nurikabe puzzles.
Images courtesy of Conceptis Puzzles.]

To be fair, the book isn’t perfect. Some of the blurbs explaining the rules of each puzzle are a bit clunky, which can lead to moments of solver confusion. For instance, it’s not immediately clear in Blockhead if you can anagram the letters in each given word, or if those letters stay in place while you add a letter from the options below.

But those hiccups are few and far between, and for the most part, I found solving issue 7 of Topple to be a very enjoyable solving experience. I breezed through some puzzles, while others put my puzzly skills to the test.

And with Topple, you get quite a bang for your buck. Literally: Each issue of Topple is only $1, and when you consider both the variety of puzzles and the production quality of the book, it’s a steal.

So if you’re looking to try something new without breaking the bank, Topple is an excellent place to start.

The complete Topple collection, along with a free downloadable sampler pack of puzzles, can be found here. You can also subscribe to Topple through Patreon, and be sure to keep up with all things Topple-related on their Facebook page.


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