PuzzleNation Product Review: Minecraft Magnetic Travel Puzzle

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

Minecraft is one of the biggest indie video game success stories of the last twenty years. A simple block-style game about building things (and destroying things) is now a multimedia empire, complete with toys, LEGOs, and of course, video games across numerous platforms.

It was only a matter of time before it made the leap to puzzles, and as it turns out, the clever folks at ThinkFun were just the designers to bring Minecraft into a puzzlier world.

Minecraft Magnetic Travel Puzzle pits the player against devious deduction puzzles with elements of the Minecraft universe included. By using the clues provided on each challenge card, the player must arrange three swords, pickaxes, and pieces of armor (all different colors, making nine unique game pieces) on the 3×3 crafting table in a particular pattern.

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Completing the grid is the only way to bypass the ender dragon (who is placing these challenge obstacles in your path) and continue onto the next world in your journey.

The instructions, puzzles, solutions, game board, and pieces are all contained within the single spiral-bound game book, making this one of ThinkFun’s most portable products yet. The magnetic pieces are fairly sturdy, as is the game board, so it will hold up nicely to the rigors of travel (and being stuffed into various carry-on bags).

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The gameplay itself is all about interpreting the clues provided with each challenge card. Some clues offer hints on where to place pieces according to color, others according to shape. Additional clues center around a given piece’s location on the grid or in relation to another piece.

For instance, in Beginner Challenge #5 in the image below, the solver gets two hints: one about color and the other about the game pieces.

All three of the blue pieces will be placed along the diagonal, according to the first hint. And according to the second hint, a piece of armor will be in the upper right corner and a pickaxe will be in the middle square. Combining these two hints tells us where to place the blue armor and blue pickaxe. And since only one blue gamepiece is left, the blue sword goes in the lower left corner.

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Similarly, the combination of the yellow square in the center of the top row in the first hint and the sword image in the center of the top row in the second hint tells us where to place the yellow sword. Once that’s in place, we look at the remaining sword image on the second hint and know where to place the gray sword.

The gray square in the upper left corner of the first hint and the pickaxe image in the upper left corner of the second hint point to where to play the gray pickaxe (and the yellow pickaxe by process of elimination).

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With two game pieces left and one unoccupied yellow square in the first hint, the solver can easily complete this challenge, besting the ender dragon’s latest obstacle and moving forward.

Once you graduate from the Beginner and Intermediate difficulty levels, you’ll face a new wrinkle: negative clues. Negative clues are layouts that must be avoided, so instead of telling you where to place a piece, they tell you expressly where NOT to place a piece, ratcheting up the difficulty.

For instance, in Advanced Challenge #25, the negative hints tell us that a gray gamepiece can never be directly below and to the right of a blue gamepiece, or above and to the left of a yellow gamepiece.

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These restrictions will prove to be valuable hints going forward, often telling a savvy solver more about the layout of the crafting table than the regular clues!

By gradually teaching deductive reasoning — slowly introducing new ways to provide information and eliminate possibilities — the solver quickly grasps a key component of strategy and planning: “If this, then that” thinking.

This sort of cause-and-effect observation allows a solver to hold several pieces of information in your head at once, eliminating red herrings and unhelpful possibilities until you’re left with one solution that fits all the requirements. (Just as every Sudoku puzzle is an exercise in deduction, so is every challenge card in Minecraft Magnetic Travel Puzzle.)

Fun for younger solvers and older alike, ThinkFun’s latest deduction puzzle game turns Minecraft into Mindcraft, adding a valuable puzzly tool to the arsenal of every solver.

Minecraft Magnetic Travel Puzzle is available from ThinkFun and certain online retailers.


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PuzzleNation Product Review: Bananagrams Duel

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[Note: I received a free copy of these games in exchange for a fair, unbiased review. Due diligence, full disclosure, and all that. /end disclaimer]

When it comes to word-forming tile games, the folks at Bananagrams are the masters. Their fruit-inspired packaging is synonymous with that particular brand of puzzling, giving Scrabble a run for its money in terms of letter-tile games. And they have an uncanny knack for putting new spins on classic puzzle-game tropes, breathing new life into the genre.

For instance, Bananagrams Duel replaces the iconic Bananagrams tiles with letter dice. Does this really make a difference in the game play? Let’s find out together.

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Bananagrams Duel is a two-player word/grid-forming game, consisting of 24 six-sided letter dice, a handful of banana cards, and a handy carrying case. When it comes to travel-friendly puzzle games, it doesn’t get much simpler than this.

Instead of pulling from a shared pool of letter tiles, each player gets 12 of the 24 letter cubes. The goal is the same as a traditional Bananagrams game: to create a criss-crossing grid of recognizable words. You’re allowed to shift and flip any of your dice to other letters as needed, and the grid can change at any time. (Unlike, say, Scrabble, you’re not locked into a word if you’ve already spelled it. Anagramming is always an option.)

The first player to use all 12 letter dice and call out “Bananas!” wins the round and is awarded one banana card for the victory. First player to 10 banana cards wins.

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But those little banana cards do more than help you keep score. On the other side of each card is a theme. In one of the variant rule sets detailed in the little instructional guide, your completed grid must now contain at least one word that fits the given theme.

That little tweak can make a traditional Bananagrams game much more challenging. After all, if you’ve ever played the regular version of the game, you know how words can just evaporate from your vocabulary during play, only to suddenly return once your opponent has completed a grid. Now imagine that same feeling, but with a theme of sports or six-letter words attached to it.

In one of our test games, we actually made this harder on ourselves by trying to make EVERY word in the grid fit the theme.

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As you can see here, we were allowed to choose our own theme, and we chose “Space/Astronomy.” I was devilishly close to completing my grid, but lacked the “L” I needed to spell Pluto. Meanwhile, my opponent went with a two-word grid that gelled nicely.

I don’t recommend trying it this way — unless you’re looking for a serious challenge — because the usual themed rules are tough enough.

Although an occasional bad pool of letter cubes can leave you without a letter — like, for instance, an L you really need — for the most part, it didn’t feel like the letter cubes were more restrictive or limiting than a traditional pool of Bananagrams letter tiles. All the dice shifting made for a different, yet familiar solving experience.

Plus it’s super-easy to come up with your own variant rules to enrich repeated games. The instructions list 5 alternate rule sets, and I would gladly recommend one that went well with us: having your opponent roll one of your dice for you and making you use it as the starting letter for a grid word.

Bananagrams Duel manages to boil down the Bananagrams formula to its most essential and playable form yet. And with a much faster clean-up (or pack-up and stash-away, if you’re on the road/in the airport), it’s more travel-friendly than ever before. They’re not lying when they call it a small space word race.


Bananagrams Duel is available from Bananagrams and participating local and online retailers, and it’s featured in this year’s Holiday Puzzly Gift Guide!

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PuzzleNation Product Review: Puzzle Books Galore!

As part of our Holiday Puzzly Gift Guide, we reached out to companies far and wide to explore as big a swathe of the puzzle/game world as we could. And a plethora of puzzle books arrived in response.

With eight in total to cover in this review, we’re going to work from simplest to toughest in terms of difficulty, whilst bundling some books with similar puzzles or styles of presentation together for ease of navigation.

So please enjoy as we peruse offerings from USA Today, the Puzzle Society, and Andrews McMeel Publishing.


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We start our puzzle book journey with objectively the easiest type of puzzle in the group: word searches.

Posh Simple Word Search collects grids and lists of hidden words to test your word recognition skills. The different sizes, themes for puzzles, and variations of word search puzzles (like an Eiffel Tower-shaped grid!) across more than 100 puzzles will have you looping words to your heart’s content.

Factor in a spiral binding that allows you to lay each page flat as you solve, and you’ve got a perfect intro to puzzles.

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From word searches to another iconic and traditional puzzle type: crosswords.

For a travel-friendly puzzle book with eye-catching cover designs and enjoyable pocket-sized puzzles, look no further than Pocket Posh New Crosswords 1 and New Crosswords 2.

With fun, accessible clues and grids designed to test newer, less experienced solvers, Pocket Posh New Crosswords won’t stand in the way of a New York Times-level solver, but they will serve as a satisfying puzzle experience for solvers working their way up the difficulty ladder.

Featuring more than 50 puzzles each, these books are loaded with content created by The Puzzle Society’s pool of talented constructors. (All of whom are credited by name!)

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For a step-up in difficulty and notoriety, check out USA Today’s Crossword Super Challenge.

Packed with 200 puzzles previously published in USA Today, this collection offers a range of difficulty levels depending on the constructor. And the names here are top-notch. Puzzly elites like Elizabeth Gorski, Martin Ashwood-Smith, Gail Grabowski, Frank Longo, and George Barany are featured in the collection, along with numerous contributions by USA Today‘s Crossword Editor, the inimitable Fred Piscop!

This array of 15×15 grids presents loads of different types of themed clues, serving as an ideal crash course in crosswords for solvers with a bit more experience but also have room to grow. Perfect for anyone who enjoys your local daily/weekly syndicated newspaper crossword.

It’s a little thick to make a great travel book — not as pocket-friendly as the Pocket Posh series — but it’s just right for an afternoon or two of cozy armchair solving.

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We then move from one world-conquering puzzle style to another that more recently took the world by storm: Sudoku.

Another in the USA Today series of Super Challenge titles, USA Today’s Sudoku Super Challenge is armed to the teeth with 200 Sudoku puzzles to challenge any fan of the infamous puzzle juggernaut.

Each puzzle is ranked on a scale of 1 to 5 stars in terms of difficulty, so you’ll be solving your way through increasingly tricky number puzzles the deeper you get into this book.

And despite being packed with hundreds of puzzles, this one will easily fit into a pocket, purse, or carry-on for any trip.

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Are you a Sudoku-savvy solver looking to test your number-placement skills in a new way? Posh Kurosu might just have what you’re seeking.

With dozens of examples of Kurosu puzzles — also known as noughts and crosses — this puzzle book packs a surprising amount of variety into a simple solving mechanic. Instead of nine digits to fill the grid, all you have are Xs and Os. And you can’t have more than two Xs or Os next to each other in any column, row, or diagonal.

This is the only kind of puzzle in this selection of puzzle books that I’d never encountered before, and it was a welcome change of pace to try my hand at something that felt familiar and yet fresh all at once. Posh Kurosu tests your logic and deduction chops in fun, unexpected ways.

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After collections of Sudoku and Kurosu puzzles, it feels appropriate to follow up with a puzzle book loaded with puzzles that test your logic and deduction skills in other ways.

USA Today’s Logic Super Challenge fits the bill nicely, mixing traditional story-driven logic problems (complete with those iconic solving grids to help you weed out false paths) with other logic-based puzzles like Killer Sudoku, Battleships, and Domino Search.

All of these puzzles will bend your brain around corners as you try to hold multiple facts in your head at the same time, waiting for them to fall into place and reveal a new piece of the overall puzzle solution.

And with 200 logic problems in various forms, you certainly won’t run out of devious deduction puzzles anytime soon.

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But if you’re looking for a unique solving experience, something that is as visually immersive as it is engagingly puzzly, then you can’t go wrong with Daria Song’s The Mysterious Mansion.

Mixing lushly illustrated scenes with black and white drawings meant for you to color in, this narrative puzzle book incorporates mazes, spot-the-difference games, word searches, and other puzzly endeavors in a story about one girl’s journey through a strange and confusing mansion.

Designed to relax, engage, and puzzle the reader in equal measure, this book is one you could lose yourself in for hours. The gorgeous full-color illustrations are a feast for the eyes, and the puzzles are seamlessly woven into the art and story of each scene.

Daria Song gleefully takes activity books to the next level with this beautiful puzzle experience, a fairy tale that you not only help write, but make your own by doing so.


All of these puzzle books are available from Andrews McMeel Publishing as well as some local and online retailers. They’re also part of this year’s Holiday Puzzly Gift Guide!

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


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PuzzleNation Product Review: Waiter’s Tray, The Curated Collection, and Ghost Cube

Whether it’s a puzzle box, two joined pieces of twisted metal, or an elaborate wooden network of interconnected pieces, a mechanical brain teaser offers a physical dimension to puzzling that is often lacking in pen-and-paper puzzles and other traditional puzzle forms.

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.

So without further ado, let’s get solving!


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The goal in Waiter’s Tray is simple: maneuver the tray out from under the wine bottles. You can only lift one wine bottle at a time, though. Oh, and some of the bottles are locked in by marbles, so those have to be moved before the wine bottles can be lifted.

Okay, so maybe it’s not so simple.

Waiter’s Tray is a devious mechanical brain teaser that requires patience and a knack for planning in order to shift the wine bottles enough to free the tray.

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The peculiar shape of the tray both helps and hinders you, since you can lower one wine bottle with the dip in the tray, but the higher lip of the left-hand side of the tray often prevents you from moving forward and manipulating the other wine bottles.

But once you get into the rhythm of the solve, it’s a pretty satisfying feeling to see the tray slide closer and closer to escape.

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Yeah, I’m posting this one to prove I solved it. =)


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The five traditional brain teasers that compose The Curated Collection each represent a different culture and time period, adding a touch of historical context and beauty to some tricky and portable puzzles.

Each is ranked in difficulty from one to five stars — the Roman Keys are considered the easiest (2 stars) while Chinese Tea and Aztec Passion Flower top out at 5 stars — but the goal of each is the same: separate the pieces of each puzzle.

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Some of these brain teasers will look familiar, since puzzles like Chinese Tea and Egyptian Pi have been around forever, but there’s a good chance at least one of these puzzlers will be unfamiliar to solvers, offering multiple chances to keep you from cracking all five mysteries too quickly.

Personally, I found the star-rating system misleading, but your mileage may vary. (Also, some of the wooden puzzle pieces stuck together a bit, so more than once, I almost felt like I was breaking the puzzle, not solving it.)

That being said, getting to test my puzzly abilities in five curious ways at once was a real treat.


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With enough practice, the secrets of the Rubik’s Cube can be revealed. Those six colors, 3 rows, and 3 columns can be conquered. But what if the colors were gone and the rows and columns replaced with angles and unexpected twists?

Ghost Cube offers an engaging variation on the classic twisty puzzle by making all the pieces spin and shift on an angle. Whereas the usual Rubik’s Cube is a riot of colors, the Ghost Cube is a maddening pointy shape instead.

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Yet I find solving the Ghost Cube much more fun and satisfying than solving a Rubik’s Cube. (And trust me, I am not exactly a proficient Rubik solver.)

There’s just something about a tactile solve — rather than a color-based one — that makes manipulating the cube more engaging. I found myself prolonging the solving experience simply because I enjoyed working the Ghost Cube back and forth. It’s immersive in a way I didn’t expect.


Waiter’s Tray, The Curated Collection, and Ghost Cube are all available through Project Genius as well as certain online retailers.

Whether you’re looking for a deduction puzzle, a disassembly 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, so 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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You can also share your pictures with us on Instagram, friend us on Facebook, check us out on TwitterPinterest, and Tumblr, and explore the always-expanding library of PuzzleNation apps and games on our website!

PuzzleNation Product Review: Smart10

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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.]

If you’re familiar with trivia games, then you know there’s one answer per question, one crack at a pie wedge or a Linkee letter or a few steps forward or an answer point or whatever.

The subject of today’s post turns that convention on its head with a clever tweak: there are up to ten possible answers to each question, so you get more than one chance to earn points with your trivia knowledge.

Yup, you get multiple opportunities to “smarten” up with Smart10, the latest trivia game from the crew at Bananagrams.

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[Here you can see the Smartbox playing case, as well as the trivia question, the answer markers, and the score markers along the edge of the Smartbox.]

The concept is fairly straightforward. Once the trivia cards are loaded into the Smartbox, you pass it around, allowing each player/team the chance to answer the question and pull one of the answer markers. If they’re correct, they keep the answer marker in front of them. Then, pass the Smartbox to the next player.

The round ends when all the markers are pulled or players agree that there are no more correct answers to the question. Once the round is over, you add a point for each answer marker to the total indicated by your scoring wheel on the Smartbox. Then reset all the answer markers, pull the question card out, and put it at the bottom of the deck, and you’re ready for a new round.

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Now, if you’ve never played this game before, you might be confused by how the round ends, since I mentioned two possibilities — all the markers being pulled or the players agreeing that there are no more correct answers. That’s because there are different kinds of trivia questions you’ll encounter while playing Smart10. There are six categories, each represented by a different colored circle that surrounds a given trivia question.

Some of them are true/false style, where you only want to pull the answer markers for the true answers. Others offer ten variations on a theme — like listing a piece of music and asking for the composer — which means the Smartbox gets passed around until all 10 variations have been answered.

This variety of question styles — covering everything from history and math to pop culture and language — keeps the game from becoming bogged down or repetitive. (The fact that every card is two-sided, meaning you have LOADS of questions to try, also helps in this respect.)

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[Here you can see the checkmarks for the true/false type of question.]

Plus, the entire game is self-contained. You’ve got questions, answers, and score-keeping all built into one portable device. There are no decks of questions or game boards and pieces to tote around. That makes the game both travel-friendly and perfect for tossing around at a party without a lot of set-up time wasted.

The questions balance nicely between moderate difficulty and greater difficulty, so there’s little chance of the game feeling too easy or exclusionary in its challenge level. Pretty much the whole family can get in on the trivia goodness. And since you can play with up to 8 players (or teams), no one needs to feel left out of the fun.

All in all, Smart10 makes for a enjoyable and satisfying trivia experience that still feels mellow enough for casual get-togethers.

[Smart10 is published by Bananagrams and available from local and online retailers, plus it’s part of this year’s Holiday Puzzly Gift Guide!]


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PuzzleNation Product Review: Jetpack Joyride

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[Image courtesy of Board Game Geek.]

There are many games where the goal is to get from Point A to Point B. But rarely are those games as simple to learn, as engaging to master, or as satisfying to puzzle out as Jetpack Joyride.

Mobile gamers may recognize that name from the popular app making the rounds a few years ago. While the basic concept remains the same for the board game version, the puzzly way you go about achieving victory is completely different. (And, dare I say, an improvement upon the original.)

So strap on a stolen jetpack and join us for today’s product review, as we explore the tabletop version of Jetpack Joyride.

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Anyone who has played Tetris is familiar with game pieces like these. These are called pentominoes, because they’re made up of 5 squares, as opposed to Tetris-style tetrominoes, which are made up of 4 squares. And they’re the heart of the puzzly challenge offered by Jetpack Joyride.

Most games that involve pentominoes are all about filling a grid or making various shapes. Jetpack Joyride takes them in a completely new direction, as they form the path that Barry takes as he tries to escape the lab with jetpack in tow.

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It’s a fresh and challenging reinvention that makes the game very replayable, because as you grow more effective at selecting your pieces and navigating the play area, the arms race between players to grab the shapes they need grows more intense.

All players are pulling from the same collective pool of pentominoes at once, so piece selection has to be both quick and effective.

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By placing each piece on your board, you maneuver Barry past obstacles, help him collect coins, and guide him toward the exit, hopefully fulfilling a few mission objectives along the way.

Yes, in addition to avoiding rockets and laser fences whilst collecting coins, you also have to keep in mind the missions that are available for every player to complete as they play.

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These can range from collecting all of the coins in a sector to having Barry’s path glide along the ceiling for 10 squares. The missions are worth a different number of stars based on their difficulty.

And why would a player bother with collecting coins or amassing stars? Well, those are worth points once each round ends. (The round ends when one of the players escapes the lab OR when everyone runs out of pentominoes.)

The purpose of the point system is two-fold: not only do they count toward your total score at the end of the game, but they also determine which power-ups you get for rounds 2 and 3.

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You see, in order to balance out the game play, the player who scored the fewest points gets to pick their power-up first. So although the person with the highest point total is in the lead, they actually pick their power-up last, allowing for players behind in points to catch up and outmaneuver their opponents with more advantageous or powerful bonus tech.

It’s a simple mechanic, but an elegant one. Even if you’re a skilled player, it’s hard to run away with a victory in Jetpack Joyride, because there are ample opportunities for other players to pull off some impressive comebacks and upset victories.

And all this only covers the traditional multiplayer version of the game. There are add-ons for vehicles in the deluxe version (complete with special missions and power-ups), as well as a solo-play format that is more like a traditional puzzle to be solved.

These additional modes of play take an already stellar multiplayer experience to even greater heights. This is clearly a game where a great deal of thought and attention has been paid to every aspect of the gameplay. Nothing feels overpowered or unfair, and the balance of luck, skill, and speed makes for exciting gameplay.

Players of any age can get into the puzzly fun quickly, and the variety of missions, play areas, and different bells and whistles ensure that Jetpack Joyride never runs out of challenges or surprises.

Jetpack Joyride is published by Lucky Duck Games and available at select retailers (including Amazon).


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