PuzzleNation Product Review: //CODE: On the Brink

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

There has been a tidal shift over the last few decades from the analog realm to digital. So much happens in cyberspace, by email, and in the liminal spaces between smartphones and computers, that it feels like we’re leaving behind physical media entirely. In the next decade, knowledge of programming will become an essential skill.

And it’s never too early to begin laying the foundation for that future. The folks at ThinkFun have been ahead of the curve there for a long time — their game Robot Turtles is a prime example — and they continue to push forward with their new //CODE Programming Game Series, a line of puzzly products designed to teach the basics of programming to young solvers.

The first game in the series, On the Brink, serves as an excellent primer. The game is based around a simple concept: navigating a robot along a particular path. This path can twist, turn, and even cross itself. But it’s up to the solver to figure out how to use the available programming cards to control and determine the robot’s path.

There are two sets of programming cards, one simpler deck designed for the first 20 challenges and one larger deck designed for the more difficult challenges that follow. Just as you learn simpler commands before you learn finer, more detail-oriented, and more complex ones, you must master the basic commands in On the Brink before moving forward.

Whereas Robot Turtles required players to be supervised by a Turtle Master who governed the setup, difficulty, and execution of commands, On the Brink can be played alone, as the solver tackles each puzzle in the challenge booklet, complete with starting cards, a given path to replicate, and colored boxes on the board that align with the three sections of the control panel.

I was impressed by the amount of variety to be found in a relatively small deck of commands. A cagey programmer can navigate the robot through some unexpectedly thorny paths, reminding me a bit of the step-by-step deductive reasoning that made Lunar Landing such a delightful challenge.

One way that On the Brink improves upon Robot Turtles is with the concept of commands that continue to run once activated. In On the Brink, your robot will follow a command for as long as the programming cards and colored spaces on the challenge booklet page dictate. Just as a command in programming requires parameters in order to know when to stop, your robot needs similar commands. Otherwise, it’s liable to pass right over the finish square instead of landing there perfectly.

On the Brink invites players as young as 8 to tackle the various challenges in the booklet, either alone or in groups, and the steady ratcheting-up of difficulty teaches the young programmer as they advance, putting new wrinkles and obstacles in the player’s path.

It’s the sort of patient, clever gameplay we’ve come to expect from ThinkFun, and they do not disappoint here. Figuring out how to utilize the available commands and complete the path given makes for an excellent puzzly challenge — especially the later scenarios! — but it never feels inaccessible or overwhelming.

You’re always in good hands with ThinkFun, and they’ve proven it again here with On the Brink.

On the Brink is available from ThinkFun and participating brick-and-mortar and online retailers for $14.99.


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PuzzleNation Product Review: Nanofictionary

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

We’re used to puzzles where you have to combine pieces to reveal a picture, or you use clues to complete a grid, or you employ deduction to unravel a series of events. It’s far less common for puzzlers to put those skills to use telling a story.

The latest offering from the crafty crew at Looney Labs challenges players to do precisely that: tell a story. More specifically, Nanofictionary tasks you with telling the best story possible from the ingredients available.

And you better do it quickly. Imagine you’re pitching a movie and you’ve only got the length of an elevator ride to sell it to a producer.

Nanofictionary offers up to six players a selection of four decks of cards: characters, settings, problems, and resolutions. Each player draws a starting hand, consisting of two characters, one setting, one problem, and one resolution. Players then try to build an entertaining narrative from the options at hand, by drawing and discarding cards, before declaring themselves ready to pitch.

Here is the first element of strategy in the game: deciding when you’re ready to present your story. If you do so quickly, you secure an earlier slot than the other players. Although this means other players can add additional cards to their hands (and thereby enhance their stories), it also means that ties are settled in favor of players who readied their stories faster. It’s a tradeoff, more cards in the short term vs. a tactical advantage in the long term.

After everyone has assembled their stories, each player has a turn performing their elevator pitch, doing so in the order in which they declared themselves ready. After all the stories are shared, the players then vote for their favorite story. (Naturally, to prevent every player from doing so, you cannot vote for yourself.)

Nanofictionary is an intriguing mix of strategy, luck, and ingenuity. The strategy involves not only when to declare your story ready, but what choices you make to get there. Do you choose the unexpected new card on your turn, or rifle through the cards discarded by the other players? Do you wait for a few other players to declare their stories ready, allowing yourself access to more cards in your hand, or do you go for the tie-breaking advantage you might need?

Luck, of course, comes into play with the cards you randomly draw. Perhaps you’ll end up with elements that quickly form an entertaining tale in your mind. Or perhaps you’ll struggle to ditch the pieces that don’t inspire you, hoping to trade them for a more exciting setting or a problem that makes the most of the characters in your hand.

But, as you might expect, the ingenuity side is where the game comes alive. Just sitting back and watching these delightfully brief (and yet hilariously detailed) stories come to life is a real treat, and quite honestly, it makes the voting aspect so hard. Because with the right group of players, virtually any combination of cards can turn into gold with the right storyteller.

The designers fit a surprising amount of variety and reusability into these four small decks of cards, allowing storytellers to run wild with tales as fantastic as they are ridiculous. It’s not your usual puzzle game, but that’s part of the charm.

Nanofictionary is available now from Looney Labs and select participating retailers for $16.


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PuzzleNation Product Review: Color Cube Sudoku

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

Sudoku is one of the most popular pen-and-paper puzzles in the world. It’s found in numerous daily newspapers, puzzle books, and smartphone apps.

After years of tackling regular Sudoku, Extreme Sudoku, Word Sudoku, Mega Sudoku, Samurai Sudoku, Geometric Sudoku, Sum-Doku, and numerous other variations, you’d think the puzzle community at large would’ve exhausted every possible version of Sudoku.

Enter the crafty folks at ThinkFun, who have put a unique spin on another Sudoku variant: Color Sudoku. In Color Sudoku, you have nine colors to arrange instead of numbers.

ThinkFun has upped the ante with Color Cube Sudoku, their latest puzzle-game, by combining the twisty-turny cube possibilities of a Rubik’s Cube with Sudoku-style deductive solving.

It seems like a simple enough set-up. You’ve got a tray and nine multi-colored cubes. Each cube has four of the six possible colors: green, red, blue, yellow, orange, and white. And it’s up to you to arrange the nine cubes in the grid in a 3×3 pattern so that each color only appears once in each row and column.

But that arrangement already introduces complications. Unlike a pen-and-paper puzzle, where you can place any number (or in this case, any color) in any square you choose, the preset color arrangements on each cube limit your choices.

If you need a blue square in the first row, sixth column, given the cubes available to you, you might end up with a second yellow square in your row. Which means, instead of needing a new cube, you need to change one of the cubes you’ve already placed and try again.

What once seemed simple now offers a greater challenge.

But, like many ThinkFun puzzle-games, the more you play around with the possibilities, the more you begin developing new strategies and get into the psychology of the puzzle itself.

Once you’ve placed a few of the cubes, next-level deductive reasoning kicks in, and you can eliminate certain possibilities and begin working more than one step ahead at a time.

For instance, if you’ve placed two cubes in a column, you’ll know you need to change one of the cubes if the third cube will need a green spot in both columns. Since that’s impossible, even without placing the third cube, you know you need to change one of the two you’ve already placed. Which means you’re preventing wasted moves and pushing closer to an actual solution.

Whether you’re tackling Color Cube Sudoku alone or with partners, whether you’re trying to crack a regular 6×6 pattern or taking a whack at some of the variant challenges they suggest — like knight’s paths and other difficult patterns — this is a deduction puzzle that feels like play instead of work.

When I tested this out with a fellow puzzler, we immediately began playing it in a slightly more competitive way. One of us would place a cube, and then the other would place a cube, and we would keep going until no cube could be placed.

You can end the game there, or you can take it a step further, and introduce rules where moving or shifting previously-placed cubes becomes part of the game in order to extend the puzzly gameplay. Heck, if you go long enough, it eventually becomes a race to see who can actually solve the Color Cube Sudoku layout first!

The designers state that there are 2,641,807,540,224 different ways to arrange the 9 cubes, and with seemingly endless variation in such a simple set-up, this is one puzzle-game you can put down and return to numerous times without burning out or feeling like you’ve conquered it forever.

Color Cube Sudoku is available for $19.99 from ThinkFun and select retailers!


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PuzzleNation Product Review: Word Domination

Gathering letters to spell words and gain points… it’s a game mechanic so familiar and traditional that it’s easy to take for granted these days. Whether you’re talking about the wooden tiles of Scrabble or the electronic tiles of Words With Friends, the mind-bending spin of Unspeakable Words or the three-dimensional challenge of Upwords, it’s a classic concept.

Word Domination builds on that concept by adding a new strategical element. As you spell words, you claim letters from a shared letter pool. It’s essentially a more aggressive form Boggle.

Each player assumes the identity of a James Bond-style villain, and each letter tile doubles as a prize or piece of loot that can be captured by a player.

The player then uses a letter tile drawn at random with some of the letters laid out in the play area to spell a word, temporarily capturing those letters. (Unlike Boggle, the letters in the word don’t need to be touching.)

For example, in the first round, Player 1 spells the word ODYSSEY, placing zeppelin tokens on each of the 7 letters in the world, including the O that the player added on their turn. Player 1 then draws a new random tile for the next round, and play moves to Player 2.

Player 2 spells the word FORGERY and places her zeppelin tokens. And since she used three letters that Player 1 had captured, she captures those letters and removes his zeppelin tokens from the board.

Let’s jump ahead slightly. Player 3 spells the word TESSERACT, stealing some captured letters from both Player 1 and Player 2, and that concludes the first round. When round 2 starts up, Player 1 spells the word DYNASTY and places his zeppelins.

And since the letters D and Y were already captured by Player 1 in the first round, capturing them a second time means Player 1 has stolen those letters from the game board, and claims them for himself.

Those letters are given to Player 1 to use for the rest of the game, and replaced with STOLEN tiles, which are worth points at the end of the game.

After six rounds of play, the player who has claimed the most territory (and earned the most points) wins the game.

Now, naturally there are wrinkles to add to the gameplay, like helping other players spell words in order to split the profits with them, arming yourself with certain rare letters and weaponizing them, and even utilizing special abilities only your character has access to.

Between these twists and the baseline gameplay, you have a rich and variable game experience that really allows a strategic player to shine when matched up against players that might have stronger vocabularies or better luck drawing letter tiles.

And the game aesthetic really adds to the playing experience. The idea of stealing letter treasures, claiming territory with little zeppelin tokens, and running amok as a film villain (complete with bizarre letter-based weapontry and a punny name) is the perfect mix of silly and clever, spicing up a solid game with enjoyable little quirks.

Word Domination balances luck, strategy, and vocabulary skills to create a game that feels familiar but keeps you on your toes. What a treat.

Word Domination is created by Jeff Beck and is available through Uproarious Games and select online retailers for $32.99.


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PuzzleNation Product Review: Roller Coaster Challenge

ThinkFun’s products are all about learning through experimentation. Whether you’re making music note-by-note with Compose Yourself, mastering the basics of programming in Robot Turtles, or tackling complete-the-path puzzles with marbles, lasers, robots, or electronic circuits, kids and adults alike get the chance to put their puzzly chops to the test.

Roller Coaster Challenge is the largest, most ambitious ThinkFun puzzle game to date, featuring several dozen pieces and challenge cards galore to test your ability to bend momentum and gravity to your will as you complete unfinished roller coaster tracks!

[With multiple track lengths, posts for building support pylons, 90-degree turns to navigate, and even a loop you can construct, you’ve got all the ingredients you need for a roller coaster worthy of the name.]

The concept is fairly simple. You have challenge cards that offer a starting layout. You’re given the beginning and ending points of the track, and some pieces in between. You are also told which pieces you’ll need to use to bridge the gaps and finish the track. Now it’s up to you to place them correctly and then test your creation with the little red roller coaster car.

Not only is the building plate bigger than those in any previous ThinkFun puzzle game, but the sky is the limit as you build onwards and upwards in order to solve your challenge card and give your little roller coaster car the ride of its life!

The challenge cards serve as the perfect introduction to solving the game’s puzzles, teaching the solver how to identify pieces by length, how to avoid missteps, and even how to get the most out of the available pieces.

But the challenge cards are just the beginning. Roller Coaster Challenge encourages you to develop your own roller coaster layouts, and even share them with the company!

After battling my way through numerous challenge cards of all difficulties — ranked from easy to super hard — I began indulging my creative side by constructing my own layout.

Naturally I had to go above and beyond, trying to weave two tracks together so one would use the loop, and the other would rocket the roller coaster car through the loop and over a gap before reuniting with the track itself.

[OSHA would shut down my roller coaster so fast…]

In terms of scale, creativity, and sheer visual panache, Roller Coaster Challenge is the most ambitious and impressive ThinkFun puzzle game to date. The DIY encouragement built into the solving experience really adds something extra to the enjoyable (and sometimes challenging) layouts provided by the game’s designers.

Roller Coaster Challenge was the result of ThinkFun’s first venture into crowdfunding, and when it came time to go big or go home, they went big, and solvers reap the benefits with this dynamic, fun product.

Roller Coaster Challenge is available through ThinkFun and other vendors for the very affordable price of $29.99.


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PuzzleNation Product Review: Less

There are many games out there that pair nicely with food or drink. Many party games even revolve around this mechanic, like Jason Anarchy’s alcohol-fueled roleplaying game Drinking Quest.

But I think Less is the first game where the playing tiles intentionally double as coasters for your drinks. It feels like a game that could be played in a tavern at a moment’s notice, which lends its minimalist style an old-world gaming charm.

But I’m getting ahead of myself here. Less is a strategy game that combines the tactical planning of chess with the dynamic maneuverability of checkers.

The game consists of 12 tiles and 8 game pieces, 4 white and 4 black. The players randomly select 9 of the 12 tiles and arrange a 3×3 game board. (With 12 tiles and four ways to place each tile, you’re virtually guaranteed a different game board every time you play.)

One player sets up their 4 game pieces in one corner, and the other player sets up their game pieces in the opposite corner. The goal of the game is to move all 4 of your pieces into your opponent’s corner before your opponent can occupy your corner.

To do so, you are allowed three moves per turn. You can use all three moves for a single game piece, or spread them out over multiple game pieces. Moving a piece from one square to a neighboring square is one move. Jumping over a game piece to the next open square is also one move. (Here’s where checkers-style planning comes in handy.)

By now, you’ve probably noticed those blue walls on some of the tiles. Those walls require an extra move to traverse, so moving a game piece over a wall requires two moves. (And if neighboring squares each have a wall between them, jumping that double wall requires all three moves that turn.)

This three-move system offers players loads of options going forward, but your best bet is to arrange a sequence of leapfrog jumps to move your pieces as efficiently as possible across the board. (Unlike chess or checkers, there is no capturing or removing your opponent’s pieces from the board.)

[Here, black has more pieces near the opposing corner, but that blue wall will make it harder to occupy the corner efficiently. Meanwhile, more of white’s pieces are farther away, but there are fewer obstacles to slow those pieces down.]

Mixing a tactical approach with the improvisation that comes with reacting to your opponent’s movements makes Less a very engaging gaming experience, even if a game routinely lasts less than ten minutes. And on the puzzle side of things, figuring out the most efficient way to navigate a path toward your opponent’s corner is great fun, since every game is different, and your opponent has different obstacles to tackle than you do, given the random placement of walls on the board.

Plus, if you’re willing to invest in two copies of the game, you can play with four players, as you and your partner coordinate your efforts across a 4×4 game board in the hopes of occupying your opponents’ corners first.

It’s a game that takes a few minutes to learn and offers near-infinite replayability. It might be called Less, but it feels like a very complete, very satisfying challenge.

Less is published by InventedFor and is available online at less-game.com (with numerous coaster designs for the reverse side of the tiles). Click here for full details.


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