Requiem for a Game Shop

A friendly local game shop (FLGS) can fill a lot of roles. A laboratory to try out unfamiliar games. A sample size to poll potential customers and test new products. A gathering place to share puzzly experiences. A social center to make new friends.

Sadly, there’s one fewer place to enjoy those simple pleasures now, as my friendly local game shop is closing this month.

I don’t know why, precisely. Maybe the 2019 financials weren’t as rosy as they’d hoped. Maybe the landlord raised the rent to unreasonable levels. Maybe the omnipresent threat of cheaper online purchases won out. (I certainly didn’t mind paying a little more for a game there, because I knew who the money was going to. But not everyone feels that way.)

I’m not entirely surprised. Last year, they cleaned out their comics section to focus more directly on games, RPGs, and miniatures. It opened up some space in the store and generally made for a cleaner, more accessible floorplan, which was a plus. But I guess it wasn’t enough.

It’s a bummer.

Sure, there are decent game selections at stores like Target and Barnes & Noble, but nothing as varied or extensive as the spread at the FLGS. I can’t tell you how many games I stumbled across there that I’d never even heard of, whether by wandering the stacks or seeing a play-through of a new acquisition demonstrated by the staff.

It was the perfect place to discover games, often serving to inspire gift ideas for friends. (Similarly, I miss Toys R Us, as simply browsing the selection there led to plenty of spot-on purchases for nieces and nephews.)

I usually stopped in a few times a month. I didn’t always buy something — my game library is pretty beefy already — but I liked to see what was new, what was moving a lot of copies, and what the locals were playing. I even got to meet local designers who were showing off their wares, which was always a treat.

I’ve been back twice since the announcement, and it’s nice to see how loved the place was, even if that couldn’t ensure its long-term success. Regulars have already snapped up tablecloths and other materials with the shop’s logo, and I know at least one person offered to buy the sign outside. I’ve heard several customers lament that they didn’t know where they’d go now for game tournaments, RPG events, and other game-centric fun.

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The back tables — usually reserved for trying out new games, hosting tournaments and launch events, or serving as gathering places (charged by the hour) for roleplaying groups to indulge in some social storytelling — are instead full of games, equipment, snacks, promotional materials, and everything else they can slap a tag on and price to move as they liquidate their stock.

But, for the most part, the energy there is good. Games are vanishing from stacks of in-store inventory, as are displays, signs, neon lights, and other trappings of the store. The staff is in decent spirits.

I’m not sure if I’ll go back again before it’s all said and done. But it was nice while it lasted.


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Puzzly Ideas Just in Time for Valentine’s Day!

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Valentine’s Day looms large, and sometimes it’s hard to find that perfect way to express your love for that certain someone… particularly if that certain someone is the puzzly type.

But we’ve got a few suggestions…

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Jigsaw puzzles are the perfect metaphor for relationships, as they require separate pieces working together to complete the picture.

There are necklaces and other pieces of jigsaw-themed jewelry, as well as do-it-yourself jigsaw patterns you can utilize. You could depict anything from a favorite photo to a specific Valentine’s message in the completed image.

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Now, you can always start with something simple, like a subscription to a puzzle service like The Crosswords ClubThe American Values Club Crossword, or The Inkubator. New puzzles every week or every month are a great gift. (Especially the Valentine’s Deluxe Sets for the Penny Dell Crosswords app! *wink*)

If they’re more into mechanical puzzles, our friends at Tavern Puzzles offer several brain teasers that incorporate a heart shape.

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But if you’re looking for something more personalized, why not make a crossword for them yourself?

(Yes, you can also commission a top puzzler to do one for you, but you’d usually want to get the ball rolling on something like that well before Valentine’s Day.)

Now, to be fair, crosswords can be tough and time-intensive to make, so if that feels a little daunting, why not try a Framework puzzle or a crisscross instead? They incorporate the same crossing style, but don’t require you to use every letter.

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It allows you to maintain a terrific word list all about you and your significant other without all the effort of filling in every square crossword-style.

Or you could write the object of your affection a coded love letter! All throughout history, people have employed different tricks and techniques to keep their private messages away from prying eyes, and you could do the same!

Whether it’s a simple letter-shifting cipher or something more complex, make sure your message is worth reading. =)

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[Image courtesy of ibookbinding.com.]

Plus you could learn a bit of letterlocking to some flair — and a sense of puzzly secrecy and personalization — to your message.

Even if you don’t go the encryption route, the unique presentation of a letter-locked message makes a simple card or a heartfelt note feel more precious.

[Image courtesy of YouTube.]

Have you considered a puzzle bouquet? You could grab some newspaper crosswords and origami them into flower shapes for a fun puzzle-fueled spin on a holiday classic.

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Or you could hide jigsaw pieces around the house that, when put together, spell out a Valentine’s message or a picture of the two of you.

Put your own spin on the idea. A little bit of effort can go a long way, plus it doesn’t cost anything.

With a little more effort, you could whip up a scavenger hunt! You could leave clues around leading to a gift, or a romantic dinner, or some other grand finale. Maybe offer a rose with each clue.

Show off how much you know about him or her. You could make each clue or destination about your relationship or about your partner, allowing you to show off how well you know them… where you first met, favorite meals, favorite movie…

If you don’t want to leave things around where anyone could nab them, keep a few small tokens on you, giving one for each destination reached or clue solved. Heck, you could enlist a friend to text clues to your special someone once they’ve reached a particular destination!

Or for something less formal, you could make a game of your romantic wanderings and play Valentine’s Day Bingo.

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[I found this blank template on Makoodle.com.]

Maybe go for a walk or take your loved one out to dinner, and see if they can get bingo by observing different things. A couple holding hands as they walk, a Valentine’s Day proposal, outrageously priced flowers…

The possibilities are endless when you put your mind to it.


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A Game Kerfuffle in Wisconsin Politics?

We have a game day in the office once a week. Wednesday has been known as Game Day around here for years now, and we have a small group of regulars who use their lunch hour to eat, socialize, and play games. It’s a marvelous way to break up the work week, meet new friends, try out new games, and relax a little.

Those are all positives. It has never impacted productivity or caused any problems, save for the occasional scheduling snafu when people need the conference room.

But apparently, similar activities are causing problems in the Wisconsin State Senate.

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[Image courtesy of Wikipedia.]

According to a reporter for the Wisconsin State Journal, the legislative pages have been playing games during work time.

There are conflicting reports about how much time has been spent playing games; some folks are upset with people playing games on company time, while others point out that downtime is common and as long as their duties are being performed capably, what’s the big deal?

Well, the game they’re playing is probably what’s raised eyebrows.

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[Image courtesy of the New York Times.]

It’s called Secret Hitler, and given the emotionally charged political climate in the United States, it’s understandable how this particular choice of game might be controversial.

For the uninitiated, Secret Hitler is a social deduction game, similar to Werewolf, Mafia, and other games, where the goal is to root out a hidden traitor among the players.

Only in this case, as the game’s title states, instead of a mafia member or a werewolf, it’s a Secret Hitler lurking among the players, as well as players trying to place the Secret Hitler into a position of power.

More controversially still, there’s an expansion pack to the game that adds members of the current administration to the game.

It’s unclear which version of the game has been making the rounds in the Wisconsin State Senate offices. After all, in February 2017, free copies of Secret Hitler were shipped to all 100 members of the United States Senate by the game’s creator.

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[Image courtesy of TabletopFinder.]

Now, I am purposely not going to make any statements about this administration, regardless of my personal feelings. I make a point of not getting into politics in this blog. It’s supposed to be a place for puzzle and game fans to find out news, read reviews, and revel in all things fun and puzzly about the world.

That being said, I’m sure the choice of Secret Hitler was deliberate.

Maybe it was intended as a way to blow off steam in a political climate that is more tense than ever. That certainly wouldn’t be the most diplomatic choice, but you can easily see how it would make for a tongue-in-cheek way to defuse office stresses.

On the other hand, maybe it was intended as a statement, a sly shot at the current administration and ill feelings towards particular people in the government or political limelight. I don’t know.

But it’s pretty clear to me that it’s the game that got these pages in trouble, not the act of playing games. If they were playing Forbidden Island or Fluxx or Chutes & Ladders or any of a hundred other games in their downtime, it probably wouldn’t be a big deal.

I’m curious to see what the fallout from this story will be. According to reporter Riley Vetterkind, the game has been confiscated and HR is investigating the matter.

I hope nobody loses their job because of a game, whether it’s a political statement or just a ballsy choice of time-wasting and indulgence.

But it makes you wonder if any other games are popular in political offices and whether they’d prove as controversial as this one.


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A Puzzly Scholarship Opportunity!

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Puzzles make the world better. They entertain us, they challenge us, they make us think, rewiring our brains to look for solutions in innovative, creative ways. Over the years, we’ve chronicled how puzzles have launched people on quests, brought couples together, and raised money for worthy causes.

And now, a puzzle could lead to a scholarship for one enterprising applicant out there.

The crew at Mission Street Puzzles — a delightful outfit that specializes in puzzle hunt-style brain teasers that all lead to different San Francisco locations — are offering financial aid to a promising young puzzler.

From the announcement page:

We’re excited to announce that Mission Street Puzzles will be hosting a scholarship for student puzzle-writers! The winner of this scholarship will receive $2000 toward higher education.

How do you apply? Well, you fill out the form and compose a puzzle (and walkthrough solution) that leads to a landmark as the final answer.

Applicants have until Monday, May 18th, 2020 to enter, so be sure to share this info with students you know! The scholarship is open to students who are or will be (in the upcoming school year) attending higher education in the U.S. or Canada.

This is such a cool opportunity for a puzzle-minded student out there to earn some cash to help with school expenses. Kudos to the folks at Mission Street Puzzles for creating this marvelous program, and good luck to any applicants in the PuzzleNation readership!


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Forget 3-D Chess and Try 4-Directional Tetris!

[Image courtesy of Eurogamer.]

Tetris is the ultimate puzzle game. If you somehow haven’t played it, you’ve at least heard of it. The brainchild of Alexey Pajitnov conquered the world, not only making Nintendo’s Game Boy a bestselling video game platform, but turning millions of puzzlers into gamers and gamers into puzzlers as well.

Those iconic little Tetromino shapes are instantly recognizable, and the music can still induce panic and nervousness in players decades after the first time they heard those infamous notes.

And it serves as a brilliant template for ambitious game designers and puzzlers to add their own twists to the Tetris formula.

The basic concept is simple: try to arrange the constantly falling Tetromino blocks so that they make complete lines in the play area. If they do, that line disappears.

Of course, just because the concept is simple, that doesn’t mean the game is. As your play area fills up with Tetrominos, the music speeds up, amping up the tension. And as you progress through different levels, the pieces fall faster and faster. You need quick reflexes and ice in your veins to handle the higher difficulty levels.

Thankfully, you only need to worry about the blocks falling from one direction.

But a new variation on Tetris quadruples the gameplay area in a very devious way.

Say hello to Schwerkraftprojektionsgerät, Stephen Lavelle’s take on Tetris. In Schwerkraftprojektionsgerät, Tetromino blocks appear in the center of the play area, and you control where the piece is placed in each of the four directions.

No, the blocks do not fall automatically, nor is there a time limit that forces you to place the blocks quickly. Yes, you can spin each piece before placing it.

But each block goes into all four play areas simultaneously, and in the same position on the opposing sides.

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As you can see, the straight piece lands flat in the east and west grid spaces, but standing upright in the north and south grid spaces. You have to work along each axis to find the best case scenario for all four of your play areas.

Yes, you’re trying to complete lines in four different directions at the same time. The T-shaped Tetromino will land in four different arrangements (flat, on one side of the T-bar, on the other side of the T-bar, and on the long end of the T-bar) with a single keystroke.

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It’s mind-blowing how challenging this makes the game, but it’s challenging in a good way.

I mean, in a regular game of Tetris, you need several dozen completed lines to conclude a level and feel like a champion. In Schwerkraftprojektionsgerät, you feel like a genius if you can get two completed lines in each of the four play areas before the game is over!

Just as addictive as the original, yet offering a totally new twist on the familiar style of puzzling, I foresee a lot of office hours being lost to this engaging four-directional experiment in space efficiency.

You can try Schwerkraftprojektionsgerät for yourself here, and check out all of Stephen’s games here. (He also has a YouTube channel featuring some of his creations.)

After 35 years, it’s cool to see there are still new ways to make Tetris feel fresh again.


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Puzzle Tournaments Loom Near!

[Solvers gather for the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament.]

Tomorrow is the 21st annual Westport Library Annual Puzzle Contest, and I consider Westport the unofficial start of the year’s crossword-y festivities.

Sure, the obvious start is the weekend of March 20-22, when the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament descends upon Stamford, CT, and puzzlers from all over test their puzzly mettle against some devious and delightful crosswords.

Then, after the big event in March, it’s a few months’ wait until summer, when there’s at least one proper tournament every month. We’ve got the Indie 500 in June, BosWords at the end of July, Lollapuzzoola on a Saturday in August, and Bryant Park in September.

But that ignores all the smaller tournaments and events in between. Libraries and rec centers all over the country host puzzly events that get less press than the famous ones.

For instance, did you know that on March 14th, you can attend the Eighth Annual Finger Lakes Crossword Competition?

I bet you didn’t.

So, in case you’re not traveling to one of the more well-known tournaments, keep your eyes peeled for smaller, but no less enjoyable, puzzle events happening throughout the year.

And good luck to all those headed to Westport for some Will Shortz-fueled cruciverbal adventures! Happy puzzling!

Are you attending any puzzle events this year, big or small? Let us know in the comments section below! We’d love to hear from you!


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