PuzzleNation Product Reviews: The Stars Are Right and Castellan

 

Steve Jackson Games is a recognized and well-regarded name in both the roleplaying and board game communities. With a tradition of creating games that offer engaging and curious twists on well-worn puzzle and game templates, you never quite know what you’re getting yourself into when you pick up one of their products.

They offered us the opportunity to try out two of their games for the Holiday Puzzly Gift Guide, each with its own unique flavor and playing style, and we put them to the full PuzzleNation Blog test.

The Stars Are Right is a multiplayer card game where you rearrange the stars in the sky in order to summon minions and gather enough power to summon an elder god and destroy the world. It’s perfect for Christmas! =)

Seriously, though, this game is an effective fusion of several types of strategy and puzzle games. You have a simplified Magic: The Gathering-style card game with the different minions you can summon, as well as a wonderfully illustrated variant on a sliding tile puzzle in the 5×5 sky tiles laid out between the players.

Each card grants you a different opportunity to manipulate the sky (by flipping tiles over, swapping them, or shifting an entire row) and create new constellations. The more complicated the constellation, the more powerful the creature you summon, and the more points you get.

This sort of chain-solving and forward thinking becomes both more challenging and more enjoyable as you compete with other players and race toward your 10-point goal and victory. It’s as exciting to see someone change the sky to your advantage as it is frustrating to see your hard work foiled by an opportunistic move.

The artistic style of The Stars Are Right is thoroughly weird, channeling the works of H.P. Lovecraft and offering up all sorts of gross and bizarre creatures, which is juxtaposed nicely by the effective (and quite lovely) style of the sky tiles. It creates a curious separation between down-and-dirty (the card game aspect) vs. high-and-lofty (the elegant tile-puzzle aspect) that’s quite enjoyable.

All in all, The Stars Are Right is not only a strong introduction into more complicated card games, but a thoroughly fun puzzle game.

Which brings us to today’s second product review!

Castellan is a two-player puzzle-game where players both compete and collaborate to build an elaborate castle.

Every time a player completes a courtyard — walling it off completely from the rest of the game board — that courtyard is claimed, and the player is awarded points based on the number of towers framing the courtyard. The players have two small decks of cards that determine what pieces — towers, short walls, and long walls — they can play on their next turn, and once the cards are exhausted and every piece has been played, the player with the higher number of points wins, claiming the castle.

One of the most intuitive puzzle-games I’ve played in a long time, Castellan requires only a quick skim of the simple instructions before playing, making it a great introductory puzzle game for first-timers. And the molded plastic pieces add a wonderful tactile dimension to the playing experience. What kid, young or old, doesn’t want to build a castle?

But since the level of strategy and complexity is dictated by the players, this is hardly a game for kids alone. Puzzlers will find their spacial reasoning challenged as they assemble courtyards in their heads and try to determine which cards to play. Tactics and forward planning play a huge role in the gameplay, as you try to seize opportunities left by your opponent, claim courtyards, and use up your remaining pieces in ways that help you but won’t leave openings for your opponent to take advantage of.

And, quite honestly, it’s just fun to watch the board sprawl out as more and more pieces are added.

Castellan is appropriate for practically all ages (while The Stars Are Right’s monster art and general sensibilities could prove offputting to younger players or more traditional puzzle-gamers), but both bring something new to the table in terms of strategy, interactive gameplay, and puzzly challenges.

Thanks for visiting the PuzzleNation blog today! You can like us on Facebook, follow us on Twitter, cruise our boards on Pinterest, check out our Classic Word Search iBook (recently featured by Apple in the Made for iBooks category!), play our games at PuzzleNation.com, or contact us here at the blog!

PuzzleNation Product Review: The Walk-By Scrabble Board

Hammacher Schlemmer is perhaps best known for its library of high-end products, from massage chairs and high-tech toys to outlandishly marvelous devices like a jetpack that propels you into the air on columns of water.

But they’re also home of some unexpectedly delightful puzzle products, like the latest edition to my cubicle space, the Walk-By Scrabble Board.

Lightweight, durable, and easy to mount around the home or office, the Walk-By Scrabble Board is designed for puzzlers who don’t mind taking some time between moves to accomplish other tasks.

The magnetic letters adhere well to both the board and the player tags that conceal your tiles from others, and the dry-erase board scoreboard doesn’t stain easily. It’s perfect for repeated, regular play.

But the Walk-By Scrabble Board has another terrific facet: the casual nature of its layout infuses your gameplay. There isn’t the tension and gravitas of having several players watch you as you make your move, feeling seconds tick away as you scramble to anagram in your head. 

You can play at your leisure, offering a similar playing experience to electronic versions of the game like Words with Friends and Lexulous, but without sacrificing the more social, familial spirit of playing a game with your family. 

That combination of the best of the electronic and board game versions makes for a much more congenial playing experience overall.

As you can see, it’s a hit here at the PuzzleNation office.

Well-made and affordable, the Walk-By Scrabble Board is a great way to reignite the puzzly spirit of your household in a fun, casual way.

[This product and many others will be featured in our Holiday Puzzly Gift Guide, going live on PuzzleNation Blog next Wednesday!]

Thanks for visiting the PuzzleNation blog today! You can like us on Facebook, follow us on Twitter, cruise our boards on Pinterest, check out our Classic Word Search iBook (recently featured by Apple in the Made for iBooks category!), play our games at PuzzleNation.com, or contact us here at the blog!

PuzzleNation Product Review: ThinkFun’s Brain Fitness line

The folks at ThinkFun are always trying to raise the bar when it comes to puzzly games that keep the mind in fighting trim. (You may remember them from our review of Laser Maze over the summer.)

In that vein, they’ve unleashed the Brain Fitness line of puzzle games, offering all sorts of exercises to challenge you one-on-one and put your puzzly skills to the test.

They sent us copies of three Brain Fitness games to review, each with its own distinct flavor.

solitairechess

Brain Fitness Solitaire Chess

Solitaire Chess presents you with various layouts of pieces on a 4×4 grid, challenging you to clear the board of all but one piece. Every single move must eliminate a piece until only one remains.

Even the beginner puzzles gave me pause at first, because the need to knock out a piece with every move is a very different style of chess than I’m accustomed to. But I very quickly got into the groove of plotting out the chain of moves necessary to clear each board. With two pawns, two knights, two bishops, two rooks, a queen and a king, there are myriad layouts of varying complexity to solve, and some of them were serious brain melters.

Oddly enough, I found some of the expert-level grids easier than the advanced-level puzzles, though you could easily spend five or ten minutes on a single crafty puzzle.

Not only is it a terrific mental exercise, but it just might make you a better chess player in the long run.

Brain Fitness Chocolate Fix

Chocolate Fix is a marvelous variation on the Sudoku model, offering nine sweets of varying shape and color, and tasking you with deducing the intended position of each in a 3×3 baking sheet.

The beginner-level puzzles are child’s play, and would actually be a terrific introduction for younger puzzlers. But as soon as you reach the intermediate-level challenges, the difficulty begins ratcheting skyward. Some clues give you colors only, others shapes only, and the occasional clue is centered around a given piece’s location on the baking sheet.

Midway through the advanced-level challenges, they stop referencing specific sweets at all, leaving you to do some serious deductive work with shapes and colors alone.

By the time you reach the expert puzzles (which abandon any clues providing all nine squares, leaving you to mentally assemble Tetris-like pieces with shape and color symbols), it becomes a serious mental workout that banishes any false confidence and bravado that the easy early rounds might’ve sparked.

Victory may be sweet, but Chocolate Fix’s later challenges will make you earn it.

Brain Fitness Rush Hour

Rush Hour is a variation on the classic sliding-tile game, except instead of tiles, you’re sliding cars and trucks back and forth in order to clear a path for your heroic little red car to escape the traffic jam.

Rush Hour (in various forms) has been a great success for ThinkFun over the years, and the Brain Fitness version is a brilliantly simple adaptation. Self-contained and perfect for puzzling-on-the-go, Rush Hour takes the chain-move thinking of Chess Solitaire to the next level.

The jump from beginner-level to intermediate-level challenges is a sobering one, if only because the playing grid seems absolutely packed with cars! But you quickly realize that a packed grid means fewer possible moves, which helps to point you toward the solution.

The grid thins out again when you reach the advanced-level puzzles, but greater movement only leads to tougher challenges, since so many more moves are available to you, requiring chains of increasing complexity in order to rescue your little red car.

Having thoroughly tested all three games, I found Rush Hour the most difficult of the three (though Solitaire Chess wasn’t far behind), but I must admit, the multilayered colors / shapes / positioning clue style of Chocolate Fix provided the most unexpected challenge.

As an experienced puzzler, I was thoroughly impressed by the scalability of each idea. The easy puzzles were terrific introductions to the game, and the expert puzzles were challenges quite worthy of your time.

ThinkFun recommends 15 minutes of puzzling time a day with any of their Brain Fitness products in order to give your brain a proper workout, but I suspect you’ll have a hard time stopping there. If only physical workouts were as much fun as these mental ones!

Thanks for visiting the PuzzleNation blog today! You can like us on Facebook, follow us on Twitter, cruise our boards on Pinterest, check out our Classic Word Search iBook (recently featured by Apple in the Made for iBooks category!), play our games at PuzzleNation.com, or contact us here at the blog!

PuzzleNation Product Reviews: Veritas

Here at PuzzleNation Blog, we’re constantly on the lookout for any and all things puzzly, happy to spread the word on anything that will appeal to puzzle solvers.

And we think Cheapass Games’ board game Veritas fits the bill nicely.

Veritas is a strategy game in the same vein as Risk and other map-based board games, but with a much quicker pace and a delightfully wicked sense of humor.

The game is set in France during the Dark Ages, and each player represents some version of the Truth, printed in a few books at a random monastery. As you make more copies of the Truth and spread the word to other monasteries and cities, your fellow players are doing the same with their own versions of the Truth, as each of you tries to become the prevailing Truth in the country.

Sounds like a pretty straightforward strategy game, right? But that’s where the element of luck comes in.

Every round, each player pulls from a set of tiles, each tile representing a monastery that will burn down that turn. As monasteries burn, the books they contain are scattered, and the map becomes a little smaller, a little more claustrophobic, and one player’s Truth begins supplanting that of others.

Veritas is a marvelous mix of chance and skill, encouraging both short-term and long-term strategizing (skills that puzzle solvers and puzzle gamers have in spades).

The element of randomness is key in separating Veritas from games with similar territorial stakes. There’s a fun element of the unknown as you pick your tile, and since books are scattered instead of destroyed, there’s significantly less chance of hard feelings when one player burns down another player’s monastery.

(Plus it’s always fun to explain to coworkers in the lunchroom what you’re doing. “Burning down French monasteries” is never the answer they expect. *laughs*)

(Confession: We were so involved in the gameplay that I forgot to take pictures of the board. Please enjoy this dramatic recreation.)

The Cheapass Games rationale is simple, but elegant. They know you’ve got board games at home, so why jack up the price of their games by making you buy another set of dice, another set of chips, another set of tokens and supplemental pieces?

Cheapass Games arrive in a slim white box — as our complimentary review copy did — containing exactly what you need to play the game, and describing precisely what you’ll need from other games to play.

In the case of Veritas, you receive the game board (split into 8 well-rendered cards), the monastery tiles (for randomized burning), and instructions. Simple and elegant. All you need are chips to represent books filled with your truth.

Dime-sized ones will work best, especially since they need to be stackable. Monasteries in key positions can start to resemble miniature games of Jenga, as opposing players keep adding to the stack.

We used Rolco plastic chips in our playtesting, but they didn’t stack particularly well. (The game’s designers highly recommend using smaller poker chips like the ones featured here, since they’re designed to be stacked and won’t take up too much space on the game board.)

The game’s setup is a snap, though you’ll want to give the instructions a thorough read before starting, since the multiple actions available to players on a given turn can take a minute or two to suss out completely. (Any rules we were fuzzy on became instantly clear after a round or two of play.)

Veritas is a terrific strategy game that will appeal to plenty of puzzle solvers and gamers of all ages, continuing the Cheapass Games tradition of clever games with their signature sense of humor.

After all, what’s a little monastery burning between friends? =)

[You can find more information on Veritas (or pick up a copy of your own) by clicking here.]

Thanks for visiting the PuzzleNation blog today! You can like us on Facebook, follow us on Twitter, cruise our boards on Pinterest, check out our Classic Word Search iBook (recently featured by Apple in the Made for iBooks category!), play our games at PuzzleNation.com, or contact us here at the blog!

PuzzleNation Reviews: Laser Maze

Here at the PuzzleNation blog, we love spreading the word about great new puzzle-solving experiences of all sorts, so when the creative folks at ThinkFun passed along a free copy of their latest puzzle game, Laser Maze, we were all for testing it out.

And I’m pleased to say that Laser Maze is a terrific puzzle game.

The concept is deceptively simple. All you have to do is set up the mirrors, gateways, and other game pieces and light up your targets with the laser. Some pieces allow you to bounce the beam at a right angle, others allow you to split the beam in two, and still others can double as both reflecting mirrors and light up targets. An impressive amount of adaptability is packed into 11 game pieces.

There are 60 challenge cards that range in difficulty from beginner to expert. In the earliest challenges, there are only a few pieces on the game board, and you’re given both their location and the direction each piece faces, and it’s up to you to complete the laser’s path by adding only the pieces listed on the card.

In later challenges, you get less information. You might know a piece’s location on the board, but you don’t know which direction it should face. The number of targets to light up with the laser increases, and the solutions become more complex.

laser maze 2

But the genius of Laser Maze is that the beginner and intermediate puzzles teach you the fundamentals necessary to tackle the harder puzzles to come. Like the best puzzle games, Laser Maze allows you to learn by doing, building your skills, your deductive reasoning, and your bag of game-piece-centric tricks as you become more proficient at using the mirrors and beam-splitters to direct the laser precisely where you need it.

Plus, the gameplay itself is intuitive. With just a brief skim of the instructions and a minute to familiarize myself with the symbols key for the puzzles, I was in.

I played through a number of beginner, intermediate, advanced, and expert puzzles. As a pretty puzzle-savvy guy, I expected to breeze through the early challenges, but a few of the intermediate puzzles made me pause and restrategize. By the time my confidence grew and I was sure none of the intermediate puzzles would stymie me, I still didn’t WANT to move on to the next level. I was having too much fun.

I progressed through the advanced challenges and into the expert puzzles, and then went back to the intermediate puzzles to test the game’s replay value. And that’s when I discovered another facet of Laser Maze.

Once you’ve solved a given puzzle, you clear the board and prepare for the next one. By design, you start with a clean slate. But you’re also forced to completely ignore any preconceived notions you have about the puzzle to come, because each one has its own challenges.

As I played through puzzles I knew I’d played before, they still FELT like fresh challenges, because of the sheer adaptability of the game pieces. This wasn’t going to end up a one-time playing experience.

You’ll no doubt note similarities between Laser Maze and the popular game Khet, which also features a laser. That’s to be expected, since they were both invented by devious puzzlesmith Luke Hooper. But while Khet is a strategy game to played against an opponent, Laser Maze pits a single player against the game itself. It’s a learning experience disguised as an incredibly fun game.

Plus, every time I’ve played, I’ve attracted family and friends as onlookers and collaborators. It might be designed for one player, but it’s hardly a solitary endeavor.

Of course, I’m covering the gameplay as an adult solver, and Laser Maze is designed for ages 8 and up. (Plus, there’s an actual REAL laser, so safety first, fellow solvers.)

Fellow PuzzleNationer Fred took the game home and unleashed his kids on the game, and as you can see, he had ample time to snap a pic of his very focused son Max, ready to activate the laser and solve his latest challenge.

All in all, Laser Maze is both great fun and an engaging puzzle-solving experience. ThinkFun really knocked it out of the park with this one.

(Check out Laser Maze on ThinkFun or on Amazon!)