PuzzleNation Product Review: Constellations

Plenty of games offer ambitious goals for the players to achieve. You become a real estate tycoon in Monopoly, a castle owner in Castellan, and a time-traveling adventurer in U.S. Patent Number 1. You could traverse the country in The Oregon Trail, save the world in Pandemic, or conquer it in Risk. That’s part of the magic of games.

But what if you could build the night sky? What if you could harness the stars themselves, assemble constellations, and place them into the heavens above?

Now that is a puzzly endeavor worthy of your attention. And that’s the concept behind the game in today’s product review. We’ll be trying out Constellations by Xtronaut Enterprises.


Constellations combines the resource management card game mechanics of Just Desserts with the pattern-matching tile play of Carcassonne to create an educational and engaging play experience.

Each player starts with five star cards. Each star card represents a different type of star (or in some cases, two of that type of star). The star cards are used to assemble various constellations in order to score points.

The game begins with one constellation already placed in the sky, as well as three possible constellations to build. Players may reserve one of the three constellations, making it their primary goal and removing it from play for the other players.

As you can see in the picture above, different constellations require different combinations of star cards. Some constellations are simpler, so they’re worth fewer points. Other constellations have higher values, but more complex combinations of star cards, which may be harder or more time-consuming to collect.

[One constellation tile, plus the star cards played to complete it. As you can see, you can use extra stars as needed (like a Two B-Type Stars card above), as well as using O cards as wild cards (as I did for the two A-type stars needed to complete this constellation.]

Once a player has gathered all of the star cards necessary to complete the constellation, they then must play it in the night sky, placing it adjacent to one or more of the constellations already completed.

You score points by placing a constellation so that the gemstones along the edges match the neighboring constellation(s), and there are additional points available for placing constellations beside other constellations (as they would appear in the actual night sky). For instance, Leo Minor offers a two-point bonus when placed next to either Leo or Lynx.

Different arrangements of gemstones around the edges of the constellation tile require you to be crafty when and where you place your tile, since more matching gemstones means more points.

[In this layout, Taurus was added perfectly, matching gemstones with both Perseus and Ophiuchus. Pegasus, on the other hand, matched Perseus nicely, but only matched one gemstone with Orion.]

Unfortunately, you have to play a completed constellation, and sometimes the gemstone patterns don’t match up at all. If that’s the case, you’ll lose two points for a constellation played out of place. (Once again, the closer you get to placing your constellation as it would actually appear in the night sky, the better it is for your game.)

All of the game’s mechanics are designed around actual science, which is a very cool touch. The star cards include “Did You Know?” facts about each type of star, and the instruction booklet also includes a short guide to stargazing, star classification, and little write-ups for each constellation included in the game. (There’s even a criss-cross-style crossword on the back page!)

Constellations is great fun, requiring strategy, timing, and puzzly observational skills in order to effectively play the game. The educational aspect doesn’t detract from the gameplay at all, and the alternate rules offered in the back (as well as rules for shorter and longer gameplay times) offer an impressive amount of replay value.

All in all, Constellations mixes card games and tile games with ease, and it makes for a fun and mellow gameplay experience.

[Constellations is available from Xtronaut Enterprises and other select retailers.]


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PuzzleNation Product Review: Deblockle

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

Chess, checkers, backgammon, Go, Othello… all of the classic board games rely upon the idea that both players know how the pieces can and will move from round to round. That way, they can strategize, they can prepare defenses, they can circumnavigate your attempts to flummox them. To outmaneuver someone, you have to know how they can maneuver.

But what if your opponent could potentially move in five different ways? How would that alter your strategy? How would that alter your gameplay?

Beware, fellow puzzlers… one-on-one board gaming just got a little more complicated with Deblockle.

Masterminded by the team at Project Genius, Deblockle pits two players head to head to see who can remove their four blocks from the board first.

That’s right, there aren’t sixteen pieces to keep track of, like in chess, or twelve, like in checkers. There are just four blocks for you, and four blocks for your opponent.

But here’s where things get tricky. Each turn, you have two moves. The first move is to roll one of your blocks into an adjacent space (either vertically or horizontally).

The second move is to place your block according to whichever symbol that landed face-up because of that roll.

There are six symbols, each with a corresponding action:

  • Stop: your turn is over, there is no second move
  • Cross: move your block one space either horizontally or vertically
  • X: move your block one space diagonally
  • Hoops: move your block three spaces (vertically or horizontally) in any combination, including backtracking over a space you just occupied
  • Slider: move your block either vertically or horizontally until you reach the end of the row or column, or until you’re stopped by another block

With each of those second moves, you’re not rolling the block to reveal a new symbol; you’re picking it up and placing it into its new position.

And yes, there are six symbols, and I only listed five above. That’s because the sixth symbol, the star, can only be revealed if you’re rolling onto one of the star spaces on the board. By rolling the block star-side-up onto a star space, you remove the block from play.

That’s the only time you can roll your block star-side-up, and the only time you’re allowed to occupy a star space with your block.

There are only two star spaces on the board, and you can only remove your blocks from the game if you utilize the star space opposite you.

And that’s when things get really tricky. Because it’s entirely likely that your opponent’s blocks will prevent you from rolling onto the symbol you wanted. So you’re puzzling out how exactly to roll and move your blocks so you’ll end up adjacent to the star space with the star symbol waiting to be rolled face-up, and also playing defense to impede your opponent’s efforts to navigate and manipulate the board to their own advantage.

It’s a lot to keep track of, and it makes for an immensely engrossing, engaging puzzle duel for two players. You’ve got the resource management of Risk, the piece placement mechanics of chess, and the defensive gameplay of Stratego and other strategy games.

And since the blocks are placed in their starting positions by your opponent — after rolling them randomly to see which symbol is face-up to start — every game of Deblockle is different. Opening gambits — like those you can learn in chess — are useless, because you won’t know how you can move your blocks initially until your opponent places them.

There is a wonderfully fresh challenge factor to Deblockle that many other head-to-head board games lack. While playing the game over and over will allow you to develop techniques and skills for how to better move your blocks, there are no shortcuts to becoming a better player through sheer repetition, because each opening setup is different.

Project Genius has managed to stuff a massive amount of gameplay, strategy, and style into those four little blocks, and they’ve got a real winner on their hands here.

[Deblockle is available from Project Genius and other participating retailers, for players starting at 8 and up!]


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PuzzleNation Review: Pyramid Arcade

Today’s review is going to be a little bit different, because I’m not reviewing a game… I’m reviewing 22 of them in one fell swoop.

That’s right, Pyramid Arcade represents the latest evolution in the Looney Pyramids series of puzzle games, combining and refining years of Looney Labs games and innovations into one sleek package. You see, when Andrew Looney started the Looney Pyramids series of games, his goal was to develop a puzzle game as infinitely adaptable as a deck of playing cards.

Pyramid Arcade is the next step in that process, amassing 22 games — some previously released, some new — in one massive rulebook. And everything you need to play is included, from game boards and dice to sets of pyramids in ten different colors.

[Two piece-placement games, Pharaoh and Petal Battle. Pharaoh is built around controlling the center square and the neighboring squares, while Petal Battle is about controlling five adjacent petals.]

Honestly, there’s a game in here for every type of puzzler. There are one-player games as well as games for 2-6 players, and even games for 10 players. There are combat games, collaborative games, wagering games, games of chance, balance games, and more. Some games require all 90 pyramids in the set!

And although some of the games are a little abstract — I’m still wrapping my head around Martian Chess — sitting down and actually playing through all the different options brings even the abstract concepts down to earth. You might be playing an insect in one game or a germ in another, but traditional puzzle skills and board-game styles rule the day here.

[Two strategy games, the Risk-inspired World War 5 and the miniature chess game Hijinks, which we previously reviewed as the standalone game Pink Hijinks.]

Stacking games like Hijinks are where the Looney Pyramids really shine as puzzle games. Being able to move beyond the two-dimensional play that defines so many board games adds a great deal of strategy and style to the gameplay. Whether you’re building rockets in Launchpad 23 or Jenga-like towers in Verticality, the pyramids become more than simple game pieces.

Although the price tag is higher than the usual board game or puzzle game fare, Pyramid Arcade is worth it. Not only do you get over twenty different games, but the rulebook includes a history of Looney Pyramids products, challenges for you to make your own Looney Pyramids games, and teasers for 22 additional games created by fans and submitted to Looney Labs online.

It’s impressive, all that you can accomplish with these curious little pyramids.

[Pyramid Arcade is available from Looney Labs and featured in our Holiday Puzzly Gift Guide!]


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5 Questions with Game Designer Andrew Looney

In honor of the 20th anniversary of Looney Labs this weekend, as well as the launch of the LooneyCon event today, we’re doing Follow-Up Friday a little differently today.

And so, welcome to another edition of 5 Questions, our recurring interview series where we reach out to puzzle constructors, game designers, writers, filmmakers, musicians, artists, and puzzle enthusiasts from all walks of life!

It’s all about exploring the vast and intriguing puzzle community by talking to those who make puzzles and those who enjoy them! (Click here to check out previous editions of 5 Questions!)

And I’m excited to welcome Andrew Looney as our latest 5 Questions interviewee!

pic243321

[Image courtesy of BoardGameGeek.com.]

Andrew Looney is the chief game designer and co-founder of Looney Labs, a company specializing in games with serious replayability and dynamic rules that make every session a new experience. Founding the company in 1996 with his wife and partner-in-aerospace Kristin, he has gone on to launch such innovative games as Fluxx (and its many variations) and the Looney Pyramids series.

With two decades of experience in game design, he has presided over the growth of a major brand in games, one whose homegrown roots and values are still very much a part of the company’s fabric today.

Andrew was gracious enough to take some time out to talk to us in the days before LooneyCon, so without further ado, let’s get to the interview!


5 Questions with Andrew Looney

1. You’re celebrating twenty years of Looney Labs innovation and game design this month, and you’ve really cemented a reputation for fun games with a high replay value. How do you know when a game is right for your brand? And what role do you play in bringing these games to market?

I design everything we make myself. So I play a pretty big role. But the decision about what we publish next is not up to me… Ultimately, Kristin makes that call (although she gets input from everyone in the company and beyond).

When I feel that a game design is working, I’ll declare it ready for consideration, at which point it goes into the pool of possibilities. And some of my designs spend a lot of time waiting around in the pool before the company decides to publish them. In other cases, such as when I’m asked to create a game on a specific subject or when I come up with something particularly exciting, I have more deadline pressure.

But the ultimate test of when a game is ready is when everyone who plays it says, “This is great! Let’s play again!”

gaminggoh

[The heart and soul of Looney Labs, Andrew and Kristin Looney.
Image courtesy of WindyconBlog.]

2. In the last year, Looney Labs released more games than ever before, with new licensing deals for Fluxx variations like Batman Fluxx and Firefly Fluxx, a Mad Libs game, and a wildly successful Kickstarter campaign for Pyramid Arcade, a relaunch of sorts for your Looney Pyramids series. How is Year 20 of Looney Labs different from Year 1, and what lessons have you learned along the way?

Wow, the difference is so vast. Twenty years ago we were still working at our day jobs in the aerospace industry, and learning how to start a company in our spare time. We’re still living in the same house, but the similarities end there. For many years, we ran the business out of our house, but now it’s just our house again, since our company has an 11-room office suite up the road, where our 8 full-time employees work.

Twenty years ago I had an idea for a wacky new card game… now there are almost 20 different versions of that game on the market, that have sold almost 3 million copies, and our games are in about 20 different languages.

Twenty years ago, we were struggling to find a way to manufacture the little plastic pyramids needed for our first game idea. Now we’re about to release an incredible boxed set featuring twenty different games I’ve invented since then for the pyramids.

Plus we have a bunch of other cool games I’ve invented along the way! It’s amazing, I never would have believed it. Where will we be in another twenty years?

firefly2

[Sample cards from Firefly Fluxx, one of many games
released under the Looney Labs banner.]

3. You’ve created games of your own and helped others bring their games to life. What puzzles and board games, either in game-play style or in the experience of producing them for sale, have most influenced you?

I grew up on the old-school classics, so they were my obvious first influences. Sorry was an early favorite. Another was a sixties board game about the Civil War called Battle Cry. I think my first real game design effort was a small-scale, simplified version of Battle Cry I made as a kid, small and fast enough to be played at a restaurant during a meal. (Sadly, I lost that prototype long ago.)

Another early effort was combining the missile and warhead cards from Nuclear War with the board game Risk. Another of my earliest efforts was coding my own text adventure games, like Colossal Cave, a game so inspirational to me that it also first motivated my desire to program computers.

Kristin and I were independently inspired, during our high school days, by the dice game Cosmic Wimpout. Indie game companies like them are everywhere now, but at the time it was a revelation that such companies could exist. We were particularly inspired by their occasional newsletter and their grassroots approach to marketing.

My favorite card game from way back is Hearts, and certain elements of that game still inspire me, most notably the way it has two paths to victory (avoid taking points vs. take all the points).

Lastly, Fluxx was inspired by a conceptual game engine called Nomic, in which the game rules are created by the players as the game is played. I found Nomic to be an interesting idea, but felt I could do better…

I think a lot of game designers, and indeed inventors of every stripe, are driven by this sort of inspiration, the desire to improve on what someone else did, to go even further with the idea.

looneycon

4. What’s next for Andrew Looney and Looney Labs?

Well, the very next thing is LooneyCon, a micro-convention for fans of our games which we’re running this weekend! And as mentioned, this fall we’ll be releasing Pyramid Arcade, the culmination of everything we’ve been doing with the pyramid system these past 20 years.

Well, almost — it doesn’t include Zendo, which is too big to fit in Pyramid Arcade. But a new standalone edition of that game is something we’re planning separately, and we have some pretty neat ideas for that, too.

And I’ve got other exciting stuff planned for the future, including 3 completely new board games I’ve been developing for the past few years. Sorry, I can’t even tell you their names yet, let alone when they will be released, but I’m pretty satisfied by each one.

5. If you could give the readers, writers, aspiring game designers, and puzzle fans in the audience one piece of advice, what would it be?

“Don’t get left behind when the car goes into town.”

This is something my mom used to say (which I actually only learned at her funeral). It was a lesson she’d learned as a kid in rural Kansas, and it literally just refers to the limited availability of opportunities to catch a ride from the farm into town.

But I love it as a mantra for every fleeting chance we get at doing something fun. Pay attention to everything, because doors sometimes open and close quickly, and always say yes to travel and excitement!

Life is one big game, and whoever has the most fun wins!


A huge thank you to Andy for his time. Be sure to check out the Looney Labs site for updates on all things Looney, and check out their Facebook to keep up on all the activities for this weekend’s LooneyCon event, which starts today and runs through Sunday July 24, the actual 20th anniversary! I cannot wait to see what he has in store for us next!

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Where do you puzzle and play?

When furnishing your home, there’s a lot to consider: budget, dimensions, layout, colors, fabrics, styles. But did you know that there’s furniture out there specifically for the discerning puzzler or board game fan?

Oh yes, I’m talking about primo set-ups to maximize your gaming and puzzling fun.

It’s not hard to find stylish tables with checkerboards or backgammon designs built into the table, and they start at pretty affordable prices.

But there’s a growing market for high-end gaming tables that not only look great, but utilize drawers for holding game components, sunken play areas to keep dice from escaping mid-roll, and detachable covers so you can use the table like any other surface when you’re not playing.

Check out some of these gorgeous pieces:

The popularity of gaming-specific tables is partially due to the success of Wil Wheaton’s webseries TableTop, which is centered around a table designed specifically for gaming:

But there are tables out there personalized for particular games. For instance, this table is optimized for Axis & Allies, a military land acquisition game set in World War II:

And feast your eyes on this absolutely stunning Risk table I stumbled across online:

Of course, an ingenious player can turn any table into a terrific gaming space. One Dungeons & Dragons dungeon master linked his laptop up to a projector, and displays maps on a regular kitchen table for his players to use. It’s brilliant!

Now, I wanted to see some puzzle-specific tables here as well, and there are plenty for jigsaw enthusiasts. Heck, you should do yourself a favor and Google Image Search the phrase “puzzle furniture,” because it’s a super-entertaining way to pass a few minutes.

But when it comes to crossword solving, nothing seems to beat a comfy armchair or the breakfast table with a touch of puzzly flare…

Unless you’re this guy, that is.

Now THAT is puzzle-solving with style.

I cannot in good conscience, however, wrap up a post about puzzle and gaming furniture without giving a nod to our friends over at Hammacher Schlemmer, who turned a classic table game into a home entertainment experience with the World’s Largest Scrabble Game.

That’s furniture AND a game in one! (And all for the low, low price of $12,000.)

Do you have a favorite place at home for puzzling or playing games? Let me know! Or send us a picture and share your puzzle nook with the world!

Thanks for visiting PuzzleNation Blog today! You can share your pictures with us on Instagram, friend us on Facebook, check us out on TwitterPinterest, and Tumblr, and be sure to check out the growing library of PuzzleNation apps and games!

Prep for College the Puzzly Way!

It’s summer here in the United States, which means many high-school graduates are already looking forward to starting college. But for those soon-to-be freshmen, as well as high schoolers looking for an edge before university, have you considered puzzles and board games?

Now, it comes as no shock to me, but this article from the U.S. News and World Report website might surprise some, since it lists puzzles and board games as two of its five tools to develop critical thinking skills before college!

Naturally, I’ve been an advocate of puzzles as a learning tool for a long time, so it’s gratifying to see a major publication sharing the same views and ideas.

From the article:

Collections of crossword puzzles, logic problems, riddles, sudoku, word problems and word searches can be found at your local bookstore or library. The puzzles in these books are a wonderful strategy to activate different parts of your brain for a round or two of mental gymnastics, and many collections even discuss what each puzzle is meant to target within the mind.

Allow me to expand on this for a bit. Different puzzles can target different skills, so which puzzles you solve can make a big difference when it comes to critical thinking.

Crosswords encourage deduction (figuring out words from a few common letters) and a facility with wordplay (dealing with crafty clues and alternate definitions), while word searches offer great practice in pattern recognition and quick reaction times.

And the demand that Sudoku puzzles place on active attentiveness and concentration exercises parts of the brain associated with forming new memories, encouraging better memory retention.

[All three of the above pics come from our line of puzzle apps! Perfect for puzzly pre-college practice! Shameless plug now concluded!]

But the article also mentioned that certain board games can be excellent tools for honing valuable mental skills for college.

Choose board games that require more than luck – namely, strategy – for players to win. Any game where players must carefully consider their next move, recognize patterns and remember details will aid in honing critical thinking skills.

The article goes on to suggest some classics, like Chess, Checkers, and Mastermind for learning chain-thinking (planning several steps ahead) as well as Scrabble and Boggle (speedy information analysis, as well as word formation) and Clue and Risk (anticipating and reacting to the gameplay of others).

But I think they’re excluding some prime examples of board games that could benefit younger minds.

  • You could pick a cooperative game like Pandemic or Forbidden Island, which not only encourage strategic thinking, but teamwork and the free exchange of ideas (something that forced group exercises in school never really managed).
  • You could choose a rapid-change game like Fluxx (either the board game or the card game), which forces the players to adapt quickly to constantly changing rules and gameplay (a perfect microcosm of problem-solving in the real world, where things rarely remain static for long).
  • You could select a mixed-play game like The Stars Are Right, which incorporates several forms of gameplay (in this case, pattern-forming, tile-shifting, and a strategic card game akin to Magic: The Gathering or Munchkin) and forces players to exercise different forms of strategy and puzzle-solving all at once.

Just think about it. You could turn Family Game Night or Family Puzzle Time into College Prep Time in a snap. It’s win-win, or perhaps even win-win-win. What could be simpler, or more fun, than that?

Thanks for visiting PuzzleNation Blog today! You can share your pictures with us on Instagram, friend us on Facebook, check us out on TwitterPinterest, and Tumblr, and be sure to check out our library of PuzzleNation apps and games!