PuzzleNation Product Review: Are You a Robot?

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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.]

Whether you’re playing a board game like Clue or a card game like Werewolf or Mafia, you and your fellow players have accepted the challenge of a very different form of puzzle gaming: the social deduction game.

Social deduction games operate under a simple premise — the cards determine the role you play — and from that point forward, you’re trying to determine who is secretly a danger to you and others in the game.

In this particular case, there might a robot lurking among the humans aboard your space station.

You see, in Are You a Robot?, all of the players randomly select a card. There’s always a human card for every person playing the game, plus one robot card. (So, for instance, if five people are playing, you have five human cards and one robot card in the deck.) You shuffle the cards, deal out one to each player, and put the last one aside. Everyone looks at their card (but doesn’t show anyone else) and discovers their role for the game.

Now, at this point, there’s between zero and one robots in the game, and the rest of the players are human. The humans want to suss out if there are any robots disguised as humans, and the robot wants to get the humans to accuse each other and whittle down their numbers so the robots can take over.

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[A whole lot packed into a little envelope.]

This is the social aspect of the game. There are three things players can do in order to figure out who is who: shake hands, shoot a laser gun at another player, or talk. If the players all agree that there are no robots in play, two players can agree to shake hands. If there are no robots in the game after all, the humans win. If a robot is present after all, the humans lose.

Humans can shoot other players, but robots cannot. If a robot is shot, it’s gone from the game and the humans rejoice. If a human is shot, three things happen: the shooter is immediately removed from the game, the human who was shot comes back to life and returns to the game, and there’s a chance another robot slips into the game.

This element of chance involves all of the players closing their eyes, any robots secretly revealing themselves, and all of the remaining players turning in their cards. Those cards are shuffled randomly, a robot card is introduced, and the cards are redistributed to the surviving human players.

It’s possible everyone remains human, and it’s possible one of the humans is now a robot in disguise.

The game now resumes, and the players must once again figure out if there are any robots in their midst. (And your mind immediately begins spiraling out with possibilities. “Did so-and-so not shoot me because he believes that I’m human? Or because he’s a robot and can’t shoot me?”)

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[The set up for a four-person game: instructions, four human cards, and one robot card.]

Play continues until either the humans have eliminated any possible robots (and have shaken hands to confirm this) or the robots have overwhelmed the game and the humans have been whittled down to a single player.

In my estimation, Extended Mode, designed for 5 or more players, is the most interesting version of the game. The core game is for two or three players, consisting of two human cards and one robot card. Adding a second game allows for up to four players, a third game allows for up to six, and so on.

Our Extended Mode testing involved eight players (and four copies of the game), which allowed for multiple rounds of play, the introduction of several possible additional robots, and so on, making for a deeper, more engrossing (and nerve-wracking!) play experience.

And that’s the beauty of Are You a Robot? when compared to similar social detection card games like Mafia and Werewolf. Not only can you have satisfying play experiences with fewer people but the element of randomness that comes into play with more players adds tension to the game. (In Mafia and Werewolf, the number of antagonists is set at the start of the game. In Are You a Robot?, the number might increase, or it might not. It’s a simple change that adds so much.)

An elegant balance of silliness and suspenseful, consequence-loaded gameplay, Are You a Robot? is a winner with any number of players. Bring your laser gun, bring your skepticism, and bring along a couple of sets so everyone can play.

[Are You a Robot? is available (for $2!) from Looney Labs and other participating retailers.]


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PuzzleNation Product Review: Codenames

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There are all kinds of games where communication is crucial.

In You’ve Got Crabs, you must employ a secret non-verbal signal to inform your partner that you’ve completed a task, but without the other team spotting your signal and intercepting. In Taboo, you have to get a teammate to state a particular word, but without using several words closely associated with the answer.

But other games ratchet up both the creativity necessary to win and the difficulty involved in doing so. Imagine having to communicate volumes with a single word.

In today’s product review, we delve into the world of spycraft and put our communication skills to the test as we try out the card game Codenames.

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In Codenames, two teams (the red team and the blue team) are tasked with identifying all of their secret agents before their opponents can locate their own agents from the same list. But in order to do so, they must pick those agents out of a field of 25 possible individuals.

In each group, there are red agents, blue agents, innocent bystanders, and an assassin. Each possible individual is marked with a codename that is viewable by all of the players.

So, where does the wordplay and communication come in?

Each team selects one player apiece to serve as the spymaster. The spymaster for each team looks at one of the secret patterns determining which cards/codenames represent blue agents and which red agents.

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So it’s up to the spymaster to point the players in the right direction, but it’s up to the players to actually choose a given person in the field of 25 and label them an agent.

Each round, the spymaster comes up with a one-word clue for the other players on their team that points to their secret agents (as well as a number representing the number of agents in the field that the clue applies to). The word must be specific enough to point them in the right direction, but that can be difficult depending on the words in your play area.

For instance, in our example grid, the clue “royalty: 1” could point toward KING, or QUEEN, or HEAD, or even REVOLUTION, depending on what the other players associate with the word “royalty.” But suppose that you want your players to choose KING and not QUEEN. Then “royalty” is no good, because it’s too vague.

The number aspect of the clue is also important, because it offers the opportunity to gain an advantage over your opponents. For instance, if you wanted both KING and QUEEN to be labeled as your agents, the clue “royalty: 2” would be good, because those would probably be the two most likely choices based on that clue.

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In our example grid, the red team went first, and the spymaster said “dishes: 2.” The other player on the red team chose GLASS and WASHER from the grid, and both were correct and marked with red agent cards. This was a smart play, but also a risky one, as PAN could also be associated with “dishes.”

The blue team responded with the clue “rasp: 1,” choosing specificity and a single possible answer for the sake of certainty, rather than risk trying for more than one agent in this turn. The blue player correctly selected FILE, and that card was marked with a blue agent card.

The next turn for the red team didn’t go nearly as well. The spymaster used the clue “big: 1” and instead of choosing SHOT (the intended answer), the player opted for MAMMOTH. The card was revealed to be an innocent bystander, and the red team’s turn was immediately over for failing to ID an agent that turn.

And that is one of the big strategic challenges of Codenames. Do you stick to 1 agent per turn with a greater chance of success, or do you try to get more creative and bold by going for less certain clues that could lead to multiple agent IDs in one fell swoop? Do you risk uncovering the assassin (and immediately losing the game) with a clue that could suggest him as well as a secret agent for your team?

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The field of codenames in the play area can also lead to unexpected challenges. In one game, I was playing the spymaster for my team. The words JUPITER and SATURN were both in the grid, but only JUPITER was one of our agents. So a clue like “planet” was out. Unfortunately, other clues (like “biggest” or “god”) were excluded because they also applied to other codenames in the play area, including the dreaded assassin.

A mix of tactics, efficiency, association, vocabulary, and luck, Codenames is a terrific game that will test your wits, your communication skills, and your ability to make every word count.

The sheer volume of possible codenames (as well as the increased variety offered by each card being double-sided) ensues a huge amount of replay value is built into the game. And not only is it great as a group game, but the two-player version is just as fun!

Codenames, playable for 4 to 8 players (with variant rules for 2 or 3 players) is available at Target, Barnes & Noble, and many online retailers.


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Kickstarter Roundup!

Oh yes, it’s that time again. For several years now, crowdfunding platforms like Kickstarter and Indiegogo have been hotbeds of innovative puzzle and game design, and I’m always happy to spread the word about worthy projects that I think will delight and amaze my fellow PuzzleNationers.

So let’s take a look at some projects that are currently seeking funding and see if any pique your interest!


Verwald’s Treasures is a puzzle hunt designed by Nathan Curtis that can be solved either from home or in a live puzzle hunt event held in the Boston area.

Curtis promises that the puzzle hunt will involve over thirty different puzzles, including three-dimensional challenges to really test your puzzly mettle.

For a smaller donation, you’ll receive a number of variety pencil puzzles (unconnected to the puzzle hunt itself), but in order to participate in the hunt itself, pledges start at $60. The campaign is about halfway funded with 22 days to go, and should provide a puzzly challenge outside the norm for solvers accustomed to pencil-and-paper puzzles.

Another puzzle-filled project is The Conjurer’s Almanaq, touted as an escape room in a book. It is a self-contained puzzling experience that will test all sorts of puzzly skills, masquerading as a book of magic. Clearly a great deal of storytelling and homework has gone into this one, including cryptic tales of the great Qdini, who created the book.

Plus this Kickstarter edition of the book will be different from the mass market version to come. Not only will more of the pages be in color, but backers will receive their copy of the book at least a month before the mass market version goes on sale.

This seems like a really intriguing campaign, and it’s already over 200% funded with two weeks to go, so your chances of seeing the campaign come to fruition are already pretty good.

Let’s switch gears from puzzles to games and check out The Mansky Caper, a heist game from Ray Wehrs at Calliope Games.

There are safes to crack, explosives to acquire, loot to hide, and other members of an ambitious mob family to contend with. You can forge alliances with other players too, but be careful… if you press your luck too far, you might just fall victim to an explosive booby trap.

This looks like great fun, and it’s three-quarters of the way funded with over three weeks to go in the campaign.

For a game with more of a social element — heavy on negotiation — there’s Black Hole Council. Every player is a member of council that allocates resources to different planets — and consigns some to destruction in a black hole.

Each player has their own agenda they’d like to advance, and as the role of “leader” passes from player to player, deals are negotiated, bribes are offered, arguments are made, and votes are held to see just how the various planets are arranged. Can you convince your fellow players to make moves that are to your advantage, or will these planets slip from your fingertips?

The game is already funded and chasing stretch goals at this point (with over two weeks to go), and it looks like a nice step up in complexity from other deceit and negotiation games like Coup or The Resistance.

We’ll conclude today’s Kickstarter roundup with a music-minded strategy game, Re-Chord.

In this game, you’re a guitarist pursuing the top of the charts, and you do so by playing actual chords to complete songs and build your level of fame. You can learn music while you play!

The game is 200% funded with over 20 days to go — which means they’re well on their way to funding expansions to the game, additional chord cards, and more — and it seems like a clever mix of music and tactics, the perfect bridge to bring non-gamers to the table.


Have any of these games hooked you? Let us know which ones you’re supporting in the comments section below! And if there are any campaigns you’re supporting that we missed, let us know!

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It’s Follow-Up Friday: Hall of Fame edition!

Welcome to Follow-Up Friday!

Follow-Up Friday is a chance for us to revisit the subjects of previous posts and bring the PuzzleNation audience up to speed on all things puzzly.

And today, I’d like to return to the subject of Dungeons & Dragons!

I’ve written about Dungeons & Dragons and other roleplaying games in the past, because I think they are a wonderful, underappreciated part of the world of puzzles and games. Some of the best and most satisfying riddles and puzzles I’ve ever solved were an integral part of a game of D&D.

So I’m excited to announce that Dungeons & Dragons has been inducted into the National Toy Hall of Fame!

Housed at The Strong National Museum of Play, the National Toy Hall of Fame recognizes those products and improvised toys that have played a crucial role in the development of children and teens.

Whether they assist in hand-eye coordination, storytelling, deduction, athletics, or creativity, they are all classic examples of toys tied to fond memories of childhood. Previous inductees include the Rubik’s Cube (2014), Hot Wheels (2011), the Radio Flyer Wagon (1999), Jacks (2000), and Play-Doh (1998).

And I for one think Dungeons & Dragons is a very worthy addition to this club.

From the induction notice:

Dungeons & Dragons and its imitators actually changed the nature of play.

In Dungeons & Dragons players assume the roles of characters who inhabit a world moderated and narrated by a Dungeon Master, a player who explains the action to others and solicits their reactions to the unfolding story. The Dungeon Master’s storytelling skills and the players’ abilities to imagine add enjoyment to the game. Some aspects of the play are familiar, such as dice. But the special dice for Dungeons & Dragons hold up to 20 sides. Rolling them determines each character’s individual strengths, plots their complex interactions, and decides the outcome of their encounters.

More than any other game, Dungeons & Dragons paved the way for older children and adults to experience imaginative play. It was groundbreaking. And it opened the door for other kinds of table games that borrow many of its unique mechanics.

For over forty years, Dungeons & Dragons has been synonymous with roleplaying, collaborative storytelling, and good old-fashioned sword-swinging derring-do. And I think it’s fantastic that it’s getting some long-overdue recognition for the positive role it has played in so many people’s lives.

Congratulations to you, Dave Arneson and Gary Gygax. Thank you for hours and hours of brilliant, engaging fun.


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