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: Chemistry Fluxx

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

As a puzzle and game guy, people ask me for recommendations a lot. Sometimes, they like a particular type of puzzle or style of game play, but they want to try something new in that vein. Other times, they want to try a one-player puzzle or game experience, but in a group setting.

More and more, though, I get requests from parents and grandparents for puzzles and games that educate or reinforce learning without sucking all the fun out of playing.

And if you want a fun card game that mixes real-world science with chaotic, enjoyable gameplay, Chemistry Fluxx might be just what you’re looking for.

The latest edition of Fluxx from the designers at Looney Labs, Chemistry Fluxx takes an elementary approach to the game. Literally. You have to combine different elements in order to secure victory in this game.

For the uninitiated, Fluxx is a straightforward card game. You collect keeper cards and put them into play. Different combinations of keeper cards complete different goals, and each player has the chance to put different keeper cards and goal cards into play in order to win. So you might find yourself working toward completing the goal at hand when suddenly somebody plays a new goal, and the object of the game changes.

Along the way, players affect how the game is played by utilizing action cards and new rule cards which alter what players can and can’t do. Suddenly, you’ll have to trade your hand with another player, or start drawing three cards each turn instead of one.

But instead of matching images like you do in most versions of Fluxx, in Chemistry Fluxx players have to use keeper cards with elements or lab equipment on them in order to complete different compounds or procedures.

The subject of chemistry is a brilliantly appropriate fit for Fluxx. Elements are literally the building blocks of everything around us, so to make them the keepers and various molecules and compounds the goals of the game is seamless.

But the game’s creators didn’t stop there. They went all out with chemistry lab trappings, introducing new rule cards that reward you for actually wearing a lab coat during game, for speaking in a high voice when the Helium card is in play, or granting you bonus cards by testing your knowledge of chemistry.

The goal cards even display the actual elemental chains formed by these combinations of elements at the bottom, reinforcing the chemistry information on the cards and helping to build associations between the keeper cards and the compounds they form. It’s subliminal learning, which keeps the game fun while still offering chances for parents and families to encourage the young minds around them.

Chemistry Fluxx combines the best of education-based games and Looney Labs’ signature brand of madcap immersive gameplay to create a fun and accessible way to bring STEM concepts and learning home. Even if you’re just looking for a quick round of chaotic cards, you might find yourself learning anyway.

Chemistry Fluxx will be available May 25, but you can preorder it from Looney Labs by clicking here! And to check out all of our reviews of Looney Labs games and products, click here!


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The Value of Recreational Math

There was a wonderful opinion piece in The New York Times a few weeks ago about the importance of recreational math.

Now, as author Manil Suri said, I’m sure that to some people, the idea of recreational math sounds like an oxymoron. But it’s everywhere! From poker players calculating their odds based on the cards dealt to the number crunching in role-playing games in order to complete certain tasks (or develop a character’s skills), math is built into many recreational activities.

It’s certainly a part of many kinds of puzzles, including brain teasers. Heck, previous brain teasers featured here in the blog like Mystery Number, the Birthday Puzzle, and the jugs of water trap from Die Hard with a Vengeance would all easily fall under the umbrella of recreational math.

The article goes on to mention the wonderful work of Martin Gardner, whose column “Mathematical Games” in Scientific American was a mainstay of recreational math and puzzly whimsy for over twenty-five years.

From Suri’s article:

In his final article for Scientific American, in 1998, Mr. Gardner lamented the “glacial” progress resulting from his efforts to have recreational math introduced into school curriculums “as a way to interest young students in the wonders of mathematics.”

Indeed, a paper this year in the Journal of Humanistic Mathematics points out that recreational math can be used to awaken mathematics-related “joy,” “satisfaction,” “excitement” and “curiosity” in students, which the educational policies of several countries (including China, India, Finland, Sweden, England, Singapore and Japan) call for in writing.

In contrast, the Common Core in the United States does not explicitly mention this emotional side of the subject, regarding mathematics only as a tool.

This is an excellent counterpoint to the regular argument that the primary value of puzzle-solving and other activities (like recreational math) is to stave off brain health issues later in life.

In a previous post, we discussed the inconsistent reports about the effects of puzzle-solving on the brain, leaving it unclear if regular doses of puzzles and recreational math are beneficial for other aspects of brain health over time, like memory retention, neuroplasticity, and concentration.

That may well be the case, but Suri’s point stands. The idea of instilling a sense of fun and wonder into the field of math, especially for younger minds? That’s one worth pursuing.

Show them that math can be about more than fulfilling homework or graphing parabola. Show them that mathematical concepts can help you crack a diabolical seesaw brain teaser, save a village with a grain of rice, or find an alternate solution to a PSAT question and prove the testers wrong.

It has been championed in the past by television shows like Square One TV and MythBusters, but sadly, examples like that are few and far between.

And if we can instill recreational math as a key facet of math itself, then we’d be one step closer to ensuring that STEM courses will have plenty of participants in the future.


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