Relaxing Games: More Tranquil Than Tactical

Everybody has a copy of Monopoly lying around, but that’s not really the most relaxing game experience, is it?

Most of the classics, however fun, are also pretty competitive. But what about games that help restore your spirit, ease your anxiety, and put you in a good mood?

As much fun as co-op games like Forbidden Island, The Oregon Trail Card Game, and Castle Panic! can be, they can also be a little stressful. And if you’re looking to relax, those might not be the games for you.

So today, I thought we could turn our attention to games that will help you enjoy a more calming gameplay experience.


Now, before I get started, I’m well aware that you might not have these games at the ready. Maybe you’re a jigsaw family and you find calmness and distraction in placing those last few satisfying little pieces and completing the image. Or maybe you like making your own fun with pencil and paper.

Whatever your jam, as long as you’re engaging in play and passing the time in fun ways, you’re already ahead of the game.


When I asked fellow game enthusiasts for games that are mellow and relaxing, the first one that always comes to mind is Tsuro.

In Tsuro, up to 8 players adopt the role of flying dragons soaring through the sky. Each player chooses from the tiles in their hands in order to build paths on the board, representing their paths through the sky. Naturally, these paths will eventually intersect, and you need to be careful to avoid colliding with another dragon or following a path right off the edge of the board. (Both of those scenarios cause you to lose.)

Despite the potential for competition, most Tsuro games are peaceful affairs as everyone enjoys watching their dragon token loop and swirl across various intersecting paths, hoping to be the last dragon standing on the board. It’s a beautiful, simple game that only takes about twenty minutes to play, and it’s the perfect palate cleanser after a more stressful round of some other game.

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[Image courtesy of Board Game Geek.]

Some of the most enjoyable and low-key game experiences are storytelling games. I could recommend one with high-fantasy flavor like Once Upon a Time or one with a tongue-in-cheek Addams Family-esque humor like Gloom. But the one that piques my interest the most is based in mythology and sharing stories around a fire.

In Before There Were Stars…, players claim constellation cards to use in crafting the origin story of the world itself. Each player shares how things were in the beginning, at the dawn of civilization, when a great hero emerges, and at the end of days. Along the way, players grant each other points — little star-shaped point tokens, naturally — for their favorite story moments, as everyone encourages each other in creating epic mythologies.

Although there can be a winner based on points, playing this game always feels more like a storytelling session than a competition, and it can lead to some unforgettable gaming moments.

[Image courtesy of Starlit Citadel.]

Tokaido is another game about movement, but in a very different vein. Players in this game are all travelers, journeying across Japan’s famed East Sea Road from Kyoto to Edo. Whereas most travel-based games are about reaching a destination first, Tokaido is about reaching a destination with the widest array of meaningful experiences.

Along the way, your character can meet new people, enjoy new cuisines, collect souvenirs, visit hot springs, and visit scenic locales. You add experience points for these events (and acquire achievement cards) that represent your traveler partaking of these experiences.

This elegant game bypasses traditional competition entirely, building a unique game mechanic out of living your best life.

[Image courtesy of Board Game Quest.]

Sagrada is another wonderfully visual game about individual accomplishment. In this game, each player is building a stained glass window using different colored dice. No dice of the same color can neighbor each other, so you need to be strategic about how you place the dice you roll.

Each window is different, and has certain rules for maximizing points. (A certain pane can only be a certain color, or a certain die value, etc.) The players can boost their scores by selecting cards that reward them with points if they create certain patterns within their stained glass window.

Except for competing for the best point total at the end, there’s virtually no interaction between players. You’re all simply working simultaneously on the best window, which is a gameplay style that breeds camaraderie more than competitiveness. It’s genuinely encouraging to see fellow players make good choices in dice placement to create the most beautiful, elegant window patterns.

[Image courtesy of Starlit Citadel.]

For a change of pace, let’s look at a game that’s more about interaction with other players. Dixit is a gorgeous card game where each player is given a handful of cards, each depicting a different, unique, evocative piece of art.

Player 1 will choose a card from their hand and say a word or phrase to the other players that has some connection to that card. It could reference color, or part of the imagery. It could be a joke, or an idiom, or a song lyric. The goal is to be vague, but not too vague. The other players will then each select a card from their hand that could also be described by Player 1’s statement, and the cards are all shuffled face down so no one can see who submitted what card.

The cards are then all placed face up, and each player (except Player 1) votes on which piece of art they think Player 1 chose. Player 1 gets points if some (but not ALL) players chose his card. (If every player chooses it, the clue was too easy, and Player 1 gets no points.) And any other player’s card that earns votes also earns that player points.

This sort of associative gameplay really encourages your imagination and teaches you about how the other players think. There’s no other game quite like it on the market today, and it makes for an intriguing, low-key gaming experience.

Finally, let’s close out today’s post with a classic tile game that mixes Uno-style color- and pattern-matching with Mexican Train Dominoes-style gameplay. Qwirkle is a bit more competitive than the other games on today’s list, but it’s still a game more about collaborating than outdoing your opponents.

By placing different tiles onto a shared play area — either by matching colors or matching symbols — players earn points. If you complete a Qwirkle — a pattern of all six colors for a given shape or all six shapes in the same color — you earn bonus points.

The lighthearted gameplay style lends itself to friendly competition rather than the cutthroat mien evoked by games like Monopoly. Qwirkle’s not about grinding the other players down, it’s about adding to a colorful world in interesting, inventive new ways.


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Wendy’s Viral Marketing Victory (with a side of French fries)

Some of my all-time favorite puzzling experiences have been part of roleplaying games, so it warms my heart to see more and more people discovering Dungeons & Dragons and other tabletop RPGs. Not only are they a wonderful way to connect with friends and tell stories, but they inspire me to create new and innovative puzzles.

Both the Netflix series Stranger Things and the CBS sitcom The Big Bang Theory have helped bring roleplaying games to greater mainstream attention (as shows like Community and Freaks and Geeks did in the past), and now, even fast food chains are getting in on the pencil, paper, and dice-loaded pastime.

Yes, Wendy’s has created its own roleplaying game.

Feast of Legends is a self-contained roleplaying adventure that is both staggeringly detailed and shamelessly self-promotional. This NINETY-SEVEN page downloadable PDF contains the rules for building your character, equipment, rules, setting details, and different character classes (like the Order of the Frosty or the Order of the Spicy Chicken Sandwich), each with their own bonus abilities.

It’s actually a terrific introduction to roleplaying games as a whole, discussing concepts like how many actions you can take on a given turn, how combat works, and which dice to use.

They even created an online dice roller for you to use if you don’t own roleplaying dice!

(For RPG aficionados, the system is reminiscent of both D&D’s fourth and fifth edition rulesets, though not nearly as involved, obviously.)

Once you’ve created your character — an easy task, given the streamlined (but effective) character creation instructions in the first half of the handbook — there’s an entire campaign included to play through!

Yes, a five-part adventure awaits players willing to explore Freshtovia, battle the evildoers who seek to force frozen beef on people across the land, from Costa del Spicy to Roast Beach, from The Box to Biggie Vale.

feastoflegends2

Oh, you were curious about the shameless self-promotion? Trust me, we’re getting to that.

It starts with the setting — the mythical land of Freshtovia, in the realm of Beef’s Keep, where Queen Wendy requires your help to battle the monstrous threat of frozen beef. You can arm yourself with various implements (the spork caught my eye) as you prepare to do battle with the Ice Jester (a thinly veiled take on Ronald McDonald) and his minions, including violent versions of the Hamburglar (aka the Beef Bandit) and the Fry Guys.

Not only that, but there are rules regarding the bonuses you get for eating Wendy’s food while you play (as well as minuses for any characters eating from a different fast food chain during the game).

It’s seeded throughout the game, and on the website as well. On the page explaining how RPGs work, readers will find this text:

Beef’s Keep is a wide open world waiting for you to explore it. Make the world your own, expand your adventure, and most importantly, buy Wendy’s. Wait, we meant to say have fun. Also, buy Wendy’s.

wendys-vo2

As a writer and a content creator, I was a little disappointed to see that this voluminous and impressive PDF was lacking in one crucial detail: credits for all the hard work that must’ve gone into it.

Yes, there is a brief credit near the end — illustrations by Alex Lopez, maps by Collin Fogel — and a few signatures and identifying marks hidden in some of the art, but what about the writing? What about the well-crafted adventure? What of all the puns?!

I really had to go hunting in order to track down who exactly deserves the kudos for this engagingly ridiculous endeavor. The credit belongs to the company VMLY&R and their Wendy’s team, including @TonyMarin and @SmugKeck.

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Designed to launch in time for New York Comic-Con — coinciding with a play-through on the popular webseries/podcast Critical Role — Feast of Legends seems like a rousing viral success.

Yes, there is naturally some pushback on the Internet — some for campaign donations made by the CEO of Wendy’s, some for how Wendy’s employees are treated — and some directed at the RPG itself, viewing it as a thinly-veiled propaganda tool (or an anti-union screed designed to brainwash the puny minds of roleplayers).

Politics and social issues aside, I’m calling this project a win. People that have never played a roleplaying game before have asked me about it, and roleplaying games in general are in the news because of this. If this brings more people into one of my favorite activities and opens up a new world of puzzles and games for them, then I thank Wendy’s for making that possible.

And yes, we’re probably going to end up playing this at the office at some point.


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How Dungeons & Dragons Brings Us Together

roleplaying-kinda-like-that

One of my favorite things about puzzles and games is the way they bring people together. It could be gathering around a table for a session of Dungeons & Dragons, enlisting a friend in unraveling a tricky crossword clue, or swapping jigsaws with a fellow enthusiast to share the wealth.

Recently, a story about Dungeons & Dragons went viral, but if you haven’t seen it, I’ll happily summarize.


A Twitter user named Antoine H. delivered his grandmother’s eulogy after her sad passing, but wasn’t able to devote the time he wanted to one important aspect of her life, so he took to Twitter later to do so.

At 75 years old, in the last year of her life, she started playing D&D at his suggestion.

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Her first character? A male forest gnome named Terminatur (a combination of “termite” and “nature”).

She helped her fellow players cleanse a haunted house, then made it a home, including inventing a new fruit that became quite popular. (It led to membership in an interplanar ecology organization, The Circle of the Green Hand.)

She even gave the adventuring party its name: “les Bijoutiers Fantaisistes,” the Fanciful Jewelers.

Although her cancer treatment would limit her opportunities to play regularly, she still kept on with the campaign whenever possible, adding delightful new wrinkles to her character.

Her last words to him? “Never change, never lose your family spirit, and keep on playing Dungeons & Dragons.”


As a longtime D&D player, I love this story. Because, as much fun as it is to play the game, it’s the connections you forge DURING play that mean the most. In fact, my favorite roleplaying game memory isn’t from an actual play session.

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It’s from a lazy afternoon hanging out with some of my players, just listening as they shared stories about their favorite moments from the game. (Since each of them had individual adventures, in addition to group adventures, they got to share stories the others hadn’t experienced.) Their reenactments were a pleasure to watch, knowing I had helped craft adventures that they enjoyed so much, they wanted to share them with others.

Getting to tell stories with my friends is an incredible gift, and I can only imagine how much joy it brought both Antoine and his grandmother to find this lovely, unexpected common ground.

You can (and should) click here to read the entire Twitter thread. It’s wonderful.

Also, please share your own stories of how games, puzzles, and RPGs have improved your life and friendships. I’d love to hear them.


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Welcome to the World of Wordventures!

You can hear the lapping of the waves, even at a distance. A slight breeze heightens the chill in the air. The moon is already on the rise, casting long shadows that look as if they’d love nothing more than to reach out and grab you.

Night is quickly falling as you climb a hill, the last hill on your long journey. A small collection of buildings comes into view. You pass an old wooden sign that marks the town line.

Mistyvale Oaks.

A town full of strangers, distrusting souls that probably won’t take kindly to your intrusion.

A town full of secrets, a seaside port with rumors of ships both real and otherworldly haunting its shores.

A town with a horrifying history, where the laughter and playful patter of children’s feet are absent.

The children of Mistyvale Oaks have disappeared, and you’re the only one who can solve the mystery.

Welcome to the opening scenes of Wordventures: The Vampire Pirate, our newest puzzle app. This immersive story-driven puzzle-solving experience places you in the shoes of our nameless protagonist, who has followed stories of an ancient cult to this foreboding place.

Puzzles and exploration go hand-in-hand in Wordventures. As your character investigates in the story, going first from building to building, and then beyond into the mystery of Mistyvale Oaks, you search for key words in each puzzle grid, revealing small clues, new personalities, and important revelations in the narrative.

Along the way, evocative music and gorgeous artwork draw you further into the story, urging you forward as you fill your investigative journal with crucial information, other paths to explore, and the lore behind the curious objects you discover as you search.

And as you progress through the story, more supernatural elements come into play. You’ll need to rely on your wits, your puzzly skills, your investigative chops, and your trusty journal to solve the mystery!

What happened to the children of Mistyvale Oaks? What about the rumors of a ghost ship spotted nearby for years? And where does the vampire pirate of the title fit in?

Well, the only way to find out is to solve a mystery yourself! Click here to learn more about Wordventures: The Vampire Pirate and download the app now!


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Storytelling and Puzzles Unite in Wordventures! Available now!

There’s nothing more exciting than announcing a brand-new puzzle app we’ve been working on, and today, we’ve got something truly special for you to enjoy.

Our newest app, Wordventures: The Vampire Pirate is now available for download!

A town’s children have gone missing. A mysterious undead pirate and his ragtag crew lurk nearby. And the only person who can unravel the mystery and find the children is you!

In Wordventures, you can immerse yourself in a investigation while solving word search puzzles to uncover clues, reveal secrets, and move the story forward!

Combining the world-class puzzle solving you expect from PuzzleNation with a multilayered storytelling experience offers the best of both worlds. You’ll explore the town, meet fascinating characters, and even keep notes in a journal as you play through the story!

You control the pace, you control the difficulty, and you push the narrative forward with every puzzle you solve!

Solve a mystery like never before with Wordventures: The Vampire Pirate! Click here to learn more about the app and download it now!


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PuzzleNation Product Review: Nanofictionary

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

We’re used to puzzles where you have to combine pieces to reveal a picture, or you use clues to complete a grid, or you employ deduction to unravel a series of events. It’s far less common for puzzlers to put those skills to use telling a story.

The latest offering from the crafty crew at Looney Labs challenges players to do precisely that: tell a story. More specifically, Nanofictionary tasks you with telling the best story possible from the ingredients available.

And you better do it quickly. Imagine you’re pitching a movie and you’ve only got the length of an elevator ride to sell it to a producer.

Nanofictionary offers up to six players a selection of four decks of cards: characters, settings, problems, and resolutions. Each player draws a starting hand, consisting of two characters, one setting, one problem, and one resolution. Players then try to build an entertaining narrative from the options at hand, by drawing and discarding cards, before declaring themselves ready to pitch.

Here is the first element of strategy in the game: deciding when you’re ready to present your story. If you do so quickly, you secure an earlier slot than the other players. Although this means other players can add additional cards to their hands (and thereby enhance their stories), it also means that ties are settled in favor of players who readied their stories faster. It’s a tradeoff, more cards in the short term vs. a tactical advantage in the long term.

After everyone has assembled their stories, each player has a turn performing their elevator pitch, doing so in the order in which they declared themselves ready. After all the stories are shared, the players then vote for their favorite story. (Naturally, to prevent every player from doing so, you cannot vote for yourself.)

Nanofictionary is an intriguing mix of strategy, luck, and ingenuity. The strategy involves not only when to declare your story ready, but what choices you make to get there. Do you choose the unexpected new card on your turn, or rifle through the cards discarded by the other players? Do you wait for a few other players to declare their stories ready, allowing yourself access to more cards in your hand, or do you go for the tie-breaking advantage you might need?

Luck, of course, comes into play with the cards you randomly draw. Perhaps you’ll end up with elements that quickly form an entertaining tale in your mind. Or perhaps you’ll struggle to ditch the pieces that don’t inspire you, hoping to trade them for a more exciting setting or a problem that makes the most of the characters in your hand.

But, as you might expect, the ingenuity side is where the game comes alive. Just sitting back and watching these delightfully brief (and yet hilariously detailed) stories come to life is a real treat, and quite honestly, it makes the voting aspect so hard. Because with the right group of players, virtually any combination of cards can turn into gold with the right storyteller.

The designers fit a surprising amount of variety and reusability into these four small decks of cards, allowing storytellers to run wild with tales as fantastic as they are ridiculous. It’s not your usual puzzle game, but that’s part of the charm.

Nanofictionary is available now from Looney Labs and select participating retailers for $16.


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