PuzzleNation Product Review: Star Trek Chrono-Trek

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[Image courtesy of Trekcore.]

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

Some of the most important moments in the Star Trek franchise center around altering the past through time travel. Choosing to save Edith Keeler in the original series, the Enterprise-C sacrificing itself to bring peace to the Klingons and the Federation in Star Trek: The Next Generation, or Sisko preventing a Tribble bomb from killing Kirk in Deep Space Nine… iconic scenes both humorous and galaxy-changing involved rending the fabric of time and space. (Heck, the new film franchise was based entirely on changing the timeline from what we knew previously!)

So when I heard that Looney Labs updated their time-jumping strategy card game Chrononauts to include elements from the Star Trek universe, it seemed like a perfect fit. How did they do? Find out today as we review the new Star Trek Chrono-Trek card game.

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[A sample of each of the 11 different types of cards in the game.]

Much like its inspiration Chrononauts, Chrono-Trek is all about the cards. You’ve got assignment cards, ID cards, timeline cards that make up the playing space, artifact cards, cards that change history (and others that change it back), as well as cards that can help or hinder your fellow time travelers.

At the beginning of the game, the timeline cards are laid out in a 4×9 grid that represents the historical timeline from the Star Trek shows and films. Each player then draws an ID card representing a Star Trek character. Each character has certain victory conditions — some combination of events that must be preserved or changed in the timeline and artifacts to be acquired during play — that must be met for you to win the game. The ID cards are ranked by difficulty, indicating how complex the victory conditions are.

As for the other cards available to the player, they allow you to manipulate time, find artifacts, or manipulate the cards in your opponents’ hands. (For Fluxx players, some of these Action cards will seem very similar, as will the artifact cards, which are played just like keepers in Fluxx.)

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[A small glimpse of the timeline.]

The history-changing aspect is the puzzliest part of the game, as you determine what moments to change (and which to protect from your opponents) in order for your timeline to come to pass. But you must be careful, because you also need to ensure that you don’t accidentally end the game by allowing the anomaly from the series finale of Star Trek: The Next Generation — the Anti-Time Devron Anomaly — from preventing life on Earth. (In nearly every scenario, that’s a game over for all players. Pretty daunting, to say the least!)

And although bending time to your will and winning is certainly fun, watching the effect ripple down through the cards after making a bold history-altering move is arguably the best part of the game.

It will take one or two playthroughs — with easier ID cards only — to get used to the game mechanics, but after that, it’s a quick and easy deep-dive into the more complex victory conditions and a much more immersive and challenging play experience. (The game can go a bit too rapidly if you’re only using two players, so I’d recommend playing with four or more players to get the most out of the game.)

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[A comparison of a one-pip (easy) ID card and a four-pip (complex) ID card. Kirk simply requires you to protect one moment, invert another, and collect an artifact. Meanwhile, Evil Spock requires you to find the Fracture card, manipulate two events just to place the Fracture, and still maintain another moment AND acquire an artifact. That’s a much taller order.]

The designers did an impressive job figuring out which moments from the 50 years of Star Trek history to include in the timeline, which characters to offer as ID cards, and so on. For a Star Trek enthusiast, there are great references and little callbacks galore to favorite moments from the series. Not only that, but the game ups the ante from the original Chrononauts formula, keeping all of the best aspects of that game while making this one feel unique.

I posed the question in the intro asking how Looney Labs did marrying Star Trek and Chrononauts. The answer? They boldly went where no Star Trek card game had gone before, and created one heck of a fun adventure.

[Star Trek Chrono-Trek is available from Looney Labs and other participating 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 Product Review: Word Domination

Gathering letters to spell words and gain points… it’s a game mechanic so familiar and traditional that it’s easy to take for granted these days. Whether you’re talking about the wooden tiles of Scrabble or the electronic tiles of Words With Friends, the mind-bending spin of Unspeakable Words or the three-dimensional challenge of Upwords, it’s a classic concept.

Word Domination builds on that concept by adding a new strategical element. As you spell words, you claim letters from a shared letter pool. It’s essentially a more aggressive form Boggle.

Each player assumes the identity of a James Bond-style villain, and each letter tile doubles as a prize or piece of loot that can be captured by a player.

The player then uses a letter tile drawn at random with some of the letters laid out in the play area to spell a word, temporarily capturing those letters. (Unlike Boggle, the letters in the word don’t need to be touching.)

For example, in the first round, Player 1 spells the word ODYSSEY, placing zeppelin tokens on each of the 7 letters in the world, including the O that the player added on their turn. Player 1 then draws a new random tile for the next round, and play moves to Player 2.

Player 2 spells the word FORGERY and places her zeppelin tokens. And since she used three letters that Player 1 had captured, she captures those letters and removes his zeppelin tokens from the board.

Let’s jump ahead slightly. Player 3 spells the word TESSERACT, stealing some captured letters from both Player 1 and Player 2, and that concludes the first round. When round 2 starts up, Player 1 spells the word DYNASTY and places his zeppelins.

And since the letters D and Y were already captured by Player 1 in the first round, capturing them a second time means Player 1 has stolen those letters from the game board, and claims them for himself.

Those letters are given to Player 1 to use for the rest of the game, and replaced with STOLEN tiles, which are worth points at the end of the game.

After six rounds of play, the player who has claimed the most territory (and earned the most points) wins the game.

Now, naturally there are wrinkles to add to the gameplay, like helping other players spell words in order to split the profits with them, arming yourself with certain rare letters and weaponizing them, and even utilizing special abilities only your character has access to.

Between these twists and the baseline gameplay, you have a rich and variable game experience that really allows a strategic player to shine when matched up against players that might have stronger vocabularies or better luck drawing letter tiles.

And the game aesthetic really adds to the playing experience. The idea of stealing letter treasures, claiming territory with little zeppelin tokens, and running amok as a film villain (complete with bizarre letter-based weapontry and a punny name) is the perfect mix of silly and clever, spicing up a solid game with enjoyable little quirks.

Word Domination balances luck, strategy, and vocabulary skills to create a game that feels familiar but keeps you on your toes. What a treat.

Word Domination is created by Jeff Beck and is available through Uproarious Games and select online retailers for $32.99.


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Rise of the Machines!

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I don’t mean to alarm you, fellow puzzlers and PuzzleNationers, but the machines may be taking over.

First, there was Deep Blue, defeating Russian chess grandmaster Garry Kasparov under standard chess tournament time constraints.

Then, there was IBM’s supercomputer Watson, sitting at the buzzer on Jeopardy!, besting previous champions Brad Rutter and Ken Jennings to nab a million-dollar prize.

An AI program called Deep Mind can play several Atari games with superhuman proficiency.

These days, you can design robots with LEGOs that are capable of solving Rubik’s Cubes in seconds flat.

And, of course, crossword fans probably know of Dr. Fill, the crossword-solving computer program that competes at the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament each year. In a matter of five years, it has jumped from 141st place in the 2012 tournament to 11th place in the 2017 tournament.

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Now, the machines are coming for Go players next. Google has developed an artificial intelligence known as AlphaGo which twice conquered Ke Jie, the 19-year-old Go tournament champion ranked number one in the world.

This strategy board game is played with white and black gamepieces called stones, and the objective is to surround a greater total amount of territory on the game board than your opponent. Along the way, you can surround your opponent’s pieces in order to capture them and remove them from play.

Wikipedia aptly describes the depth and difficulty of the game:

Despite its relatively simple rules, Go is very complex, even more so than chess, and possesses more possibilities than the total number of atoms in the visible universe. Compared to chess, Go has both a larger board with more scope for play and longer games, and, on average, many more alternatives to consider per move.

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People have been playing Go for over 2,500 years, and yet, machines have already surpassed our greatest player.

Science fiction movies have been warning us about this for years. I just never expected them to come after our games and hobbies first.


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PuzzleNation Review: The Great Dinosaur Rush

The Bone Wars marked one of the craziest, most productive periods in scientific history, as two titans of the burgeoning field of paleontology — Edward Drinker Cope and Othniel Marsh — competed to discover and catalog dinosaur fossils.

Cope and Marsh spied on each other, sabotaged each other’s digs, falsified their own records to deter spying, and even blew up their own digs to prevent the other from finding anything else there in their absence.

It was absolute lunacy, and it led to more fossil discoveries than any other point in history.

And, in today’s review, we look at a game that recreates the Bone Wars for your enjoyment. This is The Great Dinosaur Rush.

In this game, players assume the roles of famous paleontologists at a dig site, collecting bones and preparing their specimens for display at a museum.

The game is played in three rounds. Each round consists of three phases: the Field Phase, the Build Phase, and the Exhibit Phase.

In the Field Phase, you move around the dig site and collect various bones. Different colored pieces represent different bones, which can only be placed in a dinosaur skeleton in certain ways. Red are limb bones, yellow are neck and tail bones, etc.

In this phase, you can take standard actions — like determining the scoring of various dinosaur attributes (making a taller dinosaur more valuable than a ferocious-looking one, for instance) or trading bones for points — or you can take actions that increase your notoriety, like sabotaging other digs or stealing bones from adjacent digs.

Notoriety is a double-edged sword, however; your notoriety gets you points at the end of the game… unless you’re the most notorious player, in which case you lose points.

The Field Phase is all setup for the Build Phase, where you use the bones you’ve collected to prepare your exhibit.

Oh yes, part of this game is a puzzle where you get to make your very own new dinosaur. (The screens included in the game block the other players from seeing your dinosaur-in-progress, as well as offering you important information on how to build your dinosaur.)

It’s up to you to figure out how to place them in order to make your dinosaur excel in certain ways. Depending on the scoring values — determined in the Field Phase — maybe you’ll want to emphasize the neck, or the arms, or give it unique attributes like a triceratops’s horns or a stegosaurus’s spiky plates. It’s up to you — it’s your discovery.

Finally, we have the Exhibit Phase, where the screens are lowered and each dinosaur is scored on its attributes as you show off your creation. (I also encourage players to name their creations, which has proven to be great fun in each game I’ve played.)

That’s the end of the first round. For rounds two and three, you go through the Field, Build, and Exhibit Phases again, but the point values are changed.

And at the end of the third round, you settle your notoriety points, determining final scores. Highest score wins!

Although the game can look a bit daunting at the start, it’s essentially Scrabble with dinosaur bones. You get your pieces and try to maximize your points by stringing them together in creative ways. It’s just that instead of words and clever crossings, you’ve got limbs and tails and Allosaurus skulls.

[Here’s my creation, the Dallosaurus. I imagine it’s like one of those toy birds that drinks water, pivoting on its hipbone atop those long legs and dipping its head to eat or drink.]

I was thoroughly impressed by how elegant the gameplay was, and how many actions you could take in the Field Phase. There’s so much you can do as you try to collect the bones you need to make your dinosaur, and it’s a wonderful mix of strategy, skill, and luck.

And then to follow that with pure puzzle solving as you must use every bone you’ve collected to create your dinosaur… it’s a game that engages you on several levels in very satisfying fashion. (The fact that it brings to life one of my favorite rivalries from history is just the cherry on top for me.)

It does take about an hour to play (sometimes longer, when you introduce new players to the game), but it’s worth the time investment. It’s a terrific family game — especially if you use the variant rule that leaves out the notoriety aspect. And it offers a new chance to make history every time you play.

[The Great Dinosaur Rush is distributed by APE Games and appears in this year’s Holiday Puzzly Gift Guide.]


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PuzzleNation Product Review: Rush Hour Shift and All Queens Chess

ThinkFun has always specialized in games that educate as you play, from the optics and angles of Laser Maze and the chain problem-solving of Gravity Maze to the coding-for-kids gameplay of Robot Turtles and the mental agility challenges of their Brain Fitness line of puzzles-for-one.

Two of their newest products bring the best of those puzzles-for-one brain fitness games into the realm of head-to-head competitive solving for two players aged 8 to adult. And while All Queens Chess and Rush Hour Shift focus on two different styles of puzzle-solving, they both highlight the pluses of two-player puzzle games in their own unique ways.

Rush Hour Shift

There have been numerous variations on Rush Hour in the past, all of which center around the same tile-shifting mechanic: moving a series of cars around the board in the proper order to allow your car to escape the traffic jam.

Rush Hour Shift adds a new wrinkle to the puzzle by pitting two players head-to-head in a race to escape the traffic jam. But not only can players shift a personal car (known as the hero car) and the many cars in the way, they can also shift entire sections of the board in order to maximize their efforts to escape or thwart those of their opponent.

[Sometimes, you end up literally head-to-head.]

Your moves are dictated by the cards you draw from a small deck of options. You can either move a certain number of spaces, slide a vehicle as far as it will go before hitting an obstacle, or shift one side of the board or the other in order to create openings for yourself and further obstacles for your opponent. So not only are you solving an ever-evolving maze for your own car, but you’re trying to make your opponent’s maze more challenging.

My one caveat when it comes to Rush Hour Shift is that the game is incredibly dependent on which cards you draw. Between shifting the grid and moving both your hero car and all of the other cars, you have lots of options.

But if your opponent is drawing high-number cards and you’re not, there’s only so much you can do to slow them down or maneuver yourself in the hopes of staying in the game. A few good cards in a row can form a nearly insurmountable advantage.

That being said, Rush Hour Shift is a clever spin on a familiar formula, and a terrific way of introducing kids to the tile-shifting style of puzzle solving.

All Queens Chess

Many of the best games have extremely simple rule sets that still allow for major replayability and inherently complex gameplay, and All Queens Chess absolutely fits that bill.

You’ve got a 5×5 playing field, six queens each, and you’re trying to place four of your queens in a row Connect Four-style while preventing your opponent from doing the same. Each queen moves according to standard chess rules, except there’s no capturing of your opponent’s pieces. This puzzle game is all about placement and strategy.

And when you consider that the game pieces occupy nearly half of the playing area, it’s remarkable that there’s so much maneuverability and tactical potential in such a confined space.

Moreover, my expectation that, after a few games, the inability to capture and remove pieces from the board would prove tedious or frustrating was completely misproven. Six pieces is enough to strike a strong balance of offense (trying to place four in a row) and defense (preventing my opponent from doing so). I never felt locked into a few token moves.

This is a rare open-the-box-and-go puzzle game, and it’s an absolute treat.

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