PuzzleNation Product Review: Homeworlds

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

One of the coolest moments in a board game player’s life comes when you’re immersed in a game, and someone walks by, stops, and simply must ask, “What is that?” Because you’re showing them something new.

Homeworlds got that reaction the very first time I played it at the office. A coworker walked by, saw what is essentially an array of colorful triangles on the table, and asked the question. They didn’t know what it was, but they were intrigued.

Honest praise doesn’t come much higher than that, does it?

Homeworlds is a difficult game to review, because there’s so much to cover. The rules are expansive and complex, even though the elements are simple. It’s three sets of Looney Pyramids each in four different colors: red, blue, green, and yellow. And yet, it might be the most involved, complicated game we’ve ever reviewed on PN Blog.

And to be fair, we’re going to spend way less time than usual covering the rules. There’s simply too much to explore, and to be frank, throwing a novella of rules at you doesn’t tell you about the game and why it’s worth your time.

So let’s try it a little differently today.

Homeworlds is chess plus Risk set in space. But unlike those games — or basically any strategy games with territory control and resource management elements — which require lots of different pieces and a host of tabletop real estate to enjoy, Homeworlds can easily be toted around and played on any flat surface. And it still manages to encapsulate all the complexity, variety, and tactical planning of those games.

You and your opponent are both playing spacefaring races that are trying to wipe the other player’s influence from the universe. You can do so by eliminating their fleets (through capture or destruction), destroying their Homeworld, or forcing them to leave their Homeworld defenseless.

There are specific rules governing how you build your fleet, how you travel to different star systems, and what you can do when you arrive there. These are all dictated by the colors of the ships in your fleet, which allow you to build new ships, travel, attack, or transform ships (swapping them out for ones with different abilities).

Any pieces not currently in use by the players sit in a communal bank, waiting to be pulled and deployed as either new star systems or new ships. (I love this aspect of the game. It’s like every time you travel to a new star system, you pull that place out of the ether and place it onto the table in front of you. You essentially make each game space you need to use.)

The communal bank adds a third player of sorts to the table, since you must always keep an eye on the bank to not only manage your resources but prevent your opponent from capitalizing on your moves. For instance, you must pull the smallest sized pyramid available for a given color. But size of the pieces does matter. So if you impulsively pull the last small green pyramid, you’ve left the bank open for your opponent to grab a medium or a large pyramid, leaving them with a more powerful ship than you.

Trust me, it’s a lot to take in at once, like the first time you play chess and you’re overwhelmed trying to remember how the little horse-shaped ones move while all the other pieces are doing their own thing. Unless you watch a detailed how-to video, your first few games of Homeworlds are going to be a wash. Because, like chess or Risk, there are important steps you need to take first before you can really get into the game.

But those early learning sessions are still great fun. You slowly drink in all the rules. You figure out choosing your Homeworld can affect the entire scope of the game (by determining how many or how few spaces away your opponent’s homeworld is). You puzzle out devious little tricks like sacrificing one ship in order to take multiple actions, sometimes even undoing that sacrifice in the same term, like you’ve built a perpetual motion machine or found a loophole in the rules.

As the game progresses, what was an overwhelming jumble of complexity becomes an elegantly balanced logic tree of possible options unfolding in front of you.

Catastrophes you might have accidentally caused in earlier games — or studiously avoided in later ones — become tactical moves you intentionally inflict in order to tilt the battle in your favor. Any reader who has sacrificed a piece in chess in order to capture a more important piece from their opponent knows exactly what we mean here.

That fluidity of play, the endless potential to affect the game, makes Homeworlds as exciting and dynamic as possible. In Risk, for example, one country is always the same number of moves from another. But in Homeworlds, an aggressive play can make the trip from your Homeworld to your opponent’s Homeworld perilously quick.

This game will undoubtedly be daunting at first. The instructional booklet alone is two or three times bigger than that of any other Looney Labs game I can think of. But when you get past that, you’ll find a game that is endlessly rich, challenging, and satisfying, one where every new game feels like a positive step forward.

You get to look out at that same eye-catchingly baffling array of colors and shapes that made someone stop and ask you “what is that?” and in an instant, you see moves, countermoves, chances to be taken, and gambits to be foiled.

And that’s pretty cool.

I don’t think there’s another game in the expansive Looney Pyramids library that gets so much out every aspect of the pyramids. The color, size, and arrangement of each is absolutely essential to the gameplay, and choosing the wrong pyramid at the wrong moment could be the difference between victory and defeat.

Homeworlds perfectly captures everything great about strategy games, tosses aside extraneous game boards, tokens, and pieces, and delivers a killer play experience at a fraction of the price.

[Homeworlds is available from Looney Labs and select online vendors for $20, and is part of PuzzleNation’s 2020 Holiday Puzzly Gift Guide, so be sure to check out this game and other offerings from Looney Labs in this year’s edition of the Gift Guide!]


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PuzzleNation Product Reviews: Martian Chess

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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.]

There are an unbelievable number of chess variants out there.

You can play with narrower boards and fewer pieces (TrimChess), or wider boards and additional pieces (Capablanca Chess). You can play All Queens chess, 3-person chess, or that multi-level chess game from Star Trek. In previous posts, we’ve discussed variations like ChessPlus (with pieces that merge and can move like two different chess pieces) and Tour de Force chess (where pieces can be recovered after being captured, or beheaded by a guillotine).

After years of writing this blog, I felt fairly confident that I’d seen pretty much everything that could be done with chess.

And then Looney Labs introduced me to Martian Chess, and showed me that the iconic piece-capturing strategy game has plenty of gas still in the tank, especially where creative game designers are concerned.

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Martian Chess only employs three types of game pieces — a large pyramid, a medium pyramid, and a small pyramid, based on Andrew Looney’s infinitely adaptable Looney Pyramids — and each piece moves a certain way.

Small pyramids (or pawns) move diagonally like a bishop, though only one space at a time. Medium pyramids (or drones) move vertically or horizontally like a rook, though only one or two spaces at a time. Large pyramids (or queens), just like queens in Earth chess, can move in any direction any number of spaces.

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You maneuver your pieces in order to capture whichever of your opponent’s pieces you can, and that goes for any piece. Martian Chess does away with the concept of checkmate, since there is no king to capture here. No, Martian Chess is all about scoring points (1, 2, or 3, based on which piece you capture) and outmaneuvering your opponent. The player with the most points at the end of the game wins.

Oh, there’s one more important wrinkle here: you can only control pieces in your zone.

Each player in Martian Chess has a 4×4 game board in front of them. You can move pieces from your game board to your opponent’s board, but as soon as you do, that piece becomes theirs to control.

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[Two possible moves. On the left, I move a drone one space and retain control. On the right, I move a drone two spaces into my opponent’s zone, and it becomes hers to control.]

This absolutely changes the way you approach the game. In Earth chess, you’re encouraged to push forward and press your advantage. In Martian Chess, though, you have to be far more strategic, because as soon as your piece crosses the canal into the other player’s zone, they can use it however they like.

I confess, my brain melted during my first few games of Martian Chess, because I had to deprogram myself from years of previous chess playing. It completely changes how you look at attack and defense. Sure, if you’re going to cross the canal and lose control of a piece, you probably want to do so while capturing one of theirs for points. But sometimes, that sacrifice can serve to block one of their upcoming attacks, or provide a screen for one of your own.

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[We’ve each captured one pyramid, but mine is valued 1
and hers is valued 2, so she’s ahead on points.]

The game ends when one player has no more pieces in their zone. This adds another fresh element to the game, because you’re managing both your resources in terms of game pieces in your zone and the number of points you’ve scored.

If you’re ahead in points, but low in game pieces, it might be strategically worth it to push those remaining few pieces over the canal and empty your board, cashing in your lead early.

Other times, you’ll want to play it slower, looking for opportunities to zoom ahead in points and then take advantage.

One of the things I like about Martian Chess is that it feels like you’ve immediately been pushed into the tense second-half of a chess game. In Earth chess, the early rounds can be a little drab as players start pushing pieces into position for bigger moves down the line, but all the action comes later. In Martian Chess, you’re immediately in the deep end. I really dig that.

Easy to learn but hard to master, Martian Chess is a sharp reimagination of a game we all know, but one that feels intriguingly unfamiliar each time you break out the box and give it another go. It really does feel like chess from another world.

[Martian Chess is available now from Looney Labs as part of their Pyramid Quartet, and will be part of this year’s Holiday Puzzly Gift Guide, launching next Tuesday, so keep your eyes peeled for all sorts of puzzle and game fun!]


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PuzzleNation Product Review: Chicken War

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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.]

The farm is no longer the quiet, idyllic escape you pictured when learning the sounds barnyard animals make. Instead, it has fallen to factional fury and un-cooped combat between various groups of chickens vying for victory. Such is the setting for ThinkFun‘s latest brain-training game, the colorful and crafty tile game Chicken War.

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There are two ways to win Chicken War. You can either be the last player standing or the first player to complete their army. To be the last player standing, your opponents’ leaders must be identified. To be the first player to complete your army, you have to have nine other chickens with two traits in common with your leader.

As you can see, Chicken War’s hybrid style of play combines the player observation of a game like Throw Throw Burrito or Scrimish with the deductive reasoning of a game like Clue.

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Each player is trying to recruit chickens for their army, and must do so in full view of the other players. This means that you have to strategize not only your recruitment process, but how to do so without revealing too much to your opponents. Plus you have to do all that while keeping an eye on your opponents’ efforts to recruit!

First, you select your leader from the ten starting chickens in your yard. Optimally, you’ll pick a leader where many of the other starting chickens already share two traits, which gives you a leg up in building your army.

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You’ll hide your leader token under that particular chicken to mark it, using your screen to do so away from the prying eyes of other players.

Remember, that’s two traits and only two traits in common.

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The four possible traits, as shown above, are weapon, shirt color, eyewear, and footwear. Each trait has three variations. For instance, shirt color can be blue, red, or green. Eyewear can be sunglasses, mask, or none.

(Keep those four traits in mind. Body type, pose, and style of tail are all irrelevant, but can be distracting.)

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As you can see here, the top two chickens have two traits in common: shirt color and eyewear. (Footwear and weapon differ.) The two bottom chickens have three traits in common: shirt color, eyewear, and footwear. Therefore, if 05 and 06 are leaders, 05 has a recruit, but 06 does not.

How do you recruit chickens? By drawing from the discard pile. You either keep the new chicken and discard one of the chickens from your yard, or you immediately discard the new chicken.

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The only other ways to recruit chickens are to use the two special tiles: steal and infiltrate.

Steal lets you take a chicken from another player’s yard and discard one of your unwanted chickens into the discard pile. This not only gives you a new chicken, but leaves your opponent one chicken short. This can be a strategic advantage, because any player with fewer than 10 chickens can’t lob an egg and cannot win the game, even if their remaining chickens all match the leader.

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Infiltrate allows you to swap one of your chickens with one of your opponents’ chickens. That player must then tell you one trait your chicken (the one placed in their yard) has with their leader. If there are no traits in common with the leader, they must tell you that instead. And if you accidentally trade for their leader, they must pick a new leader and start over. So in any case, you gain a new chicken and important knowledge about your opponent’s game.

If multiple players gang up on a single player, the Infiltrate card can prove very dangerous, eventually outing the player’s leader and making them easy pickings for an egg and elimination from the game. (This tactic is more likely to catch new players, as more experienced players would endeavor to repeat the same revealed trait over and over, whenever possible.)

So each turn, you must either draw a chicken from the discard pile or lob an egg.

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Lobbing one of your three eggs means you place your egg on a chicken in another player’s yard that you suspect is their leader. If you’re correct, that player is out.

But if you’re wrong, you lose an egg and have to discard two chickens from your yard, leaving yourself two chickens short of victory. (Also, as we stated before, you can’t win the game or lob an egg with fewer than 10 chickens in your yard.)

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The two methods of winning can often lead to two different styles of gameplay. Either a player focuses on their recruitment, hoping to be the first to complete their army, or they focus on eliminating another player by sussing out who their leader chicken is.

This adds a lot of variety to the game, particularly when it comes to repeat playthroughs. Figuring out your opponents’ tactics can inform your own, and yet, you don’t want to tip your hand.

Once I had one or two playthroughs behind me, I really started getting invested in the gameplay and trying to get into my opponents’ heads. (Also, there’s something delightfully demented about these chickens all being armed with “weapons” we would use to make breakfast from their eggs. That’s a nice touch.)

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Although it makes for a tense, enjoyable one-on-one game, the full potential of Chicken War comes alive with all four players involved. It forces to split your attention, retain a lot of information, and constantly adapt your strategy to an ever-shifting landscape.

As you can see, there’s a surprising amount of thought, strategy, and complexity behind this so-called guessing game, and it makes Chicken War a terrific gateway game to other board games in the same style, but with more complex rulesets or player choices. War is hell, but Chicken War is healthy brain-fueled fun.

[Chicken War is available from ThinkFun and other retail outlets.]


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Last Kickstarter Roundup for 2019!

Oh yes, it’s that time again.

For 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 intrigue my fellow PuzzleNationers.

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


The first is Peter Gordon’s Fireball Newsflash Crosswords.

Culturally timely clues and entries are a hallmark of this marvelous variation on Gordon’s long-running Fireball Crosswords brand, and you can rest assured that each Fireball Newsflash Crossword grid will be well-constructed and cleverly clued.

With twenty puzzles sent to you by email — one every two to three weeks — you’ll always have some terrific puzzling to look forward to.

Gordon has a knack for melding flowing grid design with sharp, topical entry words, and much of the time, you’ll not only be impressed by how much material makes it into the grid, but by what major and minor events you’ve missed recently! Gordon’s history of topnotch puzzles is all the incentive you need to contribute.

75% funded with 5 days to go, this project is a yearly favorite of mine, and I always look forward to supporting it.

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Our second project is a game called 13 Monsters.

A game that takes the strategy of a monster-building game like Bears vs. Babies or Epic Spell Wars of the Battle Wizards and adds a memory component to the gameplay, 13 Monsters requires luck, skill, and tactics in order to assemble monsters and battle your fellow players for dice-rolling, monster-making supremacy.

Because you can only build your monster by finding matching pieces — which you do by flipping tiles and remembering where matching parts are, like in Memory or Concentration — experienced players and newbies have an equal chance at the game’s outset of making moves that seriously impact the game.

With fun mechanics, delightful art, and a clever premise, 13 Monsters looks like a blast.

77% funded with three days to go, 13 Monsters could easily cross the finish line in time, and if more people watched the incredibly charming How to Play video on the Kickstarter page, I think they’d be funded already.

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Our third project adds an artistic touch to a classic game tool: dice.

Dragon and Celtic Laser Dice allow you to augment your games — or your game-centric decor — with beautifully designed and intricately realized wooden and metal dice. With laser-cut precision, these dice are eye-catching and could inspire the creation of whole new games just for these dice alone.

Understandably, the project has already reached its funding goals with 24 days to go, but I still think it’s a gorgeous product that will appeal to game fans all over.

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Our fourth and final project today doesn’t focus on game fans all over, instead opting to focus on game fans in one particular area: Chattanooga, Tennessee.

You see, the dynamic duo of Gina and Janay want to open a gamer-friendly coffee shop — The Game Over Cafe — that mixes classic store elements with video game regalia and programming.

Proposing to be a “Gamer-friendly establishment offering quality coffee and beverages, delicious tea, snacks, and sandwiches,” The Game Over Cafe has potential to be a marvelous new business and networking spot for games and gamers.

A quarter of the way to their funding goal with 29 days to go, I think there’s a solid chance this project will find support and fulfill its mission.


Have any of these games or projects 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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PuzzleNation Product Review: Jetpack Joyride

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[Image courtesy of Board Game Geek.]

There are many games where the goal is to get from Point A to Point B. But rarely are those games as simple to learn, as engaging to master, or as satisfying to puzzle out as Jetpack Joyride.

Mobile gamers may recognize that name from the popular app making the rounds a few years ago. While the basic concept remains the same for the board game version, the puzzly way you go about achieving victory is completely different. (And, dare I say, an improvement upon the original.)

So strap on a stolen jetpack and join us for today’s product review, as we explore the tabletop version of Jetpack Joyride.

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Anyone who has played Tetris is familiar with game pieces like these. These are called pentominoes, because they’re made up of 5 squares, as opposed to Tetris-style tetrominoes, which are made up of 4 squares. And they’re the heart of the puzzly challenge offered by Jetpack Joyride.

Most games that involve pentominoes are all about filling a grid or making various shapes. Jetpack Joyride takes them in a completely new direction, as they form the path that Barry takes as he tries to escape the lab with jetpack in tow.

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It’s a fresh and challenging reinvention that makes the game very replayable, because as you grow more effective at selecting your pieces and navigating the play area, the arms race between players to grab the shapes they need grows more intense.

All players are pulling from the same collective pool of pentominoes at once, so piece selection has to be both quick and effective.

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By placing each piece on your board, you maneuver Barry past obstacles, help him collect coins, and guide him toward the exit, hopefully fulfilling a few mission objectives along the way.

Yes, in addition to avoiding rockets and laser fences whilst collecting coins, you also have to keep in mind the missions that are available for every player to complete as they play.

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These can range from collecting all of the coins in a sector to having Barry’s path glide along the ceiling for 10 squares. The missions are worth a different number of stars based on their difficulty.

And why would a player bother with collecting coins or amassing stars? Well, those are worth points once each round ends. (The round ends when one of the players escapes the lab OR when everyone runs out of pentominoes.)

The purpose of the point system is two-fold: not only do they count toward your total score at the end of the game, but they also determine which power-ups you get for rounds 2 and 3.

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You see, in order to balance out the game play, the player who scored the fewest points gets to pick their power-up first. So although the person with the highest point total is in the lead, they actually pick their power-up last, allowing for players behind in points to catch up and outmaneuver their opponents with more advantageous or powerful bonus tech.

It’s a simple mechanic, but an elegant one. Even if you’re a skilled player, it’s hard to run away with a victory in Jetpack Joyride, because there are ample opportunities for other players to pull off some impressive comebacks and upset victories.

And all this only covers the traditional multiplayer version of the game. There are add-ons for vehicles in the deluxe version (complete with special missions and power-ups), as well as a solo-play format that is more like a traditional puzzle to be solved.

These additional modes of play take an already stellar multiplayer experience to even greater heights. This is clearly a game where a great deal of thought and attention has been paid to every aspect of the gameplay. Nothing feels overpowered or unfair, and the balance of luck, skill, and speed makes for exciting gameplay.

Players of any age can get into the puzzly fun quickly, and the variety of missions, play areas, and different bells and whistles ensure that Jetpack Joyride never runs out of challenges or surprises.

Jetpack Joyride is published by Lucky Duck Games and available at select retailers (including Amazon).


Thanks for visiting PuzzleNation Blog today! Be sure to sign up for our newsletter to stay up-to-date on everything PuzzleNation!

You can also share your pictures with us on Instagram, friend us on Facebook, check us out on TwitterPinterest, and Tumblr, and explore the always-expanding library of PuzzleNation apps and games on our website!

Kickstarter Roundup!

Oh yes, it’s that time again.

For 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 intrigue my fellow PuzzleNationers.

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


The first (and puzzliest!) entry in today’s list is a reinvention of something PuzzleNation Blog readers already know: Eric Berlin’s Puzzle Your Kids subscription service.

Eric realized that the clever puzzles he was creating worked for both younger AND older solvers, and has reimagined the subscription service to provide all sorts of quality variety puzzles to solvers.

Now known as Puzzlesnacks, it’s the perfect way to keep the puzzler in your life busy with fun, unique variety puzzles, no matter what their skill level.

With 23 days to go, the project is already funded, so any further funding just means more puzzles and even greater quality going forward!

Our second project is something for the murder mystery fans in the audience: A Note for Murder.

This game plays on classic murder mystery tropes, as players piece together the crime —  identifying the suspect, the murder weapon, and the scene of the murder. The twist? The crime hasn’t happened yet!

Plus you’re competing with your fellow players. Although it takes working together to solve the crime, only one person can get the credit for preventing the crime. Will it be you?

With 23 days to go, the project is one-third funded, but I suspect this intriguing spin on traditional murder mystery board games like Clue will meet its funding goal.

Our third campaign celebrates the history of one of the most unique game companies in the market today: Cheapass Games.

The company originally marketed its games by selling only what you need to play the game, allowing you to save money by scrounging up your own dice, tokens, and more from the games you already have. It was a genius approach that led to dozens of fantastic, unusual gaming experiences.

And now, they’re bringing that history to life with Cheapass Games in Black and White, a book collecting the rules and histories of every game offered by the company during the Black and White era.

The book is already funded, but with 21 days left, this project is still worth your time.

We delve into a peculiar true story from history with our fourth entry: Potemkin Empire.

As Empress Catherine tours the towns and villages in her domain, each player competes to convince her that they have the most prosperous and worthy village. And a bit of chicanery is needed, as everyone is setting up empty building facades to enhance the look of their individual towns.

The game quickly becomes a battle of cons, ruses, bluffs, and betrayal, as players try to expose the fake buildings of others while concealing their own false fronts. This looks like a terrific strategy game with some devious poker elements, built in the same vein as Sheriff of Nottingham and other social games.

There’s less than 36 hours left in the campaign, so contribute now. The game is fully funded and pushing towards some worthwhile stretch goals in the home stretch!

Our fifth and final entry today adds a macabre sense of humor to an iconic storytelling world.

Gloom of Thrones combines the mystique and grandeur of Game of Thrones with the namesake card game’s twisted humor and clever gameplay. As each player takes control of a noble family, they endeavor to make them as miserable as possible to score points, and then kill them off when the time is right.

The transparent cards allow for all sorts of playing combinations as you torment and mistreat the parody characters. And naturally, you can derail the other players by causing nice things to happen to their characters. There’s really nothing quite like playing Gloom.

With 20 days to go, the game is fully funded and pushing onward toward stretch goals, so don’t miss out on this hilariously brutal spin-off.


Have any of these projects 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!

Thanks for visiting PuzzleNation Blog today! Be sure to sign up for our newsletter to stay up-to-date on everything PuzzleNation!

You can also share your pictures with us on Instagram, friend us on Facebook, check us out on TwitterPinterest, and Tumblr, and explore the always-expanding library of PuzzleNation apps and games on our website!