PuzzleNation Product Review: Ricochet Poker and Button Men

[Note: I received free copies of these games in exchange for fair, unbiased reviews. Due diligence, full disclosure, and all that. And this concludes the disclaimer.]

For today’s post, we’re doing things a little bit differently by exploring two games sure to test your tactical skills and adaptability to make the best of whatever hand fate deals you.

Not only that, but you can play both of these games in less than ten minutes! Enjoy a double-shot of quick-play gaming as we look at Ricochet Poker from Hip Pocket Games and Button Men from Cheapass Games!


Virtually everyone has played a hand or two of poker at some point. You know all about the secrecy, the bluffing, and the patient use of positioning, betting, and strategy to win the pot.

Ricochet Poker turns the concept on its head, because there’s no bluffing. The game is played out in the open, and it’s more about playing the odds than playing your opponents. The goal is still to end up with the best cards at the end of the hand, but you get there in a different way.

After each player antes one chip into the pot, you get a card. But this card isn’t a secret. It’s played face-up in front of you for everyone to see.

Now the player with the lowest card showing is the first to act. In fact, the player with the lowest card or hand is always the one in the driver’s seat in Ricochet Poker.

On your turn, you can either fold or buy cards by wagering chips. Folding takes you out of this hand, just like in regular poker. Buying cards is a matter of playing the odds, since your goal is to no longer have the lowest card/hand by the end of your turn. For each card you want, you must put a chip into the pot.

Here’s a sample hand. Each player antes one chip (with holiday mint M&Ms subbing as chips), and gets one card. From lowest to highest, there’s a 4, a 5, a 6, and a King.

The 4 acts first, wagering two chips for two cards. Drawing a 3 and 2, this player is eliminated, since they still have the lowest top card. Play passes to what is now the lowest hand, the 5.

Wagering three chips, this player draws a 4 and two 3s. A pair! She’s gone from lowest to highest and her wager has paid off for now.

Play passes to the 6, who wagers two chips. The first card is a 6, giving the player a pair of 6s and the highest hand, so this turn is over. Unfortunately, they’ve paid double for a single card. Play passes to the King, who also wagers two chips. Drawing a 10 and an Ace, the King is eliminated, facing two paired hands.

Play passes back to the pair of 3s, who can only wager one, since there’s a hand limit of five cards. (Of course, you could always play six- or seven-card poker, but we’ve stuck with five cards for this demonstration.) Unfortunately, she draws an 8, losing the pot to the superior hand.

Play continues like this around the table, moving from lowest to then-lowest, until players have folded or busted by failing to top the next-lowest card on the table, and only one player remains. That player collects the pot.

Ricochet Poker is an immensely clever addition to the world of cards, because it still relies on both luck and wagering, but everything has to be played out in the open. It really evens the playing field between experienced poker players and newcomers, since the rules are different, and the advantages of standard poker play — positioning, forcing players with large bets, and other tactics — are negated by the new rule set. (Plus you’ll find additional rules online for a dozen other poker variations you can play with the deck!)

Button Men operates in a similar fashion, but adds dice to the equation to spice up one-on-one combat.

In Button Men, each player selects a character from the deck, then rolls a handful of dice that represent that character’s potential attacks. Players then go back and forth, trying to remove dice from the other player’s hand in order to win the fight.

The player with the lowest die roll is first to act, and they can attack their opponent’s dice in one of two ways, either taking down a die of lesser or equal value with a single die of their own, or using two dice to add up to the exact total of one of the opponent’s dice.

Any losing dice are removed, and any winning dice are rerolled.

Let’s look at a battle between Gilroy and Montserrat for an example. Gilroy is armed with a d4, a d6, a d8, a d20, and one die of his choice. Montserrat is armed with a d4, a d6, a d8, a d12, and one die of her choice. (For the sake of simplicity, I’m ignoring the special attacks each player has, marked in blue on Gilroy’s card and orange on Montserrat.)

He chooses another d8 for his set, and she chooses a d20 to balance his. They then roll all of the dice and see what they’re working with.

Gilroy has two 2s, a 3, a 6, and a 7. Montserrat has two 2s, a 4, a 5, and a 6.

Lowest value goes first, and since their 2s cancel each other out, his 3 (lower than her 4) makes him first to act.

He captures her 5 with his 7 (thereby mathematically removing the chance she could capture his 7 with a 5-2 combination, the only way he could lose his 7 as the board currently stands). He rerolls the die and now has an 11.

She replies by taking his 6 with hers, and rerolling, ending up with a 20. The momentum has now gone her way.

He takes one of her 2s (the one rolled with a d8) with his 2 (rolled with a d8). This ensures both that, if she used that die against him, she couldn’t reroll it and end up with a higher number the next round, and that his own d8 would get rerolled, hopefully giving him a higher number. His gambit works, and he rerolls a 7.

She takes his 11 with her 20, but then rerolls for 7. Both of the highest numbers are now off the board. He trades his 7 for hers (removing her d20 from the game) and rerolls for 7, a lucky break for him.

At this point, it becomes a battle of attrition. She takes his 2 with her own, and rerolls for 5. That 5 is captured by his 7, and he rerolls for 4. She takes his 4 with hers, and rerolls a 1. He wins the game by taking her 1 with his 3.

Even in this quick exchange, the advantage swung back and forth several times, and luck played as big a role as tactics.

With dozens of characters to choose from — plus additional character packs, including soldiers, vampires, fantasy, and more — and a healthy pool of polyhedral dice to play with, Button Men is designed for endless replayability.

If you need a fun, competitive way to open up a night of games, either of these clever and calculating offerings would be the perfect way to kick things off.

Ricochet Poker is available from Hip Pocket Games and Button Men is available from Cheapass Games. Both are also available from participating retailers.


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PuzzleNation Product Review: The Island of Doctor Lucky

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

For over twenty years now, the devious minds of Cheapass Games have pitted players against the intrepid J. Robert Lucky. Whether you’re a guest in his luxurious mansion, a ghost haunting his beloved abode, or an attendee of one of his famous dinner parties, the goal is always the same: kill Doctor Lucky.

In the latest iteration of the game, you’ve been invited to a soiree on Isla Fortuna, Doctor Lucky’s mysterious private island. As you, your fellow guests, and the good doctor explore the island, you’ll encounter hazards, discover weapons, accumulate luck, and (appropriately for the internet age) occasionally get incredibly distracted by a cat.

But the goal, as always, remains the same: kill Doctor Lucky.

Murder is a private matter. You have to eliminate Dr. Lucky without any other player in sight. None of your opponents can be in the same location on the island as you and the Doctor when you make your attempt. Even someone observing the murder from a neighboring location will foil your attempt.

But there’s a further complication; Doctor Lucky’s cat Ragu (the black disc) is so distracting that anyone sharing a space with her cannot see outside that region. So if you’re in the same area as the cat, and someone in a neighboring region is trying to kill Doctor Lucky, you’ll be unable to prevent the murder by observing it.

As you can see, killing Doctor Lucky requires a combination of skill, strategy, luck, and cunning. Some weapons are more dangerous in certain parts of the island. The cat’s ability to distract players can be a hindrance or a gift, depending on how you use her.

Even when you manage to outmaneuver your opponents and isolate the Doctor, it will no doubt take you several tries to kill him; your opponents can thwart your murder attempts by altering the Doctor’s chances of survival (by expending their luck cards).

They can also hamper your gameplay by tossing hazards your way, causing you to sacrifice cards from your hand or deplete your cache of luck.

But the more attempts you make — either to kill the Doctor or to hamper your opponents — the faster you can move around the island and the more dangerous your murder attempts become. This is a game that rewards patience and boldness alike.

The engrossing gameplay is enhanced by the humor and style that permeates the game from top to bottom. There are shamelessly punny regions on the map — like Salient Point and Tiger Woods — and a host of hilarious Failure and Hazard cards to entertain you as you scheme.

The artwork is simple, evoking an old-timey sense of adventure and derring-do with the scratchwork-style drawings and aesthetics, while the cast of characters is vividly rendered, offering each player a particular motive for wanting to off the infamous Doctor.

All in all, The Island of Doctor Lucky is the most ambitious edition yet, encouraging players to interact with each other more than ever before, and offering the Doctor further chances for survival. Even long-time fans of the series will find delightful, challenging new wrinkles to enjoy here. As the game strays farther and farther from its Clue-inspired roots, it only grows richer and more engaging.

The Island of Doctor Lucky is available from Cheapass Games and participating retailers.


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PuzzleNation Product Review: Shadows in the Forest

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

Strategy games come in all shapes and sizes, so if you want to stand out these days, you have to bring something special or unique to the table. And with Halloween fast approaching, a strategy game with some spooky mechanics would really hit the spot.

ThinkFun’s latest strategy game, Shadows in the Forest, fits the bill nicely, delivering one bright idea with a twist: it’s played in the dark.

Designed for 2-7 players, ages 8 and up, Shadows in the Forest is essentially an elaborate round of Hide and Seek.

One player is the Seeker, a lantern-wielding explorer who is wandering the woods searching for Shadowlings, peculiar creatures that lurk in the shadows and are vulnerable to light. The other players are the Shadowlings, working together to stay out of the light and thwart the Seeker.

So how do you play?

First, you set up the board, assembling and placing the physical obstacles — trees, stumps, rocks, etc. — that will create shadows for the Shadowlings to hide in.

Then, place the lantern on one of the red stones in the pathway on the board. Turn on the lantern and shut off the lights. (You’ll want it as dark as possible to really immerse everyone in the game and make the most of both the lantern and the glow-in-the-dark die that comes with the game.)

Now the Seeker has to shut their eyes as the other players place the Shadowlings in the shadows created by the lantern.

Once the Seeker opens their eyes, the game begins.

The Seeker uses the die to determine how many spaces the lantern moves. Any Shadowlings revealed by the lantern during the Seeker’s turn are frozen in place, and the Seeker takes their masks. Those unmasked Shadowlings are unable to move until they are unfrozen by other Shadowlings.

Once the Seeker’s turn is done, the Seeker closes their eyes, and the Shadowlings move. Unlike the Seeker (whose lantern has to stick to the path), the Shadowlings can be moved anywhere on the board. They don’t need to stick to the path or adhere to a die roll to determine how far they can travel.

The only rule for them? They cannot move anywhere the light touches. They must stick to the shadows. (There’s no jumping, climbing, or otherwise bypassing the light. The Shadowling’s movement can curve or turn, but must be an unbroken line along the board.)

[This Shadowling is caught in the light, and therefore frozen.]

The goal of the Seeker is to freeze all of the Shadowlings and take their masks. The goal of the Shadowlings (who play as a team) is to gather every Shadowling on the board in the same shadowy place.

It’s an intriguing hook for a game, but unfortunately, the instruction manual is vague and not terribly intuitive. It does a poor job of explaining both how the Shadowlings move and how they unfreeze Shadowlings touched by the light.

In each of our test games, we had to resort to house rules and clarifications in order to play the game. For instance, even while hiding, we decided the Shadowlings should face outward (away from the obstacle), so their masks would shine brighter if the light revealed them. Additionally, we made Shadowling players trace their intended path along the board with their finger first, in order to reveal if they touched the light of the lantern at any point.

As for the freezing/unfreezing rules, we decided that any Shadowling that lost its mask couldn’t move, even if the lantern’s movements plunge them back into the dark. Only when another Shadowling touched them in the dark could the mask be returned and the Shadowling unfrozen. (This may very well be the intended way to play, but the instructions are unclear, so it’s hard to tell.)

Once we’d established these ground rules, the game really came together.

[Can you see both Shadowlings?]

It becomes a battle of strategy. The Seeker tries to reveal and freeze the Shadowlings in place while searching for others, while the Shadowlings must outmaneuver the lantern, stay in the shadows, rescue their pals, and mass in one place.

It’s amazing how a simple movement of the lantern piece can not only bisect the board and pin down the Shadowlings, but alter the shadows on the board in unexpected ways.

The obstacles are easy to assemble and disassemble, and the battery-operated lantern (batteries included!) throws off a surprising amount of light for its size. The Shadowlings are adorable, each with their own little look and personality, and yet, easily vanishing into the darkness. This game has style to burn.

Although adults can play the game, we found that games either ended very quickly (if the Seeker rolls poorly or the Shadowlings were massed on the far side of the board from the lantern) or lasted a very long time (similar to chess games where the pieces on both sides are depleted and players simply chase each other around the board endlessly).

But when playing with younger solvers, the Shadowling team play and the convention of playing in the dark made for a unique gaming experience — particularly if an adult is the Seeker, and one adult joins the Shadowling team of younger players. Seeing the kids conspire against the adult to lurk in the shadows is a delight.

In the end, Shadows in the Forest is a fantastic idea for a game that, while not executed to perfection, still makes for a fun time.

ThinkFun’s Shadows in the Forest is currently available at Target, Amazon, and participating retailers, for $24.99.


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PuzzleNation Product Review: Vault Assault

There is no rivalry in the world of make-believe more iconic than cops versus robbers, and rarely has that classic dynamic been as frenetic and as fast-paced as it is in the dice game we’re reviewing today, Vault Assault.

The goal of the robbers is to acquire as much wealth as possible and then escape before the cops arrive. The goal of the cops is to minimize the amount the robbers acquire/get away with and capture the robbers before they can escape.

Each round, the players will portray both the cops and the robbers, allowing players opportunities to both rack up lots of ill-gotten gains and minimize the loot captured by the other players.

Each round consists of two phases: the Diamond Heist and the Vault Assault.

In the Diamond Heist phase, the cops and robbers each line up five of their dice. (The cops do so secretly, laying out an arrangement of three alarm symbols, one dye-pack symbol, and one diamond symbol in any order they choose.) The robbers lay out five wire symbols, and then choose one to flip, trying to match the one they flip to the diamond symbol the cops have secretly chosen.

Essentially, the Diamond Heist is part strategy, part luck as the robbers try to steal the diamond by cutting wires to the security system, while the cops lay dye-pack traps to ensnare the robbers. Either the cops will begin the Vault Assault with an advantage or the robbers capture a diamond tile as part of their loot.

[In this scenario, the robbers chose poorly, and triggered the alarm, meaning that the cops will start with one die already rolled when the Vault Assault starts. The robbers could have opted to flip another die in the hopes of finding the diamond, but in the end, they opted not to risk giving the cops a greater advantage.]

Once the Diamond Heist phase is concluded, the Vault Assault begins, and the game kicks into another gear.

Tenzi- or Yahtzee-style dice rolling and quick decision-making become crucial as both cops and robbers try to roll specific patterns in order to complete tasks. As the robbers roll to steal from the vault (or each other), to interfere with the cops, or to escape, the cops are trying to complete rolls in order to fuel up, arrive at the crime scene, engage the robbers, and arrest them.

Both sides roll their dice at the same time, making for an incredibly chaotic and fun play experience that simulates the kind of stress you might be under if you were really robbing a bank and trying to get out before the cops arrived. Between robbers filling their coffers (and forcing the cops to reroll their dice) while the cops confiscate some of the stolen loot while trying to arrest the bad guys, it’s a very competitive and adrenaline-inducing sequence of events.

In this scenario, the cops have two out of the four doughnut symbols up (meaning they’re halfway to completing the first task en route to arresting the robbers). But they also have two dye-packs up, and two more dye-packs would allow them to remove several Vault Tiles from the robber’s stacks, meaning the robbers would have less loot. Would you choose to keep rolling for doughnuts or to hamper the robbers with dye-packs?

On the robber side, they have three targets, meaning they’re one away from stealing a Vault Tile from another player and adding to their loot. But they also have a green hostage symbol up, which they can put aside in order to make the cops immediately reroll all of their dice. Would you choose to go for the steal or to disrupt the cops’ efforts?

In addition to all that interplay, some of the vault tiles also trigger actions that can hamper your gameplay. A handcuffs symbol, for instance, means you have to roll your dice with your wrists together until the end of the turn (as if you’re handcuffed). These little roleplay-centric details add a playful edge to the game, injecting a bit of silliness into gameplay that could otherwise turn somewhat cutthroat.

One several rounds have elapsed, the players (both cops and robbers) total up the value of the loot in their getaway cars, and the player with the highest total wins. Oh, and those Diamond Heist tiles? They’re worth $40,000 apiece!

[With Vault Tiles ranging in value from 0 to $20,000, a diamond tile could be a real game-changer for your loot total at the end of the game.]

Vault Assault is less about long-term strategy and more about being able to make good decisions in the heat of the moment. If you’re able to put your puzzly mind to work making the most of the dice rolls in front of you — both to increase your profits and hamper your opponents, whether you’re a cop or a robber at the time — then you’ll probably come out ahead.

Of course, that’s more of a one-on-one mindset. And with three-player and four-player/team rules to allow for different combinations of players, you can implement some wider strategic gameplay. In three-player games (1 cop and 2 robbers), have one robber focus on hampering the cops while the other raids the vault (and then switching, so both robbers can cash in). In four-player/team games (two cops, two robbers), one cop can focus on recovering stolen goods while the other works on arresting players. There’s plenty of fun to be had with the format.

Can you cash in, hold the cops at bay, and make your escape, or will the cops nab you and all your ill-gotten goods before you make it out the door? And in the end, will you make a better cop or a robber?

[Vault Assault, published by Inside Up Games, is available through their website, as well as certain online retailers.]


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Winning Monopoly With Math!

I’m always on the hunt for tips to make myself a better puzzler and gamer. Sometimes you stumble across those tips in unexpected places.

For instance, I was reading, of all things, a book about mathematics and Christmas — The Indisputable Existence of Santa Claus: The Mathematics of Christmas — and inside, I found a statistical analysis of the best strategy for winning a game of Monopoly.

Yes, we’ve discussed this topic before, but even that previous deep-dive into the mechanics of the game wasn’t as thorough or as revealing as the work by Dr. Hannah Fry and Dr. Thomas Oleron Evans in this Christmas-fueled tome of facts and figures.

They started with a breakdown of how your first turn could go, based on dice rolls. This is the same breakdown as in our previous post, but with some important differences. For instance, they also considered the chances of going to jail after multiple doubles rolls.

Also, they covered the statistical impact of how landing on card spaces can affect where you land on your first turn. The Community Chest is a curveball, because of the possible sixteen cards, three will send you somewhere on the board: Go, Mediterranean Ave, and Jail.

A simple statistical analysis is complicated even further by the Chance cards — nearly half of the sixteen cards send you elsewhere: Go, Income Tax, St. Charles Place, Pennsylvania Railroad, Illinois Ave., Jail, and Boardwalk.

If you extrapolate forward from this point, you uncover some interesting patterns:

The orange property set benefits from all the ex-cons leaving their cells, and after their next turn the reformed criminals will likely end up somewhere between the reds and yellows… Illinois Avenue, with its own dedicated Chance card directing people to it, gets an extra boost, making it the second most visited square on the board.

The property that is visited least frequently is Park Place, where players spend just 2.1% of their time.

Check out this graph. This shows potential earnings from each complete color set, with the dotted line marking the point where your purchase of the property is canceled out by how much the property has earned in rent thus far. Everything above that is profit.

As you can see, blue and brown properties start close to the dotted line, because they’re affordable to buy and build on. The standouts on this graph are New York Avenue (which earns $30 a roll up through thirty rolls statistically) and Boardwalk, which is an expensive investment, but pays off handsomely down the line, remaining the top earning spot past thirty rolls.

Of course, that’s only single properties, and you can’t build on single properties. Let’s look at a chart for full color set revenue:

Some of our previous findings change radically. Boardwalk’s rating drops significantly, because of Park Place’s relative infrequency of being landed on (as we mentioned above).

So which properties should you nab to give yourself the best chance of winning? Well, that depends on how long the game lasts.

The average game of Monopoly takes approximately thirty turns per player, so the larger the number of players, the longer the game will last.

So, for a two-player game, your best bet is to go after the light blue or orange sets, since they’re better in the short term, and the odds are in your favor if the game stays short.

In a three- or four-player game, the orange and red sets are better, because the game is likely to last a while.

And if five or more people are playing, you’re really playing the long game, so the green set becomes your best chance for success.

What about building on those properties? Well, Fry and Evans considered that as well. If you’re playing against multiple opponents and know you’ll be in for a long game, then you definitely want to buy and place houses. But don’t fear if the first house takes a long time to start paying for itself.

As it turns out, your best strategy is to put three houses on your properties as quickly as possible, because the third house is the fastest to recoup on investment. So once the three houses are in place on each property, you can rest for a bit and regenerate your bank before investing further.

And there you have it. Better gaming through mathematics! The only thing better would be, well, playing practically any other game.

Kidding! (But not really.)


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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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