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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Puzzle Fight? Them’s Fightin’ Words!

In this blog, I try to talk about puzzles in all their forms. We’ve explored everything from puzzle games and mechanical brain teasers to pencil-and-paper puzzles, from riddles and deduction puzzles to escape rooms and puzzle hunts. That covers a pretty impressive swath of puzzly varieties.

Naturally, I’ve spent some time talking about puzzle apps as well. Not only our own marvelous offerings — like Daily POP Crosswords and Penny Dell Crosswords App — but others as well that’ve piqued the interest of our in-house app reviewer, Sherri.

And today, I’d like to return to the subject, because there’s a curious subset of puzzle apps that I didn’t even know existed: puzzly fighting games.

[Image courtesy of Mario’s Hat.]

Now, your standard fighting game has a simple concept: two fighters go head-to-head in a match, and the first to drain his opponent’s life bar wins.

There are numerous famous fighting games across many video game systems. Franchises like Street Fighter, Mortal Kombat, Soul Calibur, Tekken, Dead or Alive, Darkstalkers, and Marvel vs. Capcom have built devoted followings with eyecatching fighters, innovative attack combos, and ever-improving graphics.

But in a puzzle fighting game, the outcome of the fight does not depend on button-mashing skill, tricky combinations, or well-timed strikes… it depends on your puzzly talents.

[Image courtesy of YouTube.]

Take, for example, the standard bearer for the genre: Puzzle Fighter.

The layout probably looks familiar. The game combines the aesthetics of Tetris — blocks dropping into a contained play area and being rotated and placed by the player — with the gameplay of Bejeweled, Candy Crush, and other color-matching puzzle games.

You want to group pairs of blocks (or gems) together, because you can clear them from the play area by using “crash gems,” which wipe out any neighboring gems of that color. So, with proper planning, you can wipe out huge sections of your board.

As you clear gems from your play area, your fighter does battle with the opponent’s fighter, succeeding or struggling based on how well you’re doing with your puzzling. (You can play against other opponents online in multiplayer mode or against computer-controlled opponents on your own.)

[Image courtesy of Emu Paradise.]

Puzzle Fighter was followed by a sequel, Super Puzzle Fighter II Turbo, a fun reference to the Street Fighter franchise, which also allows some of its characters to appear as sprites in this puzzly spinoff. There was also a short-lived WWE wrestling-related app  that was more like Tetris in its gameplay, but similar in execution to the Puzzle Fighter series.

It’s an intriguing idea, if only because other head-to-head puzzle games like Dr. Mario and Tetris Arena feel a touch less adversarial. In head-to-head Tetris, it’s simply who’s the better puzzler. In Dr. Mario, as you eradicate the little viruses with color-matching pills, you can also bury your opponent under pill pieces, which adds a form of interaction to the gameplay.

[Watch the player on the left engineer chain reactions that hinder the player on the right.]

In Puzzle Fighter, the game goes two steps further. Not only are you allowed to visualize how you’re winning or losing based on the character sprites fighting above the play area, but your successful use of crash gems will send additional gems into your opponent’s play area, with only a limited amount of time to neutralize them.

But an upcoming entry in the genre has added a curious wrinkle to the puzzly fighting experience: magic.

[Image courtesy of Kotaku.]

The World Next Door features characters actually running across a shared game board featuring all sorts of colored runes. Your goal is to swap and connect runes of the same color so that they form chains of runes that can be activated.

Each colored rune represents a different attack, which means that, like in Dr. Mario and Puzzle Fighter, a crafty puzzler can create chain reactions where wiping out one set of runes causes another set to connect, triggering another attack.

In The World Next Door, this can lead to devastating combination attacks.

Of course, since you’re sharing a game board with your opponent, there’s the additional elements of defense and sabotage. While you’re building your rune chains, you’re going to want to defend them from your opponent while also disrupting their own attempts to form chains. Defense can truly become a strong offense, if you choose to play that way.

[Here, you can see the result of a rune spell, the small black hole in the corner, waiting for a sprite to wander too close. Image courtesy of The World Next Door.]

This is probably the most direct iteration of puzzly fighting I’ve encountered thus far, since you’re still using puzzle skills to make your attacks, but you’re also interacting head-to-head with your opponent’s game board AND sprite, which really ratchets up both the tension level and the challenge factor.

I’m definitely interested in seeing how this relatively minor subset of puzzle games continues to evolve and grow. The World Next Door is an impressive step up in complexity and style, and with this sort of creativity and innovation at play, the sky is truly the limit.

And let me know if you’d like us to discuss more puzzle apps, puzzly video games, or other related topics on the blog in the future!


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Kickstarter Roundup!

Oh yes, it’s that time again. For several 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 amaze my fellow PuzzleNationers.

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


Verwald’s Treasures is a puzzle hunt designed by Nathan Curtis that can be solved either from home or in a live puzzle hunt event held in the Boston area.

Curtis promises that the puzzle hunt will involve over thirty different puzzles, including three-dimensional challenges to really test your puzzly mettle.

For a smaller donation, you’ll receive a number of variety pencil puzzles (unconnected to the puzzle hunt itself), but in order to participate in the hunt itself, pledges start at $60. The campaign is about halfway funded with 22 days to go, and should provide a puzzly challenge outside the norm for solvers accustomed to pencil-and-paper puzzles.

Another puzzle-filled project is The Conjurer’s Almanaq, touted as an escape room in a book. It is a self-contained puzzling experience that will test all sorts of puzzly skills, masquerading as a book of magic. Clearly a great deal of storytelling and homework has gone into this one, including cryptic tales of the great Qdini, who created the book.

Plus this Kickstarter edition of the book will be different from the mass market version to come. Not only will more of the pages be in color, but backers will receive their copy of the book at least a month before the mass market version goes on sale.

This seems like a really intriguing campaign, and it’s already over 200% funded with two weeks to go, so your chances of seeing the campaign come to fruition are already pretty good.

Let’s switch gears from puzzles to games and check out The Mansky Caper, a heist game from Ray Wehrs at Calliope Games.

There are safes to crack, explosives to acquire, loot to hide, and other members of an ambitious mob family to contend with. You can forge alliances with other players too, but be careful… if you press your luck too far, you might just fall victim to an explosive booby trap.

This looks like great fun, and it’s three-quarters of the way funded with over three weeks to go in the campaign.

For a game with more of a social element — heavy on negotiation — there’s Black Hole Council. Every player is a member of council that allocates resources to different planets — and consigns some to destruction in a black hole.

Each player has their own agenda they’d like to advance, and as the role of “leader” passes from player to player, deals are negotiated, bribes are offered, arguments are made, and votes are held to see just how the various planets are arranged. Can you convince your fellow players to make moves that are to your advantage, or will these planets slip from your fingertips?

The game is already funded and chasing stretch goals at this point (with over two weeks to go), and it looks like a nice step up in complexity from other deceit and negotiation games like Coup or The Resistance.

We’ll conclude today’s Kickstarter roundup with a music-minded strategy game, Re-Chord.

In this game, you’re a guitarist pursuing the top of the charts, and you do so by playing actual chords to complete songs and build your level of fame. You can learn music while you play!

The game is 200% funded with over 20 days to go — which means they’re well on their way to funding expansions to the game, additional chord cards, and more — and it seems like a clever mix of music and tactics, the perfect bridge to bring non-gamers to the table.


Have any of these games 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: Doctor Lucky’s Mansion That Is Haunted

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

Some board games are known for their iconic characters. You know the Monopoly guy, all the folks from Candyland, the mouse from Mouse Trap, the cast of suspects from Clue, and more. But one of the flagship characters from Cheapass Games might be new to you. His name is Doctor J. Robert Lucky, and players have been trying to kill him for twenty years now.

The game Kill Doctor Lucky has taken many forms over the decades — including several versions where players tried to save the infamous doctor instead — but the newest variation takes things in a spookier direction.

In today’s review, we look at Doctor Lucky’s Mansion That Is Haunted.

[Just half of the new game board.]

This expansion includes a new game board and new instructions, but that’s all; everything else you need to play is contained in the Deluxe 19.5th Anniversary Edition of Kill Doctor Lucky, including cards and tokens.

The endgame is also the same: kill Doctor Lucky before another player does. And while the same rules apply — you have to be alone in the room with Doctor Lucky and out of sight of every competitor — this expansion adds one curious wrinkle: all of the players are ghosts.

You see, in Doctor Lucky’s Mansion That Is Haunted, Doctor Lucky is trying to sell off his famous mansion, but the ghosts who also reside there wish for Doctor Lucky to stay, and they’ll go to any lengths to keep him around.

And you might not think that one curious wrinkle could radically change a game, but you’d be wrong. The fact that you’re a ghost means you can pass through walls, ceilings, and floors. That is a huge alteration in both strategy and game mechanics.

You can more quickly maneuver into a room with the Doctor, but you can also thwart your opponents by sneaking into a neighboring room and spoiling their murder attempt by observing the proceedings through an open door.

After all, it saves a lot of time to pass through a wall instead of leaving a room, moving down the hall, and entering the next. (Passing between floors is an even bigger time saver! Slipping through the ceiling and dropping in on someone is a marvelous feeling.)

Factor in the secret portals connecting several of the rooms, and suddenly the mansion is much more accessible.

This expansion harkens back to the early days of Cheapass Games — when they would send you the necessary pieces for their game and encourage you to harvest the extra bits (like dice and tokens) from games you already owned, thereby saving money all around — while adding new touches and revitalizing a game you already know quite well.

Plus, if Kill Doctor Lucky seems less family-friendly than you’d prefer, you can always call this Spook Doctor Lucky and give it a Scooby-Doo-esque twist.

Doctor Lucky’s Mansion That Is Haunted (and the Deluxe 19.5th Anniversary edition of Kill Doctor Lucky) are available from Cheapass Games. And the expansion is also featured in this year’s Holiday Puzzly Gift Guide!


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