PuzzleNation Product Review: Pocket Brainteasers

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

Whether it’s composed of two simple pieces of twisted metal or a elaborate arrangement of parts, a mechanical brain teaser are great fun. It’s a plaything, a curiosity to be fiddled with, tinkered with, and explored, twisted and turned every which way until you feel like you’ve got a handle on all the different ways you can manipulate it.

And then, suddenly, BAM. Inspiration strikes! The a-ha moment happens, and you unravel its secrets.

ThinkFun, purveyors of deduction and logic puzzle games galore, have returned to the field recently, and in today’s product review, we look at a collection of brain teasers that each offer their own unique a-ha moment, if you’re willing to work at it.

ThinkFun’s Pocket Brainteasers range in difficulty from one to four (one being the easiest/least challenging), and you’ll find your puzzle skills tested in several ways as you tackle each. Although intended for solvers 8 and up, older solvers will still enjoy the puzzly tricks awaiting them in ThinkFun’s latest line of puzzle products.


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4-Piece Jigsaw

It sounds simple, doesn’t it? A four-piece jigsaw puzzle. Better yet, it’s already assembled for you! All you have to do is take it apart.

This level 1 brainteaser is obviously more than meets the eye, as the puzzle pieces shift back and forth but never quite seem to separate the way you’d expect.

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The large plastic pieces are perfect for younger solvers to play around with, solid and resistant to the sometimes harsh manipulations of younger hands.

It’s not much of a challenge for an experienced solver, but it was genuine fun to suss out how the pieces worked together and how to finally separate them.

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4-T Puzzle

This level 2 brainteaser followed the same basic formula as 4-Piece Jigsaw — four pieces to assemble — but in this case, their interactions were constrained by the small tray included with the puzzle.

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As you can see, the solution offered on one side simply won’t work on the other because the tray is smaller, so solvers will have to be extra crafty to place all four T-blocks into the available space.

The T-shaped pieces made for curious solving — since they don’t fit flush with the corners the way traditional tangrams or Tetrominoes would — but patience and cleverness will be rewarded. It’s amazing how a relatively simple set-up — shapes and a tray — can result in a satisfying puzzly experience.

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The Fifth Chair

This time around, there’s no tray or framework to negotiate. Instead, you’ve got four L-pieces (or “chairs”) and your goal is to make a larger L-shaped chair by combining the four you already have.

Like a three-dimensional version of tangrams, The Fifth Chair is an enjoyable solve, requiring you to maneuver the chairs in all sorts of combinations, seeing different relationships between them all as you try to figure out how to bring the fifth chair to life.

Despite being the level 3 puzzle in the set, I actually found this to be the most challenging of the quartet, as I was briefly overwhelmed by the sheer number of options available to me.

Of course, as soon as I figured out the solution, it felt obvious, and I breathed a sigh of puzzly relief as I conquered the third of four brainteasers for the evening.

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Rec-Tangle

Designed to resemble the service bars of a cellphone or an internet connection, the “bars” are cut diagonally into halves, leaving the solver with 8 pieces to arrange.

This level 4 puzzle solves quite similarly to 4-T Puzzle. You have an array of pieces to place into a smaller space on the backside of the puzzle tray.

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The unusual pieces — long and thin, with an angled edge on one side and a flat end on the other — offered all sorts of possibilities when it comes to placement in the tray, so I found myself discarding quite a few theories and ideas before alighting on the correct solution.

Nonetheless, I would still consider this puzzle easier than The Fifth Chair, though still harder than 4-T Puzzle or 4-Piece Jigsaw.


Tackling this tetrad of brainteasers was a treat, especially as it felt like I was exercising plenty of puzzly skills that aren’t used nearly as often as pen-and-paper puzzles usually demand.

The combination of spacial awareness, physical manipulation of puzzle pieces, and the strategy involved in cracking each made for a feast of puzzly experiences. Any one of the four would be fun, so getting to try all four was a delight.

Whether intended as stocking stuffers or affordable little puzzly surprises for the solver in your life, I suspect these pocket-sized puzzles will have the younger solvers you know puzzling away for a while to come.

Pocket Brainteasers are available from ThinkFun and select online retailers, only $6.99 each for 4-Piece Jigsaw, 4-T Puzzle, The Fifth Chair, and Rec-Tangle!


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Forget 3-D Chess and Try 4-Directional Tetris!

[Image courtesy of Eurogamer.]

Tetris is the ultimate puzzle game. If you somehow haven’t played it, you’ve at least heard of it. The brainchild of Alexey Pajitnov conquered the world, not only making Nintendo’s Game Boy a bestselling video game platform, but turning millions of puzzlers into gamers and gamers into puzzlers as well.

Those iconic little Tetromino shapes are instantly recognizable, and the music can still induce panic and nervousness in players decades after the first time they heard those infamous notes.

And it serves as a brilliant template for ambitious game designers and puzzlers to add their own twists to the Tetris formula.

The basic concept is simple: try to arrange the constantly falling Tetromino blocks so that they make complete lines in the play area. If they do, that line disappears.

Of course, just because the concept is simple, that doesn’t mean the game is. As your play area fills up with Tetrominos, the music speeds up, amping up the tension. And as you progress through different levels, the pieces fall faster and faster. You need quick reflexes and ice in your veins to handle the higher difficulty levels.

Thankfully, you only need to worry about the blocks falling from one direction.

But a new variation on Tetris quadruples the gameplay area in a very devious way.

Say hello to Schwerkraftprojektionsgerät, Stephen Lavelle’s take on Tetris. In Schwerkraftprojektionsgerät, Tetromino blocks appear in the center of the play area, and you control where the piece is placed in each of the four directions.

No, the blocks do not fall automatically, nor is there a time limit that forces you to place the blocks quickly. Yes, you can spin each piece before placing it.

But each block goes into all four play areas simultaneously, and in the same position on the opposing sides.

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As you can see, the straight piece lands flat in the east and west grid spaces, but standing upright in the north and south grid spaces. You have to work along each axis to find the best case scenario for all four of your play areas.

Yes, you’re trying to complete lines in four different directions at the same time. The T-shaped Tetromino will land in four different arrangements (flat, on one side of the T-bar, on the other side of the T-bar, and on the long end of the T-bar) with a single keystroke.

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It’s mind-blowing how challenging this makes the game, but it’s challenging in a good way.

I mean, in a regular game of Tetris, you need several dozen completed lines to conclude a level and feel like a champion. In Schwerkraftprojektionsgerät, you feel like a genius if you can get two completed lines in each of the four play areas before the game is over!

Just as addictive as the original, yet offering a totally new twist on the familiar style of puzzling, I foresee a lot of office hours being lost to this engaging four-directional experiment in space efficiency.

You can try Schwerkraftprojektionsgerät for yourself here, and check out all of Stephen’s games here. (He also has a YouTube channel featuring some of his creations.)

After 35 years, it’s cool to see there are still new ways to make Tetris feel fresh again.


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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).


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The Tetris Effect: Unleashed!

When alarmists talk about the negative effects of video games on players, they’re usually referring to first-person shooters, like Call of Duty, or games that encourage immoral acts, like Grand Theft Auto.

They’re not usually talking about Tetris.

But as it turns out, playing Tetris can have curious side effects. Some folks who play for prolonged periods of time report seeing the iconic tetromino shapes falling as they drift off to sleep, or when they close their eyes. (This has also been reported by jigsaw puzzle solvers, who see curved lines, and Rubik’s Cube solvers, who continue to see the constantly shifting colors of the cube.)

There are additional anecdotal stories of people viewing the world in a Tetris-y way after solving, fixating on how shapes could fit together.

It’s common enough, in fact, that it has its own term: The Tetris Effect.

It has also inspired a Tetris game of the same name, which is releasing later this year for the Playstation 4. Tetris Effect enhances the Tetris experience by tying musical themes and imagery to the traditional gameplay.

One player describes the play experience in an article for Kotaku:

I played the game in VR, though that is optional. The first time I landed a Tetris, the screen exploded in a beautiful display of particle effects, sea life swam around me, the controller vibrated and the music swelled in a way that sent chills down my spine — I’ve done this a million times before but not like this.

[Image courtesy of Eurogamer.]

The game also boasts a new solving trick — the Zone mechanic — which allows you to stop time and place several blocks at one time, meaning you could line up multiple pieces to drop at once and clear more lines. The previous limit was four lines, but now, with the Zone mechanic, it’s possible to clear out up to sixteen lines at once! (Naturally, there’s a term for that as well. It’s a decahexatris.)

This is an excitingly immersive evolution of the classic puzzle game, and I can’t wait to check it out.


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The World of Puzzly Furniture!

It’s fair to say that the flat-pack furniture model made famous by IKEA, that marvelous house of Swedish innovation, has turned practically every one of their customers into impromptu puzzle solvers.

But did you know that there’s a whole world of puzzle furniture out there for you to explore and assemble?

Some of it is inspired by puzzles, while other pieces are puzzles themselves! In today’s post, I thought I’d take my fellow puzzlers and PuzzleNationers on a brief tour of the world of puzzly furniture.

Most puzzle-inspired furniture is designed around the idea of personalization and variation. You often have several pieces to work with, allowing you to construct different pieces of furniture based on your needs or aesthetics.

For instance, the piece pictured above is called “To Gather,” and it can be assembled into a sofa or converted into separate seats. Offered by Studio Lawrence, To Gather is pretty eye-catching, though it might be a little blocky for some tastes.

For something a bit more traditional, there’s the Slot Sofa by Matthew Pauk. This piece combines a sofa, coffee table, and ottoman, but can be combined so that the coffee table rests between the two corner seats and the ottoman cushions tuck away underneath the sofa.

It’s a super-clever space saver and probably one of my favorite puzzly pieces that I’ve ever seen.

Being able to tuck away multiple pieces of furniture in one is also the goal for this mobile office piece, which contains two chairs, a desk, and more within its foam-core modular form.

Although it’s not the most aesthetically pleasing design, it’s lightweight, easy to move around, and doesn’t take up a lot of space when recombined. I could see some start-ups making use of this sort of thing, both to catch the eye and to save on space and materials.

A lot of puzzly furniture is based around Tetris-style pieces (or Tetrominoes) that can be moved around and placed in various configurations. The TAT-tris piece is one of the most adaptable, forming a solid cushion mat at the start, and then allowing for infinite variation when it comes to assembling tables, chairs, and more.

Intended for teens and children to use as a puzzly exercise, TAT-tris looks both comfy and like it would be a huge amount of fun to play with.

Tetris also inspired this sideboard designed by Pedro Machado. “T@tris” is a beautifully lacquered piece that consists of 26 tetronomoes slotted together.

One configuration allows for two benches and a slide-out table, while other pieces form drawers, allowing for all sorts of storage in a fairly compact area.

Very modern and a little bit glam, this piece makes excellent use of space and isn’t as visually distracting as many other pieces of puzzly furniture.

Speaking of visually distracting, this furniture set by Schamburg + Alvisse arrives assembled in a star shape, but can be disassembled into all sorts of forms. Chairs, sofa, bed, or table are all possible with this Star sculpture. It’s certainly unique, but not as space-efficient as some of the other pieces we’ve looked at today.

In terms of space efficiency, it’s hard to beat furniture that arrives as flat cardboard. But that’s the entire business model behind Chairigami, makers of desks, tables, chairs, and sofas, all from heavy-duty cardboard.

I doubt these pieces would challenge any puzzle solver for long, but simply relying on origami to design functional furniture is a really cool and clever puzzly concept.

The armchair especially is very striking.

But when you’re talking puzzle furniture, the uncrowned kings of the field are undoubtedly the team at Praktrik: Puzzle furniture is the only kind of furniture they sell!

Purveyors of beautiful chairs, shelves, tables, and more, Praktrik offers a truly unique puzzling experience, offering you the disassembled piece and challenging you to complete it.

In fact, they’re proud to celebrate and spread the word when customers end up creating unexpected masterpieces from Praktrik sets!

The chairs and shelves don’t seem too daunting, but the tables have a wide arrange of difficulties, and their increasingly elaborate arrangements of wooden supports and pieces evoke memories of classic brain teasers and puzzle boxes.

You can peruse their website to explore the full range of Praktrik puzzle furniture; it’s both extensive and very impressive! In fact, it was crossing paths with them that inspired this entire blog post.

So if you’re looking to add a little puzzly pizazz to your living room, maybe a piece of puzzle furniture is the way to go. What do you think, fellow puzzlers? Do any of these pieces pique your interest? Let us know in the comments section below!


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PuzzleNation Book Review: Tetris: The Games People Play

Welcome to another installment of PuzzleNation Book Reviews!

All of the books discussed and/or reviewed in PNBR articles are either directly or indirectly related to the world of puzzling, and hopefully you’ll find something to tickle your literary fancy in this entry or the entries to come.

Let’s get started!

The subject of today’s book review is Box Brown’s graphic novel Tetris: The Games People Play.

[Image courtesy of Macmillan.]

Tetris was a masterpiece right out of the gate. Simple, elegant, and infinitely replayable, it would go on to become one of the most beloved video games in history. And that popularity, that universal charm, sparked a bidding war unlike anything the video game world has ever seen. With secret meetings, dubious contracts, language barriers, and the involvement of the suffocating Soviet regime, it was a recipe for sitcom-style misunderstandings on a global scale.

Tetris: The Games People Play brings the whole ridiculous story to life with immense charm and style. From the creation of Alexey Pajitnov’s delightfully addictive brainchild to the globe-spanning race that ensued as production rights went international, this is a story as convoluted and madcap as it is epic.

Although the drawings accompanying the story are relatively simple, the large cast of characters — from executives and game designers to members of the Soviet government — never feels overwhelming or confusing.

[Image courtesy of DownTheTubes.net.]

Illustrator and author Box Brown brings the story to life with the same panache and colorful style that made his visual biography of Andre the Giant such a warm, enjoyable read. The rounded edges and busy frames help sell both the silliness and chaos of the story, and the mix of yellow, black, and white shading in each illustration harkens back to the earliest days of video games.

(The yellow feels especially inspired, given how easily the story could’ve bogged down in the omnipresent gray tones of Soviet society or the bureaucratic doubletalk that typifies business negotiations.)

Most importantly, Brown never allows readers to lose sight of Alexey’s role as creator and keeper of the faith, a man who, under one of the most oppressive regimes in history, brought to life a game that continues to delight generations of fans.

As entertaining as it is insightful, Tetris: The Games People Play is a fun, fascinating read.

[Tetris: The Games People Play is available in paperback wherever books are sold.]


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