PuzzleNation Product Review: LEGO Maze

For years, one of the most marketable things about LEGO sets has been that you can use their pieces in your own ingenious creations. They’ve taken it a step further over the last few years, and now fan creations have the chance to become actual sets!

The Ecto-1 from GhostBusters, the set of The Big Bang Theory, a collection of noteworthy female scientists… these are some of the awesome sets that were designed by amateur builders, voted on by LEGO fans, and approved to become marketed LEGO sets.

And the latest edition to that fan-created line of specialty sets is one of the puzzliest products they’ve ever sold: the LEGO Maze.

Jason Allemann of JK Brickworks created the original design, which was voted on by fans, approved by LEGO, and then improved upon by professional LEGO model designer Steen Sig Andersen.

It’s based on classic wooden marble mazes; the goal is to tilt the board with the two dials on the sides of the maze in order to navigate your marble from one end of the maze to the other without dropping the marble through one of the many treacherously placed holes.

In the LEGO maze, those holes are replaced by black depressions in the maze that trap your marble without dropping it out of sight. (Though I’m sure amateur builders are already designing their own maze layouts that incorporate actual holes just to up the challenge factor.)

[The medieval layout included in the instructions.]

Oh yes, there’s not just one layout. As you can see, the set includes all sorts of pieces with which to create numerous possible layouts from basic ones to advanced. (I’m currently working on one of my own design. Maybe it’ll pop up on Instagram soon!)

The adaptability of the maze layout is one of the highlights of this set, encouraging the same entrepreneurial building spirit that inspired the set in the first place.

And speaking of the set, the design is pretty impressive. It cleverly allows you to lock the tilting maze in place by using the storage box for the marbles as a stabilizer, and you can remove it just as easily. (Remove one piece — and the travel lock under the opposite corner, and you’re ready to play!)

Replicating the full range of motion cannot have been an easy task for either Allemann or Andersen, and that leads to the only negative aspect of the set. I was a little underwhelmed by the control offered by the two dials. Each tilts more toward one direction than the other, so you don’t have the full range of traditional marble mazes. (I suspect this could be remedied by a slightly shorter rod connecting each dial to the two frames allowing you to tilt the maze more in the opposite direction.)

That being said, it’s a minor quibble. On a perfectly flat surface, a steady hand will lead you to victory, if you’re patient enough.

[The build in progress…]

As a long-time fan and builder, I enjoyed both the simple and complex aspects of the building process, and I was surprised that they didn’t number each bag of pieces, as they’ve recently started to do with their higher-end, more complicated sets. That might put off a casual builder, but as someone who enjoys the additional challenge of digging through a pile of pieces looking for that one particular piece, I didn’t mind at all.

LEGO has really been pushing the boundaries of what you can accomplish with these classic interlocking bricks, and the LEGO Maze is one of the most inventive and impressive designs I’ve ever seen.

[The LEGO Maze is available from LEGO.com for $69.99.]

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Puzzles in Pop Culture: The Big Bang Theory

Puzzles in Pop Culture is all about chronicling those moments in TV, film, literature, art, and elsewhere in which puzzles play a key role. In previous installments, we’ve tackled everything from The West Wing, The Simpsons, and M*A*S*H, to MacGyver, Gilmore Girls, and various incarnations of Sherlock Holmes.

And in today’s edition, we’re delving into the world of The Big Bang Theory, CBS’s runaway hit about four nerdy scientists — Leonard, Sheldon, Howard, and Raj — bumbling their way through social interactions of all sorts.

Although the show covers all sorts of activities often deemed “nerdy” — roleplaying games like Dungeons & Dragons, The Lord of the Rings, comic books, cosplay, conventions, obsessive fandom, etc. — they rarely play puzzles. Usually, the closest they get are board games and card games, whether real ones like 3-D chess or fictional ones like Mystic Warlords of Ka’a.

But in episode 3 of season 7, The Scavenger Vortex, the boys and their girlfriends embarked on one of my favorite puzzly pursuits: the scavenger hunt.

Here, hunt organizer Raj lays down the rules with plenty of style:

The teams end up being the odd couples of Leonard and Bernadette (Howard’s girlfriend), Sheldon and Penny (Leonard’s girlfriend), and Howard and Amy (Sheldon’s girlfriend), allowing some new pairings for the writers to have fun with.

For instance, we’re treated to this exchange between Howard and Amy, where Amy references her unpopularity growing up:

Howard Wolowitz: Wow, you’re really good at puzzles.
Amy Farrah Fowler: I did them all the time as a kid. As my mom used to say: when you’re doing a puzzle, it’s like having a thousand friends. She was full of fun lies like that.

The game starts with a jigsaw puzzle, which quickly reveals the location of the next clue: the comic book store. (Although Sheldon forces Penny to wait while he completes the entire puzzle.)

When the competitors arrive at the comic book store, a cardboard cutout of the Riddler holds their next clue.

Riddle me this:
Arrah, Arrah, and gather ’round,
this hero is legion-bound,
He multiplies N by the number of He,
and in this room the thing you’ll see.

Sheldon instantly solves the riddle, followed by Howard and Amy, then finally by Bernadette and Leonard, highlighting how well the three teams are working together. (Either Sheldon or Penny takes the lead, depending on the task, while Howard and Amy collaborate well, and overcompetitive Bernadette basically yells at Leonard the entire time.)

Arriving at the geology lab at the university, Penny and Sheldon reveal the next puzzle: To continue on your quest, leave no stone unturned.

While they turn over various rock samples in the lab, Sheldon explains how he solved the riddle.

Arrah pointed to Jan Arrah, a member of the DC Comics superhero team The Legion of Super-Heroes, who goes by the name Element Lad. This pointed Sheldon to the Periodic Table of Elements, where he multiplied the atomic number of N, Nitrogen (7) by the atomic number of He, Helium (2), getting 14, the atomic number of Silica, which pointed him to either the geology lab or the chemistry lab.

And the final line of the riddle — “and in this room, the thing you’ll see” — pointed toward the Marvel superhero The Thing, who is made entirely of rock.

As Sheldon is showing off his impressive riddle-cracking skills, underdog Penny actually solves the current puzzle, realizing that “no stone unturned” didn’t mean the samples in the lab. It meant the Rolling Stones poster hung on the door, which she lifts to reveal map coordinates.

This sends them to a bowling alley, and then to the disused elevator shaft in Leonard, Sheldon, and Penny’s apartment building. A montage mentions further puzzles at the planetarium and the tar pits (and plans to attend a Neil Diamond concert for new chums Howard and Amy), before ending up in the laundry room at Leonard, Sheldon, and Penny’s apartment building.

Three bags of laundry await the players, and they quickly realize each bag contains only pants, except for a single shirt of Sheldon’s. A shirt with a spot on it.

Fans of the show, of course, know where their final destination — and the coin — awaits them. But when they tear apart the couch, there’s no coin.

In the end, we discover the final clue was a red herring, and Raj had slipped gold coins into everyone’s pockets earlier in the day. (Which is some pretty impressive sleight-of-hand, I must say.)

And although Raj’s big lesson — it’s getting together and playing that’s important, not the prize at the end — is lost on his fellow castmates, it really does encapsulate the best in group puzzling and gaming… the experience.

Maybe The Big Bang Theory gets puzzles after all.

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5 Questions with Actress, Musician, Comedian, and Puzzler Whitney Avalon

Welcome to another edition of PuzzleNation Blog’s interview feature, 5 Questions!

We’re reaching out to puzzle constructors, video game writers and designers, writers, filmmakers, and puzzle enthusiasts from all walks of life, talking to people who make puzzles and people who enjoy them in the hopes of exploring the puzzle community as a whole.

And I’m overjoyed to have Whitney Avalon as our latest 5 Questions interviewee!

Whitney is a quadruple threat, splitting her time between acting, music, comedy, and puzzles, leaving her distinctive mark on each field. You may have seen her on The Big Bang Theory, in the Cheerios commercial during this year’s Super Bowl, or in the delightful viral video series IKEA Heights (which was secretly shot in an IKEA during working hours).

Then again, you might have seen one of her songs or parodies on YouTube, or solved one of her puzzles in GAMES Magazine. When you’re dealing with someone as creative and prolific as Whitney Avalon, you’re bound to have stumbled across her work somewhere.

Whitney was gracious enough to take some time out to talk to us, so without further ado, let’s get to the interview!

5 Questions for Whitney Avalon

1.) How did you first get into puzzles?

That I can blame, with great joy and gratitude, on my parents. My dad has worked in computers since before most people really knew what computers were, and he started me as a toddler on simple graphical puzzles (“One of these shapes is not like the other” springs to mind) and programming languages. Growing up in a family of thinkers meant I got to fall in love with wordplay, logic, and eureka moments. Lucky me!

[Whitney’s vocal chops are on display in this marvelous song about
spending too much time on the Internet, “Going Down the Rabbit Hole.”]

2.) You’re an actress, writer, comedian, and singer, but you’ve also had puzzles published in GAMES Magazine and other outlets. Do you have a particular favorite creative activity or one you wish you could devote more of your time to?

I’m one of those people fortunate enough to have always had one overriding passion (creating) who then gets to make a living pursuing that passion every day. So while the tide ebbs and flows – after all, I don’t get to choose when a TV show casts me, but I’m happy to drop everything else for a while every time one does – I love all the different ways I can make stuff that others might enjoy. I try to dedicate myself wholeheartedly to the next creative project in front of me, even and especially if it’s nothing like the one just completed!

3.) Has constructing puzzles influenced how you approach putting together videos, songs, or other visual media? Or has working in so many creative fields influenced your puzzling style?

I think spending a lot of time solving and/or crafting puzzles has, perhaps, made me more likely to strive for innovation, in that the repetitiveness of certain traditional forms might mean I’d seek more out-there options when it’s my turn to make the rules. Or maybe having a vivid imagination makes me drawn to interesting, elaborate puzzles.

I’m probably not good at analyzing my brain from inside here, but there are definitely parallels between taking the viewer on a good journey through a film or song and taking him or her on a good journey through certain puzzles – one of my published works, for example, is a 1000-word short story that not only contains a solvable mystery but also an additional layer of meta-surprise the reader will discover as it’s read.

[In this pic, Whitney displays some fantastic grayscale makeup
work and costuming. You can check out her tutorial here!]

4.) What’s next for Whitney Avalon?

More television appearances and commercials! (Including Girl Meets World on Disney Channel.) More writing! More singing! (I front pop rock band Strangely Attractive.) And, I surely do hope, more puzzles! (Most likely to appear as exclusive content in my monthly newsletter.) I can’t wait to see where the creative winds take me this year, and I’d be delighted if folks want to join me on my travels. I’ll always do my best to make you smile, laugh, and think.

5.) If you could give the readers, writers, aspiring content creators, and puzzle fans in the audience one piece of advice, what would it be?

Take a moment to ponder how improbable it is that you exist at all. Grin. Be kind. Have fun. Revel in your glorious good fortune.

Many thanks to Whitney for her time. You can follow her on Twitter (@whitneyavalon) for the latest updates, watch her videos and songs on YouTube, check out her website, and sign up for her monthly newsletter! There’s no telling what entertaining endeavors she’ll have for us next.

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