PuzzleNation Product Review: //CODE: On the Brink

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

There has been a tidal shift over the last few decades from the analog realm to digital. So much happens in cyberspace, by email, and in the liminal spaces between smartphones and computers, that it feels like we’re leaving behind physical media entirely. In the next decade, knowledge of programming will become an essential skill.

And it’s never too early to begin laying the foundation for that future. The folks at ThinkFun have been ahead of the curve there for a long time — their game Robot Turtles is a prime example — and they continue to push forward with their new //CODE Programming Game Series, a line of puzzly products designed to teach the basics of programming to young solvers.

The first game in the series, On the Brink, serves as an excellent primer. The game is based around a simple concept: navigating a robot along a particular path. This path can twist, turn, and even cross itself. But it’s up to the solver to figure out how to use the available programming cards to control and determine the robot’s path.

There are two sets of programming cards, one simpler deck designed for the first 20 challenges and one larger deck designed for the more difficult challenges that follow. Just as you learn simpler commands before you learn finer, more detail-oriented, and more complex ones, you must master the basic commands in On the Brink before moving forward.

Whereas Robot Turtles required players to be supervised by a Turtle Master who governed the setup, difficulty, and execution of commands, On the Brink can be played alone, as the solver tackles each puzzle in the challenge booklet, complete with starting cards, a given path to replicate, and colored boxes on the board that align with the three sections of the control panel.

I was impressed by the amount of variety to be found in a relatively small deck of commands. A cagey programmer can navigate the robot through some unexpectedly thorny paths, reminding me a bit of the step-by-step deductive reasoning that made Lunar Landing such a delightful challenge.

One way that On the Brink improves upon Robot Turtles is with the concept of commands that continue to run once activated. In On the Brink, your robot will follow a command for as long as the programming cards and colored spaces on the challenge booklet page dictate. Just as a command in programming requires parameters in order to know when to stop, your robot needs similar commands. Otherwise, it’s liable to pass right over the finish square instead of landing there perfectly.

On the Brink invites players as young as 8 to tackle the various challenges in the booklet, either alone or in groups, and the steady ratcheting-up of difficulty teaches the young programmer as they advance, putting new wrinkles and obstacles in the player’s path.

It’s the sort of patient, clever gameplay we’ve come to expect from ThinkFun, and they do not disappoint here. Figuring out how to utilize the available commands and complete the path given makes for an excellent puzzly challenge — especially the later scenarios! — but it never feels inaccessible or overwhelming.

You’re always in good hands with ThinkFun, and they’ve proven it again here with On the Brink.

On the Brink is available from ThinkFun and participating brick-and-mortar and online retailers for $14.99.


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PuzzleNation Product Review: Color Cube Sudoku

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

Sudoku is one of the most popular pen-and-paper puzzles in the world. It’s found in numerous daily newspapers, puzzle books, and smartphone apps.

After years of tackling regular Sudoku, Extreme Sudoku, Word Sudoku, Mega Sudoku, Samurai Sudoku, Geometric Sudoku, Sum-Doku, and numerous other variations, you’d think the puzzle community at large would’ve exhausted every possible version of Sudoku.

Enter the crafty folks at ThinkFun, who have put a unique spin on another Sudoku variant: Color Sudoku. In Color Sudoku, you have nine colors to arrange instead of numbers.

ThinkFun has upped the ante with Color Cube Sudoku, their latest puzzle-game, by combining the twisty-turny cube possibilities of a Rubik’s Cube with Sudoku-style deductive solving.

It seems like a simple enough set-up. You’ve got a tray and nine multi-colored cubes. Each cube has four of the six possible colors: green, red, blue, yellow, orange, and white. And it’s up to you to arrange the nine cubes in the grid in a 3×3 pattern so that each color only appears once in each row and column.

But that arrangement already introduces complications. Unlike a pen-and-paper puzzle, where you can place any number (or in this case, any color) in any square you choose, the preset color arrangements on each cube limit your choices.

If you need a blue square in the first row, sixth column, given the cubes available to you, you might end up with a second yellow square in your row. Which means, instead of needing a new cube, you need to change one of the cubes you’ve already placed and try again.

What once seemed simple now offers a greater challenge.

But, like many ThinkFun puzzle-games, the more you play around with the possibilities, the more you begin developing new strategies and get into the psychology of the puzzle itself.

Once you’ve placed a few of the cubes, next-level deductive reasoning kicks in, and you can eliminate certain possibilities and begin working more than one step ahead at a time.

For instance, if you’ve placed two cubes in a column, you’ll know you need to change one of the cubes if the third cube will need a green spot in both columns. Since that’s impossible, even without placing the third cube, you know you need to change one of the two you’ve already placed. Which means you’re preventing wasted moves and pushing closer to an actual solution.

Whether you’re tackling Color Cube Sudoku alone or with partners, whether you’re trying to crack a regular 6×6 pattern or taking a whack at some of the variant challenges they suggest — like knight’s paths and other difficult patterns — this is a deduction puzzle that feels like play instead of work.

When I tested this out with a fellow puzzler, we immediately began playing it in a slightly more competitive way. One of us would place a cube, and then the other would place a cube, and we would keep going until no cube could be placed.

You can end the game there, or you can take it a step further, and introduce rules where moving or shifting previously-placed cubes becomes part of the game in order to extend the puzzly gameplay. Heck, if you go long enough, it eventually becomes a race to see who can actually solve the Color Cube Sudoku layout first!

The designers state that there are 2,641,807,540,224 different ways to arrange the 9 cubes, and with seemingly endless variation in such a simple set-up, this is one puzzle-game you can put down and return to numerous times without burning out or feeling like you’ve conquered it forever.

Color Cube Sudoku is available for $19.99 from ThinkFun and select retailers!


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PuzzleNation Product Review: Roller Coaster Challenge

ThinkFun’s products are all about learning through experimentation. Whether you’re making music note-by-note with Compose Yourself, mastering the basics of programming in Robot Turtles, or tackling complete-the-path puzzles with marbles, lasers, robots, or electronic circuits, kids and adults alike get the chance to put their puzzly chops to the test.

Roller Coaster Challenge is the largest, most ambitious ThinkFun puzzle game to date, featuring several dozen pieces and challenge cards galore to test your ability to bend momentum and gravity to your will as you complete unfinished roller coaster tracks!

[With multiple track lengths, posts for building support pylons, 90-degree turns to navigate, and even a loop you can construct, you’ve got all the ingredients you need for a roller coaster worthy of the name.]

The concept is fairly simple. You have challenge cards that offer a starting layout. You’re given the beginning and ending points of the track, and some pieces in between. You are also told which pieces you’ll need to use to bridge the gaps and finish the track. Now it’s up to you to place them correctly and then test your creation with the little red roller coaster car.

Not only is the building plate bigger than those in any previous ThinkFun puzzle game, but the sky is the limit as you build onwards and upwards in order to solve your challenge card and give your little roller coaster car the ride of its life!

The challenge cards serve as the perfect introduction to solving the game’s puzzles, teaching the solver how to identify pieces by length, how to avoid missteps, and even how to get the most out of the available pieces.

But the challenge cards are just the beginning. Roller Coaster Challenge encourages you to develop your own roller coaster layouts, and even share them with the company!

After battling my way through numerous challenge cards of all difficulties — ranked from easy to super hard — I began indulging my creative side by constructing my own layout.

Naturally I had to go above and beyond, trying to weave two tracks together so one would use the loop, and the other would rocket the roller coaster car through the loop and over a gap before reuniting with the track itself.

[OSHA would shut down my roller coaster so fast…]

In terms of scale, creativity, and sheer visual panache, Roller Coaster Challenge is the most ambitious and impressive ThinkFun puzzle game to date. The DIY encouragement built into the solving experience really adds something extra to the enjoyable (and sometimes challenging) layouts provided by the game’s designers.

Roller Coaster Challenge was the result of ThinkFun’s first venture into crowdfunding, and when it came time to go big or go home, they went big, and solvers reap the benefits with this dynamic, fun product.

Roller Coaster Challenge is available through ThinkFun and other vendors for the very affordable price of $29.99.


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This chess game will cut you to the quick!

When it comes to games, chess is a certified classic, the benchmark against which many tactical games are still measured to this day.

We’ve discussed chess several times in the past here on the blog, whether we’re talking products inspired by chess, like All Queens Chess and Scrimish, or tackling puzzles using chess boards, like knight’s tours or other chess-based brain teasers.

In today’s post, we’ll be looking at a new variation on chess, one meant to dissuade players from careless gameplay by use of a historically appropriate method of enforcing the rule of law: the guillotine.

Fellow puzzlers and PuzzleNationers, say hello to Tour De Force chess.

According to the creators:

Tour De Force chess entices the players to strategize and invest more thought into the game by introducing consequence in the form of a guillotine that beheads captured pieces. Based on early testing with a rough and ready model we confirmed that this game addition makes the prospect of losing a piece unsavory enough to motivate more careful strategy.

You see, in Tour De Force chess, a captured piece isn’t gone immediately. It goes into the stockade until another piece is captured. There are two stockades, which means that once your opponent captures a third piece, that first piece goes to the guillotine, loses its head, and is gone for good.

Not only is this meant to enhance the feeling of loss that comes with having a piece taken, but it introduces an interesting mechanic to the game: saving pieces from a nasty end.

According to the official rules, “a player can save a captured piece that has not yet been beheaded by taking a higher value piece with a pawn. That pawn is then substituted with the piece closest to beheading.”

Although the higher-value rule means that there’s no saving your captured queen (unless you capture the king, which of course, ends the game anyway), it is an intriguing wrinkle to standard chess that could definitely alter your gameplay. Do you continue to play as you always would, immediately accepting the consequences when a piece is lost? Or do you try to rescue that piece, diverting temporarily from your primary goal of capturing your opponent’s king?

What do you think, PuzzleNationers? Is Tour De Force chess a welcome variation to the game, or an unnecessary twist on a classic? Sound off in the comments below!


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PuzzleNation Product Review: Lunar Landing

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

ThinkFun has emerged as the premiere vendor of logic puzzles for solvers of all ages. Whether they’re challenging you with marbles, lasers, or electronic circuits, their complete-the-path games offer lots of puzzly fun.

Their latest offering, Lunar Landing, seems at first to fall into the same pattern, but as you learn the rules and begin tackling the challenge cards included, you quickly realize there’s more than meets the eye at play.

In Lunar Landing, your goal is to pilot the red shuttle to an emergency entry port in the center of the landing grid. Sounds easy enough, right? But the twist is how you get there.

Scattered across the landing field are helper bots which help your shuttle move around the landing field. The shuttle can only move toward one of the helper bots in the same row or column. The shuttle must move from helper bot to helper bot until it reaches the emergency entry port.

Because Lunar Landing is set in space, the shuttle can’t just stop wherever it chooses. Once the shuttle is set on a path toward a helper bot, it continues along that path until it reaches that bot. This means you can pass right over the emergency entry port unless there’s a helper bot in the correct position to stop the shuttle on that red square.

This movement mechanism is the engine behind each of the 40 challenge cards in the deck. Progressing in increasing difficulty from beginner to intermediate to advanced to expert, the challenge cards provide you with the starting layouts for each landing grid. You place the shuttle and helper bots as instructed, and then try to puzzle out how to complete the task at hand.

The early scenarios are all about moving the shuttle from place to place. In later challenges, you’ll have to move the helper bots as well, positioning them to form a path that’ll bounce your shuttle to the center of the grid.

The helper bots move in the same way as the shuttle — toward another helper bot along a row or column — and as the scenarios evolve, you’ll rely on moving the helper bots more and more.

It’s a bit like a sliding-tile puzzle, since you can only move the shuttle along certain paths, as determined by the locations of the helper bots. Many of the challenge cards can only be conquered by setting up a chain reaction, which gives Lunar Landing the feeling of a one-person chess game: You’re trying to see several moves ahead, looking for the perfect sequence of moves that will let you achieve victory.

Taking a simple scientific concept — objects in motion tend to stay in motion — and building a logic game around it is very clever, and it makes for a solving experience that feels new and challenging. Since each piece can potentially move, depending on the challenge card layout, there are more variables at play here than in previous ThinkFun logic puzzles.

The helper bots are modeled on classic robot designs from the 1940s and 1950s, and that adds to the game’s charm, as if the vivid Technicolor visions that predated the Space Race have finally been realized.

The landing grid doubles as storage for the challenge cards and game pieces, making for an easily transported puzzle game that can be enjoyed anywhere at the drop of a hat.

Lunar Landing continues the fine tradition of ThinkFun puzzle games, keeping even experienced puzzlers on their toes with inventive gameplay and outside-the-box thinking. What a treat.

Lunar Landing is available from ThinkFun through Amazon and other online retailers. Click here to check out other ThinkFun product reviews!


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PuzzleNation Product Review: Fidgitz

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

The goal of most mechanical brain teasers is simple: complete a certain task. Sometimes, you’re twisting a cube until each face is a different color, or removing one piece from a multi-piece setup, or disassembling a three-dimensional cube entirely, or puzzling out the necessary steps to open a box.

But no matter the task, the ultimate satisfaction comes from conquering the puzzle. ThinkFun’s newest brain teaser, Fidgitz, turns that concept on its head by making the act of manipulating the puzzle as gratifying as solving it.

Fidgitz consists of six spheres that are all connected with ball-in-socket joints, allowing you to twist, slide, and manipulate the puzzle in all sorts of ways. Each sphere is half blue and half white, and your ultimate goal is to maneuver the spheres so that the puzzle is all white on one side and all blue on the other.

I liken solving Fidgitz to solving a Rubik’s Cube, because it has the same sort of chain solving to it. Each move you make affects many parts of the puzzle, so you need to work a few steps ahead of where you are in order to make the most of each action you take.

But unlike Rubik’s famous cube and other twisty puzzles, Fidgitz offers an immensely enjoyable level of engagement as you’re solving that’s unlike practically any other puzzle I’ve encountered. It’s fun to manipulate the puzzle, but it’s also very calming.

The seemingly infinite chain of twisting, shifting, and rotating the spheres is soothing. It didn’t matter that, at times, I thought I would never manage to get all six spheres arranged together. The sheer act of attempting to do so was engaging enough.

In that way, it’s very similar to the bracelets and other tangle toys given to folks with anxiety or conditions like trichotillomania, where keeping your hands occupied can serve as a beneficial tool for easing nervous impulses.

As a single, self-contained puzzle, Fidgitz is travel-friendly, and whether you’re looking for a new brain teaser to challenge you or a satisfying tool to keep your hands occupied, ThinkFun’s newest product has got you covered.

Fidgitz is available from ThinkFun through Amazon and other online retailers. Click here to check out other ThinkFun product reviews!


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