PuzzleNation Product Review: Minecraft Magnetic Travel Puzzle

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

Minecraft is one of the biggest indie video game success stories of the last twenty years. A simple block-style game about building things (and destroying things) is now a multimedia empire, complete with toys, LEGOs, and of course, video games across numerous platforms.

It was only a matter of time before it made the leap to puzzles, and as it turns out, the clever folks at ThinkFun were just the designers to bring Minecraft into a puzzlier world.

Minecraft Magnetic Travel Puzzle pits the player against devious deduction puzzles with elements of the Minecraft universe included. By using the clues provided on each challenge card, the player must arrange three swords, pickaxes, and pieces of armor (all different colors, making nine unique game pieces) on the 3×3 crafting table in a particular pattern.

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Completing the grid is the only way to bypass the ender dragon (who is placing these challenge obstacles in your path) and continue onto the next world in your journey.

The instructions, puzzles, solutions, game board, and pieces are all contained within the single spiral-bound game book, making this one of ThinkFun’s most portable products yet. The magnetic pieces are fairly sturdy, as is the game board, so it will hold up nicely to the rigors of travel (and being stuffed into various carry-on bags).

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The gameplay itself is all about interpreting the clues provided with each challenge card. Some clues offer hints on where to place pieces according to color, others according to shape. Additional clues center around a given piece’s location on the grid or in relation to another piece.

For instance, in Beginner Challenge #5 in the image below, the solver gets two hints: one about color and the other about the game pieces.

All three of the blue pieces will be placed along the diagonal, according to the first hint. And according to the second hint, a piece of armor will be in the upper right corner and a pickaxe will be in the middle square. Combining these two hints tells us where to place the blue armor and blue pickaxe. And since only one blue gamepiece is left, the blue sword goes in the lower left corner.

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Similarly, the combination of the yellow square in the center of the top row in the first hint and the sword image in the center of the top row in the second hint tells us where to place the yellow sword. Once that’s in place, we look at the remaining sword image on the second hint and know where to place the gray sword.

The gray square in the upper left corner of the first hint and the pickaxe image in the upper left corner of the second hint point to where to play the gray pickaxe (and the yellow pickaxe by process of elimination).

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With two game pieces left and one unoccupied yellow square in the first hint, the solver can easily complete this challenge, besting the ender dragon’s latest obstacle and moving forward.

Once you graduate from the Beginner and Intermediate difficulty levels, you’ll face a new wrinkle: negative clues. Negative clues are layouts that must be avoided, so instead of telling you where to place a piece, they tell you expressly where NOT to place a piece, ratcheting up the difficulty.

For instance, in Advanced Challenge #25, the negative hints tell us that a gray gamepiece can never be directly below and to the right of a blue gamepiece, or above and to the left of a yellow gamepiece.

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These restrictions will prove to be valuable hints going forward, often telling a savvy solver more about the layout of the crafting table than the regular clues!

By gradually teaching deductive reasoning — slowly introducing new ways to provide information and eliminate possibilities — the solver quickly grasps a key component of strategy and planning: “If this, then that” thinking.

This sort of cause-and-effect observation allows a solver to hold several pieces of information in your head at once, eliminating red herrings and unhelpful possibilities until you’re left with one solution that fits all the requirements. (Just as every Sudoku puzzle is an exercise in deduction, so is every challenge card in Minecraft Magnetic Travel Puzzle.)

Fun for younger solvers and older alike, ThinkFun’s latest deduction puzzle game turns Minecraft into Mindcraft, adding a valuable puzzly tool to the arsenal of every solver.

Minecraft Magnetic Travel Puzzle is available from ThinkFun and certain online retailers.


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PuzzleNation Product Review: Smart10

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

If you’re familiar with trivia games, then you know there’s one answer per question, one crack at a pie wedge or a Linkee letter or a few steps forward or an answer point or whatever.

The subject of today’s post turns that convention on its head with a clever tweak: there are up to ten possible answers to each question, so you get more than one chance to earn points with your trivia knowledge.

Yup, you get multiple opportunities to “smarten” up with Smart10, the latest trivia game from the crew at Bananagrams.

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[Here you can see the Smartbox playing case, as well as the trivia question, the answer markers, and the score markers along the edge of the Smartbox.]

The concept is fairly straightforward. Once the trivia cards are loaded into the Smartbox, you pass it around, allowing each player/team the chance to answer the question and pull one of the answer markers. If they’re correct, they keep the answer marker in front of them. Then, pass the Smartbox to the next player.

The round ends when all the markers are pulled or players agree that there are no more correct answers to the question. Once the round is over, you add a point for each answer marker to the total indicated by your scoring wheel on the Smartbox. Then reset all the answer markers, pull the question card out, and put it at the bottom of the deck, and you’re ready for a new round.

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Now, if you’ve never played this game before, you might be confused by how the round ends, since I mentioned two possibilities — all the markers being pulled or the players agreeing that there are no more correct answers. That’s because there are different kinds of trivia questions you’ll encounter while playing Smart10. There are six categories, each represented by a different colored circle that surrounds a given trivia question.

Some of them are true/false style, where you only want to pull the answer markers for the true answers. Others offer ten variations on a theme — like listing a piece of music and asking for the composer — which means the Smartbox gets passed around until all 10 variations have been answered.

This variety of question styles — covering everything from history and math to pop culture and language — keeps the game from becoming bogged down or repetitive. (The fact that every card is two-sided, meaning you have LOADS of questions to try, also helps in this respect.)

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[Here you can see the checkmarks for the true/false type of question.]

Plus, the entire game is self-contained. You’ve got questions, answers, and score-keeping all built into one portable device. There are no decks of questions or game boards and pieces to tote around. That makes the game both travel-friendly and perfect for tossing around at a party without a lot of set-up time wasted.

The questions balance nicely between moderate difficulty and greater difficulty, so there’s little chance of the game feeling too easy or exclusionary in its challenge level. Pretty much the whole family can get in on the trivia goodness. And since you can play with up to 8 players (or teams), no one needs to feel left out of the fun.

All in all, Smart10 makes for a enjoyable and satisfying trivia experience that still feels mellow enough for casual get-togethers.

[Smart10 is published by Bananagrams and available from local and online retailers, plus it’s part of this year’s Holiday Puzzly Gift Guide!]


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PuzzleNation Product Review: Lexicon-GO!

[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.]

You might think that if you’ve seen one letter-tile game, you’ve seen them all. But you’d be wrong.

Every word-forming game, from great-granddaddy Scrabble on down, has its own quirks and idiosyncrasies, and some of them have tricks up their sleeves that make for a truly unique puzzle game experience.

And very few of them have the urgency of Lexicon-GO!, a travel-friendly game distributed by Winning Moves UK.

Designed for 2-4 players, ages 8 and up, Lexicon-GO! is as devilishly simple as it is frenetic.

Each player draws ten tiles from the draw pile, and tries to form words with all ten of them faster than their opponents.

And not just any words will do. There are no one-letter words, plurals, proper nouns, acronyms, and abbreviations allowed as answer words.

In most letter-tile games, it’s all about your own anagramming and word-forming skills; there’s very little direct interaction with your opponents. (Unless you’re both going for the same tile in the draw pile, that is.)

But Lexicon-GO! rewards both interactive thinking and aggressive, advantageous play. You can add your letters to the words being formed by other players (adding a T to the word SKI below to make SKIT, for instance).

Or you could swap out a letter in another player’s word with one of your own (making ZAP into ZIP and taking the A, or making SKI into SKY and taking the I, for instance).

Of course, this move only works if you’re forming a new, acceptable word. You can’t just throw in any letter and steal one you need.

[Once the wild card title is set, it remains that letter for the rest of the round, even if another player steals it. Until this round is done, for instance, the master tile is a P.]

Be the first one to use or dispose of all ten of your letters, and you win the round. The first player to win five rounds wins the game!

(Naturally, we’ve found that most players tend to focus on simply forming their words the fastest, ignoring chances to interact with and/or sabotage their opponents. So we introduced a house rule that every player must either swap a letter with another player’s word or add a letter to another player’s word. It certainly made for more strategic and chaotic gameplay!)

Now, you may have noticed that the tiles also have number values, not unlike the tiles in Scrabble and other tile-scoring games.

That’s because there’s a second path to victory, if you play Original Lexicon (or Master Lexicon) rules, which are helpfully provided with the game.

In Original Lexicon, the rules are the same, including winning a round by being the first to use or dispose of all ten tiles. But instead of everyone else simply conceding the round, they instead add up the point values of their letter tiles. After a few rounds, any player who passes 100 points is out, and the last player standing wins.

That variation makes the game much more tactical. If you know other players are faster at word-forming and anagramming than you, you can mitigate the damage to your score by getting rid of high-value tiles through swapping with the draw pile or adding your letters to the words of other players.

The larger tiles do mean that the game contains fewer letter tiles than other letter-tile games, which might hamper replayability in the long run.

Of course, on the flip side, larger tiles mean that both younger players and older players (who might have visual impairment issues, for instance) can enjoy Lexicon-GO! more than a game with smaller letter tiles.

As always, there’s a trade-off in any design choice.

Lexicon-GO! builds on the strong reputation of the letter-tile games that preceded it, while adding to the genre in engaging, fun ways.

The focus on lightning-quick play (as well as the encouragement to deviously interact with other players) adds some pleasant spice to the genre, rewarding outside the box thinking and puzzle-solving for younger minds and older alike.

This game gives the letter-tile classics a serious run for their money.

Lexicon-GO! is available from Winning Moves UK, Barnes & Noble, Amazon, and other participating retailers.


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