PuzzleNation Product Review: Word Domination

Gathering letters to spell words and gain points… it’s a game mechanic so familiar and traditional that it’s easy to take for granted these days. Whether you’re talking about the wooden tiles of Scrabble or the electronic tiles of Words With Friends, the mind-bending spin of Unspeakable Words or the three-dimensional challenge of Upwords, it’s a classic concept.

Word Domination builds on that concept by adding a new strategical element. As you spell words, you claim letters from a shared letter pool. It’s essentially a more aggressive form Boggle.

Each player assumes the identity of a James Bond-style villain, and each letter tile doubles as a prize or piece of loot that can be captured by a player.

The player then uses a letter tile drawn at random with some of the letters laid out in the play area to spell a word, temporarily capturing those letters. (Unlike Boggle, the letters in the word don’t need to be touching.)

For example, in the first round, Player 1 spells the word ODYSSEY, placing zeppelin tokens on each of the 7 letters in the world, including the O that the player added on their turn. Player 1 then draws a new random tile for the next round, and play moves to Player 2.

Player 2 spells the word FORGERY and places her zeppelin tokens. And since she used three letters that Player 1 had captured, she captures those letters and removes his zeppelin tokens from the board.

Let’s jump ahead slightly. Player 3 spells the word TESSERACT, stealing some captured letters from both Player 1 and Player 2, and that concludes the first round. When round 2 starts up, Player 1 spells the word DYNASTY and places his zeppelins.

And since the letters D and Y were already captured by Player 1 in the first round, capturing them a second time means Player 1 has stolen those letters from the game board, and claims them for himself.

Those letters are given to Player 1 to use for the rest of the game, and replaced with STOLEN tiles, which are worth points at the end of the game.

After six rounds of play, the player who has claimed the most territory (and earned the most points) wins the game.

Now, naturally there are wrinkles to add to the gameplay, like helping other players spell words in order to split the profits with them, arming yourself with certain rare letters and weaponizing them, and even utilizing special abilities only your character has access to.

Between these twists and the baseline gameplay, you have a rich and variable game experience that really allows a strategic player to shine when matched up against players that might have stronger vocabularies or better luck drawing letter tiles.

And the game aesthetic really adds to the playing experience. The idea of stealing letter treasures, claiming territory with little zeppelin tokens, and running amok as a film villain (complete with bizarre letter-based weapontry and a punny name) is the perfect mix of silly and clever, spicing up a solid game with enjoyable little quirks.

Word Domination balances luck, strategy, and vocabulary skills to create a game that feels familiar but keeps you on your toes. What a treat.

Word Domination is created by Jeff Beck and is available through Uproarious Games and select online retailers for $32.99.


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PuzzleNation Product Review: Tak

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Puzzles and games are constantly advancing and innovating, incorporating new technologies, new production techniques, and a lengthy legacy to build upon. In this blog alone, we’ve looked at 3-D printed puzzles, logic games that involve actual lasers, and puzzles that were brought to life thanks to internet crowdfunding; none of these were possible fifteen or twenty years ago.

But today’s game is something different. It’s a brand new game that feels like a classic from centuries past, a board game that feels timeless.

Today, we’re reviewing Tak by James Ernest and Patrick Rothfuss.

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You may recognize Rothfuss’s name from his Kingkiller Chronicles novels, including The Wise Man’s Fear, where he first referenced the tavern game Tak. Now, game designer James Ernest has helped him bring the game to life.

Tak has a very simple concept: two players each attempt to build a road connecting opposite sides of the game board. The first player to successfully complete their road wins.

To do so, you place game pieces called stones, one at a time, on various spaces on the board. The stones can either be played flat (meaning they’re part of your road) or standing on edge (meaning they’re a wall, blocking any road’s passage through that space).

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It’s an easily grasped mechanic that allows for a great deal of gameplay flexibility. Since flat stones can be stacked, you can seize control of part of a road by placing your flat stone atop your opponent’s. Then again, your opponent could play his capstone, flatten one of your walls, and instantly make it part of his road.

The game can be played on boards as small as 3×3 and as large as 8×8, allowing for greater difficulty and strategic opportunities. And considering that you can move stacks of pieces (as long as your flat stone tops the stack), that opens the field even more for tactical moves to grant you control of more road.

With so many moves and countermoves available to the player, no two games of Tak feel alike, and even the puzzliest player will no doubt find themselves surprised by a cunning opponent. (And the game encourages this, since your very first move will be to place one of your opponent’s pieces on the board. Each player does this before continuing forward using only their own pieces.)

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This balanced system ensures that players stay engaged until the very last move, making for an elegant play experience that feels earned, win or lose.

The full title of the game is actually Tak: A Beautiful Game, and it’s hard to disagree. The simple, yet distinct game pieces grant an earthy, homegrown feel to the game, and the gorgeous art (both in the companion book and the Selas 3×3 game board, pictured above) only enhance the experience.

Rothfuss and Ernest have really outdone themselves with this one. Tak feels at home in the 21st century as it would in the 18th. That’s something both rare and special.

The core version of Tak is available through Cheapass Games, and you can find other boards and variations at The Tinker’s Packs.


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PuzzleNation Product Review: Tak•tak

When it comes to strategy puzzle games, no matter how complex or how simple the actual game mechanics, the game itself hinges on the two players involved. After all, two extremely tactical puzzlers can make checkers look like chess.

Now, imagine a game that combines the pattern-matching of Uno, the strategy of chess, and the mechanics of Upwords, and adds a scoring element to boot. It might sound complicated, but I promise, it’s as simple as checkers.

Tak•tak is a two-player strategy scoring game designed by the folks at Twizmo Games, and it’s another puzzle game brought to life thanks to a successful crowdfunding campaign. Although Twizmo Games is best known for twisty puzzles (or Rubik’s Cube-style puzzles), they’ve taken a strong step into the traditional board game market with Tak•tak.

Each player starts with 12 tiles, each tile bearing a different score (10, 20, 30, or 40) and a different color (green, blue, or yellow). The two rows nearest the player form that player’s safe zone. The three rows in the middle are the war zone.

Your goal is to get as many points as possible into your opponent’s safe zone by stacking your tiles, crossing the war zone, and either capturing or maneuvering around your opponent’s tiles. You can only move forward (either straight or diagonally), so this is a game about tactics and initiative.

You build your stacks by matching either point values or colors. For instance, you can stack a yellow 20 and a yellow 40, or a yellow 30 and a green 30, and either of those new stacks would represent 60 points. This enables you to move more tiles around the board quickly. (But careful: once you’ve stacked tiles, they stay stacked for the rest of the game.)

But those matching rules also apply to your opponent’s tiles! When you and your opponent cross paths in the war zone, you can stack your tiles onto theirs and steal those points for yourself. (The stacks you make from your own tiles can only go three tiles high, but stacks made from your tiles AND your opponent’s tiles can go as high as you want! Heck, a stack might change owners several times and tower over the game board!)

The game ends when one player has no more available moves. (There are other ways to end the game if you choose to use the advanced game play rules, but we’ll stick with the basic rules for now.) And then it’s time to count your tiles.

You earn points for all of the tiles you’ve moved into your opponent’s safe zone (including any of your opponent’s tiles that are in stacks you control), plus points for any tiles your opponent never moved into the war zone. (Meaning they were never “in play.”) Highest score wins!

Tak•tak builds a lot of versatility and play possibilities into a game with checkers-simple mechanics, and the more you play, the more fun it is to delve deeper into tactics and strategy. It was worth losing 50 points for keeping a few tiles in my safe zone when they prevented a stack of my opponent’s tiles from scoring.

The clever mix of classic game-play elements not only makes Tak•tak so easy to dive into, but also ensures new players can more time actively playing and less time worrying about learning the rules (a common downfall for more complicated strategy games).

The designers claim the game is appropriate for ages 8 through 108, and I think they’re right on the money.


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26 letter tiles, endless possibilities…

On Tuesday, we delved into tile puzzles and games, exploring dominoes, mahjong, and sliding-tile variations. Letter-tile games may not have the centuries of history behind them that those listed above do, but you simply cannot talk about tile games without discussing one of the world’s most popular and recognizable brands: Scrabble.

Scrabble was created in 1938 by an architect named Alfred Mosher Butts, and was adapted from a word game he’d invented previously, known as Lexiko. His second attempt at the game — delightfully titled “Criss-Crosswords” — combined the letter tiles and values of Lexiko with the gameboard and playing style that we’ve all come to know.

A decade later, Butts sold the rights to manufacture the game, and James Brunot renamed it Scrabble. (Some sources also cite that Brunot simplified the rules and shifted the locations of the double- and triple-value squares, but I was unable to verify these claims.)

The game wouldn’t become a household name until years later when it was marketed and sold by Milton-Bradley. Nowadays, of course, the brand is not only known worldwide, but in myriad forms.

Our friends at Hammacher-Schlemmer not only sell an extended version allowing for longer words, but a magnetic version and a giant version, dubbed the World’s Largest (with good reason). Several Penny/Dell puzzles are based on the Scrabble model, and those signature tiles have appeared in game-show form and made an impact in the pop culture lexicon, offering more than a few magical moments to author Joe Hill’s thrilling horror novel NOS4A2.

And then there are the electronic versions. From Wordfeud and Words with Friends to Scrabulous (later known as Lexulous after several lawsuits), Scrabble and other letter-tile games (like Dabble and David L. Hoyt’s puzzle-game Word Winder) are ubiquitous in app stores and all over the Internet.

I was recently introduced to Bookworm, a very addictive puzzle game that deftly mixes the pattern-busting appeal of Candy Crush and other games with the Scrabble aesthetic of assigning point values to various words, encouraging you to find longer and more complex letter chains in order to score more points.

But there are board game variations as well. A particular favorite is Upwords, which is basically Scrabble, except the tiles are designed to allow you to stack them atop each other, spelling new words as you use your opponent’s moves against them. For instance, if your opponent played HENCE, you could place an F atop the H and an I atop the E, and then add other letters to the end, creating the word FENCING.

This additional wrinkle creates opportunities for outside-the-box thinking that Scrabble doesn’t, opportunities easily exploitable for any puzzler who’s adept at Changawords, Word Chains, and other letter-shifting puzzles. (Imagine the tile towers you could build, shifting SPARK to SPARS to SOARS to SOAKS to SOCKS to ROCKS!)

All of these letter-tile games and puzzles encourage anagramming skills, strategy, and a dab hand at quick math — being able to tell if you’ll get more out of a double-word short word or a triple-letter longer word, for instance — but there’s another letter-tile treat that adds a bit of speed to the mix: Bananagrams.

Bananagrams works on the same principle of adaptability as Upwords, encouraging anagramming in order to use up every letter tile in your hand. Launched in 2006 as the brainchild of Abraham Nathanson, it breaks free of the board game aspect of Scrabble and Upwords, allowing you to play anywhere, trying to out-anagram and out-grid-build your opponents in the shortest amount of time possible.

I had the opportunity to chat with Lesley Singleton, the UK PR Manager for Bananagrams, after a YouTube acquaintance posted a picture on her Instagram of a Bananagrams game she’d just played in French:

Lesley told me that, much like Scrabble, there are Bananagrams products for multiple languages (in case any Francophiles out there looking for the best possible chance to exercise their multisyllabic linguistic chops).

Although, as it turns out, they don’t add extra u’s to the UK edition. I made sure to ask, just in case. *laughs*

In the end, I doubt there’s a better vocabulary-building tool on the market today than any of these letter-tile games and puzzles. Whether you’re reaching for a banana-shaped bag full of tiles, a magnetic strip of letters, or the app on your iPhone, you’re sure to learn new words, big and small, the more you play.

(Though be wary of Words with Friends. I don’t know where their word database comes from, but I’ve played words I KNOW are words, and they’ve been rejected. Games like that give me headaches, and make me more and more thankful for go-to guides like the Official Scrabble Players Dictionary.)

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A day for puzzles and games galore!

Aloha, friends and fellow puzzle fiends! Just a quick reminder that tomorrow (March 30th) is International TableTop Day!

For the uninitiated, International TableTop Day is the brainchild of Internet superstars and gaming devotees Wil Wheaton and Felicia Day, a day devoted to board games, card games, dice games, roleplaying games (RPGs), and any other communal game-playing activity played on a table or any convenient flat surface.

(And with so many puzzle-based games out there, from Boggle and Scrabble to Jenga and Hex, I think it definitely merits mention here on the PuzzleNation blog.)

While the term “TableTop” was originally coined to differentiate one style of gaming or roleplaying from another. TableToppers were your Magic card-carrying, dice-rolling, character sheet-wielding gamers, as opposed to those who played video games or engaged in Live-Acting Roleplaying (LARPing).

Obviously, the definition has since expanded to include many other types of games, so long as you play with others around a table.

As not only a self-confessed puzzlin’ fool, but a devoted player of Dungeons & Dragons and other RPGs, I’m happy to tell you that some of my all-time favorite puzzles have come from my experiences as a roleplayer.

I remember being trapped in a dungeon in my friend’s game, and there was this elaborate machine that would open the door with flowing water if you could direct the water properly. You did so by way of numerous levers located in various rooms around the dungeon. And as a bare-bones adventuring party, we didn’t have anything with which to draw a map of the labyrinthine corridors, so I basically had to memorize the route in my head, figure out what each of the levers did, then run around the dungeon pulling them in the precise order necessary to unlock the door.

It was mindbending and frustrating and a terrific time. That’s the kind of puzzle-gaming experience I’d love to share with others.

Since Easter is this Sunday and I’ll already be spending time with my nephews this weekend, I’m hoping to introduce them to some of my favorite board games and puzzle games. I’ll definitely be bringing my two-player version of Brick by Brick with me.

A variation on the classic Tangram-style of piece-moving puzzle solving, Brick By Brick puzzles offer a shadowed shape you need to form with irregularly shaped bricks. You can play by yourself or go head-to-head with an opponent, or even team up and use both sets of bricks to solve even tougher shadow puzzles. It’s great fun and a terrific brain-teaser.

I’m hoping it’ll be the gateway drug to other puzzle games as they get older, since they’re a little too young for some of my favorites. (Like U.S. Patent Number 1, the game where you’ve built a time machine, and so have your opponents, and you race to soup them up and travel back in time to register for the very first patent. It’s a blast.)

Oh, and Older Sister? Beware, I’m also bringing Upwords, a marvelous variation on Scrabble where you can place letters on top of other letters in order to form new words. You’re going down, sis!

Of course, in the midst of all this TableToppy goodness, I’ll be bending the rules a bit, since I also plan on sharing the spirit of International TableTop Day by playing some two-player PuzzleNation games with friends abroad. Hey, it’s much harder to gather around the table with an ocean between you.

In any case, I hope you indulge your puzzle fancy tomorrow with some communal puzzle-game goodness. Have a fantastic holiday!