PuzzleNation Review: The Maze of Games

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Today’s review is going to be a little bit different. You might have noticed that I didn’t title this a product review or a book review, and that’s because today’s subject, The Maze of Games, defies classification.

It’s billed as an interactive puzzle novel, and it lives up to that description, combining the long-form narrative of a novel with a topnotch puzzle book and a strong element of choose-your-own-adventure flavoring on top. This is not a mystery with a few crosswords tossed in; this is a novel where the puzzle-solving is integral to the reading experience. And I can honestly say it’s like nothing I’ve seen before.

The novel opens in the late 1800s with siblings Samuel and Colleen Quaice at the library, where Colleen is on a mission to read something macabre and engaging. After being offered the newest offering by Bram Stoker — a tome called Dracula — Colleen stumbles upon a slim volume tucked away in the stacks: The Maze of Games.

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Soon, Samuel and Colleen are swept into the realm of the Gatekeeper — a dapper, witty, and unforgiving skeletal game master who delights in challenging the unsuspecting to fiendish puzzle challenges — and they’re left to navigate the first of the book’s mazes: the Castle Maze.

As you roam the labyrinth with Colleen and Samuel, you encounter puzzles to be solved, each of which provides you with a keyword you’ll need for later. From word searches and crosswords to logic puzzles and code-breaking challenges, your puzzly chops will be put to the test and then some by the Gatekeeper’s many mind-bending obstacles. (Although meant for adolescents and teens, I think adults would also thoroughly enjoy many of the Gatekeeper’s puzzles.)

Once you’ve reached the end of the labyrinth, a final puzzle awaits you, and you must use your collected keywords and puzzly skills to escape the maze and move onward.

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Five mazes stand between you and victory over the Gatekeeper, all of them steeped in mythology, genre storytelling, and adventure-tinged backstory. (And several of which offer some wickedly barbed humor.)

This is a terrific concept, and brilliantly executed. The sheer variety of puzzles, not to mention the creative hooks that tie into the narrative, makes for a puzzle book that will keep puzzlers busy for quite a while.

And the novel aspect is just as enjoyable. Samuel and Colleen are no mere placeholders. They’re rich, fully-formed characters in their own right, bickering, bantering, and bringing different skills to every challenge they face. (Their ongoing banter with the Gatekeeper in his sporadic appearances is easily the highlight of the narrative.)

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Lush, atmospheric art backs up the storytelling, bringing the novel to life and adding wonderful personality to the characters. (Not to mention there’s both an ebook edition and an audiobook version read by Wil Wheaton!)

And if you’re still not puzzled out after tackling The Maze of Games (or you just need a break), there’s a bundle of bonus puzzles in the back of the book, featuring such familiar names as Ken Jennings, Will Shortz, Patrick Blindauer, and Brendan Emmett Quigley.

All of these factors contribute to as immersive a puzzle book as I’ve ever seen, and a testament to the sort of forethought, complexity, and creativity a first-class puzzler can weave into a singular solving experience.

Mike Selinker has been a fixture in the board game and puzzle world for years, and he’s really outdone himself with The Maze of Games.

Thanks for visiting PuzzleNation Blog today! You can share your pictures with us on Instagram, friend us on Facebook, check us out on TwitterPinterest, and Tumblr, and be sure to check out the growing library of PuzzleNation apps and games!

A day for puzzles and games galore!

This Saturday April 5 marks the second annual International TableTop Day.

For the uninitiated, International TableTop Day was the brainchild of Internet superstars and gaming devotees Wil Wheaton and Felicia Day, known for their YouTube series TableTop.

While on the surface, International TableTop Day is a day to celebrate board games, card games, roleplaying games, dice games, and any other games and activities played around a table, the true spirit of the day is the socializing and communal gameplay that comes from sitting around a table with friends and loved ones, leaving phones and distractions behind, and enjoying a game.

Like last year, this year’s TableTop Day is a truly worldwide event, with game stores, hobby shops, and many businesses opening their doors and offering space for friends and strangers alike to play games. On the TableTop Day website, a map cataloguing events across the world on April 5th has over two THOUSAND events and counting listed!

While the PuzzleNation offices aren’t open on April 5, I will definitely be celebrating the day at home with family and friends; we’ve got several terrific games lined up to play, including Qwirkle, 12 Days, Gravwell, Scattergories, and a few others to be determined.

Not only that, but the following week, in the spirit of International TableTop Day, the PuzzleNation crew will be getting together with our friends at Penny/Dell Puzzles and hosting a belated TableTop Day event for our fellow puzzlers.

Let us know what you’ll be playing for International TableTop Day! You can share your pictures with us on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and Tumblr, and make sure to check out the growing library of PuzzleNation apps and games! (They’re perfect for sparking some communal puzzling!)

And, most of all, simply enjoy a game with friends and loved ones. Happy International TableTop Day everyone!

5 Questions with Andrew Hackard of Munchkin

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

We’re reaching out to puzzle constructors, video game writers and designers, board game creators, writers, filmmakers, musicians, 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 Andrew Hackard as our latest 5 Questions interviewee!

(Andrew oversees a session of Munchkin for a younger group of puzzlers at Gen Con. Intended for adults, Munchkin can also be a great intro to both card games and roleplaying for younger gamers.)

Munchkin is a hilarious send-up of the classic roleplaying scenario: the dungeon romp. Encouraging players to team up to battle monsters (and betray each other as often as possible for the sake of treasure), it’s a marvelous mix of puzzly strategy and luck. With numerous expansions covering everything from pop culture to the apocalypse, Munchkin has become one of the standard-bearers for the modern board game and card game industries.

And when it comes to all things Munchkin, Andrew Hackard is your go-to guy. As the Munchkin Czar for Steve Jackson Games, he oversees the brand as a whole — at this point, he’s practically synonymous with Munchkin — and helps to offer a unified vision of the franchise while guiding it into new, unexpected territory.

Andrew 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 Andrew Hackard

1.) Everyone hopes for a great job title, something that’ll look sharp and impressive on a business card. Your title is Munchkin Czar. Can you tell us what that entails? Also, why “czar” and not something like “wrangler” or “overlord” or “almighty omnipotent entity and big cheese”?

It’s a little daunting to realize that out of seven billion people, I am the only one to have this job title. (If that’s not true, please don’t tell me.) It certainly does get me into some interesting conversations when I hand out my business card!

When Steve and Phil rehired me, back in 2009, Steve’s first thought for a title was “Brand Manager” — in fact, I have some cards with that title that I give to people who regularly wear neckties and sport coats. But Steve quickly decided that he didn’t know what a Brand Manager did, and he knew what he wanted ME to do — oversee all the day-to-day mundane operations of the Munchkin line, so that his time was freed up to write games rather than tracking sales figures and planning reprints and fussing with spreadsheets. For whatever reason, “Czar” was the title we came up with. It has the advantage of being both impressive and vague!

Over the past five years (!!!), my job has evolved considerably, and now I’m doing quite a bit of Munchkin design work myself, enough that we’ve started talking about maybe hiring *me* a Brand Manager to track sales figures and fuss with spreadsheets!

(Just a few of the Munchkin game sets and expansions that have been released.)

2.) How do you decide what the next theme or expansion will be for Munchkin? Are there any favorite cards or additions that really sold you on a given idea? Is there anything that, as a board/card game fan yourself, you loved bringing to the Munchkin universe?

We’ve published six new base Munchkin games since I started, and every one of them was different. (The next one, Munchkin Adventure Time, will be the most different of all, because we *aren’t* publishing it; our pals at USAopoly are doing the heavy lifting of design and development, and they’re knocking it out of the park!) Munchkin Zombies came about because we were trying to figure out what we hadn’t done yet, and all of us simultaneously said, “ZOMBIES!”

Munchkin Apocalypse grew out of a desire to commemorate (i.e., mock) the 2012 hysteria. Munchkin Legends was a set lots of our fans had suggested, and it worked well as a new fantasy set when we needed one. Our licensed sets (Axe Cop, Conan, Pathfinder) have all been targets of opportunity, and every one has been both a challenge and a blast to work on — all for different reasons.

So far, I think the most fun I’ve had designing a Munchkin set was Munchkin Apocalypse, because the Seal mechanic was completely new and a real design challenge. The first version we tried was way too hard — playtesters almost universally said it felt like they were fighting the game, not the monsters (and not the other players).

After a couple of disheartening playtest sessions, we went back and completely retooled the set, and ultimately came up with a game that I’m extremely proud of. I would be remiss not to give John Kovalic a shout-out for his outstanding art on Apocalypse, and of course on so many other Munchkin sets over the years. (Look at the Pathfinder cover!)

(The Pathfinder cover, along with the Munchkin version. Look at it!)

3.) You’ve also had a hand in guiding GURPS — short for Generic Universal RolePlaying System — as well as developing the most recent addition of Ogre. All of these projects involve longstanding legacies and expansive rule sets that must be quite a puzzle to work with. How do you mix and match the needs of the player with the high expectations involved?

To correct a minor misconception, my involvement with Ogre was more as a Kickstarter consultant than an Ogre developer — and there are times I wish I’d been a much louder consultant. (But wow, it’s an amazing achievement in game design and production!) Other than that, all I did for Ogre was keep the Munchkin train on the tracks so we could afford to print the sucker.

With GURPS, I was fantastically lucky to work with the best RPG line editor in the business, Sean “Dr. Kromm” Punch. Kromm took care of all the rules issues and made sure that the manuscripts were consistent with the rules that had gone before. That freed me up to worry about issues of text quality, book production, and of course scheduling.

I’m really proud of the work that Kromm and his team did on GURPS, especially on the Fourth Edition launch — editing the entire Basic Set was six months of hard work, but having him there to consult made it go so much easier.

It’s no exaggeration to say that my work on GURPS Fourth Edition was invaluable when I undertook to revise the rules and cards over the entire Munchkin line in late 2009 and 2010. We had decided to upgrade the visuals on the core Munchkin game, to use full-color art instead of the shades of brown that it used to be, and as long as we were going to be changing the set that much, we decided we could afford to sand down a few other rough spots.

It turned out to be quite a bit more of an undertaking that we had originally planned, but the result was a more consistent set of rules (on six pages instead of four, so old, tired eyes like mine could read them!), and the removal of a few design choices that were fine as one-off jokes in 2001 when Munchkin was a stand-alone game, but had started to become VERY frequently asked questions in 2009 when there were nine Munchkin core games and a dozen expansion sets. We thought about calling this a new edition, but it really wasn’t — it was just a refinishing job on the existing game. Ultimately, we compromised and updated the rule version number to 1.5 (with a tip of the hat to D&D in the process).

A lot of the updates we made in ’09 have helped shape the new sets — I think Steve and I both have a clearer understanding of the “Munchkin engine” than we did before that process started. The sets starting with Munchkin Zombies have been a lot more internally consistent, I think, because now we know when a rule doesn’t “feel like Munchkin.” Which is not to say that the earlier sets were bad — far from it! — just that the work of looking at every single card taught us a lot about the game. I certainly hope Steve would agree!

4.) What’s next for Andrew Hackard?

At the time of writing this, we’ve just sent Munchkin Apocalypse 2 to print (it’ll be out in the spring of 2014) and I’ve finished writing a couple of expansion sets for later next year. We have several booster packs planned for 2014, and a few surprises, too! Our biggest news, though, is that Steve, Phil, Ross Jepson (our Director of Sales), and I sat down for an all-day meeting in Dallas during BoardGameGeek Con, and we not only planned out the entire 2014-2015 schedule, we even started putting some things on the board for 2016!

I wish I could tell you about all the Munchkiny goodness coming down the pike, but I have been sworn to secrecy. Suffice it to say that I think our fans will be very pleased indeed, both with the new games coming out and the new support for some classics that haven’t seen a lot of love lately. As long as we don’t start competing with ourselves, we’ll be fine.

I’m also working on a couple of *new* goodies in the Munchkin sphere, one planned for late 2014 and one for 2015, and I’m really looking forward to being able to talk more about them as their release time draws closer. Right before our holiday break, I got the go-ahead to dust off something *non*-Munchkin that I’d been working on awhile back, so I’ll get a chance to stretch my skills in a whole new direction as well.

I expect 2014 to be an amazing year for me, personally, as well as for fans of Munchkin and of Steve Jackson Games in general.

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

Wil Wheaton talks about being an advocate for what you love, not a detractor for what you hate, and I think that’s very important. Gaming is a huge field and getting bigger all the time, and life’s too short to get into arguments about taste.

Have fun playing what you like, be a positive spokesman when someone expresses interest in what you’re playing, and try new games when you get the chance, because you never know when you’ll find your next favorite game — or when you’ll teach someone THEIR favorite new game.

For the aspiring designers out there, my best advice is simple: play games. Play LOTS of games. Take notes on the rules you like and the rules you don’t, and think really hard about why those rules were designed the way they were. (Don’t be surprised when the answer is, “It seemed like a good idea at the time.” That’s how Munchkin started!) If you’ve never studied technical writing, consider taking an introductory class at your local community college, because rule writing IS technical writing. If you confuse the players, they won’t play your game.

Go to conventions, if you can afford it; you’ll never get a better chance to show your game prototype to people who are eager to see the next hot new thing, and you may get a chance to meet and schmooze your favorite game designers, if you’re polite and well-groomed and willing to buy the first round.

(Seriously, the game industry is more welcoming than many others — we all started out as gamers ourselves, after all, and the list of fan-to-pro success stories is half a century long and growing every year.)

Ultimately, that’s what it’s all about — having a good time with your friends. Keep that in mind, and you’ll be far ahead of the game.

Many thanks to Andrew for his time. Check out all things Munchkin on the Steve Jackson Games website, and be sure to follow Andrew on Twitter (@redpenofdoom)! As a fan, I cannot wait to see what he and the Munchkin team come up with next.

Thanks for visiting the PuzzleNation blog today! You can like us on Facebookfollow us on Twitter, cruise our boards on Pinterest, check out our Tumblr, download our puzzle apps and iBooks, play our games at PuzzleNation.com, or contact us here at the blog!

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!