Saturday, August 27, 2016


Unplugged Dilintia -- Brain Fitness: Solitaire Chess

A few years back, Think Fun started making apps based on their tabletop puzzle games, and the first one I bought was Solitaire Chess.  It's a bit like peg solitaire with chess pieces; you control all of the pieces, every move must be a capture, and you win if you're left with one piece on the board.  It was this perfect little mobile time-filler, and I liked it so much that I thought it would be fun to have the physical version.  After all, I like chess sets, and there's something nice about moving physical pieces around.

Unfortunately, the physical version of this game was... inelegant.  The puzzle layouts are printed on board-sized mats.  You're meant to stack them together so that the puzzle you're working on is on the top, and then slide the entire deck into a plastic gameboard construct and lock them in place with a small plastic piece.  This gave you the rather nice effect that you were playing on a gameboard with the puzzle layout printed on it.  The problem was, the stack of cards fit into the gameboard too tightly, and the plastic locking piece was a bit of a hassle to remove and replace every time you wanted to access it, and it turned moving from one puzzle to the next into this tedious rigamarole.  Alternately, the gameboard was designed so that you could lay the puzzle layouts on top of the board and just play with them that way, but I didn't like that solution.  The board was designed with little divots that the pieces could fit into, and laying the card on top made them inaccessible; it didn't feel like it was the way the game was "meant" to be played.  And no matter what you do, there doesn't seem to be any place in the entire assembly to house the instruction booklet.

Yes, I know this is nit-picky, but I'm a nerd, dammit.  These things are important to me.

So Think Fun have been re-releasing some of their puzzles under the "Brain Fitness" label.  They're the same games, but re-branded to appeal to more of an adult market with a less toy-like aesthetic that wouldn't look out of place on an executive's desk or something.  Solitaire Chess seemed like a natural candidate for this treatment -- Chess has always carried an air of sophistication with it -- and so here we are.

The Brain Fitness edition of Solitaire Chess throws the gameboard out completely.  All of the puzzles are printed in a spiral-bound book, and you simply turn to the puzzle you want to play, set the pieces on top of it, and play right off the book.  The entire affair comes in a nice sturdy cardboard box with a plastic mold that holds all of the pieces very comfortably.  Also, this version has 80 puzzles compared to the original's 60, so that's a bonus.

It's a shame that the original version was so awkward to use.  I can't help thinking that the best design for this game would be to have a single, static gameboard with challenge cards to describe the different puzzle configurations, like the majority of Think Fun's puzzles have.  As it is, the Brain Fitness version is slightly disappointing for not having a proper gameboard to play on, but is otherwise the quicker and more elegant way to play the game.  I might end up making my own gameboard to go with it, and I like craft projects, so that's a plus.

So yes.  Get the Brain Fitness version.  It's good.


Friday, August 19, 2016


Unplugged Dilintia -- Clue Master

Several years ago, Thinkfun published a game called Grid Works.  It's a logical deduction game where you have to place nine pieces -- three each of crosses, circles, and triangles, in blue, green or yellow, for a total of nine unique pieces -- on a 3x3 grid according to pictorial rules -- certain patterns either MUST appear or CANNOT appear in the finished configuration.

And it was pretty decent.

Then Chocolate Fix came out, and I'm afraid I was a little put off by how similar it was in concept to Grid Works.  I skipped it, thinking it was just a reskinned game.  But when Thinkfun started making apps, I thought what the heck and downloaded the game.  I was pleasantly surprised to see that, although the basic game was quite similar, the puzzles were designed to require slightly different tactics.  Where a lot of the solving in Grid Works comes from simply spotting patterns in the rules and building from them, Chocolate Fix has much more to do with setting up known patterns on the board and building on them -- to this end, the game comes with several temporary markers to help you visualize your solution.

So when I saw Clue Master on the shelf, I was open to it.  Hey, if they made Chocolate Fix so much different from Grid Works, maybe this new game will have its own little spin on things.

Guess what, it's just Grid Works.

I mean, I sat down and put the two games side by side and... although Clue Master has a decent share of new puzzles, a number of them are just 1:1 copies of the older puzzles.  So if you already have Grid Works, it's hard to give this new game a very strong recommendation.

However, I do think I like Clue Master better for a couple reasons.

For one, it's been reskinned with an 8-bit aesthetic that makes it a close match to Code Master.  Grid Works came out at a time when Thinkfun seemed to be moving away from the cartoony themes of games like Rush Hour and Stormy Seas and toward more abstract visuals like Tilt and Turnstile. It's nice to see Grid Works getting sort of a second chance now that Thinkfun is coming back to games with stronger personality and theming.

And the package as a whole is slightly nicer.  All of the solutions are arranged in one handy page at the back of the book, making it easier to check your answer (and this is the kind of game where checking your answer at the end is important).  The pieces are also nicer -- more solid compared to the spongey pieces in Grid Works.

And hey, Grid Works has been out of print for years.  If you missed out on it the first time, you might want to take a look at Clue Master now.  If you liked Chocolate Fix, you might find this take on the idea interesting.  And even if you already have Grid Works, maybe the couple of new puzzles and the flashier package will be worth it to you.


Tuesday, August 02, 2016


Unplugged Dilintia -- The Oregon Trail Card Game

There's something about The Oregon Trail, right?  It's this completely unfair little simulation game from the 80s that never taught you much besides how to shoot deer and die of dysentery.  Revisiting it as an adult, it doesn't feel like much of a game.  You have very few important decisions to make, and it's hard to feel what their impact is.  You have to learn by trial and error, and even then, it seems like your party members die for completely arbitrary and unavoidable reasons.

But that's kind of the point, isn't it?  The game was designed to teach players about the Oregon Trail, and it supposedly based its probabilities and consequences on real-world data.  Maybe it didn't teach any rote facts to impressionable young minds, but it sure as hell gave you a hands-on taste of just how difficult it was to try and cross North America in the 19th century.  I've always been sort of a pansy, tree-hugging, Bambi-loving wuss, but when you sat me in front of a keyboard and gave me a visceral demonstration of how hunting your own food meant life or death on the trail, I started gunning down deer with the best of them.  It might be one of the earliest examples of "video game as documentary".

And now, some forty-five years after the original college-exclusive HP 2100 minicomputer version, Pressman Toys has decided to pick up the license to create a card game, because why not?  Nostalgia runs deep.

Don't expect a lot of deep simulation or book-keeping.  This game is very fast-moving and lightweight, perfect for a casual family game or chilling with your tabletop friends.  I can't account for the authenticity of its probability data -- I expect it's close to nothing -- but it certainly manages to recreate the feeling of playing the computer game.  Instead of trying to correct the original game's difficulty, the card game unapologetically embraces it, even littering its promotional materials with gallows humor about the likelihood of death.

The game is played cooperatively.  Every player is dealt Trail and Supply cards.  On your turn, you can play a Trail card to advance down the trail.  A few cards are Towns and Forts where you can resupply, a few more are simple clear trail, but the majority of the cards challenge you to ford a river by rolling a die or to draw a Calamity card.  Calamities are all of the nasty events you remember from the game -- sickness, cold, dead oxen, and so on.  When a Calamity is put into play, you either deal with its consequences immediately, or you get a limited amount of turns to play a Supply card to remedy it before it results in the death of a player or worse.  If the team plays enough Trail cards before everyone dies, then everyone -- dead players included -- wins.

As a charming little touch, the game comes with a dry erase pen and a whiteboard designed to resemble the character name entry screen from the computer game.  When a player dies, you can erase their name from the list and turn the card over to reveal six tombstones designed to resemble the ones in the computer game's death screen.  You can write the player's name and a little epitaph before moving on.  This isn't a strictly functional gameplay element, but it's a nice little touch to remind players of the original source material.

It can take a few tries at the game to get a feel for how to play well.  Certain supplies are more valuable than others, and sometimes it's better to let a Calamity run its course than to waste the limited resources to try and fix it.  Even then, the game is kind of a screwjob, especially for smaller parties.  A two-player team gets only 10 supplies to split at the beginning of the game, and the party can only suffer two deaths before they're defeated, and yet the rules say they have to try and cover the same distance as a five-player team with 20 supplies and a much greater buffer for untimely deaths.  With the number of Calamities that result in instant, unavoidable death, it's possible for a small team to be dealt an unwinnable hand.

But that can be fun if it's the kind of experience you're looking for.  And while it, being a card game, can be modified to meet your particular tastes with regard to difficulty, it can be satisfying to play the game on its own terms and eventually, one day, hit that one magical run where everything finally comes off and ends with your wagon rolling into Willamette Valley.

Solitaire Rules

Being a cooperative game, it's relatively easy to come up with a solitaire variation.  Here's my take on it.

All in all, I'd have to say I'm pleasantly surprised with this game.  Licensed tabletop games are sort of hit or miss, but this game does a good job of bringing the Oregon Trail experience to your tabletop without bogging it down with a lot of rules and moving parts.  It feels a good deal more random than some of the really good, deep European tabletop games that have become so popular these days, but if you have any kind of nostalgic connection to the computer game, you'll probably find this is a good bit of fun.


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