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Top Puzzle Games

Isle of Cats Late Arrivals

In my last blog, I listed my favourite Bluffing Games. In this blog, I tackle puzzle games. Although I probably have over 300 puzzles in my house, I don’t consider myself a collector of puzzles. I am really more a designer of puzzles, and I have thousands of designs for these stored on my hard drive. I made a puzzle game for Zatu and I would be more than happy to share it.

Best Polyomino Puzzle Game: The Isle Of Cats

If this kind of puzzle solving appeals to you, then you’ll love my first choice – The Isle of Cats. In this game, you’re packing cats (polyominos) into your boat and you will receive points for how those cats are placed (whether you manage to keep the families together), whether you studied your ancient lessons (which give you hidden victory points), etc. There a quite a few rules, but they aren’t difficult; you should be up and playing in about 20 minutes. You then play five rounds (each with five phases). With this game, there is a great feeling of satisfaction when you finish your packing and sit back to admire how well you did.

I love the drafting, the set collection and the hidden victory points that this game adds to the traditional grid coverage of the puzzle. It also has great table presence, and the cats on the polyominoes and the cat meeples are so cute! It has a decent solo mode, and a family mode (which eliminates most of the card drafting and makes the game more accessible). The base game plays up to 4, but if you get the Late Arrivals expansion, you can play up to six. The base game has more than enough replayability for me, but there are now a total of five expansions for the game, and if you know you’re going to like this game, you should really consider getting the Big Box.

At the same time that Frank West kickstarted the Big Box edition, he also released The Isle of Cats: Explore & Draw. It’s half the price of the base game, plays 1-6 straight out of the box and gives you the same experience as The Isle of Cats in about half the time. The game has been in retail shops for just under a year, and I’m surprised that this game hasn’t received more buzz and more love. As you can tell from the title, you look at the shapes on cards and draw them on your boat, as opposed to taking physical tiles and placing them on your boat. I love this game, but I do prefer the original. In the base game, you can get cards that allow you to move your previously placed pieces, but in this flip and draw version, if you make a mistake in your first placement, you are effectively out of the game. However, Explore & Draw is a much more portable game (the box easily fits in my backpack) and it’s very quick game to teach and set up.

If you’re not a cat lover, or prefer the circus theme, I highly recommend The Grand Carnival. It’s a very easy to learn polyomino game that plays in just over 45 minutes. If you prefer a space theme, then look no further than Planet Unknown. An honorable mention should also go to Cartographers: A Roll Player Tale. It’s a much lighter, and quicker polyomino game but because you have to draw in your tiles, you are always waiting for the slowest player to decide where to place their tile, and then for them to actually draw it in before you can turn over the next polyomino card. This potential for analysis paralysis (AP) is a common feature of puzzle games, so choose your players wisely.

Best Puzzle Game: Castles Of Mad King Ludwig

For me, any of the good puzzle games needs to include hidden victory points. You aren’t just trying to put pieces in a grid, you are trying to place them so that they maximize the victory points that you score, and those points vary from player to player.

Castles of Mad King Ludwig is a tile laying game, and it’s easier to get into than Isle of Cats. In each round, you are going to buy a room (tile) and add it to your castle. Each of these rooms has at least one entrance, but you don’t have to use them all. That is, you can block one of the entrances with a wall; your castle just needs one entrance, and you need to make sure that every room is accessible. There are many different types of rooms, and when the game is over it’s a great talking point to compare the different castles that everyone has created. Although the box says it plays 1-4, I think this game only shines when you play 3-4.

The reason that Castles plays best with more players is the existence of the Master Builder. At the start of the game, the Master Builder (the first player) places the different rooms along the bottom of the board and in so doing, assigns them a price. After he’s done that, the other players can buy any of those rooms, or the players can instead choose to buy a hallway or stairway elsewhere, or they could simply pass and receive a cash lump sum. The placement of those pieces by the Master Builder is very important because if a player decides to buy one of those rooms, the Master Builder receives the money that is paid by the player. After all the other players have gone, the Master Builder can buy any of the remaining rooms (with his payment going to the bank). Any rooms that are not sold get money added to them, and the role of Master Builder rotates to the next player for the next round. With more players, there is greater financial advantage to being Master Builder. So the Master Builder has some touch decisions to make. Where should I place the tile that I want? Make it expensive so that no one will buy it (but then I’ll have to pay a lot for it) or make it cheap and risk that someone else buys it. When the end game condition is triggered, you start the scoring round and awarding points for the various rooms you have.

This game has been reimplemented three times – once as Between Two Castles of Mad King Ludwig (which combine Castles of Mad King Ludwig with Between Two Cities to create a game that plays up to 7 and has you building one castle with the player on your left and another castle with the player on your right), once as the Palace of Mad King Ludwig (getting rid of the Master Builder role and replacing it with a moat that slowly surrounds the castle and triggers the end of the game), and once as Blueprints of Mad King Ludwig (which turns the game into a flip and sketch). This latest reimplementation is currently in Kickstarter and won’t be out until sometime next year.

But I still prefer the original game, and so do many others. In fact, last year Bézier Games released a fancy Big Box version of the game that they called the Collector’s Edition. It had new art work, new expansions, miniatures, GameTrayz™ and much more. Absolutely gorgeous! They raised over $1.5 million on that Kickstarter campaign. They later kickstarted a second edition of Castles (with a new Renovations expansion), but you could only buy the base game with all the expansions (which came as a separate box) so that made getting the game a double box monster. The game looks great with the two boxes designed to be placed vertically side by side, but who has that much spare display space?! Nonetheless, the second edition of the base game should be hitting the retail shops any day now, and if the game appeals to you, I highly recommend that you buy the base game. I haven’t seen any advertisements for the expansion box, so you’ll have to wait for that one.

Unfortunately, Castles is a bit of a pig to set up and take down. In Isle of Cats all the polyomino pieces simply go into a bag, so set up and take down is easy. In Castles, you have to stack all the similar shaped pieces on the board at the start of the game, but as the (original) box doesn’t have any inserts, the pieces just flopped around in the box and you had to sort them all out. Ugh! You could solve this by just having little bags for all the similar pieces, but when the game is over, you still have to sort them all out the pieces to put them in the appropriate bags. Ugh!

Best Party Puzzle Game: Picture Perfect

OK, this category is a bit of a cheat. I thought of calling it the best puzzle game involving pictures (the only other one that comes to mind is MicroMacro: Crime City) but this game has such a unique table presence that it deserves an award. The goal of the game is to take a picture of a bunch of guests at a party around a table. Each player begins with a player screen (this will be the background of the picture, as well as shielding your arrangement from the other players), a 3D table and 14 standees. The game plays between 2 and 4 players (a 5-6 player expansion is also available), and takes between 50 and 90 minutes.

There are fourteen envelopes (each one corresponding to a standee) and they each contain three cards that detail the standee’s desires (e.g., where they want to stand, who they want to stand next to, who they don’t want to stand next to, etc). This is one annoying feature of the game. Because these desires are randomly shuffled and inserted into the envelopes, it’s quite possible to end up with an envelope that contains impossible requests such as “I want to stand away from the table” and “I want to stand at the table”. It would have been so easy to number each objective card and then create a list of 14 sets of three numbers so that when you put those 3 cards in each envelope, you know that all the goals are possible. But by not worrying about that, the designers have created a game that resets very quickly. You just shuffle all the cards and put three in each envelope. Nonetheless, some cards do contain an alternative text to use if a conflict arises.

Depending on the player count, a player will receive between 3 and 5 envelopes. Any extra envelopes go into a common pool at the centre of the table. At the start of the round, you look at the contents of your envelopes one by one (to ensure that you don’t accidentally transfer cards from one envelope to another), and (re)arrange your standees. You then reveal an event card that explains how the envelopes are to be exchanged. You might have to exchange envelopes with the person on your left, the centre of the table, etc. Unfortunately, these event cards can be another source of annoyance. More specifically, one event card will say pass an envelope to the left, and the very next one that’s turned over says pass one envelope to the right. Isn’t it obvious to pass the envelope that you received in the previous round back to the player?! This ensures that he gains no extra information, but as everyone is thinking the same way, no one gains information and the round is a waste of time.

After six rounds, each player takes a picture of their setup and the scoring round begins. One by one players take turns revealing the contents of their envelopes and players score points according to how many of those conditions have been met. If you met none of the conditions in an envelope, you get -3 (meaning that -42 is the worst possible score), and if you meet all of the conditions you get +6 (meaning that 84 is the best possible score). But this is not a game of complete information. That is, you’re not going to see the contents of all the envelopes, so you have to guess where to place the other guests whose envelopes you have not seen. Moreover, because the requests can be inconsistent, it may be impossible achieve a perfect score. In fact, because there are only so few spaces in which to place the standees, I would suspicious of anyone who claimed to have a 80+ score. Nonetheless, Picture Perfect deserves its award, and I look forward to the improvements that will come in future editions.

Best Dice Puzzle Game: Noctiluca

I’m not the first person to tackle the subject of the top puzzle games for Zatu. Back in September 2020, Hannah Blacknell compiled a list. The top 5 games were Sagrada, Azul, Planet, Nmbr 9 and Blue Lagoon. All of the puzzle games that I have highlighted so far are all long games – all of them will take more than an hour. However, you may not want to spend that much time on a puzzle game, so you’ll be glad to know that all of these games will take less than 45 minutes to play. Sagrada is by far my favourite of these games. The dice are like jewels and the theme of making stained glass windows really works. But you have to keep in mind that dice are instruments of randomness, so when you are playing Sagrada there is a huge amount of luck involved. It’s the thrill of rolling the number that you needed (or picking the colour that you needed) that makes this game exciting. Yes, there is puzzle aspect in deciding where to place the die, but most of the times, those actions are automatic. Nonetheless, I will never turn down a game of Sagrada! I should also point out that there is a 5-6 player expansion for Sagrada (although it plays best at 2-3), as well as a series of expansions. The three expansions are called Passion, Life and Glory, and they each add more dice and scoring cards, without increasing the complexity. And a legacy version of Sagrada (Sagrada Artisans) is coming to Kickstarter in September.

However, my vote for best puzzle games with dice goes to Noctiluca. It plays in about a half hour, and although the box says it plays 1-4, the reality is that this is a 2 or 3 player game. You have 104 dice (similar to those in Sagrada) and a board with hexagons on it. To start the game you seed the board by placing dice in each of the hexagons (four in the inner ring, and five in the outer ring). You are also dealt a set of goal cards (jars). On your turn, you pick a row on the board and name a number. You then get all the dice in that row with that number. Now you use all the dice you have just collected to fill the jars. The jars have squares with various colours on them (eg, two blues and a green), and you have to place a die of a matching colour on them (the number doesn’t matter). Once you have filled the jars, you put them aside for scoring later. The nice twist is that if you can’t use all of the dice you collected, the remaining dice are passed to the rest of the players for them to use. So the game is more thinky than just looking to see which row has the most dice with the same number. Admittedly, this game doesn’t have much depth or the replayability of the other games that I have mentioned, but if I want something light and easy to teach, and I want to chuck some dice, this is the best puzzle game out there.

Best Quilting Puzzle Games: Patchwork & Calico

This category was too close to call. I was originally going to give the award to Calico, but then the cat on the box cover looks like my ginger cat (and I had already put Isle of Cats on the list), so I thought that if I did, I might be accused of having a cat lover’s bias. So, I split the award between two games.

Calico is tiling game using hexagons. Each player begins with a board with 25 hexagonal spaces, two hexagons and a set of three goals (which are hexagons placed on your board before the game begins). On your turn, you place one of your hexagons on your board, add one of the three hexagons in the communal pool to your hand, and then reach into a bag to draw a hexagon and add it to the communal pool (bringing the total back to three hexagons). That’s it! As you go along, you will be scoring points for matching colours (which will give you buttons), matching patterns (which will give you cats) and matching your goals (which will give you points). To help you out, the edges of the board have pre-printed patches which you can count when you are putting together matches. After 22 rounds, you add up all the points. That sounds like a lot of rounds, but this game really zips by and with two players, you should be finished within a half hour. The game says it plays 1 – 4, but it really is best with two.

Patchwork was designed by Uwe Rosenberg. That name may not mean much to you, but he has designed loads of puzzle games. A Feast for Odin is fantastic game which features polyomino placement, but that game is such a beast (it has a 24 page rulebook) that I couldn’t include it as a best puzzle game. However, he has also created really simple puzzle games like Nova Luna, New York Zoo, Cottage Garden, Indian Summer, and Spring Meadow. Patchwork is the oldest of these games (being released in 2014), and there are many versions of the game. You have the Christmas edition, the Valentine's Day edition, and the Halloween edition. It’s the same game, but the colours and patterns have been changed to make the game more seasonal. And if playing on a 9x9 board seems too complex for you, there’s Patchwork Express which uses a 7x7 board and less complex pieces. And if you don’t like the quilting theme, Patchwork Express has been rethemed to packing your stuff in a moving van in Stack’n Stuff: A Patchwork Game.

But let’s take a step back. Patchwork is a strictly two player game. Each player begins with a 9x9 puzzle games board and 5 buttons (which act as the currency). At the centre of the table, the 33 double sided polyomino pieces (patches) have been randomly arranged in a circle, and a pawn has been placed by the smallest piece (a 1x2). In the centre of the circle, there is a time track. On your turn, you can buy any one of the three patches after the pawn (in clockwise order) and place it on your board. Each patch is marked with two numbers – its price and its time. If you bought a piece that had 2 time, you would move 2 spaces on the time track.

This is where Uwe shows off his genius. Suppose that the game has been going on for a while and the other player is 5 time spaces ahead of you. On your turn, you decide to buy a patch for 2 buttons and move 3 time spaces. As you are still trailing, you get to go again! You move the pawn to where you just took a patch, and you can now buy any one of the next three patches. You place that patch on your board, and move your marker on the time track. Let’s say you moved your marker 2 times spaces (so you’re on top of the other player’s marker). You still get to go again! In other words, you keep going until you’re in the lead, and then it’s the other (trailing) player’s turn. This is such a great catch up mechanism.

There are a few more scoring rules – 7 buttons to the first player to make a 7x7 square, buttons for every button on your board every time you pass a button on the time track, etc – but you get the general idea. Patchwork has a lot more depth than Calico, but Calico looks so much better on the table. Patchwork also loses points because it is a strict two player game (and I don’t usually get to play many of those). Patchwork Doodle turns the game into a roll and write, and extends the game to 6 players, but I’m not a big fan of roll and writes. Nonetheless, if you forced me to choose a roll and write puzzle game (a category I intentionally avoided), I’d have to go with Cartographers (which I mentioned earlier).

We hope you enjoyed this list of top puzzle games!

Roll those dice baby!