I recently had the chance to do some puzzle testing for Tanya Thompson at ThinkFun. If you're not familiar with ThinkFun, they're an awesome company that is responsible for bringing a lot of interesting puzzles to the masses. They're probably most well known for Rush Hour, but they have a large product line of other great puzzles as well, many of which have won numerous awards.
One of the products I tested was the 2011 refresh of River Crossing. It has a completely new set of 40 challenges, so they had some testers going through them to make sure they were classified appropriately and to see what we thought. In other ThinkFun news, they are also releasing 2011 refreshes of Rush Hour, Tip Over, and Chocolate Fix! Each will have all new challenges, so that should be plenty to keep you busy for a while.
River Crossing, and I was quite interested to see how it stacked up against the refresh.
In River Crossing, the objective is to get the Hiker from one side of the river to the other. There are stumps that are arranged throughout the river and planks that connect the stumps. The Hiker can pick up planks and put them down, but they must fit exactly between the two stumps (the planks are 1, 2, and 3 units long). The only catch is that he can only move planks that he can walk to: no hopping between the stumps. A bit confusing to explain, but it is quite intuitive: you can even try out a few challenges on the ThinkFun website. The puzzle concept was designed by Andrea Gilbert (check out more puzzles on clickmazes.com) and the physical version was created by Bill Mitchell. Graham Rogers and Serhiy Grabarchuk also contributed.
To make it easier to play, the planks have magnets in them, and so does the hiker. This lets you use the hiker to pick up the planks, which was pretty handy. It also keeps him from falling off while you're thinking. Tanya mentioned that the refresh wouldn't have magnets, so I'll be interested how it compares.
The puzzle comes with a plastic base with a bunch of holes in it, and the challenge cards are large enough to fit over the base. There are holes in the challenge card where the stumps are supposed to be inserted. The starting location for the planks is indicated by a shadow, though the shade of the shadow isn't much different from the shade of the water, so on several occasions I forgot to insert a plank.
It can take 30 seconds or so to switch challenges because you need to pull out the stumps, switch the card, and then put the stumps in. This isn't too bad, but for the easier ones you might spend as long setting the puzzle up as you do solving it.
Since I did the testing of the refresh the online version of the puzzle, I was quite interested to see how the physical version worked. In all, I think they did a really good job of it: the pieces fit snugly and it is easy to pick up the planks with the magnetic hiker. It takes a bit of getting used to, but is quite efficient once you do a few challenges. The hiker's bold hands-on-hips stance is quite fitting and cute graphics on the challenge cards are also nice.
The challenges are very well classified into different difficulty levels. I thought that they did a particularly good job in the first few Beginner challenges. Each one teaches you a little bit more, so you're sure that you understand the rules. The difficulty gradually ramps up as the complexity increases and you need to add more tricks to your repertoire.
I think that since I had already gone through the 40 challenges in the refresh, I found the original version to be a bit easier than I would have otherwise. I think I got through the whole thing in about 2 hours, and it probably would have taken me another hour or two if I didn't have some practice on this type of puzzle first. Still, I think these puzzles are slightly easier than the ones in the 2011 refresh: the refresh had a few that stumped me for 20+ minutes, which is a good thing as far as I'm concerned.
This puzzle was good at demonstrating how thinking backwards from the solution can help you solve a sequential problem. Sometimes it isn't obvious how to start out, but you can see how the end must go and work your way backwards. Even with this tactic, the advanced challenges can be pretty tricky!
I enjoyed it so much that I purchased River Crossing 2. I'll write a separate review of that later, since I'm still working on it. It is more difficult and adds two new types of challenges that are quite interesting as well.
Overall, River Crossing is a very cool puzzle and quite reasonably priced. Definitely check it out if you're into this type of puzzles!
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