Review of Gridlock — Rubik’s gains a lot by dropping a dimension.

I buy Rubik’s cubes at the supermarket out of guilt. The brain’s a muscle and I don’t always nourish it properly. When I’m in the middle of something especially stupefying, I need to make promises to my psyche so it doesn’t do anything drastic.

“Mistah,” it asks in the tinny register of a Dickensian waif, “we been watchin’ Sistah Wives for the past ‘our. Can we gets somethin’ wiv maths in it?”

“Fine, but no addition of sums over five digits, and don’t try to trick me into long division,”  I say. “Remember the Arkwright incident?”

So I buy Rubik’s cubes. At first, they seem like a great way to hush that voice. Portable, easy to set up, easy to store, and more variety than I could possibly exhaust. Five minutes to learn and a lifetime to master, I think to myself as I add the 38th cube to my collection.

Not in this lifetime, I conclude after an hour wasted on it.

The depth of a Rubik’s serves as both its strength and its weakness. Perhaps the devoted cubehead has a more sophisticated methodology, but the average puzzler focuses on solving one side at a time. Once a side nears completion, you then struggle to preserve that side while shifting your attention to a new side. You can often approach a solution and then fall short by a square or two. Eventually, you’ll realize that your prior “solutions” are actually impeding new ones: you retrace your steps and dismantle your painstaking progress so you can open up the rest of the puzzle.

In theory, that sounds like an appealing bit of detective work. The process has a recursive, almost zen-like flow to it.

In practice, your monkey brain will lose its cool and brute force everything. The three-dimensionality of that cube means you often get lost while searching for your logical error. One misaligned square may require three moves to solve or thirty. That’s the ambiguity which transforms a brain teaser into, well, work.

Mapping that process to a 2D surface, it turns out, provides a clearer sense of progress without losing that zen center. Gridlock may not have the infinite mystery of the Cube of Rubik, but it’s a better teacher; it conveys its challenges more clearly.

You prepare the puzzle by using three white tiles and a blueprint. Ordered by difficulty level (1-88), the blueprints set the initial location of a white one-by-one, one-by-two, and one-by-three. Your task is now to fill in the black space with the rest of the colored tiles until you make a perfect square.

This isn’t as easy as it first sounds. Humans have a knack for guesstimation and contemplating whether or not a sofa will fit in a van, but we tend to shave off or add a few cubic feet in the process. We reckon and skirt by on “good enough.” Here, one combination alone will work.

Gridlock‘s generous and furnishes you with a few assumptions. Only the green tiles, for instance, have a width of one square. The moment you spot a one-by-one space and don’t have a green tile free, you need to rewind. Similarly, one-by-one spaces in the initial setup give you a solid first step because they demand that green tile, although you can still bundle the tile’s rotation or specific placement. Looping back to an old train of thought, achieving that moment of zen, becomes easier. You can spot and reverse bad decisions before frustration mounts.

If you’re drawn to crosswords, “teasers” like Dual Brain for the Nintendo Switch, and blacksmith’s puzzles, Gridlock will rate with the best or improve on their example.

Production-wise, Gridlock’s well-made and thoughtfully put together. It comes in a clamshell case, a compartment beneath the black grid holds the cards beautifully and organizes them by difficulty — green, blue, red, and orange. A diagram inlaid on the underside of the lid gives you a handy map for storing the tiles. Gridlock can fit in a purse or a trouser pocket.

Still, it would be remiss of me to avoid mentioning a few issues. I gave it to my wife so she could try using it during her lunch break, and it didn’t quite work. There isn’t a third compartment for tiles you have yet to place; easy storage depends on either a solved square or that lid’s diagram so it can snap shut. Essentially, this means you can’t save your progress. If someone can leave it in the break room, then this won’t be a problem, but a nursing student like my wife or the average worker can’t count on that.

Also, its press materials claim co-op and head-to-head gameplay. That’s…a stretch. You can make it cooperative or competitive in a colloquial sense, similar to how a jigsaw puzzle can become cooperative. My wife and I left an open session of Gridlock on the kitchen island and would contribute to it throughout the day. When we took it to a bar, we took turns on the green challenges and timed each other. Gridlock can emulate a social component, but that’s not really what we mean by “co-op” or “competitive” in this industry, is it?

Games operate under genres so ramshackle that ambiguity’s inescapable. At the same time, they’re not so loosey-goosey that Gridlock can slip the “puzzle” leash and join Pandemic in the co-op part of the store.

That raises the age-old criticism “Is this a game or an activity?” I could argue that it’s at least game adjacent, snuggling with the solo gamer and polyomino games like Blokus, Isle of Cats, and Patchwork. But why bother? The goal is to spend our time wisely and well. Ignore the cheesy ’90s cover and give Gridlock a whirl. My brain thanked me. Yours probably will, too.

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Sean Weeks fell in love with the modern tabletop scene in 2004 with Tom Lehmann's Race for the Galaxy,but his chief passions are writing, antiquity, and anthropology. You can read his work in Paste Magazine or (formerly) Dicebreaker.




Review Guidelines

Gridlock will satisfy long-time puzzle fans and, more importantly, those who like the idea of puzzles more than the reality. Well-made and (for the most part) suitable for someone on the go, it provides a fair level of challenge without veering into irritation.

Sean Weeks

Unless otherwise stated, the product in this article was provided for review purposes.

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