Gift Review: The USA Time Line 4D Puzzle

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A gift under the tree this year, this is a review of the USA History Over Time 4D Cityscape Puzzle model 40008, available from multiple retailers, including the National Geographic online store and 4DCityscape.com. The puzzle is intriguing, offering to teach first the order of westward expansion, then the order of statehood, and finally the great national landmarks in their order of creation or inception. The puzzle was a gift to Melody, but with 806 pieces in the base layer, she became frustrated and I did most of that part. The instructions say to organize the pieces by color and then put them together in the various territorial expansion. However, with Mexico and Canada being the same dang color, that was tricky, and as we all know, puzzles don’t always lend themselves to good organization! The edge pieces along Canada and the Pacific and Atlantic were often difficult to determine if they really matched and we took those sections apart numerous times during the assembly. We ended up working West to East on the puzzle because that’s just how the pieces presented themselves. Ocean was difficult, but we muddled through. The base puzzle has several different sizes and shapes of pieces, from large cross-shaped pieces to your standard small connectors.

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Once completed however, the base layer is beautiful and interesting. I didn’t remember the Gadsden Purchase and had not known the bit of land above the Louisiana Purchase had been ceded by Great Britain. Had this been the complete puzzle, I would have been satisfied. It took three or four days of an hour here and an hour there to complete. But, once the base layer is complete, there is a second layer of foam pieces in the shapes of the states. Users are directed to assemble these in the order of statehood, but that really didn’t work for us. We just put them together. :-) Melody was very involved at this point and was insistent on doing the assembly. The foam pieces for the most part are very sturdy except for very small states, such as Maryland with its skinny portion around the Bay and Alaska’s finger. These pieces easily became bent. There are four call-out sections for Delaware, Rhode Island, South Manhattan and Washington DC. The foam pieces were slightly warped in some cases, the larger the piece the more warped it was. I’m looking at you, Texas.

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The next series of pieces were the plastic landmarks to be inserted into the foam pieces. I have two gripes about this sequence.

First, the pieces are formed on the sort of plastic rails you find in model kits, which is fine. They are numbered according to the landmark poster included with the puzzle. Still fine. However, the font is so tiny as to be nearly indecipherable, and in some cases was not etched on the outside edge but inside the piece. This led to us needing a flashlight to first see inside the tiny figures and then hunt for the numbers. They are also not in any sort of organized collection, and I couldn’t really figure out why some were silver, some matte brown and some a bronze color. Weird. The Statue of Liberty is the only item that shipped separately and green. It goes without saying that one of our most recognizable landmarks needs no special instructions.

My second gripe about this section is that the poster offers no help in finding the location of the various landmarks on the puzzle. Yes, they are numbered on the poster and on the piece, but there is no number on the puzzle. The foam pieces have “placeholder” blocks in a beige color that are to be popped out and the plastic item inserted in place. The placeholders sometimes have an obvious shape (L-shaped buildings and round auditoriums, for example), but they are not numbered or named. Let me tell you, one lighthouse looks a lot like another when all you see are round dots in a sea of foam puzzle pieces lol. We ended up having to google many of the landmarks just to find out what state to search. With 93 landmarks, this part of the puzzle was both very interesting and very tedious. First searching multiple plastic rails numerous times since the pieces are not organized by number, then looking them up on google, then having to actually take the puzzle apart, remove the placeholder block, insert the item, then put the puzzle back together was a process. We ended up pulling out the landmarks for 10 items in a row, then placing them before starting over with the next 10. We placed the landmark on its corresponding picture on the poster.

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You can see that the names of some of these locations are sometimes rather mundane. I can’t tell you how many Old Grist Mills there are on google. The more we handled the foam pieces, the less tidy they were going together again. Some of the small tabs became mashed and wouldn’t lock into place after a while. One item just did not fit into the allowed space and we ended up accidentally tearing the surface paper forcing it through the hole. One casualty of the process of breaking out the landmark pieces was the Las Vegas sign. It broke in half unfortunately.

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The puzzle instructions also indicated that once the foam layer was made, it should be tacked in place using two sided tape. However, I do not recommend this at that stage. It was far easier to push the landmark pieces up from the back side of the foam pieces than mash them down through the top side. Plus, removing the placeholder blocks was at times a struggle because even though they were laser cut, they still had to be dug out of the larger piece, and some of those spots were quite small. The most effective way to remove the placeholder block and insert the landmark was by holding the individual state in our hands. This necessitated the constant disassembly of the foam layer of the puzzle. The kit did include some double sided tape, but it was so dried out it just flaked off its sticker sheets. Oops.

Even with all these sorts of nit picky complaints, we enjoyed this puzzle quite a lot. There are other 4D puzzles available for major cities worldwide, such as London, Paris and Tokyo. I think if we were to take on one of those other puzzles we would apply our learnings from this kit and probably be more satisfied. So, if you attempt one of these 4D Cityscape puzzles, I recommend the following order of assembly:

  1. Assemble the base layer by color but do the edges last.
  2. Organize the foam layer by regions but only assemble the pieces in general sections.
  3. Break out the landmark pieces and organize them numerically.
  4. Insert all the landmark pieces and then assemble the foam pieces into the top layer.
  5. Stick the foam layer onto the base layer if desired.
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