SmartMax – the Barrel

Filed Under (Creative, Keeper, Kids Games, Toys) by Bernie DeKoven on Oct 14, 2014

smartmax barrelWe’ve written about SmartMax before. And we enthused mightily. It’s a brilliantly designed toy, brilliantly executed. Big pieces, perfect for small hands. Pieces that click together with the aid of magnets just powerful enough to keep them together, just strong enough to be easily pulled apart. And the subtle interplay of pieces that either repel or attract each other adding just the right sense of mystery, the right element of wonder, the right invitation to experiment.

The SmartMax Barrel contains 42 pieces. Which is a significant quantity of pieces, in deed. Though you might as well accept the inevitable truth – there are never enough pieces. Even for one child. But there’s a goodly amount, and what’s more important, there’s just enough variety of pieces to engage the child through a significant range of play moods and modes: investigative, creative, constructive (and, of course, destructive) and dramatic.

The key components of this, and all SmartMax sets. is the collection of rods and balls. The SmartMax Barrel contains two different lengths of rods, each in six different colors. The colors are key to which rods will attract and which repel each other. Something to be learned, investigated, explored. There are eight large plastic-covered metallic balls which can connect any rod to any other. And can even serve as hubs for a multiple collection of rods.

Then there are eight pairs of wheels that snap on to the rods. The wheels are also very well made and roll easily and for a surprisingly long time. Snap two sets of wheels onto any rod, and you have a vehicle. In addition to the wheels there are four semi-transparent cockpits and four containers which further define the nature and function of the vehicles.

Major Fun Keeper AwardThe Barrel is very sturdy, and capacious enough to accommodate at least five more SmartMax sets or other small toys: dolls, pieces of metal, toy cars – whatever the child deems worthy of including in her SmartMax set. There are lids on both sides of the barrel that twist on and off, and the barrel itself is sturdy enough to roll on or over. Small hands may find turning the lids open a bit more challenging than desired, but parents of small-handed ones might find that useful in limiting access when access needs to be limited. As with all good toys, it’s better to put them away, out of sight from time to time – for a day or several – just long enough for the child to almost forget such a toy exists. And then, next time boredom surfaces, you can just, shall we say, roll out the barrel.

All in all, the SmartMax Barrel provides the child with what could easily become an heirloom toy. The variety of the pieces, the many ways with which they can be played, the durability of the set and the container all assure that this is a toy that can be safely and lovingly passed down through the generations.

Gravity Maze

Filed Under (Puzzles) by Bernie DeKoven on Sep 28, 2014

gravity maze A puzzle that is almost a toy, a puzzle you can toy with, a puzzle that has 60 different levels, each one building on what you learned in the previous level – that’s what Gravity Maze has to offer you.

There are nine “building towers.” A building tower is made of a series of connected blocks – each block having it’s own unique ball-deflecting and transporting properties. There’s one five block tower, two four-block towers, two three-block, two two-block, two one-block, and a single block, with only one entrance and no exit, that serves as the goal for each of the puzzles. There’s a 4×4 playing grid and three small steel balls (qualifying the puzzle as not-for-children-under-three), which is not a problem since the puzzles themselves are designed for people who are at least eight-years-old.

Everything, as in all the ThinkFun puzzles I can think of, is sturdily-built, even if it is made of plastic (with the exception of the aforementioned steel balls).

There’s a deck of 60 puzzle cards. Each card is two-sided, with the puzzle on one side and the solution on the back, numbered in increasing difficulty. Each puzzle card shows where, in the grid, to put which piece to start the puzzle, and where to put the target piece. The pieces you must use to connect one to the other are indicated on the bottom of the card.

There’s also an instruction booklet which, it turns out, is essential to working the puzzles – even to setting them up correctly. If you look at the puzzle pieces more carefully, you’ll observe that each has dots on the top and bottom. On some edges there are two dots, others one, and the remaining, none. These dots are what you need in order to figure out how each tower is to be oriented, and how to read the set-up. Then there are puzzles in which you put one tower on top of the other, and you need to learn how those are represented (I quote “the outermost square will always represent the tower placed closest to the grid and the innermost square will represent the tower placed farthest”).

01 AwardThis is most definitely one of those puzzles that you learn by failing, so don’t lose faith. So you look at the answer a couple, maybe three, OK, maybe a dozen-or-so times. But your persistence pays off, and you will eventually get it. And once you do, the fun becomes even more apparent. There’s something immensely satisfying, and unique to this puzzle, to the sound the ball makes when you drop the it down the first tower and pings its way through all the right blocks, ending up bouncing against the walls of the target block. Toweringly satisfying. Major Fun, you bet!

Squigz Benders

Filed Under (Creative) by Bernie DeKoven on Sep 19, 2014

squigz

You are doubtlessly familiar with the majority of the funness of the Major Fun award-winning Squigz, and keen to learn if it is humanly possible to add even an iota more fun to these “fun little suckers.” Well, then, I don’t have to explain further our enthusiasm for Squidz Benders.

Squidz Benders?, you ask querrously. What could be so special about – o, they bend.

01 AwardYes, in deed, my little cherub of charm, they bend. They not only bend, but they stay bent until you unbend them. And hence, as is so vividly illustrated in the accompanying photograph, they add another dimension to an already dimensionful toy – an expressive, almost artistic, downright creative dimension. Your basic Squigz are wonderfully tactile: the soft, sucker-tops, the flexible Squidz themselves. They make wonderful sounds when they are pulled off of things or each other. They are colorful, inviting touch and exploration. Before, they looked like (and are) wonderfully constructive, stick-to-smooth-surfaces-and-each-other fun. With the Benders, they look like (and are most definitely) Major fun.

There are two different Squigz Benders: the blue-sucker-topped Benders are about one-third shorter than the green. The longer the Bender, the more bends you can bend them into. Your basic Squigz set includes, in addition to one of each of the six different basic Squigz, six of each of each kind of Bender. Recommended for adults as young as three and older than you.

HexHive

Filed Under (Puzzles) by Bernie DeKoven on Sep 16, 2014

HexHive
There are at least two very pleasant surprises awaiting the HexHive player. One of these is the bees. The other, the numbers.

I explicate:

There are 40 “challenge cards.” Each is on a separate, hexagonal board that aligns perfectly below the transparent hexagonal solving surface. On each challenge card, you will see a group of connected hexagons, like cells in a beehive. (Hence the bee theme.) Each cell contains a number, from zero to six. There are ten different, transparent pieces; each of which is a different color and shape. Which pieces you must use to solve the puzzle is clearly and compassionately illustrated on the bottom of each board. Though all 40 of the challenge cards fit nicely in the hexagonal board compartment below the transparent hexagonal solving surface, if you remove a few you assure yourself that cells of the board will align perfectly with cells of the solving surface – making the solving process everso much more salutary.

01 AwardAnd now to the two pleasant surprises that lead so inexorably to the Major Fun experience:

1) the numbers

When you place a piece on a board, it must lie perfectly within the numbered cells. And, the total of the numbers covered by that piece must equal precisely seven. Precisely. Ah. Intriguing, don’t you think? It’s not just the shape that you must take into account, but also the total of the numbers each piece covers. So you have to use two, not totally connected parts of your brain: the part that perceives patterns, and the part that understands numbers. Lovely. Challenging. Engaging just a tad more of your cognitive skills than you might have anticipated or been aware that you possessed.

2) the bees

You have two bee pieces. The part of the puzzle that tells you which pieces you can use also tells you how many bees. A bee can be used to cover a number so that it doesn’t count. Which makes the act of figuring out what numbers will add to seven becomes a tad more complex. Just tad enough to make you rethink practically everything.

Each challenge card is a bit more challenging than the previous, so, as you progress, your understanding of how the puzzle works deepens. As, of course, does the challenge.

Ah, the fun, the fun, the excruciating fun.

GenCon and Cybernetic Gaming: The Golem

Filed Under (Musings and such...) by Will Bain on Sep 9, 2014

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This is a three part article about how digital technology is being woven into the fabric of board games, card games, and role-playing games.

Part One: The Golem

The booth for Harebrained Schemes is located at the back of the exhibit hall. It is a moderately large booth, much of its space turned over to four tables where convention goers can try out the company’s newest game: Golem Arcana. The long tables are covered with various landscapes constructed of large cardboard tiles, across which battle monstrous figurines. In many respects it looks just like any other game in which players battle with miniatures. In this case players control giant constructs that often look like demons out of a Lovecraftian nightmare instead of plastic infantry and tanks, but it’s instantly recognizable to anyone who has ever set up their green army men for a war across the family room. What is different about the scene—frankly the first thing that anyone approaching the booth would notice— is the large flat-screen monitor that is mounted above each game table.

At first, I think the monitors are simply to broadcast the games—something bright and flashy to lure in more GenCongregants. And although the large monitors are indeed bright and flashy and work on a principle similar to a bug-zapper for gamers, it turns out they are an integral part of the game.

Golem Arcana is designed to be played with a Bluetooth capable device. The monitors on each table are merely making the user interface visible to the gathered throng. Golem Arcana is a computer assisted table-top game. It is a game for hobbyists—those dedicated individuals who collect and paint and vast armies of miniatures—but Harebrained Schemes sees it as a point of entry for more casual gamers. As co-founder Mitch Gitelman tells me, “This is a social game. The technology takes away some of the barriers.”

I meet Mitch on the second day of GenCon. The vendors’ exhibition hall is packed and a line has started curling around one side of the booth as gamers queue up for a turn at one of the demonstration tables. We walk a few paces away from the booth just so Mitch isn’t drawn into some other conversation or demand on his time, but after a few minutes of standing he gets light headed and we sit down at a small table at the edge of the booth space. Turns out he hasn’t been eating much, and he has been talking, standing, or moving almost non-stop ever since GenCon opened its doors. He is enthusiastic and animated. His hands move in expressive bursts when he talks, but I suspect there is a limit to just how much that energy can be sustained by caffeinated sodas.

Golem Arcana is a gateway game,” he says to me as he pulls over a few of the game pieces and sets his phone on the table. At its most basic, the game consists of 6 landscape tiles, 6 figurines, two 10-sided dice, a blue-tooth enabled stylus, and a digital smart device such as a tablet or phone. Unlike any number of table-top war-games, Golem Arcana doesn’t require players read or consult a tome-like rulebook. Everything you need to get playing is contained in an app; starting with how to use the stylus and the digital interface.

Mitch sets his phone in front of us, and after the app loads, he presses the button to begin the tutorial. There is a brief explanation of the stylus and some examples of how it is used in the game. It shows us how to set up a small fight scenario—which we do—and then proceeds to teach us how to play the game by (and I know this sounds crazy) having us play a game. Any information I need about the pieces—how they move, how they attack, what special powers they might have—is accessible by touching the stylus to the piece or the landscape tile and pressing a button. There are also reference cards that players can touch with the stylus if that is easier than reaching the figurines. The information I need is displayed on the smart-screen.

“Microdots,” Mitch explains. The tip of the stylus contains a tiny camera that reads microscopic dots of information that are printed all along the base of the figures, on the landscape tiles, and on the face of the information cards. Players must still move the pieces and tell the app where the pieces are, but all other information is stored in the app: hit points are tracked electronically; allowable actions are highlighted on the user interface, movement options are illustrated for the player.

There are times when we need to roll the dice. The results are entered into the app and the game continues. “The app comes with a random number generator,” Mitch tells me as my small Golem deals damage to the larger foe, “but there is something about rolling dice that is important to the experience.” I agree with him. Rolling dice feels more random than having my phone produce a number. If I get a lousy roll on the app I might feel like the game is cheating me, but if the dice give me a lousy roll all I can do is curse fate. Or the dice. “Gamers tend to be superstitious about their dice,” Mitch says with a smile. He mentions that a lot of people who play at the demonstrations will switch back and forth between the dice and the app whenever one “goes cold.”

Golem Arcana is highly expandable and highly customizable. Through the app, players can download new scenarios, new game modes, and participate in the developing world of Eretsu. The players’ progress is tracked by the app, and the game will suggest new scenarios based on the ones that have been completed. But the new scenarios are not just canned adventures that players would be expected to complete in a linear manner. The results of the player’s home experience influences the world of Eretsu and changes the way future games will be played.

Multiple players can be accommodated by the software. At one table there were six players battling over a massive 24 tile game board.

I have friends who are avid collectors of miniatures and will memorize seemingly endless tables of data in anticipation of their next encounter. That level of dedication is not for me. I have a little experience with table-top miniature games—much of it good. I remember playing Warhammer and Warhammer 40K with cardboard chits and a tape measure. I’ve played some Batttletech and Car Wars and more recently a few scenarios of Memoir ’44. And although I loved playing these games with my friends, what I really loved was that they were obsessive enough to have the rules memorized (and usually the game set-up) before I ever had to play.

The ease with which I could learn from and interact with Golem Arcana is very appealing to me.

That’s not to say that I have no reservations about this encroachment of technology into the realm of table-top gaming. As far as I know, it is possible to play Golem Arcana without the electronic aids. You can find the information about the pieces and the terrain and the order of play. There are dice for your random events. The game is transparent in that you can learn the mechanics and play without the use of a smart device. You can record all necessary information with paper and pencil should you want to.

But given the ease of the technology why would you want to? Most gamers, especially those like me on the casual edge of the miniatures scene would see the app-based rules and interface as a great convenience. But convenience comes at its own price.

I will say this for my friends who obsess over their miniatures: they have paid a price—both in time and money—that virtually guarantees that they will play their games of choice for a long, long time. Harebrained Schemes has turned to our digital devices and the structure of many video games to effectively lower the entry price for casual gamers. And I’m not talking about the monetary cost: the basic Golem Arcana set costs around $80 and after that the sky is the limit. I mean the gamer equivalent of “sweat-equity” that is paid when we really devote ourselves to the minutiae of any significantly complex game system.

Many great board games have been turned into great apps. Pandemic is one that first springs to my mind. What I like about it (and wrote about in an earlier review for the Major Fun Awards) is the way the app opens up the mechanics of the game so that someone could play the table-top version after playing the app with only a cursory scan of the set-up and rules. But Pandemic is not nearly as complex in neither its rules nor its mythology as a game like Golem Arcana. Its accessibility is its appeal but it also limits just how fanatical its fan-base can become. Mitch is right that the technology takes away some of the barriers to the game of Golem Arcana. What won’t be clear until some time has gone by is if that is good for the game. There is a powerful social aspect to a group of people who share in knowledge that others consider esoteric.

But before I start to sound like the old man down the street who still thinks the printing press made humans too lazy to memorize the great stories, let me praise Harebrained Schemes for smoothly integrating our ubiquitous technology as a teaching tool for what could have been an intimidating experience. The tutorial style of instruction makes great use of not only the technology but some of our best pedagogical practices.

One of my favorite recent novels is The Golem and the Jinni, by Helene Wecker (Harper, 2013). As the title suggests, it tells the story of two mythological creatures, a Golem and a Jinni, who discover each other and develop a remarkable relationship in turn-of-the-century New York. It’s a great adventure story, and it does a marvelous job of implying more nuanced conflicts (inherent violence, cultural relativism, class divisions, and the pitfalls of service and freedom to name a few). I found the Golem’s story particularly moving as she struggles to come to terms with her remarkable strength, endurance, and the murderous rage that often threatens to consume her. Wecker creates a compelling character from what is typically a monstrous automaton as the Golem searches for her place in a world that can destroy her with a single word and yet is also remarkably fragile in the face of her power.

Although I can’t describe Golem Arcana’s conflicts as particularly nuanced—this is a game of magical monsters beating each other down into their component atoms—I do appreciate the richness of the world Mitch and Harebrained Schemes have created for their community of players. The fact that I could be immersed in that world and have some small effect on the direction it might take is perhaps the game’s greatest strength. That the game has the capacity to actually interact with the players—not just push new products but actually respond to the experiences of the individuals—is very compelling and represents an evolution of our technology that I’m glad Harebrained Schemes has brought to life.

Part Two will look at social networking and all manner of tournaments…

Fastrack – NHL Edition

Filed Under (Dexterity, Family Games, Kids Games) by Will Bain on Aug 24, 2014

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NHL FastrackFastrack by Blue Orange Games is Major Fun. It is a Keeper.

It now comes in an NHL edition.

The game remains the same: try to get all of the discs to the other side of the board. To do this you must fling them with an elastic band through a narrow slot in the board. Your opponent is trying to do the same thing. Through the same narrow slot.

Madness ensues!

01 AwardThe game is brilliant. Fast paced and nerve jangling. What has been added in this edition is NHL themed artwork. The board is designed like a hockey rink. The discs are hockey pucks. NHL logos adorn the edges. It’s a nice touch.

2 players. Ages 5+

Fastrack was designed by Jean-Marie Albert and is the NHL edition is © 2014 by Blue Orange Games.

Masters of the Gridiron

Filed Under (Family Games, Thinking Games) by Will Bain on Aug 20, 2014

Tagged Under : , , , , , ,

Masters of the gridiron 2Given my previous post about GenCon, it is only appropriate that the Major Fun Award goes to a game about football. Let me introduce you to Masters of the Gridiron: the card game that can unite casual gamers and football fans all across our fair land.

One of the things that I really love about games is the way the designers take events and activities in our physical world and translate those situations into cards and dice and tokens and the vast panoply of game mechanics. In many ways I think this is the most artistic aspect of game design (as opposed to the graphical art that decorates the box and cards and etc). There is a fascinating, understated beauty to this process of simulation and representation.

Masters of the gridironSports Mogul took on the daunting task of representing the game of American football and in the process, created the accessible and engaging card game. Each player has a deck of cards that represents a specific pro team from a specific year (we played with 8 teams from the 2013 season). The cards are divided into three categories: offense, defense, and playbook. Offense and defense cards depict actual players. The top half of the offense and defense cards contains numbers you will need for the card game while the bottom half contains vital statistics from the 2013 season (these are not vital to playing Masters of the Gridiron). The playbook cards represent different types of scoring drives and which players work best in those situations.

The game ends after each team attempts 9 scoring drives. Your scoring drive consists of one playbook card and one offense card. Your playbook card tells you which what to look for on your offense card and which players receive bonuses. In general you look for the player that has the highest rating for the play you have chosen (high numbers win). Once you reveal your offense, your opponent gets to choose one defense card. The play card says what kinds of defense work against the play so your opponent wants to choose a player with a ranking that is higher than your offense. If offense is higher, you score. If the defense is equal to or higher than offense, you fail.

Each player gets to be on offense and defense nine times. In between plays, the teams get to draw cards to replace the ones that were used. At the end of the game, scores are tallied.

There are some complications, but they are rare and are handled very well in the slim rule sheet. In the end, Masters of the Gridiron is very simple and yet offers a lot of interesting choices. You have to manage your resources (players cannot be used more than once) and you have to choose between going for touchdowns or kicking field goals.

01 AwardFor those who want more, there is a great deck building and drafting mechanic that allows the players to draft their own teams. Each deck comes with additional cards that can be swapped with others in the deck. It is also possible to combine different decks into a dream team. Each player comes with a salary. If you play one of the deck-building games you have a pool of money with which you can build your team. Now you have to decide between drafting a few top end players (and having many lower players) or having a more solid (if less exciting) team.

We had fun just playing with the teams out of their boxes. After the first series of plays, the game is very intuitive and does a great job of evoking excitement of football without requiring any detailed knowledge of the game. Casual gamers will appreciate the laid-back strategy of the card game and football fans will have a lot to discuss as the games unfold.

GO COLTS!

2 players. Ages 8+

Masters of the Gridiron was designed by Conor Milliken and Clay Drelough and is © 2014 by Sports Mogul, Inc.

GenCon 2014 – A quick observation…

Filed Under (Uncategorized) by Will Bain on Aug 16, 2014

As I was leaving GenCon today I witnessed the rare convergence between two forces of geekdom.

As the exhibition halls and large public venues of GenCon were closing down, the gamers streamed out of the convention center and went looking for sustenance amid the food trucks and pubs along Georgia Street. They were met by the inrush of blue and white clad Colts fans moving toward their Lucas Oil cathedral.

Exhibit A:

Cosplay gencon

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Exhibit B:

colts fans

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Each group eyed the other and I’m sure saw “The Other.” And yet, I can’t for the life of me think of a significant difference between the two groups.

We have a long way to go.

GenCon 2014 – Major Fun Games in Play!

Filed Under (Uncategorized) by Will Bain on Aug 15, 2014

Some photos of Major Fun Award winners being played at GenCon:

Tsuro Giant sized Tsuro by Calliope.

The Calliope booth was HOPPIN! It’s a great group of people who are producing some of the most beautiful and fun games out there. Several of their new games have been nominated for Major Fun and are up for review.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

PandemicPandemic is a personal favorite of mine and I was a little envious of the board these guys were playing on. I am a small enough person that I will envy the newest, flashiest edition.

From right to left: Mike (Westfield, IN) and Jason (Indianapolis) and Michael (Las Angeles, CA).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Lemming Mafia Lemming Mafia from Mayfair is silly an cute and combines lots of cool elements as your lemming race to the end of the pier in concrete galoshes.

From right to left: Andy (Berkeley, CA) and Robby and Mithila (both from Indianapolis).

 

 

 

 

 

Hoot Owl HootHoot Owl Hoot is a very basic cooperative game from Peaceable Kingdom that is geared for younger players. Lots of cooperative games are very complicated but Hoot Owl Hoot strips the experience down to a few clear mechanics and proves to be very exciting.

Pictured is Debbie and her two kids Aurora and David from Oak Park, IL.

 

 

 

 

Cross WaysAnd finally Cross Ways from USAopoly. Great strategy game for lots of people or even just two people.

Paul (Spartanburg, SC) is learning the game from one of Major Fun’s own play testers, Heather (Indianapolis).

 

 

 

 

GenCon 2014 – Fun and Games

Filed Under (Uncategorized) by Will Bain on Aug 14, 2014

I am not a photographer by nature (NO you say with only the barest disguise to your sarcasm…) I often don’t think about taking pictures and when I do I suck at it. With those disclaimers, here are the cool things I have seen at GenCon that I actually managed to photograph (with only the minimum of hand-blur).

It's hard to depict Florida in the medium of hexagons...

It’s hard to depict Florida in the medium of hexagons…

 

Giant board games are cool. Catan is very cool. Thus we have giant cool squared.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

And then there are the giant Lego robots…

Lego Brick World RobotsComputer guided robot vehicles. This is how we will travel between exhibition halls at GenCon 2015.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

And one of my favorite events: Cardhalla. Every year folks build intricate structures out of cards from donated collectible card games. On Saturday the structures are destroyed in a hail of coins and there is an auction to see who throws first (all money goes to charity). I can’t think of a better use of collectible card games…

Cardhalla 01

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

There is a lesson to be learned here. I can almost feel it…

Cardhalla 02