Robot Turtles

robot-turtlesProgramming is one of those skills that many of my generation and older consider to be about as esoteric as alchemy. Hours of waving your hands over a table. Repeatedly typing thousands of lines of incomprehensible gibberish surrounded by symbols that we just assumed were there to create emoticons. And then… the glorious Technicolor splendor of the electronic universe opens up on our screens.

It’s MAGIC!!

I for one am thrilled that there are people out there who take the time to program our machines to perform any number of tasks. I don’t think I have much of that kind of creativity, but I recognize it as such. I also recognize that the reasoning and imagination that underlie coding are key components that we all need to develop in order to navigate our digital and analogue worlds. The logic of programming applies to business and creative writing and all the games we play.

In an effort to bring the kind of thinking that programming requires to younger audiences, ThinkFun has provided the world with the fantastic little board game Robot Turtles. The game, designed by Dan Shapiro, was successfully funded on Kickstarter. And when I say successfully I mean funded about 25 times Dan’s initial goal. Seriously. Check it out here.

And deservedly so. Robot Turtles is a great game that does a wonderful job of introducing young players in to the game mechanics. These game mechanics are also the basics of programming. It needs to be said that the game does not involve actually programming a computer. Instead, the game mechanics mimic the skills and reasoning that good programming requires.

The goal of the game is to move your turtle to your target gem. You have cards that you play in sequential order that tell your turtle to turn, move ahead, fire a laser, or repeat a series of actions. Each of these actions is introduced over a set of games that gradually increase the complexity of the tasks. This approach to teaching the game might be a little frustrating to older players but it makes the game accessible to very young children. The youngest players will appreciate just moving the turtle around the board. Once they have mastered basic sequential commands, they can progress on to more complex games. In the parlance of most computer games and role-playing games, they can level-up.

Adults could probably jump in to higher levels without playing the “tutorial” levels but this is designed to teach very young children. The pedagogy is solid and each level is fun.

01 AwardAnother aspect that I only appreciated after playing with my kids was the cooperative nature of the game. It can be competitive but it is not written that way. The game encourages you to play with pairs on each team—a young “Turtle Master” and an older “Turtle Mover.” The younger player chooses the cards and makes the decisions but does not actually move the turtle. That is the job of the “Turtle Mover.” In this way, the younger players get to order around the adults who are supposed to follow the instructions chosen by the kids (and provide entertaining sound effects). I’ve been a teacher for 18 years and it still took me by surprise just how exciting it was for the kids to boss around the adults. My daughter chose the cards and I did just what they told me to do. This was a great simulation of digital programming in which the programmer provides instructions that something else (the computer) has to follow.

The most interesting and complex cards were the function cards. These served as markers representing a set of action cards. The actions would always be carried out in the same way whenever a function card was played. For example, in order to turn around the turtle on the most basic level, a “programmer” would have to play two cards (right turn, right turn). At higher levels, the programmer could place two right turn cards and a function card off to the side. If the turtle ever needed to turn around in the game, the programmer would now only need to play one function card.

The game comes with three kinds of barriers which can impede the turtles. Ice blocks can be melted by a laser. Boxes can be pushed. Stone blocks are permanent. The instructions come with some suggested “maps” but you are encouraged to come up with your own challenges and then figure out how you can overcome them with the fewest moves.

Creativity is highly prized but so is efficiency.

The art and instruction are fantastic. The pacing is great for a very wide range of players, and the game play becomes remarkably robust after only a few instructional levels. This is Major Fun for kids and parents and teachers and anyone (like me) who sees that programming should be taught to everyone—neither for economic reasons nor for purely pragmatic reasons but rather because the skills are intrinsic to our development as a species.

And playing with them is fun.

And our new robot overlords are probably going to feed the programmers who brought them to life before they feed the humanities majors who keep churning out post-singularity dystopian fiction.

So maybe there are some pragmatic reasons…

2 – 5 players. Ages 4+

Robot Turtles was designed by Dan Shapiro © 2014 by ThinkFun.

Machine of Death

machine of death gameSo if you haven’t checked out the Major Fun book review for Machine of Death, I’ll give you a moment to read it here…

[whistles through teeth…]

Take your time. It’s really good. The book, I mean. Go read it too.

[pulls out iPad and plays… er… does some research…]

Oh hi!! So now imagine a story-telling game based on the premise of The Machine of Death. Wicked cool, right?

You didn’t read any of the previous stuff did you. [Sigh] OK, so in a nutshell, a machine has been invented that, with only a drop of your blood, will predict how you will die with 100% accuracy. You get a piece of paper with some words on it: “steamroller” or “autoerotic exsanguination” or “French press.” Doesn’t say when or where. Doesn’t give any more details. And the machine might be said to have a highly developed sense of ironic humor so “French press” might mean a coffee maker or a bunch of Parisian journalists or perhaps a riot at a particular World Cup soccer match. Try to avoid your death and you’ll just find out how devious the universe can be.

The answer is always the same. The answer is never wrong.

In the game, you play a company of assassins. The Machine has made your profession very tricky, especially when your target has consulted the Machine. You are given four targets and a handful of items that must be used in order to bring down your intended victim. As a group, you have to come up with a plan that would make Rube Goldberg proud and then change it on the fly if something goes wrong.

The base game is cooperative. Each target comes with a description that provides your troupe of killers with a location and some personality quirks that you can use to your advantage. You also get your target’s Machine of Death card as well as three Black Market Gift cards that you must use in order to “establish the truth” about your target (learned that particular euphemism from Tim Power’s excellent novel Declare). The gift cards are redeemable for things like “something that floats” or “fancy pants” or “a public domain character.” All players work together to come up with a plan that utilizes all of these items.

For each Black Market item involved, the group must assign a number to it that indicates how likely it is to succeed in the plan. 2 means virtually guaranteed and 6 is nearly impossible. Once the plan is set, the group starts the 90 second timer and starts rolling the included die for each element of the plan. If each element is successful, the target is killed. Huzzah! If any element fails (you roll lower than the assigned number) you must draw a new Black Market item, discuss how it will change the plan, assign it a difficulty, and then roll for it again.

Your original plan can take as long as you like but once the plan gets going you have only 90 seconds to make changes. This keeps the action moving and adds a level of urgency to the proceedings.

You win the game if you eliminate all four of your targets. You lose if you run out of Black Market cards (you start with 20) or if you fail to kill a target. Along the way you can pick up special cards to help you, but the basic mechanic stays the same: come up with a plan, assign difficulty, roll for results.

01 AwardThere are also several alternative games that can be played with the same cards. Some of the variations are competitive. Some are more like a traditional role-playing game. One is a party game like Apples to Apples. This party game was popular with our large group. The variations are quite distinct which demonstrates two things to me: the strength of the concept and the considered design-work of the creators. If your group has never played a story-telling game before, start with the party game. Ready for some more role-playing but without the pressure? Play without the timer for a while. We had fun coming up with elaborate plans in much the same way that we would have fun building a city out of boxes and toilet paper tubes.

The story-telling game takes a very specific mindset to make work. It is much more about telling a funny story than winning or losing. In some ways it reminds me of an activity like writing an exquisite corpse. It also reminds me of collaborative role-playing games like Fiasco in which the dice are there to shake up the story-telling rather than win or lose a fight.

The Machine of Death is morbid and often bizarre but also Major Fun.

2 – 4 players (many more with some variations). Ages 15+

Machine of Death was designed by David Malki ! and is © 2013. The game is produced by Bearstache.

Forbidden Desert Leacock has a knack for creating games about overwhelming odds. In Pandemic, players race against the advancing tide of infectious disease. In Forbidden Island, that race is against the literal tide as the mysterious island you are exploring sinks beneath the waves.

Forbidden Desert places the characters in a similar situation as desert sands threaten to engulf the party and bleach their bones dry.

Death by disease, death by drowning, and death by dehydration. Fun times.

Forbidden Desert is a cooperative game in which the players try to assemble a mysterious flying device so that they may escape the ravages of a desert storm. This goal is virtually identical to that of Forbidden Island. As a matter of fact, the game shares many features with Leacock’s previous cooperative games (Forbidden Island and Pandemic) but these similarities only benefit the game. If you have played one of the others before then your entry into Forbidden Desert will be that much easier. If you have not played the other games, the rules are easy enough and the instructions clear enough that you will still be playing in a matter of minutes.

The game consists primarily of tiles, cards, and pawns. The 24 tiles are shuffled and distributed in a 5×5 grid (there is no middle tile—this represents the sand storm). The cards are used to provide special equipment to the players and used to determine the strength and movement of the sand storm. Special sand markers are used to show where and how deep the sand is piling up around the board. The pawns represent the characters.

Each player controls a character. Each character can take four actions on their turn. Each character carries a certain amount of water and also has a special ability. For example: the Archaeologist can dig through more sand; the Meteorologist can help control the sand storm. In all there are six different adventurers.

The last major piece of the game is the storm meter. As the game progresses, the sand storm gets worse. The storm meter records the strength of the storm. If it gets too high, everyone loses.

If any of the characters runs out of water, the group loses.

If you run out of sand markers… yup, the group loses.

The only way to win is to gather the four pieces of the flying machine and make it back to its launch pad. Wherever that may be…

awardWe loved Forbidden Desert. We died a lot. A LOT. But everyone is always engaged and the tension of the game is exquisite. We liked it more than Forbidden Island which is one of our favorites.

As it stands, Forbidden Desert has several things going for it. The way you find the treasure pieces is ingenious and does not require gathering cards. This is one of the big differences with Forbidden Island. The characters also have a wider range of actions—there are more choices to make which means there are more ways to die but a much stronger sense of agency. Finally, the sharing of water and items really emphasizes cooperative play.

I can’t recommend this game highly enough. It is exciting and endlessly interesting. The artwork is fantastic (although I think Forbidden Island would win that contest) and the game design such that even novice players will be immersed in the adventure with only a minimal amount of prep time.

It’s probably as much fun as you can have with sand that is not part of a beach.

2-5 players. Ages 10+

Forbidden Desert was designed by Matt Leacock and is © 2013 by Gamewright.


Pandemic App

One of the first reviews I wrote for Major Fun was for Forbidden Island, a cooperative board game in which you are trying to save four treasures from a rapidly sinking island. This review also marked the beginning of the Gamers’ Game—a way we could praise really great games that were just a bit too complicated or too long for the Major Fun Award. Forbidden Island came out in 2010 but its designer, one Matt Leacock, already had another cooperative game that had been a board-gamer favorite since it came out in 2008.

That game is Pandemic, a game of intrepid scientists and specialists trying to cure four diseases before they annihilate the human population.

When we played Forbidden Island I had some experience with Pandemic. It has some mechanics that are very similar to Forbidden Island: characters with special abilities, card collecting, special cards, and a system of making the situation grow more desperate as the game progresses. But Pandemic is certainly more complicated than Forbidden Island which was already too complicated for a traditional Major Fun Award. Thus, Pandemic went by without mention.

So what has changed? Why am I talking about Pandemic now?

No, it’s not the recent epidemic of zombie-zeitgeist.

Two reasons. Z-Man is reprinting the board game. It looks fantastic. They have made a few small changes (basically adding a few special characters) and tweaked the layout of the rules, but the game itself is much the same as it was when I first played it a few years ago. This is a wonderfully conceived and beautifully executed game. But a fresh coat of paint is not enough to elevate a game to Major Fun. The rules still take longer to learn than we usually like and then there is the set-up. There are a lot of pieces and cards. There are special ways to shuffle the cards. There are steps to laying out the pieces. Major Fun likes games to start quickly, and Pandemic has something of a long incubation period. Especially when you are playing it for your first time.

Major Fun AwardZ-Man has also released the game as an app for your tablet devices. And this app is marvelous. iPads and similar tablets have turned out to be an excellent technology for many board games, and Z-Man has used the touch screen to the game’s full advantage. It helps that Pandemic is cooperative. There is no hiding of cards or secret moves. You can play the app by yourself or with others. Best of all, the app does all the messy set-up for you. This feature allows you to focus on the game play without the time consuming preparation that might turn off a novice.

New players are taken through a tutorial that covers all the game basics in surprisingly short order and as part of a real game. It speaks volumes for the game design that most of the available actions become very clear once they have been demonstrated. The players aren’t puzzling out what moves are available, rather they are puzzling out which moves are best. And because the game is cooperative, everyone is constantly involved. You will not beat this game by hiding your cards and going it alone. Especially not at its heroic difficulty level (I have actually NEVER beaten heroic difficulty. Maybe it is impossible, but I am happy to keep trying. “Why sure Mister Sisyphus, I’d be happy to push that rock for you.”)

Making the transition from the app to the analogue board game would be very easy. You will have seen how the game starts, and you will know all the basic moves so you can start trying to save the world as soon as you get the cards in their correct piles.

So consider this a technologically assisted Major Fun award. Jumping directly into the paper-and-pawns board game might be too complicated for Major Fun, but the app is a fast, thrilling, efficient vector for this game.

So put away your vitamin C infusions (they don’t work anyways) and go get infected.

For 2-4 players, ages 8+

Pandemic was designed by Matt Leacock and is © 2012 by Z-Man Games.



You and your iThing and at least one other player are members of a Spaceteam. You need to remember two things: you are a team, and you are in space, and you have an iThing, and you and another player or two or three are all in the same room, and you’re all connected via the local WiFiness or Bluetoothery.

You start the game. You note your control panel. You are given instructions. And you give instructions. Simultaneously shouting out commands like:

Major Fun Awardflush the megacondensers
set newtonian photomist to maximum
soak ferrous holospectrum
coddle hummingbolt
frog blast the vent core
engage hyperjig
oscillate the optical refractor

And then instead of text instructions, suddenly all you get are icons, and you wind-up shouting things like “toggle sleeping T left.”

And sometimes you all have to shake your iThings and sometimes you all have to turn them upside down because of wormholes and things and sometimes your control thing gets all wavy ’cause something weird and spacey’s happening to your imaginary ship and then, wait, let the Sleepingbeastgames people explain:

“Spaceteam is a cooperative party game for 2 to 4 players who shout technobabble at each other until their ship explodes. Each player needs an iPhone, iPad, or iPod Touch. You’ll be assigned a random control panel with buttons, switches, sliders, and dials. You need to follow time-sensitive instructions. However, the instructions are being sent to your teammates, so you have to coordinate before the time runs out. Also, the ship is falling apart. And you’re trying to outrun an exploding star. Good luck. And remember to work together… as a Spaceteam!”

Cooperative. Sheer shared fantasy. Free (though there are freemiumish opportunities for well-deserved pittance purchases). Fantastic fun.


designed and programmed by Henry Smith of Sleepingbeastgames

Monster Falle

Monster FalleKosmos has a prize winner with their dexterity and racing game, Monster Trap (Monster-Falle for you deutschephiles). The game won a Kinderspiel des Jahres and a Deutscher Spielpreis in 2011 and in 2013 the coveted Major Fun Award (I’ll wait for the appreciative murmurs to die down…)

The artwork, the clever mechanical design, and the materials are beautiful. They invite play and giggles. Maybe it’s just that some words sound more fun in German (like Geschwindigkeitsbegrenzung for “speed limit”) but at the bottom of our game box (we played the German version) it says “Schubs… und schwups!” Who does not want to play with Schubs and schwups?

Players race to capture monsters and push them into the pit in the center of the house. There are twelve monsters scattered through the corridors of your house. When the timer starts, two players draw a monster card, find that monster on the board, drop a monster sack figure on it, and then push the monster into the pit. If the Monster-in-a-sack figure falls over (usually the result of running into a wall too hard) then the players put it back and start over. Monsters successfully caught in the pit are added to each player’s score and then two new players get a turn.

Major Fun AwardThe complicating factor is the method of pushing (“schubbing”) the monsters around the board. Four plastic sticks cross the board at right angles to each other (2 cross east-west and the other 2 cross north-south). Each player controls one set of sticks and cooperation is essential. The combination of speed, dexterity, and cooperation with your opponent keeps things lively, especially for younger players.

The game also provides for a variation in which the monsters have to first visit parts of the house before being shoved into the pit. There are several spots marked on the board where the monster can pet the cat, take a bath, or get a snack from the fridge. A small deck of cards is used to tell the players where to send the monster.

The instructions are very clearly illustrated. Our copy was in German and we could figure out the board set-up just by looking at the pictures. Board Game Geek has a link to an English translation (register, for free, if not a member to view) which we needed for the rule-variation and the scoring system (a very clever way to keep score of individuals even when they have to cooperate with their opponents).
And no monsters were harmed in the playing of the game. They seem to like the pit.

For 2-4 players, ages 6+

Monster-Falle was designed by Inka and Markas Brand and is © 2011 by Kosmos.


Like most great diseases, the game Zombiepox has had a period of incubation and mutation. The genetic material for the game germinated in Pox: Save the People. According to Tilfactor’s website, Pox was designed as an educational game in coordination with the Mascoma Valley Health Initiative in order to counter misinformation about vaccines. I had the opportunity to play Pox and was impressed by the mechanics, especially for a game that was designed for educational purposes.

What the game lacked were the design elements that would appeal to the wider commercial audience that would be looking for a game off the shelf. It wasn’t infectious enough.

Thank goodness for the current zombie culture war. Pox: Save the People gets a new protein sheathe and a fresh entry into the population. Zombiepox!!

For a cooperative game, the setup and play of Zombiepox is remarkably simple. The game consists of a game board (a grid of 81 people), chips to mark the people (vaccinated, infected, zombified), and a deck of cards that tells you how the infection spreads. The rules fit on a single, folded sheet of paper.

The game starts with 2 zombies in the middle of the board. Each player’s turn starts by drawing a card and following the instructions. Cards tell the player how to spread the zombie infection and how many may be vaccinated or cured. If a person on the board is ever surrounded on all sides by the infected, that person becomes a zombie. Six of the 81 people on the board are babies who are especially susceptible to the disease. They become zombies on contact with the disease.

Players set a goal at the beginning of the game and play until the disease can no longer spread (WIN!) or the players’ goal has been exceeded (LOSE!) The hardest challenge is to limit the epidemic to the two original zombies. Six zombies is the maximum.

Vaccinating and curing people is the strategic aspect that keeps the game rewarding and frustrating. The vulnerable babies cannot be immunized and it costs more to cure infected than it does to vaccinate the healthy citizens. These decisions and complications become more difficult to juggle as the infection spreads.

Zombiepox is Major Fun for its simple rules, surprising strategy, and replayability. It also works as a good introduction into cooperative games. Those who have played cooperative games like Forbidden Island will recognize the basic elements of those games in Zombiepox. If you have been weaned on those games then you’ll see Zombiepox as a good vector for getting your friends into those other, more complicated games.

Who knows, a few more iterations and a mutated strain of Zombiepox might just threaten the position of Pandemic as the alpha cooperative disease game. Maybe.

1-4 players, ages 12+

Zombiepox designed by Zara Downs, Mary Flanagan, Max Seidman. © 2012 Mary Flanagan, LLC.

Tell Tale Fairy Tales

Tell Tale Fairy Tales is a recent addition to the Major Fun award-winning Tell Tale line  of story-telling cards from BlueOrange Games. The Fairy Tale edition adds a wealth of images and themes from classic children’s stories.

There are 60 round cards in a brightly colored, round tin. Each card is illustrated on both sides. The illustrations are vividly colored, and as easy to interpret as an image from a classic children’s cartoon. A prince proposing to his princess, a sleeping dragon, a room with three beds in a row. Hmm. Three beds in a row. Remind you of something? Like, say, bears?

And so it goes, and you play, almost like classic poets, building stories replete with references, some arcane, some familiar, and some invented on the spot. Each card reminds you of yet some other story that can be woven into the fabric of your literary creations.

Like the original Tell Tale game, there are recommendations for several different ways of playing – starting points, really, for once you start making up stories, you are tempted to make up rules as well.

Play by yourself. Play with others. Creative. Cooperative. Ageless fun.

Race to the Treasure

Race to the Treasure is the fourth cooperative board game from  Peaceable Kingdom to have received a Major Fun award. Everything that we noted about previous games applies to their new Race to the Treasure game. It’s fun. It’s intelligently packaged. The rules are easy to understand. No reading is required. And a whole game can be played in 20 minutes or less.

Like all their cooperative games, in Race to the Treasure players are working together, competing against chance. There’s a collection of 37 cardboard tiles. They are mixed together and placed in a face-down stack. Ten of the tiles are “Ogre Tiles.” These are the very tiles you don’t want to find. The rest are “Path Tiles.”

There are also 4 “Key Tokens” and one “Ogre Snack.” Players use two dice, one lettered A-F the other numbered 1-6, to determine where the Key Tokens are Ogre Snack are to be placed on the board. Once that is accomplished, the first player selects the top tile on the stack. If it’s a Path Tile, it’s placed face-up on the Start space on the board. If it’s an (heaven forfend) Ogre Tile, it goes into the top space of the Ogre’s Path. The goal is to use the Path Tiles to build a path that connects, from the Start to all three keys, the Ogre Snack, and ends at the End space.

The Path Tiles have different designs on them, so the key conceptual part of the challenge of the game is to figure out how best to position each new tile. This decision is made collaboratively, regardless of who’s placing the tile. So, as with all the games in the Peaceable Kingdom collection, turn-taking is just for fun. The real play centers on deciding where to place each tile, and how it should be oriented. This makes the game a bit more conceptually engaging than the other games in the series, and, hence, worthy of our collective notice.

What makes it worthy of a Major Fun award is how fun it is to play. Even when you all lose, you all lose together, and not because you weren’t “good enough.” It was your combined cleverness that made you win, and if you lost, it was luck what did you in.

Race to the Treasure can be played by 2-4 school-age children (the manufacturers recommend the game for children 5 and older). A single game takes 20 minutes or less. Designed by CALICO, LLC, with art by Kelly Murphy, Race to the Treasure is © 2012 by Peaceable Kingdom.


Have an iPad, perhaps? Love to play on it, except getting a little tired, maybe, of playing by yourself?

So, there you are, at, I dunno, a coffee shop, maybe, with a friend – maybe a good friend, or someone you’d like to have for a good friend – and you just happen to have your iPad with you, as always, ever since you got it. And you turn to your friend, saying “care to Fingle?”

“Fingle?” asks your friend, quizzically.

And, without another word, you whip out the old Pad, launch your brand new Fingle app (which, for a limited time only, is only 99-cents and includes four, count them, puzzle packs), and you Fingle. Together. Laughing at the sheer delight of engaging in something quite similar to a game of Twister, only with your fingers. Challenged, ever-increasingly so; entertained, ever-more deeply so.

It’s Fingle. A game for two co-present players sharing an iPad. A cooperative game. A game that, from time to unavoidable time, makes you laugh together.

You have your squares. Your friend has hers. You put one finger on each square. Your friend puts one finger on each of hers. And, without losing contact with these squares, you attempt, simultaneously, to slide your squares into your targets, and hold them there, until your friend has managed not only to slide her squares into her targets, but also to hold them there long enough for the game to decide that accomplishment has been achieved. And then you go on to the next challenge where you have to use four fingers, each. And then the next, where you have to use your four fingers, each, to move into moving targets.

I first encountered Fingle at the DiGRA conference. I was excited about the potential of the game even before it was completely actualized. And now that it’s available, and finally on an iPad near me, I am even more excited to share this surprisingly innovative, paradigm-shifting, touchingly cooperative iPad game for two players even.

Designed by Adriaan de Jongh & Bojan Endrovski, from Game Oven Studios. Major Fun? Oh, yes. Majorly so.

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