If you’re a parent of a pre-school child, say 3, 4, maybe even 5 years old, you’d think, just by looking at the cover of the box, that you’ve found a truly interesting, colorful, wooden puzzle that will fascinate and stimulate the intellect of your little sacred one. And, of course, you’d be closely approximating correctness, given your only partly informed estimation. If your child is a bit older, say school-age, you’d probably think that, though this toy has some obvious merit in inviting your little genius to explore the geometrical and mathematical properties of the hexagon, it will perhaps not be received with as much joy as you so parentally desire. And, in that judgment, you will have most unfortunately and perhaps even regretfully erred. And, should you likewise assume that this HexActly toy could bear no relevance whatsoever to the intellectual, creative, and general fun-needs of the adult, you’d be compounding your error, most egregiously.
HexActly is a puzzle. In fact, it’s a collection of puzzles – more than 50, puzzles, more, even, than 54. It’s also an enticing, and annotated invitation to the geometry of the hexagon, its delightfully hexagonal “learning guide” including instructions on how to draw hexagons, on the properties of regular and irregular hexagons, and a brief nuts-and-bolts exploration of the reason for the hexagonality of snowflakes, honeycombs, and, well, nuts and bolts.
HexActly is appropriately packaged in a hexagonal box. There are 24 wooden pieces: six single hexagons, six double hexagons, three triple hexagons, three quadruple hexagons and six The box is colorfully illustrated with just enough examples of different structures that can be built using the collection of pieces included in the set. Some of the structures are three-dimensional, and require almost as much dexterity as reasoning to replicate.
The pieces come in five different, bright colors, inviting the eye and suggesting the possibility that you could not only create different structures, but also different patterns. Different colors might offer a different collection of shapes from the others. For example, though yellow and orange have exactly the same distribution of shapes, the other three colors each offer a different combination. So once you get refined enough in your exploration of the various designs you can create, you learn to work within the constraints of what each color offers.
There are three different levels of puzzles, and each includes a target shape, plus the challenge to create that shape with different amounts of pieces.
All in all, HexActly is a lovely invitation to creative and intellectual fun, and, as hard to believe as it may be, it’s as fun for a 3-year-old as it is for the cognitively mature. Fun? HexActly!
There are two kinds of Dado Planks: notched and unnotched. The notched planks each have six notches, three on a side. You get 55 of these. You can take two notched planks and fit them together so that one is connected vertically, or horizontally. I’m telling you that because that makes the whole system geometrically more interesting, geometrically more capable of being used to create geometrically more amazing architectural and geometric wonders.
There are 51 of the other kind of planks – the notchless. But they are far more functional than you might think. Not only are they useful for bridge-, roof-, wall-, and decoration-making; but they can also be used build between the notches, and to help lock perpendicularly-joined notched planks together.
Dado Planks is a discovery as much as it is a construction toy. The set lends itself to so many different architectural explorations that adults find it as worthy of their advanced play skills as children do. And, should you be in the right mood, you can make up games, you can build things together, you can join structures, you can try to make things with your eyes closed, you can sit in pairs, side-by-side, arms around each other’s backs, and see what you can build together using only your free hands.
True, there is some slight variance in the width of the notches. Those planks possessing this variance have a tendency not to lock together as securely as others, most often if both are upright. And, also true, this is somewhat of a disappointment, somewhat of an imperfection in execution. Unless, of course, you find yourself caught up in the spirit of the whole toy: the exploration, the creativity, the desire to investigate every affordance of the planks and notches. And then, even this less-than-perfect fit leads to the building of structures whose components can slide. Or, should you demand the non-sliding fit, you can turn one of the planks horizontally, and see where that takes you.
There is so much to play with: color, balance, design. So many different constructs you can make: towers, bridges, robots, monsters. And when you’re finished playing, if you absolutely have to put it away, it all stores quickly in a commodious drawstring bag.
Sturdy, colorful, flexible, Dado Planks can support hours of play, and then, well, geometrically more hours. A toy to catch the reason and imagination of kids, adults, family and friends. It is recommended for people 3 and older, and is another Major Fun award-winning creation from FatBrain Toys
What’s, you are sorely tempted to ask, The Big Idea? It’s a party game. It’s a creative/persuasive party game with cards. The kind of creative/persuasive card game for parties that makes people laugh.
You get a lot of cards. A lot. There’s your “item cards’ – 92 of them. And then there’s your “description cards” – 92 of them also. And then your 6 “medal” cards and 24 “blank” cards which altogether make up your “vote” cards for up to 6 players, or teams. Beautifully, colorfully, invitingly illustrated cards (the blanks, not so much).
So, let’s say you have six players. You give each player or team four blank cards and one medal card. Then you shuffle all the “item cards” in one pile, shuffle all the “description cards” in the other, and each player gets three from each pile.
Then everyone gets very quiet, except for the occasional irrepressible chuckle, meditating on their cards, combining as many as they want into an idea for an invention of irresistible ingenuity , and then preparing an equally irresistibly ingenious sales pitch. They then take turns making their pitch. After the last pitch is made, someone summarizes all the various inventions, and the voting begins. Voting cards are placed, face-down, beside each player’s invention pile – each player giving a medal card to the one invention they thought the most inventive, and a blank card to all the others. At the end of the round, the player with the fewest medals loses. Several rounds are played. The player or team or, in case of a tie, players or teams to have received the fewest medals loses or lose.
That’s it. That’s the Big Idea. And even though it may remind you of other party games we have already so highly recommended, it’s unique for so many good reasons, three of which are: the two different kinds of cards, the voting mechanism, and the method for determining the winner. All three result in a uniquely fun and funny experience.
1) Having both nouns and adjectives as resources seems to add inspiration for even greater humor and creativity – not only have you invented the world’s first underpants that also can be used as a can-opener, but these are desktop panty can-openers, designed so they invisibly blend in with your other office accoutrements, whilst remaining at the ready for your less official functions.
2) The voting process is anonymous and painless so you can vote for anyone for any reason without having to explain yourself, and you only have to vote for the one you think is the best.
3) It doesn’t really matter how many people think your invention is the best. All that’s important is that you managed to get at least one vote. This makes for a much gentler competition, resulting in more laughter, and a more light-hearted, creative play experience.
The Big Idea is published by Funforge. It can be played 3-6 players or teams. The minimum recommended age is eight. It was designed by James Ernest and lovingly illustrated by Stéphane Boutin. At least two more kudos for their efficient and attractive packaging – the box is just large enough to contain the all the cards.
SmartMax is a magnetic construction toy. It looks somewhat familiar – a set of magnetic balls that act as connectors for magnetic rods. But everything is enlarged and covered in plastic. Which makes it something new, something genuinely playworthy, something perfect for little hands, and too big for little mouths.
Actually, it’s even more perfect than that.
It’s very easy for kids, little or larger, to build with it. There’s nothing that has to be fit to anything, because the pieces join magnetically. So very little dexterity is required – so little that the manufacturers recommend it for children one year old and up.
Older children will find themselves strangely attracted, if you excuse the expression, to some of the more subtle aspects of the design. It turns out that you can’t get the ends of the same-colored bars to stick together. And then, on further exploration, you discover that you also can’t get the warm-colored bars (yellow, orange and red) to stick to each other, while you can barely keep them from sticking to the ends of the cold-colored bars (green, blue and purple). Were you old enough to need an explanation for such a phenomenal phenomenon, you would probably find yourself talking about magnetic poles and the laws of like and unlike, attraction and repulsion. If you were young enough, however, you would find yourself experiencing something close to true magic, playing with the different color rods and touching the wonder of what you can or can’t make them do.
You might also notice that the grey balls connect to all the rods, and vice-versa. There is genuine delight to be found as you discover how pivotally useful those grey balls prove themselves to be.
And further, should you be very observant, you might even notice that the longer bars seem to hold more strongly to things than the shorter bars.
So much to discover. So much to play with. So easy to build with. So wonderfully surprisingly fun.
One nit that we find ourselves having to pick – the enclosed booklet. It is not an instruction booklet. It is not an idea booklet. It is a marketing booklet, illustrating the multitudinous marvels of the SmartMax system, including some pieces that, in all likelihood, are not part of the set you purchased, even should you have purchased the top-of-the-line SmartMax Basic 42. We recommend that you keep the booklet filed somewhere else, where children won’t see it, lest you kindle unslakable SmartMax lust. Well, perhaps slakable, depending on how much you’re ready to spend. O, yes, the curved pieces and all their constructively curvy implications that would be yours to explore had you purchased the SmartMax Basic 36. And yet, and yet all the wonderful things you can build with the minor multitude of straight pieces found in the SmartMax Basic 42.
By the way, and beyond, there is also the SmartMax Basic Stunt with tracks and platforms and wheels that snap to the rods to make deliciously smooth-rolling car- and truck-like things. This one is more like a kit, and can get frustrating for smaller children – especially if the child sees the image on the box (as usual, there are no instructions or illustrations pertaining to what else you might do with this set). But the cars (just add wheels, and maybe a cab or truck body) are so intriguingly magnetic, so easily coupled and/or pushed away; and the tracks and platforms lend themselves to hours of rolling around fantasy. And the smaller, also kit-like, but equally attractive SmartMax Drive and Fly looks like it would prove an equally welcome addition to the SmartMax repertoire.
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.
Think-ets comes with a variety of games you can play with the included gewgaws and trinkets. These games suggest an infinite number of variations and new games that can be created by a fertile mind. Too many for the space we have here and a big part of why Think-ets (in all its iterations) is Major Fun.
But despite all the games that can be played when you open one of these packages, I’m not going to talk about the games. Instead I’m going to talk about what makes Think-ets such a great toy as opposed to a game.
Pause and regroup. Let’s get some of the basics out of the way.
Think-ets come in a variety of packages but they all contain an assortment of trinkets. The one I am currently looking at is the “Genius” edition. A tin box (common size for gum or mints) contains 15 small trinkets such as an arrowhead, a polar bear, a compass (functional), a tomato, and a twelve-sided die: the kind of assortment you would find at the bottom of a toy chest or under the cushions in the family couch. The box also contains a small pencil, a pad of paper, and an instruction booklet. The booklet suggests about a dozen games that you can play with the Think-ets but…
A quick story. When I handed my daughter (9) and one of her best friends (11) a couple of bags of Think-ets, one of the first things they did was arrange the pieces. My daughter went for shape and color and her friend by alphabetical order. They created other patterns and spent half an hour or more just moving the pieces into lines. This actually seemed to fit some of the games mentioned in the instructions, so I suggested one of the other games and they shrugged without much enthusiasm but went right on playing with the pieces. They soon left the table and went off to incorporate the Think-ets into a rather complicated game of school they had going upstairs.
My guess is that most people will experience Think-ets in the way my daughter and her friend did. They are fascinating toys. They are vehicles for imaginative play, and in this capacity they are incredibly engaging. For a game to work—for anything to be considered a game in the first place—the players must agree to follow a set of rules; a prescribed set of behaviors must be followed. A game is a common set of behaviors. By contrast, a toy might suggest methods of play, but a toy is not limited to a single set of actions. You want your cowboy action figure to dive to Atlantis? Fine. You want it to actually be a dog instead of a human? Sure. That dog has a pet spider that looks a lot like my car keys? That’s great…
Hey! Gimme my keys!
Think-ets are Major Fun not because of the games that are included in the package, but because the collection of trinkets lends itself so well to the imagination. We made up stories about the pieces. We stacked them and lined them up and shook them in the tin. We scattered them across the table and made up games that lasted two moves before we changed the game. And then changed it again. The sundry items are wonderful to hold in your hand or move around a table top. They inspire stories and games and conversations and (best of all)
You, of course, remember the original, Major Fun award-winning Q-BA-MAZE. And you were probably wondering what could have happened to this marvel of marble-dropping merriment. Wonder no more. Or, wonder again at the wonderment now once again available thanks to Mindware‘s new release of Q-BA-MAZE 2.0? Similar in every way to the original Q-BA-MAZE, yet significantly more affordable.
Q-BA-MAZE 2.0 comes in two different packages. The “starter sets” include a more than ample 36 lovely acrylic pieces and 14 steel marbles. There are two sets which are identical except for color. One set features cool colors (green, blue and clear), the other warm (red, yellow and clear). And the there’s the “Big Box,” which combines both of the starter sets into one gloriously absorbing multi-marble-fall construction kit.
Each set includes three different block styles to choose from (nine bottom-exit cubes, 18 single-exit cubes, and, my favorite, nine double-exit cubes). These double-exit cubes feature a truly ingenious structure which often makes the marble hesitate for an unknowable period just before it makes up its steely mind as to which exit to take. When you drop a whole bunch of marbles into your construct at the same time, the varying delay creates precisely enough suspenseful randomness to give you a different result each time.
There are also two ways each of the blocks go together, which, combined with all the other transparently blocky affordances, turns out to be precisely enough flexibility to engage you in many, many hours of creatively constructive engagement. Furthermore, there are no dead ends. No mater how complex your construct, the marbles will inevitably find their way out, one way or an other.
I asked the designer to explain more about the improvements in the new version. He generous answer will probably tell you more than you want to know, but, in case you wondered:
This new partnership between Q-BA-MAZE and MindWare is a great match. It contributes all of their skill and experience in the production, distribution and customer service side of brainy toys, while it frees time for me as the inventor to dream up new ideas.
I have always thought of the cubes as the base of an ever-expanding marble run construction system. Now that vision is poised to become a reality. I am currently working on half a dozen new Q-BA-MAZE extensions and am so excited for these to get out into the hands of creative kids everywhere!
ENGINEERING THE NEW CUBES
The engineering of the new cubes was the first step in the partnership with MindWare.
Since we were making new molds, it made sense to take the opportunity to let the design evolve and improve upon the original.
Q-BA-MAZE cubes have both “bottom pegs” and “side joints.” I’ll discuss these separately below. Some of the points are pretty technical and difficult to state succinctly.
A: BOTTOM PEG SHAPE: If you compare the original Q-BA-MAZE cube and the new Q-BA-MAZE 2.0 cube, you will see that bottom pegs were originally cylindrical but are now more like rounded squares with the greater roundness facing the outside corners.
This change in shape has two effects:
STACKED FOUR PEG CONNECTION:
When stacking Q-BA-MAZE cubes vertically, they are meant to be stacked with a “four peg connection” and not a “two peg connection”. The rounded outside corners of the new bottom pegs give a visual and tactile cue to the user that the “four peg connection” is the way to go and the “two peg connection” is like putting a square peg in a round hole.
The original cylindrical bottom pegs provided no such visual or tactile cue to avoid the “two peg connection.” Q-BA-MAZE structures are most stable when relying on “four peg connections” and “side joint” connections and avoiding “two peg connections.”
When cubes are horizontally offset, the way to connect them is with the “side joints” which are super stable (ie the joint is nearly 3/4″ tall on a 1 1/2″ tall piece and thus does a great job of resisting rotation in all directions). The new squared off look of the bottom pegs, in addition to the diagrams in MindWare’s new instruction pamphlets that come with each set, will help ensure that people learn to build with Q-BA-MAZE using the stable “four peg connection” and using the super stable “side joints” rather than “two peg connections”
As this new bottom peg design points people toward this most stable way of building, they will create more stable structures.
2) ROTATION RESISTANCE CONTRIBUTED BY THE BOTTOM PEGS IN SIDE-JOINED CUBES:
Take two single-exit cubes and then attach them using the side joint of the upper cube so that the side joint of the lower cube is immediately under the upper cube. You will notice that the upper cube rests on top of the lower cube’s side joint.
Now if you compare the original cubes and the new Q-BA-MAZE 2.0 cubes in this configuration, try rotating the upper cube clockwise or counter-clockwise in the vertical plane of the abutting faces of the two cubes.
You will notice that the new cubes are resisting this rotation for some reason and not “popping out” the way the original cubes do under similar rotational force.
Look closely at the side joint of the lower cube when you are doing this rotation. You will notice that the “bottom peg” eventually comes into contact with the side joint of the lower cube. Due to the squared off nature of the new bottom pegs, the bottom pegs of the upper cube engage with and do not slip past the side joint of the lower cube during this rotation.
Do the same inspection with the original cubes and you’ll see that the cylindrical bottom pegs roundness makes them slip past the side joint of the lower cube during this rotation.
This greater resistance to rotation is helpful especially when making Q-BA-MAZE structures with longer cantilevers and for holding these cantilevers in a more stable and orthogonal orientation.
B: BOTTOM PEG HEIGHT: The new bottom pegs are a little taller than the old bottom pegs – so they sink a little deeper into a cube below.
SIDE JOINT FIT: The side joints of the new Q-BA-MAZE 2.0 have a more uniformly snug fit than the original due to increases in the draft angle of the cube walls and side joint. The increased draft angle makes it easier when tuning the production mold to get that “just right” Goldilocks balance in which the cubes are neither too loose nor too tight.
Individually and together, these engineering improvements to both the side joints and bottom pegs provide even greater stability than the first generation Q-BA-MAZE cubes.
What’s more, all the rich library of detailed plans created by the designer of the original Q-BA-MAZE are still available, online, on Andrew Comfort’s Q-BA-MAZingly generous website.
LEGO is an elemental media of play: stick, ball, box, and LEGO. It is impossible for me to think about my childhood without LEGO present. Colorful blocks. An ingenious locking mechanism. Simple pieces that can be combined into vast worlds. I am constantly amazed with the ways children can expand on the idea. I am also impressed with how the designers at LEGO suggest new and engaging ways for children and adults to think about this toy.
LEGO Champion adds another magnificent, Major Fun title to the company’s growing catalogue of board games AND it succeeds by utilizing the most basic piece of the LEGO universe: the 2×4 block.
Sometimes I get overwhelmed when I see all the different pieces that comprise the LEGO universe. Many are highly specialized pieces that were created for the themed sets. LEGO Champion eschews the custom pieces and delights the competitors with challenges that are based on only simple blocks. The game consists of a simple, rectangular game board; 8 LEGO people (each a different color); a LEGO Dice; and lots of 2×4 blocks (matching the colors of the LEGO people). The playing board must be constructed but it is very simple and clear instructions are included. Preparing the game for the first time didn’t take more than a few minutes.
Play moves clockwise. On his or her turn, each player rolls the LEGO Dice. Each face of the die is a solid color (red, yellow, purple, blue, orange, and green) that represents a type of challenge. When a color is rolled, that color of brick is placed on the game board, the player advances to that color, and a challenge ensues.
If green is rolled, JUMP AHEAD. The player simply advances to a green block and stops.
If red is rolled, the game is ON TARGET. The LEGO Dice is placed on the table and each player throws one LEGO brick at it. Closest wins.
Blue is CODEBREAKER. The roller puts three blocks together and the other players have to guess the order by asking only yes or no questions.
BLUFFING BRICKS is on orange. Every player grabs three bricks WITHOUT looking at them. Players bid on how many of one color are held in the hands.
Yellow TOPPLE TOWER was a big favorite. The roller places one brick on the table. The next person must snap together 2 bricks and balance them on the first. Play continues with each person snapping together one more block than the person before.
But purple SPEED BUILDER stole the show. The roller creates a sculpture of 8 bricks (one of each color) while the other players close their eyes. When the sculpture is revealed, the other players race to be the first to copy the creation.
The game is wonderfully customizable and the directions (oh those elegant, well-organized directions!!) encourage players to make up new challenges. The LEGO Dice can be modified in many ways—the game comes with four other faces that can be swapped onto the die (the bowling challenge was a blast). We were coming up with all sorts of games and variations as we played. Some of ours might turn out to be duds, but LEGO provides so many Major Fun examples that given a little time, families and friends will begin to accumulate their own personal favorites.
LEGO Champion really takes me back to what makes LEGO so vital and fun in the first place. It’s the same principle that often makes the box more fun than the toy in which it was wrapped. People want to play, and all they need are a few versatile pieces and some suggestions. Once they get going, the fun endures and grows.
Tell Tale is a story-building game using a deck of 60, two-sided, circular cards. There’s a different, evocative drawing on each side of each card.
To play Tell Tale, you use some or all of the deck, turning cards over one at a time, weaving each image into something like a story, or a dream, or maybe a myth or a fable, or a joke or riddle, or a stream-of-conscious dadaist work of near art.
You can play by yourself, you can play together, you can play with kids as young as five, you can play with as many as eight, and maybe even more.
There are two things that contribute to making this game so much fun. OK, maybe three.
First, the art. Hervé Gourdet’s drawings are clear and easy to interpret, and, whenever possible, humorous; but the colors are often dreamlike, conveying a hint of emotion.
Then there’s the two-sidedness. Some cards have related, but opposite images on each side (a heart on one, a broken heart on the other); some are just related (a rainstorm on one, lightning on the other). And then there’s one side of one card that simply says “the end.” This not only gives you twice as many images, but also everlasting surprise. All of the games that you play (there are four of them described in the rules) involve turning cards over one at a time, so you have no idea what image you’re going to get until you get it.
Then there’s the roundness of the cards and the wonderfully colorful tin they can be so easily carried around in, which have nothing to do with the game play, but help make the whole thing more endearing, more like something you want to carry around with you everywhere.
Wordsmiths, rejoice, for you have at last been granted your game. Assemble your friends (three, at least; the more, the most definitely merrier). Assemble your wits and your sense of humor. Assemble your word parts.
To play Faux-Cabulary is to find oneself suddenly thrust into an intensely focused wordsmithy, where one’s inner wordsmith is challenged to cavort creatively whilst competing somewhat anonymously for the favor of the Wordmeister who determines which player (or team of players) has most successfully forged the perfect verbal coin, so to speak.
Faux-Cabulary is an ingeniously silly word game. One might even say “intelligently” when it comes to describing the silly that Faux-Cabulary brings into being – what one might call hyper-silly-icious, were one of that disposition, and should one find those particular word parts on three of one’s collection of word part cubes.
If one were counting, one would find 21 of such cubes in one’s Faux-Cabulary set, each face of each cube imprinted with a different word part. Along with the aforementioned cubes, one would also find 180, two-sided definition cards, each of which is so cannily worded so as to cause the silliness to leap several quanta. I exemplify: “That squishy, icy-cold last cherry tomato in the salad bar,” and “The aftertaste of a burp,” and “To constantly spend too much time in the rest room,” and “A person who gets pumped-up by listening to easy-listening music.”
One would similarly find six “cube covers.” These are cleverly designed cube-hiders, assemblers and conveyors, made of thin, but sturdy plastic, which one uses to: 1) hide one’s cubes from view as one is determining precisely which of the six faces of each of one’s three (or conceivably two or even one) word-part cubes to employ, in which order; 2) to cover one’s assembled cubes and 3) to convey one’s assembly to the current “Wordmeister” (a different Wordmeister meistering each round of play).
Key to playing Faux-Cabulary is to recognize that the goal is not to be “correct” (since that is impossible), but to know your Wordmeister well enough to be the whose “word” gets picked. Hence the humor, the outrageousness, the verbal shenanigans, the sheer, lovely, friendly silliness.
The game is designed by Matt Nuccio (click the link to read about the evolution of the design), graphics are by Design Edge, John Kovalic, and Cathleen Quinn-Kinney. This wonderfully fun, creative game is available, as one might guess, from Out of the Box Publishing.
The MAJOR FUN AWARDS go to games and people that bring people fun, and to any organization managing to make the world more fun through its own personal contributions, and through the products it has managed to bring to the market.