SmartMax – the Barrel

Filed Under (Creative, Keeper, Kids Games, Toys) by Bernie DeKoven on 14-10-2014

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.

Squigz Benders

Filed Under (Creative) by Bernie DeKoven on 19-09-2014

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.

Keva Brain Builders

Filed Under (Creative, Dexterity, Puzzles, Thinking Games, Toys) by Will Bain on 18-06-2014

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Keva Brain BuilderIf you missed my earlier post about Keva planks and the fun of destruction, you can check it out here.

Keva planks are precision cut wooden building blocks. They measure about a quarter of an inch thick and the proportion of their dimensions is 1:3:15 (1 unit thick, 3 units wide, and 15 units long). The uniformity and quality of the Keva plank construction makes them ideal for building very complex and very stable structures.

Turns out, they also make for an interesting brain-teaser.

In essence, Keva Brain Builders is an exercise in architectural design and perspective drawing. The game comes with 20 planks and 30 puzzle cards. The cards are double sided. On the puzzle side is shown a diagram of something the player needs to build. The diagram shows the figure in top view, side view, and front view. The planks are color coded to indicate which side you are looking at in each view.

Your challenge is to build the structure so that it matches the picture on the solution side of the card.

The cards come in three difficulty levels. The easy ones are very simple both in the structure’s complexity and in the amount of balance it takes to create the structure. As the puzzles get harder, the diagrams become somewhat more difficult to suss out, but the manual dexterity to build the solutions becomes much more challenging.

01 AwardKeva Brain Builders lends itself to free play. Although many of us at Major Fun liked playing with the challenge cards, just as many liked building our own structures. I imagine that there will be many kids who will be perfectly happy to take the planks and make their own designs. I had fun trying to come up with complicated designs that I would then draw in all three perspectives.

Ultimately, this is a great introduction into Keva planks, it’s a nice small building set, and the puzzle challenges are a clever way to improve spatial awareness. It comes in a compact, zippered pouch; although if your household is anything like mine, that will get stuffed with dolls and the Keva planks will be incorporated into some other Frankenstein structure of train tracks, Lego, and toilet paper rolls.

Solo play. Ages 7+

Keva Brain Builders is © 2014 by MindWare.

The Storymatic

Filed Under (Creative) by Will Bain on 27-09-2013

The StorymaticWe have the tendency to think of creativity as an expression of freedom and as such we tend to believe that it requires unlimited choice—maybe even anarchy—to fully bloom. In movies we often see the artistic protagonist stifled by too many rules. In these stories the authority figures and the rules become the villains to be overcome so that creativity and free expression can thrive.

Although I believe that a society that feels free to share in a wide variety of artistic visions is indeed a stronger, more vibrant society than one that represses all but a few sanctioned styles I do not believe that creativity itself is helped by freedom. In fact, I’ll go so far as to say that creativity is not a product of freedom but rather a product of limitation. In other words, we are most creative when we are confronted by rules and boundaries.

The Storymatic is a creative game in the same way that Rory’s Story Cubes, Thinkets, and Dixit are creative games. Although you could make a competitive game out of them, the fun comes from the realization of a creative process. You don’t win these games by earning points and beating your opponents. You win these games by making something that you want to share.

The Storymatic box comes packed with cards: gold cards and copper cards. The gold cards generally refer to people (amputee, a not-so-good Samaritan, a prisoner of war, etc…) while the copper cards generally refer to places and things and events (first day on the job, plastic flowers, what was left behind, etc…). At its simplest form, the game of Storymatic requires that you draw two gold cards and two copper cards. Combine the two gold cards to make your character. The copper cards must be an important part of your character’s story. The deck of cards has now placed some limits on you and it is up to your creativity to make something beautiful.

Major Fun AwardThere are two other rules that you have to observe: your character must change over the course of the story (without change there is no story) and you cannot kill your main character (it might certainly be a change but that leaves few places to go). Now write.

If you’d like some more variety to the challenge then The Storymatic includes several other ideas of how to play. Some of these they suggest for actors who want to work on improv but all the exercises give any creative person new ways to think about characters and conflict. Want to play with a big group of friends? Storymatic suggests a party game variation that based on the classic exquisite corpse.

Thinking outside the box is the heart of creativity. But it does require a box. Fortunately, The Storymatic provides a great one that encourages you to break out in Major Fun ways.

The Extraordinaires Design Studio

Filed Under (Creative) by Bernie DeKoven on 25-09-2013

extraordinaire

The Extraordinaires Design Studio comes to us from Anita Murphy and Rory O’Conner, creators of Rory’s Story Cubes. In both design and execution it reflects the depth of  their understanding of and appreciation for the fun of the creative process. What the Story Cubes did to invite children to channel their imagination and develop their skills at story telling, the Extroardinaires Design Studio does for creative problem solving.

The Design Studio comes in a hard plastic case. It looks and feels like a laptop computer. Open it, and there are compartments for the large, colorful, beautifully illustrated Extraordinaire cards. Each card displays the drawing of a fantasy character. On the back of the card, select scenes from that character’s life. Another compartment contains the object cards describing what particular thing you will be creating for your chosen Extraordinaire. Another compartment houses a collection of “Think Cards,” prompting you to think through the development of your work. There’s a lovely tablet of graph-like design sheets that can be used as guides to draw in perspective, or not, and a fine-pointed pen for the fine points.

The case itself is so well-made, the components fitting so snugly, that it makes you feel designerly, and respected, even. The cards invite fantasy and creativity. There’s even an app so you can share your completed designs with the known universe.

Figure Head Bed

If you click on the image (above) it will take you to the Extraordinaire gallery – where we found this particular Figure Head Bed invention (uploaded to the gallery via the Extraordinaire app). Below the image there’s a sound file allowing you to hear the inventor explain her creation.

Major Fun Award

There’s genius here. Ingenious genius. There’s genius in the design and execution. There’s genius in the recognition of not only the joy of ingenuity, but the delight inherent in the conversations that accompany ingenuity. There’s the invitation to be a genius and use your ingenuity. And, even more important, there’s fun, genuine, creative, major fun. You can play it by yourself. You can play it with together with a bunch of people (though we recommend the smaller bunch version, the designers make it clear that you can, if you so desire, play with more than six players). Playing together gives each of you the opportunity to explain your design, and that turns out to be at least as much fun in the telling and listening as it is in the designing.

There are three different levels of cards, each level presenting more complex characters. There are award cards (five different kinds) so you can give each player a different award, or, if you’re playing competitively, you can each try to get as many different awards possible. There are very useful recommendations for how to present your completed design.

We found it fun enough as a solitaire activity, but even more fun in the company of others. The award cards help players apply different criteria to their inventions, giving them a richer perspective on their designs. But it’s as good to know that you can, if you need to, get competitive about the whole thing as it is to know that there’s no real reason to.

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Recommended for ingenious people 8 and older.

Squigz

Filed Under (Creative, Family Games, Toys) by Bernie DeKoven on 11-07-2013

Squigz

squigz on my head Squigz are, as advertised “fun little suckers.” They are, also as advertised, an invitation to explore the architectural attributes of “suction construction.” Stick them on a window, on a mirror, on any “flat surface with no residue,” as illustrated.

And, of course, you can stick them to each other. Thus, given the Squigz-appropriate flat surface with no residue nature of it all, your Squigz could very well prove to be the ultimate bathtub construction toy.

Squigz squeezable construction toy with suction cupsIf you’re the kind of kid who likes to play with dolls, Squigz look exactly like people and funny animals and things. And you can stick them together and make them look even more (or less) people- or animal-like. You can make them hug each other and hold hands and take each other for walks. You might not even get as far as sticking them on the window or refrigerator.

Squigz DeluxeOn the other hand, if you’re just a little older, and you’re the LEGO-playing-kind, you spend lots of time finding out what they can stick on and how they can stick on each other and how high you can build them before they fall over and maybe you make bridges and arches and Martian landscapes with castles and weird animals and things. And if you stick them together and then pull them apart just right, they make shockingly loud popping sounds.

Major Fun Award

There’s a Starter Set (shown at the beginning of this post) with 24 pieces. And for twice as much, there’s the Deluxe set with 50. They are, of course, both good investments in creative and often funny family play. We, however, recommend going deluxe, having discovered that they’re just too much fun. Squigz. Soft, squeezable, silicone. Colorful. Eight different shapes, each a different color. Suitable for children as young as three, and as old as you. Be sure to let the young ones have a turn.

From FatBrain Toys.

 

Dixit Expansion Packs

Filed Under (Creative, Family Games, Party Games) by Bernie DeKoven on 30-06-2013

Dixit won a Major Fun award almost four years ago, and we still regard it as a milestone in creative play. Easy to learn, inviting creativity, fantasy, and humor; Dixit remains a unique family- or party-game experience. The clever game design by Jean-Louis Roubira allows for a very gentle competition – just enough to keep everyone engaged, and no one overwhelmed.

As anyone who has played the game will tell you, much of the play value of the game comes from the extraordinarily evocative art by Marie Cardouat. The images on each card can be interpreted in so many different ways that, almost no matter how often the game is played, the cards take on a new significance for each player.

Further enriching the game, the publisher has introduced two expansion sets, each containing 84 new cards, each adding depth, beauty, and enticement to imaginative play.

party-family-creative

HexActly

Filed Under (Creative, Dexterity, Family Games, Puzzles, Toys) by Bernie DeKoven on 09-09-2012

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!

From Fatbrain Toys.

 

Dado Planks

Filed Under (Creative, Toys) by Bernie DeKoven on 26-08-2012

Dado Planks is a construction toy. It’s a new addition to the Dado family: Dado Cubes, for example,  Dado Squares for another.

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

 

The Big Idea

Filed Under (Creative, Party Games) by Bernie DeKoven on 06-08-2012

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.