Dragon Face is a Keeper!!

Filed Under (Keeper, Tops for 2011) by Will Bain on 02-10-2011

When it comes to Dragon Face, I don’t think there is much praise that can top the fact that over the past several months the nuances of this game have yet to get old. If anything, they continue to multiply. There are no sure-fire strategies. This means that there are multiple levels of play. There are subtleties that you can explore over multiple games. There are layers of choices that you will need to navigate with each new opponent.

Dragon Face is an elegant, robust strategy game, and although it is not laugh-a-nano-second fun like many of our Major Fun party games, it is deeply engaging in the way that only the best strategy games can be. This is fun for the chess set, and for those of you who have not succumbed to that particular addiction, Dragon Face may be your gateway drug.

The game is arranged on a grid that will be instantly familiar to anyone who has ever played checkers or chess. The pieces are double sided discs that resemble checker pieces but with three distinct designs. Each player has seven governors, six ambassadors, and one emperor. Governors move and attack like pawns in chess, governors move like queens, and the emperor moves like the chess king. Unlike chess, captured opponents are not removed from the board. When you capture an opponent’s piece, you jump over it (like in checkers), and that piece is flipped over to become one of your pieces. There is a ring of spaces around the playing field called the “sacrifice zone.” You may jump into this space to capture an opponent’s piece BUT your piece is stuck in the sacrifice zone. Sacrificed ambassadors can be freed if you advance a governor to the opposite end of the board.

The mechanics of flipping and sacrificing make for nerve-wracking games. A single capture can swing the momentum of a game because you can gain pieces that your opponent had not considered in a defense strategy. The sacrifice zone also makes the “edge” of the board dangerous. There are few safe zones; over-extending is a grave error.

If you are going to receive this game from me it will be as a shrink-wrapped gift, fresh from some retail establishment OR you are the one lucky person to whom I bequeathed my copy upon my death. There will be no lending of this keeper, and theft will unleash the hounds of hell.

2 players. Ages 8+

Dragon Face designed by Thierry Denoul. © 2011 by Blue Orange Games.

Pajaggle is a Keeper

Filed Under (Family Games, Keeper, Kids Games, Party Games, Puzzles, Tops for 2011) by Bernie DeKoven on 27-03-2011

Remember the kids’ game called Perfection? That, in a very far-fetched way, is Pajaggle. Only not.

Pajaggle is far more fetching. And it’s not just for kids. It is a precision made, laser-cut, acrylic puzzle/game. The pieces look a little like gears – very fine-toothed gears, some round-toothed, some very, very pointy. Some larger, some smaller, some with other pieces inside. There are a total of 61 pieces, no two of which are alike. The challenge – fit the pieces into their corresponding sockets. Which reminds you, correctly but vaguely, of that round-peg, square-hole thing.

Eventually, of course, almost anybody can solve a Pajaggle. It’s not that kind of puzzle. It’s the kind of puzzle you time yourself solving. Which explains the precision electronic timer included in every set. The more you Pajaggle, the less time it takes. It’s an oddly informative fun to watch yourself improve – not that it means anything about you or your skills at anything (unless you work on an assembly line) – but that you can actually see yourself learn and experience yourself having fun doing it. And when you Pajaggle with others (a few others, even one other), you can learn how much better you can do, and how much fun it can be to Pajaggle together.

Pajaggle is “museum priced” [deservedly so: all that beautifully hand-made, laser-cut acrylic; the added niceties like the timer, the “Pajaggle Throw,” the backpackable bag for the board, the bag for the pieces; the “Pajiggler” rod for dislodging Pajiggles, and, of course, all those games].

“Pajaggle Throw?” you ask, wonderingly. Part of the art of Pajaggling requires that you begin with an empty board. To empty the board, without losing any of the pieces, is somewhat of an art in itself. You take your Pajaggle Throw, wrap the board in it, turn the board upside down so as to rest it on the drop cloth, lift the board, and behold, the majority of the pieces are now perfectly dislodged. For the few that aren’t, there’s your handy dePajaggling rod (Pajiggler) which fits in the conveniently provided holes in each of the sockets – also handy for removing Pajiggles (incorrectly placed Pajaggles).

There’s only one way to solve Pajaggle. But there are apparently endless ways to play with it. You can time yourself. You can time you and someone else or maybe two or three someone else’s all playing together. You can compete, giving each player an equal amount of pieces and seeing who can get rid of theirs first. All with only one Pajaggle board.

Which makes it as fun as a solitaire game as a family game as a party game.

Ultimately, however, you’re going to have to accept the truth that the more boards you have, the more games you can play or invent, and the more people you can involve. Reverse Chaos, for example, can be played with teams of maybe two or three players playing on maybe two or three or four boards, all at the same time. You put the boards in the center of the table, and the pieces in front of each team. Anybody can put any piece wherever it fits, despite what board it fits into. The object is to be the first team to use up all your pieces. You can get very competitive, or you can forget the competition all together and go for a new world record.

Designed by the Pajaggle Team, the puzzle/game is as lovely to display as it is to fun to play. When you’re finished playing, put a solved Pajaggle on your coffee table, with the timer nearby, and watch, smugly, as your guests get sucked in to some seriously shared delight.

Re. the Pajaggle/Perfection comparison, Pajaggle Team member Bill Witt comments: “Perfection, that’s a game of failure. Pajaggle is a game of success. Moreover, perfection is one game. Pajaggle is an endless array of games.” Excellent and most relevant distinctions. The very reason why Pajaggle received the Major Fun award.


After two months of extensive Pajaggling, after managing to shave actual minutes off our combined Pajaggle-solving time (which reminds me, we discovered that Pajaggling is as much fun when we solve it together as when by ourselves – another way of playing with a puzzle that seems to be unique to Pajaggle), after loaning a Pajaggle out to each of our Tasters (and asking them again and again to give the Pajaggles back) Pajaggle becomes the first puzzle game to receive the Major Fun Keeper award.

Rory’s Story Cubes is a Keeper!

Filed Under (Creative, Family Games, Keeper, Kids Games, Library, Party Games, Tops for 2010, Word Games) by Bernie DeKoven on 03-11-2010

Rory's Story Cubes

As you no doubt know, Rory’s Story Cubes has proven itself to be the kind of game the Major Fun award is here to let you know about. It’s easy to learn, engaging, it brings people together, encourages people to think and laugh together, it involves creativity and communication, empathy and collaboration.  It’s easy to store, easy to take everywhere, well-made, well-packaged, creative fun for everyone who plays it – young, old, young and old together.

Major Fun Keeper AwardAfter playing and playing Rory’s Story Cubes – with children and adults and younger children and older adults, in living rooms and dining rooms and restaurants and school rooms, we have all come to the same conclusion. It’s a Keeper.

It’s the kind of game that you’ll want to keep, so that you can share it with others.

It’s the kind of game you can make your own.

There are many ways to play it. The package gives us a good sample of some of them.  More can be found on the Rory’s Story Cubes website. The best are those that you invent together, with whomever you happen to be playing with. You don’t even have to make a story with them. Maybe you can take turns putting them in order and then explaining to everyone why you organized them that way. Or roll a die and explain to everyone why what you rolled is the most meaningful thing in the universe, and then take turns, each player rolling the another die and explaining why it is even more meaningful than the other. Or, roll three dice and then roll a fourth and explain how that die connects all three. Or, using three dice, take turns making up a story that is as close as you can get to being the opposite interpretation of what the three dice stand for.

In other words, it’s an opportunity for you to create your own games – free-form, open-ended, make-up-your-own-rules-as-you-go-along story-telling fun.

It’s a tool as much as it is a toy. You can introduce it to lighten people’s hearts and get them talking to each other. You can use it to break the tension during a meeting, to change the mood at a games party, to bring people together after dinner, to give people something constructive to do together.

The more people you play it with, the more ways you’ll find to play it. Rory’s Story Cubes is not even a game – it’s an invitation to genuine, creative, shared fun – the kind of fun that feels as good after you finish with it as it did when you were playing.

Spot It! is a Keeper!

Filed Under (Family Games, Keeper, Kids Games, Tops for 2010) by Bernie DeKoven on 05-10-2010

We are always on the lookout for ways to empower players to make a game their own. We believe that if a game is strong enough so that players can change the rules to make the game more fun – whatever they consider fun to be – with whomever they’re playing, then we have a game that we want to hold on to for a long, long time.

It turns out that the Major Fun award-winning game Spot-It! is just such a game. This is at least partly because of a rather unique approach to the way the game is played. Rather than being a single game with variations, Spot It! consists of 4 rounds of play, each focusing on a different “mini party game.”

These mini-games are artfully constructed, each proving a little more challenging than the other. The first two mini-games are races, players competing to be the first to match a central card. In the final two games, the competition is a little more personal, especially with 3 or more players. Here the goal is to make another player lose by adding cards to his or her collection. Since there is always a match between any two cards, you can, if you’re fast enough, select which player you want to compete against. Generally, you want to make sure that the winning player doesn’t. Unless it’s a grudge match, in which it can get, in a silly kind of way, quite brutal.

Because each mini party game uses the same cards, the overall message of the game is that there are at least 4 different ways to play it. And if there are 4, there must be more.

And, in practice, there are far more – every time you play with a different age group or in a different setting (in a restaurant, in the kitchen, a classrooople and as few as 2. We’ve played it in the library and dining room, on the table and on the floor, and every tm, a senior center), you find yourself modifying the rules, just a tad. This works so well because the core concept is so strong. The deck of 55 cards, the 50 different symbols, designed so that any two cards will have one, and only one matching symbol; the added visual challenge presented by the different sizes of the symbols; the circular cards that fit so nicely in your hand – combine to create an extremely flexible tool for open-ended play. We’ve played Spot-It with a lot of different people – seniors, adults, teens, tweens, school-age kids, even pre-schoolers. We’ve played it with as many as 6 peime we’ve played it, we’ve played it just a little bit differently, and regardless of how we’ve played it, or where, or with whom, we’ve consistently found it to be fun.

Spot-It! is funtastic!


Filed Under (Keeper, Thinking Games) by Bernie DeKoven on 18-07-2010

Kamisado is a strategy game for two players. There are basic rules. There are advanced rules. The basic rules can be explained in less than a minute: you can move a piece any number of squares in a straight line, either diagonally or vertically forward. After the first move, you can only move the piece whose color is the same as the square that your opponent’s piece landed on. The first player to get a piece to her opponent’s home row wins.

Each player has eight pieces. Each piece is a different color, matching one of the colors on the board. Which explains why the game itself is so visually appealing. The board unfolds into quite a large playing field (20″x20″). The plastic pieces are also large (two inches wide). They look like castles, each with a dragon nesting on top. On one set of pieces the dragons are shiny black, on the other, gold.

You can play a game in less than five minutes. Victory is satisfyingly sudden. Defeat, mercifully quick. You can play it with anyone old enough to understand checkers, and yet it is strategically deep enough to intrigue a chess player.

At first glance, the eight-page instruction booklet (10″ x 10″ – the same size as the board when it is folded) looks forbidding. But all you need read to play the game are a few rules. Once you’ve played a few rounds of the game, you’ll be more than motivated enough to read the rest of the booklet, as well as the accompanying eight-page booklet illustrating different moves. As you read more, you discover more possibilities and intricacies. You learn that a game can take many rounds to play. That the strange rings included in the game are used during these many-round games to crown a winning piece, and to give it extra powers for the next round. And on and on you go, discovering more and more nuances as your appreciation for the game, and your skills increase.

Everything about the presentation and packaging of the game reveals a deep appreciation for its play value and uniqueness. The size of the board and the pieces, the packaging, the art. Conceived by Peter Burley, with artistic design by Peter Dennis, Kamisado exemplifies the kind of thinking game that the Major FUN program was developed for – elegant, well-executed, easy to earn, appealing to a wide range of players, deep enough to play again and again.

Trapdoor Checkers is a Keeper

Filed Under (Family Games, Keeper, Thinking Games) by Bernie DeKoven on 26-06-2010

We reviewed Trapdoor Checkers here over a year ago – long enough to verify what we originally thought when we first reviewed the game. It’s fun. It’s unique. It’s well-made. It’s durable. The packaging survives repeated, enthusiastic play. It appeals to anyone old enough to enjoy checkers. It makes you think. And, from time to time, it makes you laugh.

We are happy to give Trapdoor Checkers our highest award.

“Just have fun. It’s Wicketball. It’s all good.”

Filed Under (Dexterity, Family Games, Keeper, Senior-Worthy, Tops for 2010) by Bernie DeKoven on 10-05-2010

If you can kick a ball, you can play it. If you can roll a ball, throw a ball, bounce a ball, you can play it. You can play it in the sand. You can play it in the snow. You can play it in the dirt. You can play it like golf, you can play it like croquet, you can play it like both games simultaneously. You can play it with kids, you can play it with seniors, you can play it with kids and seniors and anybody who wants to play. You can create your own course. You can make it very hard. You can make it just easy enough to make you want to keep playing. You can play it seriously, you can play it for fun.

YouTube Preview Image

It’s Wicketball.

It’s not something to be taken lightly, this Wicketball game. Just ask the postman who delivered our set. 65 pounds! Designer/publisher Bob Zoller explains that each wicket weighs 6.5 pounds. And you get eight of them. And two soccer balls. And then there are the flags clips and flags, and the DVD and the rules and the list of 64 more ways you can play Wicketball.

See, these wickets are solid metal. They’re designed to be banged into the ground with a sledgehammer, to resist seriously kicked soccer balls, to last pretty much forever.

Keeper AwardThe thing about Wicketball is that it can be played anyway that’s fun for you. They’re an invitation to creativity as much as they are to fun. You want to bowl the balls instead of kicking them, sure, why not? You want to kick the balls backwards, play on your hands and knees, play at night, play with your eyes closed? You want to make the course cover a few acres? You want to play in the snow or sand? You want to play with kids, with the whole family, with seniors, with the whole community? You want to play it like golf or croquet or more like soccer?

Just like Bob Zoller says: “Just have fun. It’s Wicketball. It’s all good.” It’s Major Fun!


Filed Under (Keeper, Thinking Games) by Bernie DeKoven on 27-11-2009

Didier Dhorbait’s abstract strategy game Siam is so beautifully crafted that you will treasure it even before you learn how to play it. Which is a good thing for two reasons: 1) the English translation of the rules is, well, very, shall we say, challenging, in a French kind of way; and 2) the rules are what some may call “unconventional,” requiring you to exercise some conceptual effort before you fully appreciate the cleverness and complexity underlying their comparative simplicity.

Fortunately, Arthur Reilly has written a satisfyingly clear English description of the rules – clear enough to help you through most of your preconceptions to a truly remarkable strategy game – one that you can play in ten minutes with anyone old enough to appreciate a good, abstract game.

The lovely wooden board is inscribed with a 5×5 matrix. There are three kinds of pieces: the elephants and rhinoceros figures are beautifully rendered, the elephants rearing on their hind legs, the rhinoceros sitting and looking like something out of a collection of Victorian grotesquerie. The other pieces look vaguely like mountains. And since the mountains are as big as the elephants and rhinoceros, the whole set conveys a sense of the fantastic.

One player plays the elephants (and moves first) the other, rhinoceroses.

The game begins with the three mountain pieces in a line in the center of the board. Players take turns doing one of the following: bringing a piece on to the board, taking a piece off the board, reorienting a piece, moving a piece (one space horizontally or vertically, in the direction being faced), or pushing other pieces. The object of the game is to be the first player to push a mountain off the board.

The pushing is where the conventions begin to get un-. If one of your pieces is facing a mountain, it can push the mountain in the direction in which it is facing. If two opposing pieces are facing each other, they cancel each other out. So neither can push or be pushed. If one your opponent’s piece is in line with yours, and you are not facing it, you can get pushed. If two of your opponent’s pieces are facing yours, you can also get pushed, even if you’re facing them. In fact, you can have a whole bunch of your pieces (well, up to 5) in a line, all facing the wrong way, and one of your opponent’s pieces, facing the right way, can push them all.

Then there are the rules about the edges of the board (all important, since that’s where you’re trying to push the mountains off of, as well as where your pieces can get pushed off and where they can be re-entered). Since they surround the board, it means that, unlike chess, checkers and the rest, you’re not playing in any specific direction – a major convention-breaker, chock-full of strategic implications. And the subtle but significant consequences of being able to take pieces off the board and later bring them back into play on some other edge, add yet another chock-fullness to one’s cup of strategic nuance.

Remarkably deep for a ten minute game. Remarkably lovely. Major FUN.

(Siam is available in the US via Fred Distribution, and in Europe through Ferti)

Tumblin’ Dice

Filed Under (Dexterity, Family Games, Keeper, Senior-Worthy, Tops for 2009) by Bernie DeKoven on 13-10-2009

When Randy Nash first developed Tumblin’ Dice, he did what any game inventor would do – especially one who created a game that people really loved – he started his own company. Recently, the older/wiser Mr. Nash licensed his game to Fred Distribution – a company with a genuinely deep appreciation for really good games. And they honored his concept, and made it a little more attractive, and just as well-made, and just as much fun.

The game is called Tumblin’ Dice, which is exactly what it was called when we first gave it our highest award – the Keeper. I am happy to say, this renewed version is at least as much of a Keeper as it was then.

Think of it shuffleboard with dice. You’d be wrong, but you’d understand almost all you needed to know in order to start playing. There are four sets of dice, each a different colors (and lovely colors they are). Each set has four dice. Players take turns flick/slide/rolling their dice, starting on the top level, aiming towards one of the three platforms on the lowest levels. If your die reaches the third level, you get exactly as many points as are on the top of the die. If your die reaches the fourth level, you get twice as many points; the fifth level, three times as many, and if you reach the lowest level, you multiply the face of the die by four.

Since players are taking turns, there’s a good chance that someone will knock your high-scoring die off the board. So the game can get quite competitive. There’s a lot of opportunity to develop skill. But there’s enough chance (despite my desire to maintain the illusion, I don’t think it’s really possible to determine what face of the die will show up at the end of a roll) to keep things interesting, even for the poor-of-aim.

The turns are very short, and a whole round can take only a few minutes. So everyone stays involved even when there are four players. And as soon as one round is over, and all the points are scored, people are ready and eager to play again. It’s a perfect family game. For children who are still learning to add and multiply, it even has some educational value – not enough to spoil the fun, just enough to make their parents willing to let them play, too. If the multiplication is too hard, instead of multiplying you can just add extra points for dice that reach the scoring levels. Because of the skill required, and the competitiveness, adults can get intensely engaged. Because of the luck factor, anyone who can flick/slide/roll a die has a reasonable chance of winning. And, if you have some perverse need to make it even more challenging, you can try removing some or all of the pegs on the bottom two levels. I tried. I put them back.

Tumbln’ dice is a big game. Some assembly is required. But it’s easy and takes maybe 90 seconds the first time. And just as easily disassembled and snuggled back into its box, in maybe 45. Of course, somebody who hasn’t played it yet will probably come over shortly after you’ve finally put it away, and you’ll find yourself gleefully putting it back together again.

Tumblin’ Dice is an investment in long-lasting, generation-spanning fun. The payoff is Major FUN.

Ring-o Flamingo

Filed Under (Dexterity, Family Games, Keeper, Kids Games) by Bernie DeKoven on 24-08-2009

Ring-O Flamingo, a.k.a. “The Frantic Fling-a-Ring Game,” is, as advertised, a game that is at least as much about ring-flinging as it is about being frantic.

Each player gets one of 4 plastic “lifeboats” each of a different color, each containing a set of 12 flat, flexible, plastic, lifesaver-like rings of a matching color. The rings are placed, one at a time, edgewise in a slot in the front of the lifeboat. To fling the ring, you aim your lifeboat, slot a ring, bend the ring towards you just exactly as much as you think necessary and then release it.

Your goal, should you be goal-oriented, is for your ring to land, quoit-like, around any of the 7 plastic flamingos (yes, plastic flamingos), and not around either of the two plastic alligators.

The flamingos and alligators fit into slots in the thick game board. Turned 90-degrees, they stand firmly enough to resist and staunchly deflect any inaccurately flung rings. The board is thick enough to withstand repeated reassembly.

Ringing an alligator is a bad thing to do and makes you lose two points. You get 2 points for each of your rings that is first to ring a flamingo, and one point for each of your subsequent flamingo-ringing ring.

Since everyone plays simultaneously, mastering the “frantic” part of this “Frantic Fling-a-Ring” game is as crucial to success as good aim. Since being the first to ring a particular flamingo gets you twice as many points, the need for speed is clearly established. And, of course, the faster you fling, the less accurate you become. The tension makes the game even more challenging, and instructive.

On the other hand, ring-flinging is so much fun that it almost doesn’t matter whether you manage to get a ring around anything. It’s as amusing just to fling the rings at each other, or to see how far or how high you can fling them. Which is what makes the game as alluring to a three-year-old as to your seriously competitive eleven-teen. You can try to fling rings into the box lid or against the wall (extra points for “leaners”). And for those families fortunate enough to have playful parents, it’s a great invitation to share some moments of controlled and victimless mayhem.

Designed by Haim Shafir, Yakov Kaufman, and Yoav Ziv, the game works wondrously well. All the parts of the game reinforce the fantasy: the lifesaver rings, the ring-storing and flinging boats, the brightly colored and humorously rendered flamingos. The ring-flingers can be repositioned anywhere around the board to increase aim and accuracy. The rings themselves are exactly as springy as they need to be to flip and fly. And there is just enough luck to keep anyone from getting overbearingly good at the game. Hence the Majorness of the FUN.

Ring-O Flamingo is exciting and alluring enough to be played and replayed by everyone in the family. There are a lot of rings (48 of them). Hence, parents would be especially wise to include in their rendition of basic game rules the tradition of after-game ring-gathering.