Siam

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

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

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.

Curses Again

We last discussed Curses on, to be needlessly precise, October 2, 2002. We, in fact, gave it a Keeper award, no less. The highest ranked, most Major award we have.

Recently, Curses has been “refreshed.” Same package, same art, same basic gameplay as in the original Brian Tinsman design. The bell is maybe a little more modern-looking. The cards a little easier to shuffle. And some of the curses and challenges are new, and, of course, funny. But all in all the game isn’t any more commercial-looking than it was then. Simple text graphics. Two decks of cards. A bell. And yet, it’s as much of a Keeper now as it was then.

Because we’re still playing it.

What we learn from all this, is that the Major FUN Awards, and especially the Keeper award, represent games that are unforgettably fun.

The original review is the same review I’d be writing for the game today. It follows:

Curses – a game of geometrically increasing silliness for 3-6 players, age 9 and up.

There are two decks of cards and a very nice hotel-type hit-the-top-and-it-rings bell. One deck of cards is called “Challenges,” the other “Curses.”

Let’s start with the “Curses,” which, of course, are the real challenges. A Curse is something silly that you have to do. For example, you might have the Curse of having to talk in a French accent, or having your wrists glued to your head (well, there’s no real glue, but you have to pretend there is), or having to bow every time someone applauds. As the game progresses, you get more Curses. From other players, actually. Remembering two Curses is at least twice as difficult as remembering one. By the time you have three Curses you are at a conceptual point likened only to patting your tummy and rubbing your head while singing “Boat your row, row, row.” In a French accent.

When you break a Curse, some observant player dutifully rings the bell. If you break enough Curses, you’re kind of out. Kind of, because you still get to be a bell-ringer and cause of Curse-breaking.

The Challenges make the Curses evermore Curselike. You might have to ask someone else out to a school prom, or be in a TV commercial explaining why your deodorant is best or demonstrate how you celebrated your what you did when you scored the winning touchdown in the Superbowl. Each challenge takes on a very different light when you have to perform it under multiple Curses.

Curses radiates at least 120 Gigglewatts of pure Guffaw-power. It’s can get very, very difficult to play, very quickly, and is challenging enough to occupy the most limber-minded of collegiates, whilst silly enough to keep even us over-the-hillsies laughing and coughing in glee.

The cards on the refreshed version pass the shuffle-test quite nicely. Their graphic design could make it a little easier to distinguish between the two kinds of cards. But that, compared to the sheer hysteria that this game catalyzes, is clearly, at most, a nano-niggle.

Quixo

Quixo Classic is well-made, well-conceived strategic game for 2 or 4 players, which, because it is related to tic-tac-toe, is easy enough for a 6-year-old to play, and, because of its use of the mechanics of sliding block puzzles, is subtle enough to challenge a 66-year-old. Well, 67, actually, but who’s counting?

The game consists of 25, 1-inch wooden cubes, bevel edged, lovingly smoothed, warmly wooden cubes, which are packed in a cloth bag, and nestle comfortably in a wooden tray. Four sides of the cubes are left blank. You’ll find an X pyrographed on one of the other sides, and, opposite that, similarly pyrographed, an O.

At the beginning of the game, all the cubes are placed on the board, on to any of their 4 blank sides, forming a 5×5 array. Only the cubes on the periphery are available for play.

The object of the game is to be the first player or team to get 5 of your symbols (an X or an 0) in a straight line. To do this, you pick any blank block on the edge of the board, remove it, and then slide the row or column of blocks so as to create a new blank space on one of the edges of the board. You then place the block you selected into that space, positioning it so that your symbol is showing.

The game continues in that manner, players or teams alternating turns, until someone gets 5 of their symbols in the proverbial row. Because each move results in moving part or all of a row or column, blocks are getting continually repositioned – and within there lies the rub, as well as the tickle. You have to see much further ahead, consider a copious complexity of cubic combinations in order to get your symbols (and not your opponent’s) to line up in the appropriate array of your aspirations.

Designed by Thierry Chapeau, Quixo Classic is one in a series of similarly well-made games by the French game publisher Gigamic, available in the US from our much-appreciated Fundex. Easy to learn, as fun for kids as adults, well-made, played in 15 minutes or less, often surprising – as they all-too-rarely say amongst Major Fun Game Tasters, this one’s a Keeper!

Six

What would be a good name for a game played with six-sided hexagons (as if there were any other kind)? Just six-sided (I’m making a point here) hexagons? Not even a board? Where you try to be the first to make a shape out of…wait for it…six wooden black or red six-sided hexagons?

What about a strategic game where you take turns adding a hexagon of your black or red color to any other hexagon already on the table, or floor, or blanket? Until all your lovely, smoothly wooden hexagons are played, and then you can move them from hexagon-adjoining place to any other hexagon-adjoinable place? And you win if you can get six of your own in a row, or triangle or in a six-sided circle?

What do you think of “Six“?

Sheer coincidence that the publishers also chose to call it Six? I think not.

Even though you each have 19 hexagon-pieces. 19. Not the everso appropriately six-divisible 18 hexagon-pieces. You still get a, dare I say it, Major Fun experience, which, if Major Fun gave star-ratings, is clearly six-star-worthy.

And then there’s what one might think of as the “Advanced Major Fun” to be had by players of the advanced version, because, see, after you play for a while you discover how you change the entire mass of hexagons into two, and you begin to wonder, almost without reading the advanced rules, what doing so might do to your opponent, like, for example, put the entire smaller cluster (wherein a substantial majority of your opponent’s pieces happen to reside) out of play for the rest of the game.

Steffen Mühlhäuser’s game of hexagons is newly made available in the U.S. through FoxMind, and still published in Europe by Steffen-Spiele. Most games can be played in from six to 36 minutes. Easy to learn for those of checker-playing persuasion. Easy to carry around, rules and all, in a conveniently included drawstring bag or its lovely six-sided box.

Abalone

Let us begin our exploration of the game classic Abalone (recently re-released by Foxmind) by paying particular attention to the rule that: the winner is the first player to push a total of SIX of his opponent’s marbles off the board.

So, already you’re intrigued – marbles, marble-pushing, pushing marbles off the board, a board you can push marbles off of into. And then there’s the number six (6). I stress this number because, after thorough investigation, lasting conceptual days and actally maybe a couple entire hours, with fewer and fewer marbles and the way the game can go on and on and on, it stops being fun. Unless of course you remember that you’re supposed to stop playing the game as soon as soneone has eliminated six of his opponent’s lovely large, shiny, black or white marbles.

Marble-pushing. Pushing one or two or three of your marbles in a line, to the next space. Marbles resting in hexagonal sections of a hexagonal board, with marble-size channels linking the hive-like cells. Making it possible to push even four, or possibly five marbles (three of yours and two of your opponent’s, because to push your opponent’s marbles you have to have more than he does, and since you can’t push more than three of yours, it stands to reason.

I think the game designers (Laurent Levi and Michel Lalet) wanted you to know that this one’s going to be fun. Marble-pushing. What an interesting, fun thing to do especially with beautiful, large, glass marbles. So black and white. So back and forth. So tempting to make up your own variations in which you can push let’s say up to five of your marbles, which would mean up to four of your opponents, because it’s just so much fun to move all those marbles in a row.

O there are rules. Surprisingly complex rules governing how many marbles you can move, when you can’t, how far, each of which add yet another possible variation to explore, once variation-exploring is what you’re into.

In sum, don’t forget: six pieces and the game’s over! Maybe seven. Maybe three.

Batik

When I ask you to identify a board game that is a strategic puzzle game for two players that also involves dexterity, what game pops into your well-informed head? Would it, perhaps, be Batik?

You know, Batik, that lovely, wooden, puzzle-looking game in the Gigamic collection – yes, that collection of wooden strategic games available in the US from Fundex Games.

Batik, the puzzle game designed by Kris Burmin, in which two players take turns dropping two different colors of wooden, tangram-like pieces into a wood and plexiglass frame.

One of the most self-explanatory games around, especially for those who’ve played Connect Four. Even those who’ve played with Connect Four, just to see what happens, like a checker-dropping 3-year-old.

See, when it’s your turn, especially in the beginning of the game, it’s not just a question of dropping any old shape into the frame. First of all, you have to pick a strategically significant shape (big? pointy? tiny? smooth?), and you have to get it to land pretty much just where you want it to land, somewhere preferably snug, or not, ’cause you often win by taking up more, rather than less space. And there’s just a tad of luck, too. Taking turns, using any piece you want (unless you’re playing the official “use only your own piece” version), making sure that you’re not the player whose piece doesn’t fit ertirely within the frame.

Not that I’m recommending you should, but nonetheless gleefully noting that Pete Hornburg figured out how to get all the pieces to fit perfectly inside the game frame, thereby demonstrating the puzzle-likeness of it all, while more than hinting at the possibility of the perfect game and the observation that you’re playing in a game frame.

Lovely, the whole thing. Easy to learn. Short games (maybe 10 minutes). Fun for a remarkably wide range of players. There’s the dexterity and luck part, so it’s not necessarily the smartest who always wins. Which inevitably makes for more fun. Unless you get too serious about the game. On the other hand, it’s good to know you can get serious about it if you have to – just in case.

Funny Business – funny in deed

The people at Gamewright call their Funny Business game “The Hilarious Game of Mismatched Mergers.” And by golly, they’re right!

Funny Business is a family game that engaged our particular family, ranging in age from just 12 to significantly 67, in verifiable moments of hilarious, helpless laughter.

You get a deck of very big “Business Cards.” These are not your traditional business cards, they’re cards that identify kinds of business – like “Bakery” and “Barber Shop” – 200 different businesses. Each card also has a list of 20 words associated with that business – like bread and doughnut and bangs and curls. Everybody gets a write-on-wipe-off naming card, a voting wheel, a marker (with write-on-wipe-offing eraser), and until the timer runs out to write down what you might call a, for example, Barber Shop and Bakery. You know, like Snips ‘n Crumpets, and The Coiffed Bagel, and maybe Feed and Groom.

When time’s up, one player reads all the answers on their naming cards. The cards, by the way, each have a different color border which in turn correspond to one of the colors on the voting wheel, all of which add to the ease and the fun of voting.

You get 2 points if you get the most votes, and 1 point if you vote for the winner.

If you tie – somehow two or more players become so attuned to each other and the underlying silliness of the game that they all write the same thing – both players get points if they get voted for, and if they vote for the winner. The fact that such ties occur a testimony to the kind of closeness this silly game engenders. We played all 6 rounds, and by the 3rd or 4th we started having ties, and by the 5th or 6th, we were still having ties.

A lot of the laughter is at yourself – in a very fun sort of way. From time to time you amaze yourself at your cleverness, or your ability to think of a name that’s too, shall we say, personal to share, while simultaneously nothing short of genius. We kept score. But by the last round we were too tired from laughing to care who won.

The older folk spent the most time laughing. For the 12-year-old, much of the hilarious subtlety seemed other.

Designed by Jack Degnan for Gamewright, Funny Business proves to be a Major FUN party-like game, for friends or families of up to 8 players whose kids are in their teens or beyond.

Bananagrams – a crossword tile game you can play everywhere with anyone

bananagrams

Bananagrams is a word game that uses letter tiles – 144 unusally finger-friendly, bakelite letter tiles. It will remind you of other letter-tile word games, many other letter-tile word games, until you actually read the rules (which are simple enough to summarize on the 1×2-inch tag that is attached to the banana-like zippable package).

word-familyBasically, you draw a bunch of tiles and try to assemble all of them into a crossword array. If you succeed, you draw more. That’s about it, basically-wise. The full rules are a bit more complex. Players all get the same number of letter tiles, the exact number depending on the how many are playing. They race to assemble all their letters into a crossword. As soon as one player succeeds, she calls “peel,” at which time every player has to take a another letter tile. And so it goes, on and on, until almost all the letter tiles are used up. Naturally, the first player to have used all her tiles shouts “bananas” (if she still has the presence of mind to remember), and wins the game.

Everything about Bananagrams is Major FUN, the quality of the tiles, the portability and storability, the adaptability and flexibility. Because the game is so simple to explain, it is also simple to change – to adapt to different skill levels, different environments and time constraints. Read, for example, Lance Hampton’s exemplary story of how he plays Bananagrams with his kids. We’re working on variations for teams, and maybe even cooperative versions.

The Nathanson family, Bannanagram designers, comment:

“Obsessed by all the word games that could be found, we all hankered after something a bit more fluid than the classics we all love and wanted a game that the family could play together – ALL ages at the same time. We sought something portable, that we could take with us on our various travels and simple enough (with no superfluous pieces or packaging) that we could play in restaurants while waiting for our food. We love that one hand can be played in as little as five minutes, but as it’s so addictive, it’s often hard to put away!”

If you like playing with words, it’s very likely that you’ll be taking a banana-case full of Bananagrams with you everywhere.

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