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.

Fastrack – NHL Edition

Filed Under (Dexterity, Family Games, Kids Games) by Will Bain on 24-08-2014

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NHL FastrackFastrack by Blue Orange Games is Major Fun. It is a Keeper.

It now comes in an NHL edition.

The game remains the same: try to get all of the discs to the other side of the board. To do this you must fling them with an elastic band through a narrow slot in the board. Your opponent is trying to do the same thing. Through the same narrow slot.

Madness ensues!

01 AwardThe game is brilliant. Fast paced and nerve jangling. What has been added in this edition is NHL themed artwork. The board is designed like a hockey rink. The discs are hockey pucks. NHL logos adorn the edges. It’s a nice touch.

2 players. Ages 5+

Fastrack was designed by Jean-Marie Albert and is the NHL edition is © 2014 by Blue Orange Games.

Blurble

Filed Under (Family Games, Kids Games, Party Games) by Will Bain on 13-08-2014

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BlurbleDeluxeBlurble is a game like Anomia that gets a lot of laughs and game-play-mileage out of making you sound stupid.

You aren’t stupid. I know this because you are reading this web post. You also demonstrate great taste and a fine appreciation for the playful side of life. And in that last regard, Blurble is the game for you.

Just be warned: the longer you play the game, the dumber you will sound.

The game consists of a big deck of cards. How many cards, you ask? I’m not quite sure, but at a guess I would say more than 11. Yep, the box lid confirms there are more than 11 cards (489 more to be exact). The cards have pictures on them—illustrations of objects that are easy to identify (although one card had a plate of nachos that I was SURE was a pizza).

The game starts with a person called the “Blurbler.” Say it out loud. GO on. Now say it more than five times in a row. That kind of silly stupid tongue tied feeling is something you are going to have to get used to a lot. The Blurbler turns to the first person clockwise and flips up a card. The two players then races to say a word that begins with the same letter as the object in the picture.

Blurble cardsBUT (and notice it is a big but…) there are legal words and there are illegal words. Words cannot be proper nouns, numbers, contractions, or contain fewer than 3 letters (when we played we misread the rules and so disallowed anything with less than 4 letters—harder but still tons of fun). Words may never be used more than once in a game. Finally, the word cannot name the image. For instance, if a picture of a cat comes up you cannot say cat nor can you say catatonic nor can you say vacation (va CAT ion). That last one you might be able to slip by the other players (who act as judges) but they could call you out for illegal Blurbling.

01 AwardAs the game goes on you do tend to get faster but you also tend to run into words that have already been used. You will find yourself tripping over some of the most basic words because you just can’t remember if the word has been used before.

One thing we really liked about Blurble is that you are not penalized for saying an illegal word. If you say an illegal word you just have to keep trying. Players just keep shouting out words (and a lot of gibberish) until they say a legal one.

Major Fun for lots of ages and big groups of people.

2-12 players. Ages 8+

Blurble was designed by Grant Bernard and is © 2011 by Bernard Games.

Rumble in the House / Rumble in the Dungeon

Filed Under (Family Games, Kids Games, Party Games) by Will Bain on 11-08-2014

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Rumble in the houseA while back we awarded King of Tokyo with a Major Fun Award. Giant monsters rampaging their way through a major metropolitan city. What isn’t there to like?

Well, Flatlined Games has lowered the stakes a little (you are fighting over a house instead of a city) but kicked the rampaging into overdrive.

Rumble in the House (and it’s virtually identical twin Rumble in the Dungeon) distills the fighting game down to its most basic core: move monsters, remove monsters. Cram a bunch of hare-trigger psychopaths (like Cthulhu, a Chicken Man superhero, and a penguin packing dynamite) into a single flat and watch the furniture fly.

For all its parts, the game is beautifully simple. There are twelve room tiles that make up the board. Arrange these as you like. There are twelve monsters on little plastic stands. Place one in each room. There are 12 monster tokens. Each player chooses 2 at random. Keep yours hidden! These are the monsters you are trying to protect as long as you can.

Rumble ComponentsOn your turn you can do one of two things: move one monster (if it is alone) OR “pick a fight.” If there are two or more monsters in a room, you get to remove one from the game. Fights in the house are very fast and very decisive!

As monsters are eliminated from the house, you must place them in a line. Play until only one character remains. Points are determined by the place of your monsters in the line. The first two monsters score nothing. Zero. After that each monster scores points by their position in line starting with one point for the third monster and going up to ten points for the one who walked out of the house. You take the score of your last monster.

The game is played over three rounds. Each time, you build the house, draw new secret monsters, and then RUUUUMMMMMMBLE!!

01 AwardRumble in the Dungeon is the successor to Rumble in the House. The location and characters have changed and a treasure chest has been added to the basic mechanics. Moving and fighting are still the main actions, but if you can get one of your characters to carry the treasure chest to the dungeon’s entrance, that character can leave and earn 10 points. Moving and fighting continue even if someone succeeds in removing the treasure (instead of fighting for the treasure you are now fighting over who let someone else abscond with it).

Rumble in the dungeonYour first game is the longest and that’s only because you have to punch out the pieces and glance through the rules. The artwork on the pieces, the box, and the rules by Kwanchai Moriya is fun and colorful. We loved looking at the pieces and making up stories about how one character defeated the other. It’s a very light game but it lends itself to lots of replay. I also appreciated that even when your monsters have been eliminated you still get to influence the game.

Spite becomes a powerful force for Major Fun.

2-6 players. Ages 8+

Rumble in the House was designed by Olivier Saffre and is © 2011 by Flatlined Games. Rumble in the Dungeon is © 2012. Worldwide distribution is being handled by the good people at Iello.

Aztack

Filed Under (Family Games, Kids Games, Thinking Games) by Will Bain on 28-07-2014

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aztack_gamerNow that all those Mayan and Aztec apocalypses are over, we can get back to building pyramids for recreation instead of in an attempt to stave off the end of life as we know it.

Whew!

An early adopter of this new recreational approach to Mesoamerican architecture is Blue Orange Games and their fantastic stacking/tiling game Aztack.

The game consists of 60 rectangular tiles that resemble dominoes. Instead of pips on each side of the tile, there are Aztec glyphs—images that represent important symbols in Aztec culture. The four glyphs (flower, water, deer, and flint) are combined in many ways and in five different colors: green, orange, grey, blue, and burgundy.

To start play, 12 tiles are arranged in a 2×6 rectangle in the middle of the table. Each player draws 12 tiles. On your turn, you place one of your tiles on the base of the pyramid or pass if there is no space for a legal move. If you pass, you can jump in later. Play proceeds clockwise until everyone must pass. The winner is the one with the fewest remaining tiles.

The rules for placing the tiles are simple and well-illustrated by the rules. You must place your tile so that it bridges two tiles beneath it. The tile you place must also match both of the glyphs OR both of the colors. If it matches all colors and glyphs you get to discard an additional tile from your hand.

01 AwardThe simplicity of the rules belies a wonderfully complex and shifting matrix of choices. There is a great balance between making moves that will limit the choices of your opponents and those that will keep the board open for your future placements. Luck plays a sizable role but there is enough choice to develop strategies in order to manage the random elements.

Aztack is well made and beautifully illustrated. It is fascinating to watch as the pyramid rises from the base. Each one is unique and really very beautiful.

And Major Fun…

2-4 players. Ages 7+

Aztack was designed by Brad Ross & Jim Winslow and is © 2014 by Blue Orange Games.

Battle Sheep

Filed Under (Family Games, Kids Games, Thinking Games) by Will Bain on 26-07-2014

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battlesheep_gamerA bucolic scene. Technicolor sheep grazing in a green pasture. They look up every few moments, amble over to another patch of grass and clover. Quiet except for the sound of chewing and the occasional bleat as one of the sheep gets boxed in.

The horrors of war!

The pasture is a battleground. The sheep scan the field with steely eyes, looking for weakness in the enemy lines. A scream of defeat.

Welcome to the vicious world of Battle Sheep.

Blue Orange has brought us another great strategy game. Battle Sheep combines an area capture mechanic with a variable board that changes the contested pasture every time you play. As is the hallmark of most Blue Orange Games, the pieces are of the highest quality and the art is fun. The rules fit on a tiny slip of paper and once you have read them you will never need them again.

The game starts with the construction of the pasture. Players take turns placing the pasture tiles so that they connect. The combinations are practically infinite and you can construct some truly bizarre playing areas.

Once the pasture is set, the players take their 16 sheep tokens and place them in a single stack at the edge of the pasture. Each turn after the initial placement, each player must move at least one of their sheep tokens in a straight line until they have to stop—either by running into the edge of the pasture or by bumping into another sheep. A player can move a single sheep or a stack of sheep as long as at least one sheep is left behind. As the game progresses, there are generally several smaller stacks of sheep of each color. Players with multiple stacks may only move from one of the stacks.

The idea is to control as many hex spaces as you can and block your opponents so they can’t move. The game ends when only one player can make a legal move. At that point, players count how many pasture hexes they control.

01 AwardThere is a lot to think about here, starting with your initial placement. It is entirely possible to get shut down early in the game if you choose poorly. Each move involves a reassessment of the pasture and the possible moves of your opponents. And of course there is the great satisfaction that comes when you can box your opponent in to a small corner.

Baa Ram Ewe, buddy. Baa Ram Ewe.

YouTube Preview Image

2-4 players. Ages 7+

Battle Sheep was designed by Francesco Rotta and is © 2014 by Blue Orange Games.

Doodle Quest

Filed Under (Family Games, Kids Games, Puzzles) by Will Bain on 18-07-2014

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doodle_gamerDry erase markers are cool. Maybe it’s that I grew up in the waning age of chalkboards and became a teacher just as dry-erase boards were becoming ubiquitous. The vivid colors just seemed so vibrant compared to the tinted chalk I had to work with in secondary school. This is what it must have been like for my grandparents when the world got color just after the turn of the 20th Century…

Doodle Quest is a clever little drawing game that has more to do with spatial awareness than drawing skill. It’s also a clever little maze game that is quite a challenge to complete even when you can see exactly where you need to go.

The game comes with 18 quest cards, 4 transparent sheets of plastic, 4 dry-erase pens, and 4 fish stencils. The quest cards are double sided with one side being for beginners and the other for more advanced players. Each quest tells players how they can solve the puzzle by drawing a few lines. The players then have to draw the lines on their transparent sheet without measuring or touching the quest card. The transparent sheet is then placed over the quest card to see how well each player did.

For example: one quest asks you to add 4 spots to a clown fish. Some parts of the picture are worth 0 points. Some parts are worth 3 points. Some parts are worth 4 points. If your dot falls ENTIRELY within one of the 3 or 4 point areas you get those points. If it even touches one of the zero point areas you get nothing. Needless to say, the areas are interspersed so that a small variation in the wrong direction will earn you a nice fat goose egg.

01 AwardDoodle Quest was a huge hit when we played this with our kids. It is one of those activities that adults will have very little advantage over the kids and there are lots of ways to even the playing field. A great family game that is engaging and challenging for a wide range of ages.

The illustrations are silly and colorful. The materials are durable and make great use of the dry-erase medium. This is one of those games that can only exist because of the dry-erase technology. I applaud the designers for seeing the unique and Major Fun possibilities held within these mildly intoxicating markers.

1-4 players. Ages 6+

Doodle Quest was designed by Laurent Escoffier and David Franck and is © 2014 by Blue Orange Games.

Robot Turtles: Adventure Quests

Filed Under (Cooperation, Family Games, Kids Games, Puzzles, Thinking Games) by Will Bain on 05-07-2014

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robot turtle AQRobot Turtles: Adventure Quests is a separate adventure pack that can be added to ThinkFun’s Robot Turtles (it is not a stand alone game) or you can by and Adventure Bundle that combines the basic Robot Turtels and Adventure Quests. You can check out our review of Robot Turtles here.

Because Robot Turtles is a programming game, it makes sense that the game will evolve over time. The basic game is already designed with a leveling system in mind and the Adventure Quests  pack builds seamlessly with the original.

Adventure Quests adds a few things to the mix. The game comes with a booklet that contains several board configurations (quests) that the turtles must navigate. There are more gems and there are “Frog Favorite” cards which are sequences of moves that can be “programmed” to the function card. In many ways these are pre-set functions. They can be especially useful if you have children who are having trouble creating their own functions.

There are many ways to play with these functions. You can have a single function that all players use. You can have players choose a function for each adventure. You can have multiple functions available that players can use only once.

What is important is that the young programmers see how commands can be strung together to work efficiently, effectively, and creatively so they will get better at creating their own.

01 AwardI imagine this game will continue to expand for a long time. There are many obstacles and types of actions yet to be incorporated into the game. Some of this will be created by the individual players, but if the Adventure Quests pack is any indication, I imagine there is a great deal more to come from the developers.

This is a great addition to a great game.

Expansion for the basic Robot Turtles games. 2 – 5 players. Ages 4+

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

Robot Turtles

Filed Under (Cooperation, Family Games, Kids Games, Puzzles, Thinking Games) by Will Bain on 04-07-2014

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

It’s MAGIC!!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Creativity is highly prized but so is efficiency.

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

And playing with them is fun.

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

So maybe there are some pragmatic reasons…

2 – 5 players. Ages 4+

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

Spot It! Freeze

Filed Under (Family Games, Kids Games, Party Games, Speed Game) by Will Bain on 01-07-2014

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spotitfreeze_gamerIt has been well established that Spot It! is Major Fun.

For evidence, you may look here…

…and here

…and here

…and here

Although it seems like we have sufficiently covered this point, I don’t think it can be over-stated how clever the basic game is. You have 55 cards. Each card has eight images. Any two cards in the deck have exactly one image in common. Games revolve around trying to find which one is the match. Spot It! Freeze adds a timer to the mix. The electronic timer has two modes: countdown and random.

I’ll admit that most of us at Major Fun were skeptical that a timer would add much to the game. After all, the point of Spot It! is to be fast. Surely a timer couldn’t help much.

We were wrong.

Blue Orange has come up with some great games that utilize the two types of timer to great effect. The most basic game requires the players to collect cards from a pile in the middle. Play proceeds as normal until a player successfully makes a match with one of the blue images (cold-based images like ice and snow are always blue). When that happens, that player yells “Freeze” and the countdown timer is started. The player has 10 seconds to play solo—no one else can interrupt. When the 10 seconds is over everyone else can jump back in.

Playing by yourself is an advantage, but not nearly as great as you might first imagine. The countdown adds pressure that tends to interfere with your ability to spot the similar images. It breaks the flow and it also gives your opponents time to look at the card and jump in at the end of the countdown.

01 AwardAnother variation involves the random timer (a loud ticking sound) that plays like Catchphrase. Each player has a stack of cards they are trying to get rid of. A card is turned face up in the middle of the table and the timer is started. One player flips their top card up and tries to make a match. Once they do, play moves clockwise to the next person. If the timer stops on your turn (before you can play a card) then you take two cards from the middle pile. You can also reverse the order by matching a blue item and saying “Freeze.” You don’t have to reverse things but you can.

This is a great game variation for a wide range of players. It equalizes things quite a bit. My daughter is fantastic at the basic Spot It! Far and above the best player in our group. She can consistently take on and beat all the rest of us COMBINED. This variation (called Flash Freeze) means that she still has to wait for the rest of us and it is possible for us to keep her from playing (or at least give her very little time). I’ll admit that it seems petty and cruel to keep my 12 year old daughter from playing her cards, but short of gouging out her eyes, I’m not sure there is any other chance the rest of us have.

And she has lovely eyes.

Spot It! Freeze is a great expansion of the Spot It! universe. It is the only one to not come in a round tin but the timer is also a compact box for the cards. It is clever and bright and fast and oh so Major Fun.

2 – 8 players. Ages 8+

Spot It! Freeze © 2014 by Blue Orange Games.