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.

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.

Dodge Dice

Filed Under (Family Games, Kids Games, Party Games) by Will Bain on 20-06-2014

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Dodge DiceDodge Dice is a wonderfully minimalist press-your-luck game. Ten dice and some chips are all it takes to give you a lot of tough choices in the face of random chance.

Eight of the dice are the Dodge Dice. These have three blue sides, two green sides, and one red side. One die is the Penalty Die. Similar to the Dodge Dice, the Penalty Die has three blue, two green, and one red sides; however, each side also has a number value: blue = 10, green = 20, and red = 40. The final die is the Action Die. This die either stops the round immediately or effects the final penalty score.

The starting player rolls all the dice. Whatever color the Penalty Die shows is the color that must remain face up in future rolls. The first player puts the Penalty Die and any matching Dodge Dice in the middle of the table and passes the rest of the dice to the next player. That player rolls all the dice, setting aside any that are the same color as those in the middle and passing the rest.

The goal of the game is to have the fewest points. You earn points if the round stops on your turn. There are two ways for the round to stop. First, if the STOP symbol comes up on the Action Die when you roll the round stops (duh). Second, if all the Dodge Dice are the same color, the round stops.

01 AwardIf the round stops on you, you earn the number of points on the Penalty Die BUT this can be changed by the Action Die. The points can be doubled or tripled. The points could actually be subtracted from your score or the points could be passed to one of the other players. Of the six possibilities that could happen to you when the round stops, four of them are bad for you but two are good.

So, because this is a press-your-luck game there must be some choice to make so that you could conceivably avoid a bad outcome. That’s where the chips come in. Every player has two Skip Chips. You can play one before you roll to pass the dice to the next player or you can play two chips to skip AFTER you have rolled. Skip Chips can replenish with a lucky roll of the Action Die, but these chips become very valuable in those long rounds toward the end of the game.

There’s a lot of nail-biting and analysis paralysis that accompanies some of these rolls. Do you take a few points now so you can save your chips for later? Do you roll and spend your chips only if you have to? Is it better for you to take a few points if it means preventing someone from ending the game?

All good questions and all Major Fun.

2 – 6 players. Ages 8+

Dodge Dice was designed by Eric Messersmith and Mike Mandolese and is © 2014 by Gamewright.

Castle Blast

Filed Under (Family Games, Kids Games, Party Games, Toys) by Will Bain on 11-06-2014

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Castle BlastAs anyone knows who has ever played with building blocks, the apotheosis of the constructive activity is the moment when you bring it all crashing down. For every castle or city or log cabin there is some dragon or dinosaur or marauding army that is merely biding its time.

Castle Blast is a building game that comes with its own wrecking ball. The good folks at Mindware embrace the Truth that what goes up must come down (especially since the game will probably have to go back in the box eventually). It’s about time kids learned that nothing made by human hands will endure.

In the words of Percy Bysshe Shelly, “Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair! For only my Twinkies and long-chain hydrocarbons remain!”

Or something to that effect.

The rules are simple: build a castle to protect 3 items (a princess, a treasure, and a dragon); roll the die to see how many swings you can take; swing the wrecking ball until you knock the three characters out of the fortification. The game comes with a small game-board and a castle design that you can follow. Or not. Build your own castle and see how it goes.

In the end, it all falls down.

When you successfully knock a character out of the castle, you get a token that corresponds to that character. Collect all three character tokens to win. Depending on how many players you have, you will probably have to reconstruct the castle multiple times.

01 AwardThe game looks great. The wooden blocks are solid and smooth and colorful. The rules are simple and provide several variations of play for those who want to add some variety to the endless cycle of creation and destruction. If you already have wooden blocks scattered underfoot and in the bottom of toy boxes, you could incorporate them in very easily.

Things fall apart. The center cannot hold. Major Fun is loosed upon the world… (apologies to Yeats)

2-4 players. Ages 5+

Castle Blast is © 2013 by MindWare.

Staxis

Filed Under (Dexterity, Family Games, Kids Games, Party Games) by Will Bain on 09-06-2014

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MindWare’s Staxis is like playing a game of pick-up-sticks in reverse. And I don’t mean that way you start the game by dropping a handful of long toothpicks in a pile, but rather imagine having to carefully place each stick so that they stand on end or balance against each other without touching the table.

The game comes with a base structure that looks like a Soviet era satellite has come to rest in your home. Once you have Sputnik assembled on your playing surface, players divide the 50 long stacking sticks between them. The first player to get rid of all their sticks is the winner.

Before you balance one of your sticks on the Epcot Spaceship Earth you have to roll a die. This tells you how many points of contact your stick must have with any wooden part of the structure. A single point basically means that you have to balance your stick horizontally across another stick. A double point means that your stick must touch two other sticks.

Although the two-point option seems easier and more stable, it proves very tricky as the game proceeds. Sticks balanced on two points generally form angles that make the single-point rolls even more challenging. The double-point sticks also seem to cause the weight to shift in unexpected ways.

A player must successfully balance one stick on his or her turn, but any sticks that fall off are collected by that player. This encourages players to take chances in order to leave their opponents with increasingly unstable configurations.

awardStaxis takes a steady hand and a keen eye. The tension builds steadily which lends itself to a lot of good natured trash talking and goading. The rules are barely necessary and that’s only for the first time you build the base Tesla Tower. The game is well constructed although you should be careful with the wooden stacking sticks. They do lend themselves to splinters.

Our kids had a blast with Staxis and it made for a great game with mixed ages. Major Fun game for dexterity, balance, and show-boating.

2-6 players. Ages 6+

Staxis was designed by Paul Wickens and is © 2013 by MindWare.

Kerflip!

Filed Under (Family Games, Kids Games, Thinking Games, Word Games) by Will Bain on 03-05-2014

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Word games are often time consuming affairs—the kind of game where you either find an almost maniacal fascination with anagrams or where you must carry on an extended conversation with your fellow competitors as each player grinds through endless permutations of letters and point combinations. Don’t get me wrong. I love thoughtful word games but there are times when I want a full game to be over in the time it takes to finish one round of Scrabble.

Games like Boggle, Bananagrams, and Word on the Street are good examples of fast paced word games.

To this category of word game I wish to introduce the Major Fun Award winning game of Kerflip!

In many ways, Kerflip! is like a puckish and caffeinated child of Scrabble and Boggle. Players draw letter tiles from a bag and then simultaneously drop them on the game board. The players then look for words created by the letters. When you call out a word you can’t change your mind so you have to make sure it’s a good one. But you also have to be fast. The first players to call out words have a distinct advantage when it comes to scoring. If someone is taking too long, the game comes with a 15 second timer which may be deployed to speed things along.

It’s like a cattle prod in the shape of an hour-glass.

There are many quirky elements to scoring but a large part of it boils down to the tiles. The letter tiles are double-sided: one side is whit and the other side is orange. After players drop their tiles onto the game board they must flip any orange tiles to the white side. Once all players have called out their words, scoring starts with the fastest player. That speller scores 10 points per white tile and flips any tiles from his or her word to the orange side. The next player scores 5 points per orange tile and 10 per any white tile, flipping the white to orange as they are used.

This mechanic rewards speed AND word length. It also is a great way to apply pressure to the combatants. For the most part the players race each other. The timer is only needed for that last poor sucker who thinks he can calmly sift through all the letters for that killer word (er… he or she… it’s not like it ever happened to me…)

awardOrange tiles are removed from the game and any unused white tiles are returned to the bag. The game is over when the bag does not contain enough tiles for each player to draw.

Like I mentioned before there are other scoring rules that I won’t go into here. They are designed to keep the game fast paced and the score always in doubt because some points are kept concealed until the end of the game.

The game is beautifully designed, and the box is a lesson in game utility. The game board fits inside the box to easily contain the tiles. Clean-up is especially ingenious. Used orange tiles are pushed into two openings in the box. At the end of the game, you simply tilt the box up and the tiles slide into a waiting cup so you can simply pour them back into the bag.

It’s fast. It’s addictive. It’s elegant.

It’s Major Fun.

2-4 players. Ages 8+

Kerflip! was designed by Damon Tabb and is © 2012 by Creative Foundry Games. Provided by the good people at Game Salute.