Crab Stack

Filed Under (Family Games, Kids Games, Thinking Games) by Bernie DeKoven on 16-07-2015


Crab Stack is a strategy game for 2-4 players.

It has all the characteristics of a Major Fun game: it plays in less than 20 minutes, it takes maybe five minutes to learn, it’s well made, the rules are clearly written and mercifully short, it’s unique, and, from time to time, it makes you laugh (because, despite your massive intellect and strategic brilliance, you will, in deed, be taken by surprise.

We liked the three-player version best, though it’s fun with two or four players as well. With three players, the surprise factor is much more evident. That’s also true of playing with four people, but then you have to wait longer between turns. With two players, it gets a little head-to-head, if you know what I mean. Fine for the competitively-inclined, but we like it most when we’re playing for the fun of it. And there are few strategy games that are really fun to play with more than two people.

Each player gets nine wooden crab tokens, or token crabs, depending on your fantasy preferences. Three of these crabs are short, three of medium height, and three tall. The short crabs can move further. The tall crabs can land on top of any crab they they wish. So you get a kind of logical bifurcation here: the shorter crabs can move further, but they also are more restricted in terms of what kinds of crabs they can land on. And, because crabs are like that, they can only move on top of other crabs.

The board is hexagonal. There are different color spaces. The colors indicate which spaces are used when you set up for different numbers of players, otherwise, they just add to the crabby aesthetics of it all.

thinking-family-kidsOf special strategic interest and opportunities for crabbish cunning, there’s the “Wave rule.” Crabs, as we all know, are extremely social creatures, and, of necessity, not only travel only on each other, but also can not stand to be separated from crab crowd. Should any crab group find itself isolated, it succumbs to the conceptual wave, which washes the entire crab cluster off the board into conceptual oblivion.

The object of the game is to be the last player whose crabs can still move.

There’s no luck in the game. It’s all strategic reasoning. But it’s got just enough humor, and a strong enough fantasy, and it’s not what you’d call a crab-eat-crab game, all of which helps nourish the playful and only mildly competitive nature of the game; making it especially good for family play. It kind of makes you want to have crabs for pets.

Brilliantly designed by Henri Kermarrec and playfully illustrated by Stéphanie Escapa, Crab Stack is for 2-4 players who are maybe eight-years old, maybe eighty. And it comes to us, wouldn’t youknow, from Blue Orange Games.


Filed Under (Dexterity, Family Games, Kids Games) by Bernie DeKoven on 12-07-2015

Just how good are you at herding monsters onto an increasingly crowded, irregularly-shaped “Monster Arena” without letting any of them fall off?

That’s the very question you’ll be asking yourself when you play Push a Monster.

You get 1 Monster Arena, 27 wooden monsters, 81 monster tokens, a sheet full of stickers to put on your wooden monster, two monster pushers and a die. There’s also a very clearly and colorfully illustrated set of well-written, easy-to-read rules on a large two-sided sheet of paper.

Aside from the monsters, the die, and the sheet of stickers, and the rules, everything else is made pleasingly thick, colorfully-illustrated, fun-to-punch-out cardboard.

You play with 2-4 players.

The first thing you do, after you’ve finished sticking the stickers, and punching out the tokens is put all the 81 monster tokens into stacks – one stack for each kind of monster. There are six kinds of monsters, and there are six tokens of the largest and fifteen each of the other five.

When it’s your turn to add a monster, you first roll the die to determine which monster you will be pushing on to the platform. One side of the die has a question mark. If you roll that, you must select a monster from one of the highest stacks. The larger the monster, the more difficult it will be to herd onto the Arena without pushing another monster (or two, or several) off. You then place that monster on the longer monster pusher, and use the smaller pusher to slide that monster until it is completely onto the Arena, with no part hanging off.

Major Fun AwardThe scoring system is particularly ingenious:Each kind of monster is a different size. Each kind of monster token is a different width – the smaller the monster, the narrower the token. When monsters fall off the Arena, every player (except for the player whose turn it was) gets a token of that monster type. The players then arrange their tokens in a line, and the player with the longest line at the end of the game wins.

Turns are relatively short. The whole game can be played in less than 30 minutes (even the excessively cautious will find their caution kept in check by the collective impatience of the other players). No reading is involved so younger players will be able to understand the game almost immediately. It does take a steady hand and some degree of reasoning to determine where is the most monster-accommodating place in the arena. But it’s a fun and funny game, and some success for each player is all but guaranteed.

Designed by Wolfgang Dirscherl and Manfried Reiendl, with art by Claus Stephan and Michael Hüter; is available from Queen Games, for children ages 5 to 85.

Compose Yourself

Filed Under (Creative, Family Games, Kids Games) by Bernie DeKoven on 25-06-2015

compose yourself

Compose Yourself is an invitation to the fun of music, to the kind of fun that only an accomplished composer knows, to the way Mozart and Bach played with music. With a little assistance from ThinkFun.

The result is half contained in a lovely box with a lovely bag and a thick pack of transparent cards. The other half is on your computer.


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Compose Yourself invites anyone, kids, adults, even people who can’t read music, who don’t play an instrument, who’ve never composed anything more musical than a tuneless whistle; to experience the fun that is core to the art of composing music. All it takes is a little playfulness and curiosity, the cards and your computer, and a world of beautiful, harmonious, apparently endless fun opens to you.

You select cards from the deck, sure, at random, what the heck. Pick a card, any card will do. In fact, pick four cards. OK, pick twelve. Decide how you want to position each card (they’re transparent so you can not only turn them around, you can also flip them over). And then enter the code on each card into the computer. You can reposition the cards on the computer as well. When you’re ready, you can get the computer to play your composition. And you can choose between the “marimba” sound (which makes it easier to hear the notes) or the orchestra (which will bathe you in symphonic delight), or both. You can change your composition as often as you want. Play around with the cards. Explore some of the very useful tips from the Maestro. For example:

Try repeating a card somewhere. Repetition is fine, in fact, in music it’s great. There are 30 pairs in this pack, see how repeating a card somewhere in your tune makes it sound.

Try a trick that poets use when they make rhymes? Create a composition using alternating cards. e.g., A,D,A,D,B,C,B,C. You may find that it adds a lovely beat or cadence.

You can save your composition as an MP3. You can print it out if you’re of the music-playing sort. And you’ll be learning stuff like how to read music (without even trying) and how musical phrases can be manipulated and how very much fun it all can be.

In all the many delights of discovering games that are worthy of the Major Fun seal, I have never been this delighted, this gratified. Compose Yourself exemplifies everything I’ve been teaching about what an educational toy or game should be – and it never once makes you think that education has anything to do with it.

Philip Sheppard, Maestro, who composed the cards explains

Dear budding musician,

I invented these cards to help me with a challenge I face every day. You see, I’m very lucky because I get to write music for my job, but I have to write hundreds of pieces a year and sometimes I need help to think of a new tune really quickly. So, late one night, I was working on some music for a film and I was stuck.

I thought to myself, what would Bach or Mozart do? Well, they would take a few notes and turn them upside down or backwards until their musical lines danced across the page, through an orchestra right into your heart & soul.

There was a piece of transparent paper on my desk and I had this crazy idea. Soon I had a stack of cards that I could flip and rotate and a world of tunes opened up right there. I wrote three pieces that night; the next day the director of the film was thrilled. You now get the resulting cards, and I hope you have as much fun making music as I do. Remember, we all talk about playing music, but it’s even more fun to play with music — so Compose Yourself!

Well, I add, bless you, Maestro, and you too, ThinkFun, for creating such a playful invitation to such deeply rewarding fun.



Filed Under (Family Games, Kids Games, Thinking Games) by Bernie DeKoven on 24-06-2015

Dragonwood, despite its dragonish and monsterly appearance, is a fun and funny game for people old enough to enjoy playing with luck. Sure, it’s about winning, and winning, despite your cunning and deep familiarity with probability theory, your awesome intuitive powers and general strategic brilliance, is all about luck – and therein lies the bulk of the fun.

There are two decks of cards. One, the “Adventurer Cards,” reveals a collection of colorfully rendered noble, but fairly harmless-seeming dudes and dudettes accompanied by a few “Lucky Lady Bugs” whose magical power allows you to pick two more cards. The second, the “Dragonwood Cards,” compose the very objects for which you are so devotedly vying – the Grumpy Trolls, worth 4 points each, the snarling Pack of Wolves (only 3 points), or perhaps one of only two 6- or even 7-point dragons. Scattered amongst these evil critters you’ll also find an assortment of natural events (Sunny Day, Wind Storm, Thunder Storm) that make you do things like discard one of your Adventure Cards or pass it to the right or left; and such lusted after special power cards like the Bucket of Spinach which allows you to add 2 points to any Stomp.

Stomp, you ask? What means this Stomp?

Major Fun AwardYou see, on every Dragonwood Card there’s a list of three possible actions: Strike, Stomp and Scream. What means these actions, you wonder. A Strike is a set of Adventurer cards that are in sequence (regardless of color), a Stomp cards of the same number, and a Scream, cards of the same color. Each alternative has a number next to it. To win the Dragonwood Card of your choice, you need to search among the cards in your hand (you can have up to 9) for the longest array and then throw the dice (there are 6) to see if you can get a high enough score. How many dice you can throw depends on how many cards you play. Some cards, like the Bucket of Spinach, you hold on to as tightly as you can because you can use them throughout the game – but the more of those you have, the fewer Adventurer cards. And therein, of course, lies yet another rub, or shall we say, tickle.

There are just enough alternatives to keep your strategically probability-estimating mind in gear, just enough incentives to stoke the competitive fires, and just enough luck for it to make you laugh semi-maniacally, despite it all, win or lose. All in maybe 20 minutes.

In sum, Major Fun.

Designed by Darren Kisgen with beautifully playful art by Chris Beatrice on 108 playing cards that shuffle easily, six dice that are lovely to behold and have that perfect rollability factor – for 2-4 players age 8 and up from Gamewright.


Filed Under (Family Games, Kids Games, Party Games) by Bernie DeKoven on 31-05-2015


Quack-a-doodle-Moo will take you about five minutes to learn. Really. It’s a game that requires just a tad of memory (making it challenging enough for focused grandparental engagement) speedy reaction time (in which the children will shine) and adds an element of conceptual befuddlement that will attract even the most intellectual disciplined parent. Hence, it is something of an archetypical family game and close to the apotheosis of party games which equally lends itself to being a kids’ game.

There are 96 Animal Cards depicting 12 different animals along with the sound they are purported to make. There are 12 Barn Cards – one for each animal.

The game begins with an equal distribution of the Animal Cards, a different number of cards depending on how many players are about to be intensely involved. Each player then gets a Barn Card. The Barn Card has two sides. One side shows a barn, the other the particular animal whose sound will be used during the remainder of that round to identify that particular player. Players take turns revealing their inner animals while everyone practices making the sound of said animal. Then, everyone assured of who is what, the game begins.

Players take turns revealing the animal card on top of their decks. One at a time, round and round, card-by-card. As soon as a player discovers that the card she or he just played matches someone else’s card, that player, and the player whose card was matched, race to be the first to make the sound, not of the matching animals, but of the other player’s animal (now hiding in that player’s barn) – and therein lies both the agony and ecstasy of the game.

Quack-a-doodle-Moo will make you laugh, and the fun will be Major, and at least 20 minutes of happy hysteria will be had by all. For the first round. And, should the collective skills prove to be greater than anticipated, the good folk at Out of the Box games have included alternate rules for further collective exacerbation.

Major Fun Award

Quack-a-doodle-Moo is a gift to the world, for three to eight players, from the age of seven-up, so to speak, by the playful graces of Out of the Box Publishing. The elegantly playworthy concept comes from by Chris Childs and Tony Richardson, the oft-hysterical game play design by Al Waller and Max Winter Osterhaus, accompanied by the suitably silly illustrations of resident artist John Kovalic.

Color Clash

Filed Under (Dexterity, Family Games, Kids Games, Party Games, Puzzles, Speed Game) by Bernie DeKoven on 28-05-2015

Color Clash
You are, of course, familiar with the Stroop Effect? As an avid follower of the work of the famous psychologist John Ridley Stroop, author of the oft-cited research paper “Studies of interference in serial verbal reactions,” you’ve doubtlessly spent many an indolent hour of pleasurable Strooping.

You haven’t? Or you may have, but didn’t know you were?

Well, dear fun-seeker, have we got a game for you! O, yes we have.

It’s called Color Clash.

You get 36 round “Color Clash tiles” and six larger, also round “Chameleon tiles.”  You only need the Chameleons in some of the games, but all of the games use the Color Clash tiles. You also get a well-illustrated instruction booklet describing eight (8) different games. Yes, 8 (eight) different games – some for three or more players, some for two or more, and the last two games both solitaires. Now, before we go on, I need must point out that the eight different games are not variations of each other, but each one a game in its own delightful rightMajor Fun Award – equally playable, equally fun-provoking. This, in itself, is a rare and most praiseworthy accomplishment.

As you may have noted from the illustration, each tile has three attributes: a written word naming a color, the color of that written word, and a colored image. As you, already being familiar with the joys of Strooping, so well know how the crux of the challenge lies in the fact that the words that name a particular color are most often themselves printed in a different color.

Let us, for the sake of brevity, examine only the first game, “Guess What I’m Thinking.” For this, and the next game, which we shall only name in passing (“Between Four”), requires three or more players. You lay out all 36 of the Clash Tiles, face-up (both yours and theirs). When it’s your turn to start, you select (mentally) any one tile and take note of the its three different attributes (the color described by the word in the outer ring, the color in which that word is printed, and the color of the image in the center of the tile) (you try to do this without staring too hard or too long at the tile you’ve chosen). You then announce all three colors, in any order your whim suggests, and all the other players conceptually scramble to be the first to cover that one particular tile with their hand. The first player to identify the correct tile wins that round, and that tile. We recommend that that player be the next tile-chooser (though the rules stipulate that some turn order be established aforehand). The game continues until only six tiles are left, the winner being the player who has collected the most tiles.

And that’s just the first game.

Easy to learn. Deeply challenging. Often laughter provoking. Major Fun.

Color Clash comes to you from the oft Major Fun awarded Blue Orange Games and is designed by FabienTaguy, illustrated by Stephane Escapa, for 1-8 non-color-blind players, ranging in age from 7-years-old to senior.

Stroop on!


Filed Under (Family Games, Kids Games, Thinking Games) by Bernie DeKoven on 17-05-2015


It’ll take you maybe five minutes to learn how to play Aztack, and the average game lasts around fifteen minutes. It’s highly likely you’ll play several rounds of this not at all average strategy game.
There are 60 tiles – like dominoes – the kind of dominoes that slide sweetly when smushed around on the table, and clack comfortingly when stacked. The back of the tiles have two parallel ridges which play no small part in the clack comfort.

They’re not called tiles, though. They’re stones. Ah, yes, stones. The kind you use to build something like pyramids.

The first thing you do is take out all the stones, place them face dow on the table, and smush. We suggest collaborative smushing. Share the pleasure, don’t you know.

AztackThen you take 12 tiles, turn them over, and arrange them, face-up, in a rectangle of two rows of six tiles each. This forms the base of the pyramid. Now each player (2-4) selects 12 tiles, and puts them, face-up (that is, the tiles are face-up, not necessarily the player).

From then on, players take turns adding tiles to the stack. A tile has to: 1) lay across two tiles in the pyramid, and 2) match either the color or the design of the tiles upon which it has been laid. The game continues until neither player can make a legal move – the player with the fewest remaining tiles being the winner.

Easy to understand, yet challenging enough to make you look and think hard.

When the game is over, the thing you build together doesn’t look like your classic Egyptian pyramid, but it does look like something the Aztacks might have called a pyramid, if there were such people as Aztacks.

Here, courtesy of the BlueOrange ones, a brief, illustrative video:

Surprisingly engaging for such an easily-learned game. And it feels good, too. Well made. Carefully thought out. Kids enjoy it. Not kids enjoy playing it with the kids. The designs (“glyphs”) look like something an Aztack would make. And, o, the clacking and smushing.

Major Fun Award
Aztec is a strategy game for two to four players, ages 7 up. It is designed by Brad Ross and Jim Winslow, and comes to us from the oft-awarded Blue Orange Games.

Urban Fold

Filed Under (Creative, Family Games, Kids Games) by Bernie DeKoven on 10-05-2015

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urban fold

Until now, we haven’t even considered giving a Major Fun award to a crafts kit. A product called Urban Fold made us reconsider our policy.

It is one of a series of products that come to us from a company called Paper Punk. Go to their site. It is well-worth the visit. For on it, you will see what amounts to a new, and very welcome approach to children’s craft kits.

Urban Fold comes in a reusable storage box that contains 48 punch-and-fold shapes (punch-and-fold, as you probably already surmised, refers to thin, cardboard shapes that you fold along scored lines, and then attempt to put many little tabs into their appropriate little slots – this is not necessarily without its challenges, and hence, though it is recommended for children 6 and up, we would add that children of that age who can actually get all those tabs with out bending the tabs or themselves out of shape are exceptional and should be treated with great respect and much hugging), 697 stickers (of the peel-off persuasion, easily peeled, I might add, and of sizes varying from large to meticulous), and 1 poster and planning mat (a large, two-sided sheet of paper – one side serving as a planning grid, the other as a guide to different kinds of buildings that can be created from the shapes and stickers).

The poster/planning mat shows you how seriously you can take the whole thing – which is always good to know. We, in our frivolously fun way, decided to ignore that side of things pretty much altogether – though, I’m sure, at one time or another, we’ll appreciate the depth of detail and probably regret our devil-may-care enthusiasm. On the other hand, we won’t regret the fun we had, not at all at all.

The die-cutting is sufficiently deep so that even the youngest and most whimsy-driven member of our family test-group (nine-years-old) could tear out any of the shapes without tearing the shapes themselves – which is no small feat. The peel-off stickers also peel off without undue damage to their integrity.

We all sat around the table, folding and slotting. It took the six of us about an hour to complete that part of the kit – a surprisingly pleasant, relaxed, and thoroughly constructive family-togetherness hour (which is in itself remarkable – we’re talking an entire hour here, together!). We had little time left, and spent that investigating stickers. The oldest amongst us was able, with great care and precision of stickage, to create something quite in keeping with the craft-aspect of it all. Doors, windows, all aligned with care and propriety. The youngest didn’t care about any of that. He just stuck things here and there, exercising his art in the fullest, making something closely approximating a graffiti wall, which turned out to be clearly the most fun for him and us.

And then, because we had to eat, we had the opportunity to be feel quite sanguine about how everything fit so neatly in the box, all the shapes maintaining themselves quite enduringly.

It’s this flexibility, this range of potential engagement that made it so clear that we had something unique here – a craft kit for all moods and purposes, something that could respond to the moment, could absorb a wide range of interests, skills, approaches, and constraints. The geometric shapes lend themselves to play – they can be assembled into almost anything we could imagine. The stickers, though detailed enough to be taken literally, could just as easily be collaged and montaged into multi-hued memorials to mayhem. All in all, Urban Fold turned out to be Major Fun.


Laser Maze, Jr.

Filed Under (Kids Games, Puzzles) by Bernie DeKoven on 14-04-2015

laser maze jr

Laser Maze, Jr is “Junior” only because, unlike it’s Major Fun award-winning parent, Laser Maze (senior?) (which you can now play online):

  • the laser is safely secured to the puzzle frame, hence avoiding accidental lasering of eyes and things
  • there are 40 puzzles instead of 60, though the puzzles span four levels of difficulty, many of which are difficult enough to confound your local non-juniors
  • the puzzles are on large cards which fit beneath the top stage of the frame so as to make it easier to know precisely how to set up each puzzle
  • there’s a space fantasy theme to the whole game
  • it says “Jr” so you know it’s supposed to be for kids
  • the puzzle frame is exceptionally sturdy, the base flared for even more stability

The two “rocket target” pieces reflect the laser into their tops, causing the whole piece to glow when hit by the laser – a very rewarding reinforcement for any junior puzzle-solver. Yes, the more complex puzzles, with all their reflections and refractions, result in a somewhat more subtle rocket glow – but still wonderfully satisfying. The challenge cards are ingeniously designed – the part that shows you where to put the pieces at the onset of the puzzle sliding under the grid so as to be perfectly aligned and very easy to follow. The challenge part is indicated on the tab, showing clearly which pieces need to be added in order to complete the solution. The cards are two-sided, each side showing another puzzle. The solutions are all in the accompanying booklet, and are shown graphically, so no reading is required.

Here, from the puzzle’s producer, ThinkFun, (who has brought to us so many Major Fun-worth puzzles) a brief explanatory video:

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Two triple-AAA batteries, not included. Yes. Not.

Invented by Luke Hooper – the same who invented the other Laser Maze puzzle, and The Laser Game: Khet, with the challenge cards designed by Wei-Hwa Huang. As you probably guessed, it’s all Major Fun (and not just for Juniors).


Rush Hour Shift

Filed Under (Family Games, Kids Games, Thinking Games) by Bernie DeKoven on 25-03-2015

Rush Hour Shift
Rush Hour Shift is a strategy game based on ThinkFun‘s popular Rush Hour puzzle series. )If your not familiar with charm of these puzzles, you can play with the basic concept of this intriguing little puzzle online.)

Major Fun AwardThe game board is in three parts, loosely connected so that you can shift (hence, the name of the game) either end of the board up or down. There are 12 “blocking vehicles” of three different lengths, and ten different ways to arrange the vehicles on the board. These vehicles can be moved, they just can’t be moved sideways, nor can they move over each other (which explains why they are called “blocking” vehicles). There’s also a deck of 32 movement cards which determine how far you can move your “hero car” and/or whether you get to shift one of the two ends of the game board.

After the game is set up (according to any one of the ten arrangements shown in the rule book), each player gets four cards. From then on, players alternate turns, selecting one of their cards, discarding the card face-up, following the movement rules (how far you can move, whether or not you can shift the board end), and then taking another card from the draw pile. The game ends as soon as one player has managed to maneuver his or her hero car off the board.

It’s a quick game, success depending on chance, logic, and being strategic enough to make the correct decision between preventing your opponent from winning or creating your own path to victory. There’s one additional strategic deliciousness – if a vehicle is positioned so that it bridges between a shifting end and the non-shiftable center board, that end is locked, and remains unshiftable until the blocking vehicle is moved.

All in all, Rush Hour Shift proves to be a unique and remarkably engaging combination of strategy game for two people as young as eight or as old as you. Everything works to keep you engaged – the elegant design of the board, the different lengths of the vehicles, the variety of starting positions, the luck of the draw. Kids may be attracted by the toy-like appearance of the game (and so might you), but it turns out to provide a significant challenge worthy even of someone of your esteemed logical prowess.

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