Filed Under (Thinking Games) by Will Bain on 07-09-2015

Tagged Under :


When I was in college I became enamored with Celtic calligraphy, especially the intricate knot-work designs that decorated weapons, headstones, and illuminated texts dating back over a thousand years. Over the years I’ve toyed around with game ideas that would incorporate these designs into the game mechanics, not knowing that in the year I graduated from Wabash College, Murray Heasman had developed an ingenious and versatile mechanic that would spawn several award-winning games.

Up front, I need to be clear that I have not played all of the variations that come with Tailten’s collection of Tara games. For the purposes of this review, I am going to focus on the first game that is listed in the rules, called “The Sacred Hill.” By doing so I hope you’ll understand the basic mechanics that inform all the games that are possible with this collection. It is one of Tara’s great strength that it lends itself to many varieties of strategic play.

Game Board and Pieces:

The board is essentially a seven by seven grid minus the four corner cells to create a cross shape. Each cell of the grid contains a diamond shaped hole. The holes are designed to hold the primary game pieces so that they stay aligned with the grid.

There are two game pieces that are used in all games: the ringfort and the bridge. The ringfort is a roughly square piece that fits into the holes on the game board. Each is inscribed with a colored ring (red or blue). Bridges are thin strips of red or blue that are used to connect two ringforts of the same color to each other. There’s only so much fidelity that my words can manage in describing these pieces; suffice it to say that the ringforts are designed so that you can move them without disrupting the entire board and the bridges fit on top of the ringforts to create intricate and almost seamless patterns.

Game Play: The Sacred Hill

Most of the Tara inspired games revolve around piece placement and territory control. Sacred Hill is a great example of this. The goal is to finish the game with the fewest number of “kingdoms” which are made of connected ringforts.

The game plays out in two phases: maneuvers and battle. The maneuvers phase involves opponents taking turns placing their ringforts. The first ringfort can be placed anywhere. After that, your ringforts must be placed a knight’s move (in chess the knight moves two spaces in one direction and then one space to the left or right) from any of your existing ringforts but cannot be closer than a knight’s move. Once players have exhausted all possible placements for their ringforts, the battle phase can begin. There will be lots of blank spaces on the board.

In battle phase, players take turns placing ringforts next to their existing ringforts and linking them with the bridges. If you can surround an opponent’s single ringfort with your color, you can remove that ringfort and replace it with one of your own. The battle phase is an interesting combination of consolidating your own kingdom and splitting your opponent’s. It is not so important to have the most connected pieces so long as all of your ringforts are connected into one kingdom. Your opponent could control all but one small corner of the board and still lose if your one small kingdom is the thing that is keeping them separate.


There are many games that can be played with just the ringforts and bridges. The game also comes with a king piece which fits inside the ringforts and is used in an engrossing variation called “High King of Tara.” With these three pieces, there are an astonishing number of permutations that are possible, especially if you are willing to adapt different placement rules for the ringforts. All in all, the game comes packaged with the rules for 5 games, some with their own variations.

Thinking GamesTara is beautifully constructed and designed, which is appropriate given the Celtic artwork on which it is based. Although the rules for piece placement take some time to learn, the instruction booklet is well written and clearly illustrated. Once you do learn the basics, the rest of the games are easy to pick up and largely intuitive.

If you can only pack a single game for a get-away, this one would be a great choice.

2 players. Ages 8+

Tara was designed by Murray Heasman and is © 1993 by M.W. Heasman and Tailten Games.

Love Letter to AEG:

Filed Under (Family Games, Thinking Games) by Will Bain on 06-09-2015

Dearest Alderac Entertainment Group,

How my heart races as I pen this missive. It has been mere hours since you swept me away in the embrace of your elegantly crafted Love Letter and now I fear I might only keep a Lost Legacy of those moments together. Why must your love be such a Cypher? Will it always be thus that I will only be able to express my affection to you through the fickle fortunes of these cards?

Oh most cruel and implacable master of my fate! Until your next gift, I shall remain forever yours.

Major Fun

[Fanning self]

Mercy. Sometimes Major Fun can be overwhelmed by the sheer animal fun that a publisher can exude, and Alderac Entertainment Group (AEG to their paramours) recently poured on the charm and a heavy dose of fun-pheromones through three closely related games: Love Letter, Lost Legacy, and Cypher.


Love Letter and Munchkin Loot Letter:

Love Letter is certainly the place to start. The game mechanics of Love Letter are deeply imbedded in the other games and form a strong foundation for all three. Love Letter is a strategic deduction and elimination card game in which players are trying to either eliminate all the other players or be the one to hold the highest points when the cards run out. AEG publishes many variations of Love Letter but they all consist of 16 cards ranging in value from 1 to 8. Some cards are much more common than others (for example, there are five 1s but only one 8).

We played the version of Love Letter that is based on the world of Steve Jackson’s wildly popular Munchkin games. This version is called Loot Letter and it imagines that the players are fantasy adventurers who are trying to escape a dungeon with the most loot.

The game play is very simple. Every player is dealt one card. One card is removed from the remaining deck and kept hidden. The rest of the cards form a draw deck. On your turn you draw one card and play one card. Whatever instructions are on the card you play have to be followed. For example, if you play the Maul Rat (value 2), you get to look at the cards in another player’s hand. Some cards like the Duck of Doom and the Potted Plant can eliminate players from the game. If all other players are eliminated, you win!

If the draw pile runs out and more than one player is still in the game, the winner is the one with the highest value card in his or her hand.

Although luck plays a role in the game, there is a lot of strategy that goes into deciding which card you should play and which one you should keep. You don’t have many choices but each choice is crucial, and that is one of the great strengths of these Love Letter games. And although this is an elimination game, no one stays out for very long. Each round is resolved in a matter of minutes, and then you start it all over.

Lost Legacy:

LL1_cover-artDesigned by the same person responsible for Love Letter, Lost Legacy: The Starship tweaks the mechanics of Love Letter a bit for a new flavor to a favorite dish. The players are looking for a powerful starship. To do so, the players use the same draw and play mechanic as in Love Letter. Unlike Love Letter, when you get to the point that there are no cards left in the deck, each player gets to guess where the Starship is. If it is in your hand, then the guess is easy, BUT the player who gets to guess first is determined by the card you keep in your hand (lower is faster). The Starship is worth 5 points, so if you hold the Starship but someone else has a lower card, that person could guess that you are holding it, and thus they would win the round.

It is also possible that no one wins the round. Players who were not eliminated get, at most, one guess, and even that is not guaranteed. I found it interesting to use this as a way to stay in the game even when I knew I could not win the round. If I could make it that no one got a point, I could stay in the game for a better outcome next round.


Cypher_card-spread-1024x463If Lost Legacy is a sibling to Love Letter, David Short’s Cypher is a first cousin. You can see the family resemblance but there’s a healthy dose of new DNA. First, there is no elimination (and although I really like Love Letter this is a big factor for Major Fun). Secondly, instead of starting with one card, each player starts their turn with three cards—but ENDS the turn with one.


Yup. When you start your turn you have three cards. You play one in front of you and do whatever it says (like Love Letter). THEN you draw a card. To end your turn, you pass one card to the person on your right and one card to the person on your left. In this way, players always start with three cards but end with one.

The goal is to end the game with the most points played to the table in front of you. You can only keep three cards in front of you, and there are lots of ways to mess with what your opponents have on the table. The round ends when the draw deck is reduced to zero cards OR someone plays one of the cards called “Cypher Anomaly.” All players have one more action and then points are tallied.

Cypher is a longer game than the other Love Letter games but not by much. All of the deduction elements are present, and there is a great strategic element to setting up your last card. You have lots of opportunities to mess with your opponents before the final actions are triggered, and this is incredibly satisfying.

All three games are small, quick to learn, and can be played over and over and over. The art and card design is top notch. AEG is releasing them in handy draw-string bags that contain everything you need. I actually keep all three in one bag. The instructions are short and clear, and playing any of them will allow you to intuitively pick up any of the others in short order.

It’s a lot of love, and Major Fun, in a very small package.

All reviewed games are 2 – 4 players. Ages 10+

Love Letter and Munchkin Loot Letter were designed by Seiji Kanai and is © 2012 by AEG. Lost Legacy was designed by Seiji Kanai and is © 2014 by AEG. Cypher was designed by David Short and is © 2014 by AEG.


Ozobot Bit

Filed Under (Learning Games, Thinking Games, Virtual Toys) by Bernie DeKoven on 19-08-2015

ozobot bit
Surely you remember Ozobot, the Major Fun award-winning robot that you program with colored lines and can play with on paper or on your tablet (with free, downloadable Major Fun Awardgames even)?

Now. you lucky people, there’s Ozobot Bit – smaller, with all the same museum-ready packaging and computer-enhanced abilities to follow paths that you draw with colored markers on a piece of paper or electronically on your tablet, and more: the opportunity to get far more deeply into the art and joy of programming using Google’s OzoBlockly visual programming language.

Ozobot Bit comes with two shells (each a different color) (OK, they’re helmets), a selection of pre-programmed playing mats, a calibration card, instructions, and USB charger – all housed in an expensive-looking, museum-quality plastic box – all in all, making a sweet, fun and robust connection between playing with a toy and learning to program with Java.

YouTube Preview Image

From Evollve, Inc. Ozobot Bit is recommended for school-age children to play with by themselves or in pairs.

Rock Me Archimedes

Filed Under (Family Games, Kids Games, Thinking Games) by Bernie DeKoven on 26-07-2015

rock me archimedes

We had to endure several hurdles before we got to the game itself. The first was the package. It was the first time in all our our deep and extensive examination of new games that we encountered such a cleverly and uniquely designed package – the shape perfectly conforming to the game, elegantly inviting us to a unique experience. And if you let it balance on the curved part, it works just like the game works!

The next hurdle: opening the box to discover that the game was, in fact, as beautiful, as different, as inviting as the box intimated. A long wooden board covered with a pattern of cleanly carved pits and channels, resting on an equally beautiful semi-cylindrical base within which fits a removable wooden tray holding two sets of marbles and a large wooden die. And the rules – clearly written, cleverly presented on a sheet of heavy paper exactly as long and wide as the board, easy to understand in a few minutes reading, and inviting the players to explore variations and invent their own.

And then, the final hurdle, playing the game and discovering how genuinely challenging and truly fun it was.

Major Fun AwardIt’s a balance board. Placing marbles on the board changes the balance. One player tries to get four of her marbles to one end of the board, the other to the other – without letting either end of the board touch, even everso briefly, the surface the board is resting on. You can place or move your marbles towards either end of the board – yours or your opponent’s. Why you’re opponent’s? So you can prevent her from having enough spaces open to win the game. But if you focus too much on that strategy, you won’t get your marbles to your end of the board.

And then there are the variations.

And then you realize, because the basic physics of the game are so interesting, so inviting, you can play with almost anyone. Maybe not the game that is described, but fun nevertheless. So, yes, you can play with a five-year-old. And yes, you can even play cooperatively, or in teams. And yes, by all means, put it on your coffee table. In the box, maybe, for the sake of the surprise.

YouTube Preview Image

Designed by Matt Buchanan in collaboration with the Marbles Brain Workshop, Rock Me Archimedes is a two-player game recommended for children ages 8 and up, takes about 20 minutes to play, and is available from Marbles the Brain Store.


Filed Under (Kids Games, Magnetic, Thinking Games) by Bernie DeKoven on 24-07-2015

There are three spiders. They have a magnetic personality, despite their apparent spiderness. There are two game boards. One game board is suspended over the other. Two of the spiders (Peter and Parker) live on the top board, the other hangs somewhat menacingly by its web (OK, string) between the two boards. The string is connected to two magnets, and to  Spinderella. Peter connects through the top board to one of the magnets, Parker to the other. Moving the Peter and Parker apart or close together raises or lowers Spinderella. Peter and Parker, depending on where they are positioned, change where Spinderalla hangs. If you can figure it all out, you’ll be able to move Peter and Parker so that Spinderella can get close enough to the ant of your choice (also magnetic), to carry that poor ant back to the starting point. In sum, it’s all about the spiders.

There is some set-up time involved. Fortunately the instructions are well-illustrated and compassionately brief.

Each of up to four players gets three ants. Their goal is to be the first to get all three of their ants across the windy ant-track to the safety of the ant home. All ants share the same starting place and the same home. Kind of sweet, no?

There’s also a tree trunk. It’s hollow – and just big enough to cover an ant and protect it from Spinderella, and tall enough to make any ant who happens to be on top of the tree trunk a very tempting Spinderalla morsel.

Spinderella - set up

There are three dice. One die is determines whether you are moving the spiders (and, hence, Spinderella), an ant or the tree trunk. Another die determines how many spaces Peter and Parker can move. And the third how many spaces your ants can move. On your turn, you roll all three dice.

You roll the dice, you get to move either the spiders, your ants, or the tree trunk. If you roll the tree trunk, you can also move your ants. Ants can land on top of each other or on top of the tree trunk. If one ant lands on another, the bottom ant, when it moves, carries the top ant with it.

thinking-family-kidsSo, you get the general idea. What you can’t quite get from the description is how innovative, and especially how fun the game turns out to be. Getting Spinderalla to move where you what her to be is obviously the most challenging and fun-provoking part of the game, though trying to escape the growing menace of Spinderalla is equally fun. The fact that you all get to move her (if the dice are right), so what appears to be a good move for you at one moment in the game might get you in big trouble (ant-capture-wise) the next move, adds significantly to the joyful angst of it all. Hiding under the tree trunk is very clever, unless you want to move that particular ant.

Designed by Roberto Franco with art by Doris Mathtäus, Spinderella can be purchased from the German manufacturer who claims that it is suitable for children 6 years old and up. It will soon be available in the US from Lion Rampant Imports.

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 (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 (Thinking Games) by Marc Gilutin on 03-06-2015


Miriam Webster defines “Splendor” as “magnificence, grandeur, beauty, elegance.”

Or maybe I’ll just quote “Italian John” – a great old guy who used to work in the local pool room where I might have spent a little too much time growing up: “Super-Bella-Gorgeous!!”

The very highest of compliments one could get. Like a Major Fun Award.

Major Fun awardI play lots of games with lots of different players. And I have yet to hear anybody say they didn’t like Splendor. Period. It’s very easy to learn and has a short enough playing time (30 minutes-ish) that there’s a great chance you’ll be playing back to back games.

The game is very easy to learn but offers enough strategy to keep everyone involved.

Splendor, is what we – folks who love games that make you think – call an “Engine Builder.”

You start with nothing. Do things to make your nothing become something. Improve that something into a nicer, more efficient something and, hopefully, into a winning something.
Ain’t that something?

“The play’s the thing” – Shakespeare was a gamer!

Splendor Set-up

When it’s your turn you either:

1. Take Chips: Blue, Red. Black, White, or Green
2. Buy a card from the board using said chips as currency
3. Speculate on a card from the board and take one Gold (wild) chip.

The cards are set out in three rows, each with its own supply deck. The first row is the easiest to get, etc. The cost for buying a card is always some combination of chips, for example, one particular low level green card costs 1 each of white, blue, red, and black.

But look how beautiful this game is!

So pleasing are the chips…..I frequently end up shuffling mine while we play.

“But how do I win?”

Some of the cards that are mostly in the second and third rows have a big number in the upper left of the card. Those are Victory Points – what you’re playing for. There are also a number of Nobleman tiles (3 points each), which a player can claim if they qualify at the end of their turn. The game goes on until, in a 4 player game, for instance, one player declares that they’ve accumulated 15 points. This means the current round is the last. Most points wins.

Splendor is published in France by Space Cowboys (their site is simply Splendorful) and is available in the US from Asmodee. It is designed by Marc André, with art by Pascal Quidalt. It can be played by 2-4 players, 1o-years-old and up.

Repeat after me: “Splendor is Super-Bella Gorgeous”, which translates to Major Fun!


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.


Filed Under (Thinking Games) by Marc Gilutin on 27-04-2015

Agricola, Ora et Labora, Le Havre, Glass Road……..Whew!

Uwe Rosenberg has become one of the best designers of the ‘heavier’ games of the current generation. Four games in the top forty, as rated by us (you, if you’re registered on Board Game Geek) is downright Beatlesque, as far as world domination goes.

But as good as these games are, none of them will be getting a Major Fun Award any time soon.

Not because they’re not terrific. Herr Rosenberg does great work.
But they are quite a bit harder to explain and understand than the ones we like to call “Major Fun”.

And they usually take a couple of hours to play. Or more.
This is fine with me on occasion. But not what we here at MajorFun celebrate. 

We’re all about FUN. Simple. Joyous. Major. Fun. 

Now Uwe’s “PATCHWORK“is just that.

Major Fun awardIt takes 10 minutes or less to learn and around 25 or 30 to play. That’s it. You’re finished. And thinking about playing it again. Right away. It stimulates the mind. And the sense of touch as well. All those patches, of different shapes. Fitting together (hopefully).

Strategic too.
 A perfectly fun combination.
 A Gamer’s Game in the nicest sense of the word.

But I digress.

Patchwork is a two player game which, rumor has it, has a chance to possibly be played as solitaire, which is always nice.
Each player has her own 9X9 board to play on in addition to the center “time track” you’re both moving along.

In this game, buttons represent both the currency of the game (they’re used to buy patches) and victory points at games’ end. You want to have a bunch in your pile. And it’s very helpful to have them on the tiles you’ve placed on your player’s board.
Most buttons wins.

When it’s your turn, you have two options:

  • Buy a patch from the circle of tiles in the center of the table and place it on your board. This costs you buttons (money) and time.
  • Pass and move your marker to one space beyond your opponent’s. You get one button for every space you move when you do this.

Decisions decisions.

Imagination and planning play a part in Patchwork. First, in visualizing what your personal board will ultimately look like and second, leaving as few empty spaces as possible. (There’s a penalty for empty spaces at games end that’s drastic enough to frequently be the difference between winning and losing. So plan, baby plan).

patchwork in progress
The game continues, with players taking more of these beautiful patches and adding them to their personal board until both have reached the (final) center space on the time track.

When the second player reaches that final space, the game is over and both count the buttons they’ve accumulated and subtract two points for each uncovered space on their personal boards.

We like Patchwork a lot, hereabouts. And look forward to more (Major) Fun stuff from Uwe Rosenberg.