Table top games saw me through middle school lunch. I’d throw down whatever dreck they had uncanned for us (elapsed time: 30 seconds) and then I’d set about the serious business of playing quarter basketball or pencil football for the remaining twenty-nine-and-a-half-minutes. A couple of props, a flat surface, an opponent—I had it made.
I would gladly bolt through my favorite meal (a thai peanut-sauce dish called pra ram long song thanks for asking…) in order to spend a bit more time with Gigamic’s table-top racing game, Regatta.
Now Regatta is a bit more complicated and prop driven than the games I played at school, but the conceit is the same. In this case, players race wooden sailboats across whatever flat surface they have handy. The game comes with four sailboats, four course buoys, and 54 movement cards.
The cards really make the game. Players hold five cards. Each card has an arrow that curves from one side to another. Sometimes a card will have multiple arrows so that the player has some choice. In short, players move their boats from one side of a card to another. When it is a racers turn to play, that boater places a card in front of his or her yacht so that the arrow starts at the bow of the yacht. The player moves the boat so that its aft quarters are on the tip of the arrow and the boat is facing the arrow’s direction.
The cards also serve to show where sailboats cannot go. Each yacht has a no-go region in front of it (so that another boat cannot block its turn. This no-go region is the size of one of the cards. You can move anywhere on the board as long as you do not move into the no-go zone of another player. There are also some special cards that allow double movement, extra turns, and an especially nasty one that makes an opponent miss a turn, but these just spice up the game’s elegant movement mechanic.
There is a surprising amount of strategy that goes in to placing the cards. Most cards do not move your boat in a straight line. Most curve to the left or the right so you have to set up a series of moves that play out over your next few turns. Saving up special cards for the right moment is critical.
The racing is clever and fast, and best of all there is no deep water!! Racing yachts in the comfort of my dining room? Major Fun.
Once you get over how beautifully made the game is, how the wooden board and pieces are so finished, so pleasant to touch, how the octagonal pieces fit so perfectly (with just the amount of looseness to make them easy to place and remove, with exactly the right thickness so that you can easily lift them from between the pegs that keep them in position), you will finally find yourself able to appreciate the game itself.
Pathagon is an easy to learn (maybe five minutes), two-player strategy game. Each player has 14 octagonal pieces, each of a different color. The opposite sides of the square board have the same color as one set of pieces. The object of the game is to be first to create an unbroken line of your pieces from one of edges of the board (marked with the same color as your pieces) to the other.
At first glance, the educated gamer might be sorely tempted to conclude that Pathagon is another embodiment of the now classic game of Twixt. However, a closer reading of the rules, and maybe five minutes of play will be all the evidence necessary to realize that Pathagon is a unique game, aglow with brilliantly subtle strategic glimmers.
First, only orthogonal connections count. Pieces must actually touch edges in order for them to be considered contiguous.
Next, you can remove one of your opponent’s pieces by sandwiching it, again only orthogonally, between two of yours. (A removed piece isn’t captured, it is returned to the opponent for placement somewhere else on the board.) In fact, depending on how pieces are aligned, you can capture several of your opponent’s pieces in one move (as long as each piece is orthogonally sandwiched between two of yours).
And finally, once all the pieces are placed, if no one has won the game, players take turns moving their pieces until someone succeeds in creating the proverbial unbroken, edge-to-edge line.
A round of Pathagon can be as brief as 10 minutes and, depending on how long each player wants to consider strategic implications, as long as a half-hour. In either event, it is likely that players will want to complete several games before acknowledging defeat.
Anyone old enough to understand checkers will be able to appreciate what Pathagon has to offer. Though it is likely, given the elegance of the execution of the game, that Pathagon will long remain in the cherished possession of the mature gamer. Designed by Mark Fuchs, owner of Maranda Enterprises, is one six, beautifully rendered wooden games, all designed by Mr. Fuchs. More are on their way.
A great way to Major Fun’s heart is through his stomach. Unfortunately that’s due to a gastric bypass surgery gone horribly wrong. BUT another great way to his heart is through elegant design. We at Major Fun reward games that are easy to learn, and that means that some types of games and some game mechanics come back to the party in many different outfits. Nothing wrong with this. Fun is fun.
Gamewright’s City Square Off is a competitive tiling game for two people (or two teams). Each player starts with a board, 21 tiles (much as you would find in Tetris variants), and a starting tile that is shaped like a city (each city tile is different). The city tile goes in the middle of each board and a deck of 21 cards (a card for each of the tiles) is shuffled. The top card is revealed and each player places that tile on their board. The player who runs out of space on his or her board loses.
We’ve seen games like this before, but City Square Off is compact, sturdy, and visually stunning. The game gives you 4 city tiles to use as starting pieces and each is unique AND they seem to represent 4 different periods of time and architecture. The nine-by-nine grid is sturdy, rigid, grey plastic, which admittedly sounds less than appealing and yet the bright orange and green tiles fit perfectly into the grid where they almost fluoresce against the grey surface. Everything fits into a compact box.
Games are quick, intuitive, and easy to learn. The designers also include several variants that shake things up. Start with the city tile ANYWHERE on the board. Don’t use the cards and each player races to see who can fill up all the squares on his or her board first. The variants suggest many other possibilities. Each game is fun and immediately replayable.
As I’ve written before, the best strategy games (in terms of fun) arise from simple, elegant rules and game mechanics. Games of this sort provide an accessible portal into a contest that requires the players to make short term and long term plans based on…
Sorry about that. Got some verbosity lodged in my keyboard. Major Fun games like Got ‘Em!are easy to learn and you wanna play ‘em again and again and again.
This one is even reversible!! (I’ll come back to this in a second)
The basic premise is simple. Each player has a pawn on a seven by seven grid. On a turn, each player moves his or her pawn and places a plastic section of wall. Walls prevent movement in that direction. A player is eliminated if his or her pawn is ever surrounded by walls.
I mentioned the game is reversible, right? I meant reversible in the sense that some jackets are reversible. The board has two sides and each side has a distinct flavor of play and slight variations on the basic rules. One side is for the Bright Rules and the other side is for the Brainy Rules.
Bright Rules involves some random elements and utilizes a deck of 55 cards. The grid of squares on the game board is divided into four colors: red, green, yellow, and blue. Opponents still move their pieces and place walls, but their movement and wall-placement are dictated by the cards. Each player is dealt three cards. Each card has instructions for how to move your pawn and how to place a wall. For example: “move up to 2 spaces and place a wall on any GREEN square.” Not only must players work to avoid being boxed in, but they must also decide what cards will be most useful in later stages of the game.
Brainy Rules does away with the cards and the colorful grid. Players move their pieces and then may place one piece of wall anywhere on the board. Movement is based on the number of walls that currently enfold a player. Each pawn can move one space, but if your pawn is on a square that has a wall touching it, you can move your piece an extra space for each piece of wall. In some cases it is to your advantage to place a wall next to your own square. Doing so gives you one extra space of movement. That can mean the difference between scurrying frantically at the whim of your opponents and breaking into a clear space so that you can take the time to push your opponents around.
It is amazing how quickly the board fills with walls. What seems like a wide-open field of play turns into a series of dead-ends and shrinking courtyards. Especially with 4 players. Who knew that claustrophobia could be Major Fun?
Calliope has done a wonderful job of packaging the game, designing the pieces, and conveying both sets of rules. I appreciated the way each set of rules (complete with illustrations and hints) had its own tab on an ingeniously folded sheet of instructions.
Not since enacting Poe’s “Cask of Amontillado” in middle school have I had this much fun walling someone in. Well, there was also “The Black Cat.” And “The Fall of the House of Usher.” And “Buried Alive.” Come to think of it, I remember having more students in that class at the beginning of the unit on Poe…
Engagement is an essential element of Major Fun games. There are lots of games that I love—especially strategy games—that I can’t consider Major Fun because there is too much down time. One person is playing but the other two or three have to wait for their turn OR wait while some action resolves between two other players. Doesn’t make the game a bad game—just means the game can’t earn a Major Fun epaulet.
Cornucopiadeftly avoids down time in two ways: first, by keeping the action moving and second, by incorporating a system of wagering into each round. Even though one player controls most of the action each turn, I never felt like I could disengage from the action because I had something at stake.
At its most basic, Cornucopia is about making runs and sets. There is a deck of “Goods Cards” that represent 6 different colored vegetables (yellow corn, orange pumpkins, red tomatoes, purple eggplants, green grapes, and wild-rainbow cornucopias). These Goods Cards are set out in five columns (at the start of the game, 2 cards per column). A player attempts to complete a column by adding cards that make a run (five different cards) or a set (five identical cards). If the player completes a run or set, that person earns points. If the player fails, the person loses points. The player with the most points at the end of the game wins, and the game ends when the deck of Goods is played through twice.
Things get interesting with the betting. On a player’s turn, he or she places a bet on how many cards will be needed to complete a column. The more cards the player chooses, the lower the final score. Once the player chooses, the opponents have 10 seconds to bet if the player will succeed. Each player has a double sided YES/NO card and some chips that they use to place the wager. Not only did this serve to keep everyone glued to the results, it also proved to be a major factor in winning the game. The bets are small but they add up over the course of a game.
There are several ways to score points but most can be boiled down to completing (or failing to complete) columns and the bets you make on said success or failure.
Another fun aspect of the game was the trash talk. Because betting is involved and the amount of points to be earned in a round is determined by how FEW cards you choose to play, the opportunities for baiting, teasing, and ridiculing are nigh boundless. I say this with a certain amount of shameful glee because I encouraged this behavior with my 10 year old daughter and two of her friends. We just could not help ourselves. It is just too much fun to encourage someone to try to complete a column with only 2 cards and then bet against that person. Or bet for them and feel the same rush of accomplishment when they succeed.
Gryphon produces some beautiful and engaging games and Cornucopia does not disappoint. The rules are concise, well organized, and clearly illustrated. The cards are colorful and sturdy-made for lots of wear and tear. My only nit-picky complaint arises from the flimsy chips used for betting and keeping score, but that hardly prevents me from recommending this game. As you build your collection of enduring, Major Fun games, find a spot for Cornucopia. And make sure it’s easy to reach. I think you’ll want it a lot.
Think-ets comes with a variety of games you can play with the included gewgaws and trinkets. These games suggest an infinite number of variations and new games that can be created by a fertile mind. Too many for the space we have here and a big part of why Think-ets (in all its iterations) is Major Fun.
But despite all the games that can be played when you open one of these packages, I’m not going to talk about the games. Instead I’m going to talk about what makes Think-ets such a great toy as opposed to a game.
Pause and regroup. Let’s get some of the basics out of the way.
Think-ets come in a variety of packages but they all contain an assortment of trinkets. The one I am currently looking at is the “Genius” edition. A tin box (common size for gum or mints) contains 15 small trinkets such as an arrowhead, a polar bear, a compass (functional), a tomato, and a twelve-sided die: the kind of assortment you would find at the bottom of a toy chest or under the cushions in the family couch. The box also contains a small pencil, a pad of paper, and an instruction booklet. The booklet suggests about a dozen games that you can play with the Think-ets but…
A quick story. When I handed my daughter (9) and one of her best friends (11) a couple of bags of Think-ets, one of the first things they did was arrange the pieces. My daughter went for shape and color and her friend by alphabetical order. They created other patterns and spent half an hour or more just moving the pieces into lines. This actually seemed to fit some of the games mentioned in the instructions, so I suggested one of the other games and they shrugged without much enthusiasm but went right on playing with the pieces. They soon left the table and went off to incorporate the Think-ets into a rather complicated game of school they had going upstairs.
My guess is that most people will experience Think-ets in the way my daughter and her friend did. They are fascinating toys. They are vehicles for imaginative play, and in this capacity they are incredibly engaging. For a game to work—for anything to be considered a game in the first place—the players must agree to follow a set of rules; a prescribed set of behaviors must be followed. A game is a common set of behaviors. By contrast, a toy might suggest methods of play, but a toy is not limited to a single set of actions. You want your cowboy action figure to dive to Atlantis? Fine. You want it to actually be a dog instead of a human? Sure. That dog has a pet spider that looks a lot like my car keys? That’s great…
Hey! Gimme my keys!
Think-ets are Major Fun not because of the games that are included in the package, but because the collection of trinkets lends itself so well to the imagination. We made up stories about the pieces. We stacked them and lined them up and shook them in the tin. We scattered them across the table and made up games that lasted two moves before we changed the game. And then changed it again. The sundry items are wonderful to hold in your hand or move around a table top. They inspire stories and games and conversations and (best of all)
There is an elegance of design to many Gigamic games that is impossible to ignore and Kabaleokeeps up the tradition. The conical pieces are simple, colorful, and they make a satisfying clack when stacked. This is not trivial because clacking and stacking are what you will do a lot in this game.
The elegance of the pieces underscores the elegance of the game. There are six colors. Each player has a different color, and the winner is the one whose color is on top of the most stacks once all the pieces are used.
So not only is the design of the pieces unique and striking, the design is also functional.
There are 24 Bases (cones with a single stripe of color) and 36 Pieces (cones with a double stripe). There are also 6 Target cones which are not colored on the outside but are colored INSIDE the cone. Players draw a Target at the beginning of the game and this becomes their color—a fact they keep secret during play. The number of colors with which you play is always two more than the number of participants. This makes it very difficult to guess exactly which color any player has.
Before play begins, the bases are scattered in the middle, and each player draws a certain number of Pieces from a bag. The Pieces may not be kept secret.
On each player’s turn, you take one of the Pieces and place it on a Base in the middle of the table. Pieces may not be placed on Bases of the same color, but you may place any Piece on top of any other Piece (say that 5 times fast). So a blue Piece could go on a pink Base and a green Piece could go on top of that blue Piece (making a 3 stack of cones). A green Piece could now be played on the previous green Piece BUT instead of stacking higher, you remove both green Pieces.
Different colors STACK. Same colors REMOVE. Piece on Base must be different colors.
That is some elegant game design.
Planning ahead is maddening. You don’t want to reveal your color so misdirection and blocking are good strategies; however as your opponents and you are running out of pieces, it becomes very important to free up your color in such a way that cripples an opponent.
Kabaleo is incredibly intuitive and gameplay is quick. The rules take up two very small pages in a rulebook that covers maybe 2 dozen languages. The rules also include wordless, pictorial directions that show what moves are allowed and what are not (especially handy for you anthropologists, semiologists, and sociologists studying cultures with no written or verbal language). Kabaleo is Major Fun because it feels fun to play and feels GOOD to play.
(Although I bet anyone of the Cold War generation who opens the box will think “Missile silo.” Go get the game and you’ll see what I mean.)
You, of course, remember the original, Major Fun award-winning Q-BA-MAZE. And you were probably wondering what could have happened to this marvel of marble-dropping merriment. Wonder no more. Or, wonder again at the wonderment now once again available thanks to Mindware‘s new release of Q-BA-MAZE 2.0? Similar in every way to the original Q-BA-MAZE, yet significantly more affordable.
Q-BA-MAZE 2.0 comes in two different packages. The “starter sets” include a more than ample 36 lovely acrylic pieces and 14 steel marbles. There are two sets which are identical except for color. One set features cool colors (green, blue and clear), the other warm (red, yellow and clear). And the there’s the “Big Box,” which combines both of the starter sets into one gloriously absorbing multi-marble-fall construction kit.
Each set includes three different block styles to choose from (nine bottom-exit cubes, 18 single-exit cubes, and, my favorite, nine double-exit cubes). These double-exit cubes feature a truly ingenious structure which often makes the marble hesitate for an unknowable period just before it makes up its steely mind as to which exit to take. When you drop a whole bunch of marbles into your construct at the same time, the varying delay creates precisely enough suspenseful randomness to give you a different result each time.
There are also two ways each of the blocks go together, which, combined with all the other transparently blocky affordances, turns out to be precisely enough flexibility to engage you in many, many hours of creatively constructive engagement. Furthermore, there are no dead ends. No mater how complex your construct, the marbles will inevitably find their way out, one way or an other.
I asked the designer to explain more about the improvements in the new version. He generous answer will probably tell you more than you want to know, but, in case you wondered:
This new partnership between Q-BA-MAZE and MindWare is a great match. It contributes all of their skill and experience in the production, distribution and customer service side of brainy toys, while it frees time for me as the inventor to dream up new ideas.
I have always thought of the cubes as the base of an ever-expanding marble run construction system. Now that vision is poised to become a reality. I am currently working on half a dozen new Q-BA-MAZE extensions and am so excited for these to get out into the hands of creative kids everywhere!
ENGINEERING THE NEW CUBES
The engineering of the new cubes was the first step in the partnership with MindWare.
Since we were making new molds, it made sense to take the opportunity to let the design evolve and improve upon the original.
Q-BA-MAZE cubes have both “bottom pegs” and “side joints.” I’ll discuss these separately below. Some of the points are pretty technical and difficult to state succinctly.
A: BOTTOM PEG SHAPE: If you compare the original Q-BA-MAZE cube and the new Q-BA-MAZE 2.0 cube, you will see that bottom pegs were originally cylindrical but are now more like rounded squares with the greater roundness facing the outside corners.
This change in shape has two effects:
STACKED FOUR PEG CONNECTION:
When stacking Q-BA-MAZE cubes vertically, they are meant to be stacked with a “four peg connection” and not a “two peg connection”. The rounded outside corners of the new bottom pegs give a visual and tactile cue to the user that the “four peg connection” is the way to go and the “two peg connection” is like putting a square peg in a round hole.
The original cylindrical bottom pegs provided no such visual or tactile cue to avoid the “two peg connection.” Q-BA-MAZE structures are most stable when relying on “four peg connections” and “side joint” connections and avoiding “two peg connections.”
When cubes are horizontally offset, the way to connect them is with the “side joints” which are super stable (ie the joint is nearly 3/4″ tall on a 1 1/2″ tall piece and thus does a great job of resisting rotation in all directions). The new squared off look of the bottom pegs, in addition to the diagrams in MindWare’s new instruction pamphlets that come with each set, will help ensure that people learn to build with Q-BA-MAZE using the stable “four peg connection” and using the super stable “side joints” rather than “two peg connections”
As this new bottom peg design points people toward this most stable way of building, they will create more stable structures.
2) ROTATION RESISTANCE CONTRIBUTED BY THE BOTTOM PEGS IN SIDE-JOINED CUBES:
Take two single-exit cubes and then attach them using the side joint of the upper cube so that the side joint of the lower cube is immediately under the upper cube. You will notice that the upper cube rests on top of the lower cube’s side joint.
Now if you compare the original cubes and the new Q-BA-MAZE 2.0 cubes in this configuration, try rotating the upper cube clockwise or counter-clockwise in the vertical plane of the abutting faces of the two cubes.
You will notice that the new cubes are resisting this rotation for some reason and not “popping out” the way the original cubes do under similar rotational force.
Look closely at the side joint of the lower cube when you are doing this rotation. You will notice that the “bottom peg” eventually comes into contact with the side joint of the lower cube. Due to the squared off nature of the new bottom pegs, the bottom pegs of the upper cube engage with and do not slip past the side joint of the lower cube during this rotation.
Do the same inspection with the original cubes and you’ll see that the cylindrical bottom pegs roundness makes them slip past the side joint of the lower cube during this rotation.
This greater resistance to rotation is helpful especially when making Q-BA-MAZE structures with longer cantilevers and for holding these cantilevers in a more stable and orthogonal orientation.
B: BOTTOM PEG HEIGHT: The new bottom pegs are a little taller than the old bottom pegs – so they sink a little deeper into a cube below.
SIDE JOINT FIT: The side joints of the new Q-BA-MAZE 2.0 have a more uniformly snug fit than the original due to increases in the draft angle of the cube walls and side joint. The increased draft angle makes it easier when tuning the production mold to get that “just right” Goldilocks balance in which the cubes are neither too loose nor too tight.
Individually and together, these engineering improvements to both the side joints and bottom pegs provide even greater stability than the first generation Q-BA-MAZE cubes.
What’s more, all the rich library of detailed plans created by the designer of the original Q-BA-MAZE are still available, online, on Andrew Comfort’s Q-BA-MAZingly generous website.
Goliath Games’ Exago(“hexagon” with a little off the ends…) is a strategic tiling game that will be instantly familiar to anyone who has played Connect Four or tic-tac-toe. On the off chance that you grew up in an island culture that eschewed linear configuration skills in favor of more fractal or non-euclidean patterns, Goliath provides all the rules you need in order to play the game, plus colorful examples on two brief pages of instruction. Of course if you have trouble with curvilinear orientations you probably have issues reading anything…
Exago succeeds not in that its game play mechanics are especially original but in that it is so well designed, not to mention colorful, concise, and fun for up to 6 people.
Players try to align four of their tiles in a straight line. In a 3 – 6 player game, each contestant receives 6 hexagonal tiles of translucent plastic (red, green, yellow, blue, purple, or orange). The game contains 12 blue and 12 red tiles but those extras are used in a 2 player game. Play proceeds clockwise. Each person places one tile on the board. New tiles must connect to at least one of the tiles on the board. If there is no winner by the time the 6 tiles are placed, each player must move one tile of their color to an empty spot on the board.
As in most pattern completion games of this sort, participants have to choose between actions that complete their objective (four in a row) or frustrate their opponents. But while the mechanics and strategies are familiar (and quite fun), what makes Exago shine as a Major Fun game can be found in the design of the game. The hexagonal board comes in 2 pieces that slide and lock together. The board is a hexagonal grid that cradles each tile so that they do not shift or slide or jumble as new tiles are added. Best of all, each cell of the board is designed so that you can remove your tile by simply pressing on the tile’s edge. No need for fingernails. No tapping or prying. Just press on one side and the opposite edge rises out of the board for easy removal.
Thoughtfully crafted. Concisely described. Colorfully executed. Exago is Major Fun. I wonder if I can apply those same principles to my reviews…
Connect 4 Launchers is a two-player, disc-flinging, two-level, three-version, four-in-a-row variation of Hasbro’s highly successful Connect 4 brand.
Each player has 21 lifesaver-like checkers, and a launcher. The game board requires minimal assembly – there are four pillars (made to look like stacks of checkers) and two transparent target boards. The target boards (which, at first, seem rather flimsy, but prove to be more than sturdy enough to withstand many rains of checkers) fit snugly into the notches at the top and bottom of the pillars.
The launchers are very sturdy, and work flawlessly. The lifesaver-like checkers rest securely on the top of the launcher. The forward part of the base of the launcher is angled so that you can more easily aim for the upper or lower target board. A slide on the base of the launcher allows you to keep score (should score need to be kept).
If you look at your entire collection of checkers, you will notice four different kinds of “power checkers.” Distinguished by the patterns on the inner ring, the powers of your power checkers will allow you to: 1) go again, 2) remove all the checkers from every space that is connected to that checker, 3) remove all the checkers in that row (horizontal or vertical), or 4) remove the checker in any one of the next to that in which it lands.
Now you know more than you need to play the first two variations, and all you need to play the last.
The first two are most appealing to the younger, and/or frenzy-seeking player. Both players launch checkers at the same time, and keeps launching until a) someone has managed to get four-in-a-row, or b) there are no more checkers to launch. This version is appropriately called “Basic Frantic Launch.”
Then there’s the second version, “Championship Frantic Launch.” This game is played very much like “Basic Frantic Launch,” and is most definitely equally frantic, but here, instead of the game being over when someone wins, you play a series of games, scoring each (this is where that scoring slide comes into play), and then playing the next. You get two points if you score in the top tray, and one for scoring in the bottom.
Finally, for the more strategically-minded, the “Advanced Power Launch.” There’s no franticity here. Instead, there’s turn-taking and something significantly akin to strategery. There’s most definitely an element of luck, no matter how strategic your intentions. But there’s also an equally strong feeling that you might very well have developed the control and aim and all the inherent affordances to get a checker to land exactly where you think it should be. And then there are the power checkers, which, depending on their power, can wreak significant havoc on your opponent’s planfulness. And also an interesting wrinkle where the player who has the majority of checkers in any space gets to claim that as her own, whilst should there be an equal amount, the space belongs to neither.
The rules are easy to learn and very well-written, covering every possible gameplay event (what happens if your checker completely misses the trays, or if you have no checkers but the other player still has his, or if a checker lands in a tray, but not in a space.
And, yes, of course, you can play as teams, passing the launcher back and forth, adding significantly to the sense of inner- and inter-team franticity.
All in all, Connect 4 Launchers offers a surprisingly wide range of opportunities for merry mayhem. It is very easy to learn how to play, easy to build and store, the games are short and engaging, the range of variations creating a game that’s rich enough to play again and again. It appeals equally to the 5-year-old, elder siblings and the playfully-minded parent. Major Fun for the whole family.
The MAJOR FUN AWARDS go to games and people that bring people fun, and to any organization managing to make the world more fun through its own personal contributions, and through the products it has managed to bring to the market.