Grid Stones

Filed Under (Family Games, Thinking Games) by Will Bain on 04-12-2013

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After last week’s review of Flash! some of you might be looking to slow things down a bit. Speed and noise are not the only fun to be had. Contemplative strategy games allow for slower, less reactive thinking. They also lend themselves to conversations and the more measured paces of the chat.

Grid Stones gives those of us who enjoy the more deliberate pace of a strategy game a chance to limber up those slower but deeper neurons.

At its heart, Grid Stones is a pattern recognition game, similar to Tri-Spy or Set. Unlike those examples, speed is not an issue. Each player is given a hand of three cards on which are depicted a 3×3 grid and a certain pattern of glass beads. The game board is a 5×5 grid on which the players either place or take away glass beads.

On your turn you may place one bead on the game board OR take one bead off. You may not slide beads around. If, on your turn, you find a pattern that exactly matches one of your cards, you may reveal the card. The game ends, and the winner determined, by the first person who reveals all three of their cards.

awardIn my experience, players have a tendency to crowd together on the board. The thinking is that if a bunch of pieces are in one place then it is more likely that we will be able to complete a pattern; however, the more people who play in a tight area, the more likely they are to move the exact pieces we need.

Planning ahead in this game is not a precise science. Strategy revolves around creating good opportunities so that you can quickly recognize or create a pattern when it is your turn. There is a good deal of second-guessing that goes on as you watch what choices your opponents are making.

And finally, there is always the dark glee that bubbles up when you ruin your neighbor’s plans and hear that exasperated sigh. That’s definitely Major Fun.

The game rules are clear and short and virtually intuitive. The board is well designed and clearly shows how to play with 2, 3, 4, or 5+ players. You’ll be playing in moments and able to play through several games in one sitting.

2 – 7 players. Ages: 7+

Grid Stones was designed by Tim W.K. Brown. © 2008 by Grid Stones, the game is available through CSE Games.


Filed Under (Thinking Games) by Will Bain on 13-11-2013

I’m a sucker for board games with what I will call morphic geographies. A game like Settlers of Catan or Kingdom Builder will always draw me in because small changes in the game’s geography (the board, the pieces, the initial set-up) lead to interesting changes in strategy. My favorite tiling games and resource management games often do a good job of balancing elegant rules with clever, variable geographies.

This is often difficult to achieve for games where you capture pieces, but Blindside succeeds spectacularly at creating a strategically deep capture game with components that can be manipulated in all kinds of interesting ways.

Before I get in to a description of the game, I need to emphasize just how easy the game is to learn despite the malleability of the components. The rules take up only a few short pages, each of which are clearly illustrated. You will be able to set up the board and the pieces in just a few minutes, and you’ll learn the movement rules in just a few more. It will probably take you longer to read this review than it would take to learn to play.

The playing board is a hexagonal grid that is constructed by linking together four smaller groups of hexagons. The instructions suggest that you start with a box-like configuration for your first game, but the four sections can be linked in many ways, some of which will create strange pathways and empty spots that players would have to navigate.

The playing pieces are hexagonal pawns which are grooved on top. The grooves are cut to hold up to six arrows. Each player starts with seven of these pawns and 23 arrows. If you are playing the most basic game then the rules show you how to arrange the arrows on the pawns. The direction the arrows point show you which directions your pawn can move while the number of arrows tells you how many spaces you are allowed to move (in a straight line). Once you have mastered the basic game, the rules encourage you to set up the pawns as you see fit.

Finally there are 12 action spaces. These spaces allow you to change the direction of your pawn OR change the facing of the arrows. Blindside suggests where the action spaces should go for your first game, but this can change too.

Major Fun awardTo sum up: you can change the board, the pawns, and the action spaces. You don’t have to. The starting game is fun, surprising, and strategically deep. But if you need more, if you are one of those adventurous sorts who wonders what it would be like to wage strategic warfare on a long, thin isthmus rather than a blocky island, then you can knock yourself out.

The game ends when one player captures 17 of the opponent’s arrows. You capture an arrow by either jumping over a piece or landing on top of it. This means that simply jumping over a pawn is not enough to eliminate it from the game. A pawn with 4 or 5 arrows might lose an arrow and still be a dangerous piece. As the game progresses and pawns lose their arrows, the pawns become increasingly limited in how they can move and what spaces they can defend. You are constantly looking to see where your opponent has a “blindside” so that you can sneak up and steal more of their arrows.

There are a lot of decisions to make and a lot of angles to cover. Watching them all and ten swooping in to exploit them is Major Fun.

For 2 players, ages 10+

Blindside was designed by James D. Muntz and is © 2011 by Talicor.


Filed Under (Thinking Games) by Will Bain on 07-11-2013


Gamewright’s Terzetto wins the Major Fun Award for the “clever randomizer” category. There’s a great strategy game and an engaging solitaire game in there too, but the shaker that determines how you place your pieces is a neat little piece of game design.

Terzetto can be played by two players or played as a solitaire puzzle. Each player has a 5×5 game grid and 24 marbles (eight colors, three marbles per color). The goal is to place all of your marbles on your grid by playing them in groups of three.

But you can’t place the three marbles in any old way. That’s where the diabolical shaker comes in.

The shaker consists of a three-by-three grid and three yellow balls enclosed in a clear box. When you shake the box, the three balls fall into the nine grid spots. The way the three balls are situated in the shaker is how you have to play your three marbles on your game grid.

In a head-to-head game the players take turns shaking and placing marbles. If you cannot play after you shake then you pass and your opponent gets to go again. Play continues until both players pass OR one player successfully places all 24 of their marbles.

The rules are incredibly simple and Gamewright includes a few  variations—one of which makes the game much more difficult. Games are quick and even though the strategy aspect is pretty light, there are enough choices in the early stages of the game that you always feel that victory is just one…  more…  game…  away.

Although the shaker usually betrays you on your last set of three marbles, it’s hard to stay mad at a game that lets you get so close to success. And on those moments when the shaker balls line up in just the right way, you feel as if the universe smiles on you.

If only for that brief moment.

Major Fun award

For 1-2 players, ages 8+

Terzetto was designed by Theora Design and is © 2013 by Gamewright.

Bugs in the Kitchen

Filed Under (Dexterity, Family Games, Kids Games, Thinking Games) by Bernie DeKoven on 16-10-2013

Bugs in the Kitchen


The bug in Bugs in the Kitchen is a HEXBUG Nano. It moves randomly on twelve, rubbery, battery-powered legs – randomly enough to turn (maybe left, maybe right) when it meets an obstacle.

There are two dozen plastic utensils – knives, forks and spoons. They each have a post in the center which fits snugly (and pretty much permanently) into the sturdy cardboard playing board. Once installed, they form something that looks very much like a maze. And, since they pivot so beautifully on their pegs, they form a maze whose paths can be continuously changed. Which, as you might surmise, is what the game is basically about.

There are two, large, pocket-like receptacles on each side of the board. Each player claims one of these receptacles as her own (there are cardboard walls you can install to block off one or two of these receptacles should you be playing with 2 or 3 players).

There’s a die involved. Three of its sides are question marks. The other three depict different utensils.

You turn the utensils so they form one of the four suggested starting mazes. Then one player turns the HEXBUG on and puts it in the middle of the game board. The next player throws the die, determining which utensil can be turned. The posts are designed so that they tend to turn 9o-degrees – which is exactly how they should be turned. The goal is to get the HEXBUG into your trap. Of course, you can’t touch the bug itself. It’s all in how you configure the maze.

There are cardboard “bug tokens.” As soon as the HEXBUG is trapped, the round ends, the winning player receives one bug token, and the maze is reset.  The goal is to be the first to collect five tokens.

Major Fun AwardOr you can make it the rule that if the HEXBUG falls into your trap, you lose. Or you can see what happens if you play without the die. Or you can play by yourself, trying out different mazes and seeing if you can guess which trap the HEXBUG will fall into.

Bugs in the Kitchen was designed by Peter-Paul Joopen. And I just have to say, Mr. Peter-Paul Joopen, you are a genius. Your game is fascinating, engaging, worthy of many hours of joyful contemplation, and makes a toy that already has proven play value, even more fun. Major fun, that is. And you, too, Ravensburger. It’s a game that is made to withstand many hours of intense delight. The HEXBUG comes with a battery already installed. And a spare, even.

Bugs in the Kitchen (a.k.a. Kakerlakak) can be played by 2-4 early elementary school-age children, though it seems to be most fun with just two players, and parents will probably insist on getting to play as well. With art by Janos Jantner and Maximilian Jasionowski, Bugs in the Kitchen is ©2013 Ravensburger Spieleverlag GmbH and widely available at toy stores near you.

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Cube Quest

Filed Under (Dexterity, Thinking Games) by Bernie DeKoven on 09-09-2013

Cube Quest

OK, before we get into particulars: this is the kind of game that if you’re a grown-up will remind you of something you almost invented that long, rainy day, when you were, say, 8-years-old – the kind of game you would have played with toy soldiers if it didn’t hurt so much to flick them at each other with your fingers. Skillful? Easily as profound as marbles. Strategic? Just as strategic as you can or want to make it. Demanding deep thinking – not so much. But enough. O, yes.

You get 50 dice (OK, cubes), 25 of each color. They’re light enough to flick without impairing your flicker and small enough to be considered a choking hazard (sorry, little brother). There are seven different kinds: Grunts, Strikers, Helms, Skulks, Freezes, Healers, and one King. Each of these has different attributes. The Grunts, for example. You see Grunts on only two sides of the die. The other four sides indicate a state “captured”-hood. You get a lot of them (12), but if they end up on your opponent’s field captured-side up, they are lost. On the other hand, there are your Healers (2), with no captured sides at all. Healers and Freezes are, as you might assume, never flicked. They are used so that you can, instead of flicking, choose to help revive your pieces or immobilize your opponent, respectively. A hard call, considering that you have to forego flickery.

Major Fun AwardAnd, no, you really don’t have to know what all the different cubes do to enjoy the game. And yes, eventually you’ll probably learn what each one does, and the strategic subtleties of each, and even go so far as to ascribe yet further powers as you play the game again and again.

There are two felt game boards that are set up adjacent to each other. On each, there is a fort. Your king regally resides within the boundaries of your fort.

The object: be the first to flick your opponent’s king off the board.

You spend the first part of the game preparing – deciding where to put each of your cubes to maximize their offensive and defensive potentials. And then there’s the flicking.

Our first round lasted one flick each. And then we learned. O, yes, we learned. It’s all about protecting the King (wouldn’t you know it), cunningly surrounding him with walls of loyal subjects. But not to forget that this is war.

Great fun. Not deep fun. But great. Major, even.

For two players, ages 8 and older, designed by Oliver and Gary Sibthorpe, with art by Jonathan Kirtz, from Gamewright .


Filed Under (Thinking Games) by Will Bain on 10-07-2013

Repello is a game of strategic chaos. Chaos in the sense of complex, surprising patterns. Chaos in the sense of the so-called “butterfly effect” in which small changes in initial conditions can lead to startling chain reactions.

And this kind of chaos—this beautiful, fractal, patterned randomness—is Major Fun.

It’s a thinking game so don’t expect the kind of Major Fun that results in hilarity. We often gage the fun of a game by the laughter elicited. Repello must be judged more by the appreciative “ooooo” sound. There’s a lot to ooo and aaah about.

Let’s start with the stack. Each player has a stack of repellers: round black chips with a hole in the center. The number in your stack  is determined by the number of players (10 for a 4 player game). These are held in place by a rod that sticks through the center holes. The Stack is designed so that when you press down on the stack of repellers, one (and only one) is left behind. This device is very clever.

Each player places their stack on the board (a 13 x 13 grid of numbers) on one of the designated squares. A gold repeller sits in the middle of the board and 8 other repellers are spaced close to the edge. On your turn, you move and leave behind one repeller from your stack. The goal is to knock the most repellers off the board. The gold repeller is worth 5, the silver ones are worth 3, and the black ones are worth 1.

Major Fun awardAs their name implies, repellers REPEL all other pieces. At the end of a player’s turn, no pieces may remain adjacent to each other. This is how you knock repellers off the board. When you leave behind a repeller, your stack has to move. If it ends its move next to a repeller then either the repeller or your stack has to move away one space. The more repeller disks on the board, the more chances exist for you to push some off with your chain reactions. Oooooo. Aaaaah.

Moving the pieces around is incredibly engrossing. As you play you notice how certain patterns set up multiple reactions and you work to position yourself so that you can create opportunities for yourself and take them away from your opponents. Controlling the center is important and so is patience.

The game ends when each player is out of repellers on his or her stack. Count up your points, analyze your best moves and greatest mistakes, restack, and replay. The rules are clear and short. It certainly helps to play a few moves to see how everything works, but once you have the rules down, you won’t need them again.

Definitely a Major Fun strategy game.

For 2-4 players, ages 8+

Repello concept by Arne Holmstrom. Design and development by Mindtwister.


Filed Under (Puzzles, Thinking Games) by Bernie DeKoven on 05-07-2013

Reptangles construction toy

“Hmmm,” you hum. “Turtles. Turtles as interpreted by a cubist artist. Studded and notched cubist turtles. Four of each of six different colors of studded and notched cubist turtles. Sturdy little colorful notched and studded cubist turtles. Named, apparently, ‘Reptangles.'”

And you take the Reptangles out of their colorful box. You remove the plastic. You fondle a few. Perhaps you even go so far as to see if you can fit them together, this way or that. And you discover, that, as a matter of fact, you can fit them together, both this way and that.

And then you find, in the bottom of the box, a colorful booklet. A puzzle booklet, apparently. You open the booklet to the first page and read about “basic moves” called “translations, reflections, rotations, glide reflections, and glide rotations.” Which makes you once again hum inwardly. “Hmmm,” you hum.

And then you open to the next colorful page and the next, and you read about “2-Fold Mirror Symmetries,” and “4th Order Rotational Symmetries,” and “Truncated Octrahedron,” and “Lesser Rhombicuboctahedron.” And, humming a tad more inwardly, you close your colorful puzzle booklet and start playing around with your collection almost cute cubist turtles. And you discover that you can snap them together so they look like one is riding on top of the other, or two are standing on their hind legs and holding hands and kissing, or two are leaning against each other side-to-side, each standing on two feet.

And “ah” you say to yourself, and again “ah.” And you stick more of them together, in different ways, and you discover that you can stick a whole bunch of them together, and they make, well, shapes. And so you open the colorful puzzle booklet again, and, “ah,” you say, and “oh,” and you lose yourself entirely in the joyous complexity of it all.

They say on the box that Reptangles is for kids 6 and older. Probably because you need to be that strong just to stick Reptangles together and pull Reptangles apart. And, at 6, the whole turtle thing with the dancing and the kissing and the riding will make you laugh and you’ll make plays and stories and turtly dramatizations. And though you might not really get into the puzzle part, you’ll start making your own puzzles, just playing with them.

What they don’t say on the box is that your older sister, the one who’s studying architecture, and your LEGO-playing brother will both probably do the same thing, and so will your parents, probably. And they’ll get as fascinated as you did, only in a different way. They’ll probably go so far as to open the puzzle booklet and try to figure out how to make each and every one of the at least hundred puzzles, and they’ll start inventing even more, like you did, and exploring even more deeply, also like you did, and though they might not say much, you’ll probably hear them humming. “Hmmmm,” they’ll be humming to themselves, while thinking “only one known solution to make a Cubooctahedron? Only one?”

Reptangles. Play with them. Puzzle with them. From Fat Brain Toys. Major Fun.

Major Fun Award

Fish to Fish

Filed Under (Kids Games, Thinking Games) by Bernie DeKoven on 23-06-2013

Fish to Fish

Fish to Fish is a logic and observation game in which players compete to be the first to create a sequence of fish, each fish differing from the previous by only one attribute.

Each fish has five different attributes: color, pattern, the shape of the fin, the size of the eye, and the kind of mouth.

There are 32 Fish Tiles – thick, large, colorful, fun-to-slide-around tiles. You can divide them into 4 sets of 8, each set having the same color and pattern. Half of each set will have small or large eyes; open or closed mouths; small fins or large fins; stripes or spots.

There are also 32 Fish Cards. Each card illustrates two different fish. The object is to be the first to find the Fish Tiles which will create a sequence that begins with one of the fish depicted on the Fish Card, and ends with the other, each tile differing by only one attribute.

thinking-kidsWhat makes the fun as major as it is that there’s more than one way to make a correct sequence. So, depending on how close everyone is are to a solution, it is fairly likely that the fish you need are still available. If you can’t do it with three fish, you probably can do it with four, or five, or six, if you have to.

There’s an additional rule which adds significantly to the majorness of the fun and the tension of the game. If another player has the tile you need, and you only need one tile – that particular one – to complete your sequence, you can snatch that tile away and win the game: much to the chagrin of the other player, and even that much more to your sense of shrewdly won victory.

Fish to Fish can be played as a solitaire, or by 2-5 children of checker-playing age. It was designed by Nicholas Cravotta and Rebecca Bleau of Blue Matter Games, and is made available by Fat Brain Toy Company.


River Dragons

Filed Under (Family Games, Thinking Games) by Will Bain on 06-06-2013

River DragonsRiver Dragons fully embraces the homily that “It’s not the destination but the journey.” The destination is simple: your playing piece is at Point A and you want to get to Point B. Between you and your destination is the mighty Mekong River. And those annoying other players. Whoever crosses the river first wins.

The game board depicts the river with six villages spread equidistantly around the perimeter. Small stone islands are spread between the villages. These islands mark where bridges can be built. Players are provided with a character piece, six wooden planks (numbered 1-6), and 13 Action Cards. A common bank of round stones is available to all players.

The Action Cards determine what you are able to do in a turn. The cards allow you to build bridges by placing stones and placing planks. They move your pawn by walking, running, or jumping. They interfere with your opponents by removing planks and stones or sending a river dragon to skip an opponent’s turn.

At the beginning of a turn, players choose 5 action cards. They also decide the order that the cards will be played in the turn. Once everyone has picked their cards and the order the cards will be played, the players go around the board and reveal their first cards and take those actions if they are able.

The “if they are able” part is what makes the journey so interesting. Some actions like “Place 2 Stones” can always be accomplished. But if you played a “Move 2 Spaces” card and some ne’er-do-well removed all the planks around you, your pawn falls into the river and must go back to the start village. When you play a card you must do the action if it is possible. If it is impossible then penalties ensue. There is also the River Dragon card. If I am the green pawn and someone plays the green River Dragon card, my action is cancelled. In this way plans are disrupted and future actions might prove to be impossible.

Major Fun AwardThis game lends itself to analysis paralysis. Choosing your actions and the order of those actions is nerve wracking as you consider bluffs, counter-bluffs, and alternate routes. You can spend all your time interfering with other players but then your own pawn will never advance. There were several times when my opponents had to start humming the theme song to Jeopardy before I’d commit to a course of action. And playing out those actions is very tense as the board changes in unexpected ways. Old paths disappear and new opportunities arrive with a whole new set of decisions.

River Dragons offers a great balance between advancing your own interests while messing with the plans of your opponents. As fun as it is to progress a few spaces, it is even more fun to hear the anguished groans of the thwarted in the knowledge that you are the name of their pain.

We played the Third Edition of this game, as produced by Matagot and provided to Major Fun by Asmodee. The art is fantastic—silly and colorful but also wonderfully helpful. The rules, complete with clear illustrations, fit on the front and back of a single sheet of paper. You can have the instructions read in a few minutes, and in a few more, you’ll be shoving your family and friends into the river.

For 2-6 players, ages 8+

River Dragons was designed by Roberto Fraga and © 2012 by Matagot. Brought to us at Major Fun by the hard-working and hard-playing people at Asmodee.


Filed Under (Family Games, Thinking Games) by Bernie DeKoven on 09-05-2013

TakenokoA giant panda. The Japanese royal gardens.  Fickle weather. A frantic gardener.

These are the elements of Asmodee’s Takenoko. Any of these elements can earn you the points you need to win, but your opponents have their own objectives and those are quite likely to be at odds with your objectives.

As the story goes, the emperor of Japan has been gifted a rare panda by the emperor of China. The creature is ravenous, and its favorite food is bamboo. The gardener’s job is to keep the bamboo growing so that the giant panda will remain happy. Fortunately the bamboo grows fast. Unfortunately the panda is very hungry.

Takenoko is a strategic board game in which the board is created over the course of the game. In order to grow bamboo, players need to place garden plots. These plots must be properly irrigated in order to grow the bamboo. There are also other improvements that can be made to the plots.

There are a lot of pieces to this game. There are objective cards, garden plots, irrigation trenches, improvement tiles, bamboo sections (in three different colors), action chips, and a die for determining the weather. To their credit the game designers took their time to introduce you to the pieces with a very colorful and very helpful book of instructions. Takenoko does take a bit more time to learn and set up than many other Major Fun games, but I know you will find the game worth it.

On your turn you must roll the weather die and take 2 actions. I’ll come back to the die in a moment but the weather gives you something special you can do on your turn. For your 2 actions, you have 5 choices. You must take 2 different actions. Your choices are: place a garden tile (a place you can grow bamboo), take an irrigation ditch to be used when you need it, send the gardener to grow some bamboo on an irrigated garden plot, send the panda to eat a piece of bamboo, AND FINALLY, draw an objective card. The objective cards are how you earn points. If you can get the garden to meet the requirements of your objective, you earn those points. In a four-person match, when someone finishes their seventh objective, there is one more round and then everyone tallies their points.

The weather die gives the player a unique bonus. There are five bonuses and a wild (player’s choice): take a third action, grow one section of bamboo anywhere, move the panda anywhere, take the same action twice (usually you must take 2 different actions), or take an improvement token.

Major Fun AwardWhat you choose depends entirely on what your objectives are. The more difficult the objective, the more points it is worth. And many objectives work against each other. There is a lot going on in the game but the design of the instructions and the materials is so meticulous that once you start playing, you won’t need the rules. Each player has a mat on which he or she keeps track of the action. The mat serves as a miniature set of instructions so each player knows what to do next.

I really appreciated the weather die. This is one of the few random elements of the game, but there are no harmful results. You might WANT a third action but any result on the weather die is to your benefit. You aren’t worrying about good luck or bad luck, rather you have to decide how best to use your good fortune.

The game is beautiful. The pieces are colorful and wonderfully detailed. The gardener and the panda are represented by cute figurines while the garden tiles effectively create the illusion of a manicured garden on your table top. Enjoy the short comic strip on the front of the rule book and then appreciate the care taken in describing and illustrating the rules.

Then dive into the strategy of maintaining an emperor’s garden in the presence of a voracious panda.

For 2 – 4 players, ages 13+

Takenoko was designed by Antoine Bauza and © 2011 by Bombyx and Matagot. Provided for our enjoyment by the good folks at Asmodee.