Filed Under (Cooperation, Thinking Games, Tops for 2012) by Will Bain on 25-11-2012

Like most great diseases, the game Zombiepox has had a period of incubation and mutation. The genetic material for the game germinated in Pox: Save the People. According to Tilfactor’s website, Pox was designed as an educational game in coordination with the Mascoma Valley Health Initiative in order to counter misinformation about vaccines. I had the opportunity to play Pox and was impressed by the mechanics, especially for a game that was designed for educational purposes.

What the game lacked were the design elements that would appeal to the wider commercial audience that would be looking for a game off the shelf. It wasn’t infectious enough.

Thank goodness for the current zombie culture war. Pox: Save the People gets a new protein sheathe and a fresh entry into the population. Zombiepox!!

For a cooperative game, the setup and play of Zombiepox is remarkably simple. The game consists of a game board (a grid of 81 people), chips to mark the people (vaccinated, infected, zombified), and a deck of cards that tells you how the infection spreads. The rules fit on a single, folded sheet of paper.

The game starts with 2 zombies in the middle of the board. Each player’s turn starts by drawing a card and following the instructions. Cards tell the player how to spread the zombie infection and how many may be vaccinated or cured. If a person on the board is ever surrounded on all sides by the infected, that person becomes a zombie. Six of the 81 people on the board are babies who are especially susceptible to the disease. They become zombies on contact with the disease.

Players set a goal at the beginning of the game and play until the disease can no longer spread (WIN!) or the players’ goal has been exceeded (LOSE!) The hardest challenge is to limit the epidemic to the two original zombies. Six zombies is the maximum.

Vaccinating and curing people is the strategic aspect that keeps the game rewarding and frustrating. The vulnerable babies cannot be immunized and it costs more to cure infected than it does to vaccinate the healthy citizens. These decisions and complications become more difficult to juggle as the infection spreads.

Zombiepox is Major Fun for its simple rules, surprising strategy, and replayability. It also works as a good introduction into cooperative games. Those who have played cooperative games like Forbidden Island will recognize the basic elements of those games in Zombiepox. If you have been weaned on those games then you’ll see Zombiepox as a good vector for getting your friends into those other, more complicated games.

Who knows, a few more iterations and a mutated strain of Zombiepox might just threaten the position of Pandemic as the alpha cooperative disease game. Maybe.

1-4 players, ages 12+

Zombiepox designed by Zara Downs, Mary Flanagan, Max Seidman. © 2012 Mary Flanagan, LLC.

Nowhere to Go

Filed Under (Kids Games, Thinking Games) by Bernie DeKoven on 12-11-2012

2-player strategy gameI found Nowhere to Go in a store for teachers. I suppose that was a logical place to find the game, given that it comes from a company called Educational Insights. So I naturally assumed it was an “educational” game, which I almost immediately (and somewhat shamefully) assumed would be more educational than, well, fun.

But fun it is. Major fun, that is.

It’s an abstract strategy game for two players. It’s played on a hexagonal board. There are 19 platforms, each connected to the adjacent platforms by bridges.

When the game begins, each player first places her “spy piece” (a shady looking character) on one of the two platforms with slightly raised centers. Next, players place five “blockers” (little, notched, grey pieces that like to inhabit the bridges between the platforms) on the five bridges of their choice. Where they place their bridges is fraught with strategic implications, but it may take a while for them to perceive the fraughtness of it all.  And, no, silly, you can’t put your blockers on the three bridges connecting to your opponent’s home, because that would make the game no fun at all.

From then on, players take turns, first moving their spy to any connected platform (as long as the path isn’t blocked), and then adding a blocker. The idea is to block every path that is available to your opponent’s spy, until you are the only player who can still move.

The instructions are wonderfully brief. The game takes only a few minutes to play. The rounds are quick. And death is often surprisingly sudden. All in all making this a perfect invitation to strategic thinking. Easy enough to entice your eight-year-old strategist, deep enough to make your adult self want to play with her.

Designed by Hank Atkins, Nowhere to Go is Major Fun.


Filed Under (Family Games, Kids Games, Thinking Games) by Bernie DeKoven on 29-10-2012

You know the kids’ card game concentration? Well, Colorio isn’t that game. It’s something else. Something much deeper, involving strategery and cunning and, ok, concentration, and, yes, memory. But it’s not that card game, believe me you.

There’s a board – a 5×5 matrix. Inside the board there are 5 slots (well, ten slots if you consider both sides of the board) to accommodate 5 strips. Each strip has five spots of a different color. There are five different colors, but  all five just might not be present on any given strip, on any given side of that strip  - adding an essential uncertainty to the conceptual contemplation. The different colors are also illustrated, each with a different expression, providing a touch of humor and a large tad of assistance for the color-blind.

Key to the strategic part of the game, there are 25 “caps” that are used to cover all the holes in the board. Players take turns removing up to three caps at a time. While you’re so engaged, you can remove all three caps and take them off the board entirely, or, as long as you remove one cap completely, you can move one or both of the remaining two to other open spaces on the board. This assures that more and more spaces are revealed each turn.

Every time you remove a cap, you reveal what lies beneath. Every time you cover an open space, you have one more thing you probably want to remember.

The game continues in this manner until someone (not you, of course) accidentally reveals the fifth of any one color.

As the game progresses, and more and more spaces are revealed, the tension increases. How tense depends on how well players understand the impact of using the caps to cover colors back up. Once four of any one color are already revealed, the tension becomes palpable.

Colorio is very well made. The board, caps and color strips, and even the box are all designed to provide many years of play. The  game itself gets more interesting as players become more familiar with all the strategic implications, but even without all that thinking, the game is well enough designed to invite hours of repeated play.

Coloriois yet another Major Fun award-winning game available from Mindtwister. It was designed by Jacky Bonnet for 2-5 players. It’s best for families and kids 6 years old and up. It takes about 10 minutes to play and maybe even less to learn.

Multi-Player Pentago

Filed Under (Thinking Games, Tops for 2012) by Bernie DeKoven on 14-10-2012

It’s like tic-tac-toe, don’t you know. Only you have to get five-in-a-row instead of three. Which is almost all you need to know about Pentago, so, naturally, you assume you don’t really have to learn anything else in order to have yourself a good old time outsmarting opponents. And if you happen to know the ancient Chinese game of Go-Moku (a.k.a. “Go Bang,” or your more descriptive “Five-in-a-Row”), well, then, you know even more about playing Pentago, because in Pentago (“pent” as in five) you have to get five-in-a-row in order to win. Except for the turning-a-section-of-the-board part. I mean, even with the turning-a-section-of-the-board part, you still really know more than enough to play the game. You just might not know enough to keep from, well, losing.

You might want to practice a bit, just to get the feel of it, so you might consider visiting the vividly illustrative on-line version of Pentago before reading any further. Of course, you won’t gain much of an insight into the strategic significance of playing multi-player Pentago, which, as you might surmise from the title of this review, is the very version about which we are currently enthusing.

In sum, it’s called “multi-player” because two, three, or even four players can play it together. Or, should you be so oriented, you can play in teams, hence significantly raising the number of potentially engaged players. Which means that even though you might have figured out how to play Pentago, achieved demonstratable mastery over the online version, and already have the original version or perhaps even the more original wooden version of two-player Pentago Classic; multi-player Pentago is something significantly other because more things of sometimes profoundly strategic impact happen between turns.

What you get with Multi-Player Pentago is nine turning board sections with which to play, and four different color pieces (each piece being two-sided, each side being of a different color). But more about this later.

You also get a very well-made, aesthetically pleasing game board, a couple of lovely little velvet-like draw-string bags within which to store your pieces, in a durable box with a velvitishly-lined filler, and exceptionally clear, well-illustrated instructions including just enough strategic insights to entice you and your friends to explore nuances of piece-placement and board-section-turning and two- vs three- vs four-player encounters for the rest of your natural lives.

Unless, of course, given such an easily learned game of such almost archetypal elegance, you decide to explore variations, such as: what would happen if you could, say, turn over one of your opponent’s pieces so that it became some other color (hopefully yours), or if you were allowed to move a piece that you’ve already placed, or if you place two pieces down at the same time as long as they were or were not adjacent. Then you might need to teach your children how to play so they can carry on after you.

Pentago – very well-made, very well-conceived; a game you can learn in minutes and spend months trying to master, that takes anywhere from three to thirty minutes to play, that is as fun for a six-year-old as it is for someone as old as you.

What else can we say? Major fun, in all its manifestations (though Multiplayer Pentago seems just a tad more Major! A conceptual gift from Mindwister.


Filed Under (Family Games, Thinking Games) by Bernie DeKoven on 09-10-2012

Dotzee is a coffeetable-worthy strategy game for 2-6 players. Sixteen large, colorful dice with serious heft nestled into a wooden tray – ah, and again ah. Lovely to look at. Fondle-beckoning. And a genuinely absorbing, easy-to-learn thinking game with just enough luck so that if you lose you don’t have to blame it on yourself.

One side of each die is blank. At the beginning of the game, all dice are placed blank-side-up. On your turn, you take any die that is on the outside of the array, roll it, and slide it back into the tray. Removing the die creates a blank space. Putting the die back in, you push a row or column of dice, closing the blank space, much like you do in a sliding-block puzzle. This is almost fun enough in itself. Especially if you’re younger than 5.

As players take turns picking, rolling, sliding and placing dice, from time to time they may just happen to notice that a row or column of dice are aligned in such a way as to be: all the same number (four of a kind), two pairs, all the same color (a flush), or a sequence of 4 numbers (a straight). Each and all scoreworthy events. And, from time to happy time, it may even happen that more than one row and column are simultaneously aligned.

That particular fun of pushing cubes around could, and the sheer elegance of the design could very well remind you of the Major Fun Award-winning game Quixo. Which explains a small part of why this game is as much fun as it is. But only a part.

And so the game goes, players taking turns, racking up points, and engaging in much self-congratulatory dialog. Sometimes one fails to notice that the dice are favorably aligned and scores less than one might score had one in deed noticed before the next player started her turn. Hence, one could think that the promptness with which said player began her turn was somewhat strategically motivated.

You could play more cooperatively, should you be so bent. You could help each other figure out the score. Or, as illustrated above, you could be, shall we say, a tad competitive. Or, if you don’t like keeping score because you’re just that kind of person, you could decide that whoever scores the highest on a single move wins. Or, well, that’s the point: Dotzee is such a simple game to learn, so elegantly designed, that you can tune it so that it becomes just the kind of game that the people you are playing with want most to play.

Designed by Mark Fuchs, available from Maranda Enterprises, as much fun for an eight year old as someone as old as your local Major. Dotzee is just the kind of game we call Major Fun.



Filed Under (Family Games, Thinking Games) by Will Bain on 16-09-2012

A while back we lauded Ravensburger and games-designer-extraordinaire Reiner Knizia for adapting the mechanics of Tetris from the digital laptop to the analog table-top with their game Fits. Each round of Fits had a different challenge based on the card you were playing.

The follow-up game, Bits, uses similar Tetris mechanics but offers up a much wider array of challenges. The end result is a game that is challenging, surprising, and even more elegant than Fits.

Each player receives the following: a game board (a 6×6 grid of squares), a board holder called a ramp, 20 game tiles (colored), and a neutral tile (grey). There are also 5 stating tiles that players use to start each round. Each tile is rectangular and divided into two squares. Each square (besides the grey ones on the neutral tile) can be orange, blue, purple, yellow, or black. As you play on your game board, these tiles start to form patterns of color that you will recognize from Tetris and other block puzzle games.

Games consist of 3 rounds. At the start of each round, players blindly draw a starting tile and place it at the bottom of their board. What tile the players can use next is decided by a deck of 20 cards. These are shuffled and revealed one at a time to show players what tile must be used. When you play a tile you must be able to slide it into place from the top of the board (like when a Tetris piece descends) but it must come down without rotating or sliding left or right. If you do not want to use a tile that is revealed by the deck, you may use your gray neutral tile in its place.

Scoring changes from round to round. In a normal game, there are 3 scoring decks called task cards. Each deck of task cards is shuffled and the top card revealed at the beginning of each round. The task cards tell you what shapes will score points and what shapes will result in lost points. This method makes each round unique and unpredictable. It also means you have a lot of strategic choices to make as you place your tiles.

Although it seems like you need to keep track of a lot of cards and tiles, the game is largely intuitive and you learn most everything you need to know in the first round of play. Illustrated instructions show you how to move the tiles and how to score. The difficulty of this game is not generated by the cards and rules but rather by the challenge of fitting your pieces into a tighter and tighter space while keeping your eyes open for good and bad combinations of blocks.

There is no clock so the game invites planning and analysis, but we found that the pressure of knowing that others were ready to move on really motivated the slower players (like yours truly). The pace remained brisk. A single player can also have a rewarding experience in a game of solitaire. Ravensburger provides a score range for those who want to move up an accomplishment ladder by themselves.

The design is colorful and elegant. The puzzles are challenging. The action is intense. The rewards are great. There is fun to be had with Bits. Major Fun.

For 1-4 players, ages 8+

Bits designed by Reiner Knizia. © 2011 by Ravensburger Spielverlag GmbH.


Filed Under (Puzzles, Thinking Games) by Bernie DeKoven on 27-08-2012

Craniatics is a set of 10, stunningly graphic logic puzzles. The pieces are die-cut into magnetic strips, and punching them out provides its own sensual satisfaction. Because of the magnetic backs, all the puzzles (and, yes, games) can be played on the open lid of the box. Each of the five, two-sided boards is attached by magnetic discs to the lid. The lid is kept from falling back by two ribbons, giving a quaint feel to the whole set, like that of an old writing desk. The magnetic pieces slide easily around on the board, adding nicely to the efficiency and elegance of the puzzle experience.

Some of the puzzles are extremely challenging, others, only slightly less extreme. The instructions for each puzzle are printed on the corresponding board, the clarity and easy availability of the instructions again adding to the pleasure and sense of completeness of the experience. The puzzles themselves exercise both mind and eye; the eye, thanks to the the visual appeal of the strong colors and shading of the puzzle pieces, being at least as intrigued as the mind.

There are three logic games. Two of them have solitaire versions. All of them give you the opportunity to share the wonders of your Craniatic collection (without having to lose possession).

If you are intending this purchase for a child (8 years and up), you should be sure that the intended child is one who appreciates the subtle joys of keeping cherished things organized and neat. That’s all we’re saying.

There is a solutions booklet. We highly recommend that you give the booklet to a friend or close family member whom you can grill mercilessly, and will be able to dispence with the subtlest of clues while maintaining the stoic detachment necessary to give you every opportunity to arrive at the solutions yourself. On the other hand, said clue-provider should be able to maintain a loose enough hold on the booklet should there come the inevitable time when you will need to take possession.

One suggestion: there are a lot of pieces to punch out. You might strongly consider availing yourself of nine small baggies (baggies not included) to store each set separately. Ultimately you will find their crinkly presence only adding further to the sensual appeal of the entire Craniatic experience.

Though it is suitable for some select children, equally select adults will find Craniatics an entertaining and cherished possession – perfect for extended bed-rest and long, quiet periods on your favorite rocking chair.

Craniatics comes to us from FatBrain Toys. All the puzzles were designed by Ivan Moscovich.


Space It

Filed Under (Thinking Games) by Bernie DeKoven on 15-04-2012

Space It is a numbers game. It’s also a tile game. Ninety-six tiles, to be exact, six of which are “Jokers” (wild), the rest numbers (three sets, each in a different color background, from 1 to 30). These all go into a drawstring bag. Each of up to 5 players draws 12 tiles from the said drawstring bag and spends the rest of the game trying to get rid of them.

The game, of course, is in what you have to do to get rid of your tiles. And therein lies the fun.

You make sequences out of your tiles – the longer the sequences the better. A sequence is a row of tiles in which the value between each tile is equal. 1, 3, 5  for example, or 3, 9, 12 for another. A sequence must be composed of at least three tiles, and can be placed horizontally or vertically. Further, you can continue add on to anyone else’s sequence. And even further than that, you can place tiles between the tiles in someone’s sequence, as long as the rule about equal value between tiles is kept. So if someone had an array like 2, 6, 10, you could add a 4 and 8 so that it became 2, 4, 6, 8, 10.

Think about it for a minute. Or maybe five minutes. So there you are, with a random collection of numbers, trying to figure out the best sequence you can make. There’s a lot of figuring. A lot of possibilities to work through. And then, since you can add on to other players’ sequences, even more options to consider. And since you can use those Jokers, and even, if you have the right number, use Jokers that are already played, and if the tiles you use are of all three colors you can make the other players add a tile to their collection…well, there’s a lot of thinking to be done, thinking of a fun kind.

You might want to use a timer though, with all that thinking going on, especially if there are five players. And you might even be tempted to change a rule or two about how many tiles you have to have in a sequence, or what kind of sequence (prime numbers maybe? any odd number as long as it’s more than the one before and less than the one after? Fibonnaci anyone?), or how many tiles everyone gets to start, or just taking a bunch of tiles out of the bag and seeing who can come up with the longest sequence – all of which demonstrates what a solid game this is, one that can remain just as solid even after you start playing with its rules.

Well-made, with nice thick cardboard tiles, and a useful drawstring bag and colorful cardboard stands you can use to hide the tiles you have yet to play. Designed by Martin Nedergaard Anderson, with artwork by Brian Kolodziejski, Space It is Major Fun for people who like to play with numbers and friends and family, even.

Travel Qwirkle

Filed Under (Family Games, Keeper, Thinking Games) by Bernie DeKoven on 10-04-2012

The Major Fun Keeper award-winning Qwirkle is now available in a handy travel-size carry-everywhere version. Everything we loved about the original game is still the same. Even the tiles are still made of wood. They’re smaller (3/4-inch), but stand just as easily, and the smaller size makes it the game something you can play on a restaurant table or the empty seat of a nearby chair.

The zipper case is very attractive. And the travel version sells for $10 less than the original.

Life is good.

Lemming Mafia

Filed Under (Family Games, Kids Games, Thinking Games, Tops for 2012) by Will Bain on 05-04-2012

Humans love their stories. Especially those that feature animals. As soon as someone recognizes something vaguely human in the way an animal behaves, you can bet that story will make its way into our collective unconscious in much the same way that beach sand always makes its way into our collective sandwiches.

A few animals, the ones that have a lot in common with their human cousins, get a lot of stories: monkeys, dogs, cats, wolves, pigs, crows, horses, mice. Some get only a few passing words. The lemming has one story but it is a doozy.

I won’t be the one to go all Mythbusters on the story (you can find that here). Instead, I’m going to warmly embrace the over-the-top, absurd twists supplied by Mayfair’s Lemming Mafia.

So everyone “knows” that lemmings jump off cliffs. And everyone “knows” that mafiosos love to gamble. Add some dice and you have Lemming Mafia!

The game consists of a board with a twisting linear track (start to finish), a regular die, 2 “Lemming” dice, 36 betting cards, 18 mission cards, and 6 lemming figurines. Each lemming is color coded and these colors are used on each side of the lemming dice. At its most basic, the game consists of rolling the 3 dice and moving one of the lemmings (shown on the 2 lemming dice) a number of spaces equal to the number on the regular die. As the lemmings move toward the finish line at the end of a pier, the players bet on the finish order. Points are scored after one lemming leaps off the pier. Successful bets score points. Most points win.

Of course it’s more complicated than that. Each space on the track can help or hurt the lemmings as they race toward the end of the pier. When players roll the dice they have to decide which lemmings will help the bets they have made. The betting cards are used to predict the finish order of the lemmings. The mission cards give players special conditions that must be met to win points (for example: “Green finishes before Red”). If you want Green to finish before Red, you will move Red so that it lands are spaces that hurt the lemmings—maybe give Red some concrete boots—and you will move Green to spaces that will zip it toward the finish line. Needless to say, your opponents have different ideas for the lemmings. Despite all the choices and complications that emerge from the betting process, the game is very intuitive and the rules are clearly illustrated.

Silly? Yeah. Major Fun? Are you kidding? Lemmings! In fedoras. Jumping off a pier. And there is no saving the lemmings. Only betting on their watery demise. So limber up your best wise guy voice and get yourself fitted for concrete galoshes.

For 3 – 6 players, ages 8+

Lemming Mafia game design by Michael Rienick. Art and graphics by Joscha Sauer. © 2010 by Joscha Sauer and distributed by Mayfair Games, Inc.