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Dig It and Oops!

Dig It and Oops! are two of the new puzzle sets recently released by Foxmind. They both use an ingeniously designed carrying/storing/playing case, and are each collections of 50 puzzles involving a set of pieces which have to be moved from the starting position to the solution.

Dig It is a bit like Pentominoes, using pieces of different shapes and size. In addition to these pieces (made of satisfyingly weighty, pleasingly colorful, translucent plastic), there are pieces shaped like bones. In each puzzle, the pieces are positioned over a bone or two. The puzzle is to figure out how to move the pieces around so as to reveal the bone(s). It's a bit like being a dog, digging for a bone. Hence the doggy graphics on the cover. In addition to the collection of pieces, there's a puzzle book, spiral bound, with its own stand. It's designed so that the solution to one puzzle is on the back of the previous puzzle, so all you have to do to get a hint or check your result is turn the book around. The puzzles are graded, one-paw puzzles being significantly easier to solve than four-paw puzzles.

Oops has a magician theme. There are 9 pieces. One is shaped like a hat. Another like a magician's head. The rest look a bit like sailor hats. There are 4 colors of sailor hat pieces: blue, red, green, and yellow. Pieces are set up according to a diagram - a different piece (or two) on each space - a different set up on each page in the puzzle book. You can move a piece one space either vertically or horizontally, as long as it lands on top of another piece. Which makes it a stack of two pieces. Which can only move two spaces, horizontally or vertically, as long as that stack lands on top of yet another piece. And so on and so on, a three-stack moving three spaces, a four-stack four, until, with your final move, the hat is on the bottom, the rest of the pieces are on top of the hat, and the head is on top of them all.

The carrying/storage/playing case for both puzzle/games is in itself magical. You slide the cover to the left or right, revealing a compartment. And, once the cover has been repositioned, you can turn it over to become the playing board. It's sturdily built of brightly colored plastic.

Each of these puzzles is an investment in fun. They're fun to touch, fun to try to solve. The more challenging puzzles are usually ingeniously so - offering unexpected variations that sometimes redefine your whole understanding of what this puzzle is about. You can cheat as often as you need to (just turn the book around for the answer). You can skip to more difficult puzzles, essentially designing your own curriculum of challenge.

Don't be fooled by the child-appealing design. As you progress through the puzzle booklet, even the mature puzzler will discover most definitely adult-worthy challenge.

As a teacher, these puzzles are a paradigm of good curriculum design - always inviting further and deeper exploration, always just as challenging as the student is ready for. As a player, they are invitations to mastery and delight. Well-made, cleverly-designed, continually fascinating, engaging the eye and mind, providing intelligent, functional fun.

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Dizios

Dizios is a highly visual tile game that plays with color the way most tile games play with shape or number.

The 70 thick, cardboard tiles are matched edge to edge. Some edges are all one color. Many more are two colors. Each tile is worth a certain number of points (indicated by dots in the center of the tile). Players get points, not for the tile they place, but for the tiles they connect to.

Dizios can be played by 1-4 players, of a recommended age of 6 or older. There's very little strategy involved, so the game is easily accessible to younger children.

To play with more than one player, the special "starter tile" is placed in the center of the table. The rest of the tiles are placed face down, mixed, and then set aside or built into draw piles. Each player selects 4 tiles. For the rest of the game, players take turns, matching a tile on to the expanding grid, if possible; taking score (by counting the dots that appear on the adjacent tiles), and then picking a new tile from the face-down tiles. If no match is possible, the player must forfeit his turn.

The score pad is designed so any player who can count can keep score.

As a solitaire, Dizios offers a surprising variety of challenges. You can try to make a "vortex" (an array of connected tiles) of all one color, you can try for a vortex that is 8x8, 7x10, 5x14. Or, you can arrange try to arrange the tiles so they create the highest possible score. The solitaire versions greatly extend the fun of the game, and could easily lead a moderately creative player to develop more interesting variations of the competitive game.

Dizios is an easy game to learn. The visual challenge is easy to understand, intriguing enough to entice a 6-year-old, attractive and complex to engage the full attention of adults.

It is like dominoes only insofar as there are tiles that get matched - which makes the game that much easier to understand. But it is a very different game. Unique. Visually pleasing. Well made. Only lightly competitive. Intriguing (especially the solitaire versions) enough for serious adult contemplation. Inviting enough to engage the whole family. You can play in teams. You can play by yourself. You can make up your own challenge. Fun. Major FUN.

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Imaginets

Think Colorforms - thick, bright, hefty, magnetic, geometrically-shaped colorforms. Imagine these thick, bright, hefty, geometrically-shaped colorform-like pieces that you carry around in a wood-framed suitcase. Now, while you're at it, think Tangrams. That would explain the deck of large, two-sided cards, printed with colorful designs of varying complexity - each of which can be made with some or all of the thick, bright, hefty, colorful, geometrically-shaped pieces. OK. We're getting close.

Now, add a dry-erase marker or two. Note how you can draw, and of course, erase on the inside of both panels of the suitcase. Which means, if you want, you could make any shape out of any combination of pieces, outline the shape with a marker, and make your own puzzle. Can you take all the pieces off and put them back on?

Imagine all the things you could do with this set, all the places you could play with it, the puzzles you can try to solve, the puzzles you can create, the designs you can make. If your imagination is good enough, you'll understand why this toy is called Imaginets, and why it was given a Major FUN award.

Imaginets is a toy that can engage children in a wide variety of creative and intellectual play experiences. It is easily shared (lay it flat and you have two, clearly de-marked play surfaces), and just as easily something that your child can play with by herself. It's roughly the same size and feel of a briefcase or laptop computer, and thus lends itself to dramatic play. The ability to draw on the surfaces (no, the dry-erase markers are not included, and yes, it'd be neat if they were) adds a unique dimension to this activity, increasing the invitation to play, to exploration, to creativity and interaction.

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An introduction to the Neodymium magnet executive puzzle toy

The four following reviews are almost identical, each featuring a different rendition of the same magnetic puzzle/toy concept. There are minor differences, and, depending the player's preferences, one might prove definitely more, shall we say, "attractive," than the rest. But comparing them to each in any effort to determine which was truly best only led us to the kinds of thinking that this website is not designed to support.

When we find an exceptional toy or game, one of sustainable play value, our goal is simply to add our bit of recognition and support, to recommend them as something worthy of your playtime. Our goal is not to tell you which is, for example, the best chess set you can buy, because chess is chess. And though the look and feel of different chess sets may appeal to different people, the fact is, if you want to play chess, it's still a good game, even if you're playing in with bits of paper. Rarely, we find a newly invented toy or game available, almost simultaneously, from 4 different sources. Given our mission here, the only solution we could arrive at was to create 4 different reviews, awarding each the Major Fun seal.

We think you'll enjoy this toy a great deal. Read the reviews. Check out the websites. It really doesn't matter which you end up buying. Each will bring you hours of challenging, engaging, and, hopefully, major fun.

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Neocubes

We've been taking a very close look at a puzzling phenomenon, known as The Neo Cube. The website alone is sufficiently filled with invitations and incentives for purchasing these extremely attractive technical marvels to explain why we've been looking so closely.

Attractive indeed. Attracting curiosity, creativity, dexterity, ingenuity. Visually and tactually engaging. They are executive wonder toys. Moderately expensive investments, that payoff in hours of meditative, and sometimes significantly aggravating play.

Neocubes are made of Neodymium magnets - the strongest, longest lasting of rare earth magnets. These magnets really, really want to stick together. Assembling them into any of the amazingly attractive configurations shown on the web or featured in their documentation sometimes requires very strong fingers and deep, abiding dedication. Assembling the 6x6x6 cube (a challenge so fundamental that it has become a magnetic-ball-puzzle industry standard to include at least 216 - or 6-cubed balls) can get significantly frustrating, not because it is conceptually difficult, but rather because the balls can offer surprisingly strong resistance to being pulled apart or forced together in any way other than that which seems to appeal to them at the moment.

Neocubes comes in a blister pack that includes 8 extra magnets, instructions and a drawstring bag. The back of the pack contains ample warnings about the dangers of swallowing, heating, or handling these magnets should their coatings be compromised. The manufacturers strongly and understandably advise that these magnets should not be played with by children younger 12.

The spectacular variety of sculptural puzzles that these magnetic balls lend themselves to can be found everywhere on the web. On flickr you can find image after image of Neocubes. On Youtube you can watch a minor myriad of people making mini-metal-marble magnetic magic with Neocubes. As you watch, it is clear that making these extremely attractive configurations is as much a performance art as it is an act of conceptual mastery.

Until this review, the story of these amazing magnet balls has been uniformly focused on the many marvelous puzzle-like activities available to the magnet-ball-empowered few. Our explorations have revealed equally marvelous toy-potential. Here is a very simple example - showing what happens when you roll one ball at another, with appropriate speed and something like aim, on a plate. Turn up your sound to appreciate the fullness of the inherent glee.





With this very preliminary foray into the "toyetic" qualities of it all, we hereby invite your contributions of similarly jolly, playworthy discoveries. This first is but a taste. (Actually, more of a hint than a taste as the frame speed of the video doesn't show the full spinning glories we experienced. But a tasty hint, nonetheless.)

image by Frans (3Djavu.nl)

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Buckyballs

We've been taking a very close look at a puzzling phenomenon, known, in this particular instantiation, as Buckyballs - a puzzle made of 216 (count 'em) extremely attractive (read "magnetic") balls.

Attractive indeed. Attracting curiosity, creativity, dexterity, ingenuity. Visually and hapticly engaging. They are executive wonder toys. Moderately expensive investments, that payoff in hours of meditative, and sometimes intensely aggravating play.

Buckyballs are made of Neodymium magnets - the strongest, longest lasting of rare earth magnets. These magnets really, really want to stick together. Assembling them into any of the amazingly attractive configurations shown on the web or featured in their documentation sometimes requires very strong fingers and deep, abiding dedication. Assembling the 6x6x6 cube (a challenge so fundamental that it has become a magnetic-ball-puzzle industry standard to include at least 216 - or 6-cubed balls) can get profoundly frustrating, not because it is conceptually difficult, but rather because the balls can offer surprisingly strong resistance to being pulled apart or forced together in any way other than that which seems to appeal to them at the moment.

Buckyballs comes with ample warnings about the dangers of swallowing, heating, or handling these magnets should their coatings be compromised. Noting quite clearly that the minimum recommended age is 13.

The spectacular variety of sculptural puzzles that these magnetic balls lend themselves to can be found everywhere on the web. On flickr you can find image after image of Buckyballs. On Youtube you can watch a minor myriad of people making mini-metal-marble magnetic magic with Buckyballs. As you watch, it is clear that making these extremely attractive configurations is as much a performance art as it is an act of conceptual mastery.

Until this review, the story of these amazing magnet balls has been uniformly focused on the many marvelous puzzle-like activities available to the magnet-ball-empowered few. Our explorations have revealed equally marvelous toy-potential. Here is a very simple example - showing what happens when you roll one ball at another, with appropriate speed and something like aim, on a plate. Turn up your sound to appreciate the fullness of the inherent glee.





With this very preliminary foray into the "toyetic" qualities of it all, we hereby invite your contributions of similarly jolly, playworthy discoveries. This first is but a taste. (Actually, more of a hint than a taste as the frame speed of the video doesn't show the full spinning glories we experienced. But a tasty hint, nonetheless.)

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Zen Magnets

We've been taking a very close look at a puzzling phenomenon, known as Zen Magnets. Actually, you need look no further than their website to be delighted and enticed by a myriad invitations and incentives for purchasing these extremely attractive technical marvels.

Attractive indeed. Attracting curiosity, creativity, dexterity, ingenuity. Visually and haptically engaging. They are executive wonder toys. Moderately expensive investments, that payoff in hours of meditative, and sometimes moderately aggravating play.

Zen Magnets are made of Neodymium magnets - the strongest, longest lasting of rare earth magnets. They are also exceptionally lovely to behold in all their reflective, mirror-polished glory. These magnets really, really want to stick together. Assembling them into any of the amazingly attractive configurations shown on the web or featured in their documentation sometimes requires very strong fingers and deep, abiding dedication. Assembling the 6x6x6 cube (a challenge so fundamental that it has become a magnetic-ball-puzzle industry standard to include at least 216 - or 6-cubed balls) can get significantly frustrating, not because it is conceptually difficult, but rather because the balls can offer surprisingly strong resistance to being pulled apart or forced together in any way other than that which seems to appeal to them at the moment. Which explains why Zen Magnets comes with a plastic card that can be used as a prying tool.

They also come with ample warnings about the dangers of swallowing, heating, or handling these magnets should their coatings be compromised, advising, in no uncertain terms, that these magnets should not be played with by children younger than 12.

The spectacular variety of sculptural puzzles that these magnetic balls lend themselves to can be found everywhere on the web. On flickr you can find image after image of Zen Magnets. On Youtube you can watch a minor myriad of people making mini-metal-marble magnetic magic with Zen Magnets. As you watch, it is clear that making these extremely attractive configurations is as much a performance art as it is an act of conceptual mastery.

Zen Magnets also comes with a drawstring velvet bag (which is especially useful when you don't have the time or wish to make the effort to get them into any particular formation) and six extra magnet balls.

Until this review, the story of these amazing magnet balls has been uniformly focused on the many marvelous puzzle-like activities available to the magnet-ball-empowered few. Our explorations have revealed equally marvelous toy-potential. Here is a very simple example - showing what happens when you roll one ball at another, with appropriate speed and something like aim, on a plate. Turn up your sound to appreciate the fullness of the inherent glee.





With this very preliminary foray into the "toyetic" qualities of it all, we hereby invite your contributions of similarly jolly, playworthy discoveries. This first is but a taste. (Actually, more of a hint than a taste as the frame speed of the video doesn't show the full spinning glories we experienced. But a tasty hint, nonetheless.)

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Great American Puzzles from Fundex

One of our favorite puzzle companies has merged with one of our favorite game companies. The result is a wonderfully comprehensive offering of invitations to play.

The art of a good puzzle depends on two things - OK, maybe three: the graphics, the cut of the pieces, and the quality of the construction (of pieces and box). Classic American Fire Trucks is exemplary of all the above, and of the kinds of puzzles you can almost always expect from The Great American Puzzle Factory collection.

Classic American Fire Trucks is, first of all, shaped like a fire truck. This is cute. What's even cuter about the fire truck shape is that the borders of the puzzle (you know, the part of the puzzle you generally do first, because they're the easiest to find) are irregular. So, to find an edge piece, you frequently discover yourself turning it in every possible direction before you finally find the fit. Then the pieces seem to be somewhat deviously cut - often ending, as if on purpose, just at the edge of a line that you had hoped would prove instrumental in helping you find the piece it's connected to. And sometimes, a space you'd be absolutely sure can only be completed by a piece with a straightish edge turns out to need a curvey-edged piece.

Then there's the image - a brightly colored collage of eleven different fire trucks, each beautifully rendered and intricately detailed - in itself a kind of puzzle. And the box, which includes information about all the trucks in the illustration - adds yet another level of interest and engagement.

It's not a puzzle for little kids. It's significantly challenging, visually and intellectually absorbing, and often deeply satisfying. All 730 pieces of it.

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Cir*Kis

Cir*Kis is as much of a puzzle as it is a strategy game as it is an exploration of the geometry of the decagon (like an octagon, only with 10 sides). One of the interesting properties of a decagon is that it can surround a five-pointed star with satisfyingly geometric aplomb.

Each of up to 4 players gets a collection of 9 different shapes of the same color. These shapes vary in size from the easy-to-find-but-difficult-to-position "big slice" to the easy-to-lose "sliver" which can only be placed in clearly demarcated spaces on the edges of the board. The board is covered with a raised pattern of circles (actually decagons) and stars and irregular shapes connecting them. The pieces fit into and over the design on the board. It requires a certain amount of dexterity and a significant amount of perceptual discrimination to figure out what fits where. The strategy, of course, is in understanding why.

After the first move (the rules suggest that the youngest player goes first), the next player has to place their piece so that it is adjacent to the last played. As soon as a player is able to complete a shape (a circle or star), she scores. If her color is in the majority, she scores 10 points. If not, only 5.

You can also get a free turn, which means that you can take the lead, which can be of significant strategic import if you are significantly strategic. The opportunities are rather rare, which make them of even more strategic interest - you must either place one of your pieces in a space surrounded by other pieces, or complete the center star or be the first to place a sliver piece.

Visually, Cir*Kis is as compelling as any other tessellation. The conceptual challenge of separating figure from ground adds significantly the strategic challenge of playing the game.

For 2-4 players, aged 8 and up, Cir*Kis offers a unique challenge to the eye and mind. It might remind you of Blokus or Pentominoes, but there really is no other game quite like it - lovely to look at, visually challenging, strategically deep enough to be played again and again, Major FUN.

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The Fundex, Great American Puzzle Factory, Map of the World Puzzle

Fundex acquired the great American puzzles of The Great American Puzzle Factory. And we, because of our ongoing interest in all things Fundex, acquired the Map of the World puzzle.

Yes, it's a many-pieced jigsaw puzzle (600). And yet, no, it's not like so many of those many-pieced jigsaw puzzles.

Let's start with the art itself. Yes, it's a map of the world, but it's by Dino Kalogjera, who makes maps that are fact-filled and cartoon-encrusted voyages into geographic and historic detail with seemingly endless humor. There are tables and lists of dates and inventions and voyages and explorers, famous sites, products, wildlife. And cartoons that add humor and detail everywhere, even in the middle of the ocean. So you're never faced with a vast expanse of blue nothingness or dun-colored, detailess desert. Always a hint of something which, no matter how funny, will magically reveal itself to be a discovery and guide. Armed with strong enough eyes or a good enough magnifying glass, you plunge into into a wonderfully entertaining world.

Then there's the shape and the fit of the pieces. Did I mention 600 of them? Each relatively large, well-cut, unusually-shaped. Surprisingly surprising, as one might say, from the first pieces you put together to the last. The pieces are sturdy without being thick, cut into odd, and clearly original shapes that fit together in almost always surprising ways (sometimes overhanging adjacent pieces, sometimes bridging gaps you didn't know were bridgable, often the other way around). Fitting two pieces together always leads to something funny and useful, in fact and fancy. There are so many illustrations that often getting one piece where it belongs completes several other illustrations, simultaneously. Again with the surprising.

The finished puzzle is 2x3 feet, and you are glad for every inch of expanded detail. So much to look at that it's like seeing the whole world at once. Which is, of course, precisely what this map has to show you, and surprisingly more. If I were teaching teachers how to design a good lesson plan, I think I'd begin with this puzzle.

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Batik

When I ask you to identify a board game that is a strategic puzzle game for two players that also involves dexterity, what game pops into your well-informed head? Would it, perhaps, be Batik?

You know, Batik, that lovely, wooden, puzzle-looking game in the Gigamic collection - yes, that collection of wooden strategic games available in the US from Fundex Games.

Batik, the puzzle game designed by Kris Burmin, in which two players take turns dropping two different colors of wooden, tangram-like pieces into a wood and plexiglass frame.

One of the most self-explanatory games around, especially for those who've played Connect Four. Even those who've played with Connect Four, just to see what happens, like a checker-dropping 3-year-old.

See, when it's your turn, especially in the beginning of the game, it's not just a question of dropping any old shape into the frame. First of all, you have to pick a strategically significant shape (big? pointy? tiny? smooth?), and you have to get it to land pretty much just where you want it to land, somewhere preferably snug, or not, 'cause you often win by taking up more, rather than less space. And there's just a tad of luck, too. Taking turns, using any piece you want (unless you're playing the official "use only your own piece" version), making sure that you're not the player whose piece doesn't fit ertirely within the frame.

Not that I'm recommending you should, but nonetheless gleefully noting that Pete Hornburg figured out how to get all the pieces to fit perfectly inside the game frame, thereby demonstrating the puzzle-likeness of it all, while more than hinting at the possibility of the perfect game and the observation that you're playing in a game frame.

Lovely, the whole thing. Easy to learn. Short games (maybe 10 minutes). Fun for a remarkably wide range of players. There's the dexterity and luck part, so it's not necessarily the smartest who always wins. Which inevitably makes for more fun. Unless you get too serious about the game. On the other hand, it's good to know you can get serious about it if you have to - just in case.

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Tylz engages your spatial, perceptual and strategic skills - and it's fun, too

Tylz, as a passerby noted, looks like some kind of Scrabble® game played with colors instead of letters. There are racks to hold your tiles and a large, lovely, unfolding board, with special double-scoring squares marked with stars, even.

But, my friends, Scrabble it is most definitely not. You could compare it to dominoes, if your dominoes had colors instead of numbers, and were made of three instead of two squares, and were all L-shaped.

It turns out that Tylz is a unique board game combining strategic, perceptual and spatial skills with a welcome balance of fun-inducing luck. One to four players (yes, there is a solitaire version) score points by laying down tiles whose edges match in color to at least one of a growing configuration of tiles, or to a space on the board. The more edges matched, the more points you get. And, if you match more three or more edges, you get an extra turn.

Tylz pieces are magnetic, and adhere lovingly to the large board. The game comes with 80 tiles, no two of which are alike. Well, they are all the same shape (an "L" made of three contiguous squares), but every tile has a unique combination of colored squares. This makes you want to consider the strategic implications of each of the three tiles on your rack. Should you play your all blue (or black or red or yellow or green) piece or hold on to it? Should you throw all your tiles back into the pot, and replenish your hand with three new, and hopefully more playable tiles?

And then there are those profoundly moving moments when you approach something close to an ecstasy of scoring - matching three edges, picking a new tiles, getting another turn, matching three more, picking another new tiles, getting another turn, and, what, matching four?!

Designed by Andy and Elliot Daniel and published by their own company, Enginuity Games, Tylz is Major FUN - fascinating, flexible, adaptable. The rules are brief and easy to learn. There are rules for a shorter game, rules for a more challenging game - and suggestions for modifying them so that younger and older players can all be fairly and fully engaged. And there's even a solitaire version.

The colors are so vivid, the shapes so interesting, the board so large and attractively magnetic that the game can be enjoyed by children as young as 5 and adults who are even older than I am.

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Quads Classic - a puzzle, a strategy game for two, a work of art

Quads Classic is another beautifully rendered game from Gigamic, compassionately brought to the US by Fundex Games.

There are 36 square, wooden tiles, each of which is backed with a magnetic sheet. The board is made of metal and is supported by 4 wooden corner pieces. Printed on the tiles are geometric patterns made of lines and solid shapes. A drawstring bag is included to store tiles between games.

One player gets the tiles with solid shapes, the other gets the rest of the tiles. Two tiles (one with concentric squares and a solid border, the other with regular patterns of right angles and a border of broken lines) are the first tiles played. The game consists of placing tiles so that they are adjacent to at least one other tile. Adjacent tiles must match, making it illegal to place a solid edge next to an edge with an open pattern.

Players alternate turns. The player making the last legal move wins.

Though you can play a game in as little as 10 minutes, it requires deep, very focused strategic thinking. Our Games Tasters kept on likening it to Othello - probably because it is as visually engaging as it is conceptually challenging. As for learning how to play, it takes about as long as it takes to say "whoever makes the last move wins."

There are a couple recommended variations - to add an element of deductive reasoning, players can place their tiles on edge, rather than flat on the table for all to see. To add more challenge, players have to match the patterns on the edges of the board as well.

As a puzzle, it's endlessly fascinating. No matter how you place the tiles on the board, you get wonderfully satisfying, geometric patterns of light and dark. You can increase the challenge as much as you want, trying to make evermore symmetrical, board-spanning patterns. And even if you fail, it still looks good. What more could you ask?

Quads Classic is what you might call "museum quality" - at least as much a work of art as it is an invitation to play. And here's a little extra reassurance: Gigamic will replace lost parts, for FREE, for the first 10 years of ownership!

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Katamino

Katamino is based on a geometric puzzle called "Pentominoes." "Pentominoes," reports the Association of Teachers of Mathematics, "can be used to develop children’s understanding of the concepts of area and perimeter, transformational geometry including enlargement, congruence and symmetry, nets, volume and classification." Katamino takes the concept further, into a series of games and puzzles that can absorb the spatial reasoning faculties of children as young as three, and adults as old as they want to think they are.

The multi-language instruction booklet includes illustrations for hundreds of puzzles and several challenging games. At its simplest level, it is a building toy, which, like all good building toys, can become very challenging. Then it becomes a puzzle. The it becomes a more and more challenging as players attempt to put more of the pentomino pieces together in larger and larger rectangles. There's a very useful bar that gets placed in different positions on the board to limit the playing area. This same bar is also used to divide the board into two different halves so that two players can race each other to complete a rectangle. Another game variation involves using an 8x8 board (printed on the back of the instruction booklet). Players take turns placing the pentominoes on the board. The last player able to play wins. To make the game easier, or the constructions more complex, the manufacturers include one- and two-unit blocks.

The pieces and frame are all made out of wood. Though the colors of the wooden pieces don't precisely match those in the instructions, their shapes are easily discernible and the colors are close enough for players to figure out all the rules and variations as well as the two- and three-dimensional puzzles. Don't be misled by its similarity to other games. Fundex's Katamino is a unique invitation to a lifetime of challenging fun.

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miQube

miQube is a lovely thing. All wood. Colorful. Sculptural. But that doesn't explain how playworthy it turns out to be.

Playworthy as in something fascinating, challenging, inviting. Like a puzzle, but like a game, too. Like a toy, even. Playworthy as in something that can be played with in enough different ways to make you want to make up your own. Playworthy as in something closely approaching Major FUN.

There are 13 different pieces, and a die. All but one of the pieces is a different combination of 5 cubes. Each is 6-sided, each has faces of different color, depending on orientation. The other piece is made out of 4 cubes. It also has 6 different colors. As does the die, which is made of one rounded-corner cube. All wood. All solid wood.

You don't have to use everything, but you can purportedly fit all 13 pieces into a cube with every face a different color. It's not quite as hard as solving a Rubik's Cube. And the instructions describe 4 different games you can play with your miQube and 1, 2 or even 3 friends. And once you've played all 4 different games and discovered their differences, you can't help thinking about making up a 5th game. Your own. Because of all the different ways you can play with the pieces.

Lovely, lovely thing. Most worthy of a position of honor on the family coffee table. Most conducive to several many hours of happily challenged playtime.

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Pieceless Puzzles

A Pieceless Puzzle looks very much like your standard jig-saw puzzle. A two-sided standard jig-saw puzzle. Made of some kind of rubbery, foamy stuff, the colorful puzzle is solved by fitting what you might think of as pieces together, just like a jig-saw puzzle. Except they're not really pieces, they're connected to each other, permanently, in one, continuous, many-branching, uh, piece.

Putting one together is a bit like weaving - you start somewhere, anywhere. Like all jig-saw puzzles you probably want to start at a corner or edge. Unlike any jig-saw puzzle, you simply follow the connection - as much as you can - in case the non-piece it's connected to will actually somehow fit into it. Sometimes it doesn't. Which is weird. Which is what makes the puzzle so much fun. Because you have to find another branch.

If you can, try to lay the puzzle flat. This is not as easy as it sounds. It means untangling and untwisting the whole strand. If you're trying one of the more complex puzzles from the "12 and up" series, the untangling, untwisting, flattening strategy can be challenging enough to be a puzzle in its own right.

All in all, we found the Pieceless concept to be a welcome innovation. The puzzles themselves are extremely satisfying to solve. They tend to take a lot less time than a corresponding uh "pieced" puzzle, but the time they do take is a good one - absorbing, visually, tactilely, conceptually pleasing.

And, yes, sure, it's really wonderful that you don't have to worry about losing any pieces. Which makes Pieceless Puzzles uniquely suitable for a library - anyone's library.

One giant leap for all puzzlekind.

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Lonpos 303

Lonpos 303. Lonpos, because that's the name of the inventor. 303 because that's how many different puzzles there are. Puzzles of two different varieties: the rectangular, 2-dimensional variety, and the 3-D pyramid puzzles. There are 12 pieces, each made of a cluster of small balls, each a different color and shape. The shapes are pentomino-like in their variety (different configurations of clusters of 3, 4 and 5 units), so their mathematical properties are noteworthy - notably to mathematicians. All the pieces fit snugly in the case, which also most neatly serves to house the instruction booklets.

I was concerned, Defender of the Playful that I am, that perhaps the 3-D puzzles would be too, shall we say, challenging. After all, how do you effectively convey a 3-D puzzle in a 2-D booklet? So I tried those first. In fact, I tried the first one first. The illustration very clearly and painstakingly showed me how to place the first 11 pieces. All I had to do was figure out how to place the 12th. I must say that I was experiencing something akin to sensual delight as I built the puzzle - each piece fitting so satisfyingly snugly onto the board or onto other pieces. And, since there was only one piece left to place, and since it so clearly fit in only one possible position, I was able to experience the almost immediate reward of that final click, when everything falls together, and the full glory of pyramid-building manifests itself in multi-colored, opalescence.

Then I tried the next puzzle. Hmmm. A bit more difficult to figure out how to follow the instructions, to envision the proper piece when all you can see is the particular slice of it that appears on each level. And then the next. And another intriguing hmmm. And as I solved each puzzle, I felt I was being taught, carefully, playfully, invitingly, a bit more about the pentomatically puzzling properties of pyramid-building. And it wasn't really too difficult. I mean it could get difficult. There were many puzzles in the booklet o' puzzles. And they got progressively more and more, well, challenging. But I could select whatever challenge I was ready for. And I said unto myself, behold, this is fun. And I'm learning things. More than fun, actually. Major fun, even.

Lonpos 303 is very much like Lonpos 101, except Lonpos 101 only has 101 puzzles. And Lonpos 101 is very much like Kanoodle, which is similarly very much like Level Up. But there is only one Lonpos 303. And once you start playing with it, you'll be grateful for every one of the 202 additional challenges that await. After which you might want to contemplate the significance of knowing that there are actually 360,984 unique rectangle puzzles, and 2,582 similarly unique pyramids puzzles that you could potentially create with your 12 little Lonpos pieces.

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More Puzzling Fun from ThinkFun

Before we talk about Pete's Pike and some of the other delightfully new puzzle/games from ThinkFun, answer me this? Have you ever tried River Crossing? If not, stop reading now, click on the ThinkFun, answer me this? Have you ever tried River Crossing link, and try it right now, on-actual-line. How about Rush Hour? Tipover? Go ahead. Click away. You can play all three. It is to sing the puzzle electric.

Of course, you'd be missing the feel of the puzzle/games themselves, the well-made, cleverly designed, intelligently portable, box-throw-out-able packaging of it all. But you'd get a good sense of what these puzzle/games are all about - how they involve moving pieces on a board, pieces with different properties, boards with different layouts. And how each layout is really a new puzzle. And how the puzzles range in difficulty. And, most importantly, from a major fun perspective, how they invite kibitzing.

The different levels of challenge allow you to challenge yourself as much or as little as you want to. Go ahead, start with the the first card. Be a beginner. Enjoy your competence. Feeling feisty. Skip a card or two. Try something intermediate. Because you can challenge yourself as much or as little as you want, the puzzle/games are especially fun - you never feel yourself overwhelmed or bored (unless you want to be).

Then there's the kibitz-attraction - because the puzzles are visually attractive, and because what you're trying to do is generally easy to explain (see, I'm trying to get this goat (Pete) to the top of the mountain (OK, the middle of the board), and I can move Pete up or down or across from where he is until he's right next to one of his Goats. And I can move the Goats the same way.) So, if you're feeling social, and you want that wonderfully collaborative experience of thinking together with somebody, well, then, you've got a game fun enough to play at a party. And if you're not feeling so social, you can just sit on the sofa, all by yourself, and still have significant fun.

So the very design of these ThinkFun puzzles is the very kind of design that lends itself to Major FUN-ness. And when you have a bunch of these puzzles together (in addition to Pete's Pike, we had HotSpot, Cover Your Tracks and Treasure Quest - all new, each fun), you can amaze yourself and friends at how darn clever these puzzle/games really are, how each, similar in all the good ways, is so different, in similarly good ways.

Take Hot Spot. Very, very similar to Pete's Pike, you might say, except with "Bots." Only, Bots can jump over each other. In fact, a Bot can jump over two Bots, if it feels so compelled. Not diagonally, of course. Very different. You have to think a different way. Not like your Pike's Pete thinking, oh no. Not at all.

And then there's Treasure Quest and Cover your Tracks. Not quite as self-storing, perhaps, but with a significantly adequate drawstring storage bag, for those who seek portability and boxlessness. But very different from Hot Spot or Pete's Pike. Cover Your Tracks, with its four, large, asymmetrical pieces that fit on the board in only certain ways, and its slide-under puzzle cards, very, very different from Treasure Quest, with its sliding gate and four kinds of square tokens (you gotta love the Gold Masks that you push/side along the board), and your statuesque, token-pushing Hero - and yet, in a way, remarkably similar to all the other ThinkFun puzzle/games. Similarly well-made, similarly ingenious, similarly fun, differently puzzling.

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TIPOVER

TIPOVER is only the second puzzle/game to receive a Major FUN Award. The first was also an ingenious, 3-D puzzle/game called "River Crossing." Oddly enough, both games involve 3-D pieces, which are set up in various positions, and in both games, the goal is to figure out how to reposition the pieces so that a cute little plastic man can travel across them from start to finish. It strains the credulity to think this is mere coincidence, but both games come with a set of 40 different "challenge cards," which give the puzzled one a range of challenges, from beginner, through intermediate, to downright genius. And, if you can accept the possibility that such serendipity could actually exist, you can even play TIPOVER online, in much the same manner that you can play River Crossing onlinearly. Much the same, but not quite as satisfactorily, alas, because, you see (well, actually, you can't quite see), the TIPOVER pieces are far more 3-D, ranging in height from 2-4, shall we say, "crates." Well, there is a one-crate-high piece, but that is the final destination in each challenge. The rest are positioned at their challenge-card-assigned places on the plastic grid, and don't get moved, but are actually and eponymously, "tipped over" to a vertically or horizontally adjacent position. And therein lies the difference, the uniqueness, the intrigue of this fascinating puzzle/game, challenging the visual imagination as much as it challenges reason.

The similarities in package, design and basic concept can be more or less sufficiently explained by the observation that both puzzle/games are produced by ThinkFun. However, the ingenuity, uniqueness and sheer Major FUN Award-worthiness of both of these puzzle/games goes far beyond similarities in packaging and presentation. Each is an invitation to hours of left-brain fascination, interspersed with moments of sheer right-brained glee. Each invites solitairy contemplation and collaborative kibbitzing. Each a welcome addition to the Major FUN Hall of Fame.

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River Crossing

I asked Beth, our resident puzzle-person, to take a first look at River Crossing. She spent two weeks with it, and came back with the following report:

1) It's fun to set up. For kids, that might be half the fun - it kinda reminded me of legos. :)

2) The upper levels challenged me enough to keep me going for quite a while - and I'm definitely quicker than most with these things, so I think it will keep most folks happily occupied for hours.

3) For each level, there's usually only one brain-bending move you have to twist your mind around to get the pieces to fall into place, so it's not *frustratingly* difficult.

4) It also passed the lounge test - easily playable while almost completely supine.


Upon personal inspection, I find myself seconding, and maybe even thirding her endorsement. The puzzle itself reminds me of one of those survival exercises such as those developed by Project Adventure. And the fantasy adds greatly to its appeal.

River Crossing is as well-packaged as it is conceived. The puzzle cards are packaged in their own storage box. The puzzle base and pieces fit snugly into the package. A carrying bag (waterproof, of course) helps make the whole thing satisfyingly portable. The game is built on a plastic pegboard grid. Puzzle cards (40 of them) fit on top of the grid. Plastic pegs are placed in the corresponding holes and 5 magnetic planks placed between the pegs according to the directions on the puzzle card. Put the magnetic man on the middle of the starting plank, and then lift and move the planks, one at a time, to adjacent pegs, to help him cross the river.

The online documentation is clear and very user-friendly. You can even try the puzzle online, where you'll also find ten bonus puzzles.

All of which should make it obvious why River Crossing is the first puzzle to receive the Major FUN Award.

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