playing with, exploring, thinking about, o, all right, playing with Crazy Aaron’s Thinking Putty since I realized that it was, in deed, a toy worthy of Major Fun recognition. Today, I encountered an inescapable conclusion: this stuff is a Keeper. I mean, I can barely keep my hands off of it.
Go to Crazy Aaron’s Thinking Putty site. Look around. Look at all the different kinds, the properties (glow in the dark, light sensitive, heat sensitive, magnetic), the colors (Electric, Metallic, Primary) – there’s even a colorless called Liquid Glass (which is so surprisingly, uh, surprisning that you have to see it in action to appreciate it’s crystalline wonders)
And it’s therapeutic, too. Not just emotionally, but physically
Now take a look at Crazy Aaron (in the middle of the photo at the beginning of this post) with some of the more than 500 people in his staff. Not only is he constantly experimenting, continuously providing us with new putty marvels to soothe our senses and tease our intellect, but he is employing people, many of whom, because of one label or another, wouldn’t have a way to make anything close to a living.
So this Keeper award is in recognition of his deeply playworthy accomplishments, but also of Aaron himself, and his genuine devotion to making the world a little more fun for all playkind.
With the school year about to start, I got to thinking about the games I always had with me in my class room. After 18 years of teaching, these were the ones I found myself going to over and over again. Over the next week or so I will be sharing my top 5…
The Game: Reverse Charades or Rollick
These games, Reverse Charades and Rollick are virtually identical owing to a split between the creators. Both won the Major Fun Award and they are both excellent choices. I tend to refer to the games interchangeably as Reverse Charades because the game of charades is recognized by my students. I’ll continue to do so here.
Reverse Charades is my go-to game for those unexpected deviations in the schedule: those times when your class is waiting to be called down for pictures or waiting for a speaker to show up or just when your lesson or class activity ended earlier than expected. I tend to introduce it early in the semester as a way to relax a bit with my students and let them perform. I have it on my phone, but I also keep several copies of Rollick in my room. The app version is well worth the investment.
Reverse Charades is just like the classic game Charades except that the group does the acting and an individual does the guessing. For the past several years my class size was around 20 so splitting the class in half was doable. A class much bigger than 20 and you will probably need to make at least 3 teams. With teams of 10 I will have 7 actors and 3 guessers. The guessers always rotate out, and a student can’t become a guesser again until everyone on the team has been one.
You will also need to arrange a space between the actors and the guessers. A row of desks or a table or lines of tape on the floor will do. Over the course of the game, especially as the tension and excitement mount, there is a very strong tendency for the actors and guessers to move toward each other as if they will attack one another. I suggest keeping a space of 6 or 8 feet between the two groups—you can even deduct points if they violate the “neutral zone.”
Maybe it goes without saying but I will mention it anyways: this game is loud. There is no way to make it quiet without straight-jacketing the whole affair. Consider the classes around you, and be prepared to accept a certain degree of exuberance and chaos into your life.
When it is time to start, bring one group of actors up to the front. If you are playing with the physical game, give the timer to a student on the other team. Show the clues to the actors and then listen for the guessers to answer. Make sure the guessers say the answer and not the actors. You’ll also need to watch so that the actors aren’t mouthing words or using letters and numbers. Usually this is done accidentally or in the heat of the moment. A reminder usually works but subtracting a point can drive the point home if someone seems to be “forgetting” too much.
At the risk of raising a gasp of astonishment from legislators and gasp of mock astonishment from everyone else, there are moments of “down time” in school. So far, it has proven impossible to structure each and every moment of each and every day. For which I say, “Thank goodness.”
Being playful is a hallmark of intelligence. It is one of the traits of our remarkable neural architecture. Not a by-product. Not a happy accident. Playfulness is not a product of intelligence so much as an aspect of it—much like the relationship between magnetism and electricity. Reverse Charades provides a lightly competitive way for my students to play with words and ideas and communication in a way that brings all of us closer together. Sure we all like scoring and winning, but we absolutely love laughing and acting and guessing. The important thing here is play and the engagement that occurs in its pursuit.
Now, maybe you need something a bit more academic—a justification that fits better with state standards. If that’s the case then consider the thinking and communication skills that are involved in a game of charades. The actor needs to understand the target word or phrase, in many cases must break the clue into discrete parts, and then must decide on the best physical clues to give in order for the guessers to get to the target. The guessers must attend to the physical actions of the pantomime as well as the actions that show them where to focus their attention. They must come up with multiple ways of expressing the actions and in most cases must then come up with synonyms in order to get to the exact wording. Indiana has the following standard for 11th and 12th graders:
Indiana Standard (Speaking and Listening) 11-12.SL.3.1: Integrate multiple sources of information presented in diverse media and formats (e.g., visually, quantitatively, orally) in order to make informed decisions and solve problems…
This is a very basic standard that exists in almost all disciplines and across all grades. My guess is that your state has a standard that reads like this one (maybe even word for word given the way these standards often come to be written).
In general, I found that the more I got my students to just play with ideas in ways that made them laugh, the more likely they were to play and engage with the “serious” curricular materials.
An early adopter of this new recreational approach to Mesoamerican architecture is Blue Orange Games and their fantastic stacking/tiling game Aztack.
The game consists of 60 rectangular tiles that resemble dominoes. Instead of pips on each side of the tile, there are Aztec glyphs—images that represent important symbols in Aztec culture. The four glyphs (flower, water, deer, and flint) are combined in many ways and in five different colors: green, orange, grey, blue, and burgundy.
To start play, 12 tiles are arranged in a 2×6 rectangle in the middle of the table. Each player draws 12 tiles. On your turn, you place one of your tiles on the base of the pyramid or pass if there is no space for a legal move. If you pass, you can jump in later. Play proceeds clockwise until everyone must pass. The winner is the one with the fewest remaining tiles.
The rules for placing the tiles are simple and well-illustrated by the rules. You must place your tile so that it bridges two tiles beneath it. The tile you place must also match both of the glyphs OR both of the colors. If it matches all colors and glyphs you get to discard an additional tile from your hand.
The simplicity of the rules belies a wonderfully complex and shifting matrix of choices. There is a great balance between making moves that will limit the choices of your opponents and those that will keep the board open for your future placements. Luck plays a sizable role but there is enough choice to develop strategies in order to manage the random elements.
Aztack is well made and beautifully illustrated. It is fascinating to watch as the pyramid rises from the base. Each one is unique and really very beautiful.
And Major Fun…
2-4 players. Ages 7+
Aztack was designed by Brad Ross & Jim Winslow and is © 2014 by Blue Orange Games.
A bucolic scene. Technicolor sheep grazing in a green pasture. They look up every few moments, amble over to another patch of grass and clover. Quiet except for the sound of chewing and the occasional bleat as one of the sheep gets boxed in.
The horrors of war!
The pasture is a battleground. The sheep scan the field with steely eyes, looking for weakness in the enemy lines. A scream of defeat.
Welcome to the vicious world of Battle Sheep.
Blue Orange has brought us another great strategy game. Battle Sheep combines an area capture mechanic with a variable board that changes the contested pasture every time you play. As is the hallmark of most Blue Orange Games, the pieces are of the highest quality and the art is fun. The rules fit on a tiny slip of paper and once you have read them you will never need them again.
The game starts with the construction of the pasture. Players take turns placing the pasture tiles so that they connect. The combinations are practically infinite and you can construct some truly bizarre playing areas.
Once the pasture is set, the players take their 16 sheep tokens and place them in a single stack at the edge of the pasture. Each turn after the initial placement, each player must move at least one of their sheep tokens in a straight line until they have to stop—either by running into the edge of the pasture or by bumping into another sheep. A player can move a single sheep or a stack of sheep as long as at least one sheep is left behind. As the game progresses, there are generally several smaller stacks of sheep of each color. Players with multiple stacks may only move from one of the stacks.
The idea is to control as many hex spaces as you can and block your opponents so they can’t move. The game ends when only one player can make a legal move. At that point, players count how many pasture hexes they control.
There is a lot to think about here, starting with your initial placement. It is entirely possible to get shut down early in the game if you choose poorly. Each move involves a reassessment of the pasture and the possible moves of your opponents. And of course there is the great satisfaction that comes when you can box your opponent in to a small corner.
Baa Ram Ewe, buddy. Baa Ram Ewe.
2-4 players. Ages 7+
Battle Sheep was designed by Francesco Rotta and is © 2014 by Blue Orange Games.
If it ever occurred to you that there was anything silly about silly putty, Crazy Aaron could very well change your life. He is the creator, designer, manufacturer and general distributor of Thinking Putty, devoting his entire commercial empire to bringing you cans full of the lovely, stretchy, bouncy stuff, each can containing as much as 1/5 of a pound of the stuff (Thinking Putty Creatures contain only 1/8 pound, but that’s still enough, especially when you consider that they come with two very convincing, creature-making eyes).
That’s a whole handful, enough for even a grownup to take seriously, which, if you’re the kind of grownup in the need of something to help you with your hand exercises you, in fact, can take quite seriously. And it’s not just the quantity that makes you think. It’s the color (though the Crystal Clears variety is almost colorless), the glow-in-the-darkness, the color-changingness, the magneticness, the apparently inexhaustible inventivenessness of the moldable, foldable, stretchable denizens of Crazy Aaron’s Puttyworld. There’s even Super Magnetic Thinking Putty (super magnet included) and Heat Sensitive and the light sensitive Phantoms (that come with a miniature black-light-on-a-keychain).
We tested a bunch of the stuff, discovering that each slight variation took you to a slightly different sphere of fun. Magnetic and heat-sensitive makes you want to experiment. That magnetic stuff is so weird – first it gets magnetized, and then it isn’t. How could that happen? Glow-in-the-darks make you want to hang out in closets with your friends. Phantoms make you want to draw and maybe even go outside. Super Illusions made you want to play with light. And it’s so, well, beautiful.
We kept on thinking we had found our favorite, but, in the end, discovered that each offered its own distinct delights.
Dry erase markers are cool. Maybe it’s that I grew up in the waning age of chalkboards and became a teacher just as dry-erase boards were becoming ubiquitous. The vivid colors just seemed so vibrant compared to the tinted chalk I had to work with in secondary school. This is what it must have been like for my grandparents when the world got color just after the turn of the 20th Century…
Doodle Quest is a clever little drawing game that has more to do with spatial awareness than drawing skill. It’s also a clever little maze game that is quite a challenge to complete even when you can see exactly where you need to go.
The game comes with 18 quest cards, 4 transparent sheets of plastic, 4 dry-erase pens, and 4 fish stencils. The quest cards are double sided with one side being for beginners and the other for more advanced players. Each quest tells players how they can solve the puzzle by drawing a few lines. The players then have to draw the lines on their transparent sheet without measuring or touching the quest card. The transparent sheet is then placed over the quest card to see how well each player did.
For example: one quest asks you to add 4 spots to a clown fish. Some parts of the picture are worth 0 points. Some parts are worth 3 points. Some parts are worth 4 points. If your dot falls ENTIRELY within one of the 3 or 4 point areas you get those points. If it even touches one of the zero point areas you get nothing. Needless to say, the areas are interspersed so that a small variation in the wrong direction will earn you a nice fat goose egg.
Doodle Quest was a huge hit when we played this with our kids. It is one of those activities that adults will have very little advantage over the kids and there are lots of ways to even the playing field. A great family game that is engaging and challenging for a wide range of ages.
The illustrations are silly and colorful. The materials are durable and make great use of the dry-erase medium. This is one of those games that can only exist because of the dry-erase technology. I applaud the designers for seeing the unique and Major Fun possibilities held within these mildly intoxicating markers.
1-4 players. Ages 6+
Doodle Quest was designed by Laurent Escoffier and David Franck and is © 2014 by Blue Orange Games.
Niya is a quick little strategy game that draws its inspiration from Japanese garden prints. Each player represents one of two clans who are trying to quietly take possession of the emperor’s beautiful garden. Violence in such an exquisite location is out of the question but there are rules for entering the garden and if you can align your clan just right the space can be yours.
The garden is made up of tiles that are shuffled and placed in a 4 by 4 grid. Each grid square contains two of the following images: rising sun, poem flag, bird, rain cloud, maple leaves, cherry tree, pine tree, and iris. Each player also has eight clan member tokens. The game starts when one player places a token on the grid. Opponents alternate placing tokens until one gets 4 in a row, a box of 4, or prevents the other from making a legal move.
After the each token is placed, the next player must put a token on a tile that has an image in common with the previous tile. For instance, if I play on the tile with the Sun and the Iris, my opponent could only play on those tiles that have either a Sun or an Iris on them. Capturing tiles becomes a strategic battle to achieve an advantageous position while impeding the options of your opponent.
In many ways this is a variation on tic-tac-toe. I imagine there are optimal strategies for first placement and response moves, but nowhere near as simplistic as tic-tac-toe. Because there are two elements to keep track of and the board changes with each and every play, the exact same strategy will not work each time. Figuring out good approaches will probably happen over the course of several games. Fortunately, the games are quick and Major Fun.
The game is beautifully illustrated and thoughtfully designed. The tiles are double sided, heavy-duty cardboard, and the tokens are a high-density plastic. Rules, tiles, and tokens fit in a compact tin. It’s an elegant strategy game with great art and intuitive rules. Great for quiet evenings and rainy days.
2 players. Ages 8+
Niya was designed by Bruno Cathala and is © 2014 by Blue Orange Games.
Robot Turtles: Adventure Quests is a separate adventure pack that can be added to ThinkFun’s Robot Turtles (it is not a stand alone game) or you can by and Adventure Bundle that combines the basic Robot Turtels and Adventure Quests. You can check out our review of Robot Turtles here.
Because Robot Turtles is a programming game, it makes sense that the game will evolve over time. The basic game is already designed with a leveling system in mind and the Adventure Quests pack builds seamlessly with the original.
Adventure Quests adds a few things to the mix. The game comes with a booklet that contains several board configurations (quests) that the turtles must navigate. There are more gems and there are “Frog Favorite” cards which are sequences of moves that can be “programmed” to the function card. In many ways these are pre-set functions. They can be especially useful if you have children who are having trouble creating their own functions.
There are many ways to play with these functions. You can have a single function that all players use. You can have players choose a function for each adventure. You can have multiple functions available that players can use only once.
What is important is that the young programmers see how commands can be strung together to work efficiently, effectively, and creatively so they will get better at creating their own.
I imagine this game will continue to expand for a long time. There are many obstacles and types of actions yet to be incorporated into the game. Some of this will be created by the individual players, but if the Adventure Quests pack is any indication, I imagine there is a great deal more to come from the developers.
This is a great addition to a great game.
Expansion for the basic Robot Turtles games. 2 – 5 players. Ages 4+
Robot Turtles was designed by Dan Shapiro © 2014 by ThinkFun.
Programming is one of those skills that many of my generation and older consider to be about as esoteric as alchemy. Hours of waving your hands over a table. Repeatedly typing thousands of lines of incomprehensible gibberish surrounded by symbols that we just assumed were there to create emoticons. And then… the glorious Technicolor splendor of the electronic universe opens up on our screens.
I for one am thrilled that there are people out there who take the time to program our machines to perform any number of tasks. I don’t think I have much of that kind of creativity, but I recognize it as such. I also recognize that the reasoning and imagination that underlie coding are key components that we all need to develop in order to navigate our digital and analogue worlds. The logic of programming applies to business and creative writing and all the games we play.
In an effort to bring the kind of thinking that programming requires to younger audiences, ThinkFun has provided the world with the fantastic little board game Robot Turtles. The game, designed by Dan Shapiro, was successfully funded on Kickstarter. And when I say successfully I mean funded about 25 times Dan’s initial goal. Seriously. Check it out here.
And deservedly so. Robot Turtles is a great game that does a wonderful job of introducing young players in to the game mechanics. These game mechanics are also the basics of programming. It needs to be said that the game does not involve actually programming a computer. Instead, the game mechanics mimic the skills and reasoning that good programming requires.
The goal of the game is to move your turtle to your target gem. You have cards that you play in sequential order that tell your turtle to turn, move ahead, fire a laser, or repeat a series of actions. Each of these actions is introduced over a set of games that gradually increase the complexity of the tasks. This approach to teaching the game might be a little frustrating to older players but it makes the game accessible to very young children. The youngest players will appreciate just moving the turtle around the board. Once they have mastered basic sequential commands, they can progress on to more complex games. In the parlance of most computer games and role-playing games, they can level-up.
Adults could probably jump in to higher levels without playing the “tutorial” levels but this is designed to teach very young children. The pedagogy is solid and each level is fun.
Another aspect that I only appreciated after playing with my kids was the cooperative nature of the game. It can be competitive but it is not written that way. The game encourages you to play with pairs on each team—a young “Turtle Master” and an older “Turtle Mover.” The younger player chooses the cards and makes the decisions but does not actually move the turtle. That is the job of the “Turtle Mover.” In this way, the younger players get to order around the adults who are supposed to follow the instructions chosen by the kids (and provide entertaining sound effects). I’ve been a teacher for 18 years and it still took me by surprise just how exciting it was for the kids to boss around the adults. My daughter chose the cards and I did just what they told me to do. This was a great simulation of digital programming in which the programmer provides instructions that something else (the computer) has to follow.
The most interesting and complex cards were the function cards. These served as markers representing a set of action cards. The actions would always be carried out in the same way whenever a function card was played. For example, in order to turn around the turtle on the most basic level, a “programmer” would have to play two cards (right turn, right turn). At higher levels, the programmer could place two right turn cards and a function card off to the side. If the turtle ever needed to turn around in the game, the programmer would now only need to play one function card.
The game comes with three kinds of barriers which can impede the turtles. Ice blocks can be melted by a laser. Boxes can be pushed. Stone blocks are permanent. The instructions come with some suggested “maps” but you are encouraged to come up with your own challenges and then figure out how you can overcome them with the fewest moves.
Creativity is highly prized but so is efficiency.
The art and instruction are fantastic. The pacing is great for a very wide range of players, and the game play becomes remarkably robust after only a few instructional levels. This is Major Fun for kids and parents and teachers and anyone (like me) who sees that programming should be taught to everyone—neither for economic reasons nor for purely pragmatic reasons but rather because the skills are intrinsic to our development as a species.
And playing with them is fun.
And our new robot overlords are probably going to feed the programmers who brought them to life before they feed the humanities majors who keep churning out post-singularity dystopian fiction.
So maybe there are some pragmatic reasons…
2 – 5 players. Ages 4+
Robot Turtles was designed by Dan Shapiro © 2014 by ThinkFun.