Bernie DeKoven – A Remembrance

Bernie DeKoven has been a great friend and mentor to me over the past 7 almost 8 years. He sought me out after moving to Indianapolis to be closer to his daughter and grandkids. He was, to my great surprise, aware of The Spiel and wanted to encourage me to keep spreading my love of games and trying to get more people to see the freedom and power that can come from play.

This encouragement wasnt just an email pep talk though. He wanted to meet. He wanted to PLAY. So I drove down to Bernie’s house in Irvington with a big blue Ikea bag full of games that seemed like they might fit with Major Fun’s taste. And wow did they! We played for several hours without coming up for air.

It’s hard to describe our first play date other than to say it felt like we had met already. It felt like coming home. It felt like a reunion.

On one hand, our age gap was wide enough it was easy to think of this like a reunion of father and son. It’s certainly true I came to see Bernie as a true mentor and looked to him for guidance in so many aspects of life. An endlessly supportive champion of my creative and playful endeavors and a gut-check, a moral compass as I faced any number of challenges in life. And I did my level best to be the same for him in return. He joked that we basically adopted each other – and maybe the paperwork just didn’t go through until much later.

Not parents and children exactly. Not teachers and students.

Brothers. My brother, separated by time.

I feel that kinship and connection even now when Bernie has left us for the great unknown.

Bernie’s life was cut short by cancer mere weeks ago. I miss him fiercely

I cannot begin to count the ways Bernie’s joy and energy for life and all things playful has helped shape mine. He’s the wisest goofball I will ever know. He gave voice to so many things I knew in my gut about games and playfulness – to the point that we could finish each other’s sentences when we got going on the subject.

He would waggle his finger at me and say, “You get it. You get me.” And I felt the same about him.

The simple beautiful idea we both found like a shiny rock on the beach was this:

Playfulness is a posture, not a pose, a stance that you can take throughout the journey of your life. It’s a choice we can make – to be playful, to find joy in the everyday, in each other, in the community, in art and science, in the world in all its vast possibilities.

It can start at the game table for many – for any of us. Giving ourselves permission to play, to find that sense of freedom and joy – the feeling of challenge and risk and reward that can only come from a well played game.

That playful spirit is what brings us back to games as adults. Rediscovering something, unlocking something that was always there.

The leap that Bernie made and that I am still making is that you can take that spirit with you beyond the game. That any path you walk in life can be a playful path, your playful path.

You can choose to play – to have fun – to find joy and that choice is one that comes from a place of profound imagination, courage, and freedom.

It’s profound but it’s silly, too. Take a beat, find the fun when and where you can in life. Take life just serious enough that you figure out how to play with it. Choosing to play bucks so much of what we are taught to believe is important or vital to being successful. And yet, we think choosing to play brings us closer to contentment. Choosing to play makes us lighter, freer, brings us closer to knowing ourselves and others. Choosing to play allows us to savor those moments and memories with those we love.

I was honored to take up the mantle as Major Fun and add it to the The Spiel’s family. Two twin banners of fun and playfulness that I hope will make Bernie proud for years to come.

And I am humbled beyond measure to be the chronicler of Bernie’s life and the positive message he leaves for us to learn from. After his diagnosis, I dropped all non essential projects in order to  spend as much time as possible filming a documentary with Bernie. I built a set in the basement of his house over the month of April and we spent from May to September filming every chance time and his health allowed. We recorded the story of his life and the story of him discovering his playful path all entwined together. I have 700 minutes edited and 500 to go. There will be a 2 hour film shaped from this footage and the additional conversations will (eventually) be posted as well. There are three clips available to watch below for anyone who wants to see what’s coming and hear Bernie in his own words.

From writing an index of childhood playground games showing how they could be used as teaching tools, to running the Game Preserve a commune dedicated to play, to working with major toy and game companies as a lead designer to planning large scale game events for the New Games Foundation to designing video games and computer games to writing books on play and playfulness, leading seminars around the world, and becoming one of the first professional game reviewers, Bernie’s life has been filled with looking at the serious side of fun and the fun side of serious.

My goal, my hope is for many people, thousands of people around the world to get a chance to meet Bernie and hear his message through the film. A fitting legacy for an amazing person whose life in play can be a guidepost for us all.

Bernie is ahead of us now. On a new path.

He leaves us a world more joyful & fun for him being in it. Would that we all could say the same.

It’s up to us now to walk our own playful paths.

And maybe some day I’ll catch up with him. I sure hope I do.

Not just so I can say thanks for being such a fantastic friend and brother, but because I hope we get another chance to play.



Candygrams

Candygrams       Official Site |  BGG  | Buy

Publisher: Johnny Landers P: Candygrams LLC
2-4 players  15-20 min. ages 7+  MSRP $25

text-the concept

Candygrams is a colorful crossword game that offers some fun and challenging twists to a traditional word game. Use letter tiles to create (and recreate) your own grid of words to win the game.

text-the components

Candygrams comes with 111 really nice letter tiles. Each tile has a nice thickness and heft and is screen printed in one of three bright colors: pink, yellow and blue.

The game also comes with two large six sided dice. These dice have colored faces that match the colors of the tiles: 2 yellow, 2 pink and a 2 blue sides.

To play, mix up the tiles face down and each player draws 25 tiles to his or her hand (called the candy shop). Set 10 extra tiles face up in the middle. This is the Candy Jar. Now we’re ready to begin!

text-the mechanics

Well, almost ready! The first thing each player will do is create a starting word for his or her own personal crossword layout. Over the course of the game, you’ll build from the base word up and down and across to form new words with new tiles. You will create your own personal free-form board.

The only rule with this starting word? It has to contain at least one of each different color tile.

Once everyone has a base word, the first round begins with someone rolling the dice.

Once the dice are rolled everyone plays together using the result of the dice. The colors rolled on the dice tell you which dice can be used to make words this round. If I roll pink and blue, this means those are the only color letters I can use. Yellow has to sit this one out.

This color rule applies to the letters you build off of on your crossword board. Using the example above, you have to build your new word off a blue or pink letter. You can add onto an existing word, branch off in a new direction, even create multiple words as long as all the tiles are played in a single line horizontally or vertically. But in each case this pesky color rule still applies.

The goal of the game is to play all 25 tiles first, so the longer the word you build each turn, the closer you are to victory. No scoring, no points. Just get all the tiles from your candy shop to your board.

text-apart

The color restrictions provided by the dice deserve some real love here. Instead of one rack of letter tiles, you really have Six different racks of tiles depending on how the dice come up. Blue – Pink, Blue- Yellow, Yellow – Pink involved two colors BUT it is also possible to roll doubles! So you may have a turn where you can only play just blue, pink or yellow!

On one hand, this may severely limit your options, depending on the mix of tiles in your candy shop. BUT whenever doubles are rolled, you can swap one tile from your hand with a tile in the Candy Jar. This means, as the dice come up with doubles you can slowly shift your hand away from troublesome letters

As the game moves on, you may find a great word (or words) that use a ton of tiles but if the color dice dont cooperate, you may have to bide your time and hold onto those letters, hoping the right roll will come next round. A different kind of randomness. Not the randomness of drawing a bad rack of tiles. But randomness that requires patience and planning. You dont know how the dice will come up, so there’s an element of hand management in play throughout the game.If you do not try to keep a bit of balance in your candy shop, you may find yourself with a a mix of tiles you know wont blend together. If you dont take this into account, you’ll find yourself with a mix of tiles that wont blend together nicely into words and have to pass, waiting for doubles so you can swap out a tile.

It’s not just what tiles you play but when you play them that matters!

Even where you play them matters! And this is what really sets Candygrams apart.

When you go to form your word each round, you have access to any tiles already on the board and played to your layout provided that removing them from the layout doesnt split the board and that all the words in your crossword are, well, still words! You cant take a tile and leave a string of gibberish!

This means that if you are clever about WHERE you play your tiles to the board, you still have access to them on later rounds. Using prefixes or suffixes that can be peeled off and have a word remain valid may give you many more options. And the number of options you keep open comes down to how cleverly you can build your words and your board.

Here, I used the S from tonics (above) later in the game to make the word suds (below). Since tonic (singular) is still a valid word, I can peel off the S and use it again.

Using dice to create a new challenge each round and allowing players to use tiles already in play make decisions in Candygrams fun and different than most other word games.

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Whenever we begin a discussion about word games, we have to address the 800 pound gorilla in the room: Scrabble. Since 1937, it has dominated and continues to dominate the market. And for good reason. It’s an excellent game! That said, it has so thoroughly dominated the landscape and for such a long time, it is almost impossible to imagine a word game that isn’t built from a foundation that starts with Scrabble. Can you think of many words games today that you wouldnt start by saying “It’s like Scrabble, but….?” It’s not impossible, but it’s not easy! I’m no Scrabble hater at all but its success has has a collective effect on how we imagine word games. Scrabble has provided the boundaries and that means we end up with a LOT of games that are just way too similar to the original.

Enter Candygrams. Yes, you can definitely see it has a Scrabblicious foundation. BUT let’s try the exercise I suggested above.

It’s like Scrabble…

but you have dice

and the dice tell you what tiles you can use

and the dice tell you when you can swap tiles

and you build words on your own board

and you can use tiles already played to the board

and you ‘re not playing for points

So, it’s not one difference. It’s many! This is no tweak. It may have started in the Scrabble chorus, but Candygrams has a clear voice – a voice that stands out from the crowd.

The last thing I want is for my praise of these subtleties to make Candygrams seem too complex. It’s truest strength lies in its simplicity.

The game really is roll dice, build words from the colors rolled. Use all your tiles to win and reuse tiles already played, if you’re clever.

Young players can play on one level and word nerds can appreciate it on another. But the magic is both groups could enjoy playing together

That makes Candygrams a delight and most surely a delicious helping of Major Fun!

***

Pioneers

Release: 4/1//2018    Download:  Enhanced  | MP3
Run Time: 82 min    Subscribe:  Enhanced  | MP3 | RSS

Westward ho! Immigrants from around the world have flocked to the United States to start a new life. As the country expands its territory to the Pacific, more and more pioneers set out, using stagecoaches and wagon trains, to reach new cities and towns along the way.

Each town has its own needs – a barkeep here, a farmer there, bankers, merchants, soldiers, innkeepers, and even a gold digger or two. Your job in Pioneers is to help these folks find a place that suits them by building roads and using your stagecoach. The player who does the best job settling this new generation of Americans will win the game

Pioneers is a gateway game to a new generation of players just discovering the hobby. It’s easy to learn, easy to teach and each time you play, you’ll discover new layers of depth and fun by charting a different path, literally.

Each pioneer you settle will give you a new way to see the game. And best of all how everyone else plays will change your decisions. Their choices will let you see the game in a new light every time.

Listen in for a full review and discover why Pioneers deserves BOTH the Major Fun and Spiel of Approval Awards!
Pioneers

Queen Games  |  BGG  |  Buy

Designer: Emanuelle Ornella Artist: Markus Erdt

Publisher: Queen Games

2-4 players  60 min   ages 8+   MSRP $50

For info on the Game Sommelier segment featured on the show, check out the show notes at The Spiel!

Music credits include:

Let Your Yeah Be Yeah  by The Pioneers  |  the song

Pioneers  by Tunng  |  the song

***

Squaremino

Squaremino       Frost & Frost |  BGG  | Buy

Publisher: Frost & Frost
2-4 players  15 min. ages 6+  MSRP $28.95

text-the concept

Squaremino is a clever and strategic twist on the tile laying classic. The goal remains the same, however: be the first to play all of your tiles to win.

text-the components

There are 64 square domino tiles in the game. Each one measure s1 1/8” on each side is 3/8” thick. They are made from a nicely weighted material which gives each tile just the right heft. It’s a pleasure just to hold and fiddle with your tiles as you’re setting up and playing.

The 64 tiles are divided into 4 colored suits: red, blue, yellow, and green. Each suit has 16 tiles numbered 1 through 4. So there are four of each number within a suit. Keep in mind, unlike a conventional domino, each tile only has a single number instead of two.

To play, you spread out all the tiles face down and each player draws 12 tiles as a starting hand. The tiles are thick enough to stand on their own, so it’s easy set your hand up in a line.

Like most domino games, you’ll need room for several lines of tiles as the game goes on, so make sure to leave plenty of room in the middle of the table to play. Push the unused dominoes to the side as a draw pile and you’re ready to go!

text-the mechanics

Each player will take turns playing 2,3 or 4 tiles to create a shared board – lines of tiles extending vertically and horizontally, crossword style.

There are two simple rules for playing tiles.

The set of tiles you play must be consecutive numbers in the same color

OR

The set of tiles you play must be the same number but different colors.

So, a 1-2-3 in blue would be legal. So 4-4-4 provided that each 4 was a different color.

There are a few no-no’s in the game.

You can never play a single tile. And you can never play more than four tiles at once or extend a line of tiles past four.

The tiles played must be in a straight line. And the tiles played cannot create a square of tiles on the board.

If you cannot or do not want to play, you draw an extra tile from the face down pile and add it to your hand.

The first player to get rid of all his or her tiles wins the game.

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Many times a Major Fun game will be a champion of innovation. It will offer up an experience that is totally new and very different from other games.

In the case of Squaremino, what makes it noteworthy is its decision to not stray too far from the comfort zone of the classic on which it is based.

There are certainly new strategies that are very different from the classic. This is not a game of matching numbers. You’re playing either a sequence or a set to build the board.

And the game does offer a bonus for completing a row of four tiles. Each time you do this you have the option to turn in a tile and draw a replacement. Setting yourself up for these bonuses and also keeping your opponents from them is key.

What makes Squaremino special and noteworthy, though, is that it resists the urge to reinvent the wheel. It would have been very easy to add several additional layers of complexity to the game, bonuses for longer runs or making certain shapes within the layout of the board. But I’m certain this would not make the game better.

Sometimes the key to fun is knowing when to stop. Knowing what not to ad,. Perhaps it’s like negative space in painting. The things that are not there help give art shape as much as the things that are.

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The structure of the game is one any domino player will recognize. And though it borrows some of its inspiration from games like Qwirkle (another Major Fun winner), Squaremino feels familia and comfortable. Like a favorite sweater or perfectly broken in old pair of shoes.

Its so familiar, in fact, many may even think they have played before because it stays true to the soul of the classic. It celebrates its heritage but finds a way to stand on its own.

That’s a fine line and a fun line for any Major Fun game to walk.

Whether you’re learning for the first time or the pips on your set of double twelves have worn off, Squaremino is a game almost anyone will find hours of fun playing.

Ancestree

Release: 3/1//2018    Download:  Enhanced  | MP3
Run Time: 68 min    Subscribe:  Enhanced  | MP3 | RSS

Genealogists are a curious and squinty lot. They spend much of their lives buried in the archives doing research, trying to uncover hidden branches of their family trees.

All those late nights are about to pay off. If all goes well you’ll have enough information to prove your lineage is historically significant – a family tree for the ages!

Ancestree is a tile drafting game where each player cultivates a family tree over three rounds. You’ll build dynasties, marriages, and wealth to score points.

The game is wonderfully simple to learn but the scoring system makes each decision matter and each decision fun.

Ancestree is also inclusive. It celebrates diversity and allows us to play with the idea of family. Allowing more people to find themselves in the game is a powerful and playful idea. Inviting more people to the table helps open a door to the wider world of games and (we hope) allows even more people to share the joy and fun we find through play.

Listen in for a full review and discover why Ancestree is Major Fun!
Ancestree

Calliope Games  |  BGG  |  Buy

Designer: Eric M. Lang

Artist: Larry Elmore & Adelheid Zimmerman

Publisher: Calliope Games

2-6 players  20-40 min   ages 8+   MSRP $30

For info on the Truckloads of Goober segment featured on the show, check out the show notes at The Spiel!

Music credits include:

We Are Family   By Deborah Dixon & Nova Bossa  |  the song

We Are Family (Adam Clarke Club Funk Mix)  |  the song

***

Majesty: For The Realm

Release: 2/19//2018    Download:  Enhanced  | MP3
Run Time: 64 min    Subscribe:  Enhanced  | MP3 | RSS

From millers and brewers to knights and nobles, it takes all sorts to build a kingdom.

In Majesty, players recruit subjects to help create a prosperous new realm. Each character offers a simple but specialized way to bring wealth, health and security to the crown.

Majesty is an easy to learn, wonderfully elegant and interactive card game. Each character card you add to your kingdom will have implications within and beyond your borders.

The game is simple enough for almost anyone to learn but also modular, so as you learn, you can tailor the rules to suit your tastes.

Not only does this make Majesty: For the Realm Major Fun, it means you have a hand in defining the kind of fun you have every time you play!

Majesty: For The Realm

Z-Man Games  |  BGG  |  Buy

Designer: Marc Andre

Artist: Anne Heidsieck

Publisher: Z-Man Games

2-4 players  20-40 min   ages 7+   MSRP $40

For info on the Back Shelf Spotlight Games we cover, check out the show notes at The Spiel!

Music credits include:

Queen Majesty   by The Chosen Few   |  the song

Teach Me How to Curl   by Todrick Hall  |  the song

***

Pocket Ops

Pocket Ops   Grand Gamers Guild  |  BGG

Designer: Brandon Beran  Artist: Josh Cappel
Publisher: Grand Gamers Guild
2 players  15 min. ages 8+  MSRP $15

text-the concept

Cue the James Bond music….

In Pocket Ops, you are a spymaster, infiltrating a secret facility with a team of agents to steal a doomsday device. Unfortunately for you, a rival agency has sent their own spies on the very same mission. Using the tools and skills available, you must position your agents in key areas so you can grab the device before your opponent.

text-the components

Pocket Ops is a game that could almost fit in your pocket. They’d have to be big pockets, yes, but it’s worth noting this is a game you can take anywhere and play anywhere. The entire game fits in a box that is 4 inches square.

Inside this bite sized box, there’s a board, a set of blueprint cards and wooden agent tokens for each player. There’s also a cardboard key card plus the dreaded doomsday device and its 2 power crystals.

The board is a three by three grid depicting the secret base. Each grid space is lettered A through I.

The nine Blueprint cards match the lettered grid spaces on the board, so each player has a card lettered A-I.

The agent tokens come in two forms – regular spies and specialists. You have 7 regular spies and 8 specialists. The general spies look like ninjas and the specialists have an icon depicting their special skill.

And the doomsday device and its crystals are how you keep score. Collect the device and a crystal and you win!

To play, each player takes their cards and general spies. Flip your specialist tokens face down and mix them up. Draw two and secretly decide which one to keep. Reveal your selection to your opponent and you’re ready to play!

text-the mechanics

Pocket Ops draws its inspiration from a game almost everyone already knows: tic-tac-toe.

The goal remains exactly the same: arrange your pieces on the board in a row of 3, vertically horizontally or diagonally.

In the classic game you draw an X or an O to claim a space. In Pocket Ops, you’ll place a spy or a specialist.

How your spies and specialists get onto the board is a much more tricky proposition in this game!

Each turn, one player will try to place a piece and the other player will try to predict where that piece is being played. The player with the Keycard token will be the Placer in the first turn and his or her opponent will be the Predictor.

Each turn in the game has three parts and goes like this:

1. The Predictor selects one of the 9 Blueprint cards and places it face down. This letter card is the Prediction.

2. The Placer selects either a regular spy or a specialist token and places it on a grid space on the board.

3. The Prediction card is then revealed. If the Prediction was correct, the token is removed from the board. If the Prediction was wrong, the token remains on the board. If the token was the Specialist, that token’s ability kicks in.

So, as the Placer on any given turn you may not actually get to play a piece if the Predictor can get in your head!

When the turn ends, the Keycard passes to the other player and roles are now reversed. The new Predictor selects a card. The Placer selects a token and places it on the board and the Prediction card is revealed.

And the game continues back and forth – predicting and placing (or not!) – until one player maneuvers three tokens into a line on the board. The first win, you grab a power crystal, The second win, you grab the doomsday device and celebrate your victory. So it’s best 2 out of 3.

text-apart

The Specialist tokens really make Pocket Ops shine.

Each player has 8 of them and each one has a unique ability that will trigger if the token is played to the board.

Each Specialist’s ability changes the way you look at the board and the options available to win.
So let’s take a closer look at them.

Most are played to empty spaces on the board.

The Sniper eliminates a foe (an opponent’s token) from a space that is in a straight path (no diagonals).

The Mole allows you to switch two pieces adjacent to the Mole – one must be friendly and one a foe.

The Ninja eliminates an adjacent foe (including diagonals).

The Pusher travels into an adjacent space on the board and pushes other tokens into the next space or even off the board.

The Grappler swaps places with a foe in a straight line (no diagonals).

The Hacker allows you to play TWO prediction cards as the Predictor from now on until you make a correct Prediction.

There are two Specialists that are played to spaces already containing a token

The Courier is played to a space with your own spy. The Courier pushes that spy into an empty adjacent space (no diagonals).

Last but not least the Assassin is played to a space with an opponent’s spy. The opponent’s spy is eliminated.

These abilities, taken on all at once, might seem like a lot to keep track of, but keep in mind you will only ever have one Specialist in play during a round. Each ability is really quite easy to grok, so you only really have to keep track of one at a time (Even so, I created a simple quick reference sheet for the Specialists you can download here – it even fits in the tiny box).

The effect these Specialists have on the game is tremendous. From a seemingly straightforward game, the board becomes a very strategic battleground. No token is safe and no token can be guaranteed to stay put!

As the Predictor you have to think beyond the obvious 3 in a row tic-tac-toe strategies to see how and when and where your opponent might be tempted to use his or her Specialist. LIkewise, as the Placer you have to be cagy about when to use your Specialist. Select an obvious spot and you might not benefit from its ability at all!

There’s already plenty of cat and mouse in this game, move and countermove, trying to make the less obvious choice each round so you can just get a piece ANY piece on the board. Adding Specialists makes this game cat and mouse chased by a rhino through a hedge maze filled with angry porcupines.

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If I started out this review by saying “I’ve got this great new take on tic-tac-toe” you might have clicked away or at the very least rolled your eyes a bit.

After all, tic-tac-toe, played amongst skilled players, is a game that cant be won. It’s a great discovery and lesson in life when we learn this. But it pretty much kills much of our interest in ever playing the game. The game isnt fun enough since the outcome is all but ordained.

It takes real moxie to look at a classic like this and say, I can make it relevant, strategic and fun to a modern game playing audience. But that’s just what designer Brandon Beran has done.

And even if the game comes to a draw, like the original, its not a draw. The player with the Keycard (the Placer) loses the round! Which adds another layer of thinking when the board begins to fill up.

What I love most about Pocket Ops is how it takes something so familiar and uses that foundation to do something interesting and challenging, while still preserving the essential simplicity and speed of the original. Despite all these extra layers, a typical game takes no more than 10 minutes to play.

When is a game more than just a variation? When does a game rise up out of the primordial soup to evolve into its own animal?

This might be a question for the ages but I’d argue that a game makes this leap when it finds a way to build something new atop the foundation of the old. Adding deduction and bluffing elements to the basic 3 in a row goal of the original allows Pocket Ops to make that leap.

This isn’t tic-tac-toe on steroids. It’s Pocket Ops. It can and does stand on its own two feet. You can see its family heritage but you shouldn’t be too quick to judge based on from which branch of the great game tree it grows.

If you’re looking for a quick game that you can take practically anywhere and teach to practically anyone – a game that’ll provide a challenge after hundreds of plays – and a game that’s just plan fun – stop looking. You’ve found it in Pocket Ops.

16 Years of Fun!

2018 marks year 16 for Major Fun.

First, let me say, WAHOO!

Time really does fly when’re you’re Major Fun. Hard to believe I am starting my third year as Bernie’s successor. And I remain honored and humbled to stand on the shoulders of such an amazing and playful goofball.

I’m excited to bring you another round of wonderful games to share with your family and friends starting this February. The world of games grows every year and I hope to point you toward games that will make you laugh and think and love to play!

Stephen (Major Fun)

Rhino Hero: Super Battle

Rhino Hero: Super Battle   Official Site  |  BGG  

Designer: Scott Frisco, Steven Strumpf
Publisher: HABA
2-4 players  20 min. ages 5+  MSRP $30

text-the concept

The big city can be a dangerous place. It’s a good thing your new high rise apartment building has its own team of superheroes to protect it! Rhino Hero and super friends Giraffe Boy, Big E and Batguin are on patrol as the building goes up, trying to reach the highest floor. Build with a steady hand and roll well in your battles and your hero will fly high!

Rhino Hero: Super Battle is a mega-scale stacking game. Using folded cards, players build a cardstock skyscraper and hope to move their wooden superhero token toward the top of the structure. When two heroes meet on the same level, a dice battle occurs knocking one to a lower floor. The hero at the highest level when the building comes crashing down wins the game.

text-the components

This game has a lot of really fun components! There are 48 wall cards, 24 short and 24 tall ones. These cards are heavy duty cardstock. Each wall folds in half to make an L-shape.

There are 30 floor cards, also heavy duty cardstock. They are slender and rectangular. The front side of each floor has game icons.

There are three square base tiles. You’ll start your building using these.

The four wooden hero tokens are by far the most charming parts of the game.

Four pesky spider monkey tokens will make life difficult for you as you build.

And last but not least, there are 3 dice. Two are used for battles. One used for climbing the building.

The whimsical artwork by Thies Schwartz really helps establish the world of the game. There are animal characters living their wacky lives inside each apartment. The art also has a very nostalgic quality, the style is very reminiscent of art from old Little Golden Books.

To play, lay out the three base tiles together, separate the walls into two stacks and shuffle the floor cards and deal three floors to each player. Then flip three floor cards face up. Each player selects a wooden hero and you’re ready to play!

text-the mechanics

Each turn in the game goes like this: build, climb, battle, draw.

To build, you select one of the floor cards in your hand and play it. Each floor card has icons showing short walls, tall walls and possibly a monkey. Look at the icons on the floor card you play and select those walls from the supply. These are your building supplies for the turn.

Building must go in a specific order: first walls, then the floor, then monkeys. The first few wall cards will be placed on the base tiles. Some part of the wall must touch the yellow circles on the tile. Once you are building on higher floors, you can place your walls wherever you like – just remember you dont want the building to fall on your turn!

Now here’s the tricky part. You must place your floor on top of the walls you just placed. The floor must be flat. No angles or slides allowed! This can be especially tricky if you play a floor card that forces you to place walls of two different sizes. The tall walls are exactly twice the height of the short walls so as the building goes up, you will have opportunities to stack short walls on top of each other to form a level that is even with a tall wall.

If there’s a monkey on your floor, you take a monkey from the supply and hang it from the edge of your floor. There are only 4 monkeys in the game, so as the building goes up, you may have to move a monkey from one floor in the buiilding to a new one.

After building, you climb! Roll the light blue die to see where your hero lands. Based on the roll, move your hero up (or down) that number of floors in the building. Count each distinct level with a floor, then place your hero in the building.

If your hero lands on a level with no other heroes, you draw a replacement floor from the face up floor cards or from the top of the deck.

If your hero lands on a level occupied by another hero, a super battle occurs!

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These battles give the game an added dimension of strategy, luck and fun.

The crazy building you and your fellow players create will become a sprawling structure which means there may be multiple floors at the same height. Any time you move your hero to a new floor, you want to take a moment to look closely and make sure there are no heros on floors at the same height.

The battle is a simple fast dice-off. The attacker is the new hero just arriving on the level. He or she rolls the red die. The defender rolls the blue die. The high roller stays on the level, the low roller must move down one level. No ties are possible in the game since the dice are not standard. The red die has all even numbers 2-4-6 and the blue die all odds 1-3-5. With those odds, it pays to be the attacker!

The hero that moves down after the battle does another level check. If there’s a hero on this level, you guessed it… another battle occurs! This means a single move by a hero can result in two or three battles as they careen down the building. It also means everyone is invested and involved on every turn, since you never know when you could be called to battle.

When the dust settles one hero will remain higher than any other in the building. That player gets the gold medal. Your outlook on the game changes the minute you get this medal. If another player causes the building to collapse, you win! But beware! If you cause the building to collapse while you have the medal, everyone else wins!

The battles are random, no doubt, but this element gives the game great balance. It’s not just the player who has the steadiest hand who is destined to win like most other stacking games. Your choices of what floor to use and where to build certainly have a big impact on the outcome of the game. But, timing and luck are just as important. You need to work your way to the top before hoping to see the cards come crashing down. And since there are so many battles, almost every game will lead to a sprawling crazy structure as players are forced to build higher and higher.

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HABA’s first title in the series, Super Rhino (inexplicably renamed Rhino Hero in later editions), is simpler. Build a single tower up and up, moving Super Rhino higher and higher, trying to play all your roof cards before the structure falls. It’s an amazing, lovely and much beloved game. I have played it hundreds of times.

When I heard HABA was working on a follow up to Super Rhino, I was excited but also a bit worried.

It’s a risk to mess with that level of success. Make too many changes and you’ll lose the essence of the original. Too few changes, and you’ll wonder why they didn’t just do a reprint of the original.

Rhino Hero Super Battle is more ambitious. The scale is grand. And there are certainly more variables to consider on any given turn. But the essence of the original is alive and well.

Will this house of cards stand or fall?

Rhino Hero: Super Battle gives us a second question to ask:

Will my hero climb higher before the building falls?

At its core the game combines King of the Hill with the simple joy of building a crazy house of cards.

Super Battle’s ambition is rewarded with extra layers of tension and laughter.

Bigger than the original? Yep. You betcha. But not better. This isn’t a contest. Rhino Hero: Super Battle offers us a different flavor of Major Fun.

With any luck, you’ll get a chance to assemble your superfriends for a card climbing extravaganza and see for yourself.

December 2017

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Codenames: Duet

Release: 11/21/2017    Download:  Enhanced  | MP3
Run Time: 60 min    Subscribe:  Enhanced  | MP3 | RSS

The party game Codenames took the game playing world by storm in 2015. Teams compete to find the secret names of their agents using a grid of word cards and two simple clues: a word and a number. It’s engaging, creative and loads of fun.

Duet offers us a tense two player transformation of the original. You and your partner must contact 15 agents using a grid of word cards and a very limited number of clues. The big problem is each of you only know half the agents in play!

More puzzle than party, Codenames Duet offers a totally different challenge and experience through the same basic set of rules. By all rights, Duet is a game that should not work. Reimagining a lively party game as a thoughtful deductive puzzle for two is a huge leap. And yet Duet sings in harmony with its older cousin – a familiar melody but clearly its own tune.

Listen in to discover why we celebrate this remarkable and resilient game design, in all its forms, as Major Fun!

Codenames: Duet

Czech Games Edition  |  BGG  |  Buy

Designer: Vlaada Chvatil, Scott Eaton

Publisher: Czech Games Edition

2 players  15-30 min   ages 12+   MSRP $19.95

Music credits include:

Hard Day’s Night   by Banda Plastica   |   the song

Tijuana Sound Machine  by Nortec Collective  |  the song

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