After last week’s review of Flash! some of you might be looking to slow things down a bit. Speed and noise are not the only fun to be had. Contemplative strategy games allow for slower, less reactive thinking. They also lend themselves to conversations and the more measured paces of the chat.
Grid Stones gives those of us who enjoy the more deliberate pace of a strategy game a chance to limber up those slower but deeper neurons.
At its heart, Grid Stones is a pattern recognition game, similar to Tri-Spy or Set. Unlike those examples, speed is not an issue. Each player is given a hand of three cards on which are depicted a 3×3 grid and a certain pattern of glass beads. The game board is a 5×5 grid on which the players either place or take away glass beads.
On your turn you may place one bead on the game board OR take one bead off. You may not slide beads around. If, on your turn, you find a pattern that exactly matches one of your cards, you may reveal the card. The game ends, and the winner determined, by the first person who reveals all three of their cards.
In my experience, players have a tendency to crowd together on the board. The thinking is that if a bunch of pieces are in one place then it is more likely that we will be able to complete a pattern; however, the more people who play in a tight area, the more likely they are to move the exact pieces we need.
Planning ahead in this game is not a precise science. Strategy revolves around creating good opportunities so that you can quickly recognize or create a pattern when it is your turn. There is a good deal of second-guessing that goes on as you watch what choices your opponents are making.
And finally, there is always the dark glee that bubbles up when you ruin your neighbor’s plans and hear that exasperated sigh. That’s definitely Major Fun.
The game rules are clear and short and virtually intuitive. The board is well designed and clearly shows how to play with 2, 3, 4, or 5+ players. You’ll be playing in moments and able to play through several games in one sitting.
At first, Sifteo seems like some kind of IQ test from the future: a set of three high-tech cubes, each a small computer with a color screen, each knowing when it is pressed, tilted, turned over, turned around, or near another cube. All together providing an apparently endless variety of surprisingly deep puzzles and investigations of the universe of sound and reason. And then you realize it’s a more of an IQ toy than an IQ test, inviting you and your children to hours of, as the manufacturers describe it, “intelligent play.”
Sifteo is a computer peripheral that communicates via a “dongle” (a small device that plugs into the USB port). To begin play, you must first download an application called “Siftrunner.” Through this software, you connect to the Sifteo cubes, your own personal library of Sifteo games and activities, and an online collection of yet more games that are available for a most modest fee (the Sifteo itself is somewhat of a significant investment, and you’ll probably rationalize yourself into purchasing at least one more $50 Sifteo cube).
Sifteo is a frame-breaking toy. Even though you need your computer nearby, the players are interacting solely through the manipulation of the three (or more) Sifteo cubes. When a game is selected, it is downloaded to the cubes. The computer provides the sound effects – which results in a richly immersive soundscape for each game.
Currently, there are 19 different activities available from the Sifteo store. Some are free. Several are included with your initial purchase. Though the majority of Sifteo activities are best played as a solitaire, many can be played with more than one player.
Peano’s Vault is one of the included games. It is more of an exercise than a game, offering a collection of mathematical puzzles where players arrange cubes to equal a target number. Each cube displays a number. Surrounding that number are different arithmetic operators (plus, minus, multiply, divide). By connecting the cubes in the correct order to the correct operator, you arrive at the correct solution. The game demonstrates the unique benefit of the Sifteo device – rearranging cubes provides a new and inviting way for interacting with number puzzles. Even with three cubes, the puzzles can get deeply challenging. With four, even moreso. Five or six and you border on merry mathematical masochism.
Chroma Shuffle (available for 300 points) exemplifies the more recreational uses of Sifteo with a series of visual logic puzzles. Each cube displays a collection of dots of different shape and color. By positioning two cubes next to each other, dots that are adjacent and the same color/shape disappear. By tilting a cube that has lost some of its dots, you can rearrange them. There are a variety of puzzles, most of which have something to do with making all the dots disappear. Again, the opportunity for challenge (this time, visual and logical) can get quite profound as you progress through the games. (Chroma Lite comes free with your set. Playing with it for a half-hour or so should be ample evidence of why you should consider purchasing Chroma Shuffle.)
Planet of Tune (a 300 point investment) transforms the Sifteo cubes into a tool for exploring and composing music. Each cube becomes one of 14 different instruments. Standing the cubes on edge makes each instrument continuously play. In this way, by selecting which cube to stand up and which to lay down, you can actually play your cubes, creating your own musical performance. Shaking a cube makes the instrument play according to whatever tempo you create. You can “record” each instrument so that the sound you make keeps repeating.
And on and on, each activity demonstrating a sometimes significantly different way of interacting with the cubes, and each another invitation to use your mind, senses and fingers.
All the activities exercise the mind. The games center on logic, and the activities, like Peano’s Vault, focus on exercising knowledge. Though the games are engaging and entertaining (like good puzzles), currently the most significant contribution of Sifteo is educational – encouraging thinking and learning. The arithmetic and linguistic exercises demonstrate how the simple act of shifting cubes around adds a new and playful dimension to what in other manifestations is dull and routine. Sifteo even includes two activities that the user/player can edit to focus on particular learning objectives.
For players who may not appreciate the fast and near-chaotic pace of the majority of arcade-like computer games, Sifteo is a welcome alternative. It provides a rich and comparatively gentle invitation to electronic gaming that is removed (by up to 20 feet) from the computer. For parents and teachers who want to encourage children to use their minds and exercise their creative and intellectual skills, Sifteo offers ample and entertaining opportunities.
In sum, Sifteo proves to be an innovative interface to computer technology, inviting mind and fingers to many hours of deep, intelligent, and often major fun.
Sifteo was originally developed at the MIT Media Lab by Dave Merrill and Jeevan Kalanithi and introduced to the world in Dave’s 2009 TED talk.
Trixo is a tile game, based on tic-tac-toe. Based, but taking the game in a unique, and absorbing direction, even for those of us who have come to think of tic-tac-toe as a “trivial” game.
You get 36 well-made, plastic tiles – just large, colorful, and hefty enough to make you feel that someone really wants you to take the game seriously. There are 14 blue tiles with a white X on their faces, 14 red tiles with a white diamond (which acts as an O), 5 orange Trixo tiles (with the special, Asian-like symbol that looks like a plus sign going through a rectangle), and 3 green Slide tiles (the ones with an arrow on them).
Two-to-four players each take 4 tiles from the face-down, randomly arranged Trixo tile collection. They then take turns, adding one of their tiles to the imaginary 3×3 grid, and selecting a replacement from the collection. On their turn, they may either place their tile on an empty space, stack a tile on top of any other tile (as long as it is different from the tile below it and there are no more than two other tiles in the stack), or “push” a row or column of two tiles.
The orange Trixo tile is used to block other players, and the Slide tiles to push. You can place a tile vertically, horizontally, or diagonally adjacent to any tile, as long as it doesn’t extend beyond the imagined 3×3 matrix.
As you can see, we are clearly beyond the pale of what you or I might consider to be tic-tac-toe. Yet everything else we know about tic-tac-toe is central to the game. This is one of the reasons the game is so easy to learn. The Trixo and Slide tiles are two of the reasons the game is so interesting, and so unlike everything we know about tic-tac-toe.
We Tasted the game with only three players, and it was as easy to understand and as challenging as any thinking game that one might call “Major Fun.” According to the rules, when you get three-in-a-row, you get to take all the tiles that make up that three-in-a-row – which includes any tiles in that row that happen to be stacked. Which means if the other players (for example, the author of this post) aren’t careful enough, the player who wins that three-in-a-row might wind up with an impressive number of tiles. After about three such events, it was pretty clear who was going to claim victory, but so absorbed were we by the game play that we continued until the last tile was played.
Designed by Ariel Laden, Trixo turns out to be a fun, easy to learn, well-made and absorbing strategy game. It takes maybe 15 minutes to play, and even less time to learn. It’s simple enough to intrigue anyone who knows how to play tic-tac-toe. It’s interesting enough to want to play several times before admitting ultimate defeat. And then to want to play again, maybe with someone else.