Book Review: The Book of Odds

The Book of OddsI’m starting to review books and other materials for the site. No awards just yet, but consider reviews on this site to be positive recommendations. If you would like me to consider something, send me an email or comment. If you are a publisher, send me a review copy ♥

The Book of Odds
Amram Shapiro, Louise Firth Campbell, & Rosalind Wright
Harper Collins, 2014

Convincing people to read a book full of columns and tables and lists of numbers is not an easy sell. Nothing says “gripping narrative” like actuarial tables. And yet, The Book of Odds is one of those books that I will pick up any time I have a few moments.

As its name proclaims, The Book of Odds contains thousands of events that could befall the reader and the odds that such events will occur. Want to know the odds of meeting you’re a love interest through a blind date? Want to know the odds of going on a cruise for your honeymoon? Want to know the odds that a high school senior will binge drink? How about the odds that you will die from heart disease? (Answers provided at bottom of this post)

The authors have been compiling data from many sources since 2006 and these sources are cited with each collection of information. Much of the information comes from the U.S. census and other government or academic studies; however, polls and research by more popular/commercial sources such as Cosmo, ABC News, and also appear.

The book design is very sparse: solid colors, geometric graphics, and a smattering of silhouette watermarks. Each page contains anywhere from two to five tables and columns filled with numbers along with short analytical sidebars that connect common trends. The design isn’t crowded but it is busy.

So what’s the attraction?

Maybe it’s the gamer in me.

Probability is at the heart of most games. Even those games like chess that do not use random events require players to understand the possible outcomes of any particular move. I would hazard a guess that the best games are the ones in which events are predictable but not certain. Players take action on the predictions they make and they take actions that will increase the accuracy of their predictions, but there must always be some degree of uncertainty. Great game design balances the rational with the uncertain.

But I think this book taps into something more profound than our ability to create simulations and diversions. Certainly we are a curious species—an information species. We gossip. We share bits of trivia, and in that regard, The Book of Odds is a like the Tree of Knowledge’s weedier cousin: the shrub of data.

Lightning_hits_treeIt helps that almost all the odds are expressed in terms of “1 in something.” In this fashion all the events can be compared. Your chances of being hit by lightning can be matched against your chance of being killed by the flu (1 in 1,101,000 vs. 1 in 733,871) and these matched against your chance that your baby will actually be one of a set of triplets (1 in 723). We like to compare ourselves to others. We want to see where we stand. The Book of Odds is a great way to learn about the statistical outliers like lightning strikes, shark attacks, and Ebola outbreaks, but I think it is really at its most engaging when you recognize yourself in the numbers.

And the authors aren’t above a little prurient titillation to keep you moving through the chapters. Chapter One is titled “Sex” while the final chapter is “Accidents and Death.” The intervening chapters move chronologically (more or less) through a typical life cycle addressing dating, marriage, birth, childhood, school, health, psychology, and beliefs. Everything is here for thousands of sound bites for our 24 hour “news” culture: sex, drugs, and all the dangers and threats that will keep the audience coming back after the commercial break.

Your friends might give you grief about having a book like this on your coffee table, but leave them alone for a few minutes with it and chances are they will be flipping through the pages and asking you, “Hey can you guess the chances of…”

Will Bain
Major Fun

ANSWERS for paragraph 2 (in order): 1 in 34.1 / 1 in 10 / 1 in 3.2 / 1 in 427

Find It Deluxe

Find It Deluxe is a game built around another game – a whole genre of games, actually, called “Find Its.”

Every Find It is a cylindrical sea of tiny, multi-colored beads, in which float a selection of little toys and household objects. Aside from a pad of sheets that people can use to keep track of what they’ve found, the game (which is as much a toy as it is a game) is completely self-contained. If that colorful little pad is lost, players can refer to the list printed on one of the ends of the cylinder.

Finding things in a Find It requires more than careful observation. You have to ever-so gently shake, tilt, and twist the Find It, and, occasionally, shake, tilt and twist with a certain amount of controlled, and quite satisfying violence, to make everything appear. There are some mysterious physical principles at work, making heaver things harder to find. Which is why every Find It has a penny in it, and a place to go online to register if you are skillful and/or lucky enough actually to manage to get the penny to surface.

There are many kinds of Find It games, distinguished, for the most part, by the objects you are trying to find. The Find It on the right is called Find It VeggieTales, and in it you will hopefully find a collection of figures and toys from the children’s TV show, VeggieTales. This is one of eleven different Find It game/toys currently available – more, doubtlessly, to come.

Because Find It games are almost completely self-contained, they are excellent companions for extended trips, and highly recommended for library and school collections. They help children exercise their skills of observation, self-control and patience. Find It games lend themselves equally to solitaire and social play.

Find It Deluxe is a game built around a special Find It. The Find It features a wider variety of objects. The game set also includes a deck of 123 cards, each showing an object to be found and the number of points you get for finding it; a spinner where you might increase your points or lose a turn or reverse directions or change cards or get more cards, a three-minute sand time; and, of course, a pad to keep track of your finds. You can play with any or all of the components, or, of course, with just the Find It. The cards and timer add significantly to the game play, making the Find It a true social toy. There are five different games described in the rules, all of which involve both the timer and the cards. The score values on the cards help you appreciate some of the physical properties of the Find It – the higher score objects being more difficult to find. Playing each of the games, at least once, helps establish the permission to play the game any way you want to, as long as it is fun for everyone who wants to play. This greatly adds to the attractiveness of the game concept, and significantly extends its appeal to different ages.

Rory’s Story Cubes is a Keeper!

Rory's Story Cubes

As you no doubt know, Rory’s Story Cubes has proven itself to be the kind of game the Major Fun award is here to let you know about. It’s easy to learn, engaging, it brings people together, encourages people to think and laugh together, it involves creativity and communication, empathy and collaboration.  It’s easy to store, easy to take everywhere, well-made, well-packaged, creative fun for everyone who plays it – young, old, young and old together.

Major Fun Keeper AwardAfter playing and playing Rory’s Story Cubes – with children and adults and younger children and older adults, in living rooms and dining rooms and restaurants and school rooms, we have all come to the same conclusion. It’s a Keeper.

It’s the kind of game that you’ll want to keep, so that you can share it with others.

It’s the kind of game you can make your own.

There are many ways to play it. The package gives us a good sample of some of them.  More can be found on the Rory’s Story Cubes website. The best are those that you invent together, with whomever you happen to be playing with. You don’t even have to make a story with them. Maybe you can take turns putting them in order and then explaining to everyone why you organized them that way. Or roll a die and explain to everyone why what you rolled is the most meaningful thing in the universe, and then take turns, each player rolling the another die and explaining why it is even more meaningful than the other. Or, roll three dice and then roll a fourth and explain how that die connects all three. Or, using three dice, take turns making up a story that is as close as you can get to being the opposite interpretation of what the three dice stand for.

In other words, it’s an opportunity for you to create your own games – free-form, open-ended, make-up-your-own-rules-as-you-go-along story-telling fun.

It’s a tool as much as it is a toy. You can introduce it to lighten people’s hearts and get them talking to each other. You can use it to break the tension during a meeting, to change the mood at a games party, to bring people together after dinner, to give people something constructive to do together.

The more people you play it with, the more ways you’ll find to play it. Rory’s Story Cubes is not even a game – it’s an invitation to genuine, creative, shared fun – the kind of fun that feels as good after you finish with it as it did when you were playing.

Scrabble Flash

Scrabble Flash is an electronic word-making game. It’s a good word game. It’s fun, absorbing, challenging. There are three different games, and each has one variation. In the first game, you try to make as many words as possible in the given time (75 seconds – with an extra 5 seconds added to the clock for every 5-letter word solved). In the second game, you have to use all the tiles (4 or 5 depending on how many you start with) to make one word; and, as soon as you do, you get your next set of letters, and so on. In the last, you play competitively, passing the tiles to another player as soon as you have succeeded in spelling a word using all the tiles. That player must accomplish the goal in ever diminishing time. If the timer expires, you’re out for that round.

The variation: you can use 4 or 5 tiles. If you use 4 tiles in the first game, you can spell 2-, 3, or 4 letter words. In the other games, all the words have 4 letters. If you use all 5 tiles, words have to be 3, 4 or 5 letters, and the other games require your using all 5 tiles. Whether you elect to use 4 or all 5 tiles, the games are equally challenging and inviting.

Whenever you finish a game (the time has run out), the tiles inform you how many words you were able to complete, and how many words you could have completed if you only thought harder and moved the tiles faster. This is really all the information you need to keep your ego in check. As you might guess, the game uses the official Scrabble dictionary. As you might conclude, many of the words you’ll need to know are, well, shall we say “obscure”?

Major Fun AwardScrabble Flash is not just an electronic word-making game. You could download one of those to play on your iPod/pad/phone or computer. It’s the tiles, the 5, separate tiles, and the feel of them, and the challenge of moving them and lining them up as quickly as quick can be that makes Scrabble Flash as uniquely, and majorly fun as it turns out to be – no matter which variation you play, regardless of whether you’re playing by yourself or with friends or family.

If you’re over 10, it will take you a while to get over the sheer wonder of the technology you’re playing with. It’s truly amazing to discover how this thing works – how the tiles can function individually and collectively, how it “knows” how many letters you’re playing with, how the tiles communicate with each other. If you’re under 10, you’ll just enjoy playing the games, taking, as is your age-related privilege, the technology completely for granted.

You get 5 tiles and a storage case. The tiles are like Siftables – they are each battery-powered, they each have an LCD screen and a computer chip, and they “communicate” with each other via infrared transmitter/receivers housed in each tile. The batteries (watch-like), are included, bless them.

The whole package is so convenient, the little case so elegantly portable, the components so accountably few, that you’ll be taking the game with you pretty much everywhere. All of these factors also make it perfect for a library games collection, for a school library collection, for your own personal collection, to play at home, to play at restaurants, and, whenever possible, to flaunt shamelessly.

Rory’s Story Cubes

Rory's Story CubesRory’s Story Cubes is a set of nine dice. Each die has a different image on each side, and each die is different from the others. All in all, this gives you 54 different images and close to ten million possible combinations.

There are almost as many different games you can play with your Story Cubes. Three suggestions: 1) roll all the cubes, pick an image to start, and weave all of the 9 images into a story; 2) decide on a theme or title for a story, roll the cubes, and use just those images to illustrate your story; 3) give each player some cubes, start with one player who rolls her cubes, and selects one of them to start the story; and then it’s the next player’s turn.

Major Fun AwardHonestly, that’s only the beginning. You can set the cubes in any order and try to make a story that includes each image, from left to right, and then goes on to include those same images in reverse order.

The point is, Rory’s Story Cubes is an invitation to shared creative thinking, just open-ended enough to encourage spontaneity and humor, just structured enough to maintain focus and challenge.

Gamewright has added its usual stamp of quality, housing the dice in a wonderful little box with a folding magnetic lid, giving the game a look that complements the treasure it can so easily become.

There’s a whole website devoted to Rory’s Story Cubes, published by the inventor, Rory O’Connor. The site adds even more to treasure – more ways to play, more stories to read (you can even add your own), more ways to think about co-creativity. And yes, there’s an iPhone app too.

Making and telling stories is a valued and venerable play form. And Rory’s Story Cubes is a wonderfully nonthreatening invitation to that art. Play it by yourself. Play it friends. Play it with family. Play it at a party. By all means, play it.

Rubik’s 360

Rubik’s 360, like Rubik’s Cube, is as much a toy as it is a puzzle. In fact, one might argue that it is even more toy than puzzle. Which, of course, has little, if anything to do with the fun of it, unless the kind of fun you’re looking for is more, shall we say, puzzling.

There are three, concentric spheres. The two inner spheres turn surprisingly freely (often a bit more surprisingly than you’d expect). They each have a weight on one end, and a hole on the other. There are 6 balls, each of a different color, that begin their journey on the inner sphere.

By careful, patient turning of the outer sphere, you can get a ball to roll out of the inner sphere to the middle sphere, and then from there to the outer sphere, and finally to the pit of the corresponding color. There are two knobs that you can use to secure a ball once it has reached its goal. More or less.

Zoe, 13-year-old, Rubik’s Cube-solving daughter of one of our Tasters solved it in about 90 minutes. But for kids and your casual puzzler, it’s a lovely little thing. An exploration of balance and physics, observation and steadiness. Fun to play with. Fun to share with friends. It’s all one piece, so it’s perfect for a library collection. Not at all in the same league, puzzle-wise, as Rubik’s Cube; but most definitely worth lusting after.

Boggle renewed – introducing the Library Games category

The classic word game Boggle (click to play online) has been repackaged. The game is the same, but it now comes in a sealed plastic case. You twist the case, expanding the cavity that holds the letter dice. You shake the case to make the letter dice change position. You twist the case the other way, the dice all snuggle into their new position, and the timer starts. All you need is paper and pencil. Everything else (even the battery) is included in one handy package (click on the demo tab to see how it works). So there’s nothing to lose – except the game.

There’s nothing new about the way the game is played, but the new package of this clearly Major FUN game is innovative enough to be worthy of our collective attention. Yes, it’s convenient, and could easily be classified as a “travel” game. But because there are no loose parts at all, it’s something more.

Of late, I’ve been holding many of my Games Tastings at the Irvington Library in Indianapolis. In addition to the Tastings, I’ve been donating some of our award-winning games to the library so we can start a small collection. The challenge, as you can imagine, is dealing with all the small parts. It takes a lot of dedication to make sure that a game comes back completely in tact. Boggle’s new packaging solves that problem beautifully. So exemplary is its design, that it has led me to create a new award category. For want of a better term (I was thinking of Ludotheque, which is French for public libraries devoted to games and play – why France, why don’t we have them everyhere, you might ask?), I decided to use “library.” It could mean school library, public library, club library, senior center library, even your own personal games library. But the point is, Hasbro has done something exemplary with its new rendition of Boggle – something that makes the game that much more accessible, especially to institutional environments, and hence, that much more worthy of appreciation and recognition.

Travel Litterbug

If you were a Jack-in-the-Box who wanted to be game, Litter Bugs is what you’d be.

You’d be just as surprising, suspenseful, and almost as frightening, as a good jack-in-the box, but unpredictably and instead of getting cranked, people would take turns pressing your buttons, never knowing which one of eight was going to make you pop, having one less choice with each passing of the trash can.

You might not be a toy trash can, per se. Or a trash can with such an evil, oddly smirking face, as illustrated. But if you were a toy trash can with a toy trash cad lid, attached, beneath which a large, very fly-looking plastic fly lies ready..

To play the surprisingly one-piece Travel Litter Bugs game, one of you presses down on the plastic fly – all the way down until the fly, well, clicks. Close the lid. Randomly select any randomly selected button. Push it down. Give the trash can to one of your partner/opponents. Let them push down any of the other still unpushed-down buttons. And so on and so on, button-by-button, until there are, for example, only two buttons left and it’s your turn and you still can never tell which is going to release the fly, which, just as you press the other button, suddenly pops straight up, forcefully flipping open the toy lid in satisfyingly complete surprise.

You can play with it by yourself, with you friends, you can play with it as a toy, you can play it to decide who goes first. (Rocky and I were play/working on a puzzle together, using the toy as a kind of victory timer. Every time one of us would get a piece in, we’d get/have to press a different button.)

Travel Litterbugs is an elegant, well-designed toy/game, for children of any persuasion. As decisive as a game of Rock/Scissors/Paper, fun as a jack-in-the-box, and about as long to play. Major FUN!

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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