Gravity Maze

gravity maze A puzzle that is almost a toy, a puzzle you can toy with, a puzzle that has 60 different levels, each one building on what you learned in the previous level – that’s what Gravity Maze has to offer you.

There are nine “building towers.” A building tower is made of a series of connected blocks – each block having it’s own unique ball-deflecting and transporting properties. There’s one five block tower, two four-block towers, two three-block, two two-block, two one-block, and a single block, with only one entrance and no exit, that serves as the goal for each of the puzzles. There’s a 4×4 playing grid and three small steel balls (qualifying the puzzle as not-for-children-under-three), which is not a problem since the puzzles themselves are designed for people who are at least eight-years-old.

Everything, as in all the ThinkFun puzzles I can think of, is sturdily-built, even if it is made of plastic (with the exception of the aforementioned steel balls).

There’s a deck of 60 puzzle cards. Each card is two-sided, with the puzzle on one side and the solution on the back, numbered in increasing difficulty. Each puzzle card shows where, in the grid, to put which piece to start the puzzle, and where to put the target piece. The pieces you must use to connect one to the other are indicated on the bottom of the card.

There’s also an instruction booklet which, it turns out, is essential to working the puzzles – even to setting them up correctly. If you look at the puzzle pieces more carefully, you’ll observe that each has dots on the top and bottom. On some edges there are two dots, others one, and the remaining, none. These dots are what you need in order to figure out how each tower is to be oriented, and how to read the set-up. Then there are puzzles in which you put one tower on top of the other, and you need to learn how those are represented (I quote “the outermost square will always represent the tower placed closest to the grid and the innermost square will represent the tower placed farthest”).

01 AwardThis is most definitely one of those puzzles that you learn by failing, so don’t lose faith. So you look at the answer a couple, maybe three, OK, maybe a dozen-or-so times. But your persistence pays off, and you will eventually get it. And once you do, the fun becomes even more apparent. There’s something immensely satisfying, and unique to this puzzle, to the sound the ball makes when you drop the it down the first tower and pings its way through all the right blocks, ending up bouncing against the walls of the target block. Toweringly satisfying. Major Fun, you bet!

HexHive

HexHive
There are at least two very pleasant surprises awaiting the HexHive player. One of these is the bees. The other, the numbers.

I explicate:

There are 40 “challenge cards.” Each is on a separate, hexagonal board that aligns perfectly below the transparent hexagonal solving surface. On each challenge card, you will see a group of connected hexagons, like cells in a beehive. (Hence the bee theme.) Each cell contains a number, from zero to six. There are ten different, transparent pieces; each of which is a different color and shape. Which pieces you must use to solve the puzzle is clearly and compassionately illustrated on the bottom of each board. Though all 40 of the challenge cards fit nicely in the hexagonal board compartment below the transparent hexagonal solving surface, if you remove a few you assure yourself that cells of the board will align perfectly with cells of the solving surface – making the solving process everso much more salutary.

01 AwardAnd now to the two pleasant surprises that lead so inexorably to the Major Fun experience:

1) the numbers

When you place a piece on a board, it must lie perfectly within the numbered cells. And, the total of the numbers covered by that piece must equal precisely seven. Precisely. Ah. Intriguing, don’t you think? It’s not just the shape that you must take into account, but also the total of the numbers each piece covers. So you have to use two, not totally connected parts of your brain: the part that perceives patterns, and the part that understands numbers. Lovely. Challenging. Engaging just a tad more of your cognitive skills than you might have anticipated or been aware that you possessed.

2) the bees

You have two bee pieces. The part of the puzzle that tells you which pieces you can use also tells you how many bees. A bee can be used to cover a number so that it doesn’t count. Which makes the act of figuring out what numbers will add to seven becomes a tad more complex. Just tad enough to make you rethink practically everything.

Each challenge card is a bit more challenging than the previous, so, as you progress, your understanding of how the puzzle works deepens. As, of course, does the challenge.

Ah, the fun, the fun, the excruciating fun.

Doodle Quest

doodle_gamerDry 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.

01 AwardDoodle 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.

Robot Turtles: Adventure Quests

robot turtle AQRobot 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.

01 AwardI 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.

Robot Turtles

robot-turtlesProgramming 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.

It’s MAGIC!!

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.

01 AwardAnother 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.

Keva Brain Builders

Keva Brain BuilderIf you missed my earlier post about Keva planks and the fun of destruction, you can check it out here.

Keva planks are precision cut wooden building blocks. They measure about a quarter of an inch thick and the proportion of their dimensions is 1:3:15 (1 unit thick, 3 units wide, and 15 units long). The uniformity and quality of the Keva plank construction makes them ideal for building very complex and very stable structures.

Turns out, they also make for an interesting brain-teaser.

In essence, Keva Brain Builders is an exercise in architectural design and perspective drawing. The game comes with 20 planks and 30 puzzle cards. The cards are double sided. On the puzzle side is shown a diagram of something the player needs to build. The diagram shows the figure in top view, side view, and front view. The planks are color coded to indicate which side you are looking at in each view.

Your challenge is to build the structure so that it matches the picture on the solution side of the card.

The cards come in three difficulty levels. The easy ones are very simple both in the structure’s complexity and in the amount of balance it takes to create the structure. As the puzzles get harder, the diagrams become somewhat more difficult to suss out, but the manual dexterity to build the solutions becomes much more challenging.

01 AwardKeva Brain Builders lends itself to free play. Although many of us at Major Fun liked playing with the challenge cards, just as many liked building our own structures. I imagine that there will be many kids who will be perfectly happy to take the planks and make their own designs. I had fun trying to come up with complicated designs that I would then draw in all three perspectives.

Ultimately, this is a great introduction into Keva planks, it’s a nice small building set, and the puzzle challenges are a clever way to improve spatial awareness. It comes in a compact, zippered pouch; although if your household is anything like mine, that will get stuffed with dolls and the Keva planks will be incorporated into some other Frankenstein structure of train tracks, Lego, and toilet paper rolls.

Solo play. Ages 7+

Keva Brain Builders is © 2014 by MindWare.

Dots Terrific!

We have followed David Kalvitis’ adventures in Dot-to-Dot-land for more than six years now. We gave our first Major Fun award to his Greatest Dot-to-Dot books in 2007, our second to his Super Challenge series in 2010, and this review makes our third. Each time we consider his books our admiration for his talent as an artist, his playfulness, and his puzzlecraft deepens.

The Greatest Dot to Dot Adventure, book 1

In his Greatest Dot-to-Dot Adventure, Book 1, Kalvitis takes his impressive collection of ingenious and challenging variations on the theme of dot-to-dot to a new level.

As in his previous works (I’ve learned to think of them as works, as in works of art, because as you complete the connections you find yourself having created something surprisingly rich in detail – so rich that you find yourself wanting to continue beyond the dots, adding color, shade, tone, in appreciation of the over-all excellence of Kalvaltis’ art), Kalvaltis offers a fascinatingly varied collection of dot-to-dot challenges.

In the Greatest Dot-to-Dot Adventure Book, not only are there:

2 – 3 Page Connect the Dots
1 – 4 Page Connect the Dots
1 – ABC Set Dot-to-Dots
1 – Alpha Dots Connect the Dots
1 – Arrows Connect Puzzle
1 – Circuits Connect Puzzle
1 – Compass Connect the Dots
2 – Crazy Dot-to-Dots
1 – Field of Dot-to-Dots
1 – Match Up Connect Puzzle
1 – No Dots Connect Puzzles
1 – Numbers Connect Puzzles
1 – Odd/Even Dot-to-Dots
5 – Scene Dot-to-Dots
3 – Sets Connect the Dots
15 – Stars Connect the Dots
1 – Symbols Dot-to-Dots

but the puzzles are also linked to each other, forming an overall challenge that requires you to solve each and every puzzle before you achieve the ultimate satisfaction of completing your dot-to-dot adventure. Each, as I said, and every puzzle. An adventure, in deed.

Admirable work. Major fun.

Major Fun

Puzzle Blox

puzzle bloxPuzzle Blox is, as you no doubt surmised, a puzzle made of blox. Uh, blocks. Well, cubes, actually. Small cubes. 130 of them. Very cubic cubes – precision-made, sharp-edged, flat-faced blox (um, blocks), that look just about precisely like this:

Puzzle Blox pieces
The puzzle comes in a transparent plastic box, with an equally transparent lid. It also includes three, double-sided inserts with reproductions of the very art that you are hoping to reproduce.

You choose any one of the six images (full-color, accurately reproduced reproductions), unfold it, flatten it, and place it lovingly on the bottom of the box (we found it a little easier to move the blocks into position by taping the art, sparingly, to the outside of the bottom of the box, given the transparency and all).

You spill the cubes out of the box (better to spill them onto something, like a flat plate or box lid), and then turn each tiny block so that the top faces all belong to the puzzle you want to solve. This takes some time and care and, well, especially for adult-sized fingers, dexterity. Not that the blocks are especially tiny, but that they’re tiny enough to require a steady hand and practiced eye.

Major FunThen you put the blox (excuse me, blocks) back into the bocks (uh, box). Start with the edges first. Put some gentle music on (Vivaldi, for example). Breathe deeply. And enjoy.

You’re in for a real visual treat. It’s almost like an artistic experience. Because all the pieces are uniform, the only clue you have is the art itself. You examine each piece, look carefully at the colors, the brush strokes. When you find the right one, the pieces line up precisely, so you know you’re on the right track.

An hour or so later, when you think you’ve finished the puzzle, remove the puzzle sheet from the back of the box and turn it over. You’ll see an entirely different work of art, and any of the pieces that are not correctly aligned will immediately make themselves vividly known.

My wife Rocky and I played with this puzzle together. It’s rare that we both get so engaged. Frankly, I don’t like picture puzzles that much. But this one forced me to focus so completely on the art, and to appreciate, not only the art, but also my wife’s eye and hand and, well, the whole lovely package. And, with the music, somehow the whole experience resolved itself into something very close to deep delight. And then there are five more puzzles left.

Brought to people 10 and older by Brainwright, a.k.a. Caeco.

Tapei 101 Tower | 3D Puzzle

Tapei 101 Tower | 3D

TapeiYou get 216, sturdy, well-constructed, tightly fitted puzzle pieces – just like you’d expect from a puzzle by Ravensberger. The pieces are made of plastic, and the art is very firmly bonded to the plastic. Pieces lock together with a pleasant feel of finality. They’re there for keeps (though easily disassembled).

Gamestaster Owen points out that there are a lot of small pieces. He strongly recommends that you open the bags carefully, put the pieces on a good, clean, unobstructed surface, separate the pieces into those you need immediately and those that you will need later, and be patient. Despite the relative ease and durability of the assembly, you still have to be careful not to knock the tower down as it is being put together.

Each piece in individually numbered on the back. The numbering system is ingenious, simplifying the puzzle-building process greatly without taking anything away from the challenge (you don’t have to look at the numbers if you feel that way about it).

This is the first plastic 3D puzzle I’ve put together. It took me two hours and 45 minutes from the start of opening the box to completion. It was as fun to work on as it was satisfying to solve. The other 3D puzzles I’ve worked with were foam and didn’t have numbers on them and took me at least 8 hours to finish them.

Major FunThis Ravensburger 3D puzzle will appeal to teens and older puzzle-solvers. Even someone who has never tackled such a puzzle will find it inviting and fun. These puzzles offer a gentle, but respectable challenge. And they’re easily as fun to solve when you build them with someone else – even family members. Gamestaster Owen found the puzzle fun enough to want to do again and again.

Instructions are well illustrated and sparingly, but well-written. On the reverse side of the instructions, in six different languages, there’s a clearly written description of the actual tower (a 101 storey building in Tapei), with just enough information to connect you, intellectually and emotionally, to the elegance and ingenuity of its engineering. Take the time to read this. It contributes significantly to the fun and wonder of the puzzle.

Back2Back

back2back puzzle

We love puzzles that invite us to think just a little differently. We also love puzzles that are both visually and conceptually inviting, that allow for many different levels of challenge, that are easy to learn, well-made and designed, and have solutions that are easy to read; and we have a deep fondness for puzzles that are self storing.

It is, therefore, with consummate glee that we introduce you to Back2Back, another puzzle from that puzzling genius Raf Peeters of Smart Games.

Major FunYou get are 11 pieces – pleasingly colored, smooth to the touch, inviting to the fingers. Actually, there are only 10 different pieces – one of which is duplicated. Each of the different pieces is a unique color and shape. Each has segments that fit through the holes in the puzzle grid, and at least one segment that doesn’t (it’s half the height). You can put a piece in any of four different positions, on either side of the puzzle grid. I repeat, italically: on either side. Fascinating, this either-sideness – especially given how you can put pieces on one side and cover up the parts of pieces that didn’t go through the holes with the non-hole penetrating parts of pieces that you put on the other side.

Back2Back comes with a colorful booklet of 60 puzzles in 5 different levels, and the solutions thereof. It’s self-storing (which is more than you can say about some people), with enough room for all the pieces and the puzzle booklet.

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