Castle Blast

Castle BlastAs anyone knows who has ever played with building blocks, the apotheosis of the constructive activity is the moment when you bring it all crashing down. For every castle or city or log cabin there is some dragon or dinosaur or marauding army that is merely biding its time.

Castle Blast is a building game that comes with its own wrecking ball. The good folks at Mindware embrace the Truth that what goes up must come down (especially since the game will probably have to go back in the box eventually). It’s about time kids learned that nothing made by human hands will endure.

In the words of Percy Bysshe Shelly, “Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair! For only my Twinkies and long-chain hydrocarbons remain!”

Or something to that effect.

The rules are simple: build a castle to protect 3 items (a princess, a treasure, and a dragon); roll the die to see how many swings you can take; swing the wrecking ball until you knock the three characters out of the fortification. The game comes with a small game-board and a castle design that you can follow. Or not. Build your own castle and see how it goes.

In the end, it all falls down.

When you successfully knock a character out of the castle, you get a token that corresponds to that character. Collect all three character tokens to win. Depending on how many players you have, you will probably have to reconstruct the castle multiple times.

01 AwardThe game looks great. The wooden blocks are solid and smooth and colorful. The rules are simple and provide several variations of play for those who want to add some variety to the endless cycle of creation and destruction. If you already have wooden blocks scattered underfoot and in the bottom of toy boxes, you could incorporate them in very easily.

Things fall apart. The center cannot hold. Major Fun is loosed upon the world… (apologies to Yeats)

2-4 players. Ages 5+

Castle Blast is © 2013 by MindWare.


OoogiOogi is an abstract doll with suckers for head, hands and feet. It is made of high quality silicone, thus you can bend and twist and stretch your Oogi with measurable enthusiasm. You can stick it onto things and itself and other Oogis. You can throw your Oogi at windows and refrigerators and bathroom tiles and it will stick just often enough and long to make you feel like a Ninja. You can stretch your Oogi and use to isotone your personal six-pack. You can further use your Oogi’s stretchiness to assist in the flinging process.

It’s just abstract enough to invite the imagination, just flexible enough accommodate your fantasies, and its stuck-to-it–iveness is just unpredictable enough to make you laugh.award

Oogi is, at heart, a social creature, and is more than twice as fun when it has another Oogi to play with. There are two sizes of Oogi. The large Oogi and the other one that’s about half the size and price.

If you have one of each, a large and a small, the small can become the baby and hang from the mommy’s neck or ride the daddy’s back. Depending on the player’s mood, they can be endearingly loving, or startlingly pugilistic. Both of them, after all, are equally adept at throwing sucker punches.

Oogi is made by the Swiss label MOLUK, the same people who brought us the Major Fun award-winning Bilibo. It’s available in the U.S. from Kid O. Oogi is fun of the Major kind.

Der Schwarze Pirat (The Black Pirate)

Black PirateOne of the things that I most appreciate about table-top games is the way that the game transforms this very flat, very common surface into something exotic. It’s that feeling I got when my sister and I would scatter plastic toy soldiers and cowboys around a room and then spend an hour or so sniping them with rubber bands. These little plastic figures transformed the room into a jungle or a desert or a mountain pass in which we crawled and hid and attacked.

Haba’s table-top pirate adventure game, Der Schwarze Pirat, turns your table into an island-bestrewn sea where colorful pirates hunt and fight for treasure. The game takes place on a large, modular board that is wonderfully painted and detailed. Each player controls a pirate ship which they blow around the board in pursuit of treasure.

Blow, you ask?

Yup. As in “Thar she ________.”

The game comes with a rubber bulb like you would see on the end of a turkey baster. When you squeeze the bulb, a puff (or blast) of air comes out of the hole. You roll a die to see how many puffs you get. The die also tells you if you move your ship or the black pirate ship. Either choice gives you the chance to collect gold.

Several other mechanics make the game interesting:

There is the treasure die. At the beginning of your turn you place treasure on some of the islands (thus enticing pirates to visit those places). The treasure die tells you where to place gold, BUT gold may not be placed at an island that is being visited by a pirate. This means that pirates cannot simply sit on an island and wait for treasure to come to them.

awardSecondly there is the plunder rule. If you crash the Black Pirate into another player’s boat, that player takes out three of their gold coins. Your opponent secretly puts some coins in one hand and the rest in the other. You tap the hand you want and receive the treasure. In this fashion you can earn 0 – 3 points and your opponent has a chance to lose nothing (after all, pirates are a sneaky lot).

With the cold weather we’ve been experiencing here in the Midwest, a game that can take us away to someplace warm and sunny and full of treasure is a welcome respite. Or a recipe for madness. Either way, it’s Major Fun.

Der Schwarze Pirat was designed by Guido Hoffman and © 2006 by Haba.

Limberjacks and Hooey Sticks

There’s a place in Indiana called the Prairie Wind Toy Company. It’s run by two craftsmen, a father and son, who devote their lives to sharing the folk art and joy of Whirligigs, Limberjacks, Hooey Sticks and dulcimers, too.

So we drove out with two of the grands to meet Charlie Alm (who’s still making folk toys and mandolins at 91) and his son Dave to see history in action. These two dedicated, generous, unassuming souls personify the spirit that keeps these toys alive: playfulness, craftsmanship, and devotion.

prairie wind toys

Charlie and Dave Alm in their workshop, demonstrating their Limberjack and dulcimer for us.

And here they are at play.


The Limberjack is an amazing little toy. It’s as much a musical instrument as it is a puppet.

And then there’s the Hooey Stick, a.k.a. the Gee Haw Whimmy Diddle. And here’s Charlie demonstrating its mysteries.


There’s a trick to it, and it will amaze you. It’s a trick that has amazed people for hundreds of years. And once you learn the trick, you can take your part in a generation-spanning heritage of amazement and delight. All due to the persistently playful dedication of people like Charlie and Dave Alm, passing their heritage of simple joy and wonder to the next generation.

the Ahls with Cole

Charlie and Dave with our grandson, Cole

Defender of the Playful



squigz on my head Squigz are, as advertised “fun little suckers.” They are, also as advertised, an invitation to explore the architectural attributes of “suction construction.” Stick them on a window, on a mirror, on any “flat surface with no residue,” as illustrated.

And, of course, you can stick them to each other. Thus, given the Squigz-appropriate flat surface with no residue nature of it all, your Squigz could very well prove to be the ultimate bathtub construction toy.

Squigz squeezable construction toy with suction cupsIf you’re the kind of kid who likes to play with dolls, Squigz look exactly like people and funny animals and things. And you can stick them together and make them look even more (or less) people- or animal-like. You can make them hug each other and hold hands and take each other for walks. You might not even get as far as sticking them on the window or refrigerator.

Squigz DeluxeOn the other hand, if you’re just a little older, and you’re the LEGO-playing-kind, you spend lots of time finding out what they can stick on and how they can stick on each other and how high you can build them before they fall over and maybe you make bridges and arches and Martian landscapes with castles and weird animals and things. And if you stick them together and then pull them apart just right, they make shockingly loud popping sounds.

Major Fun Award

There’s a Starter Set (shown at the beginning of this post) with 24 pieces. And for twice as much, there’s the Deluxe set with 50. They are, of course, both good investments in creative and often funny family play. We, however, recommend going deluxe, having discovered that they’re just too much fun. Squigz. Soft, squeezable, silicone. Colorful. Eight different shapes, each a different color. Suitable for children as young as three, and as old as you. Be sure to let the young ones have a turn.

From FatBrain Toys.



boy playing with stacking toy

Tobbles is probably one of the best stacking toys we’ve seen so far. There’s no post to fit them on to. One piece fits into the other so easily that there’s no need to take extra care to make sure the piece is in exactly the right position (and need more dexterity than you have). They feel solid, sturdy. They have the kind of heft that feels good in your hand. They each have different properties to explore (each is a different size, a different weight and has a unique wobble when spinned, or rolled, or rocked). So, when your child is ready, there is yet more to discover, more to learn, more reasons to play.

Tobbles NeoThere are two kinds of Tobbles: the standard set depicted above and Tobbles Neo. Tobbles Neo is recommended for children as young as 6 months. The original Tobbles for children 2 and older. The openings on the original Tobbles are smooth. On the Neo, they’re crenelated. Apparently, some babies were especially attracted to putting their mouths into the opening and seeing if they can suck the things onto their faces. You can see where that’d be a fun, innovative way to play. You can also see where there’d be a slight, very slight, but not slight enough chance that someone might choke.

Major Fun awardThe crenelations on the Neo also give little fingers another sensation to play with. We’d have no trouble recommending Tobbles as an investment in major baby fun. If your baby is younger than 2, probably the Neo is the better investment. Even a two- or three-year-old would enjoy sliding their fingers along the bumps.

Tobbles come in what looks like one of those awful, almost impossible to open blister packs. We are especially delighted to let you know that it isn’t one of those awful, almost impossible to open blister pack. It’s an easy to open, and close and open again plastic pack that works so well that older kids will actually enjoy putting the toy back. O, Fatbrain, you are a gift to all playkind.

Stunt Derby

Stunt DerbyIf you want to get a better understanding of the connection between play and learning, spend about 15 minutes watching a kid play with KEVA Stunt Derby.

But first, let me explain how it works.

There’s a Stunt Car. It’s made of wood, of course, as is the entire set. It has two big wheels on the back (like a drag racer). On the front, there’s a hook. And there’s the Launcher. It’s a little more than twice as long as the Stunt Car. There’s an elastic on the front, and a wheel-like handle on the back. You take your Stunt Car, put the rear wheels so they straddle the Launcher, connect the hook onto the elastic, hold on to the Launcher handle, s-t-r-e-t-c-h the elastic, aim, and release.

As to what you release the Stunt Car into, here, my lovelies, is the very stuff of what some might call “boyish joy” (as illustrated), but I believe will firmly anchor itself to the heart and mind of any child, regardless of gender and age: 50 wooden KEVA™ Planks. Yes, the same KEVA™ Planks that endeared themselves so deeply into our constructive psyches when we first were exposed to the Major Fun award-winning KEVA™ Contraptions. These simple planks are just thick enough to stand on any of their edges, wide enough to be easily knocked over, tall enough to fall spectacularly.

There’s a Course Mat, marked with invitingly cryptic lines, intriguing labels, and of generous size upon which to build your stunts. There’s paint, decals, and a stunt building guide, and the eternal question: what’s the best way to make the most Planks fall, or not?

toysBuild the planks too solidly, and they barely move. Build them too high, and they fall noisily down even when you barely nudge the Course Mat. Make the run too challenging and it becomes impossible. Too easy, and it becomes boring. So very much to learn: about engineering stable and unstable structures, about how forcefully to launch the Stunt Car, about controlling the direction of the launch, and, most of all, about yourself. So much more to learn as you try to finesse the design of each stunt. And you build and destroy and build again and learn to build better and learn to build even more stuntly stunts, so much physics, so much experimentation, so much creativity – all because it’s so darn much fun.

Yes, there’s paint and stickers, and yes, you can paint the car and use the stickers to indicate points and things, and yes, you can stick the wrong sticker and use the wrong color, and no, it doesn’t matter at all, because the toy itself is so major fun. And the sturdy box it comes so carefully packed in? Throw out the packing and everything fits perfectly, probably for as long as you’ll own the set.

KEVA™ Stunt Derby, all-wood, splinterlessly finished, recommended for kids who are older than six, and comes to us from Mindware, bless them.


Arx is an abstract building toy. You probably have never thought that a building toy could be abstract. That’s because you, in all likelihood, were thinking of a building-something toy. Like a toy that you could use to build a house or car or, you know, something. Arx, on the other hand, is abstract. You play with it. And then you say to yourself, “hey, doesn’t that look cool.” And then you play some more. It’s more about fascination than about fantasy.

One of the secrets of Arx that makes the whole thing so fascinating is the little floating magnets that are housed in each piece, making the  pieces are just magnetic enough to allow you to build structures that seem slightly impossible.

You don’t have to build up. You can lie them all down and connect them hither and yon. You can make things that look like flowers and things that don’t look like anything at all – except kind of beautiful. You can pay close attention to color and pattern.

You get 24 crescent pieces and two bases. Each contains a floating magnet to add to the general attraction of the whole set. Because of the graceful shape, the four different bright colors, and the odd complexities of their properties; the 24 pieces prove more than enough pieces to hold your attention for hours. Which is also unusual for a building toy. You aren’t left feeling that you will need to buy the expansion sets before you really have fun. Instead, you’ll find endless hours of gentle wonder and discovery at your fingertips.

Don’t put them in your kids’ toy box. Put them on your coffee table for the whole family to play with.

Arx is available from Fat Brain Toys.


If you’re a parent of a pre-school child, say 3, 4, maybe even 5 years old, you’d think, just by looking at the cover of the box, that you’ve found a truly interesting, colorful, wooden puzzle that will fascinate and stimulate the intellect of your little sacred one. And, of course, you’d be closely approximating correctness, given your only partly informed estimation. If your child is a bit older, say school-age, you’d probably think that, though this toy has some obvious merit in inviting your little genius to explore the geometrical and mathematical properties of the hexagon, it will perhaps not be received with as much joy as you so parentally desire. And, in that judgment, you will have most unfortunately and perhaps even regretfully erred. And, should you likewise assume that this HexActly toy could bear no relevance whatsoever to the intellectual, creative, and general fun-needs of the adult, you’d be compounding your error, most egregiously.

HexActly is a puzzle. In fact, it’s a collection of puzzles – more than 50, puzzles, more, even, than 54. It’s also an enticing, and annotated invitation to the geometry of the hexagon, its delightfully hexagonal “learning guide” including instructions on how to draw hexagons, on the properties of regular and irregular hexagons, and a brief nuts-and-bolts exploration of the reason for the hexagonality of snowflakes, honeycombs, and, well, nuts and bolts.

HexActly is appropriately packaged in a hexagonal box. There are 24 wooden pieces: six single hexagons, six double hexagons, three triple hexagons, three quadruple hexagons and six  The box is colorfully illustrated with just enough examples of different structures that can be built using the collection of pieces included in the set. Some of the structures are three-dimensional, and require almost as much dexterity as reasoning to replicate.

The pieces come in five different, bright colors, inviting the eye and suggesting the possibility that you could not only create different structures, but also different patterns. Different colors might offer a different collection of shapes from the others. For example, though yellow and orange have exactly the same distribution of shapes, the other three colors each offer a different combination. So once you get refined enough in your exploration of the various designs you can create, you learn to work within the constraints of what each color offers.

There are three different levels of puzzles, and each includes a target shape, plus the challenge to create that shape with different amounts of pieces.

All in all, HexActly is a lovely invitation to creative and intellectual fun, and, as hard to believe as it may be, it’s as fun for a 3-year-old as it is for the cognitively mature. Fun? HexActly!

From Fatbrain Toys.


Dado Planks

Dado Planks is a construction toy. It’s a new addition to the Dado family: Dado Cubes, for example,  Dado Squares for another.

There are two kinds of Dado Planks: notched and unnotched. The notched planks each have six notches, three on a side. You get 55 of these. You can take two notched planks and fit them together so that one is connected vertically, or horizontally. I’m telling you that because that makes the whole system geometrically more interesting, geometrically more capable of being used to create geometrically more amazing architectural and geometric wonders.

There are 51 of the other kind of planks – the notchless. But they are far more functional than you might think. Not only are they useful for bridge-, roof-, wall-, and decoration-making; but they can also be used build between the notches, and to help lock perpendicularly-joined notched planks  together.

Dado Planks is a discovery as much as it is a construction toy. The set lends itself to so many different architectural explorations that adults find it as worthy of their advanced play skills as children do. And, should you be in the right mood, you can make up games, you can build things together, you can join structures, you can try to make things with your eyes closed, you can sit in pairs, side-by-side, arms around each other’s backs, and see what you can build together using only your free hands.

True, there is some slight variance in the width of the notches. Those planks possessing this variance have a tendency not to lock together as securely as others, most often if both are upright. And, also true, this is somewhat of a disappointment, somewhat of an imperfection in execution. Unless, of course, you find yourself caught up in the spirit of the whole toy: the exploration, the creativity, the desire to investigate every affordance of the planks and notches. And then, even this less-than-perfect fit leads to the building of structures whose components can slide. Or, should you demand the non-sliding fit, you can turn one of the planks horizontally, and see where that takes you.

There is so much to play with: color, balance, design. So many different constructs you can make: towers, bridges, robots, monsters. And when you’re finished playing, if you absolutely have to put it away, it all stores quickly in a commodious drawstring bag.

Sturdy, colorful, flexible, Dado Planks can support hours of play, and then, well, geometrically more hours. A toy to catch the reason and imagination of kids, adults, family and friends. It is recommended for people 3 and older, and is another Major Fun award-winning creation from FatBrain Toys


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