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Word on the Street, Jr.

Taking a game for adults and making it accessible for a younger audience is tough. You want to preserve the elements that made the original so fun for older players. You have to consider the cognitive development (and sometimes fine motor control) of younger children. You also want your game's brand to carry through—someone (the parent with the money) should look at your game and say, "I love that game! I bet little whats-its-name will like this kids' version too!" The wrong way to do it is to have your marketing department slap the game’s name and logo on a board with a spinner and hope the kids will be entertained by the random movement of colorful pieces. The right way to do it is like Word on the Street, Jr.

We reviewed the original Word on the Street a while back. It's major fun. We wanted to see how Word on the Street, Jr. held up in comparison. Specifically, we wanted to see if the junior set would engage adults and children at the same time. Sound impossible for a word game? Sound like two great tastes that have no business being in the same kitchen let alone the same plate? THINK AGAIN!! It’s a hoot.

The rules: Word on the Street, Jr. has all the letters of the alphabet running down the center of the game board which depicts a street. Each letter is a tile. Two teams compete to see who can get the most letters on to their side of the street. Teams draw a card with a prompt, such as, "name of a vegetable" and then have 30 seconds to come up with a word that matches the category. The letters that spell the word are moved one space toward the team for each time they appear in the word. For example, "carrot" would move the C, A, O, and T one space but the R would move two spaces. Once a team moves a letter to their side of the street, the letter is out of play and can't be moved the rest of the game.

The Junior version of the game includes the vowels (missing from the original) and the categories are a bit broader to accommodate developing vocabularies. Each category card has two sides, the blue side being a bit tougher than the green side.

I have only played the Junior version and it is plenty nerve-wracking. The 30 second timer keeps the game moving and the challenge is to come up with words that have lots of double or triple consonants. My eight-year-old enjoys playing with me and my wife (the adults play with the no vowels rule), but the most fun I had was in watching my daughter and her friends. The kids caught on to much of the strategy and gave their thinking muscles a work-out. Often they forgot that they were on different teams and volunteered their best responses to whatever category happened to be face up. They yelled. They laughed. They brought out their biggest words. In general, they acted like caffeinated jumping beans — which is a sure indication that major fun is afoot.

If you go to the Word on the Street site, and scroll down a bit, you'll also find a downloadable form you can use to create your own additional cards for the game. This is major cool, because you can make the game engage players on so many more levels with categories like: "12-letter words," "family members," "chores," "word in a Mylie Cyrus song."

Original concept for Word on the Street, Junior by Jack Degnan. Copyright 2009, Out of the Box Publishing, Inc.

Will Bain, Games Taster

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Dancing Eggs

If you look for Haba's Dancing Eggs game, you'll see photos of kids running amok with giggly silliness. In our review, however, you see a group of adults, similarly amok. This is to make a point: though Dancing Eggs is designed to be a great, highly physical, significantly delightful game for kids; if adults get to play, it's at least as much fun for them to play.

It's probably the only commercial game to come in an egg box. And most deservedly so. You get 10 eggs. 9 of them are made of some kind of rubbery, bouncy plastic, one of wood. You also get two large wooden dice.

The red die tells you what to do. You might get to take an egg from the carton, or you might not get an egg unless your the first to crow like a rooster, or you might all have to run around the table - the first to get back to their seat getting an egg. You might have to drop an egg on the table and be the first to catch it. Or you might have to be absolutely still - and if you're not, you have to put an egg back into the carton.

Then, after you've followed the instructions on the red die, there's the white die, which tells you where you have to put the egg. Like under your chin, or between your legs or in your armpit. Of course, if you drop an egg, you have to return it to the carton. Now the nice thing about the rubbery plastic eggs is that, in addition to all their bouncy wonderfulness, they also have a rubbery kind of friction, which makes them much easier to hold on to. Even when you're holding them under your chin. And which makes the wooden egg so especially interesting (and worth an additional point), is its wonderfully wooden slipperiness.

Designed by Roberto Fraga, Dancing Eggs proves to be unadulterated Major FUN, even for adults.

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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.

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Jenga Max

Out of the box, the components of Jenga Max do not bear any resemblance to the by now iconic rectangular blocks that made up the original game. But do not let the bright colors and strange plastic pieces scare you away! Jenga Max retains the same tension and thrill of Jenga, with the addition of a unique visual flair.

It’s still a stacking game. Manual dexterity is a must. Unlike the original which unnerved players by slowly destabilizing the base of a tower, Jenga Max challenges players to load colorful plastic pieces onto a ring that is held above the table by a magnet. In the end, the effect is the same. Unbalance the structure, mishandle a piece, or just be the sorry sap to overload the magnet’s attraction and (say it with me) JENGA!! It all comes crashing down.

Building stuff up is fun but bringing it to ruins is satisfying on a disturbingly universal level.

As you’ve probably noticed if you have visited this site more than once, visual design is an important component of Major Fun games. Jenga Max not only works as a great stacking game, but it also attracts your attention with the way the pieces fit together. The game comes with 36 plastic blocks in three colors: yellow, orange, and red. Each block has two holes on one end and a rectangular notch on the opposite side. Players stack the pieces by hooking the notch into the holes. By virtue of the piece design, the resulting chains form intriguing arcs and surprising angles. As players add more and more pieces, the entire contraption looks like a translucent, alien flower or sea creature.

Jenga Max captivates children and adults. The unique patterns and designs that arise through play give players reason to pause before each move, just to admire the beautiful principles of the lever and counter-balance. From the experience of my family, my eight-year-old loved the more competitive side of the game while my five-year-old just wanted to see if we could get all the pieces off the ground.

And there are few things that evoke the spirit of Major Fun more than yelling JENGA when your work of art smashes into the table and you have to gather the pieces up for round two.

Jenga Max is a product of Parker Brothers and Hasbro Games, © 2009. You can find more pictures, a video and an animated demo of the game in action on their site.

Will Bain, Games Taster

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Connect 4 revisited

There's a new version of Connect 4. It's called Connect 4. But it's more. It's three different Connect 4 games. The first, you already know. It's the "original" Connect 4. The second is not. It's called "PopOut Connect 4." The third is also new. It's called "Pop Ten."

The bottom row of the Connect 4 grid has been changed. There's a sliding bar on the very bottom. If you slide it to the right, the checkers that are in the bottom row can be "popped" out. Well, pushed out. Which, in turn, will cause all the checkers that are in that column to fall down one space. Which results in a new alignment of checkers. Which could very well result in the sudden appearance of a line of 4 checkers, all ever so delightfully in a row.

You can only pop checkers of your own color. Which makes sense, considering. In PopOut Connect 4, you either add a checker, as in traditional Connect 4, or push one of your checkers out of the bottom row. In either event, if it results in 4-in-a-row (of your checkers, of course), you win. On the other hand, your pop could result in the very alignment your opponent was so sincerely wishing for. Thus, even though the game is very much like your traditional Connect 4, it's different enough for you to have to rethink everything you know about Connect 4 strategies.

Then there's Pop 10, which, oddly enough, is a different game altogether, a figure-ground reversal, one might say, a shift in your basic Connect 4 gestalt. To game begins with a board-full of checkers. You take turns, dropping one checker at a time, until there are no more checker-accommodating spaces. A move consists of popping a checker out of the bottom row (again, you can only pop checkers of your own kind). You can pop any of your bottom-row checkers. But, if that checker happens to already be part of a 4-in-a-row alignment, you can pop again. Every time you do so, you get to keep that checker. When you can no longer pop, your turn is over. If the checker you pop is not part of a Connected 4, you return it to some other column.

Pop 10 is different from all other variations of Connect 4. And it is as much fun. Because there are three so very different versions, you have to decide which you want to play together. This is a decision that you have to make together. And, simply because you are both making that decision, the game takes its rightful place as a way to have fun together - not so much as a way to see who is the better thinker or player or person, but more to find a game that you both want to play, together.

The thing about all Connect 4 games, and so many of the best of Hasbro games, is that they're very much like toys - as much fun to play with as they are to play. The new Connect 4 is just that: fun to play, fun to play with. Easy to understand, but different enough from everything you know about traditional Connect 4 to have to think of it as something new. Easy to learn. Quick to play. A genuinely enjoyable invitation to logical and strategic thinking. Major FUN.

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Dig It and Oops!

Dig It and Oops! are two of the new puzzle sets recently released by Foxmind. They both use an ingeniously designed carrying/storing/playing case, and are each collections of 50 puzzles involving a set of pieces which have to be moved from the starting position to the solution.

Dig It is a bit like Pentominoes, using pieces of different shapes and size. In addition to these pieces (made of satisfyingly weighty, pleasingly colorful, translucent plastic), there are pieces shaped like bones. In each puzzle, the pieces are positioned over a bone or two. The puzzle is to figure out how to move the pieces around so as to reveal the bone(s). It's a bit like being a dog, digging for a bone. Hence the doggy graphics on the cover. In addition to the collection of pieces, there's a puzzle book, spiral bound, with its own stand. It's designed so that the solution to one puzzle is on the back of the previous puzzle, so all you have to do to get a hint or check your result is turn the book around. The puzzles are graded, one-paw puzzles being significantly easier to solve than four-paw puzzles.

Oops has a magician theme. There are 9 pieces. One is shaped like a hat. Another like a magician's head. The rest look a bit like sailor hats. There are 4 colors of sailor hat pieces: blue, red, green, and yellow. Pieces are set up according to a diagram - a different piece (or two) on each space - a different set up on each page in the puzzle book. You can move a piece one space either vertically or horizontally, as long as it lands on top of another piece. Which makes it a stack of two pieces. Which can only move two spaces, horizontally or vertically, as long as that stack lands on top of yet another piece. And so on and so on, a three-stack moving three spaces, a four-stack four, until, with your final move, the hat is on the bottom, the rest of the pieces are on top of the hat, and the head is on top of them all.

The carrying/storage/playing case for both puzzle/games is in itself magical. You slide the cover to the left or right, revealing a compartment. And, once the cover has been repositioned, you can turn it over to become the playing board. It's sturdily built of brightly colored plastic.

Each of these puzzles is an investment in fun. They're fun to touch, fun to try to solve. The more challenging puzzles are usually ingeniously so - offering unexpected variations that sometimes redefine your whole understanding of what this puzzle is about. You can cheat as often as you need to (just turn the book around for the answer). You can skip to more difficult puzzles, essentially designing your own curriculum of challenge.

Don't be fooled by the child-appealing design. As you progress through the puzzle booklet, even the mature puzzler will discover most definitely adult-worthy challenge.

As a teacher, these puzzles are a paradigm of good curriculum design - always inviting further and deeper exploration, always just as challenging as the student is ready for. As a player, they are invitations to mastery and delight. Well-made, cleverly-designed, continually fascinating, engaging the eye and mind, providing intelligent, functional fun.




Smart Toss: Math Sport

Tossing beanbags into a target is fun for almost any reason you can think of. It's what you might call "just plain fun." For kids. For grownups. You can play by yourself. You can play in teams. You can get competitive about it if you want. You can play it just for fun. You can increase the challenge (stand further away from the target). You can make it easy enough for a three-year-old.

From the pure fun perspective, Learning Resources Smart Toss has everything you'd want in a bean bag tossing game. And more. It has your bean bags. It has your target board. The bean bags are made out of canvas, for durability and feel. They are just the right size for a child's hand. They are also numbered, from 1 to 10. Hmmm. Numbered bean bags. Already you have something a little different, a little more interesting to play with. The target board is light enough to carry around easily. It's vinyl, so it's easy to keep clean. It's reinforced, so it can withstand childish enthusiasm. There are bean bag storage pockets, and, depending on how you set it up, there are 4 different game boards to choose from.

Hmm. Numbered bean bags, 4 different boards. Perfect for reinforcing different kinds of elementary math skills, not only without spoiling the fun, but also making the games more, well, interesting.

Consider the basketball-like game. You use only three of the bean bags - the 3, 4 and 5. There are 6 targets (pockets). Two of the targets are worth the number on the bean bag. Two are worth twice as much. And the remaining two are worth three times the number on the bean bag. So, see, you have to multiply, and add, in order to determine your actual score.

Then there's a kind of bowling game. You choose two bags whose numbers add to 10. You toss them one at a time into any of the 4 pockets. One pocket counts as a strike (which in this game is worth 20 points). Another as a spare (10 points). And the other two are worth the number on the bean bag.

So now you're adding, and maybe even strategizing (do I take the number 6 and 4 bean bags so I can relatively good score no matter what pocket I land in, or do I take the 9 and 1 so, just in case my 1 doesn't make a strike or a spare, my 9 might at least make it to one of the other pockets.

Each of the 4 games offers not only a playworthy opportunity to exercise some basic math skills, but also another inspiration for making up your own game. Which means, in addition to the quality of the device - its portability, durability, storability and colorfulness - and the essential playability of the beanbag tossing game, and the incentives the 4 games provide for children to exercise their basic math skills; Smart Toss: Math Sport offers children the inspiration to invent their own games - games which can be even more challenging to more skills, which will undoubtedly prove to lead to even more fun, of the frequently major kind.




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