My Home, My Gym

They call it "House Gymanstics. That is, someone named Harrison and someone else named Ford call it that.

They explain:

"House Gymnastics originated from the endeavors of Harrison and Ford in a joint and convoluted attempt to put up a bedroom blind. It could be argued that boredom was the real catalyst for House Gymnastics to take on a more tangible form. "

The lesson is: never underestimate the power of boredom, or the need to have fun.

Harrison and Ford have created a tour de remarkable force. Or is it tour de farce? Hard to tell. The 27 exercises depicted indubitably require strength and balance, and unquestionably increase stamina and muscle mass and all the things you would want from a workout. And perhaps more. And they make their case vividly, with video clips and step-by-step demonstrations. Hard to know how to take all this. Seriously? Why not? Playfully, definitely.

Aboriginal Toys in Canada

This beautiful object is a ball, probably from the Greenland Eskimos. That's really all we know about it. It's one of the images from the "Toys" collection of the Canadian Museum of Civilization.

It caught my eye, and heart, because I've never seen a ball that was as much a work of art as it was a thing of play. I wish I knew more about the games that were played with it. I wish I knew more about how people played with the rest of the toys in this remarkable collection. But I'm more of a collector of folklore than I am of folk things, and this museum is a collection of objects, not stories. And yet, it is a powerfully evocative collection, well-designed, beautifully-illustrated, with an excellent interface, and just enough information to connect us, one civilization to another.

Quits

OK, you can call it "Quits," but you won't want to. Quit, that is. In fact, you'll want to play it again, and again, and at least again. That is if you like strategy games for two or four players. Especially if you like Major FUN Award-worthy strategy games.

You know those sliding block puzzles? If not (and especially if so) check out The Sliding Block Puzzle Page. Now take another look at the Quits board in the picture. See how it's made of blocks, and how the wooden-marble-pieces rest on those blocks? On your turn, you can either move a piece or move a row of blocks (you temporarily remove one of the blocks). The goal is to get your marbles to the opposite side of the board. And, of course, every time a row is moved, everything on that row moves with it.

Quits is one of several remarkably playworthy and innovative strategy games from Gigamic, represented in the US and Canada by Family Games. You'll be seeing more of them, and so will we.

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Your Face from a Toilet Paper Tube

How would you like to see your face made out of a toilet paper tube?

Luca Varaschini has made an art out of doing just that. Though it may strike you as somewhat silly, which, I believe, is the very intention, it is also a rather remarkable display of vision and virtuosity.

There are 26 toilet paper tube portraits in the collection. Clearly, the artist was, so to speak, on a roll.

To get from portrait to portrait, you click on the barely discernible image of a jet plane, next to the title of the portrait. I have no idea what the jet plane symbolizes. It is apparently a design element introduced by Spazio, the virtual gallery that hosts this collection. On the other hand, considering the very idea of toilet paper tube sculptures, the irrelevance of it all is somehow fitting.

Toilet Paper Tube art is the very stuff of fun. You can't quite take it seriously, and yet you somehow have to. The skill; the creativity; the ingenuity; the playfulness; the whole virtual exhibit: Definitely silly. Oddly inspiring.

Fabric Oragami

Fabric Oragami. Who knew? Apparently, some very generous soul named Glenda knows. And even more apparently, knows a lot.

Glenda explains: "It's quicker than quilting, more forgiving than paper, and durable. If you make a mistake, just iron and refold. All you need is fabric stiffener, a plastic card for a spreader, a screen and an iron. The fabric stiffener can be purchased at most craft or fabric outlets. The use of scrap fabrics, makes this a quilter's dream! Some origami only require 6 square inches of fabric."

As far as I can tell, Glenda is the inventor and chief proponent of this unique art. Her site includes page after page of her amazingly crafty playfulness. Each image is accompanied by a diagram that will show you how to fold your own: boxes, ornaments, purses, notecards, book covers, dividers, wallets, purses. It just goes on and on - once again revealing what the mind can accomplish when the heart laughs.

Abalone

Abalone is one of those few, elegant, easy-to-learn, two-person strategy games. What makes it among the very few is a method of movement unique enough, and fun enough, to make playing the game a new, and utterly absorbing experience. Since utter absorption is the point of playing, Abalone is the kind of game the Major FUN Award was created for.

The movement principle? Knock your opponent clean off the board. How? By pushing a bigger row of marbles into her.

As you can kind of see from the picture, the board is made up of a hexagonal honeycomb of holes. Marbles rest on the holes. If you push a marble into any one of the six possible directions, and there's another marble or two or several in front of it, all the marbles move at the same time. Just pushing a row of marbles is kind of a fun thing to do, like the fun things you do when you're just playing with marbles. It's an even funner thing when you push a row of your marbles into your opponent's. And it's defnitely funnest when one of your opponent's marbles drops off the board as a result.

Abalone has been around since 1988. It's been around long enough to create an international following. And that following has followed long enough to develop an active online community along with a collection of highly playworthy rule variations.

For the non-Macintosh many, there's an online version. But nothing beats the delight of watching your opponent's jaw, and her last marble, drop into the pit of sweetly meaningless defeat.

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The First Annual Play Summit

It's "The First Annual Play Summit" - an online event "exploring play in business, learning, and everywhere else!" produced by Group Jazz.

If you've never attended an online event, and are interested in any aspect of play, this could be the perfect opportunity. I've had the chance to experience an online Group Jazz event before, and it's quite revelatory to discover how the simple act of reading and leaving messages can evolve into an experience of genuine dialogue and community. There are many discussions going on, simultaneously. Most feature an invited "speaker" or several, who, for a day or few, personally reads and responds to messages left by participants. This quickly evolves into page after page of interesting reading. Because so many conversations take place simultaneously, each participant can find those conversations that are of particular interest. In this way, participants become part of select virtual communities of like-minded thinkers.

The Summit's themes:

"What are the latest best practices, leading edge approaches, benchmarks, and theories-in-use for engaging participants in group-based learning experiences face-to-face? Creating ways for groups to PLAY together!

"What are people already doing to complement, leverage, and even replace these best face-to-face practices using technology and media supported environments?

"What experiments, action-research, pilot projects, learning conversations, and new technology and media development need to happen to push the envelope and make significant progress in this domain?"

For more information, contact Group Jazz.

Fire and Ice is Nice

At our more-or-less weekly Game Tastings, we have come to have increasing respect for strategy games that are easy to learn, that challenge the intelligence, and are built on some unique principle. Primarily because there are so darn few of them.


Fire and Ice is one of the few.

One of a series of four, finely crafted wooden Masterpiece Games from Out of the Box Publications, Fire and Ice is a bit like playing seven games of tic-tac-toe, simultaneously. But only enough of a bit to make the game easy to understand. And then, the fun starts.

When you move one of your pegs, you have to put one of your opponent's pegs into the hole that you just vacated. The effect of this rule is to create a kind of mental tickle as you try to contemplate each move from the twin perspectives of your position and your opponent's.

There's a lovely, mathematical symmetry to the design of the board: "The board contains seven raised triangular islands. Each island has seven holes and the playing pegs fit into these holes. On each island, six lines and a circle connect the holes to make seven groups of three holes each. The islands themselves are also connected together in the same pattern."

Fire and Ice is a welcome addition to our collection of Major FUN Award winning strategy games - unique, easy to learn, a game that takes 20-30 minutes to play, and yet is deep enough for some deliciously deep thinking.

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Invention and Play

The connections between invention and play are so numerous and self-evident that you almost don't need anybody to tell you any more about it. Yet, if you click over to this site, you'll probably be as informed as you will be entertained by the stories, discussions and games provided by the Smithsonian Institutions' Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation.

Start, for example, with Kevlar inventor's Stephanie Kwolek's opening words: “All sorts of things can happen when you’re open to new ideas and playing around with things," or those from the story about the philosophy governing the design company IDEO: “I think playing is critical for coming up with new ideas. It’s something we try to encourage here at the office. The play state is inherently creative.”

If you just want to play around, try "Tinker Ball" - it's kind of a Rube Goldberg machine-puzzle, who, as we discussed earlier, was a master of the invention-play connection.

Invention at Play is now a traveling exhibit. It is currently (until August 31) showing at the Arizona Science Center at Phoenix.

Sand Castles

There's something about the art of building sand castles that conveys, with graphic clarity, the true nature of "fun." Sand castles aren't made to last. And neither is fun. Sand castles have no purpose. And neither does fun. Building sand castles is an art, and can take a life time to perfect, and doesn't really matter to any one other than the artist. Just like fun.

And just like anything we do for fun, it can be taken seriously. There are sand castle contests - with prizes. Sand castle kits. Sand castle lessons and sand castle books.

Here's a short animation showing a sand castle being built. I especially like how it loops around back to the original shapeless sand pile, demonstrating graphically what and sand castles are really all about.

Tantrix

It's a puzzle. It's a strategy game. You can buy it online. You can play it online. It's called "Tantrix," and it gets the Major FUN Award.

The hexagonal tiles are made of Bakelite. Touching and smushing them around is almost as delicious as playing with them. The Tantrix Game Pack consists of 56 tiles. Each tile is unique. There are four different color lines - some are curved, some straight, some are even more curved. There are numbers on the other side of each tile. These are used to determine which tiles are to be employed in creating which puzzle. The Discovery Puzzles involve using tiles numbered 1-30. The Rainbow Puzzles require sorting the numbers into like colors. Then there's Tantrix Solitaire. And, of course, the strategy game for 2-4 players.

There's a bit of learning to do in order to play the strategy game, and the puzzles are the perfect training vehicle. Playing online is very satisfying - the interface is intuitive, the online chat adding a feeling of immediacy and community.

Invented in 1987, in New Zealand, by a New Zealish chap named Mike McManaway, Tantrix is a unique puzzle/game, deserving a position of prominence in anyone's game collection.

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Upside Downside Up

When I first met Puzzle Master Scott Kim, back in the early '80's, I was as fascinated by his art as he was with my forays into game design. Partly because my wife, Rocky, was playing with calligraphy, and partly because he was doing something so remarkably playful, Scott's mathematical art became a source of much amazement around our Palo Alto household. The "Tree Inversion" illustrated here is one of many examples of his remarkably playful art that can be found on his online Inversions gallery.

It turns out that Scott's work belongs to a classic form of art play called "Ambigrams." Illustrated here is a perhaps more recognizable upsidownable visual pun from a collection of reversible matchbox art.

The All-American Art of Conspicuous Recycling

Conspicuous recycling? What a concept! An art? An all-American art? Well, that's what the curators of this exhibit call it.

"The All-American Art of Conspicuous Recycling" is one of six different pages developed as part of an exhibit named "Recycled, Re-Seen: Folk Art from the Global Scrap Heap." From my avowedly biased perspective, this whole exhibit actually demonstrates yet another aspect of what we call "fun."

You can call them works of art. I'd prefer calling them "works of play." Yes, some people take junk to a level where junk clearly becomes transformed into things of beauty, as can be seen in these images in the "Recycling on the Body" exhibit. But I find the words of Brent Wallace, on the "Recycled Chic" exhibit, the most revealing: "It's just about fun, about reinventing and recycling and reusing...like taking something that was considered trash and discarding it and then turning it into something cool and kitsch."

Strange Dictionaries

There's something strangely fun about strange dictionaries. Take, for example, The White Queen's Dictionary of One-Letter Words - with over 700 entries. 700 one-letter words? 34 entries for the "E" word alone. Does not one almost feel an obligation to virtually thumb through its mono-lettered pages?

Or, instead, take the "Dictionary of All-Consonant Words," and its companion volume, yes, you guessed it, the "Dictionary of All-Vowel Words" - don't the very names somehow tickle your literary funny bone?

These aren't word games, but they are resources for endless hours of word play, provided, both gratis and for free, by Craig Conley's Strange and Unusual Dictionaries website.

Conley's spirit of genrousity extends not only to his own dictionaries, but also to another eleven Strange and Unusuals, dictionary-wise, each revealing yet some other aspect of the value of language as a plaything. My favorite, because of my personal penchant for verbivorical verbosity, the Grandiloquent Dictionary.

Mind Reader?

There's something about the Flash Mind Reader that's almost scary - in a fun sort of way. Which, of course, is the whole point. You pick a number between 10-99. Add the digits together. Subtract them from your original number. And then look on the chart - concentrating with all your virtual might on the "relevant symbol." And then, when you click on the virtual crystal ball, that very symbol wil purportedly appear. And, darn if it doesn't!

Even before you clicked, even before you picked your number, you knew it had to be a hoax, didn't you? And yet you picked and clicked anyhow, you wacky person. Because it's fun to almost get fooled. As long as it's "almost." And Andy Naughton's silly mind reading trick is really fun, because it really fools us into thinking that somehow it isn't a trick at all - that somehow it really is able to read our not-quite-gullible little minds. And then it gets a little scary, because we really can't figure out how it works.

This is a good trick, and a hard puzzle. And there is a solution, which, when you're finally puzzled enough, you can find here. But the real learing happens when you rediscover that knowing how it's done isn't really as much fun as it was when you were almost fooled into believing in magic again.

Paper Machines

There's something inherently ridiculous, and hence, profoundly playful about the very idea of "paper machines." Machines are supposed to be made of sterner stuff - hardened steel, tin, wood, even. But paper?

Hence the art, and fun, of paper machines.

And, of course, the science, as so beautifully illustrated in this paper on Pneumatic Drives and Paper Mechanics by artist and designer Walter Ruffler. The best way to understand this art is to see it in motion. Which is why Ruffler's animations are so valuable, and so much fun.

Another source for paper machines is Flying Pig. They sell paper kits that only need to be cut and glued together. Their page on Mechanisms and Movements is exceptionally informative and easy to read. The plans for their sheep toy, as illustrated above, are available for free (download a .pdf file).

For deeper exploration of the art of Paper Machines, be sure to click over to the work of Peter Markey. A collection of images of his work can be found here.

Toy and Game Shows for the Rest of Us

If you really love games, you'll probably be spending Labor Day Weekend - August 30-September 1 - at Chicago's Navy Pier, attending the Chicago International Toy and Game Fair, "the first show in the Western Hemisphere to provide consumers with the opportunity to preview, play and purchase the widest selection of toys and games offered directly by manufacturers before the fourth quarter when the hot new products are introduced." This is a big first for the playful American many. The only equivalent that I know of is the Essen Game Fair in Germany - the International Speiletage, and it's bugged me for years that the closest we've come are trade shows, like the Toy Fair, where nobody plays and the public isn't invited.

If you are as much of a game inventor as you are a player, you'll probably be spending the next weekend, September 5-7, 2003, in Las Vegas, at the Toy and Game Inventors Forum, because, according to their site, "TGIF is the only event in the world where the public gets to meet, learn from and sell their ideas, inventions, or services of your company to the "who's who" of the toy industry. TGIF boasts a speaking faculty of over 50 key toy and entertainment executives from companies that include: Mattel, Hasbro, Hasbro Games, Fisher-Price, MGA Entertainment (Bratz Dolls), Tomy, Brio/Alga (Sweden), Toys R Us, Pressman, Radica, DSI Toys, Binney & Smith, Spin Master, University Games, K'NEX, Ohio Art, Ravensburger (Germany) and many others. "

Stratego Revisited

Remember the game
Stratego
? A kid's game, right? That you probably stopped playing when you were maybe ten, because all the other kids were playing "real" games like chess. Even though there was something strategically delicious about combining strategy with deduction (aka "guessing"). But you grew out of it.

Well, thanks to Ed's Stratego Site, you can now grow right back into it.

Ed's descriptions of Stratego Variations, which number more than 40, do more than breathe new life into an old stand-by. They demonstrate how to make almost any board game new again.

Take, for example, Ed's collection of alternate game boards. Apply the same principle to chess, checkers, even chinese checkers, and all of a sudden what was one game becomes a hundred.

It's this kind of creativity and playfulness that really lies at the heart of what games are all about. No matter how thoroughly a designer tests and develops what he considers to be the very best set of rules, what gives a game life are the rules that other people make up for it.

Netball

Netball is at least a first cousin of basketball, played mostly in Europe, but with more and more advocates in the US. It's a slightly kinder, gentler sport. No physical contact (as indeed was originally supposed to be true of basketball). And no dribbling. According to the official rules: here: "Players may not bounce the ball to themselves, and cannot run with the ball. When a player catches the ball, the first foot that touches the ground when they land is known as the grounded foot. While they are allowed to take that foot off the ground again, they must pass the ball on again before regrounding it. The ball must be passed within three seconds, but it can't be thrown across an entire third without being touched."

A second difference, which also contributes to its kinder qualities, is the division of the court into specific areas which could be only occupied by certain players. This increases the demand on teamwork, and lessens the impact of any single player's skills. According to this source, Netball was invented by: "Clara Baer, a sports teacher in New Orleans, wrote to Naismith (the inventor of basketball) asking for a copy of the rules, the subsequent rules package contained a drawing of the court with lines pencilled across it, simply to show the areas various players could best patrol. But Baer misinterpreted the lines and thought players couldn't leave those areas! In 1899 her mistake was ratified into the rules of women's basketball as zones."

The basket also doesn't have a backboard, which eliminates the opportunity for any backboard-smashing showpersonship, and demands a shooting skills different enough to challenge even the most accomplished basketball player.

There is an International Netball Federation, also known, for some reason not immediately apparent to this investigator, as the IFNA. For more information about this fascinating alternative to basketball, see "Netball resources" for a great compilation of links.

Of frogs and fun

When Ken Feit, a "travelling fool" and ex Jesuit priest, first taught me how to create the "Frog of Enlightenupment", I received it from him as a gift, a moment of high silliness, and a new friend. The Frog has become part of my teaching, because it is all those things: a gift, a silliness, and a friend. If you visit my DeepFUN Apparel store, you'll even find, among other Froggish apparel, Frog of Enlightenupment Boxer Shorts.

At the time of Ken's gift, I didn't realize how profound of a gift it was. I recently found an article called "All About Frogs," written by musician Stephen Nachmanovitch, author of Free Play: Improvisation in Life and Art, in which he writes:

"In Zen Buddhism, there is a long tradition of drawing pictures of frogs and talking about frogs. Frogs were very interesting to Zen and Taoist masters throughout the centuries. There's a famous poem by Bashô, on which this painting is partly a comment:

"An old pond.
A frog jumps in.
Plop!


"...Plop! in a way, is the Zen equivalent of "Let there be light." Plop! and "Let there be light" represent a moment of creativity that is potentially available to us at every moment, right before our eyes, right under our fingertips. But usually we are too busy looking out for flies."

Note to self: frogs and fun are often deeper than we think.

Pesapallo

The name of the game is "Pesapallo." In Finnish, it means "baseball." Literally.

The most obvious difference between Pesapallo and what we know and love as baseball is the position of the pitcher. As illustrated in the picture, the pitcher stands a short distance away from the batter, and throws the ball up in the air so that it would land, if not hit, on the circular batter's plate. The field is also shaped differently.

As entertainingly, but somewhat unsympathetically described by Red Smith: "A Pesapallo field is a lopsided pentagon 278 feet long and 131 feet at its broadest. The pitcher stands across the plate from the batter and tosses the ball straight up like a fungo hitter. Base runners all act like Dodgers gone berserk. That is, they start for third base and then get lost. First base is just where Phil Rizzuto likes to place his bunts; in Yankee Stadium it would be between third base and the mound. If Finns didn't use chalk lines instead of fences, second base would be against the right-field wall. Third is directly opposite, on the left-field boundary. The route from there home is a dogleg to the left. The plate is a trash can cover, two feet in diameter. "

As funny as Mr. Smith's description might be, it's important to note that Pes?pallo is an established, and strategically deep sport. Here's a more respectful description of the game, its origins and geographic distribution.

Drawing Together

Ever since the publication of what has now become the classic game of
Pictionary
, games that involve drawing things have gained mainstream acceptance. This is a good thing, especially for people who think they can't draw. Because it turns out to be as least as much fun for them and everyone else.

For those of us who want immediate gratification, and have no one immediate to draw with or out, there's an online version of Pictionary called " iSketch." It's almost as much fun to watch as it is to play. It's fast, so it can be a little intimidating, especially with all the sound and fury. But it's just a game, and you can be as anonymous or personal as you want. And the drawing tools are surprisingly sophisticated, should you want to get that way. And it's free.

If you're working on a PC (or on a Mac with a Mozilla browser), you can invite your friends to a more open-ended experience, sharing a drawing tool online with Groupboard - a remarkably full-featured shared whiteboard, available for your use, for free. Call someone virtual, give them the link, and draw together, so to speak.

And when you find yourself once again in actual human company, and you also find yourselves wanting yet another drawing game, don't forget the ever-amusing, collaborative wonders of Redondo."

Smart Mouth


Smart Mouth
got the Major FUN Award almost before we started playing it. The design of the toy - I know, it's really a "game mechanism," but it's just so darn much fun to play with - makes a very simple word game concept into a genuinely fun, exciting challenge.

OK. The game first. It's a word game. You're given two letters. Your objective: to be the first to call out a word that begins with one and ends with the other. For example, S and T. You could call out "SIT," but you'd be wrong, because words have to be at least 5 letters. How about, um, let's see, "SMART"? Why yes, that's exactly right.

Easy to understand. Challenging to play. And there are variations, and more variations, so you can play it with the kids or with your friends or your parents, and everybody'll have fun.

Now to the toy part. There's a box on a base. The box has two sections - each rounded at the top, each holding 36 letter tiles, which are also rounded at the top, so they can only fit in their sections one way, which turns out to be exactly the way they need to be if they are to be displayed in the right direction. There are two different colored tiles (so that the letter combinations will all work), each color goes in its own section. Fill the box. Put its cover on. And slide it forwards. When you slide it back, you reveal the first two letters. Simultaneously. To all players. The first player to call out the correct word gets those tiles. Which is how score is kept.

Elegant. Easy to understand. A device that works so well you can actually throw out the nice, sturdy box the game came in. My only regret - I had so much fun playing with the toy that I had to be the judge for the whole game. Oh, well.

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Amusing Mazes

If you found yourself drawn by Robert Abbott's mazes, featured in a recent issue of the Funday Times, Clickmazes might very well prove inescapably fun.

The site is a compendium of mazes, almost all of which can be played online. The illustration is from their section of Plank Puzzles, like those featured in the Major FUN Award-winning puzzle River Crossing. And this is only one of two dozen similar sections, each devoted to a different kind of maze. You'll be, well, amazed at how many different kinds of mazes there are, and how they collectively so clearly demonstrate yet another juxtaposition of mathematics, art and fun.

For further evidence of the fun/math/art connection, Andrea Gilbert, the site's author, explains her path from playful doodling to art and math: "As a child in the 70s I drew free-hand mazes, ever larger and ever more detailed, on 2D and then 3D surfaces. In the 80s I preferred form and structure, strong patterns that could be broken in small ways to produce elegant mazes. In the 90s I turned increasingly to rules and logic to add extra layers of complexity and push my skills to the limit."

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Tesselating for the science, art, and the fun of it

Tessellating Animation features the art of Makoto Nakamura of the Japanese Tessellation Design Association, who brings a new level of fun to this fascinatingly playful art.

RocBall

What do you get when you combine volleyball with soccer? Why, RocBall, of course.

RocBall, according to this site claiming it as "Saipan's own sports game," "...is a non-contact team net game derivative of volleyball and a Meso-American sport once played by the athletes of the Aztec civilization of what is now the country of Mexico. Rocball is played on a rectangular court bisected by an overhead net with goals located behind each end of the court." Furthermore, "It is the first team net sport to implement offensive and defensive scoring, multiple point plays, plays in which a team can lose point, and the first team net sport to include the combination of kicking and hitting play action."

As you can see from the photo (click on it to launch the webpage and see this and more), the game is played on a volleyball court, with the addition of soccer-like goals on either end.

Every time I see a new sport, my faith in the future of play is somewhat restored. I know, I know. It'll get formalized and professionalized and the play will mostly go out of it, except for the fortunate few who are "good enough." But, right now, it is an opportunity for all of us to explore a new invitation to play. And eventually, there will be one more much needed sport for yet one more very able "few."