DaVinci's Challenge - strategically and perceptually speaking

To you lovers of strategy games, you appreciators of perceptual challenges, it is with great pleasure that we introduce the latest Major FUN Award-winner: DaVinci's Challenge.

Each player has a collection of 72 pieces. There are two kinds of pieces: ovals (or lenses), and triangles (each side curving inwards). The circular board looks like something a playful geometer might have made with here compass - all curving lines, circles intersecting circles, hexagons and six-branched star shapes. The object of the game is to place your pieces so they form one of nine different patterns - the more complex patterns scoring higher because they are more difficult to form and easier to block.

One of the chief delights of the game occurs when you complete multiple patterns with a single move - placing one of your triangular pieces in a space surrounded by three of your lens-shaped pieces, for example, could complete a gem (for 5 points, or, if it's adjacent to another triangle, it could also complete an hourglass (for an additional 10 points). No matter how lost one gets in the strategic implications of it all, your eye is continually delighted by the visual challenge that comes from trying perceive potential patterns that you or your opponent might complete.

Score sheets turn out to be exceptionally useful for novices, helping them remember all of the different patterns.

Major FUN, in deed.

Street Surfing

Street Surfing is what they call it. It's based on a new skateboard-like technology - a skateboard on two wheels, that flexes in the middle. They like to think of it as a "combination of skateboarding, snowboarding and surfing." Key to all this is a skateboard-like thing called "The Wave." They explain:
"The Wave has front and rear flexible panels that are controlled by a spring-oriented torsion bar. It has only 2 wheels, which are both free to rotate 360 degrees. The Wave is self-propelled by twisting your hips and shoulders back and forth in an S-shape motion."
Yeah. Self-propelled. Which means, like dude, you never have to take your feet off the board! Like never! Even when you're going up hill. A kid (maybe 11) who had just bought one ($129.95 retail) glowingly explained: "I can't even skateboard. But I can do this. And I love it!"

You should most definitely see the videos of The Wave in action. There's a lot of opportunity for exercise, skill and grace. And if you use the Promotional Code 998 you can get a $30 discount, even. No, I don't get any money from this. But I do get more than a modicum of joy knowing that someone has come up with yet another invitation to play.


Palabra is a word game that is easily as deep as Scrabble® and yet requires only a deck of cards. 120 cards, actually. Cards with letters on them. And colors. And some even with special symbols. And some more special than that.

It's not just a word game. It's also rummy-like. So, if you really can't find a word, but if it just so happens that you can make a "straight" with, say, the letters J, K, and L, well, go for it. Since a J is worth 9 points and a K 6 and an L 2, you got 17 points right there. And if they are all the same color, you'd double your score. And if some of the cards have stars on them, you might double or triple the score again!

The competitive part, and I mean, really competitive, comes with the "shaving" rule. On your turn, if you have cards that match those the person before you just played, you can use them to take points off his score and add them to yours. Kind of a delicious moment in the annals of legally mean things to do in the name of fun.

I know. It sounds just too complex to be fun. So many other things to think about that it could take away the joys of word-making. And yet, it turns out at least as interesting for the word game lover as Scrabble, with all the fun of a really good card game.

The deck has been recently refreshed - the cards are a bit thicker and the color key on the side of the cards has a different shape for each color - a great help for people who have difficulty telling colors apart. If you have the old set, it's still worth getting a newer version, because with 2 decks (yes, 240 cards!) you can play with up to 12 people.

Major FUN? You bet! Hmmm. Betting. As one might do in poker. Hmmmmm. And hmmmm again. Given the 28 variations currently described on the remarkably thorough and generous Palabra website (which includes resources like the inestimably valuable 2- and 3-letter word list, vowelless words, and Q-words not followed by a U), given, in particular, variations 13 (called "All Poker") and 24 ("Texas Hold 'em), poker, most definitely. And there's, for further example, a more Scrabble-like crosswords (variation 12), of course. And, should you enjoy playing with yourself, so to speak, a significantly amusing solitaire (variation 21), even.


Cyber Shmuzzling - Putting the Jiggy in the Jigsaw Puzzle

Cyber Shmuzzling is, well, Shmuzzling on line. Shmuzzles are salamander-shaped puzzle pieces designed by Sam Savage, who was inspired by M. C. Escher - especially by Escher drawings similar to these. Savage explains: "In the 1976 while teaching Management Science at the University of Chicago it occurred to me to cut some of Escher's tessellation figures out of wood. I hoped they could be re-assembled many different ways. But to my disappointment they did not fit well, because they were drawn free-hand. Ultimately I discovered a formula, which in theory would make for a perfect fit. Inspired by Escher's "Reptiles", I created a salamander design according to the formula, and made a dozen out of wood on a bandsaw."

We Shmuzzled with delight and occasionally with passion at the Games Preserve thirty years ago. "However," Savage explains, "the extreme accuracy required (to create Shmuzzles) made it expensive to produce. In spite of continued demand, it became financially infeasible to continue, and production stopped in 1983." Fortunately for the suddenly Shmuzzless world, in 2003, Professor Savage found a puzzle maker who helped him reShmuzzle the universe. And his new CyberShmuzzling is a gift to all of us immediate-gratification-seeking cyberfolk. 'Cause we get to play with them and experience first hand the deep Shmignificance of free-form Shmuzzling. And there's an actual CyberShmuzzle Puzzle, giving us exactly enough Shmuzzle Puzzle experience (putting the "jiggy" in the jigsaw puzzle) to imagine how much more gratifying it would be if we had spent the $15.95 plus postage and tax where applicable on purchasing any one of the many amazing Shmuzzle Puzzles. One thing to remember when Cyber-Shmuzzling - to rotate a piece, you click on it. It's logical, once you know how. Then again, what isn't?

eLearning and Fun

In their article "eLearn ing and Fun" Lisa Neal, Editor-in-Chief, eLearn Magazine, and Lorraine Normore, Librarian, Center for Early Literacy Information, describe some deeply validating observations about effective teaching, online and off:
"Four dimensions emerged across the groups. The first could be characterized as rigidity vs. spontaneity. 'Fun' experiences were seen as the result of situations that were surprising, playful, and challenging. The second dimension concerned the communication mode. Unidirectional messages from 'teacher' to 'student' were perceived as undesirable. Interactivity was prized. The third dimension was related to the nature of the social experience provided. Working in isolation was felt to be 'not fun.' Working collaboratively was felt to be fun or engaging. The final dimension concerned the flexibility of the program. Fixed programs were seen as inferior to programs that contained user customizable features.

"As the session drew to an end, the group moved towards one additional realization, that the dimensions that make e-learning and e-teaching effective are, in essence, the same as those that make any learning and teaching situation effective. However, virtual environments can be used in ways that present new opportunities and which provide new ways to enable experiences that have been shown to be effective in face-to-face learning situations."
I so much prefer the intimacy of the face to face environment, that I've really not thought about e-teaching - not until recently when I had this amazing experience at USC. I was invited by the Electronic Arts Game Innovation Lab , USC Cinema-Television, Interactive Media Division, to tell them everything I know about fun and games. It turns out that my book, The Well Played Game, has become somewhat precious for people involved in designing for online community - because the book focuses on the relationship between games and the community that plays them. At any rate, my presentation was held at the Zemeckis Media Lab - a beautiful facility with, I dunno, maybe a dozen computer projectors in the ceiling, and screens on all the walls. Students who wanted to connected their laptops to the projectors and followed my presentation, bringing up things from the web that reinforced what I was discussing, or just chatting. I could see the chat (back channel), and respond to it when I wanted to. It was incredible, like being able to see into my audience's minds, actually extending the bandwidth of my face-to-face presentation. Though this was a very mixed media experience, and one that not too many people would find comfortable, I reveled in it.

Online I have had similar experiences - especially when combining real time teleconferencing with chat. I don't like videoconferencing much. For the most part, it seems a waste of bandwidth. If there is material I wish to present, I find it easier to prepare it on the web and direct people to it as I lecture. But having the backchannel present while I'm "lecturing" - (I rarely lecture, usually point people to different pages on the web, act responsively to questions, and occasionally suggest structured experiences) - seems to me to make the communication more whole, and hence more fun.

There is much to try. Many wonderful games and simulations. May media to be mixed. Me, I think it's in the combination that the real power, and playfulness, arises - the combination of real and virtual presence, real and virtual time.


Practice #7 - have fun each day

John Kehoe is the author of a book called "The Practice of Happiness. I came across an article he wrote, as part of a series called "The Ten Practices of a Happy and Successful Life: Part IV." The article: Practice #7 - have fun each day. He writes:

"When things are too serious in our life, we feel stressed or sluggish, we need to call upon our own inner 'Master of Nonsense.' Maybe he or she will take us out for a walk, or have us put aside that important project that's overdue and take in a double feature at the local movie house. There are hundreds of ways to break the tension and take the pressure off. Sometimes we just have to trust the reckless part of ourselves.

"We need to renew our spirit regularly. A busy life necessitates it. We've become too full of activities. Too serious. Too adult. No wonder kids often think we're dull and boring. In many ways that's what we've become. We should get back to our roots and instincts. Bring in more balance. We need to have more fun, and to do so we have to be more creative and spontaneous; to seize the opportunities life presents us whenever and wherever we find them."

He then goes on to describe what he learned from the Dalai Lama's presence at a Nobel Laureate dinner:
The seriousness of life's problems does not have to eliminate our fun and joy. In life it's necessary that we be, at different times, both serious and silly. Typically we've mastered the serious side very well. It's time to explore the wisdom and pleasure of the silly. We often forget that within all spiritual teachings there is a very clear emphasis on the importance of being joyful. Fun, joy and happiness are spiritual principles.

This hit a lot of very validating buttons for the whole "Playful Path" concept that is the heart of pretty much everything I've been doing. So, in case you were wondering, like I often am, well, it's no wonder. Despite our collective efforts, it still seems to require years of introspection and wisdom-gleaning before we can allow ourselves once again to embrace fun, joy and happiness as spiritual principles.

Speaking of Playful Path validations, my first born, and mother of 1 and 1/8 of my grandchildren, had her birthday on the 14th. She is a gift to me and those who know her, still teaching us about play and playfulness and the many arts of having fun each day. Happy birthday, Shael.


Perfect Timing

Perfect Timing is probably the first game that focuses on the ability to sense (or guess) elapsed time. The game (for 2-4 players) includes 4 electronic stop watches that measure time in hundredths of a second. The fun of the game lies in trying to predict, with great precision, exactly when one or two seconds have elapsed.

There are two versions available: a two-player portable set, and a 2-4 player board game. We played the board game. The board is used to help keep score and to determine the exact challenge to be played. There are two kinds of challenges in which you either try to estimate the time with your eyes closed, or you get to look at the stopwatch and test your reaction time. Timelines, on the perimeter of the board, are divided into 24 hours. Your success in a challenge determines whether you gain or lose time.

The theme of the game feels a bit like the old TV game "The Price is Right." If you succeed at a challenge (being very careful not to go over the time limit), you win any of ten different "prizes" (a calculator, dishwasher, microwave, etc.). Exceeding the time limit is like overbidding in The Price is Right. You don't win the appliance of your dreams. I had difficulty restraining myself from doing Monte Hall impressions.

Despite the many other nuances and events built into the game, playing with your ability to estimate time, and your reaction time, is such a novel and exciting experience that it overshadows everything else. Hence, it becomes the kind of game you may play only a few times before you have to put it away - at least until you find someone new to play with.

Perfect Timing - a perfect addition to anyone's collection of games that make people laugh.

Blurber search

My first spoken-word CD, "Recess for the Soul" should be ready by August.

In the mean time, I've a very small window - actually, more like a porthole - to find one or two very-well-knowns to create a blurb for the back cover: someone whose name people would recognize, and who'd have the vision and perspective a listener would need to be able to appreciate what this CD is all about.

I gotta tell you, this CD's like nothing I've done before, and yet, it's stuff that I've been using in my seminars and thinking about ever since I discovered what fun can do for people, the very stuff of Deep Fun. But it's kinda, well, more blatantly, um, spirtshool.

Here's a couple sound bites from the CD, in case you want to get soundly bitten: How My Visit to the Dentist Office Led Me to the Discovery of My Inner Playground and
"An Introduction to Hide and Seek as played by Serious and Silly."

So, anyhow, if you know any visibly high, high visibility blurber - especially one who'd appreciate and understand the whole idea of letting the soul go out and play - please, o please let me know, pronto-ishly. If you think that person'll need a pre-release copy, tell me. I'll send you one for the blurber-to-be, and one for you, too.

Apples to Apples - deep customization

You know how excited I've been about the Customizable Cards aspect of the Apples to Apples game system. Recently, the company sent me a press release-type story that both affirmed my general excitement about the "design your own" aspect of the game, and at the same time disappointed me about the effectiveness of online marketing.

It turns out that this guy, Bill Becker, wanted the Apples to Apples people to make him a special card. Even though he could have made it, and far more, himself, had he but known (I called, I asked, he didn't). But that's beside the point, or it's another point all together. At any rate, they did it for him. And it did everything Bill had hoped it would do. Here's how explains what happened:
"After a few rounds and a few turns of Ashleigh as the judge, I finally took the 'Unforgettable' card I had set aside and secretly placed it on a pile of green apple cards. Ashleigh (now the judge) flipped over the 'Unforgettable' card and I secretly submitted my 'Ashleigh, Will You Marry Me?' card face-down on the table. She then picked up everyone┬?s red cards from the table at which time my sister began recording on her digital camera. She read off the first card and then put it on the table. She read off the second card and then put in on the table. The third card was mine and when she saw it she had this shocked look on her face. At that point she wasn't sure if I was serious or kidding. I then proceeded to get down on one knee and open the jewelry box with the ring, which removed any doubt that I was serious. I gave my speech and asked her to marry me, after which she shouted 'Yes!' and then attacked me with a huge hug :). She was amazed when I told her Apples to Apples made the card for that special occasion. She said it was perfect because it was simple, but very clever and meaningful. It truly was unforgettable :)."

Bill is an avid Apples-to-Apples player. He usually plays with about ten people, every other week. He explains: "we don't really play it seriously. Sometimes, for example, depending on the judge, we'll all play the opposite card." What he likes most about the game is that it's "really all about knowing people. If you know someone, you can leverage your knowledge of the judge's personality to help you win."

Yup. Let that be a lesson to anyone looking for, or thinking of creating their own party people: what makes Apples to Apples such a great party game is that it's about knowing people. Sometimes, really knowing people.


Sudoku is an ingenious numbers puzzle that has been receiving some overdo attention from the London press. What makes Sodoku so fascinating is the apparent simplicity of the challenge. Though it's a numbers puzzle, there are no arithmetic calculations required - no addition or multiplication or any of those disturbingly right-brained challenges. Rather, the only rule being: "Each number must appear only once respectively in a row line, in a column, and in a block 3 by 3." That's it. That's the whole puzzle.

Why it has so relatively suddenly struck a UK chord is perhaps a bigger mystery. But apparently, it's bringing deep delight to the misty isles. Here, for example, is an article from the London Telegraph. A few highlights from that article:
  • Sudoku is the name of the game that's sweeping the nation. It consists of a grid of 81 squares, divided into nine blocks of nine squares each. Some of the squares contain a figure.
  • The Sudoku story begins in 1741, when Professor Hans Sudoku, widely regarded by his contemporaries as the most boring man in the world, attempted to liven up his dinner parties by placing prototype versions of today's Soduku puzzles beside each placement.
  • Sudoku has now been taken up by more than 179 different radio and television shows across the British Isles.
Nor am I all certain why the Japanese have been producing such innovative puzzles, but, given their accessibility via the Internet, they are a real gift to all of us who are fighting senility and/or boredom. Sodoku is, apparently, only the tip of the number-placement puzzle iceberg. See Puzzle Japan for at least six more chilling delights.

Puzzling, in deed.

Leadership Training, Plastic Bag Bathing Suits, Very Synchronized Swimming, Beach Volleyball and Bowling, Too

Carol Ann Fried writes:
"I thought it was about time I let you know how much fun I'm having with Junkyard Sports.

"I did a gig last nite in Banff, Alberta with 19 managers in a leadership training program for a big insurance company. (Shlepped dozens of plastic grocery bags for them.) They did synchronized swimming (wearing the bags as bathing suits), skipping and basketball.

"This is the third or fourth time I've used Junkyard Sports. My personal favourite was the group that did 6-pin bowling: they made a huge ball with the bags, and the people became the pins. When hit, they'd fall down and of course knock down others in their immediate vicinity. Another good one was beach volleyball; again the bathing suits, and they also constructed a fabulous net.

"Thanks so much for your wonderful inspiration!"
This, you see, this kind of creative, wacky, inspired response to Junkyard Sports, this is the kind of trophy I can put on my mental mantle, and this is my thanks.

Thanks, Carol Ann. Thanks.

Baggyball again, Elephant, Giraffe, Big Booty, and Living Foosball, too.

We got to play Baggyball at the Junkyard Sports training for the City of Cypress (CA) recreation department. Among other games, of course. Like, oddly enough, Elephant, Giraffe (which we played and played until we had, in addition to the elephant and giraffe, a rhinoceros, a cell phone, YMCA, SpongeBob SquarePants, the Three Monkeys, and Charlie's Angels), and Big Booty.

Meanwhile, back to Baggyball, the first thing that became obvious was that it was significantly fun. It was just the kind of game that was clear enough for people to start thinking about making better. Next, there was some reluctance to have "running baskets," so we played with baskets who could move, but were limited to a narrow zone. The "dribbling up" rule, of course, was clearly the only way to play (given the unbouncable nature of the baggyball).

And then there was Living Foosball. Which turned out to be remarkably fun. We only had ten players, so each team had a goalie and two "rods" of two players each. There were implied penalties for "going off rod." The goals had to be widened mid game. Much fun. Much fun in deed.

Games and the classroom

Probably the best reason for playing games in the classroom is that it's something the kids might actually want to do together. If they can play peacefully, for 20 minutes, without adult supervision, it's already a major accomplishment.

The fact is, almost any game that is interesting enough to kids to merit sustained play has more opportunities for cognitive and affective development than most curricula would dare to mandate. The other fact is that the skills that are developed during game play are, for the most part, far outside the scope of anything that could be direcly related to the three Rs.

Here are Jane and Johnny playing checkers together. Neither is very good at math. But both are demonstrating mastery of highly complex reasoning skills, complex and relevant - maybe not to the curriculum, but to living in the real world.

I think this tells us more about the nature of schooling in this country than maybe we want to know. As long as games like Scrabble and checkers and charades are considered extra-curricular, the relevance of the curriculum itself needs to be questioned.

There are many commercial recreational games that seem more obviously relevant. For example, one of my favorite games, "A to Z" (from Fundex). It's a knowledge or trivia game where players race to fill their boards (with spaces labeled from A to, as you might surmize, Z), with examples that fit a randomly drawn category, such as: trees, animals, States. By preselecting the categories, you can emphasize almost any area of the cirriculum, without in any way diminishing the fun or challenge of the game. But the game tests more than knowledge. It also tests social skills like fairness and turn taking; as well as personal mastery like dealing with success and failure. For the players, this part of the game is the real point of play - and in it lies the deepest challenge. For their personal devlopment, these challenges are clearly more central than mastery over the names of, for example, US presidents.

In sum, there are many, many games (many of which can be found on the Dr. Toy website and on my Major Fun award pages which I would strongly endorse for children and for classroom use. And though they might reinforce the cirriculum in some way, their real contribution is sadly far outside the scope of the S.A.T.


Pick-Up Sticks at Burning Man?

Artist Steven Goodman writes me to let me know he is proposing to develop his own version of Giant Pick-Up Sticks for the 2005 Burning Man celebration.

He plans to make them out of 16-ft' long, painted closet rods. He figures he can do the whole thing for "$784.82 (not including beer)." A wooden version is a bit heavier than I'd recommend - considering the potential impact of falling sticks upon the playful heads of frolicking Pick-uppers. Me, I prefer the cardboard tubes that they wrap carpet around. Steven tells me, however, that it is very windy on the desert, and such weight is necessary for stability and artistic punch.

For further examples of potentially playful Burning Man bemusement, see this list of all the proposals currently submitted.

Unusual World Records

This is an image of an "Unusual World Record" called "The Most People Standing on an Inner Tube." According to Ron Jones, author of Unusual World Records and inventor of The Most People Standing on an Inner Tube, the current record stands, as it were, at 15 people. Knowing that some of the people are "handicapped" or "developmentally disabled" or "challenged" has really nothing at all to do with the, shall we call it, "feat" of Fifteen People Standing on an Inner Tube. It is a record. And to my personal knowledge a world record, unusual though it may be.

Unusual World Records is a rich concept, so similar in spirit to Junkyard Sports that it might as well be part of the same event. Using material like inner tubes, garbage can lids, paper plates and grocery tarps, Unusual World Records beckons the playful, creative spirit, in the manner of Junkyard Sports, enticing people to see things not for what they are, but for what they can become in the hands and minds of players.

Here are a few examples, from the first few pages of the book:

  • Tallest Inner Tube Sandwich (people-filled)
  • Highest Inner Tube Climb
  • Tallest Paper Cup Tower
  • Largest Skateboard
  • First Human Pinball Game

You can order Ron Jones' book directly from the publisher:

Ron Jones
Unusual World Records Headquarters
Dept. HJ-3
1201 Stanyan Street
San Francisco, CA 94117

The cost: $17.50 for one copy, $28.00 for two.

Baby Play

As I advance into the joyous challenges of grandparenthood, I find myself evermore intrigued by questions like: "Does anyone know any good games to play with a six-month old baby?"

This very question was asked in the discussion section of one of my favorite weblogs, Metafilter - a "community weblog" listed in my blogroll with contributions by just about anybody with something to say, and one of the most successful examples of what some call "Participatory Journalism."

I was delighted to discover how many intelligent, practical responses that question elicited. A clear favorite response came from someone called "Raedyn." Here it is in its entirety:
"Imitate him. The faces he is making to you - make them back at him. If he is holding a block and bangs it on the floor, bang your block on the floor, too. Then try leading instead of following. Try banging on the floor twice instead of only once. This can encourage him to start imitating more. It'll surprise you how young he is when he bangs the block twice after you model it.

"Blow bubbles so he can watch them.

"Make sure when you interact with him, that you are at his level. Put him in a seat on the kitchen table with you sitting at a chair so you are face to face, or lay on your tummy on the floor beside him.

"Put on a puppet show for him. (use you socks or his teddy bears, or make paper bag puppets)

"Let him experience different textures. Take him to a park and sit in the grass with him. Go to a play ground and dig in the sand together. Go for walks outside together (him in the stroller or a snugli), tell him about everything you're seeing. Tell him the names of things, describe the colours, explain why things are like they are. Tell him about your memories.

"Take him places he's never been before. That's almost everywhere! Take him to a music festival and dance together. Go to the mall and go people watching. To a petting zoo and help him pet the animals.

"Grab one of your baby's toys that squeak. Hide it under a blanket while he's watching. Encourage your baby to find the toy. You can give the toy a squeak under the blanket to help him find it."

Several helpful posts mentioned using "Baby Signing." My granddaughter Lily knows how. Only she's three now. Luckily, further research opportunities abound. Grandson Zev is six months now. A good candidate. I'll be having another grandbaby to test it on in about 8-and-a-half months. And so it goes. And so do I.