Improvisational Fun - The Imaginary Text Adventure

Here is what one might call a relatively perfect example of a central, oft-overlooked, and yet genuinely delicious flavor of fun: Improvisational Fun. Follow this imaginary text adventure as improvised by "Double Fine's Tim Schafer, designer of Full Throttle, Grim Fandango, Psychonauts and upcoming god of gwar epic, Brütal Legend. Prior to the release of those games, he worked on The Secret of Monkey Island, Monkey Island 2 and Maniac Mansion: Day of the Tentacle, as described in the Joystick article Return to Quest Quiz - Tim Schafer."
You peer into the glowing red eyes of the mechanical bear, curious about the purpose such a dangerous contraption could possibly serve. You briefly wonder if there are any robot trout nearby.

>W

You see a rusted mailbox marked "T. Girtlebee." Behind it lies a quaint cottage surrounded by (seemingly non-hostile) garden gnomes. Several puffs of smoke escape the home's crooked chimney. You smell bacon.

>open mail box

The mailbox contains ... mail. You don't know why you were expecting anything different.

>examine mail

"You may already have won* ONE MILLION DOLLARS!"

*an opportunity to be eligible to win a chance at winning the possibility of winning.

>examine sealed manila envelope

You open the envelope and reach deep inside. Like, really deep. It seems the interior of the envelope, err, envelops a magical and infinite amount of space. You could pull anything out of this thing, you reckon.
Try playing it on your next car trip, or with the person behind you in line, or online.

Improvisational Fun. One of my favorite flavors.


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from Bernie DeKoven, funsmith

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Fairy Chess

Fairy chess, explains the Wikipedian, "is a term in a chess problem which expands classical (also called orthodox) chess problems which are not direct mates. The term was introduced before the First World War. While selfmate dates from the Middle Age, helpmate was invented by Max Lange in the late 19th century. Thomas Dawson (1889-1951), pioneer of fairy chess, invented many fairy pieces and new conditions. He was also problem editor of The Fairy Chess Review (1930-1951)."

"On the other hand," comments the Funsmith, "Fairy Chess is an invitation to a cornucopious collection of what can only be called "Variant Chess Games," or, shall we say, more ways to play chess than you could shake a pawn at."

"Fairy Chess," continues the Funsmith, eyes akimbo with conceptual glee, "is, in fact, the chessular embodiment of Junkyard Sports, New Games and every one of those noblly playful efforts to return the power of play to the hands, hearts and minds of the players."

See also, the Piececlopedia


from Bernie DeKoven, funsmith

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Dominoes like you never played them before

You know how every now and then you come across this beautifully packaged set of dominoes, sometimes in a tin, even, and the dominoes are in deed very nice - hefty, colorful, smooth - and sometimes there's even some kind of lovely plastic thing that sits in the center of the table or some place, and keeps score or turns around or even makes noise - and yet it's still dominoes? You know what I mean. Dominoes, in a nice package, but it feels like dominoes, and it looks like dominoes, and it plays just like dominoes. And you can't help feeling just a little disappointed, just a little like you were hoping maybe for a really different game, something new, something that maybe used dominoes, but was more interesting, more challenging, more, well, different?

Despair no more, my playful friend. For Highrise Dominoes is in deed a wonderfully different game. And the base that is included in the lovely tin is really functional, really central to the game.

The object is to build a tower of dominoes. First, a basement is built - 8 dominoes placed, face-up, in the bottom of the turntable base. From then on, players take turn building on to the base, the rule being that the domino has to match the numbers it rests on. And yes, you can lay your domino so that it rests on two different dominoes. And once that domino is laid, you can lay another domino on top of that. And the higher the level, the higher the score.

It's a completely different experience of dominoes. There's so much to look at. Which is why you're so happy that the turntable turns.

There are clear plastic blocks that are used when the dominoes you want to match are on two different levels. Which is fine, unless the dominoes are on two different levels that are more than one level apart. And then comes the joyous agony of having to maybe (gasp) draw another domino.

There are also wild dominoes, there's a double, with both halves wild. And there are others with only one wild half. But, boy, do you get to love those wild ones! Seeing as they are often the only ones that you can play. Which you really want to do. Because the first player to use all her tiles can get many, many points.

From Major Fun

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Dots Amazing!

You need a real artist to take a simple children's puzzle, like Connect-the-Dots, and transform it into something worthy of mature, adult-worthy consideration. A real artist.

And that's just what David Kalvitis is, an artist. And that's just what he's accomplished with his many Dot-to-Dot books.

Let me give you a few examples:
Stars puzzles: You start at number 1, as you would expect, and continue connecting dots in order until you come to a star. Then you have to look for the next number, which could be anywhere else in the puzzle, and continue from that number to the next star. And on and on, number-to-number-to-star. Jumping around from place to place on the puzzle, you really have no idea what you're drawing, sometimes until the very last star.

Arrows: You see this big field of arrows - no dots at all. Just arrows. So there's absolutely no visual hints about what the puzzle is about. You look for a circled arrow and start there, following where it points until you come to another arrow, and you take off in that direction. Of course, if you make a mistake, just one, small, easily explicable error, you soon find youself wandering realms of graphic chaos. Which is why, despite Kalvatis' heartfelt recommendations that all his puzzles be done with a marker, we find ourselves frequently recommending a soft pencil with a very good eraser.

Compass: Here, you get nothing but an array of dots with a few symbols sprinkled in hither and yon. You look for a star and, then read the directions printed above the puzzle. And I do mean directions. Like, from the star, go: N (North(, and then Wx2 (two dots west), and then SWx2, and then on and on and on, and if you do it exactly right, you'll end up at an A. And then, from the A, you start on the next line of instructions....
For an elementary school teacher, the different puzzle types involve skills that are closely tied to the mathematics curriculum. For the rest of us, they are an invitation to return to a deeply satisfying, often remarkably peaceful pastime.

These are but three of the innovative, challenging and inviting variations of connect-the-dots Kalvitis has created for us. And, if you're a social puzzler, it turns out that many of them can be solved cooperatively - especially the big puzzles, or puzzles like the Star puzzles that you solve in segments.

There are five volumes of the "Greatest Dot-to-Dot" series, so far. The first four are a great introduction to the wide variety of puzzle types. The fifth volume is most appropriately called "Super Challenge," where you'll find puzzles that span two pages and hundreds and hundreds of dots. There are also four volumes of Kalvitis' Newspaper Dot-to-Dot puzzles - smaller, but every bit as innovative.

Each puzzle is a work of art in its own right. When you complete a puzzle, you are rewarded with images that are themselves often surprisingly vivid, sometimes rich in detail, sometimes spare and subtle. Often drawn in perspective. Never stiff. Never blocky. Always surprising.

from Major Fun

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Stack revisited

I am certain you recall that Stack received a Major Fun Award a little over 4 years ago. In fact, it was a recipient of several awards: the award, the award, the much-touted award, and even, oddly enough, it was found most . And you probably even recall why.

I, on the other hand, have been exploring the game in greater depth, especially recently as I work more and more with various groups of seniors hereabouts. And what I have been exploring, actually, is the, shall we say, "Super Stack" set - two different sets of the Stack game (the deluxe, jumbo, of course), each set having different color dice, thereby enabling me to play a game with 8 people.

The large dice that come with the deluxe version prove to be especially comforting for senior eyes and hands. Easy to read, even at a distance, enjoyable to hold because of their greater heft, and easier to stack because of their larger size. Having enough for eight people makes the game ideal for building a sense of community and friendship. Because the group is larger, people don't can play at a safe distance from each other (psychologically safe), but because they're all sharing the same set of dice, they feel connected. If we need to, we can easily divide into smaller, more intimate groups. But having all those dice means that each player has twice as many options to consider. On the one hand, it makes the beginning of the game that much easier and more inviting. On the other, it makes the endgame that much more dramatic. Stacks get built, options constantly get fewer and fewer, the need to play strategically gets more and more vivid.

Stack, even with only 4 colors, has never disappointed us as a game for almost all ages. But having twice as many dice turns out to be more than twice as flexible, twice as interesting, for at least twice as many people.


from Bernie DeKoven, funsmith

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More Puzzling Still

Since I published my article on some of the new puzzles from ThinkFun, I've heard from two more, very different, very dedicated and innovative sources for yet more puzzles. Though the focus of this weblog is on games as social experiences, puzzles, even though designed to be solitary exercises, can easily become the source of a great deal of focused, collaborative, social play. And it is in that light that I share with you yet two more resources.

First to contact me was Bogusia Gierus, inventor of Hexatrix, an elegant and challenging arithmetic puzzle in which players try to connect all the numbers and signs to create a mathematically correct statement. It's what you might call an "elegant" puzzle - simple to understand, challenging, and almost infinitely variable (click this to see the solution for the puzzle in the illustration) - unless you don't like playing with numbers.

And today, I heard from Alex Colket, about his website Play with your mind. I quote: "PlayWithYourMind.com is about mind games, brain puzzles and IQ tests. Between the various word games, logic puzzles, typing tests, memory challenges, multi-tasks, and a mind sport, PlayWithYourMind.com boasts nearly 100 original games - among the largest such collections on the internet. Challenging abilities as diverse as memory, focus, logic, spatial sense, perception, verbal skill and numerical prowess, the brain games here provide plenty of opportunities to play with your mind."

My suggestion, find a friend and try any of these puzzles together. Play with you shared mind.



from Bernie DeKoven, funsmith

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Puzzling Fun

Before we talk about Pete's Pike and some of the other delightfully new puzzle/games from ThinkFun, answer me this? Have you ever tried River Crossing? If not, stop reading now, click on the ThinkFun, answer me this? Have you ever tried River Crossing link, and try it right now, on-actual-line. How about Rush Hour? Tipover? Go ahead. Click away. You can play all three. It is to sing the puzzle electric.

Of course, you'd be missing the feel of the puzzle/games themselves, the well-made, cleverly designed, intelligently portable, box-throw-out-able packaging of it all. But you'd get a good sense of what these puzzle/games are all about - how they involve moving pieces on a board, pieces with different properties, boards with different layouts. And how each layout is really a new puzzle. And how the puzzles range in difficulty. And, most importantly, from a major fun perspective, how they invite kibitzing.

The different levels of challenge allow you to challenge yourself as much or as little as you want to. Go ahead, start with the the first card. Be a beginner. Enjoy your competence. Feeling feisty. Skip a card or two. Try something intermediate. Because you can challenge yourself as much or as little as you want, the puzzle/games are especially fun - you never feel yourself overwhelmed or bored (unless you want to be).

Then there's the kibitz-attraction - because the puzzles are visually attractive, and because what you're trying to do is generally easy to explain (see, I'm trying to get this goat (Pete) to the top of the mountain (OK, the middle of the board), and I can move Pete up or down or across from where he is until he's right next to one of his Goats. And I can move the Goats the same way.) So, if you're feeling social, and you want that wonderfully collaborative experience of thinking together with somebody, well, then, you've got a game fun enough to play at a party. And if you're not feeling so social, you can just sit on the sofa, all by yourself, and still have significant fun.

So the very design of these ThinkFun puzzles is the very kind of design that lends itself to Major FUN-ness. And when you have a bunch of these puzzles together (in addition to Pete's Pike, we had HotSpot, Cover Your Tracks and Treasure Quest - all new, each fun), you can amaze yourself and friends at how darn clever these puzzle/games really are, how each, similar in all the good ways, is so different, in similarly good ways.

Take Hot Spot. Very, very similar to Pete's Pike, you might say, except with "Bots." Only, Bots can jump over each other. In fact, a Bot can jump over two Bots, if it feels so compelled. Not diagonally, of course. Very different. You have to think a different way. Not like your Pike's Pete thinking, oh no. Not at all.

And then there's Treasure Quest and Cover your Tracks. Not quite as self-storing, perhaps, but with a significantly adequate drawstring storage bag, for those who seek portability and boxlessness. But very different from Hot Spot or Pete's Pike. Cover Your Tracks, with its four, large, asymmetrical pieces that fit on the board in only certain ways, and its slide-under puzzle cards, very, very different from Treasure Quest, with its sliding gate and four kinds of square tokens (you gotta love the Gold Masks that you push/side along the board), and your statuesque, token-pushing Hero - and yet, in a way, remarkably similar to all the other ThinkFun puzzle/games. Similarly well-made, similarly ingenious, similarly fun, differently puzzling.

from Bernie DeKoven, funsmith

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Wordigo

Wordigo really took us by surprise. We see a word-board game and we think: "maybe fun for the guy playing, but agony for the people who are waiting their turns." So we conclude "Word-board game = not really Major FUN material." Then we notice the different boards and four complete sets of tiles. This leads us to conclude that maybe all four of us can play simultaneously. No turn-waiting. Immediate gratification, verbally-playfully speaking. Except that there are six of us. So we play in three teams.

And the game just takes off. Sure, we are confused a little by the different boards in the set, and the funny arrows on the tiles, but we start anyway, racing against each other and the timer, using and drawing tiles and discarding, trying to fill our boards up with words. And then, when the time is reluctantly up, we figure out the scoring, which really gets interesting, strategic-implication-wise. The next round (we hardly ever play more than one round during a "game tasting," but this game was just too darn delicious), we are much more score-conscious so we get strategic and discover we really don't have enough time anyway. We also decide to start with the second board, only to discover that it is actually more challenging than the first.

The game comes with four sets of letter tiles with pouches, four sets of four different game boards (two boards with a different design on each side), the first and probably only seven-minute sand timer in the world, and a score pad. The tiles look remarkably similar to those letter-with-number tiles you see in scoring letter games, but they have arrows on the vowels. The boards are similar to kids' crossword puzzles, but without the clues.

The game can be played simultaneously with up to four players or with teams, which we think is even more fun. And you can even invite the kids to play or compensate for those with different verbal skills. The boards are of varying levels of difficulty. Those who want to can use the easier boards or start with more tiles or maybe recycle their discarded tiles.

Wordigo is the only word game I know of that allows you to use a dictionary while you're playing. Of course, looking something up in a dictionary while the sand is inexorably streaming your time away is perhaps not such a useful option. Unless you're playing in pairs. Which we just happened to be. And even then, we were all too wrapped in the rapture of it all to use anything other than our rapidly muddling minds.

For those of us who enjoyextended moments of time-free deliberation, the game is still entertaining without timers. Players just continue until all the boards have been filled.







from Bernie DeKoven, funsmith

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Balancing Act

Balancing Aliens never disappointed us. And we were already excited, just opening the box. And from there, it just got more and more exciting. Such an elegantly made instrument of fun, so finely tuned, so subtle, so strategic, so silly.

The kind of silly you have to watch very, very carefully, and think about alot. That you can expect to get when you have a round game board, with bowling pin shaped pieces, that sits on a big screw, that can be raised or lowered, for different skill-levels. A board that has two sides, each of which a totally different game, each just as obviously the only game possible.

I mean, you could play it with 7-year olds who could probably beat you. And the very steady-of-hand 80 year old. And those of the less-steady persuasion could direct others where to move and get just involved in the strategic implications of it all. And you could be each as strategic as you can possibly get, and still, anyone might win, might be drawn inexorably towards adding just one more alien, teetering on the very precipice of improbability. Until lured by both scoring and collective-admiration potential, you upset the delicate balance, and all fall down.

Though dexterity is a definite advantage, winning the game is all about intuiting its strategic and physical dynamics. Even if your hand is not steady enough, you can still direct some younger hand and feel fully engaged in play.

Balancing Aliens is a fun toy and a fun game. Major FUN. As in award-winning. It's a near perfect model for what a good family game should be like. Because it's based on physical as well as strategic properties, and because the strategic properties are so well expressed by the physical properties, the rules of each of the two balancing games are as apparent to kids as they are to grown-ups. Kids will play with kids. Grownups with grownups. Kids with grownups. Equals in skill and delight.


from Bernie DeKoven, funsmith

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Basari

Basari is a racing/bidding/bartering/strategy game for three, or better, four players. It is definitely one of your more complex games, involving, as it does: racing, bidding, bartering and strategizing. But it is not one of your more difficult games - and that's what makes it so noteworthy. That it's acutally possible for anyone over, say, ten to do all those things at more or less the same time. Not only possible, but fun.

The race is for score. In fact, the score board is a race track. The bidding and bartering is for jewels or points. You start with a showdown, all players choosing between one of three possible things they're interested in bidding and bartering for: position, points or jewels. If you're the only one choosing a particular action, well, then, you go right ahead and do it. If someone else has made the same choice, prepare to barter. You need jewels in order to barter. Which is precisely why you might not be the only one choosing jewels. Which makes it more of a gamble. Especially if three or more people also chose jewels.

On the other hand, it doesn't matter how many jewels you have if you don't win. Which is determined by how many points you have. Which is determined by your position on the inner race track. Which determines what everyone is bidding and bartering for.

OK. So it's going to take some time to learn the game. And no, it isn't like one of those elegant, perfect information, Japanese Go experiences. But it is fun. And often surprising. And not too challenging. And though you're competing, and though only one of you can win, there's just enough luck involved to keep you from taking it too seriously.


from Bernie DeKoven, funsmith

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10 Days in the USA, or 15 maybe

The astute reader will all but immediately note that 10 Days in the USA is highly likely to be found Major FUN Award-worthy, given it's obvious similarity to the already Major FUN Awarded 10 Days in Africa.

What is of such noteworthy note, however, about the 10 Days in Africa and 10 Days in the USA similarity is that 10 Days in the USA is not actually identical to 10 Days in Africa. Of course, you may nod in your uninformed glibness, it is not actually identical to 10 Days in Africa. It's in the USA! But that, you see, is not the only difference. True, there are significant enough strategic differences necessitated by the immediately apparent differences in political geographies. But that is not all. There is, for example, the rule pertaining to Hawaii and Alaska and the color of the airports therein.

So noteworthy are the differences between these two sister games, that, for the first time in the history of the Major FUN Award, we find our royal selves recommending to those who have the therewithall: go ye and purchase either or both, 10 Days in Africa and 10 Days in the USA, because each is just different enough for each to be, separately, and together, found trans-globally Major FUN Award-worthy.

As to the 15 Day in Either Africa or USA variation, that, actually, applies to both, when only two people are playing, and gets our "Why Didn't We Think of That Ourselves" award.

This just in from an unamed source, purported to be the president and lead games designer of Out of the Box Publishing, distributors of the 10 Days series: "10 Days in Europe, 10 Days in Asia, and 10 Days in the Middle East are all in the works, and each will have unique features. Hint: a mode of water transportation."

Who can count the strategically geographic joys awaiting us?

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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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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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Word Sense

Word Sense is a sweet little word game that will keep 2-6 players delicously challenged for ten minutes to an hour of intense but rather joyous competition - especially if everyone shares similar verbal competencies.

The handy plastic carrying case contains 31 letter tiles, two blank dice with stickers, a score pad and pencil. Five of the letter tiles are double letters. There are two versions of the game, one of which requires players to compete simultaneously. We liked this one so much more I'm not even going to tell you about the other version. Which means you won't need the dice.

One player is the Chooser. That player decides how many tiles get turned over (2-5) - the more tiles, the more difficult the challenge. Let's say the Chooser chooses 4 tiles. The other players then pick four tiles, placing them face down in front of them. At a signal from the Chooser, all turn their tiles over. Which might give you something like W D (ED) N (ED being a tile with two letters on it). The challenge - be the first player to shout out a word that uses all of those letters - in any order. A solution: how about UNWEDDED?

We were very pleasantly surprised to discover what a good challenge this little game gave us. There are several variations suggested by the manufacturers. Which is a clear invitation to invent your own.

All in all, most Major FUNly.

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Cityscape

Cityscape is a unique and elegant strategy game for 2-4 players that is simple enough to learn, quick enough to play, and attractive enough to engage the rapt attention of anyone old enough to appreciate a good game.

Using different size wooden blocks (yes, the game is made of wood, warm, smooth, delicious wood), players take turns building up a skyline. Each player is trying to build her own kind of skyline, one that has the highest building here, and perhaps two buildings of the same height there, and a view of all four buildings over there. The difficulty (and challenge) is that the other players are also trying to build their own kind of skyline, each from his own perspective.

There is just enough luck and deductive reasoning to keep the game interesting, regardless of strategic skill. And just enough depth to keep the strategist deeply fascinated. I know of no other game like it. And like it I do. Enough to give it a major Major FUN Award.

Oddly enough, Cityscape is published by Out of the Box. The same Out of the Box that publishes the FunDay Times within which appears, on a daily basis, the writings of Bernie DeKoven, aka "Major Fun," aka me. "Mightn't this," one might be tempted to wonder, "impugn the impartiality of this review?" It is with great relief and unimpeachable objectivity that I herewith reassure one and all that the Major knows a good game when he plays one, regardless of who manifests the perspicacity required to publish what. And, in further fact, if Out-of-the-Box hadn't already been publishing so many Major FUN Award-worthy games, it is unlikely that he would have ever agreed to be associated with the aforementioned in this or any manner.

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SET gets a Major FUN award

Today's Major FUN Award goes to a SET, a card game of perception and logic for one or more players, age six and up.

SET is such a fun challenge, so absorbing, so elegantly designed that it got the Major Fun award even though it's not really a party game (though, conceivably, there's no upper limit to the number of players), or a particularly new game (it was invented about twenty-five years ago) or the kind of game that makes you laugh.

Each card has from one to three symbols of one of three different shapes, of one of three different colors, either outlined, shaded or solid. This outlined, shaded or solid bit makes for yet another complication, so the SET makers, if I may so designate them (actually, it's SET Enterprises) have thoughtfully packaged the cards in two separate decks. The smaller deck contains just the solid ("filled") symbols, and is, consequently, much easier to play with.

The game begins by laying out twelve cards, face -up. Simultaneously, players compete to find three cards that comprise a SET. A SET is: "three cards in which each of the card's features, looked at one-by-one, are the same on each card, or, are different on each card." My wife understood this immediately. After playing several rounds, I discovered myself understanding it (I could find SETs) but still not being able to verbalize exactly what a SET is. Apparently, it's one of those left-right brain things. Which is key to why this game is so compelling. And why it works so well with even school-age kids. And why it's won so many awards. Including the coveted Major Fun award.

Also, because the design is so elegant, it invites variations, several of which, including a cooperative version (always my favorite) are described on the SET site.

SET Enterprises also offers a daily puzzle. It's a great way to get a sense of the game, and a genuinely absorbing challenge in and of itself.

SET is a great family game, a great game for school kids, an equally great game for adults, to play by yourself or at a party, or in a restaurant... Challenging. Elegant. Most truly Major FUN Award-worthy.


from Bernie DeKoven, funsmith

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