The MAJOR FUN AWARDS go to games and people that bring people fun, and to any organization managing to make the world more fun through its own personal contributions, and through the products it has managed to bring to the market.


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Dr. Toy

Today's Major FUN Award goes to (aka Stevanne Auerbach) for her lifetime, one-woman campaign to help people make the connection between good toys and effective parenting.

I've known Dr. Toy for maybe 20 years and consistently been impressed by her good heart, her commitment to children, her dedication and fortitude. She had at one time created an amazing resource for kids and parents - a toy library and museum - a "Games Preserve" for toys and teaching the wisdom of play. Money was never her prime objective, and, sadly, when her museum was affected by the Loma Prieta earthquake in 1989 and forced to close she was never able to amass the resources to rebuild. In 1986 she lost everything in a five alarm fire in her home and office in SF (fortunately her book The Toy Chest had already gone to the publisher and was printed. Limited copies are available from Dr. Toy.)

She resumed evaluating toys and consulting to rebuild her life. Her web site was the first site on the internet devoted to toy information. The San Francisco International Toy Museum opened in 1986 at The Cannery in Fisherman's Wharf and served over 50,000 children until it was forced to close. Dr. Toy is working with a dedicated group to relaunch a new toy museum in Oakland.

Her spirit is clearly indomitable. Her Dr. Toy award is recognized throughout the industry.

She is the author of two new books: Dr. Toy's Smart Play: How to Raise a Child with a High PQ, and FAO Schwarz: Toys for a Lifetime: Enhancing Childhood Through Play.

Her website is a rich resource of toy reviews and articles about play. She is the kind of person who makes the BERNIE award worth the effort.

Play on, Dr. Toy!




The Varieties of the Balloon Hat Experience

You wouldn't think that making balloon hats could evolve into a spiritual path. Unless you happened to stumble across a website called "The Varieties of the Balloon Hat Experience." As the authors explain:

In 1996, Addi Somekh and Charlie Eckert began traveling to different places in the world to make balloon hats for people and take photos of them. The goal was to show people all over the world laughing and having fun, and to emphasize the fact that all human beings are born with the ability to experience joy. In total, they visited 34 countries and have over 10,000 pictures.

I am amazed at what a rich, luscious, thoughtful, inspiring, and profoundly gift this Balloon Hat Experience proves to be: the amazing gallery of Balloon Hatting around the world, the gallery of Threes - depicting stories of love and balloon-hatted glory in series of three images.

I found this on their What is Laughing page.

"In the Navajo tradition we have what we call Chi Dlo Dil, or a Laughing Party, for a newborn. The Laughing Party is the first laugh you hear from a child. It's usually around six weeks. It's the baby's first expression to the world, saying 'I'm ready to interact.'

...At the party everybody sits around the baby and has a big meal and plays with the baby. The person who makes the baby laugh first plays an important role in the child's life."

Nancy Evans, Shiprock, NM (Navajo Nation)

And this piece of poetic anthropology about the meaning of hats from Mary Holmes is Professor Emerita of Art at the University of California at Santa Cruz.

The head has always been a battlefield. We think of ourselves as livingin our head. Our most important acts aren't performed by our hands or our legs. We think and speak with our head. So the head becomes sacred. It has meaning. Which is why there came to be so much meaning attached to hair and headdresses, to what they look like. And it has enough meaning that it¹s worth fighting about ...I have great faith that hats will come back, because they have been important to humans for millennia. And the balloon hats give people, at least momentarily, a return of that experience of dressing the head. I think that's why it evokes that bubbly, giggly, happy response. People feel that at last they have the recognition they deserve.

I give you a Major FUN Award, o Balloon Hatters of the heart.





BackRound (no, I didn't misspell it. It's not Background. It's BackRound) is another Major FUN Award-winning wordgame from the Coodju people.

Let's start with an example. If someone said "led-nack" to you, offering you the hint "don't burn out on this word," what would you answer. Why, obviously, "candle." Let's continue with another example. How about "top-eat," which, says the hint, "Blows its lid"? But of course, "teapot." Think you've got it? How about "ode-dees-cut?" Want a hint? "Formally speaking, you should have this."

A BackRound, the designers explain, is "a word pronounced backwards." Notice the emphasis. It's pretty much central to what makes this game so fascinatingly fun. Yeah, it's about backwards words. But not about the spelling. And all about the pronounciation.

There are 80 cards, each with 4 different puzzles (which makes for, count'em, 320 total). You need at least two people, so one can be the Reader. You can play with more. Many, many more. You can divide them into teams. You can play every-one-for-him/her-self. Scoring is easy. You solve it, you get the card. You have the most cards at the end of the game, you win.

Then there's the not-actually-obligatory timer, which you can use to add more tension, when more tension is needed. Which, in our case, given our collective obstinance, wasn't.

And there's even a cloth carry-this-game-everywhere bag, which, once you play it, you're more than likely to do.

Should you need further snish-kurt-sni, you'll find them clearly posted on their ties-behw.

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Remember "Geography" - the game you probably played in the car or waiting at the restaurant with your family? You know the one. Someone says the name of a geographical location. Texas. Then the next player has to name another geographical location, starting with the last letter of the previous. Saskatchewan. Then the next: Nebraska. Et, basically, cetera. Remember how surprisingly long that game could last? And how genuinely challenging it could get? And how much fun it could be? Well, that should answer any questions you have about why Respond is so much fun. Because, basically, Respond begins where Geography leaves off.

First, there's the deck of category cards. We're not just talking Geography anymore. We're talking Vegetables, and Boys Names, and Bugs; Colors and Flowers, and Musical Instruments. Which might remind you of that game Categories. Remember? "Gonna Get (clap, clap) names of (clap clap) Candy..." Except you play with the Geography rule. And the categories change every turn. So now you have to be prepared to switch from context to context while figuring out what word starts with the last letter of the word before. Baseball. Larry. Umm. What bug starts with a "Y"? Oh. Yellowjacket.

Speaking of yellow, there are also these yellow-bordered "Lightning" category cards. When you play one, anybody, regardless of whose turn it is, can go next, if they answer correctly. Which adds a remarkably deep strategic pinch, because if you're not fast enough, you get skipped over. And if you are very fast, you can play a second card from your own hand before the timer runs out.

Speaking of which, there's a 20-second electronic timer that quietly blinks at you until you there are only five seconds left. And sedately beeps at you until you run out of time. And then blares a most conclusive siren in your personal face. Hitting it resets it. Not answering before the timer goes off means you have to draw an additional card. Which is not good, seeing as the goal of the game is to be the first player to run out of cards.

Respond is deliciously challenging. It can be played by kids old enough to read. It can be played by almost any number of people. Being based on games that almost everyone knows makes it that much easier to learn.

Everything works elegantly. The cards keep the game exciting. There's no need to keep score. It's easy to learn. Quick to play. If you lose the rules, you can find them online. Even batteries are included.

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Who'd think that a spelling game could be interesting enough, fun enough, exciting enough, to make into a party? Well, Matt and Derry, two, young, entrepreneuring game designers, certainly did. Enough to build a whole game company around. And, after playing it for five minutes, I was as convinced as they were.

Coodju is the kind of game the Major FUN Award was invented for. It's innovative, unique, easy to learn, fast, challenging, funny fun - and it's all done with spelling! You (at least 4 of you over-twelve-years-old types) play more or less in teams. Your partner has a card with five words on it. She reads them to you one-at-a-time. All you have to do to win the card is spell the words correctly. Of course, depending on the roll of the die, you might have to spell the words backwards, or inside out, or spell every other letter, or only the vowels or consonants. And depending on the roll of the other die, you might have twice as much time, or get twice or three times as many points, or take away points from the other guys.

You can almost feel those braincells burning as you try to spell a word "outside-in." P-Y-A-T-R is obviously PARTY. But what, one might ask, is H-S-A-S-P-E-P-N-I?

We liked everything about this game. We liked the challenge. We liked the scoring. We liked the dice. We liked the portable, two-compartment card tray that made it so easy for the Reader to keep track of which cards have been used. We liked the box that had the rules printed right on it. We didn't especially like the scoring pad or sand timer. We appreciated having them. And what, after all, is especially to like about scoring pads and sand timers?

And we especially liked knowing that there was a Coodju Lite - a different package with words that seven-year-olds could spell, a spinner instead of dice, and no scorepad. Coodju Lite is an elegant adaptation of Coodju, reduced in complexity to appeal to the age-impaired, but not reduced in play value. In fact, we found that because the cards in Coodju lite were a different color, we could combine games so the whole family could play together. The designers even included a cloth bag, knowing that kids would cherish the game enough to want to take it everywhere.

As to the "we" - last Sunday's Game Tasting group included myself, my wife, Rocky; the amazing Ivory (a beloved, game-addicted regular), and the co-inventorsm them-very-selves. It just so happened that they lived a couple beaches north of us, and, despite my misgivings about undue influence, they turned out to be wonderful, fun people, who appreciated games as much as we did, and we delighted in their delight as much as ours. It was a rare opportunity, and fortunate in deed that they had such genuinely BERNIE-worthy games to share with us.

That inside-out word, for those of you who are still seeking: HAPPINESS.

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Despite my declared prediliction for "games that make people laugh," every now and then I come across a "serious" game that is so unique, so playable, and so readily invites adaptation and variation, that I just can't let it go by without giving it a Major FUN Award- a game like Sequence.

Sequence is based on the Japanese game of Go-Moku - a kind of tic-tac-toe in which it takes five-in-a-row in order to win. Go-Moku is a classic strategy game, and you'll find a great deal about it on the Internet. This site discusses strategy and interesting variations of the game. There's a site devoted to Go-Moku and it's variations including the classic games of Renju and Pente. Here's the International Internet Go-Moku Foundation. And, for your immediate gratification, here's an online version.

Basing any game on Go-Moku is a fortuitous choice. It is an easy game to understand, even for a seven-year-old. And is strategically deep enough to attract adult play. An even more fortuitous decision is to introduce an element of luck. Suddenly, this game of pure strategy is as much about chance as it is about skill. Which levels the playing field even further, making it an ideal game for a very wide age range. It's a difficult line to straddle, the line between chance and strategy. Sequence not only crosses that line, but arrives at a uniquely playable game.

The Sequence board is a 10x10 grid. A playing card, with the exception of jacks, is depicted on each square in the grid. Jacks are wild. Also included are two decks of cards and three sets of playing pieces. Two to three players or teams can play. Cards are dealt, the squares available for play being determined by the cards that player is holding. Two-eyed Jacks are wild, allowing the player to add a piece anywhere on the board. One-eyed Jacks are called "anti-wild," and are used to remove any piece (the famous "screw-you factor"). The wildness of the Jacks is a prefect touch, adding an extra layer of luck, strategy and interaction.

Given these elements, it is easy to see how readily we can generate new variations and modifications. In addition to the classic Go-Moku variations, we also have cards to play with - cards that can be used to level the playing field (winners have to start the next game with fewer cards), cards that can be declared wild - with all sorts of wild possibilities (reposition one or more of your or your opponent's pieces, reverse direction of play, exchange colors...).

Sequence is an ideal family game. Even for a very large family. The board is well-made, the pieces sturdy, the cards easy to shuffle and hold. And the game is deep enough to withstand hours of play, variation, exploration and invention.

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Qwitch, the "Quick Switch" game, is a card game where speed is just about everything. The task seems simple enough. All you have to do is be the first person to get rid of your cards. And to do that, all you need is the card that is, depending on the roll of a die, either the same, or one greater, or one lesser in rank than the card just played.

The challenge lies in the design of the cards. Each card has both a letter (A-G) and a number (1-8). You can use either letter or number to determine which card to play. The effect of having this choice is similar to that of a mental Indian Burn (forgive the politically incorrect metaphor - an Indian Burn is what we used to give each other on our way out of boyhood by holding an arm with two hands and twisting in the opposite directions). Since there are no turns, and everybody races to be the next to slap down an appropriate card, you frequently find yourself with less than a split second to make your split decision about which of your cards has the right which, letter or number.

The special die that is used to determine whether to go up or down in sequence, or just to match the letter or number of the previous card, is an ingenious bit of game designery. Since the set is finite, beginning with the A-1 and ending with the H-8 cards, the die can be the only thing that can keep the game going. Rolling it gives you just long enough to catch your mental breath and reorient yourself to the new rule. And it's quite a delight to discover that matching can be just as consuming a challenge as continuing the sequence.

Qwitch is not a game for the contemplative or easily frustrated. Since there's no time for compassion, it's all too easy for the deliberative player to be, as they say, left holding the cards. The designers do suggest a version for the younger or fainter of mind in which, rather than playing simultaneously, players politely take turns. Needless to say, that variation was ruled out by us adult-types after about five seconds of play. If you find one or several of your playpals to be of the more deliberative type, you might consider a "level the playingfield" strategy, allowing each player to determine how many cards he or she will start with - the faster players taking more to "win with honor."

Though simple, the rules are a bit difficult to follow. Perhaps because of the layout of the rule sheet (which, as in all Out-of-the-Box games, is printed on much-appreciated card stock). Perhaps because a lot of very simple games prove remarkably difficult to describe. It's a minor obstacle, and the game is well-worth whatever slight efforts are needed to get started.

Qwitch is a fascinating, fast-paced game, similar to the Major FUN Award-winning, Out-of-the-Box game Blink. For 3-5 players, ages 7-adult, Qwitch is an energizing, and deliciously challenging card game that can be played in less than five very intense minutes.

Spit (a.k.a. Speed) is probably the closest of the traditional card games to match the speed and excrutiating joy of Qwitch. It's basically a double solitaire in which two players compete to play cards onto the same "tableaux" piles. The Qwitch-like aspect of the game is that no turns are taken, both players playing simultaneously. This causes endless opportunities for agony as one player beats the other to the piles. Since only two players are involved, it's a little less chaotic. But then again, Spit is for kids.




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