Category Archives: Basic skills


If there is a person in the house who claims “I’m not a game person” (and every house seems to have at least one and often several), watch how they react when they witness a game of Cornerstone or Cornerstone Essential (Good Company Games, 2010). Cornerstone looks like a toy – and it probably could be considered a toy, except it comes with rules for up to four players and victory conditions, which means it’s really a game.

But this game has broader appeal precisely because of its toy-like qualities: it involves building with blocks and then using little people (meeples!) to climb on the resulting tower. How is that not fun?! The whole point of the game is essentially to be the king of the structure by the time it’s completed, or else to be at the highest point when the structure falls down. So it’s building blocks mixed with king-of-the-hill, and I challenge any fuddy-duddy daddy out there who thinks he’s too cool to play a game to ignore this while it’s going on. It can’t happen!

It isn’t a block-building free-for-all, however. Each player takes one of the four colors and two special wooden rings. The four-block neutral starter piece is laid on the table, and players start playing on it – and this is where it gets interesting. Each player has twelve building blocks with which to add to the structure, but the building blocks vary in terms of how many unit blocks they are composed of, and there are two of each. For example, there are two building blocks that consist of one unit block, two that consist of two unit blocks, and so on up to the two that consist of six unit blocks. On each turn the player must roll two dice, and the resulting roll of the two dice give the player two options for which building blocks to choose (doubles allow you to choose any block). If a player rolls a two and a four, for example, that player may choose to build with the 2-block building block or the 4-block building block.

The placement rules are such that, when adding to the structure, one full face of a block must be in contact with at least one other full face of the existing structure, such that the resulting structure retains a checkerboard pattern. In other words, a solid face must go against a clear face, and vice-versa; neither clear faces nor solid faces may touch each other. Once a block is added successfully, the player may (and should, if everything is going well) move his/her meeple to any spot perceived to be advantageous through the upcoming opponent turns. Meeples may move only one block at a time, any distance, but they may only move vertically if there is a single step with which to do it or horizontally if they are adjacent to that block. They may not jump up two or more blocks, and they must be directly below the vacant space they want to occupy (they may not move diagonally across and up in one turn). Meeples also may not move through a block that is occupied by another player.

That is the essence of Cornerstone! The “Essential” version is pretty new on the market (as I write this), and it contains the wooden rings, two of which are held by each player. They each represent a special move: when played, a ring allows a player to either jump two vertical levels instead of one, or else it allows a player to move through another player who may be blocking the path. These do alleviate the occasional problem of being totally sealed off on a ledge, or worse, a cave, thanks to other people’s blocks, but there are only two that each player can use throughout the game.

Although it doesn’t appear to be a game heavy in strategy, some players are extremely deliberate about which die roll they use, and precisely where to put the block they have chosen. If the tower is knocked down, the offending player has lost the game, and, of the other players, the one with the highest meeple at the time wins.

I like this game, and have listed it among my top ten family games because it is fun for members of every demographic. It can be played by kids alone, by teens alone, by adults alone, or else by the whole family at once. And it can be just as fun for each group alone. It’s a safe bet for ANYONE in the family!


Buy Cornerstone Essential at Amazon!


Fast action, involving a wooden plunger-tipped “spear,” makes Ooga! (SimplyFun, 2008; aka Dino Booom, 2004) a unique game that appeals to the entire family.

Ooga! consists of “spears,” square “dino” tiles, rectangular “menu” tiles, and four “bone” tiles. Players use the spears to “capture” dino tiles, in an effort to accumulate the dinosaurs depicted on the menu tile. The catch is that the players must compete in rounds, and each round the slowest “dino hunter” must go without a tile.

The dino tiles are laid out, face up, in the center of the table, and a menu tile is turned over. The goal of the game is to acquire more of the menu tiles than any other player. Menu tiles are acquired when a player has successfully hunted each of the colored dinosaurs depicted on that menu card and yelled “Ooga!” before any other player.

But dinosaur tiles can only be hunted one at a time, and according to the “roll” (actually, it’s a “drop”) of the bone tiles. Three of the four bone tiles depict habitats (plains, forests, mountains), so only dinosaur tiles with those backgrounds may be hunted during that round. The fourth bone tile depicts coconuts and fruit, allowing a hunter to choose the corresponding “coconut” dino tile, which is a wild card (representing any color and type of dinosaur on the menu tile).

At the beginning of each round the bone tiles are dropped, revealing the range of habitats that may be chosen by any player. Each player must then immediately decide which dino tile to “spear” based not only on the habitats rolled, but on the type and color of the dinosaurs listed on the menu tile. Whichever player is slowest at choosing an appropriate dinosaur tile must do without a tile for that round. As soon as a player has accumulated each of the dinosaurs (by type and color) depicted on the menu tile, that player must shout “Ooga!” and turn in their tiles. They win the menu tile, and a new menu tile is turned up.

The challenge of quickly determining which of the dinosaur/habitat combinations to choose, coupled with the actual fun of “spearing” that tile, makes this an exciting little game. It definitely has appeal for younger players, but adults can enjoy it too, even alongside youngsters (although the youngest players would have trouble keeping all of the elements straight and still act quickly enough to compete, so I would recommend a handicap for more mature players in that case).

I had two problems with Oooga! Although it should have been simple enough to learn, it took a careful reading of the rules to really understand how to play because they don’t clarify the difference between a hunting “round” and a menu “day.” Besides that, the bone tiles are two-dimensional. Unless there is a large enough playing surface, dropping them can disrupt the rest of the playing area, or else they can bounce off the table onto the floor. One has to sacrifice the satisfying randomness of just throwing them up and letting them land wherever, for a more controlled and less random drop onto a smaller part of the playing area.

Overall, Ooga! turns out to be a lot of fun. It lends itself to multi-generational play, it involves quick-thinking and dexterity, and excitement builds as the game progresses. I recommend it to any gaming family or group of kids!

Buy Ooga! at Amazon!


It is very hard to find a game in which kids can expect to compete with adults, but Sherlock (Playroom Entertainment, 1999) is one of them. It is strictly a memory game, but it uses a much more interesting mechanism than classic memory games (such as “concentration”).

Sherlock consists of a deck of cards (see pic below), which depict a simple iconic image, a number, and an arrow. There is one “Sherlock” card used as a starter. The illustrations are clear and attractive, and geared toward children’s tastes without being too babyish.

The game is played by dealing 8 cards to the center of the table in a circle. Players have a chance to memorize the identity of each card. If necessary, an adult can be handicapped by getting less time to memorize at this point. When players are ready, the cards are turned face-down, and the Sherlock card is laid down next to one card, which is to serve as the starting point.

On a turn, a player must accurately identify the card adjacent to the Sherlock card; if wrong, the player who missed it chooses a new spot for the Sherlock card and play passes to the next player. If the guess is correct, that card is left face-up and the number and arrow on the card indicates the direction and number of cards to jump to. In the example below, the guessing player identified and turned over the pail first (note the Sherlock card above it), moved one to the right and identified and turned over the cherries, then moved three to the left and identified and turned over the comb, and so on. The turn ends when a player guesses long enough that they end up on a card that they have already turned over. In the example below, the chair indicates a move two spaces to the right, which would be the already turned comb. The guessing player wins that card and replaces it – first for all to see, and then face down. The other cards are turned back to face-down, and the Sherlock card is moved to a new spot for the next player. The first to collect 5 cards is the winner!

Since Sherlock is a kid’s game, it’s simple, but it is still a nice challenging game for adults to play with their kids. It even offers a great opportunity to observe and assist kids as they discover and implement memory strategies – which can end up being useful throughout school and life in general.

I highly recommend this game for any child (5 and up), and any family with children. Most people who have played will tell you it’s more fun than they expected, as it was for me. So buy this game – it’s quick, it’s easy, and it’s fun!

Buy Sherlock from Amazon!

221B Baker Street

I waited far too long to play 221B Baker Street (John N. Hansen Co, 1975). It has been considered a classic since I first heard of it in the 1980’s, but I never had the opportunity to play until this past weekend (November 2009), 34 years after its first publication. And I call myself a “game lover.” For shame!

The game itself is, predictably, based on actual Sherlock Holmes mysteries by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Players read a mystery and are given several aspects of the crime to solve. To solve the mystery, however, players must move their pawns from 221B Baker Street on the corner of the London-based map board to various locations throughout the board, in order to collect clues.

The clues are cleverly indexed on the backs of the mystery cards, and the indexes refer to corresponding numbers in the rules book. For example, if I move my pawn into, say, The Boar’s Head Inn on the board, I would look at the back of the card and find the number listed next to “The Boar’s Head Inn.” I would then look up that number in the rules book, and that is where the clue itself is listed. (see examples below) The clues that are given vary in difficulty, and typically give only one part of one of the answers sought. Sometimes the clue given is “No clue at this location,” in which case no information is gained.


It is possible to solve the mystery before all clues are found – in fact with a group of adults it is likely that the mystery will be solved before all clues are found. That’s because the clues provide parts of the answers, and given enough parts it is often easy to infer the others. Once a final clue is given, the ultimate answer is only slightly hidden through rhyming or wordplay. Since there are usually three parts to the mystery (in above example, who committed the crime, how it was committed, and why) it takes at least a little while to gather enough clues to even make a guess.

This game has a scavenger-hunt type of feel to it that makes it fun, but it is essentially a race around the board to find enough clues to get something close to the final answer in order to guess it correctly. The rules encourage players, however, to look in places that would makes sense, including the area of the crime scene, potential neighbors, etc. Doing that did not make a big difference in the game I played, though, so it’s an open question whether that makes sense as a strategy over time. There is some strategy (based on efficiently covering the board) in determining one’s path, but the roll of the die determines how far one moves, so the effects of both are largely washed out.

I recommend 221B Baker Street to younger gamers who might be more challenged by what proved to be relatively simple final clues. A very bright youngster of 8 or more, and more typically teens and young adults should find this game a lot of fun. Any person who is a fan of the Sherlock Holmes stories definitely deserves to have this game!

Note: This game is currently out of print, but is available used through online sources.


Hisss - boxA 4-card snake, who still lacks a tail

Hisss (Gamewright, 2006) is simple to learn, quick, and fun to play!

Easily playable by 4-year-old, fun for kids as old as 10, and parents.

Sole materials are the cardboard cards, featuring snake heads or snake tails in one of six bright colors, or else a snake trunk with different colored edges. Players take turns drawing a card and matching it by color to existing snakes. When a player completes a snake by adding the final tail or head, they win that snake, which is worth the number of cards of which it consists.

There are a few easily mastered tricks, such as linking two pre-existing snakes together; otherwise, the luck of the draw determines the winner – but since a good draw can win a long snake, it is usually the case that nobody is out until very late in the game, and tensions run high!

Buy Hisss on Amazon!