Tag Archives: Mensa Select Award


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!


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For a while, when Facebook was really becoming more well-known, it offered a series of very popular quizzes, such as “What animal are you?”, or “What 80’s band are you?” In these quizzes you would answer a series of questions and then be given an answer that supposedly had something to do with your core identity (Oh please let them say I’m a bear and not a shrew!).

Imaginiff (Buffalo Games, 1998) is the same game, but it was around first and it allows players to lay those assessments on each other instead of wading through a questionnaire. The beauty of Imaginiff, which it shares with certain other great games (Scattergories, Balderdash), is that it has taken a game that people have played for years, given it a definite form and definite rules, and put it in a box for everyone to enjoy.

The key component of the game is the deck of cards that provide a list of six items within a particular category:

The basic mechanism involves players identifying the item on each list that applies to other players. To demonstrate, consider a friend, and answer the question: “If your friend were a cable channel, which one would s/he be?” The options are: Comedy Central, The Playboy Channel, CNN, The Discovery Channel, ESPN, or The Sci-Fi Channel. It’s fun enough to try to place our friends and family members in these categories, but it’s even more fun to talk about our choices, or consider out loud why one is better than the other.

Being able to involve people who aren’t there is one feature that makes this game more interesting, because if there are only 3 or 4 present for a game it provides a satisfyingly easy excuse to talk about other people. And that’s something that already comes naturally to just about everybody.

Points are awarded based on matching answers; each round, one person is chosen, a card is read (in reference to that person), and other players choose the best match. Those players who have the most matching answers are awarded points, and move on the board. The fun, of course, is in considering the answers and then defending them. In my experience it is just as fun to grab the cards and read them aloud, then enjoy the debate. But since the board gives structure and an endpoint to the game, it is still useful.

I consider Imaginiff one of my top 10 family games, because it offers such a playful way to interact with people we know well. It has a nice blend of tension and release, it is (mostly) playable by younger people (as long as you ignore the more difficult categories), and it is conducive to inter-generational play – but it’s also good to get parties started. With the exception of the hardcore strategy gamers, I can’t think of too many game shelves where this game would be out of place.

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Forbidden Island

Forbidden Island (Gamewright, 2010) just won the widely respected Mensa Select Seal, and I’m happy to say that it received my number one vote there (Mensa Select Seals are awarded annually at Mensa Mind Games, which was held in San Diego last weekend; go to my other blog at http://meeplespeak.wordpress.com/. for a description of the top five winners).

Forbidden Island is a cooperative game, so instead of players trying to outdo each other, they are working together to “beat the game.”  Players compose a team of adventurers, racing against time to retrieve four treasures from a sinking island, and then escape before the water rises. If they escape with all four treasures, they have won.

Each player takes on a different role (Pilot, Engineer, Navigator, Messenger, Diver, or Adventurer), each having a special – but not outrageously powerful – ability, which aids in the three main tasks – getting around the island, “shoring up” the island (undoing the effects of rising water), and moving or claiming treasure. The island itself consists of tiles laid out randomly  in a cross-shaped grid. Some tiles are labeled as places to claim treasure, and some are labeled with pawns, and serve as starting places for that player (pawn colors correspond to the identity and special ability of that player). There are six roles to choose from, but a maximum of four players results in the absence of at least two specialists.

Players alternate turns, performing three actions per turn, from this list: Move to an adjacent tile, Shore up a tile that has been flooded (i.e., unflood it), Give a treasure card to another player, or Claim a treasure. After the actions are taken, players draw two treasure cards – one of which might actually be one of three “Waters Rise” cards in the deck, but many of which represent one of the four treasures to be claimed. It takes four treasure cards to physically claim a treasure. When a “Waters Rise” card is chosen from the treasure deck, “Flood Cards” are drawn from a different deck. Each Flood Card represents one tile, thus revealing which tiles will be flooded. Those tiles are physically inverted, or, if they had already been inverted, they are removed from the game, along with their flood card. Yikes! As the game progresses, water levels only get higher…so more cards are drawn…thus more tiles flood when the Waters Rise cards are drawn. To make matters worse, when the Waters Rise cards is drawn, all the flood cards previously drawn are reshuffled and placed on top of the draw pile, so they are the first to be drawn again.

Forbidden Island is exciting to play. Your fate is bound to the fate of your colleagues, so each player has a stake in what the other players do. The bulk of the time is spent deciding, as a group, how to spend each of the three activities a player gets. In my first game we were literally one card away from being overtaken by the flood waters, and it was surprisingly simple to imagine ourselves on the rapidly disappearing island, trying to make it safely to the helicopter pad (“Fools’ Landing”).

For me, one very reliable sign of a good game is how easily immersed you are into its world, and Forbidden Island did that within two turns, and maintained it. It’s recommended for ages 10 and up, which is probably fair because one must really consider possible future problems and contingencies to win, but an 8 year old could enjoy the game with a little help. If you want to try something new for just a few people, give this game a shot!

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Gheos (Z-Man Games, 2006) is an interesting, attractive, and relatively small and affordable game, easy enough to learn quickly – but quickly complicated by the range of options available on every turn.

Players are divine entities rearranging parcels of land in an effort to maximize the size of their following. The parcels themselves are triangular tiles, featuring one or more land masses bordered by water, which join to make “coastlines” or “continents” – continuous stretches of land. Players take turns placing one of their two randomly drawn tiles into empty slots, or replacing existing tiles, in order to construct continents to their own advantage or to the opponents’ disadvantage. Once a tile is played, a player may designate a “following” by placing a colored disc onto any empty continent. They may alternatively take a cube – a “follower” – of any color that is in play (a color that has already been played onto a continent, that is). The goal is to earn points by amassing high-value followers.

The triangular tiles in Gheos have one of several icons on them, in the form of circles, temples, and pyramids. Pyramids simply identify tiles that cannot be replaced – they are the only tiles that will remain in place once they are put on the table. Temples and Circular icons depict cups, wheat, and swords. Cups and wheat confer points, and swords are used to determine the outcome of a “war.” When identical logos are combined, through tile placement, on the same continent, any following on that continent will be stronger.

Once a continent is claimed by a following, no other following may be played. However – and this is where the game becomes really interesting, if slightly complicated – because a player may replace an existing tile, one continent can be broken into two new ones (split), or two separate continents can be merged into a new single continent (merged). In a split, the follower has to follow the wheat – they must be placed on the new continent that has the most wheat. If there are equal amounts of wheat icons, the player doing the splitting decides. In a merger, if both continents have followers, the one with the most swords remains and the other simply goes away. In the case of a tie, the player doing the merger decides.

One other very important part of Gheos is the scoring, which occurs inconsistently throughout the game, through three different mechanisms. When a temple tile is played and the land has a following, a player gets points for the number of round icons that match the temple. When a “scoring chip” (see the round cup-icon chip above) is played, the player gets points for the number of cups and the number of followers on a continent. Each player has the opportunity to play up to three scoring chips. When an “Epoch” tile, instead of a regular land tile, is drawn, a scoring round occurs. Follower cubes and the number of pyramids on a continent determine the number of points scored by each player.

The scoring mechanisms are hard to keep straight, and it is quite hard to think ahead in any effective way. The tiles vary so much and the potential to totally revise the board in one or two turns by replacing tiles really makes this a game of quick reaction and intuitive timing. Knowing which followers to grab and when to cash in a scoring chip is crucial to the game, because the game can change so fast otherwise.

Gheos would be good for most lovers of abstract strategy games. Despite its complications, it is simple enough for kids as young as 10 – but it is sophisticated enough for much older and serious players. I would recommend it for any game enthusiast, as well as any game player who likes other tile-laying games such as Carcassonne.

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Wits & Wagers

So…you have about 20 people over and it’s kind of boring, no one’s really talking about anything interesting and people aren’t too familiar with one another. What do you do? You break out Wits & Wagers (North Star Games, 2005), that’s what!

Billed (accurately) as “The trivia game for people who don’t know stuff,” Wits & Wagers is a trivia game in the sense that you have to answer questions – but rewards don’t come from knowing the answers, they come from placing bets on the players who do know the right answers.

Now in its second edition, the game includes a 28-inch-long felt betting mat, poker chips, trivia cards, player betting markers (2 each in 7 different colors),7 dry-erase pens and mini-boards, and a sand timer. Up to 21 people can play, forming as many as seven teams (individuals may play alone as well).

The goal of the game is to finish with the most points after seven rounds. On each round, a “question reader” reads the appropriate question on the card – the first question for the first round, and so on – and each player or team comes up with their best guess at the answer. The questions always have a numerical answer, typically one that very few people will know outright (see below). Teams have 30 seconds to record their answers, after which the answers are revealed and placed in order of magnitude (lowest to highest) on the large betting mat.

Players then have 30 seconds to place up to two bets on any of the answers, hoping to win one of 4 payoffs (2:1, 3:1, 4:1, or 5:1). Players may also bid on an eighth space, for a 6:1 payoff, labelled: “The correct answer is smaller than all given answers.” Players then identify their bids by placing their colored betting markers on their bets, and then the answer is revealed. The answer that comes closest to correct without going over is considered correct, and all players who bet on this answer receive the corresponding payoff. The player whose answer was chosen also gets 10 bonus points. If all answers went over, there is no bonus given, and only players who bet all answers were too high wins a payoff.

When I first played Wits & Wagers, we had a group of over 20 people (at a board-gaming event), and more were attracted by the laughing and fun. Since then it has not failed to please.

I recommend Wits & Wagers for any family or group that is likely to get larger than, say, 8 people. The more the merrier with this game, but it is still plenty of fun for 6 or more. It is intellectually stimulating, but, as advertised, one need not know anything about trivia to enjoy or even win the game. It is sufficient to know the right people to bet on from turn to turn.

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Many have played Fluxx (Looney Labs, 1997), and many more have heard of it, but if you haven’t played it yet then you won’t understand. I shall do my best to make you understand, though, but I encourage you to invest the $20 (0r less) and give it a try. Chances are you will be glad you did. You might even wish to go for one of the Fluxx variants that are now on the market, such as Zombie, Martian, Monty Python, Family, Stoner, Eco, Reduxx, Espanol, Christian, or Jewish Fluxx. One doesn’t need to know the basic game in order to appreciate the spin-offs; in fact, the opposite is true.

So what’s so interesting about Fluxx? Why do fans of the game get this other-worldly glaze over their eyes when it comes up in conversation? Because it is the first game in which the goal of the game, the mechanisms of the game, and the rules of the game are subject to change at any moment. Because of the constantly changing landscape of a game of Fluxx, it makes for a wonderfully chaotic experience.

The game starts off innocently enough – each player gets three cards, and the remainder become the draw deck, which is placed in the middle of the playing area. Alongside the draw deck, the “Basic Rules” card is placed face up (see below). The basic rules are simple enough: Draw one card, and play one card. But once cards are played, the rules change. Since there is no basic “goal” of the game, there is no way to win, until someone plays a “goal” card.

A goal card specifies winning conditions. The two visible cards below, for example, indicate that whichever player has two specific cards in front of them (the Sun and the Moon, or Dreams and Money) wins the game.

A player gets such cards in front of them by placing them there during the “play” part of their turn. Such cards are called “keepers,” and are so labeled:

The keepers are specific to the theme of the game, and in the original Fluxx game are simply iconic items (the Sun, the Moon, Chocolate, a Toaster, etc). In themed Fluxx games, they are significant aspects of that theme – in Monty Python Fluxx, one might, for example, have King Arthur, the Nude Organist, or the Knights who say “Ni!” A feature of more current editions that the original lacked are “Creeper” cards. These cards, once drawn, must be placed in front of the drawing player and prevent that player from winning the game until they are removed or destroyed, unless another rule supercedes the Creeper card’s function. Confused yet?

“Action” cards, once drawn, must be played immediately, and describe an action that must be taken:

Action cards have a significant impact on game play, and go hand in hand with “New Rule” cards. New Rule cards are self-explanatory, and simply dictate how many cards should be drawn, how many can be played, and various other actions that may be taken by the players (see below).

New rules will often contradict older rules, in which case the older rule is discarded. Action cards are discarded after they are followed, as well.

So that is Fluxx, not only in a nutshell, but pretty much completely. Players take turns drawing and playing cards until one of the players has met the conditions of whatever goal is currently featured. The specific rules of drawing and playing change constantly. This makes for a lot of frustration for players who love the planning and execution that goes along with strategy games, but for the most part Fluxx is so wildly unpredictable from draw to draw that just about everyone has a good time.

I definitely recommend this game to just about anybody 8 or older, or anybody who is a fan of one of the themed decks. Fluxx is easy to pick up and play, relatively inexpensive, small and easy to pack for travel, and it is definitely a great family game since the winner is just as likely to benefit from luck as any one else. Game lovers are not the only ones who like Fluxx – I know a lot of people who do not consider themselves game players who have played and enjoyed Fluxx, a few of them enough to own the game.

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Spy Alley

If your kids (8 and older) are starting to act like they’re pretty clever, then Spy Alley (Spy Alley Partners, 1992) is an excellent way to challenge them, to see if they can outwit you. It is a simple game, but for such a simple game it is remarkably well-balanced, and it is just as complicated as the players themselves make it.

In Spy Alley, each player secretly takes on the identity of one of six spies: American, English, French, German, Russian, or Italian. The goal of the game is very simply to be the first to acquire the four items that each spy needs (password, disguise, codebook,  and key), make it back to their own embassy on the board, and reveal their identity. It is almost as easy as it sounds, but here’s the rub: if another player can accurately identify your nationality, then you are out of the game. Here’s a further rub, one which really complicates things: a player who misidentifies another player is out of the game.

The really unique part of Spy Alley is the pegboard that serves to collect each “item” (see below). As players circle the board, they have the opportunity to purchase different items, which are represented by black pegs inserted into corresponding holes in the appropriate spy column. To win, a player must have each item under his or her own nationality represented with black pegs. But if other players guess at the identity correctly, that player is eliminated. Therefore, bluffing is an a critical part of the game’s strategy. It is accomplished by purchasing objects and placing their pegs in the columns of different spies, leaving the other players to guess at one’s actual identity.

Players take turns rolling the dice, or else playing a “move” card, in order to circle the board and accumulate money and spy items. Once they have collected all of their items, they are free to move through “Spy Alley” and try to land on their embassy in order to reveal themselves and thus win the game. There are spots on the board where players win money, or free items, or “move” cards, and one where players may guess at another player’s identity without the risk of being eliminated. Play moves fast, and something could happen on every turn, so there isn’t a lot of waiting around in Spy Alley.

The best part of the game is obviously the bluffing, and it’s remarkable how much that levels the playing field between kids and parents, or older and younger kids. Games do not last too long, and those that do are fun enough to watch because of their excitement. I can only remember one game where a player actually bought items for only his spy, and then proceeded directly to the embassy to win. The rest of us were sure he was bluffing, and by the time we decided to put an end to it, it was too late. he made it to his embassy and the game was over.

I definitely recommend this game to anyone with kids 7 or over. The best thing about it is how it automatically scales itself to the audience, and everyone has a reasonably good chance to win. Adults don’t have to dumb down too much to allow the kids to compete – and that’s worth a lot on family game night.