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Cracked LCD- Korean Dexterity Games (Click Clack Lumberjack, Coconuts) in Review August 7, 2014 Michael Barnes 3 Comments

dex games

One of the things that having small children makes you realize is that simple games where the fun is easy to get to without a bunch of hobby-work. You start to value games that don’t require a significant investment of time or effort beyond the reach of your young ones. My children are four and a half and two weeks shy of three so they are not exactly anywhere in age range of playing Robinson Crusoe or Mage Knight with dad. I try to find them games that I think will immediately grab them, entertain them for 15 to 20 minutes, and leave us all smiling. But I also want games that I can appreciate as an adult game player. Dexterity games- at least some of the simpler, action-oriented ones are often a good common ground. Recently I picked up a couple of Korean action titles published in the US by Mayday Games, best known for producing card sleeves in non-standard sizes, questionable Kickstarters and Crokinole boards of reportedly table-damaging low quality.

Click Clack Woodsman has been around for a couple of years under a couple of different names and in a few different boxes. The latest edition comes in a pretty spartan package that feels cheap, but it’s a low-cost ($14 from the discounters) crowd-pleaser that offers a fun wood-choppin’ experience both kids and adults can enjoy. If you can understand whacking at a plastic tree with a toy axe, you can play Click Clack Woodsman.

The title of course- regardless of whatever version- is an onomonatopeia of what playing this game sounds like. The tree is composed of a base trunk and nine light brown “core” pieces stacked on top of it. Each has four slots, into which you stick these darker brown bark pieces that effectively encase each slice of the tree. You get two strikes on the tree, and you want to hit a slice in such a way that it slides slightly off an edge, enough for one or more bark pieces to drop down off the tree. You collect these for a point a piece, but if you knock off one of the core pieces by hitting the tree too hard, you’re hit with a whopping -5 point penalty. It’s subtly smart piece of design that each slice-four bark pieces and the core- is actually worth -1 point in aggregate.

click clack

That’s really it, the only other rule is optional- you can put four bug stickers on as many pieces of bark and whoever knocks them off gets an extra turn and an extra point. My kids both got it immediately; literally as soon as I had the tree set up and hit it once to show them what to do. No explanation was really needed, but they didn’t really understand that the core pieces were a penalty. I sort of built a narrative around the game, that we were actually looking for the bugs under the bark and but we didn’t want to hurt the tree and that sold the concept to them.

They also had a little difficulty with figuring out how to hit the tree with the right force. So of course, we had a few turns where the whole tree was left in shambles and others where nothing was moved at all. River does this thing where he tries to double-tap the tree to get a third strike in before he passes the axe, I just let him do it. It ain’t that serious.

So with kids, it’s quite literally a hit. They’ve asked to play it every day. I played it with some adults as well, and like all of the best dexterity games it was met with a lighthearted “WTF is this” followed by laughs and “let’s play again!” From a wizened, veteran gamer perspective, I think it’s really a smart piece of product design. The first time I hit the tree and watched the slice slide and drop the bark I just thought it was super neat.

The other title is Coconuts, and the grinning plastic monkeys should tell you right away that you’re a long way from Caylus, Dorothy. Effectively, Coconuts is kind of a cross between a catapult-based carnival shooting game and Beer Pong. But for kids.

You get eight coconuts, a play mat showing three tree trunks and a foul line and one of the monkeys. There is an array of plastic cups between the players. You put the coconut in the monkey’s hands, pull down, and he flings it backwards over his head. If it lands in a cup, you take the cup and put it on one of your tree trunks. The goal is to build a pyramid of six cups.

Of course this is not as easy as it sounds.

Aiming, applying the right pressure and so forth are obviously core skills. But even the best shot will often bounce right out of the cup because- rather brilliantly- the coconuts are irregularly shaped and made of a bouncy rubber. And there is also a nasty streak in the design, because if you land a coconut in one of the cups stacked up by another player you get to take it. There are also red cups that give you an extra shot if you take them and a small stack of fun (and totally optional) cards that let you do things like block someone from getting a cup if you play the card and call it before the shot. I love that the “Magic Wind” card, which lets you blow to try to divert an opponent’s coconut, has a note in the rules that recommends that you use a newspaper or fan for best results.

This game is a blast. It’s totally stupid, obnoxious and it only takes about one minute after setting it up to get to the fun. My kids just lit up the first time one of them got a coconut into a cup. Once they realized that they could steal cups they started deliberately aiming for each other’s pyramids. River did notably better at the game than Scarlett did, I have to help her control her shots and line up the monkey but I think after another few games she’ll be on her own. We don’t use the cards yet.

coconuts

Adults will find that the cards add more fun and silly interactions without increasing rules or changing the simple carnival game style of play. I’ve been playing with three during kid time, but an all-adults game with four players was just as much fun and I actually wouldn’t mind playing with more using two sets. It’s another one where everyone looks kind of incredulously at the box and then wants to play it five times in a row.

So both of these games were big hits both with my kids and my friends so I think they were a good investment even though both were quite inexpensive. It’s kind of shame that both of these are not available in the US at mass market outlets. For all of the hoo-ha about games like Settlers, Ticket to Ride and Carcassonne making inroads into the larger culture, it’s these kinds of games that have a truly broad accessibility that could reach far outside of the hobby games ghetto and onto the tables of any family.

Cracked LCD- My First Carcassonne in Review

my first carc

My First Carcassonne is Z-Man Games’ new reprint of Kids of Carcassonne and as either title would suggest, this game is a junior-sized version of Klaus Jurgen-Wrede’s classic tile-layer. When the game was first released back in 2009, I didn’t have children. But in 2014 I have a four-and-a-half year old boy and an almost three year old girl. River and Scarlett are already playing lots of different games (as long as they’re not too “domplicated”) ranging from the usual Haba and Ravensburger suspects up through titles as complex as Rampage and Zooloretto with a little help from dad, of course. But of the games I’ve played with them, I don’t think any of them have been as big a hit as My First Carcassonne. It’s rare that I get to play a game over 20 times before committing to a review.

Reworked by designer Marco Teubner, the classic Carcassonne gameplay is stripped down to a core lay a tile, lay a meeple village-building process. The more complicated elements such as the proto-worker placement mechanic, multiple scoring methods and wide range of tile variations are pared away to make it suitable for kids as young as four according to the box, three according to this dad. The big tiles have one very different feature from the original game- they all fit together, no matter what you do, road to road. On each road, one or more children corresponding to player colors may be depicted. When a tile is laid that completes a road (meaning it runs from a village building to another one, a well, a chicken pen or other feature) then each player gets to put one of their meeples on the pictured kids that match their color. The idea is to get all of your meeples on the board to win.

This takes about 20 minutes with my kids, but that includes time to make up stories about what the children are doing, to fiddle around with the pieces, and to remind Scarlett that she can’t put a tile back to pick up another one. More advanced kids could probably complete a game in ten minutes but multiple plays in one sitting are quite possible. Parents surely understand the “one more time” demand.

But the good news is that the game is really fun to play with small children and it is absolutely not a drag. It’s pitched just right with just enough rules for there to be an actual game but without overloading young minds with the kinds of rulebook folderol us older folks have had a few decades to get accustomed to. The process is practically fail-safe, and it is easy to instruct kids as to what “good” plays are and what won’t help them. River will want to put a tile somewhere just because he likes the way it looks but when I explain that he’ll help another player score or that he’ll miss a chance to put one of his meeples out he immediately understands the simple strategy. Scarlett requires a little more help, but she has started to grasp that putting together roads with multiple kids of her color (red, of course) is the way to go.

There was one instance in our last game that I thought was pretty interesting. River always plays blue, so he played a tile that had a blue and a green kid on it that closed up a road. I said “River, that is going to give you a point but it’s going to give me one too so you might want to do something else.” He said “no daddy, I want to help you.” I stopped for a second and the gamer gene kicked in and told me “my son is actually negotiating with me.” But then I realized that he really just did want to help his dad get a point too, no strings attached. That was such a sweetly innocent little moment; I just had to help him win the game with a tile I played later on in the game.

My First Carcassonne is a family fixture at this point, after only owning it for two weeks. The kids seem to always want to play it (they call it “the village game”) and even when we’re not playing it together Scarlett likes to set up the tiles and put the children in the village she’s built. The artwork is really good too- very modern, colorful and appealing. When I showed them the box, they both were very excited and interested before the shrinkwrap was even off it.

As for those readers without children wondering if this is one of those kids’ games that adults might like too, I don’t think that the magic would really be there without kids at the table. It’s an extremely well-considered distillation of a very successful design, but it is firmly aimed at the young- not so much the young-at-heart. A table full of adults plays games very differently than kids would and it could come across as much too simplistic- they’d be better off playing the basic Carcassonne game. But if you do have kids or have kids in your family under ten, this is one of the best games for that audience that I’ve played.

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Cracked LCD- River’s Games

sneaky

Among the loot that Santa Claus brought my son- who just turned three- were of course, a couple of tabletop games. Don’t be silly, I didn’t get my kid Advanced Squad Leader Junior and I didn’t give him the Mage Knight expansion as a stealth own-gift. I got him proper preschooler games. Well, at least partially. No Hi-Ho Cherry-O, no Candy Land, no Snakes/Chutes and Ladders. Not even Cootie. It was the first time I’ve ever bought games for a child, which is an entirely different process altogether. And since I missed a lot of “normal” kid games when I was little because I was already into the hobby stuff at an early age, it was actually kind of odd.

But I went through typical motions. I looked online at reviews and rolled my eyes at these adult, middle-aged men scoffing at preschool-aged games because they “lacked meaningful decisions” or because they didn’t hold an adult’s interest for longer than 15 minutes. Come the hell on. Do we really need these kinds of comments for games designed for three and four year olds? I was pretty disappointed by a lot of what I read in comments and forum posts- too many board game geeks trying to apply board game geek standards to games for kids that can’t even read yet, let alone worry about how much luck is in a game of Candy Land or if there’s some fucking variant to make it more strategic.

I went with a couple of Haba games- they’re a German company that makes some pretty neat kid’s stuff- and a couple of games that I bought straight off the shelf at Target because I thought the subject matter and art would appeal to River. I could not possibly have given less of a toss about “meaningful decisions” or whether the game prepares him to play Le Havre later in life or whatever. I wanted fun, appealing activities to do with him. I’m not trying to raise a gamer. Good Crom, no.

The Haba games were Tier auf Tier, one about stacking wooden animals on each other with a single placement rule determined by a die roll and Knuckling Knights. That one has a cardboard castle tower that you dump knight pawns into and watch them roll into dropout holes, sort of a peewee Wallenstein. River loves knights. The more mainstream games were the Sneaky Snacky Squirrel, which is absolutely adorable in a tree-shaped box and a big plastic squirrel nut-grabber, and a balancing game called Don’t Rock the Boat. That one has pirates, penguins, and a big plastic ship. River digs all three. The rules there are: 1) place a penguin on the boat 2) repeat 3) If you’re the chump that tips the boat, you lose.

The first one he went for was the knight game, and I have to admit that it was pretty awesome showing my boy how to roll a die for the first time and look at the results. He didn’t quite have the hang of taking turns just yet and he didn’t quite get that the die roll showed how many knights he got to throw in, but we had fun just piling in the knights and pulling the trapdoor that dumps them out. After about 15 minutes, I think he got it. I’d roll the die, show him the pips and get him to count out his guys. Then he started saying “and it’s my turn” after I’d go.

The squirrel game was a hit too. You spin a spinner (one of the most criminally underused mechanics in modern gaming) and take whatever color acorn is shown using the big plastic squirrel-shaped nut-grabber. There’s also a robber squirrel on the spinner (shades of Settlers?) and a wind that blows all of your acorn away. It was funny to watch a kind of narrative unfold. “Oh now, they blew away!” “I’m going to take the blue one!” There isn’t a lick of strategy beyond taking a nut of a color you don’t already have. I don’t care, River had fun, and now wants to play it all the time. We even got my 15-month old daughter “kind of” playing it.

Tier auf Tier, oddly, was a miss. It’s apparently a very popular preschool game in Europe, and I thought it looked pretty fun. You roll a die and place a number of wooden animals in any orientation on this crocodile. It’s a balance and dexterity thing, with the drama of total collapse if someone bungles their turn. River messed with the animals for a few minutes but didn’t seem to get into the gameplay at all. Maybe later, but the animals are being played with by both kids so it’s not a total loss.

Don’t Rock the Boat has a similar toy factor with the big pirate ship and penguins. It’s really dumb. But hey, River laughs and says “what’s gonna happen!” every time he puts a pirate on the ship. He’s sort of figured out what areas of the ship are more likely to tip the boat, so he’ll put penguins in the crow’s nest or close to the masts instead of way out at the edge. I find these damn penguins everywhere, and it’s sort of baffling as to why he’s played with that crappy ship more than the $50 Peter Pan pirate ship his grandparents gave him.

So the lessons learned about buying and playing games with River are that I really don’t care at all what the game is, as long as he’s having fun and we’re interacting. I’ve had more fun playing games with River and seeing how he talks about them, plays with them, and learns about them than I have with pretty much any other “adult” game I’ve played in a long time. When you play a game with a three year old, all of the usual hufflepuff, all of the critical chin-scratching, all of the what games should or should not be guff fades away and it becomes just about having fun with a loose structure to hold it altogether. The funny thing is that it’s really not all that much different than what I want from playing “dad’s” games.