Monday, March 16, 2009

Fun With a Twist: the Hula Hippos Game

Ranger is now a member of the preschool set. That's a pretty big milestone, but one that we are almost as proud of is being a budding member of the board gamer set. You see, Ranger sees us playing games pretty regularly and has recently taken a keen interest in joining in the fun. Luckily, Adrienne has been preparing for this very situation and has been stockpiling age appropriate games that she comes across in thrift stores for months (and we'll surely talk about some of them). With an eye towards his fascination, we also recently accepted some games from Gamewright to test with him.

One of those games was Hula Hippos.

Hula Hippos is a dexterity game that requires players to spin a wooden ring and then flick wooden hippo tokens in such a way that they wind up in the playing area inside the ring once it stops spinning. It is the American version of the German Habba game Maus nach Haus, which had the same mechanic but replaced the hippos with little wooden mouse tokens.

There's no real complexity to the game(s) beyond that. Line the tokens up around the edge of the playing area, each player takes a turn spinning the ring (something that my three and a half year old son can handle with the well balanced wooden ring) and then each player tries to flick the token into the playing area. Play continues until one player has successfully captured four hippos when the ring has stopped spinning. This may take a few turns around the table as some rounds go scoreless and others score one to a couple of points per spin.

I'll be straight with you. I really like this game.

It is simple enough that Ranger can start learning the basics of playing any game; learning to wait his turn, what a turn consists of, following the rules, setting up the game, etc. Part of the nice thing about Hula Hippos is that each turn is so short, lasting only as long as the ring spins, that we can take time to focus on all these parts of general game play.

Before we start a turn, we line up our hippo tokens and give Ranger all the time he needs to mimic us as he does the same (and that can take a little while with a preschooler). Then we try to take a practice flick of the tokens around the table. This gives Ranger a chance to see how to do it so that he can imitate us in learning this skill. Then whomever's turn it is to spin the ring, takes the turn and we do our best to judge our shots so that the ring stops around our tokens. If we're lucky, we have the opportunity to practice counting for the scoring round.

Even though this is a simple game, it isn't easy. It takes a bit of skill and luck to position the hippos such that they actually score points. Once (and only once), I was able flick a hippo hard enough that it knocked the ring from its rotation straight down around its hippo captive. Kids will definitely gain some dexterity skill over time while playing this game. There is a visceral thrill you get when actually capturing one of your herd and Ranger gets very excited when any player scores a point. Hula Hippos is fun enough that as soon as one game is over, we're generally setting up for a few more rounds.

So, if you want a simple game that is rewarding to play and takes a bit of skill to master, definitely give Hula Hippos a try. If you have younger players (recommended ages are for 5 and up), pick this up and try it out. As it has small pieces that could present a choking hazard, be careful playing it with these younger players, but a well supervised game shouldn't pose a problem.

What dexterity games do you like to play?

Monday, March 09, 2009

When the Walls Came Tumbling Down: Toys R Us Injures Mom, Then Acts Like It Doesn't Matter

When it comes to plastic safety and baby bottles, it's hard to find any resource that rivals Z Recommends. Even though their own child no longer used bottles, Jenni and Jeremiah McNichols dedicated countless hours to offering parents BPA information previously unreported, unconsolidated, and impossible to find (I know, I looked).

These consumer advocates changed the way many of us consider plastic use with our children and their often-cited BPA reports (and resulting consumer reaction) seem to be altering the behavior of giant corporations as 6 more major bottle manufacturers declare plans to phase out BPA offerings.

Well, the McNichols had a family trip to Toys R Us that changed all their lives. Jenni was seriously injured in a situation that should be safe. Then Toys R Us (local and corporate) gave her the run-around when it came to medical bills and health problems.

We rarely ever darken the door of our local Toys R Us, it's usually a zoo of unhappy parents and tantrum-throwing children. In our infrequent visits, I have expected the facilities to be safe for children and adults. It's horrifying to think that a person can be injured like Jenni and then given the run around. Instead of apology and concern for a family's well-being, Toys R Us added frustration and insult to Jenni's serious injury.

Please keep an eye out for safety hazards in public places and insistently report any you see to management to prevent incidents of this kind.

And watch your back in Toys R Us, apparently it's wrong to assume that a store catering to children would have higher standards of safety and maintenance.

Come Into My Parlor: Apples to Apples, Our Gateway Game

When we started getting really excited about lesser-known games, we would take them to some group events and watch them sit untouched. More familiar games like UNO, Scattergories, and Pictionary always took precedence. It was frustrating to play old standards when our new games offered something so different.

Then we struck upon a formula. We lobby passionately that one of our games be played first. Usually (mostly likely out of politeness) people will agree with one round even when they're alreay shuffling the well-worn Skipbo deck.

That first game then determines the course of the evening: Impress the crowd and your games will prevail. Lose the crowd and you might as well load the games back in the car.

In your average family reunion type crowd, your kick-off game must be simple to learn, fast to play, and have a pretty even playing field. The themes cannot be quickly brushed off as a geeky, macabre, malevolent, or obscure (you're saving all that for later).

Apples to Apples is one of our favorite inaugural games. I can already hear the protests that Apples to Apples IS a mainstream game, but it started selling in the small game shops. Then it grew to wider availability. Any way, it's a game outside the Parker Brother's canon, so you're probably introducing people to something new(er) to them.

It takes around a minute to explain and almost no time to set up (this makes it really to get out on the table first if you're trying to shanghai the crowd through speed). You set out a deck of green cards (adjectives) and red cards (nouns).

Each player is dealt a hand of 7 red cards which they conceal from other players.
The dealer then reveals the top green card.
Players then select and submit a red card that embodies the green card's characteristic.

The dealer chooses their favorite submission. The person submitting the chosen card wins the hand and keeps the green card until the end of the game. Everyone (everyone except the dealer) draws a new red card. The person to the dealer's left becomes the new dealer. Play continues until a player has won a certain number of hands (which varies with group size).

One of the great things about the game is the unpredictability of the dealer's selection. While I tend to like abstract connections, other player may be more literal or ironic. The ability to assess each dealer's preferences offers advantage in the game.

The change of dealer and comparison preference shakes things up a lot. Rarely does a single player dominate the entire game.

To speed the game, we play with the variation that the last person to submit a card is not allowed to compete in that hand. So, with a group of 6 players, only 4 cards would be accepted (neither the dealer nor the slowest player contribute). This keeps the overall pace brisk and adds the thrill of speed and movement to each play.

Apples to Apples can be found online and at most bricks and mortar retailers who carry games:
  • Recommended retail price is $26.99.
  • Ages: 12-Adult
  • 4 to 10 players
  • Competitive
  • Party game; family game
  • length of play (varies with group size): approximately 30 minutes

Friday, March 06, 2009

Pledge Some Time During National Reading Month: Make Great Memories And Maybe Win a Tag

Ranger and I just read Skippyjon Jones in the Dog House before he curled up for a nap.

Jim and I both have fond memories of reading time with our parents in childhood. Jim's dad read to Jim from his college children's literature textbooks. My mom often read from selections like A Child's Book of Poems, a kid's Bible, Shel Silverstein, Jack Ezra Keats, and Beatrix Potter while Dad preferred Paddington Bear and Beowulf.

As I got older, my grandma gave me the Little House and Anne of Green Gables series. My dad offered Anne McCaffery. My mom's tastes in youthful reading were evidenced by the shelves of books around my grandparents' home: bright-eyed sleuths like Nancy Drew, the Hardy Boys, and the Bobbsey twins cozied up to my uncle's favorite animal adventurists like Rin Tin Tin and Lassie.

Similarly, Jim's family deeply influenced his early reading. So much in fact, that he wanted to share the experience of great books with young friends. One college summer, he and preschool cousin could often be found sitting in the evening shade while Jim read The Hobbit aloud.

Anyway, please take some time this month to spend with a young reader. Pledge 10, 20, or 30 minutes daily to LeapFrog's 1 Million Hours Reading campaign. It's a great way to revisit some old favorites with new eyes and voices.

Plus LeapFrog will give an awesome Tag Reader and 5 Tag books to one lucky Baby Toolkit reader who has pledged their time to read. As if that prize wasn't cool enough, the winner's local library will receive a School Edition Tag with expanded memory and 10 Tag books.

So pledge some hours of great entertainment this month, and then enter our Tag giveaway:
Even if you don't win the Tag, you still get an awesome prize in the time spent reading with those you love.

What people and books shaped your childhood?

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Fun Paranoia: Playing "Are You a Werewolf?"

"I swear to everyone! I am not the werewolf!" I yelled into the group of family members (now villagers) that surrounded me as, one by one, fingers pointed me out as the next victim of the mob's judgment. If I didn't think fast, I would be the next to go. Unfortunately, I couldn't come up with anything more than an unconvincing, "I swear! I'm not it." And thus my first time playing the game, "Are You A Werewolf?" ended.*

The Essentials

"Are You A Werewolf?" (we just call it Werewolf) is one of the more interesting games that we have acquired recently. It is a game for 8 to 15 players, which is distinctive among games that usually have 8 players as the absolute maximum.

The premise of the game is that a remote village has awoken one day to find that a hapless tourist has been murdered in the town square. By the savagery of the attack it is obvious that there are werewolves among the townspeople. It is up to players to use their powers of observation and persuasion to ferret out who among them leads a double life at night before they all fall prey to these monsters.

For $4 to $6 (plus shipping and handling if your local game store doesn't carry it), you get a small deck of 20 cards that includes 2 werewolf cards, 1 seer card, 1 moderator card, 12 villager cards, and a couple of instruction and etiquette cards. Each card has an identical back with the words "Are you a werewolf?" printed across them. The other side of the role cards is a black and white illustration of a howling werewolf, a fortune teller, or a lowly villager respectively. The moderator card is a script to read during the parts of each round in the game. That's it. There's not much in the way production values associated with this game. But that's okay, because Werewolf, being a bluffing game, is all about the interactions between players.

Werewolf is based on a game, created by Dimitry Davidoff, called "Mafia" that became popular in Russia in the late Eighties. In 1997, Andrew Plotkin, learned about it and modified it to work in a werewolf theme. He then posted the rules on the Internet for everyone to enjoy. The Looney Labs version of the game is closest to the original, but there are many variations.

If you don't want to pay for the Looney Labs version of the game, you can download the instructions and play with a standard deck of cards. However, I actually like using store bought version of the game cards. The glossy cards are pretty sturdy and are small and the script and tips make it easier for first time gamers to grasp the basic concepts of the game. The illustrations also serve to help remove any confusion (any "Wait, what does the ace represent again?" moments) about what's happening and who's who in the game.

The Game

"Are You a Werewolf?" essentially takes place in the imaginations of and interactions between the players involved. The moderator's job is to set the scene and move the game through its stages. Everyone else chooses a card, in turn, randomly from the deck. The cards will identify them as either a villager (the majority of the players), the seer (who is a villager with a special ability), or one of the two werewolves. Players keep their identity on the card secret. As far as everyone is concerned, each player is a villager by all outward appearances.

And that's the problem.

Each round consists of two phases broken into three parts total and basically mimics a night and the next day. Each night everyone playing the game (usually arranged in a circle or semi circle surrounding the moderator) closes their eyes and slaps their legs to make chatter. The chatter masks any movements by other players who drew either the werewolves or the seer so that they aren't outed too easily.

The first part of the night phase the players who drew the werewolf cards (and only those players) are told to open their eyes. The werewolves are then given a few moments to silently agree on who they are going to devour that night. After making sure the moderator has seen their choice, they close their eyes.

Then, during the second part of the night phase, the player who drew the seer card is allowed to open their eyes. The seer has the special ability to look at a person and tell if they are a werewolf or not. Unfortunately they only get to choose one person per round. After making their choice, the moderator lets them know what they found out with a thumbs up (werewolf) or down (villager). The seer then closes his or her eyes.

Then the fun part begins. Everyone is told to open their eyes. The moderator then reveals which villager was devoured during the night. That player is out of the game and allowed to watch the rest of the proceedings (which can actually be a lot of fun) as long as they stay quiet. Now, the remaining players are told, it is up to the village to agree on which villager they think is the werewolf and "dispose" of them.

The only problem is there isn't much to go on to make that choice. What ensues (with a good group) is a bunch of accusation, recrimination, bartering, and bluffing. If players are good, over time they will start to observe clues that may help them figure out who is or is not a werewolf. The seer is in the unique position to have information that no one else has. They know the true identity (villager or werewolf) of at least one player. How they parcel that info out takes some strategy. They don't want to insist they are the seer in either defending a wrongfully accused villager or fingering a werewolf too early as they are sure to be the werewolves next meal. However, if they wait too long, it may be to late to save the fate of the village. And there's nothing to stop anyone else from claiming that they are the real seer. Anybody can claim anything in fingering a player for mob justice or defending themselves from attack. Maybe the werewolf is the person who is always the first to point out a villager, or maybe its the player that hangs back and lets everyone else do the dirty work. Play continues until either the villagers identify and get rid of all the werewolves or the number of werewolves equals the number of remaining villagers.


That's all there is to it. It's a very simple premise, but no single game that I have run of Werewolf is even close to being the same. I've run this game at an office Christmas party (because it fits a Yule theme so well) and a family reunion. Both times, it took a bit of convincing to get the first 7 players (I moderated), but after the initial run we were easily able to fill all 15 slots. Every group loved playing after all and many players asked where they could pick up a copy. Also, we were able to entertain two large groups of players for hours. People seemed to enjoy the psycho drama and sheer strangeness of the game's premise.

Let's dispense with the rest of the descriptions and just show you a game of Werewolf in action. This is a video of Werewolf being played made by a public access show, The Game Shelf:


Werewolf has a ton of variations that you might like to check out. Many are house rules that add additional roles and special abilities that keep the villagers guessing and the werewolves on their toes. One rule variant is the addition of the "lovers" that you can find on Andrew Plotkin's Werewolf page. Others have been gathered into a couple of boxed sets including:

Ultimate Werewolf: Ultimate Edition


Werewolves of Millers Hollow

Final Thoughts

I am not sure how young of players I would play the game with. The suggested age is 8 and up, but we are talking about a game that suggests savage murder and mob rule. So take that into advisement when considering with whom to play the game.

One other thing is to consider your group. I've run the game for two diverse groups and it went well, for most part both times. However, some people might get their feelings hurt if they get bumped off too early. Personally, I've only been able to play as a non-moderator once and one of the joys of being the moderator and one of the bumped off players is watching the WHOLE story play out and see peoples tactics and motivations come into play. Some people can't see that and we had one of two players that just didn't like the game. You may also see sides of people that you haven't witnessed before. As Adrienne said in the opening post of this series, that's why we like playing games, but it may not be your cup of tea. If you don't want to know that your significant other has a devious or ruthless side (or timid or sarcastic side), this may not be the game for you.

This is one of our favorite new (to us) games and we hope that you enjoy it too. If you decide to play it in any of its forms (or have played), let us know what you think in the comments.

* Oh and in case you were wondering. I was a villager.

Sunday, March 01, 2009

Kill Dr. Lucky: Muderous Intentions As Amusement

Last Tuesday, Raptor baby sat on the lap of an attempted murderer. I took the matter lightly as everyone gathered around my dining room table was actively scheming to become a full-fledged killer.

My pile of preselected titles for a girls' night out game night, went ignored after Kill Dr. Lucky entered the conversation. Our friend mentioned how much her children* enjoyed the game, and soon I was pulling out our color edition of the game (Titanic Games, 2006).

Like Clue, game players are wandering around a remote mansion. Unlike Clue, everyone wants to kill the mansion's owner, Dr. Lucky. Players search the house for weapons and work to get Dr. Lucky alone in a deserted area. When an attempt is made on Dr. Lucky, other players work to foil the attack (so they can kill Dr. Lucky and win the game).

The weapons range from the delightfully ludicrous (tight hat, bad cream, civil war cannon) to ones filled with literary allusion (monkey's paw, trowel). Our party of six spent over an hour alternately making attempts on and rescuing Dr. Lucky.

The experience reunited me with an old favorite, and introduced friends to a new one. Because of some smart rule changes (every player gets to play at least one turn and the addition of spite tokens) the updated Titanic Games version ($34.95) exceeded my memories of the original by Cheapass games ($7.50, paper board and cards; pawns not included).

Sadly, Kill Dr. Lucky appears to be out of print in both editions. UPDATE: Kill Dr. Lucky is no longer out of print. You can pick up a copy of the new version of the deluxe Kill Doctor Lucky for around $26 from

Quick details
  • 2-7 players (the more the merrier)
  • Manufacturer age recommendation: 10+
    While the basic game mechanics can be mastered by kids in elementary school, the objective (murder) might not be right for every household.
    *The word b*st*rd appears in the instructions; my friend just substitutes in another word when playing with her kids if she even bothers reading the rules aloud. Some of the humor is insulting. One of the failure cards simply reads "You're stupid, stupid, stupid!" Although this totally cracks me up among adults, I don't really want to hear it from Ranger any time soon.
    Our recommendation would be Tween - Adult.
  • Competitive.
  • Game Night friendly.
  • Play time: varies, Board Game Geek says 45 minutes for the Titanic edition. It definitely takes longer with first time players and with larger groups. We would not try and cram a 6 player game into a 60 minute lunch hour. The CAG version takes longer, especially with large groups. Jim recalls one 3 hour game without a spite token rule variation.
Game Mechanics
The game board is a mansion with numbered room and non-numbered halls and stairways. The card deck consists of failure cards, room cards, move cards, and weapon cards.

All players are dealt 6 cards and begin in the drawing room at the center of the mansion. During a turn the player has 1 free move. The player can also play room or movement cards to move themselves or Dr. Lucky, and/or if the conditions are right make an attempt on Dr. Lucky's life.

If a player does not play a card during his turn, he is allowed to draw a card. This option to snoop allows players to gain weapons, failure points, or additional means of movement.

When a player is able to corner Dr. Lucky in an area that other players cannot view, she can opt to whack the old fellow. Without weapons, an attack is worth 1 point. Weapons make the attack more effective by a variable number of points. Some weapons have greater value in specific room (like the trowel is more effective in the Wine Cellar, a la Poe).

After an attack is launched, each other player has the opportunity to play failure cards in order to save Dr. Lucky (temporarily). The player attempting murder might find herself attacked by bats, overwhelmed with empathy, or simply distracted by a catchy tune. Take the time to read the failure cards aloud during play; you won't regret it.

If you're playing with spite tokens, the attempted murderer receives a token for the experience. These tokens add an extra point to attacks (and retained) or can be used as a failure point (and given to the attacker).

At the end of each turn, Dr. Lucky moves to the next room in numerical order.

When an attack is not foiled by other players, a victor is declared. Expect demands for a rematch.

***Baby Toolkit is a set of actually nice geek parents. We're only murderous in the context of this great game. Besides, the old coot deserves it and a killing joke is gonna be the way we do it We have no financial relationship, other than being customers, with Titanic Games or Cheapass games. We are, however, Amazon affiliates, so a portion of purchases made through our links goes toward our dreams of a bigger game collection.