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You are in:  Holiday Gift Guide | Simpler Makes Sense: Games and Puzzles for the Holidays

Simpler Makes Sense: Games and Puzzles for the Holidays

By Don Oldenburg

For some holidays, simpler just makes sense. Can't most of us agree that heading into Thanksgiving and December, we too often surrender to the other, over-complicated side of thinking?

I remember the holidays of my childhood when there were these wooden brainteasers, simple cubes that dismantled into a dozen or so angular-shaped pieces. My parents, who embraced the simpler-is-better philosophy, always left a few of those wooden-block puzzles on the coffee table where they begged attention. After holiday guests had come and gone and the puzzles still lay there in pieces, unsolved, it was the job of my brother and me to reassemble them. Nothing complex really. They required more focus than they did time.

In this increasingly complex world of weather gone wild and fiscal-cliff debates, a time when the latest technology creates an urge for each and every next new thing, throwback gifts that recall simpler times just might be good for your child . . . and good for your soul.

Here's a few gift ideas more akin to those wooden-block puzzles of yesteryear than to today's puzzling complexities, a few simple puzzles and games worthy of your holiday and stocking-stuffer lists that earned Parents' Choice accolades during 2012:

Abacan Abacan
Ages: 6 & Up
Maranda Enterprises, $29.99

Abacan doesn't look like a children's game. With a solid, stained wood, it is more reminiscent of an abacus or math tool, and it looks more like a coffee table sculpture. It flies in the face of conventional kid-oriented design. This is not Candy Land. And yet, within two days, my seven-year-old and I have played more games of Abacan than practically any other game in our house. Each game generally takes less than a minute to play. There are five rows of beads in the triangular frame, consisting of one, three, five, seven, and nine beads in turn. To start the game, you move all the beads over to one side of the abacus. Then, players take turns sliding one, two, or three beads in the same row over to the other side. The player who slides the last bead over loses, so the strategy involves figuring out a way to leave your opponent with a single bead left (and avoiding a situation where he can do the same to you). It's an extremely simple concept. Kids quickly understand how to play, but the strategies for winning require forethought that can challenge even grown-ups. Abacan is an excellent addition to a coffee or kitchen table.

Eternas Eternas
Ages: 6 & Up
Maranda Enterprises, $29.99

We are always on the lookout for new and unique games to add to our family game nights. Eternas has just made it into our collection. If you have played Connect-Four, you can play Eternas, but don't let that fool you into thinking that this is the same-old game. Eternas is a three-dimensional, circular strategy game in which players take turns placing colored beads onto sixteen wooden posts arranged around a flat wooden disk. Players can connect four horizontally, vertically or diagonally. However, if all beads have been used without either player connecting four, players then begin removing their beads to place them elsewhere until someone wins. The game can be played and enjoyed by players of a variety of ages, which is one of its biggest advantages.

Pathagon Pathagon
Ages: 6 & Up
Maranda Enterprises, $29.99

Pathagon is a two-player strategy game in which players attempt to complete a path of octagonal tiles from one side of the square board to the other. As the paths must cross at some point, only one can successfully reach completion. Players can trap an opponent's tile and have it removed from the board, and when players run out of tiles to place and tiles start getting rearranged play becomes especially challenging. It is easy to overlook potential traps, and enthusiasm for defensive play may leave open pathways unguarded. Even players as young as 6 can grasp the strategy and play competitively, so even wide age disparities can lead to fun and interesting match-ups.

Quadefy Quadefy
Ages: 6 & Up
Maranda Enterprises, $29.99

This beautiful game may make you think it is designed to sit on a coffee table or bookcase, destined to puzzle great adult minds, but don't let it confuse you: it is great for kids. The game play is very simple: each of two players (one with light pieces, one with dark) take turns placing a Tetris-like block on the board, trying to make a 4x4 block cube. The last person to place a piece without going out of the cube area wins. Game play is quick, about five to fifteen minutes per round, and can be easy for younger kids, or more strategic as they get older. In addition to the original game, the packaging suggests three different puzzles to complete.

Farmageddon Farmageddon
Ages: 8 & Up
5th Street Games, $15.00

Who would've guessed a farming-based game is this addictive? Not since Pit, the classic screaming commodities card game, has there been a crops-in-the-cards game that's this much fun. In Farmageddon, players start out with crop cards and action cards. Problem is there are only three field cards to fight over and they're necessary for planting a crop, fertilizing a crop, and eventually harvesting a crop. And by harvesting your crops, you add dollar amounts from those crop cards to bolster your score. Because this card game has so many other action cards, twelve of them in all, ranging from Foul Manure and Dustbowl cards to Genetic Superworm and Farm Futures cards, it can be complicated at first. In the end, the player who adds up the most dollars from harvesting crops is the winner. Beyond that, Farmageddon's artwork is comically cool, and the gaming concept is different enough that it's pleasantly addictive, lots of fun and laughs.

FOLD FOLD
Ages: 8 & Up
Fat Brain Toys, $12.95

FOLD is a folding puzzler whose 10 colorfully patterned challenges are immediately mindboggling, so simple and yet somehow so perplexing. Initially, you just have to get past the flexibility of the sturdily laminated cards to even come close to figuring out what's possible. And, then, these smart geometric brainteasers, crafted by puzzlemaster Ivan Moscovich, prove to be difficult for players of any age, so when you actually solve one you're really happy about it. The challenges have names such as Color Windows, Lotus of the Heart, Tricky Triangles and FlexiTwist, but that's just window-dressing for puzzles that require logical thinking, fine-motor skills and lots of patience. Good news is that this remarkable package of origami puzzles includes a cheat sheet that shows you step-by-step how each puzzle is solved.

IOTA IOTA
Ages: 8 & Up
Gamewright, $7.99

A little bit Dominoes, a little bit Qwirkle, and a little bit Scrabble, IOTA is a fun strategy game played with tiny cards coded by color, shape, and number. Cards can be lined up in groups of two, three, or four that match (all the same) or mismatch (each one different) by feature. Players take turns adding cards into play, earning points based on the face value of the lines completed. Significant concentration is required to stick to the relatively simple rules, and as the board grows players are forced to think creatively and anticipate future moves in order to maximize points. Games can run long, but for players that have the time, it's worth the effort.

Mineshift Mineshift
Ages: 8 & Up
MindWare, $19.95

This fun strategy game adopts pieces and moves that make it feel like a more complex version of the African stone game Mancala. In the starting and easiest configuration, players lay down 10 tiles in a designated pattern, each getting a home tile on opposite sides. Each player gets four "jewels" that he needs to move across the tile configuration to the opponent's home tile. Each turn consists of three moves-either one move for each of the three different jewels, one jewel three times, or any combination. But there are obstacles. Not only do the tiles have different layouts of "rock walls" on them which the jewels can't cross, but players can use any or all of their moves to turn any tile a quarter turn, which can block the opponent's next moves with a rock wall. Like Mancala, despite being seemingly simple, this is an addictive game that tests strategic thinking. And the bonus: A typical game last only about 20 minutes.

Pieces of History Puzzles Pieces of History Puzzles
Ages: 8 & Up
Find It Games, $13.00

These puzzles are perfect for kids who love puzzles and "I Spy" types of games. The Pieces of History Puzzle brings the two challenges together. Each puzzle depicts a detailed scene from a historical era. For example, the "Pharaoh's Egypt" puzzle shows a bustling market by the Nile in Ancient Egyptian times. The puzzle is set up so that the border itself is the "key". Once the border is put together, you can see the items that you will need to find in the puzzle. In the Egypt puzzle, these items include a necklace, a crown, a leopard, amulets, and more. The puzzle will get kids talking about history as well as the animals and objects present in each setting represented. Along with the puzzle comes a vibrant, color print-out of all of the items depicted in the puzzle border. Each item is paired with a description that gives its cultural context. Parents liked that the puzzles foster an inquisitive mindset in kids, who actually learned something while exercising their brain in solving the puzzle at the same time. Even children too young to complete the puzzle alone worked together with siblings to put it together and find the various hidden items. There is nothing like the look of discovery on a child's face, and this puzzle brings out that look many times over.

Scramblitz Scramblitz
Ages: 8 & Up
MindWare, $19.95

They call it a "pattern game with a flip side," and that's what it is. Pure strategic thinking is needed to play this fast-moving and simple, but simply mind-provoking game. Using their set of 16 colorful, patterned tiles, players race against each other to be the first to recreate the 18-square pattern on one of the 50 puzzle cards. The difficulty is that each tile is two-faced-a different pattern, or white, or black, on the opposite side. And that complicates everything, so there's more flip-flopping than in a presidential election. The first player to complete his card slaps the card and yells "Scramblitz!" The game comes in a nice metal box and is priced right. But beyond that it's intriguing and lots of fun.

Tridio Twist Tridio Twist
Ages: 8 & Up
Fat Brain Toys, $19.95

This block game is definitely not for blockheads. Its manufacturer calls it a "cleverly cunning cubicle conundrum," which is certainly accurate, as this game is a riddle or problem that involves an unexpected twist. Players try to recreate pictured block-structure challenges using three cubic clusters (one double cube, one triple cube and one quadruple cube). Each cube in the clusters has black sides, white sides and green sides, and is attached with joints that enable twisting and turning. The mechanism is like the twisting action in Rubik's Cubes. The 48 challenges in the Tridio Puzzle Book require maneuvering the cubes for color location and shape. And the puzzles aren't easy. The game encourages brainteaser-type thinking as well as some eye-hand coordination. Persistent problem solvers will find the challenge to be fun and do-able. And, they're oddly gratifying when you finally get a puzzle done.


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