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Sometimes a game just sneaks up on you and gives you everything that you wanted. Graceful Explosion Machines was that game for me this year. It came out right around the launch of the Nintendo Switch right in between two mammoth Nintendo franchises (The Legend of Zelda and Mario Kart). Just about any other game would have been forgotten amidst that kind of competition, but Graceful Explosion Machine was a neon pink sign that helped me find my way.

(Editor’s Note: The pink hat reference is perfect for ME, but definitely needs context. Back in the before times, when I was much younger, my family went to Disney World. My mother, in an effort to protect us, bought us these obnoxious, neon hats. This helped her easily pick us out of the crowd and find us as we pushed through the crowds.)

Graceful Explosion Machines is a classic space “shmup” (Shoot ’em Up) that is currently exclusive to the Nintendo Switch. It is also a spectacular video game.

Anyone who has ever played any sort of arcade game will recognize the gameplay loop immediately. Players pilot a ship around various colorful levels. The goal is to eliminate all of the enemies in each level as quickly as possible and without getting hit.

Eliminating those enemies requires careful use of the four different weapons at your disposal. Each of those weapons is assigned to one of the four face buttons. You have a standard blaster (that will overheat if you shoot too fast), a long range sniper blast that delivers continuous damage, a sword that swings around your ship, and a set of heat seeking missiles. The latter three of those weapons all share an energy bar. You cant just use those powers wildly.

This careful use of all of your different weapons while flying through the various levels pushes you into an almost meditative state as you play. It’s easy to get lost in the game during those brief moments. The longer you are able to play in that meditative state (without failing a mission) the more joyful that state it. This makes Graceful Explosion Machine one of those games where it actually feels better to play as you grow in skill. That is so rare in today’s market that some kids have probably never experienced it at all.

Fix that problem and buy this game for them. Trust me. It will be worth it.

Is it a kid’s game?

Graceful Explosion Machine is an arcade style game that is all simple shapes and bright colors. There is almost nothing to be concerned about with this game.

There is no narrative that expressed mature themes. The game does involve a spaceship blasting other enemy spacecraft, but all them are such simple designs that the inherent violence is very abstracted. This is a modern equivalent to Space Invaders.

Can a kid play it?

There is no doubt that GEM is a challenging game. But, it is still a very inviting experience. Failing at a level is painless and restarting is very fast.

The game does make use of all of the different face buttons on the controller and the should buttons as well so kids who aren’t used to that will have some difficulty.


This is currently the best game available for the Nintendo Switch not called Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. Play this game.

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Developer: Frozenbyte

Price: $19.99

Reviewed on Nintendo Switch, also available on PS4, Xbox One, and PC

Has Been Heroes caught my attention right away when it was announced. It is a game about a group of washed up heroes given the task of escorting the king’s daughter’s to school. I am definitely a sucker for games with a sense of humor, but once I got over the humor in the game’s premise the experience turned sour.

You can’t really talk about this game without first defining the idea of a “rogue-like”. This is game genre where a  significant portion of the game play elements are random. Games in the genre are designed to be replayed over and over again chasing high scores. The random elements in these games are often combined with extreme difficulty.

Heroes exemplifies the rogue-like genre. Every time you start a game the map is random. The goal is to traverse the map and clear through five bosses to help the princesses get to school. To do this, players will have to navigate maze-like maps and try to reach as many locations that contain treasures as possible without having to backtrack. (Crossing over a piece of the map you have already walked through will end your game unless you have a special item.) When players die in the game they have to start over. The only type of progress that carries over are item and spell unlocks. The means that, in a way, as you “progress” through the game it gets more random as the vendors and treasure chests have a wider variety of items and spells.

The rogue-like elements definitely make the game hard, but the challenge involved in playing these types of games is part of their charm. They are popular because they reject some of the recent developments in game design that are there to help make experiences more accessible to players. Unfortunately, that doesn’t translate well to gaming as a family.

The biggest problem with the game is the unintuitive control scheme. The combat is based on swapping the three characters in your party between three lanes on the screen. Yo have to swap them around in order to manage skill cooldowns and to have weaker characters that can attack multiple times soften up the defenses of various enemies so your more powerful teammates can take them down for good. The issue is that this is all done with the various face buttons on the controllers. The control scheme feels like it was duct taped onto the game to avoid using a touch based system.

In fact, the touch controls on an iPad might have made the game more enjoyable and, at least a little, less confusing and that gets to the heart of it. This feels like a mobile game that was full of potential that was switched into a console game during mid development.

Is it a family game?

Has Been Heroes is rated E 10+ by the ESRB. The content descriptors at: Fantasy Violence, Mild Blood, Mild Language (the word Damned appears in the text).

This is an action strategy game where players control a team of heroes, albeit washed up ones, as they do battle with fantasy monsters like skeletons and man-eating plants. The action is viewed from the side and is abstracted by the cartoonish graphics.

Damage dealt to enemies during combat takes the form of flashes of light and hit-point numbers floating up from the various monsters’ heads.

Can a kid play it?

This is, honestly, where the house of cards starts to fall down. The controls for this game are incredibly difficult to learn, Each of the games three lanes is assigned to a different face button on the controller. In order to proceed through the different fights you need to select one of the lanes, trigger an attack from the hero in that lane, and the swap people into that originally selected lane. The method used to facilitate these lane changes is confusing and often needs to be with extreme precision in order to make sure that enemies don’t reach you.

I have a difficult time imagining that many kids will dedicate the time needed to master the game.


Has Been Heroes has an awesome premise, but it is simply too awkward to play for it to be enjoyable.

Disclosure: This review was written based on a review code provided by the developer.

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Get Qurious, LLC

Age Rating: 4-9 yrs

MSRP: $19.99

Style: Activity Box and App

Get those imaginations flowing, think outside the box, and play and explore in a classic story both digitally and manually.


Maker Box from Get Qurious on Vimeo.


Maker Box is an innovative system that includes an app and a fun box of activities designed to encourage children to interact with the story of the Three Little Pigs through hands on and dramatic play.


12 story page cards

2 character masks

1 double-sided puzzle

1 sticker book

1 iOS app (version 8 or above)

The components are cute and colorful and clearly designed to spark imagination and encourage learning. While not super sturdy for longevity, they are fun and make for a great crafty rainy day activity.


Maker Box is all about bringing a story to life. Get Qurious uses an interactive app, story cards, masks, puzzles, and a sticker book to provide your child with multiple opportunities to immerse themselves in the Three Little Pigs story. Once you open the box, separate and cut out all of the components, and download the app your children will be ready to learn and play!

The Story Cards allow your child use the app to scan each card to watch an animated version of the story.  Each card is numbered so that your child can scan them in order.  Also, the app gives picture clues so your child knows which card to scan next. The story will not play out of order, but your child can play with them outside of the app to make up silly stories on their own.

The Masks (one pig and one wolf) allow your child to pretend to play their own part in the story. They can scan the mask via the app and record and playback their own voice acting like a wolf or a pig. They can also wear the masks while the story is being animated and pretend to be acting in the story.

The Puzzle allow your child to piece the puzzle together and then scan it via the app to see what the house looks like in 3-D. The child takes a picture of each part of the puzzle and once all of the pieces are correctly scanned, the house pops up in color on the app. The child can interact with the different parts of the house to see a quick little animation.

The Sticker Book allows your child to peel, place, remove, and replace stickers of various shapes in a sticker book and then scan them in to hear the story of The Wandering Wolf. There are also some fun little surprises in the book like a maze, some matching activities, and some further learning suggestions.

Is it a Family Game?

While not a game in the traditional sense, the app included with Maker Box makes it more game-like than other crafting boxes. The best thing about Maker Box is that while it uses a device, it encourages play beyond the screen. It is a terrific experience for young learners that encourages dramatic play, kinesthetic learning, audio and visual learning, and creative thinking. We think this is a wonderful rainy day activity for your younger family members. The upper age limit recommended by the manufacturer seems to be a bit of a stretch. This was a lot of fun for preschoolers, kindergartners, and first grade children who tried it in our household. Older children did not enjoy this as much as our youngest did. The story was too simplistic, the puzzle pieces were too big to be a challenge, and the activities were very easy for our older children.


Overall, this is a fun and creative learning activity for a rainy day for younger children. It hasn’t had a huge amount of replay value for our 7 and over crowd, but our preschool and kindergarten children play with it frequently. We love using it in our home daycare and think it would be a great addition to a classroom. However, the price point of $19.99 seems a bit high for what you get. If this is to be a monthly subscription box, $10-$15 seems much more reasonable.

FCC disclosure: A copy of this product was sent to us by the publisher for the purposes of this review.

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Originally published on Social Mathematics and republished with the author’s permission.

As a gamer, the holidays give me opportunities to play games with non-gamers. People like my family. Or, more relevantly to this article, people like my niece. Here’s what you need to know about my niece: she is 6 years old who really loves to play games, begot from gamer parents. This year we played Simon’s Cat. hedgehogsAnd because she is 6, we played Simon’s Cat a lot. (The hedgehogs were my favorite.) And, as a mathematician and a gamer, I have to say that Simon’s Cat has a fair amount of game for its simple rules system.

Playing games with a 6 year old, as an adult, can be challenging. Mostly because they aren’t playing games at this age. They are playing experiences. Chutes and Ladders is most definitely an experience, not a game. Despite all those fabulous ladders and exciting chutes, the game is just a very complicated randomizer. It’s basically the Rube Goldberg machine of coin flips. It hurts my brain when a child is sad because they “lost” experiences like this. I just want to say, “You only had 1/2 a chance. There was literally nothing you could do to avoid this fate.”

I think a game gets to be called a game if and only if the choices you make as a player influence your ability to win or lose.   So, the question of the hour is: Is Simon’s Cat a game or an experience? Let’s cover the components and the rules.  Here are all the cards in the deck arranged in a pleasing way:


You are dealt a portion of the deck. Whomever has the Pink Cat 3 plays it to the center.  Next, you go around the table and if you have a card that is the same color or the same number, then you can play it. If more than one card is playable, then you pick which one to play.  If you don’t have any cards that you can play, you collect all the cards from the middle of the table. These cards all count as 1 mess that you had to clean up. If you collected a mess, then you play any card you want to the table.  Suffice to say, you play a card every time it’s your turn, but you want to collect as few messes as possible. Once all the cards are played, the player with the fewest messes wins! Got it? If you want the official rules, you can find those here.

A game has a game if and only if the choices you make as a player influence your ability to win or lose.

In order for this to be a real game, my choices have to influence my chances of winning.  Thus, there must to be some strategy to the order I play my cards that is better than another.  Is my chance of winning higher when I use a good strategy than it is for me to randomly chose a usable card?

A slightly different way to ask this question is: Are some cards more valuable than others? Can some cards be used in more situations? If there are cards which are more valuable, then I want to keep those in my hand as long as possible for increased flexibility in the late game.  However, if all cards are equally valuable, then there won’t be a ‘better’ or ‘worse’ strategy and Simon’s Cat isn’t a real game (as far as I’m concerned anyways!)

gnomesSince I can only play a card if the previous card shares a color or number, I want to know which card has the most other cards which share a number or color: the most similar cards.  Let’s consider the Gnomes. There are only two Gnomes in the game. At first, this may appear to be valuable. (Because you can block others perhaps?) But remember, your main goal is to not get messes. So, you are most concerned with whether a card is playable by you or not. The Green Gnome 1 is only playable off of the Green Gnome 2, Orange Mouse 1, and Purple Dog 1. This means there are three cards in the deck which can precede the Green Gnome 1.

What about my personal favorite, the Yellow Hedgehog 3? Yellow Hedgehog 3 can play off of any of the five other yellow cards or any of the four other 3s. Thus, there are nine cards that a Yellow Hedgehog 3 can play off of. This means that between Green Gnome 1, with three similar cards and Yellow Hedgehog 3, with nine similar cards, the Yellow Hedgehog 3 is a more valuable card. Except, these can’t be used in the same situation.  So, we’ve shown that cards have different valuable-ness, but we haven’t shown that this will ever matter.

Let’s consider an example.  Let’s say the card played before my turn was a Yellow Hedgehog 3.  I have a Blue Kitten 3 in my hand and an Orange Mouse 3.  Which one should I play? Well, the Blue Kitten 3 has eleven similar cards.  Orange Mouse 3 only has seven.  Assuming we don’t know any more information about what was played previously, it would be a better choice to play the Orange Mouse 3 because there are more cards that can trigger my Blue Kitten 3 than my Orange Mouse 3. So, in this moment of our investigation, we know that there will be a strategy which is better than random. That means Simon’s Cat is an actual game! I can make a better or worse decision. I can impact my fate! Thank you, Steve Jackson Games, for making a simple game (without reading!) that is still a game. Seriously. Thank you.

Before we go into the bonus lightning round, I have to insert an aside for the other gamer mathematicians out there: for surely you have already determined that which card is the most valuable is not just a function of the total cards in the deck, as I presented above.  Returning to my example: if all the other Blue cards had already been played, then (in that moment) the Orange Mouse 3 is actually a better play because, at the moment, Blue Kitten 3 is not at the top of her game.  All her friends have already been played to the table!  So, she is less valuable.  To those of you who thought of this, excellent work! Your insight also further proves that there is a real game to be had here.

Now for the first bonus round:

Bonus Question: Which card begins the game as the most valuable card? Can you figure it out by looking at all the available cards in the deck?  You can go look. Take a guess!

Answer: Hopefully you figured out it had to be a Pink Catsimon_cat3 because Pink has the most cards in its color.  And the most valuable card should also be a 3 or 4 so it shares the most colors across a single number. Thus, the 2 most valuable cards are the Pink Cat 3 and Pink Cat 4.  Except you will never get to play the Pink Cat 3 on another card, because it must be played first.  Thus, the most powerful card is the Pink Cat 4. Notably, Pink Cat 4 is the only Pink Cat who isn’t doing something crazy in the graphic on the card.  Therefore, I am left with no other option than to assume that Simon’s real cat is Pink Cat 4.


And the final bonus round:

Reader be warned! It is very possible to be dealt a hand of cards and preceding cards in a way which allows no choices. In this situation, we, the adults, suck it up and “play” our gaming experience. Simon’s Cat has more game than most of the games I played over the holidays, but it’s still a game which can be explained in 3 sentences. It’s bound to have some flaws. For a game which can be played with pre-readers, it gets high marks from me!

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Greater Than Games

Ages 13+

2-5 players

45-60 minutes


It was a quiet day in Megalopolis when, suddenly, all TV channels blared an ominous message: Baron Blade was threatening to pull the moon into the Earth!  The superheroes known as the Freedom Five assembled to fight Blade and his minions, hoping to save the planet!

Sentinels of The Multiverse allows players to immerse themselves in a comic book universe, taking on the roles of an assortment of heroes, banding together to face off against devious villains in a variety of environments.

The characters in the Multiverse echo heroes and villains familiar to many; Wraith is a billionaire-turned-vigilant, armed with a cape and a utility belt; Tachyon runs super-fast; Omnitron is a malicious, skeletal robot.  While there is plenty to learn about each character and location, they are similar enough to jump in with little prep work.

Players select a hero, a villain, and an environment, each represented by a specialized deck of cards.  The villain and the environment are functions of the game; no one plays as either of those roles.  Instead, when those two roles get their turns (before and after the players, respectively), the players draw the next card in the deck and perform the actions on the cards.  During their turns, players draw and play cards from their own decks, using their hero’s powers.

Accompanying the cards are a number of tokens to record the temporary effects, as well as tokens for the hit points of the heroes, villains, and minions.

The variety presented by the different combinations of hero-villain-environment, as well as the randomness presented by drawing the cards, lends to an immense amount of replayability.  Each game can go differently, as situations change and the heroes respond accordingly.

While the game says that it is for ages 13+, it can be played by younger players.  Heroes and villains are assigned a difficulty rating; with some guidance, younger players can learn a particular hero and become effective members of the team.

The game requires a number of skills – reading, problem solving, teamwork, and math.  Since it’s a cooperative game, there’s no reason to not play with “open hands”, so if there are players with weaker reading or strategic skills, they can easily get a boost from other players.

Sentinels of The Multiverse has had several expansions. Look for more info on each of them soon!

Want more cooperative games?  Check these reviews out!

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R&R Games Inc

Ages 8+
2-5 players
30 + Minutes

I was placing an order on Amazon that included and add-on item & needed about $10 to make up the difference in order to actually make it ship.  Searching around, I couldn’t find anything I really *needed* at the time, so I thought I’d try to find some sort of game to finally allow my other items to begin their journey to delivery.

I started aimlessly searching through highly reviewed card games, like you do, and stumbled upon a game with a 4.5 star rating right in my price range: Hanabi. Victory was mine!

Two days later Hanabi arrived, a small, sturdy box with 60 cards, 12 tokens and an instruction manual.  After reading the manual, I was intrigued & couldn’t wait to play!

The game is simple.  Hanabi is the Japanese word for Fireworks, and you are pyrotechnicians who have accidentally mixed up all of the parts of your fireworks display and now — THE SHOW MUST GO ON!  You have to work together to create the best display you possibly can despite your myriad of mistakes! The kicker is, you can’t look at your own hand!

Your teammates can give you limited information about your hand as their turn, but if you misunderstand and play the wrong firework, it can be disastrous!

The game is immensely challenging, and really makes you consider every move!  While the recommended age is 8+, this game mechanic seems to lend itself to older players.  It requires patience, reading your team-mates and figuring out how best to convey half (or less) of the picture to your fellow “fireworkers”.  Hanabi teaches simple strategy and teamwork in a somewhat high pressure environment where you don’t have access to all of the variables at play.

All in all, it is a very thought-provoking game that will help your older children learn how to draw conclusions from limited data, how to give the best clues within in a constrained framework and when to take a blind chance.  As if Hanabi‘s price-tag isn’t good enough, the manual also includes 4 variants for advanced play so once you’ve mastered the strategy of the basic game you still won’t be bored!

We HIGHLY recommend this for any family with older kids that love to work together!

Love cooperative games?  Check out our other reviews here!

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