Whoowasit?

What is it

Whoowasit? is a board game as well as an app where players work together to win. Unlike most games that are essentially zero-sum (a player can win only when another player loses), Whoowasit? is collaborative and players either win or lose together.

The game is a bit like Clue or Cluedo in that the players have to deduce who the culprit is based on limited clues.

Here’s the description from BoardGameGeek:

In Whoowasit?, players must find the magical ring that was stolen from the wise king by the evil wizard. Playing against a running clock, players move their playing pieces through the various rooms on the game board to uncover clues to who stole the precious gem. Along the way, talking animals help players solve the mystery of the stolen item with the help of a treasure chest that randomly supplies clues on behalf of the animals. Whenever players meet animals, they must feed them so the animals — that can only be understood by children — can provide the clues that advance gameplay. The clues supplied by the electronic treasure chest ensure that no two games are alike. All players must work together to find the stolen ring, and they win or lose as a group, depending on whether they can master an assigned task.

Who is it for

The game is recommended for gaes 7 and up, but kids as young as 4 enjoy it, even if they don’t quite get all the strategy.

What Kids Like

Our kids love it and ask to play it on the iPad all the time.

The theme of a cursed castle with an evil wizard and helpful fairy and talking animals are fun and keep them playing.

The level of logical thinking required is also just right for kids – complex enough to be stimulating but not so complex that it becomes boring.

The length of the game is just right as well. The players sometimes lose but the game is quick enough that they can just try again. A longer game would be frustrating to lose, after having spent so much time on it.

What Parents Like

Our kids (like kids in most families) sometimes have trouble sharing and sometimes compete with each other a little too fiercely. Whoowasit?, by forcing them to work together, lets them see the benefits of doing so.

It’s also nice to have a game that is one with wits, not with agility, and is an alternative to all the building games our kids like.

What the Critics Think

The original board game won the ‘Most successful board game’ in 2008 and 2009 in Germany, was the 2011 Disney FamilyFun Toy of the Year, the 2011 Creative Child Magazine Game of the Year, and the 2011 National Parenting Center Seal of Approval.

Concerns/Flaws

I can’t think of any flaws.

The developers did lose a chance to broaden the theme when they made the app version. A board game, by necessity, has a limited theme because it can only have one board and only so many tokens. But the app version could have had multiple locations and characters. Even if the gameplay remained the same, a new location would help keep the game fresh.

Who Made it

Ravensburger (ravensburger.com) is a very established game and puzzle company based in Germany. They are well-known for their 3D puzzles and games such as Labyrinth, Make ‘n’ Break, and Scotland Yard.

Where Can I Get it

The original electronic board game is out of print as far as I can tell, but the app version is available in iTunes and the Google Play Store

The Roald Dahl Audio Collection

What is it

This 4-CD collection includes Roald Dahl himself reading some of his most-famous stories: Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, James & the Giant Peach, and Fantastic and Mr. Fox – as well as a couple of his less well-known: The Enormous Crocodile and The Magic Finger

Who is it for

Kids of most ages and adults all seem to like Roald Dahl stories.

What Kids Like

One aspect of Dahl stories that seem to appeal to my kids is the perpetual threat of violence that is largely absent from modern children’s stories. The threat is rarely realized, and when it is, it’s done so in a comical manner, so never crosses the line into gore.

The other appealing aspect for kids is the revenge fantasy element. Almost every Dahl story has a mistreated child who is finally able to strike back at the grown-ups who torment them. Mr. Fox is an exception to that, in that he is a fox, but that is also a tale of revenge, actuated by outwitting the cruel adults.

There is a kind of thruthfulness to Dahl’s language, describing characters and actions in a way that could be described as politically incorrect, but in a refreshingly honest way. Here is the opening of Fantastic Mr. Fox:

Down in the valley there were three farms. The owners of these farms had done well. They were rich men. They were also nasty men. All three of them were about as nasty and mean as any men you could meet. Their names were Farmer Boggis, Farmer Bunce and Farmer Bean.

Boggis was a chicken farmer. He kept thousands of chickens. He was enormously fat. This was because he ate three boiled chickens smothered with dumplings every day for breakfast, lunch and supper.

Bunce was a duck-and-goose farmer. He kept thousands of ducks and geese. He was a kind of pot-bellied dwarf. He was so short his chin would have been underwater in the shallow end of any swimming-pool in the world. His food was doughnuts and goose-livers. He mashed the livers into a disgusting paste and then stuffed the paste into the doughnuts. This diet gave him a tummy-ache and a beastly temper.

Bean was a turkey-and-apple farmer. He kept thousands of turkeys in an orchard full of apple trees. He never ate any food at all. Instead, he drank gallons of strong cider which he made from the apples in his orchard. He was as thin as a pencil and the cleverest of them all.

What Parents Like

Part of what we like is the nostalgia from hearing stories we remember hearing as children, and we like exposing our kids to stories that we consider ‘classics’.

Also, the language Dahl uses is more sophisticated and creative than most other children’s media our kids enjoy, so we like exposing them to that.

This set is perfect for road trips. The stories themselves are about 45 minutes, and each fits on a single CD.

These are also very convenient for bedtime. MP3 players or streaming via the phone is convenient, but with those devices there is always the temptation to see what else is on the device. With CDs, there isn’t a choice.

What the Critics Think

I don’t think this particular anthology has won any awards, but Dahl and his books have won plenty (Here’s a list)

Concerns/Flaws

There is some harsh language, when adult characters belittle the children in the stories, calling them “stupid” and “worthless”. The language itself is not graphic, but it can be shocking for kids who are only used to the gentle language of Sesame Street, for example.

Who Made it

Roald Dahl is most famous for writing the story, “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” that has since been made into multiple movies. He also wrote Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator, Danny the Champion of the World, Matilda, The BFG, The Giraffe and the Pelly and Me, The Twits, The Witches, and several others. Many of his stories have been made into movies.

There’s a lot more about the author at this fan site.

History

Dahl did most of his writing in the 1960s and 1970s

James & the Giant Peach 1961
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory 1964
The Magic Finger 1966
Fantastic and Mr. Fox 1970
The Enormous Crocodile 1978

Where Can I Get it

The CDs are available at libraries or to buy online. You can get them streaming for free with an Amazon Audible subscription, and some libraries offer them as downloads through the Libby app.

Puzzlescript

What is it

PuzzleScript is an open-source HTML5 puzzle game engine. Open-source here means that it is completely free and all code is visible to anyone who wants to learn from it. HTML5 is what we used to call DHTML back in the day, and essentially means it’s made with JavaScript, and runs in a web browser. Puzzle game, meaning that the games produced are of the logical variety, as opposed to the action kind. And game engine means that the PuzzleScript libraries include all the logic you need to make a game. You don’t need to do any base-level coding, just design the levels and configure the libraries.

Visit the PuzzleScript site for more

Puzzlescript is JavaScript-based game engine that is very easy to use and is a great way to introduce people to programming. Just about everyone I know who is paid to write code got their start because they were motivated to create games.

Puzzlescript games are very blocky and retro-looking, which may not appeal to kids used to the cinematic look of modern video games, but that is part of the price of having such a simple engine.


[typical puzzlescipt game screenshot]

Many of the games are good, however. Most are of the “sokoban” push-the-blocks around type.

Some examples are “Flying Kick” by Aaron Steed and “Boxes and Balloons” by Ben Reilly and many others can be found in the official gallery

Some games include the concept of bullets but most do not and none could be described as violent. The nature of the engine means games end up being logical puzzles.

Puzzlescript code looks like this:

[Enemy | Wreck] -> restart

[ > Player ] [ Ship ] -> [ > Player ] [ > Ship ]

[ >  Ship | Iceberg ] -> [  >  Ship | > Iceberg  ] Sfx1
[ Enemy | ... | Ship ] -> [ > Enemy | ... | Ship ]

So, rather than lots of intimidating jargon, the code uses names and simple punctuation to set the rules.

Puzzlescript is completely free, and creator Stephen Lavelle deserves a lot of credit for opening his creation to the world. Even better, games made with Puzzlescript have the code immediately available, so if you want to see how something is done, just look at the code someone else wrote. For example, all the code used in the Flying Kick game mentioned above is here, open in the code editor no less, so you could start modifying that game.

Any good instructional system has to reward curiosity, and the Puzzlescript engine does that very well.

Main Puzzlescript site
How to make a Puzzlescript game

Who is it for

Most of the games I’ve seen written in PuzzleScript have been made by young adults, but the interface is simple enough that adolescents could learn it.

What Kids Like

Kids like making things they enjoy. They see a funny video, they want to make a funny video. They see a cool stop-motion animation, they want to make a cool stop-motion animation. They see a computer game they like, they want to make a computer game they like.

PuzzleScript is simple enough that a kid can make something playable very quickly, and since every game made in PuzzleScript has its source available (click ‘hack this game’ below the game) they can easily learn how others have achieved the mechanics of their games.

Also, becasue HTML5 runs pretty much anywhere, publishing your game and sharing with others is very easy.

What Parents Like

JavaScript is a great way to introduce kids to the concepts in programming, and PuzzleScript makes this much easier by skipping over the more boring and frustrating aspects of coding, thus keeping kids’ attention a bit longer – long enough to stay motivated and actually build something.

What the Critics Think

I have not seen any reviews of PuzzleScript. Because it is free, there are no advertising dollars that would lead to reviews.

Itch.io has lots of PuzzleScript games which is a sign that developers at least are taking it seriously.

Concerns/Flaws

If you look at examples of PuzzleScript games, you will see that they all have the same low-resolution look that may remind you of old Atari games. Kids today are used to photo-realistic graphics and the retro, old-school appearance of PuzzleScript may be a turn-off to some kids.

Who Made it

PuzzleScript is the work of Stephen Lavelle, who goes by the handle increpare. He is a prolific developer with many experimental projects on his site.

History

PuzzleScript began in 2013 and has been regularly updated since then. New games written in PuzzleScript are released all the time – every week if not every day

Where Can I Get it

Visit the PuzzleScript site for examples and full documentation. The coding interface is right in the browser window so nothing needs to be installed.

There is a Google Group where users compare notes, troubleshoot code, and share games they’ve made.

And there are books that can help walk your child through the process.

If you just want to play the games, the official archive has plenty to choose from, although it is not at all an exhaustive list.

Some of my favorites are

Cratopia
https://www.puzzlescript.net/play.html?p=7114130

Heroes of Sokoban I, by Jonah Ostroff
https://www.puzzlescript.net/play.html?p=6860122

Heroes of Sokoban II: Monsters
https://www.puzzlescript.net/play.html?p=6910207

and Heroes of Sokoban III: The Bard and the Druid
https://www.puzzlescript.net/play.html?p=7072276

The Alien Adventures of Finn Caspian

Finn Caspian

What is it

Finn Caspian is a free, weekly podcast about the adventures of a boy and his friends in outer space. They work with (and against) robots and aliens on board spaceships and strange other worlds.

The podcasts are usually 20-25 minutes long, with about 15 minutes of storytelling and the rest devoted to going through reader mail, much of which are space-related jokes.

There are a few seasons of the show online now, each with 15-20 episodes.

Who is it for

The show seems aimed at ages 5 to 10 but there is enough going on that kids a bit younger or a bit older could enjoy it as well.

What Kids Like

The kids like the adventure stories, which are humorous and suspenseful, most ending on a cliff-hanger that is resolved the next week.

The narrator, Jonathan Messinger has a virtual sidekick/cohost in the form of a robot, BeeBop, who is snarky and a bit rude (in a kid-friendly way) and the kids love that character.

What Parents Like

We like that our kids can listen to a story without zoning out in front of a screen. It hearkens back to the days of radio dramas when kids had to make up the pictures in their imaginations, in an active rather than passive way.

The stories are clever and one of the themes of the series is that it is stuffed full of references to existing children’s books, so we can play ‘spot the reference’ along with the kids.

It’s been essential listening on long car rides and I’ve been reading to them less frequently at bedtime, instead playing two episodes of Finn Caspian.

And it’s free! With no ads!

What the Critics Think

I haven’t seen any critics’ reviews of the show, but it gets ~4.5 stars on all of the streaming services that carry it.

Concerns/Flaws

Jonathan Messinger is a good writer but not a polished voice actor and some of the delivery sounds amateurish. His elocution has improved over the course of the series, however.

The voice of the character of BeeBop is created with a ‘roboticize’ voice filter that can get annoying after a while.

Who Made it

Finn Caspian is written and performed by Jonathan Messinger, author of Hiding Out, former web editor of Time Out Chicago Kids.

ZooGlobble has an interview with Jon about the show from 2017

The podcast is the first from the publisher Gen-Z Media. You can listen to their other podcasts for kids at Bestrobotever.com

History

The show began in the summer of 2016 and Jonathan has been putting out a new show just about every week since then.

Where Can I Get it

From the source:
FinnCaspian.com

From the publisher:
BestRobotEver

From a podcast aggregator:
KidsListen.org
Stitcher
Player.fm
iTunes
Google Play

RoverCraft

What is it

RoverCraft is an app that lets players build “space cars” and drive them along bumpy alien landscapes, collecting coins and avoiding crashes.

Who is it for

The game is simple enough for kids as young as 4 to have fun with it, although only older kids would be able to understand it well enough to get high scores.

What Kids like

They like the building, and they like the driving, and they like the upgrades. As the player collect coins, they can use the money to buy more and stronger materials for their vehicle, and unlock other worlds (Mars, Titan, etc.) The achievements are attainable, but take a little work, so the reward system is well-balanced and engaging.

They also like the catastrophic failure that ends every driving run. The player basically drives their car until it crashes, and the crashing is fun, so even when they lose they can enjoy it.

What Parents like

The building part is creative and forces problem-solving (how to structure the chassis so that the vehicle can cross the chasm without falling in?)

The driving part is thrilling but not overly competitive. The players are effectively racing against their own previous times.

What the critics think

The app gets 4.4/5 on Google, 4.5/5 on iTunes, and 4.6/5 on the Microsoft store.

Criticisms are that there are too many ads and that the developer (Mobirate) doesn’t update the game frequently enough.

Concerns/flaws

There are a lot of ads that the player has to endure or click off. There are in-app purchases that can distract from the gameplay, and we as parents need to make sure that the purchasing feature is disabled on the phone/tablet.

Who made it

RoverCraft is made by Mobirate, who also makes the Parking Mania series, other space-themed games such as Space Expedition and Space Bikers, and several others (Stick Fu, Jelly Jumpers, Dead Ahead).

When was it made/history

Mobirate was founded way back in 2003. RoverCraft was first released in 2015 and has had sporadic updates since then.

Where can I get it

Google Play Store, iTunes, and the Microsoft Store. You can even use Amazon to get it for Android devices, if you wanted.

The Fixies

What is it

The Fixies is a Russian cartoon series about a family of tiny (1cm tall) fairy-like creatures who repair everyday items, and in the process teach about physics, electronics, and other useful DiY knowledge.

Who is it for

The show is a big hit with our 4-year-old but a lot of the content is sophisticated enough for much older kids as well.

What Kids like

The characters are fun, with the kids getting into and out of trouble and the parents offering guidance when necessary. The animation is bright and engaging. The theme song is catchy and the show makes good use of music.

What Parents like

I like the fact that it’s Russian. It’s nice to have a reference to Russian culture that has nothing to do with politics. And I like having influences from other countries. Geronimo Stilton is from Italy, P.J. Masks from France, many (most?) PBS Kids shows are from Canada, and lots of the more cutesy cartoons are from Korea and Japan. Although each cartoon has basically the same formula (a group of young people work together to solve problems) each one has a slightly different feel to it that is representative of its country of origin.

In the case of The Fixies, the subject matter is significantly more in-depth in terms of engineering/STEM topics. For example, one episode had a bit on pipe fabrication, how pipes can be made by rolling and welding a sheet of metal (which results in a seam) vs. extruding a solid block to make a seamless pipe. I can’t imagine any American show covering that level of detail.

Each episode includes a 40-second bit on how things work, in a fun and educational way.

There is also a typically Russian attitude toward toughness and responsibility. While most American and Canadian cartoons seem to value self-affirmation over anything else, The Fixes put that value below those of being responsible and getting the job done. One episode had the children try to do a quick fix in order to earn a prize and at the end the father gives them a cheap, flimsy award to reflect the quality of work they did.

But really, the Russian-ness is not obvious. I wouldn’t have noticed or guessed. if I hadn’t looked it up. (The one big clue is the catchphrase the characters use when they’ve fixed something, “tideesh”, which sounds very slavic to my ears.)

Another quality of the show, that may have something to do with it being Russian, is that there is a strong message about the importance of fixing what you have as opposed to throwing something away just because it’s broken.

What the critics think

I haven’t seen any reviews of the show. They have a sparse IMDB page and nothing on Wikipedia despite having several hundred episodes (~140 dubbed into English) and a feature movie. The show was nominated for an APKiT award, which is, as far as I can tell, a Russian equivalent to the Oscars.

Concerns/flaws

I found no flaws with the show itself, but it seems to be available only via YouTube and has multiple ads to skip in each 12-minute episode.

Who made it

The show is made by Aeroplane Productions in Moscow

Lots of info on their website https://www.thefixies.com/

They are doing what lots of other children’s media companies are doing, creating related apps, games etc. Most of the Fixies games are in Russian and don’t yet have English translations.

It looks like the company is actively looking for licensing in other countries and it would be great if Netflix or Amazon or Hulu or PBS Kids picked it up.

When was it made/history

The original, Russian show began in 2010 and the English version was released starting in 2015.

Where can I get it

As far as I can tell, it’s only available via The Fixies channel on YouTube

Bloxels

What is it

Bloxels is a free make-your-own videogame app that lets kids (or adults) create 8-bit style sprites and levels for 2D platformer games without needing any coding. The Bloxels kit includes a 13×13 grid with colored blocks so that younger kids can manipulate ‘pixel blocks’ (bloxels) physically before committing them to the game.

There is now also a Star Wars version

Who is it for

Bloxels is recommended for kids age 8-12, but our 4-year-old has had a lot of fun with it. Older kids will get more out of it, but it’s fun for just about any age. The bloxel cubes are about 1 cm2 (¼”2) so it could be a choking hazard for very young kids.

We’ve had fun with it at home, but PixelPress is pushing for the games use in classrooms and I can easily see it used as an educational tool.

What Kids like

Our kids have played with Bloxels on and off for the past few months, since we got it, so it has passed the ‘lost in the closet’ test – that is, the kids choose to pull it out every now and then. The older ones do everything on screen, using only the free app. The younger ones like designing characters using the physical bloxel cubes. Everyone enjoys playing the levels they make.

There is a community aspect to Bloxels, where you can play other people’s games, but we haven’t gotten into that.

What Parents like

Bloxels seems like a great way to introduce basic ideas of programming without having to get into actual code. The kids spend much more time creating (designing characters and levels) than they do playing (running and jumping and shooting).

What the critics think

Bloxels has been nominated for several education and game awards and most reviews I’ve read have been positive.

Concerns/flaws

Most of the criticisms I’ve read have to do with how the app captures the image of the 13×13 bloxel grid. The image capture relies on the camera in your phone or tablet and can be frustrating to use, although we haven’t had much trouble with it.

There is really only one type of game that can be created with Bloxels, and that’s the 2D platformer, where a character runs, jumps, collects power-ups, shoots monsters, etc. There are so many other kids of games, and if your child doesn’t like 2D platformers, they won’t have much interest in making them. But that is a theoretical concern in our case, since our kids like that kind of game. As a parent, I would rather the games involve puzzles or problem-solving, rather than shooting monsters, but as a former game designer, I realize that those sorts of games are much more difficult for children to do well.

And the Bloxel pieces are quite small – possible choking hazards for little siblings, and they hurt to step on when not put away properly! but that’s a problem we have with lots of toys (e.g. Lego) and is not an inherent flaw with Bloxels.

Who made it

Bloxels is made by Pixel Press, which makes a few other similar make-your-own game apps, such as Floors and Adventure Time Game Wizard. Pixel Press has since been bought

When was it made/history

Bloxels started as a Kickstarter project in 2015 and got enough funding to go mainstream and eventually partner with Mattel.

Where can I get it

You can get the Bloxels app on iTunes, Google Play, and for the Kindle Fire. And you can get the physical kit on Amazon or the Bloxels site

Spaceflight Simulator

Every week we try out at least 5 different apps, either on an Android phone or the iPad. They are all free except for the rare occasion when we decide that the paid version will be worth it (e.g. in the case of Plants vs. Zombies). The apps are free usually because they have ads, and often the ads are so frequent and interrupt gameplay so inconveniently that we delete the app altogether. Some apps are free because they are promoting a product, such as all the Lego games. But I was surprised to see that the Spaceflight Simulator app was entirely free. The developer decided to use the mobile version as a free trial, hoping that those who like it will spend money on the Steam or console versions. I hope this monetization model succeeds. Mobile is the obvious place to casually try things with minimal commitment.

The game itself is a stripped-down Kerbal Space Program clone, in which you build rockets out of various components, try to get the rocket into orbit, and ultimately reach other planets. It’s fun for adults and kids but is an absolute sensation with our 7-year-old, who has only ever gotten into orbit once, yet still has a blast just building and testing.

One problem we have with many of the free mobile games (apart from the ads) is how so many of them rely on violence and aggression to play the game. Spaceflight Simulator does have explosions, but they are the negative consequence of poor building, not the objective. Instead of trying to blow up other people’s virtual property, in this game you inadvertently blow up your own creation. So the child still gets the little thrill of seeing a crash, but not the reinforcement equating violence with success.

The interface is very simple and plain. Anyone who wants the garishness of games such as Candy Crush will be disappointed.

The game is great way to teach physics and basic engineering, and I would recommend it to anyone looking for STEM/STEAM-type apps.

On Google Play Store
On Apple iTunes

Slingball

Price: $9.99

This was a gift from Grandma. She found it for $4.99 at a drugstore or somewhere like that. It was not meant to be a Major Gift (the way Lego sets are, for birthdays and Christmas) but the Slingball set ended up being the Essential Toy that went with us everywhere for a few days.

The toy is a pair of nets, which each have a hook on the side, and a pair of balls that have rubber loops coming out of them. You hook the loop to shoot it and in theory someone else catches it in their net.

Most of the fun was in weaponizing the toy, but because the ball is soft foam and the rubber loop is not long or strong enough to provide all that much power, it can’t do much damage, and we even contemplated allowing this as an indoor toy, although we soon changed our minds.

When ‘fired’ at close range toward a sibling’s face, the ball does hurt (as we discovered) but only as much as a rubber band snapped from the same distance and far less than a small plastic train engine hurled from the same distance (as we also discovered).

This was fun to take to the park and play catch, or shoot it straight up to see if we could catch it, or aim at targets such as trees.

It’s such a simple idea, that we didn’t think it would be fun, but it was. And we thought the nets or balls would fall apart after a few days of abuse, but they are still in perfect shape.

Boss Baby

Technically the movie is titled, “THE Boss Baby” but we don’t call it that. This is not a movie I would have picked as a likely candidate for movies that get re-watched in our household, but the kids love it.

In the past few weeks we’ve seen other kid-friendly movies (The Road to Eldorado, Atlantis) but none of them resonated well with our kids and we didn’t even bother finishing them. We’ve seen Boss Baby maybe 10 times now.

The movie is made by Dreamworks, which I have a somewhat low opinion of. Their movies, in contrast to Pixar, seem to go for cheap laughs and get by with making every character either a wisecracking cynic or a bumbling idiot. This movie is not all that different, but it’s very well-made and has a good message about jealousy and getting along.

Alec Baldwin does the voice of the baby, and his performance alone makes it worth watching.