The Battle of Polytopia

What is it
The Battle of Polytopia (or simply, “Polytopia”) is a free (ad-free as well) turn-based mobile strategy game.

Who is it for

Winning the game requires some strategic thinking and there is some very mild cartoon violence (about as much violence as in a game of chess) so I would put the lower limit around 7 years old. It’s fun for adults as well, so no upper limit on age.

If you or your child is a fan of Age of Empires, Civilization, or similar resource-management, leveling-up, strategic conquest kinds of games, this is the same but simplified, optimized, and minimized so that you can play on a small screen.

What Kids Like

The game is very addictive. The gameplay is very well-balanced so “just getting by” is possible with some effort but really winning can be tough.

The graphics are very appealing.

What Parents Like

I like that it’s free, with no ads. Too many games (even many paid ones) are full of ads. Polytopia makes revenue by charging for the online multiplayer option or for letting a player buy a tribe that is unavailable in the free version. The game clearly states that the multiplayer option requires spending “real money” so kids won’t be tricked into thinking that they can get it via credits earned in-game.

You can still play “hot-seat” multiplayer games for free, handing the device back and forth in a way that feels like playing chess.

And the game is just fun, very well-polished and balanced in a way few other mobile games are.

What the Critics Think

Apple/iOS/iTunes gives it 4.7/5 stars

as does the Google/Android Play store

The Battle of Polytopia wins gold in Lovie Awards 2018

The game has attracted a large following and there is now a subreddit and a fan wiki

Concerns/Flaws

Being free and ad-free, I have none of the usual complaints about the apps I let my children use. The theme is of conquest, so there is the suggestion of violence, but not more than you have in chess or checkers, or even tic-tac -toe.

The only real complaint is that in fitting a complex game into a simple mobile-friendly interface, the developers packed a lot of detail into the little isometric tiles. You sometimes have to look very closely to see where your players are.

Who Made it / History

Polytopia was made by a Swedish developer and released in 2016.

From the wiki:

The Battle of Polytopia, formerly known as Super Tribes, is a turn-based world-building strategy game developed by Midjiwan AB. The player leads one of fourteen Tribes to conquer a square-shaped world by capturing Cities. Cities earn Stars that can be used to research Technology, train Units to engage in Combat, and develop the surrounding Terrain to gain Population. Be warned, however: the more Cities that are added to the empire, the higher the cost of technological research… and the greater the area that must be protected from the endless onslaught of the other tribes!

You may play in Single player, where the goal of the game is either to gain the highest possible score in 30 turns (Perfection), or to destroy all opposing tribes (Domination).

Alternatively, you could engage in a local multiplayer “Pass & Play” with your friends, or connect with them online and play games from the comfort of your homes!

Where Can I Get it

iTunes for iOS

Google Play store for Android

and Steam will have a desktop version in ‘early 2019’

I’m Just No Good at Rhyming

I’m Just No Good at Rhyming: And Other Nonsense for Mischievous Kids and Immature Grown-Ups

What is it
I’m Just No Good at Rhyming is a book in the same vein as Shel Silverstein and Edward Lear, with clever wordplay and nonsense verses that often have profound thoughts buried in silly verse.

Who is it for

It’s for families that read together. I found that this is a book that the kids much prefer to be read aloud by an adult, rather than read on their own.

The silliness is over the heads of the very young, so 5 may be the lower limit. Older kids who are competent readers and writers would also enjoy it.

What Kids Like

They like the silliness of it, the monsters, and the occasional whiff of possible violence. Many of the poems suggest at tantalizing secrets.

They also like the whimsical illustrations by Lane Smith

The cover of the book has an endorsement by B.J. Novak, who wrote “The Book with No Pictures”, which remains one of our kids’ favorites. This endorsement helped sell the book to my kids and convince them to give it a try.

What Parents Like

I like that ‘difficult’ or ‘challenging’ text is so appealing to my kids. And I genuinely like some of the poems. Many are like the best of Dr. Suess, causing me to stop and think a bit. My favorite is the eleven-stanza “A Short Saga” which has some of the absurd humor of the song “Oh, Susannah!” but goes beyond that.

The sun that night was freezing hot,
The ground was soaking dry.
I met a man where he was not
And greeted him good-bye.

With shaven beard combed in a mess
And hair as black as snow,
All bundled up in nakedness
And moving blazing snow

I said, “Then let’s have never met.”
To this, he nodded “No.”
“This night, I’ll vividly forget.
Until back then, hello.”

What the Critics Think

The critics love it.

Reviews at
* School Library Journal
* School Library Journal (by a different reviewer)
* Book Depository

* NPR has an interview with the author

* GoodReads gives it 4.35 stars
* GoodReads gives it 5/5

Who Made it / History

From the publisher’s website:

Chris Harris is a writer and executive producer for How I Met Your Mother and The Great Indoors, and a writer for The Late Show with David Letterman. His pieces have appeared in The New Yorker, Esquire, ESPN, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and on NPR. He was also the author of the anti-travel guide Don’t Go Europe! He lives in Los Angeles.

Lane Smith wrote and illustrated Grandpa Green, which was a 2012 Caldecott Honor book, and It’s a Book, which has been translated into more than twenty-five languages. His other works include the national bestsellers Madam President and John, Paul, George & Ben, the Caldecott Honor winner The Stinky Cheese Man, The True Story of the 3 Little Pigs, Math Curse, and Science Verse, among others. His books have been New York Times Best Illustrated Books on four occasions. In 2012 the Eric Carle Museum named him an Honor Artist for lifelong innovation in the field of children’s books, and in 2014 he received the Society of Illustrators Lifetime Achievement award. Lane and his wife, book designer Molly Leach, live in rural Connecticut.

Where Can I Get it

I’m Just No Good at Rhyming is available at most major bookstores and Amazon.

You can find educator kits at the publisher’s website

And you can preview the book at Google Books

Plus-Plus

What is it

Plus-Plus is a building toy made up of pieces that look like two plus signs: ++

They are sort of like Legos, but also sort of like Play-doh

Who is it for

Anyone old enough to manipulate small objects and also old enough to know not to put little things in their mouth should be old enough to use it, so maybe 4 at the lower end. And anyone who still plays with Legos would enjoy Plus-Plus as well, so maybe 9 at the upper end. It would also be a decent office desk toy / stress reliever.

The company also makes a larger version (called, simply, “Big”) that is more than twice the size of regular Plus-Plus and is easier for little hands to work with and are too big to choke on. These would be fun for kids as young as 1 year.

What Kids Like

The bricks/blocks connect easily and it’s very simple to make a figure or vehicle or whatever. Unlike Lego, which more and more rely on special pieces, Plus-Plus has only one shape and size of brick and this uniformity actually makes it easier to design things because you always have every shape of brick you need.

Also, Lego requires rectilinear construction because of the way bricks fit together. But Plus-Plus can fit at angles, resulting in more organic, rounder creations.

Perhaps the most appealing aspect, for some, is that the creations end up looking like Minecraft creations.

What Parents Like

I like having multiple options for building toys.

I like that Plus-Plus are cheap. Because there are no special pieces, Plus-Plus bricks end up costing something like 5¢. The kids like taking toys in the car and on trips and when visiting people, and there is always the risk with Legos that a certain special minifig helmet or something will get lost. With Plus-plus, we can lose a few pieces and no one will notice.

What the Critics Think

The toy gets 4.6 stars at Amazon and 4.9 at FatBrain Toys

The toy has won many awards, including:

  • Popular Mechanics USA “Best of Toy Fair 2019”
  • Mystery Makers highlighted as one of “2019 Most Trendy Products” at New York Toy Fair
  • Learning Express “Best Construction Toy 2018”

Concerns/Flaws

I keep comparing Plus-Plus to Legos because the similarities are obvious. Another similarity is that these things get scattered all over the floor and stepping on them is painful. They are a bit of a choking hazard as well for little ones.

Who Made it/History

The company was started in 2009 in Copenhagen, Denmark and now has an office in Greenville, SC

Where Can I Get it

Plus-Plus used to be something of a boutique toy, only available at specialty educational stores, but they are now everywhere: Amazon, Target, Kohl’s etc.

You can see the toy in action and images of the various sets on their website https://www.plus-plus.com/

Duolingo

Duolingo

I often have a desire to better myself, but being extremely lazy I seldom make the time. So it’s good for me every time I stumble across a “life hack” that offers a positive change for minimal investment of time or effort. The first such thing I tried was the “7-minute workout“, which is essentially just good, old-fashioned calisthenics, in 30-second sets. It’s a good workout and seems to be at least as beneficial as running a few miles, which is usually too much of a commitment for me to make.

Another one of these life-hacks is Duolingo, which operates on the premise that you only learn effectively in 10-minute chunks. Trying to do more than that has diminishing returns – it’s a waste of time to try to cram for two hours when only that first ten minutes will be effective. I’ve been using Duolingo for several months and can vouch for its ease and effectiveness.

What is it
Duolingo is a free (ad-based) language learning app available on all platforms, including a website. They offer dozens of languages.

Who is it for
It doesn’t seem geared for any particular age group, but a child using it needs to be a competent reader in English, since most of the prompts in the app are written English. Our 7-year-old is a good reader and has been using Duolingo to learn French.

What Kids Like
The interface is heavily gamified, with constant feedback, badges, leveling-up, etc. So there is continual affirmation and a sense of progress.

They see it as yet another game, yet instead of learning about how to defeat zombies or level up their spaceship, they are learning a foreign language.

All instruction is passive and indirect. There is no overt instruction – no lectures, only translation of words and sentences. If you translate correctly, you get a happy chime and your progress bar goes up. If you fail, you get a chance to try again and you can’t complete the level until all the sentences in the level have been translated correctly.

What Parents Like
I like that it works and I need to do nothing to motivate my child since the app is fun on its own. I like that there is an app on my phone that I can share with my child that isn’t yet another game or Youtube, or whatever.

The interface is really one of the most effective teaching environments I’ve ever seen. I wonder whether other subjects could be taught this way.

What the Critics Think

iTunes users rate it 4.7/5 as do users on Android

Language-learning site Fluent in 3 Months has a review https://www.fluentin3months.com/duolingo/ and gives the app 4 out of 5 stars

PCMag gives it 4.5 stars

Concerns/Flaws

My complaint is that not all language courses on Duolingo are good. The Chinese one, for example, is terrible. I think the Duolingo interface works best with Roman alphabet languages. Trying to learn Arabic, Russian, or any Asian language will be a challenge – too big of a challenge for a kid because they have to learn the alphabet as well as the vocabulary and grammar.

Who Made it

Duolingo is based in Pittsburgh and was started in 2011. There are currently 300 million users

Where Can I Get it

Download from iTunes or the Google Play Store
or just visit the Duolingo site

Pig Will and Pig Won’t

My dad got this book for my kids. He fondly remembered reading it to my brother and me when we were young.

What is it

Pig Will and Pig Won’t is a simple book about two brothers, one of whom behaves well while the other does not. The good pig gets rewarded and the bad pig changes his ways because he wants rewards as well. Although this sounds a bit Machiavellian for a kids book — teaching them that good behavior is a quid-pro-quo situation where treats are ‘bought’ by not misbehaving — the story is fun, sweet, and engaging.

Anyone who remembers Goofus and Gallant from the Highlights for Children magazine on the coffee table at the pediatrician’s office will recognize the theme.

Who is it for

All kids could use a reminder about the importance of good behavior, but we noticed the book resonated particularly well with our oldest, who is frequently chastised for behavior. The story and language is quite simple, so only younger kids will get much out of it.

What Kids Like

The kids like the classic Richard Scarry drawing style. They always enjoy looking at the details in his illustrations. And they like that the characters ‘win’ in the end.

What Parents Like

There really are not many engaging books that depict good manners. So many books now focus on space and STEM and try to be fun without really giving examples of how to act. Perhaps books on manners is an old-fashioned idea.

What the Critics Think

Goodreads gives it 4/5

Who Made it

Richard Scarry wrote and illustrated over 300 books until his death in 1994. He trained as an artist in Philadelphia before moving to Switzerland and many of his books take place in a kind of idealized Swiss village.

His most famous characters are Huckle Cat and Lowly Worm.

Where Can I Get it

Google has a preview

The Great Paper Caper

Caution: Reading this book with your kids will probably make them want to start folding paper airplanes (and you will want to as well), so may not be ideal for bedtime reading.

What is it

The Great Paper Caper is a unique book, written and illustrated by Oliver Jeffers, previously known for “The Incredible Book-Eating Boy” and many other titles.

Most of the creatures (plus one kid) of the forest work together to solve the mystery of why so many tree branches are disappearing.

Who is it for

This is a fun one for non-readers and beginning readers as well as more mature readers. The story is not that complex, but most of the plot is implicit and the very young may not understand what’s going on. For example, on one page we see an owl alighting upon a branch, and a few pages later we see the owl trying to do so again, but no branch is there. Inferring that someone has sawn off the branch is a mental leap that very young kids can’t make.

While younger kids focus on the animals and the overt aspects of the pictures, older kids focus more on the bear and his motivations.

What Kids Like

The book is very dense with details. Even the inside cover includes instructions for different paper airplanes (and the instructions on the inside of the back cover are different from the ones on the front). So they like poring over the drawings, studying the details.

The book is also very varied in how it approaches storytelling. A few pages have overt descriptions of what is happening, other pages rely entirely on images to tell the story. Part of the book is a kid-level police procedural while others parts are a touching, almost somber exploration of the motivation of the “villain” in the story.

And of course, they get inspired to make their own paper airplanes.

What Parents Like

I’m generally a fan of auteur works like this, where the pictures are drawn by the person who wrote the story. Having a single vision for art and word makes it a more personal and unique creation. Collaborative works can be wonderful, but they are more likely to have that taste of where the creative decisions were made by committee. This book does not have that problem, and the occasional weirdness or inconsistency in style makes it that much more interesting for both adults and kids.

This is also fun to read because there are multiple ways to do so. Because so much of the story is told through pictures, I can choose to either describe the actions in detail, or briefly, or I can just stick to the text and let the kids figure out the meaning of the pictures on their own.

The book hints at issues such as mistrust and guilt, and if you take the time the book can spawn some interesting conversations with your kids.

The book is even used as a teaching resource to explore issues such as empathy and creativity

What the Critics Think

“The Great Paper Caper” gets 4/5 on Goodreads

Publishers Weekly has a review, as does The School Library Journal

Who Made it

Oliver Jeffers is an Irish artist (born in Australia and now living in Brooklyn) also known for his childrens’ book illustrations, most famous for the pictures in “The Day the Crayons Quit” by Drew Daywalt, and also for the pictures in “The Boy in the Striped Pajames” by John Boyne.

Jeffers has many of his own books as well, that he wrote and illustrated on his own.

He has been putting out two or three books each year since 2004.

Where Can I Get it

Google has a preview

Harper Collins has an mp3 of the audiobook version

On Beyond Zebra!

Dr. Seuss wrote more than 60 books, many of them selling 10 million or copies or more over the past several decades. While “On Beyond Zebra!” has never been as popular as “The Cat in the Hat” or “Green Eggs and Ham”, it is one of his better ones, in my opinion.

I don’t actually recall how we got this added to our collection, but it was probably a gift. And of all the Dr. Seuss books on our shelf, this is the one the kids pull out most frequently. “One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish” is fun, and we read that to the kids when they are very young, but they lose interest in that once they begin learning to read on their own.

And while I frequently push for titles such as “Bartholomew and the Oobleck”, that just doesn’t resonate with the kids as much as “On Beyond Zebra!”

What is it

The book is typical of most of Dr. Seuss’s books, where each page is a nearly standalone depiction of a whimsical creature in a whimsical location, with a few lines of verse. In the case of this book, however, each page is also devoted to an exotic novel letter. That is, the book suggests there are letters that come after ‘Z’, which are needed to spell these creatures and their locations.

Who is it for

“On Beyond Zebra!” is ideal for kids in the first few years of learning to read. I would say ages 4 to 7

What Kids Like

The kids like the exotic creatures, such as the cow with 98 udders or the “Floob-Boober-Bab-Boober-Bubs” that float around as living stepping stones. They also like the invented letters. For new readers, the standard alphabet is already strange and foreign, so introducing them to ever stranger, more foreign letters actually gives them confidence about the standard letters that they do know.

What Parents Like

It’s a book that’s fun to read, and the images are so fantastical that I’m able to maintain my interest. And more than many other books, “On Beyond Zebra!” inspires questions about words and animals.

What the Critics Think

Goodreads gives “On Beyond Zebra!” 4 out 5

Oliver Jeffers has

Concerns/Flaws

Some of Dr. Suess’s books have not aged well, with depictions of people or cultures or places that are now seen as offensive. This book has none of that, however.

Google has a preview

Someone has taken the time to add the “Seussian” letters of “On Beyond Zebra!” to the Unicode standard: http://www.evertype.com/standards/csur/seuss.html

The Wild Robot and The Wild Robot Escapes

What is it

‘The Wild Robot’ and its sequel ‘The Wild Robot Escapes’ is a very charming 2-part (so far) series about a sentient robot surviving in the wilderness, written and illustrated by Peter Brown.

Who is it for

The official website gives the recommended ages of 8 to 11, but every one of us enjoyed the audio book, even the 4-year-old. The books are chapter books, with occasional (wonderful) illustrations, so young readers who are used to a lot of pictures won’t want to read it. But the story is deep enough that adults and older children would enjoy it.

What Kids Like

It has robots, and fighting, and talking animals, but also feels like a “grown-up” story in some ways. Characters suffer and get distressed. Some characters die. This is all handled very well, and is not upsetting to kids.

What Parents Like

The story is surprisingly rich and deep for a book aimed at children. While the story on the surface may seem simple and childish, the themes of identity and purpose and community are thought-provoking.

The audiobooks were rare examples of stories that both adults and kids were eager to continue listening to.

What the Critics Think

4.1/5 on Goodreads, 4.9/5 on Barnes & Noble, 4/5 on Common Sense Media, and 96% on Google.

The relatively lower Goodreads score was a surprise to me, but I think some of their readers aren’t into robots.

Who Made it

The books were written and illustrated by Peter Brown, known for simpler books including “The Curious Garden”, “Children Make Terrible Pets”, and “Mr. Tiger Goes Wild”.

The audio books were read by Kate Atwater / Kathleen McInerney (I think it’s the same person, but am not sure). The audio books are excellent for long car trips.

History

Peter Brown has a fairly detailed write-up of the process of creating the book. Interesting to aspiring writers or anyone curious about the process.

"However, I wanted to tell a different kind of robot story. I wanted to tell the story of a robot who finds harmony in the last place you’d expect. I wanted to tell a robot nature story."

"For this to truly be a “robot nature story” Roz would need to encounter a wide variety of natural elements. And the story would have to take place in the future to explain the existence of intelligent robots. I imagined how the wilderness might look in a few hundred years, and two things occurred to me: 1) because of climate change and rising sea levels, animals from far and wide might eventually be forced together as they all seek higher ground, and 2) some of that higher ground might become completely surrounded by water, forming new islands. With that in mind, I set the story far in the future, on a rugged northern island that was formed by rising seas, and that had a diverse array of weather and flora and fauna."

"The Wild Robot is the story of Rozzum unit 7134, a robot who wakes up for the very first time to find that she’s alone on a remote, wild island. Roz doesn’t know how she got there, or where she came from: she only knows that she wants to stay alive. And by robotically studying her environment she learns everything she needs to know. She learns how to move through the wilderness, how to avoid danger, she even learns how to communicate with the animals. But the most important lesson Roz learns is that kindness can be a survival skill. And she uses kindness to develop friends and a family and a peaceful life for herself. Until her mysterious past catches up with her.

It took eight years, but I finally found an answer to the question that led me down this path. What would an intelligent robot do in the wilderness? She’d make the wilderness her home."

Where Can I Get it

You can read a preview here although it does not include the illustrations.

The books and audio books are everywhere.

Machinarium – Amanita Design

What is it

Machinarium is a point-and-click adventure game featuring a cute robot solving puzzles in a beautifully-drawn quasi-steampunk city.

Who is it for

It’s for anyone, young and old, but some of the puzzles are pretty tricky and even precocious children under 7 or so would need some grown-up help. But it’s a great game to play with a child.

What Kids Like

The character is cute, the atmosphere is immersive and captivating, and most of the puzzles are very satisfying. There is no speed/dexterity component, so players do not need to rush and can go at their own pace.

What Parents Like

The puzzles make you feel smart when you figure them out, so the game feels almost educational. It is aesthetic, and as stated above, is a good game for an adult to play with a kid. The music, by Tomáš Dvořák, is fun, happy, and pleasant.

It’s been at least 15 years since the ‘Golden Age of free Flash web games’ if there ever were such a time, back when Homestar Runner was the best thing on the Web, and Machinarium came out toward the end of that era. There were so many Flash games that I loved that my kids won’t ever see because Flash will no longer be available soon, but thankfully there are some relics of that period, such as Machinarium, that remain.

I also like the Eastern European aesthetic of the game. The developers of Machinarium, Amanita Design, are Czech, and the look and feel of the game, the characters, the puzzles have a quality that is simply different from the American and Japanese games that flood the market.

What the Critics Think

Machinarium gets 9/10 on Steam, 4.6/5 on Google’s Play Store for Android, 4.3/5 on Apple’s iTunes for iOS, and 4.6/5 on Jay is games, which also has a nice write-up of the game.

  • IGF 2009, Excellence in Visual Art Award
  • Nomination for 13th Annual Interactive Achievement Awards (DICE Awards)
  • Gamasutra, Best Indie Game Of 2009
  • VGChartz.com, Best Indie Game Of 2009
  • PC Gamer, Best Soundtrack of 2009

In 2011, Adventure Gamers named Machinarium the 17th-best adventure game ever released.

Concerns/Flaws

The only complaint is that some of the puzzles have the quality common to point-and-click type games, where you sometimes have to click on just the right pixel to prompt a reaction and there is sometimes a lot of frantic clicking trying to find that one spot.

Who Made it/History

Machinarium was the first full-length game, made in 2009 by Amanita Design, based in Brno, Czech Republic (more on Wikipedia) after years of success with shorter games such as their Samorost series

Where Can I Get it

You can play the free demo online using Flash. You may need to activate the Flash plugin in your browser.

The full set of links (Humble Bundle, Steam, iOS, Android) is on the Machinarium page

The game is going for $10 these days. If you don’t want to spend any money, or want more of a preview, check out Amanita’s other games, such as the free Samorost or The Quest for the Rest

Steam Train, Dream Train

What is it

Steam Train, Dream Train is a very charming, beautifully-illustrated book that tells a simple story in verse of a freight train being loaded by animals, explaining all the types of train cars along the way.

Who is it for

Kids as young as 2 (or possibly younger) who are in a “train phase” enjoy the images of the train. Slightly older kids enjoy all the details in the pictures showing the animals and cargo, kids a bit older than that enjoy the verse by Sherri Duskey Rinker and can read along. So 2 to 5 is probably ideal. It’s been a fixture on our shelf for years as each kid discovers it.

What Kids Like

Trains are always a hit for some kids. The illustrations by Tom Lichtenheld are wonderful and full of details for the kids to pick out.

What Parents Like

The theme is of a night train being loaded before bed, and is perfect bedtime reading. The final page makes you ask the question of whether the story you just read is real, or part of a dream.

The cover is attractive and passes the “Melissa and Doug test” of being appealing enough to show off on a bookshelf.

I have a fond memory of buying this book soon after it was published, on a lovely, snowy evening in December at Books of Wonder in New York. I read it to our oldest perhaps 50 times over the next few months.

What the Critics Think

4.4/5 at Barnes & Noble, 4.1/5 at Goodreads

Who Made it/History

Tom Lichtenheld drew the pictures and Sherri Duskey Rinker. They worked together on Goodnight, Goodnight, Construction Site in 2011 as well.