Useless Machine Kit

The Useless Machine was a popular contraption in the 70s that is making a comeback. It’s a simple mechanism with a two-circuit switch that inverts the direction of motion of a DC motor in the box, enabling a finger in the box to switch itself off.

It’s sold as a kit, and the assembly is a pleasant weekend experience. It should not take more than an hour to put together.

I customized mine by ordering a halloween costume’s hand, and rebuilding the plastic to more closely resemble a human finger. The first time one see it pop out, it is actually quite startling!

I use mine in demonstrations to another team — to illustrate what tedious repetitive work is all about.

-- Federico  

Black Useless Box Kit

Available from Amazon

Plastic Dice in Bulk

I carry 3 red dice in my back pocket so that I can play a game called Cee-lo with people that I meet. Like most betting games, Cee-lo has a rough reputation. But played among friends, not betting for money, it can be rather wholesome.

I really like being able to play a simple dice game with people for a few reasons:

– it’s a really fun game!
– I’ve successfully played it with kindergartners and every age group above,
– I’ve gotten mixed age groups to have a GREAT time playing,
– It never runs out of batteries or needs to be upgraded,
– it’s very portable,
– it gets people to talk in real time,
– I don’t have to hand an expensive device to other people or count on them having one, or having one compatible to mine.

I’ve also found that the game itself is pretty simple, but with the betting aspect things get really interesting. And the world is full of trinkets to bet with. Collect a bunch of stones, or sugar packets, or tear up a piece of paper into bits that are all roughly the same size, or anything you can get a reasonable number of and you’re in business.

That said, my personal favorite thing to bet with is the little scraps that people have in their pockets: twist ties, tooth picks, vitamin pills, movie stubs. It is amazing to see how people will value these little bits of nothing while they are playing, but once the game is over, it all goes back to being little bits of trash. (I also like to see what people do to get that one important item back, that they really shouldn’t have played in the game…)

One thing about dice games: everyone plays them different. To paraphrase the Cee-lo advice U-God of Wu Tang in this NSFW (language) video: state the rules and save some fools. Better to spend a bit of time outlining the rules at the beginning then to get into any sort of fight later. (And not a bad rule in life in general.)

So, here is how I play Cee-lo:

Cee-lo – 2 or more players – 3 dice

Determine who is going to be playing and who is going to be the first player.

If betting, all players put in their bet.

The first player rolls all three dice until they get a recognized combination, or are otherwise disqualified

The combinations are, ranked from best to worst:

The highest possible roll. Instant win of the round for the player who rolled it. They take the entire pot, and the next round begins. This skips the turns of anyone who has not gone.

Rolling three of the same number is known as “trips”. Higher trips beat lower trips, so 4-4-4 is better than 3-3-3.

“Spare and a Pair”
Rolling a pair, and another number, establishes the singleton as a “point.” A higher point beats a lower point, so 1-1-3 is better than 6-6-2.

Automatic loss. Play forfeits turn, but the game continues.

Any other roll is a meaningless combination and must be rerolled until one of the above combinations occurs. It is also an automatic loss if a player rolls the dice 5 times without getting a meaningful combination.

If either of the dice roll off the playing surface, it is also an automatic loss for the player.

Play then proceeds around to other players, going clockwise.

The player who rolls the best combination wins. In cases of a tie for the best combination, there is a a shoot-out: the players who tied will play another round of the game until there is a single winner.

The winner gets to stat the next round.

And that is all there is to it! I also like it the way the game is explained in this video.

There are PLENTY of other games you can play with dice. But, Cee-lo one my favorite!

I usually buy dice by the 100, so after I teach people, I can give them their own set.

100 Red Dice

Available from Amazon


This is the best site for learning how to build your own kites. Good tutorials, decent forums (quieter since the site’s founder died) and a great encyclopedia of techniques and materials. Their best asset is the stash of plans submitted by users for almost any type of kite.

(Kite making supplies can be found from the previously reviewed Into the Wind.)

-- KK  

Sample Excerpts:

There’s no such thing as kite fabric! Just about any fabric will work… including the fabric grade Ripstop you chose. Was it difficult to sew? It is probably pretty stretchy eh?? The coated Ripstop often used by most builders on this website is coated with a finish that reduces stretch and porosity. It is also pretty light weight, probably about half the weight of the cloth you used. So… your kite will probably require a little more wind for optimum performance… but if balanced and bridled properly, it should still fly.




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Best New Games * Play It! * Great Group Games


Get off your screen and come have fun! Run around, chase a ball, make a face, best your friend, be silly, make up a game. When you run out of ideas, here are some more.

New games were invented by Stewart Brand in the 1970s to introduce cooperation and open-ended play into overly competitive games. These type of games like to unfold outdoors, involve large groups of people (5 -50), include all abilities. In contrast to sports games none of them require equipment, and everyone wins. The main point of these games is simply to keep fun going as long as possible. Dale LeFevre has been running new games for 30 years and has collected the best of them here in Best New Games. Playing some of these 77 games has been the most fun I’ve had in years. Good for family reunions, scouts, school picnics, summer campgrounds.


Play It! is a densely packed book of game ideas for youth groups — church, camp or school. Many of these might better be described as activities, such as scavenger hunts, or role playing situations. They depend on easily gathered props, but also require some preplanning and set up. They are not as spontaneous, but kids love them.


Small groups benefit from playing games together, so a cottage industry has emerged to lead games for organizational and business teams. A deliberate sequence of games starting with fun icebreakers, then onto ones building trust, and ending with celebration games can strengthen teamwork. The best selection I’ve seen for “serious play” games are in Great Group Games. Suggested game options are grouped by their function in the “learning” sequence. In a business setting these team-building games require the right tactful facilitator (not the boss!) to lead, but many of them also work fine informally with a family or friends.

Come on, put that screen down!

-- KK  

Best New Games
Dale LeFevre
2012, 256 pages
Available from Amazon

Play It!
Wayne Rice, Mike Yaconelli
2000, 120 pages
$7, Kindle; paperback used from $4
Available from Amazon

Great Group Games
Susan Ragsdale, Ann Saylor
2007, 228 pages
Available from Amazon

Sample Excerpts:

From Best New Games

So what is a New Game? It is a cooperative group interactive game that is done just for fun and is for everybody regardless of age, size, gender, or ability level. The games sometimes include competition, but anybody can win. That’s because when there is winning, it is only one element rather than the main element of a game. No trophies or awards are given for winning; we simply go on to another game. This way, everyone can play without having to suffer the extremes of competition. Instead of being eliminated, players change roles or sides and keep playing. And always, enjoying a New Game is more important than winning it. In this sense, everybody wins every game.


Zip, Zap, Pop

Description of Game

Who needs snap, crackle, and pop when you have “zip, zap, pop”? The group sits together in a close circle. The first thing to pass around is a “zip,” which is accomplished by placing a hand on top of the head with the fingers pointing at the person on one side while saying “Zip.” The person on that side also puts a hand on top of his or her head with fingers pointing in the same direction while saying “Zip.” It passes from person to person this way around the circle. Practice this in one direction and then the other.

The next thing to learn is a “zap,” which is done by putting the hand under the chin the opposite direction from which a zip is coming. A zap makes a zip reverse directions. And, of course, if one zaps a zap, the zip rereverses directions. A “pop” is done by pointing to anyone in the circle, who then has to either start passing a zip, zap it back, or pop to someone else.


Lap Game

We first get the group into a very tight standing circle facing in so that each person is touching the person next to him or her. Everyone takes a quarter turn in the same direction so that each person is facing the back of a person. (This is often the hardest part. Invariably, several players turn the opposite way.)

Each player puts the hands on the hips of the player in front of him or her. It is important to get the proper spacing. If everyone’s arms are stretched out, people are too far away from one another and they need to take a step in toward the center. If people are too close, they need to take a step out from the center. Try small step adjustments first. The idea is to be able to sit on the knees of the person in back of you while having the person in front of you sit on your knees. Having someone sit on your thighs is painful!

At the count of three, you might try having everyone touch down briefly to see if they are all connecting properly. Then have the group all sit on each others knees all at the same time, perhaps with the magic words “On my knees, please.”



From Play It!

Time Warp Tag

Here’s another crazy version of the most famous of all games. You simply play a regular game of tag but at the blow of a whistle, each player (including “It”) must slow down to a speed equal to a sports replay “slo-mo.” In other words, they must do everything in slow motion. Kids will soon get the hang of it and become very exaggerated in their motions.

Make sure the kids do everything in Time Warp state, even talking and shouting. The game can be played in total Time Warp, or you can blow the whistle for start/stop intervals. Limit the size of the playing area so that several players have a chance to become “It.”


Swedish Baseball

This variation of baseball is most effective with 25 or more participants. Teams are divided equally with one team out in the field and the other at bat. No bats or balls are used. All you need is a Frisbee.

The batter comes to the plate and throws the Frisbee out into the field. The fielding team chases down the Frisbee and tries to return it to a garbage can that is next to home plate. The Frisbee must be tossed in rather than simply dropped in. Meanwhile, the batter runs about 10 feet to the first base, then to the second base about eight feet away and begins to circle them. Every lap is one point for the batting team, and the runner continues until the Frisbee is in the can. All the players on the batting team get to be up each inning. There are no outs.

After two or three innings, the score can get quite high. You’ll need to have a scorekeeper who can keep track of all the points.



Group Juggle

This circle game is something like hot potato, with a dash of Concentration. Throw a ball to one person in a standing circle of kids. That person throws it to another, and so on until everyone has received and thrown the ball once-but exactly once. No one should get the ball a second time, which means each player needs to remember where the ball’s been. If your group’s frustration threshold is high, increase the speed of the game and add more


From Great Group Games


Fort Magic

My 10-year-old daughter and her friends love playing with the Fort Magic kit. It’s a box of PVC pipes and connecters, along with clips to attach sheets or tarps. You can build all sorts of things with them, from dangerous blow guns (we use cotton balls and tape with a big needle) to clubhouses. See Fort Magic’s YouTube channel for other projects. We’ve had Fort Magic for a over a year and Jane has not yet become bored with it.

Here’s a video of Jane and her cousins showing me one of their creations.

UPDATE (10/2/2014): My kids are still playing with this!


Fort Magic

Available from Amazon

Dungeons & Dragons

The role-playing game Dungeons & Dragons is almost 40 years old, and it’s more popular than ever. Each player takes on the role of a character (human or non-human) possessed with skills and attributes (strength, intelligence, dexterity, etc.) determined by throwing polyhedral dice. The players are banded together and embark on an imaginary adventure filled with monsters, traps, and treasures. Games can last for tens or hundreds hours, stretched over weeks or months of multiple gaming sessions. (A player’s character can be used in future adventures, and it becomes more powerful over time.)

One player in the group is the Dungeon Master, who is responsible for maintaining the imaginary world. Dungeon Masters can either create an adventure from scratch or buy an adventure outline (with maps and other supporting materials) from the publisher. Masters spend much of their time describing the environment to the players, serving as referee, and taking on the roles of non-player characters.

The rules for Dungeons & Dragons can be overwhelming. Start with the low-priced “red box,” which contains polyhedral dice, introductory rules, and a sample adventure. Work your way up from there.

-- Mark Frauenfelder  

Dungeons & Dragons Fantasy Roleplaying Game: An Essential D&D Starter

Available from Amazon

Personalized Photo Jigsaw Puzzles

My family is addicted to jigsaw puzzles. When a special birthday came up for one of my daughters, I prepared a photo collage using and ordered a photo jigsaw puzzle from Venus Puzzle.

The puzzle comes in a custom box, shrink wrapped and with a copy of the submitted photo on the cover, commercial quality. Puzzle pieces and printing was of excellent quality.

Since you can submit any image with the suggested proportions and dpi, this service can replace or improve upon the previously reviewed hometown puzzle.

The advantage to this site is that it ships internationally with the same DHL charges for anywhere in the world.

For my next daughter I didn’t want to use DHL, and Venus Puzzle referred me to their sister site Piczzle, which has the same product range and quality, also shipping worldwide (but with regular post instead of DHL).

Base prices are a little cheaper on the Venus Puzzle site, but for my country, DHL added customs service charges that made it unattractive. The order from Piczzle arrived in about a week, instead of in 4 days.
Note that both sites are slightly clunky, and only the Venus Puzzle site has the necessary information on the recommended proportions and resolution: In my case I purchased the 550 piece puzzle which uses a 1:1.25 ration and minimum dpi of 150.

-- Aryeh Abramovitz  


This inexpensive construction kit uses simple plastic hubs to connect grocery store drinking straws. You can assemble quite large — and featherweight — structures in crystalline and geodesic designs. The 125 included hubs are enough for several big projects and are reusable. While you can use “bendable” drinking straws I don’t recommend them because they weaken the structures; but if that’s all you can find at the store, they’ll do.



-- KK  


Available from Linx


No recent game has given me as much pleasure as the parlor game known as Werewolf.* Whenever my extended family gathers for holidays, we play Werewolf over and over. I’ve played the game on company retreats, at tech gatherings, on group vacations. At Foo Camp, a rendevouz for nerds, epic sessions of Werewolf will run all night long till dawn.  It is that addictive.

Werewolf can be played with as few as 6-8 folks and as many as 30 or more. A game can last 30 minutes to an hour, and even very young kids can play. It’s a game of bluff and deduction. Think of poker, but without any cards or money. Some fans call it a “mind game.” In brief, the game assigns roles to players at random and in secret. One emergent group — the werewolves  — must kill the innocent villagers, but no one knows who is who because the deed is done “at night” in a secret way. On each round of the game, the innocents will lynch a supposed werewolf as voted by the group after accusations and debate but they are never sure they have the right person. Maybe it’s the werewolfs leading the pitchforks!? Both the best and worst of human behavior is activated: lying, leadership, mob psychology, democracy, persuasion, deception, deduction logic, and imagination.

Because of the intense social dynamics, the game is eternally surprising and addictive. Werewolf is the only non-sport game I know of that is as much fun to watch as to play. Players who die early in the game will always stick around till the end, watching in fascination.

Like Charades, you don’t need any equipment, other than some index cards, or a deck of playing cards to distribute in order to assign roles in secret.  But over years of playing we’ve found this dedicated deck of cards by Ted Alspach makes it much easier to introduce newbies, and to remember roles. The deck contains 40 or so cards printed with Werewolf roles and instructions. It also contains about 25 additional roles that can be added to the typical 5 main roles, which is why Alspach calls it Ultimate. As you play more often or the groups get bigger, you can keep the game exciting by experimenting with these additional roles.

A pretty good free rule set for Werewolf can be found online here.  Grab a regular deck of cards, assign different picture cards to roles, and you are off. If you want a bit more help this Ultimate Werewolf deck includes a fantastic sheet of very clear rules and instructions (the best I’ve seen), with great tips on how to be a good moderator. And the rules stay handy with the ready-made cards. We’ve found that having the roles explained on each card is really helpful for new players.

-- KK  

[* This is an evolving game with many variations (which you can find online), including an earlier one that uses the same rules but a different metaphor: In Mafia, the secret Mafioso try to kill innocents. However, the Werewolf version seems to be dominating.]

Ultimate Werewolf

Available from Bezier Games


Dixit is a “party game” (best played with 5 or more), and consists of a series of wordless cards with beautiful, evocative, and sometimes surreal images. You take turns being the “storyteller,” and saying a word or phrase that evokes (but does not describe) one of your cards, which you place face-down in the center. The other players add cards which might also fit that phrase, and add them to the face-down pile. After shuffling the cards, everyone votes on which card was the storyteller’s. If everyone (or no one) guesses the storyteller’s card, the storyteller doesn’t earn points — so you need to be enigmatic, but not obscure. You also earn points if you guessed the storyteller’s card, or if your card fooled another player.

There are several reasons why Dixit is a great game. It’s simple without being simplistic. It’s beautiful — not just because the cards are beautiful, but because the way people describe and interpret the cards can be poetic. And, while not a “cooperative” game (that’s a whole different class of games), Dixit is one of those games that brings people together. Even if you’ve lost, you’ll feel like you’ve been on a fascinating (and fun!) journey.

— Mike Everett-Lane

Another vote for Dixit. The artwork on the cards is amazingly varied and imaginative. One person will see several ideas on one card. Several people will see dozens and dozens of things on the same card. And sometimes nobody will see what you’ve seen. It’s astonishing to see the game being played.

You can get the base game, and then other decks of cards or related games (Dixit Odyssey) for more cards. The only downside is if you play it a lot, you’ll get familiar with the pictures, but you’d really have to play it tons to get bored with them. Very good value, great with adults.

— BM York


[There are several expansion packs available for those that play a lot!--OH]


Available from Amazon

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