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

Produced by Asmodee

Hol-ee Roller

hole roller.jpeg

A friend gave my dog this ball in January, and my dog and I like it so much that I have since started to phase-out other dog toys. It is durable. My dog is a strong chewer, and has destroyed many a lesser toy. It is attractive. Who doesn’t love a geodesic dome? It is light and squishy, bouncing off objects denser balls would damage. It is large. This might not seem important, but my dog has been known to attempt furniture disassembly while attempting to retrieve a ball that has rolled under the sofa. Despite its size, it is easy to pick up. Dogs can chomp on a vertex, and I can hook it with a finger. Touching it is not disgusting. Despite its size, it has little surface area to get slimy. And no tennis ball fuzz.

-- Jonathan Harford  

Hol-ee Roller

Available from Amazon

Manufactured by JW Pets

Sky View


Judging from the reviews in the App Store I am not the first to be enchanted by Sky View, the augmented reality astronomy app. When I point my phone camera at the night sky this app displays the heavens, as if through a window, overlaid with the specks of stars, at appropriately varying brightness. (The phone’s sensors tell the program which way it is pointed, and computes the simulation on screen.)

It also shows planets and satellites in the proper place in the sky. Tap a celestial object, and its name appears, just where the object is in the sky covered by your screen. The effect gives the impression the annotation is happening on the sky itself. It’s quite magical and couldn’t be easier to use. The paths of the planets are traceable as a thick yellow line, and as your finger slides along the line, you can see the times when the planet will arrive at this point in the sky. Constellations appear as ghostly outlines, good for learning. Recently Sky View has been especially fun, with Mercury, Jupiter, and Venus all visible on the western horizon around sunset, and Mars rising overhead at night.

-- Gary Wolf  

Sky View

Available from iTunes App Store
Produced by Terminal Eleven

Sample Excerpts:


sky view screenshot.jpeg

Advanced Elements Inflatable Kayak

advanced expeditions.jpeg

The Advanced Expedition inflatable kayak has allowed me to get out on the water more often than I ever would with one of its hardshell cousins.

Because the boat fits in the trunk of my car and can be carried solo in a duffle bag, I find myself using it when the hassle of loading a more traditional kayak onto a roof rack and muscling it around would dissuade me. Using a double action pump it can be set up and ready to go in under 10 minutes, and the break down is even faster. It just deflates and folds back into its bag.

While it doesn’t track as well as a hard bottomed boat, it more than makes up for this with its incredible stability. Buoyed by two high-pressure inflatable tubes that form the 13.5 foot frame, the boat withstands moderate waves and can carry up to 400 pounds. Standard spray skirts fit and keep the inside snug and dry.

I have used it to surf waves, paddle with sea lions, and as a kayak escort for swim races. In all cases I have been able to keep up with fellow kayakers.

I highly recommend this for kayakers who want a full size boat but don’t have a garage or the space to keep one!

-- Ben Hanna  

Advanced Elements Expedition Kayak
13-feet long (smaller models available)

Available from Amazon

Manufactured by Advanced Elements

Sample Excerpts:

For those looking to stay dry, the Advanced Element comes with a standard spray skirt.

Brodin Ghost Net


I first started fly fishing when I was 4 or 5. I am not a very productive fishermen. And that has never really been my ultimate goal. Instead, I find fly-fishing to be an activity closer to meditation. I relax in the river, in the repetitive motions, and the necessary focus and concentration.

Part of finding my “zen” in fly fishing has been simplifying the stuff I fish with.

One of my best discoveries has been the Brodin Ghost Net. Unlike traditional mesh nets, the Ghost Net is made of clear thermoplastic rubber webbing. It might seem strange to replace lightweight mesh with something slightly heavier, but the advantages become clear the second you walk along a stream.

Fine mesh nets are fragile. They catch on branches and thorns, and they have a tendency to tear. Not only that, but small hooks, especially nymphs, tend to catch and snag in the mesh. The Brodin Ghost Net resolves this with it’s rubber webbing. The tough clear webbing is robust in the face of snags, doesn’t get caught on thorns, and I have never had a fly get snagged or snarled. What this means is that I can spend less time hassling with my net, and more time fishing. I have also read elsewhere that the clear webbing is less visible underwater and less likely to spook the fish (I haven’t been able to confirm this personally, but it makes sense).
Out of water, the Brodin Ghost Net is a handsome and robust teak net. Produced in Costa Rica, the wood is sustainably sourced, and the care and craft in production shines. With that being said, there are plenty of companies that make beautiful wooden nets. What sets Brodin apart is the Ghost net webbing. Luckily, for those who are less inclined to spend $100 for a new wooden net, Brodin sells the thermoplastic rubber webbing independently, providing instructions on how to affix it to existing wooden nets, or as demonstrated by other DIY-fishermen online, tennis racket frames. This also makes it easy to fix or replace in case something goes wrong.

-- Oliver Hulland  

Gallatin Ghost Net

Available from Amazon

Brodin Ghost Netting Various circumferences $23-$28 Available from and manufactured by Brodin Landing Nets