Magna-Tiles

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Open-ended toys are the best. That’s why construction sets like Lego, or the previously reviewed Kapla Blocks, or Zomes, are perennial favorites. Their simple, durable, reusable parts build an infinite number of complex creations, providing endless hours of play. The best construction systems will last many lifetimes and are generally worth their modest investment, unlike most toys.

Magna-Tiles are the best open-ended construction set for very small kids I’ve seen. Magna-Tiles are plastic tiles with tiny super magnets embedded in their edges. Even a very small child can quickly assemble a structure that won’t topple, since the magnets snap to form when you get them close to where they want to be. They come in a mix of squares and triangles that tend to “guide” construction towards recognizable building forms, which is okay since there are still many options to explore. But this small boost really aids the youngest toddlers who may have trouble with the go-anywhere blocks of Kapla. Also, the tiles are large, too big to swallow, so safe for wee ones.

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We have a set on a our living room coffee table and I notice that adults love to build with them as well since you can erect a cool structure in only a few minutes. Everyone is an architect at heart.

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Magna-Tiles aren’t cheap. With 8 rare earth magnets per piece, each tile costs about $1. They are pretty unbreakable, so they should outlive you. Get the transparent variety — they are like stained glass.

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-- KK  

Magna-Tiles
100 piece transparent set
$110

Available from Amazon

Manufactured by Magna-Tiles



Medicus

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The Medicus is a driver with a hinge in it, so that if you swing it in the wrong direction at the wrong time, the hinge breaks and you have a useless broken club in your hands. But swing it the right way and you can actually hit balls with it.

What does it do? Well, at first it made me feel like a goof, because it kept breaking. But I got the hang of it pretty quickly. Basically, it made me turn rather than take the club back with my hands. Most importantly, it gives me the feel (yes, the feel!) of the right move from the top. That’s where most golfers get off track.

Buy the driver and swing it every day. When you get off track on the course, think back to the feel of the Medicus and it will get your in the groove again. It’s helped my swing tremendously. I found the included DVD tutorial worthwhile, too.

-- Phil Reed  

Medicus Men’s Dual-Hinged 7 Iron
$120

Available from Amazon

Maufactured by Medicus

Here’s Phil’s video review of the Medicus. -- es



Perplexus

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This is a cool 3-dimensional maze that is easy to get started and hard to finish. You need to steer a small metal ball along an ingenious obstacle course by rotating the clear plastic globe. There are 100 stations along the way, including some difficult topsy-turvy turns. All ages can get into it. We’ve found the puzzle to be extremely addictive to anyone who gets started. Because it’s like a 3D video game without the electronics, the very physical nature of playing — turning it this way and that — is very satisfying. In addition, the maze is like a sculpture, the design of the route is geekily brilliant, and the elegance of the eternal return of the steel ball within the sphere is a stroke of genius. Perplexus has the glow of a work of art. It makes me happy just to pick it up.

-- KK  

PlaSmart Perplexus
$17

Available from Amazon

Manufactured by Perplexus Inventor's website



Eskimold

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This is loads of fun, and a way to get the kids out of the house during the winter. It’s also a way to make a cheap two- or three-person ice fishing house that doesn’t require transport at the end of the season. Any type of snow can be compacted into this nifty device, which will create, quickly, hundreds of perfectly formed, slanted, and stacking igloo building blocks. The Eskimold is different from other snow block kits in that one block edge is concave, the other is convex, allowing them to fit together, almost like puzzle pieces, edge to edge. The blocks also curve in slightly (picture an igloo’s interior walls). The last block on each row has to be trimmed, and a plastic snow knife is included in the kit for that purpose. It works well, since the igloo gradually leans in as it’s built, and the diameter shrinks with each row. A skilled builder could mimic the traditional half-sphere igloo design, and the casual builder (or parent working with kids) will end up with a more pointed, and taller, beehive design, which one can actually stand up in. Unlike the previously reviewed Icebox, the Eskimold is oriented toward play more than serious shelter construction.

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If you have a couple of kids, it works best to get two of them, to avoid fighting between the kids. These plastic buckets are durable, and will last for years. You can make the blocks in advance, if you wish, and let them freeze overnight on a scrap of plywood. It’s simple, but time consuming. We spread it out over two days, with hot chocolate breaks. You do not need to haul the snow to the igloo site (it takes a lot of snow); you can use a shovel to make the blocks a distance away from the site, stack them on a piece of plywood on a sled, then haul them to your building spot. Once you make a block you need to stick it on the igloo, or on a smooth board. If you leave it on the ground, it will freeze there overnight, and you will not be able to use it.

My teenage son actually slept in his own igloo creation one night, and was comfortable in -15 degree F weather. He and a group of his friends used it to make a circular shelter, without a roof, about 15 feet in diameter, and about 5 feet tall, with our metal firepit in the center. This created a nice sheltered bonfire site in the backyard, out of the wind, where they could have adult-free discussions, with food.

-- Dean Knudson  

Eskimold Kit
$22

Manufactured by and available from Tundra North Manufacturing LTD



Hometown Puzzle

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For Christmas this year I gave my parents a personalized puzzle featuring a custom map of the area around their lake cabin. “From any starting point, we’ll create a 400-piece puzzle of a six-by-four-mile area using U.S. Geological Survey maps. A house-shaped piece in the center represents the address you choose. Shows main roads, contour lines, water features, vegetation, and notable buildings. Arrives in a presentation box with space for a personal message.” If you search for a promo code, you can save 20%. (Order by 12/14/2009 for Christmas delivery.)

-- Jason Palmiter  

[We asked our readers what cool tools they are giving to their friends and families this year. Here is one in a series this week of suggested gifts mentioned in the comments that we are highlighting on the front page. Submit your own recommendation in the comments. -- ES]

National Geographic Store Hometown Puzzle
$40

Available from National Geographic



String Saver

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This Band-Aid for tennis rackets saved the day for me during a tournament when I was playing well with a favorite racket, but the strings were frayed and close to breaking. It’s a little tool that lifts the string and inserts and leaves behind a small piece of plastic that sits right at the intersection where the two strings cross, preventing them from sawing across one another and breaking. Extra plastic inserts are stored in the handle.

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If you carry it in your tennis bag you can use it to extend the life of your strings, though obviously not indefinitely. It’s essential if you have only one racket and you don’t want to sit any games out.

-- Phil Reed  

Gamma String Savers
$9

Available from Amazon



Red Ryder

By far the best air rifle for a kid. There is nothing to break and it has a 650 BB capacity. You can fill it once and wander around in the woods all afternoon. All of my nieces and nephews get one when I think they are old enough.

– K.G.

I recommend the Daisy Red Ryder. They’re inexpensive and don’t break.

– Dale C Snyder

Every child should have one.

– Dave Culp

 

Daisy 1938 Red Ryder
$25

Available from Amazon

Manufactured by Daisy Outdoor Products



Geocaching Tools

Take a geo-location system, add an Internet directory of hiding spots, and voila! A 21st century treasure hunt! One T-shirt slogan calls it “using multi-billion dollar military hardware to find Tupperware in the woods.” Geocaching began in 2000 when an Oregonian stashed a container in the woods, posted its latitude and longitude on the Internet, and other GPS users went out and found it. Now there are nearly 900,000 geocaches hidden worldwide, and hundreds of thousands of cachers, ranging from the curious to fanatics. The hobby is a fun additional activity for those roaming the outdoors on foot, bike, 4-wheeler or horse. There are at least as many urban caches as park hides, so it’s also become a hidden virtual layer to the cityscape, unsuspected by passing muggles who are not into the game. And it’s a great family activity – kids love ‘treasure hunting’ and trading for the toys and trinkets found in many caches. Geocaching is also an open game, extendable (within limits) by its players to add things like gnarly logic puzzles that must be solved to reveal a cache location, or objects whose worldwide movements among caches are tracked online.

Geocaching.com
There are a few other geocache directory sites, but Geocaching.com is the original and by far the largest. Free to register and play the game; $30/yr for paid membership enables more powerful search and personalization options.

Find a geocache
The game can be played with any geo-location technology. Some urban cachers rely solely on Google Maps, printing out aerial photos of hide locations. Entry-level consumer GPS units or geo-location add-ons for smart phones are available in the $100 price range. Those who become serious about the hobby will want a GPS unit with these qualities:

* Ability to keep a satellite lock in poor signal conditions — from urban canyons to redwood canyons
* Rock solid firmware — there’s nothing worse than having to reboot the unit in the middle of a hunt.
* Good ergonomics and user interface
* Durability — tough enough to take a beating in the field
* Easy computer interface — for downloading and uploading cache coordinates, logs and descriptions

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Although they’re not the latest products in the company’s line, the Garmin 60Cx and 60CSx are the workhorse GPS receivers of hard core geocachers. (The only difference between the two models is a compass and altimeter independent of the global positioning system featured on the 60 csx.) These models score on all the points above, coming short only on the computer interface, as they don’t mount as a drive on your computer desktop. However, they have USB interfaces and are well-supported by paperless caching applications on both the Windows and OS X platforms.

Hide a geocache
After finding a few dozen geocaches, most players will think of a nearby place that needs a cache and want to hide their own. There are some common-sense rules for placing and registering new hides on Geocaching.com, including keeping off property where the public isn’t welcome, not using a container that can be mistaken for a bomb, and labeling the geocache as such. Most geocaches are made from recycled or repurposed containers and camouflage, and many cachers pride themselves on creative reuse of materials in their hides. One essential quality of a geocache is remaining watertight through years of handling and tough climate. Two types of containers that are resistant against both weather and other geocachers are military surplus ammunition cans, and Lock&Lock-type plastic storage boxes.

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Small 30-caliber or large 50-caliber military surplus ammunition cans work well. (When reusing ex-military containers, always sand off or paint over the military markings, which can be quite alarming to those not expecting to find a box of rifle ammo or grenades in their local park!)

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Lock&Lock-type storage boxes are available as a pre-labeled set, or you can get an assortment of sizes to camouflage yourself.

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Simple cache camouflage can be amazingly effective for hiding your cache from those in and out of the game, particularly in park hides. Camo tapes and paints designed for use by hunters are readily available, and one roll or spray can will cover many caches.

-- Tim Oren (geocaching as PurplePeople)  

Geocaching.com
Free-$30/yr

Garmin GPS Navigators
60Cx, $395 from Amazon
60CSx , $640 from Amazon

Ammunition cans
$16
Available from MidwayUSA

Triple-Cache Container Set
$15
Available from Groundspeak.com

Lock & Lock Polypropylene 20 Piece Set
$30
Available from Amazon

Camo Duct Tape
$6
Available from Amazon

Hunter’s Specialties Camo Spray Paint Kit
$15
Available from Cabela’s



BOX4BLOX

In trying to reclaim floor space in our son’s bedroom, we bought this colorful cube composed of four stackable trays and a lid. Three of the trays have open grids of differing sizes, and together, they function as a phenomenal pickup, sorting (by size) and storage solution for Lego bricks. You just scoop the bricks up (our son has a dustpan that’s dedicated just for Lego duty), dump them into the top tray and shake away. The smallest bricks sift down to the bottom level; each higher tray retains slightly larger bricks. At this point you can either further sort each tray by color and dump them into storage bins or just put on the lid. The cube itself is 10¼” on a side and purports to hold approximately 1500-1700 Lego bricks.

BOX4BLOX has been instrumental for well over a year now in keeping our son’s collection of several thousand Lego bricks in some semblance of order and reasonably clear of his bedroom floor. So we sent one to our nephew for Christmas last year. In my son’s eyes, as well as mine, BOX4BLOX really is a transformative tool— one that elevates a dreary task into something that’s actually fun to do (and done well).

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-- Tom Caswelch  

BOX4BLOX
$40 – shipping not included
Available from BOX4BLOX



Board Game Geek

The passionate gamers on BoardGameGeek.com (BGG) devote a lot of time and effort to create comprehensive content and reviews on practically every game that is out there, including out-of-print and small, self-published games. They not only rate the games, but write up rule clarifications, post in-depth game analyses, suggest variants for better gameplay, and even translate rules into other languages. The site features a marketplace where you can buy, sell and trade games with other gamers, forums where you can ask questions, create lists, and tons of other functionality. Of course, the real value of such a large, informed and well-established community is the wisdom of crowds effect you get from their collective opinions. As I write, the #1 game on BGG [Puerto Rico] has 11956 votes compared with 7 votes for the #1 game on the previously-reviewed Board Game Ratings (BGR) [Password]. And since BGG isn’t a retailer (unlike BGR), they have a comprehensive database of *all* games, not just those the store happens to carry.

I probably visit BGG one to two times a month, mostly to browse for new games that might be good (In the past year, I’ve picked up Pandemic, Roll Through the Ages, Caylus, Agricola, Dominion, Race for the Galaxy, Galaxy Trucker, and Ticket to Ride: Märklin.). Also, I sometimes hear about a game through a friend or some other channel, and I’ll go to the site to find out more. Since it’s heavily crowdsourced, and there is such a large, passionate community, I’ve discovered that even the most obscure games will have details like pictures, descriptions, type, and of course ratings. It’s also a great resource when you’re playing a game and need rules clarifications, rule variant suggestions, expansions, etc.

If you are considering buying a game, you owe it to yourself to check out BGG. Granted, the list of top-rated games tends to lean a bit more toward the serious-gamer crowd. But you can use the advanced search feature to look for “light” games with high average ratings, and then sort the results by Bayesian ranking. You’d even do OK just by picking games of the “Hotness” list in the left column.

– Dave Cortright

Board Game Geek

BONUS: For purchasing said games, FunAgain.com is the current consensus among my gamer friends on the best place to buy from, though I’ve also used Fair Play Games with great success. — Dave Cortright