A couple of weeks ago I spent an excellent day at the London Toy Fair, this year meeting up with fellow game geek Michael Fox, creator and proprietor of The Little Metal Dog Show podcast.
Thanks to Michael, I got a lot more out of the fair than in previous years (including some neat free gear!) and thoroughly enjoyed my trip. So, what caught my eye?
LEGO: Ninjago, board games, Heroica
Unmissable on the show floor was LEGO’s stand, which prominently featured the four ninjas of LEGO’s big new play theme Ninjago: Masters of Spinjitzu. The theme represents a huge push by the company, since the characters and backstory are featuring not just in regular constructions sets and the collectible Ninjago Spinners game, but also in video games, an animated TV series (with a rather catchy indie-rock theme song!) and their very own LEGO board game.
My work with the LEGO Ninjago and LEGO Games design teams means I already had the inside track on some of these products, but it was still exciting to see the brands formally ‘going live’. The Ninjago Spinners game is a neat concept which, though an extremely simple, quick and physical battle game, has been designed to have a little more depth ‘baked in’ so that kids can explore more tactical play using the collectible cards.
The associated board game, helpfully titled Ninjago: The Board Game, is also a really nice product, that stands apart from the other LEGO board games by offering cooperative play. The players become the four Ninjago ninjas, and have to battle the pesky Skeletons and search the fortress together to find the fabled golden weapons, all the while being threatened by the Skeleton General — Boo! Hiss! — which is no easy task. It’s definitely possible for ‘the game’ to win if the players don’t work together, and even if they do and then go on to find weapons quickly enough to stop the General claiming an early victory, there is still a final battle where the General himself must be defeated.
Elsewhere on the LEGO stand there were also the four new small-box games already on sale: Sunblock, Banana Balance, Frog Rush and Ramses Return. Together these offer a neat mix of roll-and-move, dexterity, tactical and memory-based gameplay, although if I were to play favourites (no offence to the other team members!) I’d have to mark out Nico Assenbrunner’s Sunblock as the first among equals here: it’s charmingly original, has great components and is a game that actually requires to be made out of LEGO to work.
And lastly, the toy fair offered the world the first glimpse of the oncoming storm that is LEGO Games Heroica, which will be available in the second half of 2011. I’ll talk more about Heroica in future, but suffice it to say: it’s super cool and I love it!
Staying with building blocks I also got my first hands-on opportunity with Nanoblocks, a new Japanese construction toy which might be best described as a sort of ‘pro LEGO’. The two guys on the stand were very friendly and happy to chat, and both Michael and I were excited to walk away with a free Nanoblocks set each! Michael got the International Space Station; I got the Space Shuttle. Thank you, Nanoblock guys!
The smallness of the unit blocks create a ‘3D pixel art’ effect, and I’m sure the brand will be a hit amongst the geek crowd. The bricks do not (quite) have the satisfyingly precise ‘clutch’ (as it is referred to) of LEGO, so the models are rather fragile, but that may well prove to be part of their charm. And if LEGO is often a child’s toy for grown-ups, then Nanoblocks is genuinely a grown-up toy for grown-ups, albeit one designed for grown-ups with both abundant patience and, ideally, very small hands.
Cheatwell Games: App-Player
A quick shout out to the guys on the Cheatwell Games stand: thanks for giving us a tour! The new product that most caught my and Michael’s eye here was the App-Player, which is ‘just’ a large six-pronged scoreboard with colourful scoring pegs (for more photos check out Pocket-lint). Sounds trivial perhaps, but Cheatwell will also be releasing, for free, a series of iPhone apps that repurpose the content of some of their back-catalogue of trivia quiz games and the App-Player scoreboard is designed to work in tandem with these.
It’s a risky move: giving away games in the hope of driving sales of a scoreboard; but I think it’s a rather clever way to physicalise the playing of trivia games on handheld devices, and adds an engaging dimension that will make sense to consumers and add value. And the number of new customers that Cheatwell can access via the App Store is enormous, so even if only a tiny percentage of that consumer base are driven by the free apps to find the App-Player or other Cheatwell games, then the idea could prove to be a real money-spinner. I must also say that Cheatwell have also done a really nice job with the design of the apps, which looked very classy on-screen.
The final port of call on this whistle-stop tour of my Toy Fair highlights are Professor Puzzle. If you are in the UK you may recognise some of their wood and metal puzzles, but perhaps not the name. I didn’t, and I consider myself an interested party in puzzle matters, so I was somewhat shame-faced to discover that the company have been around for over 10 years!
I had a really nice chat with Ben and Adam — thanks for taking the time to talk, guys! — who showed me some of their excellent product range while we discussed the puzzle industry. There’s lots more pictures on the Professor Puzzle website.