Thursday, February 28, 2013

The Toys of Summer (Winter Edition), PART 2: "4D Cityscape Time Puzzle"

Click here for intro and PART 1.

4D Cityscape Time Puzzle: USA


"4D Cityscape allows you to build the history of the USA over the 4th Dimension of Time. Starting with the base layer, our unique jigsaw play showcases the evolution of the USA - based on territorial expansion from the year 1783 to 1900's. You then assemble the 2nd layer 'modern' jigsaw map - which showcases the formation all 50 states in a time sequence based on each State's date of established statehood. The third layer is constructed using the 4D Time Poster where 93 of the most famous US monuments & buildings are placed into the puzzle in the order that they were constructed.

The puzzle includes 93 plastic building replicas that depict the Country as far back as 1450 to modern day. The puzzle includes such iconic structures as Arches National Park, Mount Rushmore, and the St. Louis Arch. The buildings fit into pre-cut holes in a traditional 2D jigsaw puzzle that form the country's layout and Rocky Mountains. The product includes a Time Poster that directs you through time as you rebuild America’s famous history. Ages 8+."
(from 4D Puzzle Website)

It's part puzzle, part timeline--and all learning.

The good things about this product are very good.  The first layer is a visually engaging map, with each land acquisition of the United States distinguished by its own color and faux-texture.  The map is loaded with names and dates, and includes natural and man-made borders.  The second layer—pieces made of foam—lays on top of the original layer and depicts the US as it exists today.  Then you fit tokens representing landmarks (mostly man-made) into their appropriate pre-carved spots in the foam layer.

Each layer conveys loads of information about the geography and history of the United States.  This is one of those great “you can’t help but learn” toys that I’m a big fan of; if kids are going to do puzzles, why not make them do puzzles that will trick them into learning cool stuff?

The painful thing about this toy is that the “CONS,” though minor seeming, were actually pretty annoying.  Furthermore, they seem like they could be easily fixed. We’ll start small, and work our way up.

First off, the Gateway Arch does not straddle the Mississippi River.  Yes, we all wish it did.  That would be way cool.  But it doesn’t.

Next, the puzzle pieces on the bottom layer are small and very uniform.  Do puzzle enthusiasts consider uniformity of pieces to be just another element of a puzzle’s degree of difficulty?  To me, it was annoying.  When 4 people spend 5 minutes studying the connection of 2 puzzle pieces and still can’t come to a consensus as to whether they actually fit together—it just seems like overkill.

Do they or don't they?

Next, the tokens: I thought they’d be akin to “Monopoly game pieces.”  Not quite.  They weren’t metal.  They were plastic, and came connected to frames.  Breaking each token away from its frame was tricky.  And after the pieces were broken free, most retained pokey, plastic nubs at the points they were attached to the frame.  These pokey nubs had to be sanded off in order to fit the token into its spot on the foam layer of the puzzle.  And I think we can all agree that when you’re reading a description of a toy, the phrase, “These pokey nubs had to be sanded off,” should be a red flag.  Forget metal Monopoly pieces—in my daughters’ room there are literally hundreds of plastic toys, tokens, and chips that won’t cut you.  I’m pretty sure the information on the map is public domain; is cardboard (level 1) and foam (level 2) that expensive that the monument tokens have to be the same quality as the bottom-shelf prizes at Chuck E Cheese?  With a price tag near $40, this toy is like one of those big-budget Hollywood movies with no special effects or car chases.  Where did the money go?

Full disclosure: My giant thumbs probably didn't make the sanding process any easier

Anyway, as you can imagine, a lot of questions go through a man’s mind when he’s sanding the nubs off plastic replicas of 93 American landmarks.  Do puzzle enthusiasts consider sanding plastic nubs to be just another element of a puzzle’s degree of difficulty?  How can we as a nation have the vision and skill to construct the Golden Gate Bridge, but struggle to create a 1-inch plastic replica of the Bridge that doesn’t cut your finger if you don’t sand it closely enough?  Wouldn’t it be quicker for me just to build full-sized replicas of all these landmarks?  Why does America have so many landmarks in the first place?  What’s wrong with us?  And so on.

Speaking of the landmarks, I can’t fault 4D Puzzle too much for going all “MLB All-Star Game” on us and including representatives from every state.  Kids want to cheer for their home-state landmark.  I get that.  That said, when you have 43 “extra” landmarks to work with after you've handed out the “participation trophies”, should something like this really happen?

Hint: Count the spots for landmarks

I’m not saying Mississippi isn’t an awesome state or anything.  But even Mississippi apologists would admit that their love for the state is not landmark-based.  It seems like this conversation should have taken place before the puzzle went to print:
4D CEO:  Did you develop a criteria for deciding how many landmark tokens go to each state.
PUZZLE MAKER:  You bet we did.
4D CEO:  Do California and Mississippi have the same number of notable landmarks?
PUZZLE MAKER:  Yep.  So says the criteria.
4D CEO:  Destroy the criteria and start over.  And never speak of this again.

The most disappointing component of this toy, though, was the informational poster included with the puzzle.  It had pictures and dates of each landmark, but it was surprisingly short on, well, information.

Here's proof.  It's a sample section of the information poster regarding the landmarks:

For comparison's sake, a few years ago, we bought the monkeys a National Park Memory game.  This memory game also included an informational poster.  Here is a sample from that poster:

I realize the print looks a little small, so here's the entry for the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial ("the Arch" to you and me) in readable form:
"Jefferson National Expansion Memorial consists of the Gateway Arch, the Museum of Westward Expansion, and St. Louis' Old Courthouse.  The 630' stainless-steel Gateway Arch gives St. Louis, Missouri one of the world's most unique skylines.  Designed by architect Eero Saarinen in 1947, the Arch was built between 1963 and 1965.  It is the centerpiece of the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial, a unit of the National Park Service established to re-tell the story of America's century of westward expansion."

It's not the most thorough description ever, but at least it's something.  On the other hand, here's what we know about landmarks from the 4D info poster:
1) their names
2) their home states
3) the dates they were either started or finished

The blank space after 4) is on purpose, for dramatic effect. Pretty powerful, right?

Of course, even this sparse information is more than kids will learn putting together a puzzle of, say, Sponge Bob. But how much effort would it have taken to include even 2 sentences about each landmark? Is “additional knowledge” seen as the 5th dimension?

Ideally, this additional information could tie together the layers of the puzzle. For example, the description of the Gateway Arch could mention the Louisiana Purchase (which is clearly designated on layer 1 of the puzzle).  Nope. Instead, we learn that the Arch was built in 1963. That’s all you need to know (oh, and that it straddles the Mississippi River).

4 stars out of 5
A 4-star rating may seem inconsistent with how down on the puzzle I seem to be.  I am torn, for sure.  It’s a 5-star concept with a 2-star execution.  It’s like they invented pizza, but settled on St. Louis style thin crust pizza as though that was the end-all, be-all of pizza.  Why settle?  Why not tease this out to see where it goes?

Like pizza, the idea of the 4D puzzle is nearly impossible to screw up, no matter how hard it seems like they’re trying to.  And at the end of the day, hey, they invented pizza!  With much ambivalence, I give them their props.  If they had metal pieces and a paragraph description of each monument, I’d probably give them another 40 bucks for any of their other 4D puzzles.  Until that day, I just need some time to sort out my feelings.

Next up:


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