Dig Quest: A Biblical Archaeology App for Kids

Dig Quest (iOS: free) is a light but entertaining educational app that gives kids a chance to explore Biblical archaeology by solving puzzles. Produced by the Israel Antiquities Authority, the app offers two sites to explore: Lod (location of an elaborate mosaic) and Qumran (of Dead Scrolls fame). 2014-11-23 15.27.45

In Lod, you brush away dirt to reveal the mosaic, and then play a timed visual quiz. At Qumran, you open jars and piece together Dead Sea scrolls like a jigsaw puzzle. Success unlocks artifacts with art and information. There are over thirty levels with fifty images of various antiquities, as wall as spoken excerpts from the Dead Sea scrolls.

The gameplay isn’t going to knock anyone’s socks off, but the process of uncovering and piecing together objects and texts and learning more about them should keep kids engaged and playing long enough to slip across some good educational content about ancient Israel.

This is an easy recommendation for parents and particularly home schoolers. The app is free, and IAA is planning to add content in the future.

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Gesundheit! [App o the Mornin’]

Look, snot happens, and Gesundheit! (iOS: free, Mac: $5) just wants to put it to good use. The game, one of the better titles in the app store, was pulled for a while because of developer/publisher issues, but it’s back now and to bring attention to its return, it will be free for a limited time.

I imagine there are quite a few people who won’t be able to muscle past the premise of Gesundheit! in order to enjoy the treasures of the gameplay itself. Their loss. Sure, it’s a game about a little green pig whose allergies are so horrible that he sneezes giant globs of snot across the landscape. And, yes, said landscape is populated by monsters who find these globular goodies so unbelievable tasty that they’ll ignore that temptation to eat fresh green pork, at least for a few seconds. But once you get past all the booger blasting and snot snacking, you’ll find a game that’s not only fun and clever, but even charming.

Much of this charm comes the visual style of Gesundheit!, which is striking, colorful combination of storybook backgrounds and and child-like drawings. The music, animation, and art are all the work of Matt Hammill, while the game itself is made by Revolutionary Concepts. Thanks to the graphics, none of the mucous mechanics ever come off as all that gross. Believe me, I’ve seen apps that go for the gross-out just because that’s the only arrow they have in their quiver, but Hammill isn’t working that side of the street. His sneezing piglet is just a cute little outcast who turns his problems (horrible allergies) into an asset, making him a kind of superhero of snot.

The game is comprised of 40 single-screen levels, with gameplay that combines puzzle solving with some stealth-strategy elements. Each level has a monster (or monsters), and the now-ubiquitous triple-star challenge. The goal is to collect as many of he stars as possible before trapping all the monsters inside monster-eating traps. This is done by luring the monsters into different areas of the maze-like map with your gourmet nose nachos. Simply tap the pig, draw back to choose force and aim, and fire away. If your loogie lands where a monster can see it, he’ll ignore you and run straight to his favorite snack, even if it’s inside a trap.

Lacking a snack, the monster will run straight for you, and you need to shake him by sneezing, or try to just lose him in a maze. The trick is luring monsters away from the stars without letting them walk over the stars, which they’ll crush. And then luring them to the traps. And then not gettin’ et.

As triggered obstacles, multiple monsters, superpowered mucous, teleporters, and other challenges are added, things start to get pretty tricky. Not long into the game you develop the ability to create a snot-slingshot (snotshot?) that catapults you from one location to another. It’s kind of like Tarzan swinging on horizontal ropes of phlegm

Although there are puzzles I still haven’t been able to solve at the 3-star level, basic level-completion is only moderately difficult, making this a good choice for both kids and adults. There’s a timed element to the game, and you’ll need to think pretty fast on your feet in order to escape certain monsters.

This is a wonderfully weird and appealing little puzzler with some genuine challenges. Don’t be put off by the theme. Within a few minutes, you’ll forget you’re defeating evil by wielding the mighty power of boogers and just lose yourself in the clever puzzles and wonderful graphics.

Content: Rated: 9+. Game includes boogers. And monsters. And monster boogers. You have been warned.

Note: I’m taking a break from App o the Mornin’ this week. Too much to do on the magazine and elsewhere.

Jack Lumber [App o the Mornin’]

Jack Lumber hates trees, and he has a good reason: trees killed his beloved granny. Now, Jack has sworn everlasting vengeance against all forms of lumber. He has an axe, he has a mission, and he has a woodchip on his shoulder.

Jack’s tale of vengeance forms the extremely silly connective tissue for this funny, polished riff on the slicing game genre pioneered by Fruit Ninja. In fact, there’s far more to Jack Lumber (PC/Mac: about $8; iOS/Android: $4) than just dexterous slicing. The visuals are terrific, with a sharp cartoon quality and some extremely funny touches. (Fruit Ninja was fun, but nobody would ever accuse it of being funny.)

For example, there is a completely random animal-collecting element which allows you to stack up critters in your log cabin as you encounter them in the game itself. Why is it there? Who knows. They don’t serve any purpose other than a bit of comic relief in between levels. It’s like asking why someone randomly shouts “PLAID” when you make a cut. Why? Because it’s funny.

Each level begins with logs of various shapes and sizes tossed in the air. When you touch the screen, time slows down. You need to trace a single line through the ends of each log, cutting them crosswise. When you lift your finger, the cuts execute all at once. If you missed a log, traced over a side rather than an end, hit an animal, or didn’t cut through every single endpoint, you’re penalized. Enough penalties and you fail the level.

Sometimes you need to pass through the same log multiple times to use it, or break bottles of syrup (purchased back at your cabin) in order to slow down time. There’s a lot less luck involved than in most slicing games. You really need to examine the screen quickly and find the fastest and most effective way through each log. This makes the game more like a rapid maze, since if you take a wrong “turn” with your finger, you’ll mess up.

Good humor, strong production values, and a dexterity element that also requires quick thinking: Jack Lumber is a winner all the way through.

Pudding Monsters [App o the Mornin’]

Cut the Rope is one of the best and most successful mobile games to date, with over 100 million downloads and a shelf of awards. So when the Russian team at ZeptoLabs did a follow-up to their hit franchise, gamers paid attention.

Pudding Monsters (iOS/Android: $1) are little blobs of jello that slide around on a chess-like board. (As with another good game–Pudding Panic–“pudding” is used in the more European sense of “dessert.”) Each blob occupies one square, and can move along the rank or file by simply swiping them in the direction you want them to travel.

One problem: if there isn’t something else on the board to stop them, they’ll shoot right off the edge and the puzzle is lost. If they hit an object, they stop. If they hit another monster, they fuse with it. The goal is to get all of the blobs 1) fused and 2) covering all three stars on the board.

It’s not usually too hard to slide the monsters until they blend, but sliding them so that the last one merges with the whole monster-blob on top of the third and final star is a bit more tricky. Along the way, new kinds of monster-blobs are introduced, including “frozen” blobs that need to activated, green blobs who leave a slime trail which allows other to stick rather than shooting off the end of the board, blobless eyes who need to be reunited with their blobs, and so on.

There are 75 levels spread over 3 worlds, with more levels coming. As sliding puzzles go, this is a lot of fun with a cute art style and a moderate challenge level. Is Pudding Monsters the next Cut the Rope? Probably not, but it’s very very good and a worthy follow-up that shows Zepto still has some tricks in their bag.

Content issues: None.

30/30 (Time-Management Tool) [App o the Mornin’]

Sometimes getting things done isn’t a matter of inspiration and talent or even motivation, but of just sitting in the same place for 30 minutes and refusing to move or shift your concentration from anything other than the task at hand. For me, the task is writing, and I can usually turn out a column in about 30 minutes, if I’ve already thought it through before sitting down. For you, the task could be anything, from paying bills to completing a work project to reading a long and challenging novel or a section of the Bible.

Every task takes a certain amount of time, and when seen as a whole that time can be overwhelming. You think, “I have to write a book, and it will take 3 months, and I simply cannot face that.” But, of course, 3 months is 12 weeks is 90 days is so many hours and minutes and seconds. Each giant task can be shaved into smaller, more managable tasks.

When you approach a task this way, you’re not thinking of 3 months of work. You’re thinking of the next 30 minutes of work. That can be followed by 10 minutes of email or Facebook or solitaire or Cute Overload. And then you can move onto the next 30 minutes of work, and the next. Or make it 15 minutes, or 45, or 60: whatever fits your method of work. The pomodoro technique uses 25 minute slices, with 5 minutes for a break, and a longer break after after 4 slices. Seems to arbitrary to me, but it works for some.

I use 30/30 (iOS: free) to manage my time slices because it’s easy to use, it lets me set my time quickly, and keeps everything on a single screen. I like it because it uses a clean, gesture based interface with a lot of color to separate different kinds of tasks.

It’s a simple matter to set a series of timers for a work day, adding a little icon and unique color to each if that’s your thing. In between each task, you can set a break time and then follow with the next task. All the tasks line up in a vertical column and can dragged into any order or deleted. It’s easy to skip a task, move to the next task, or delete a task with tap. There’s a clock at the top that will calculate how long the current task list will take to finish.

The app is free, but you can buy icon packs if you like. I don’t need icon packs, but I got one anyway to support the developer because it’s a useful app.

Productivity is a tough thing to master, and you can waste a huge amount of time playing with methods and lists and whatnot. Really, it doesn’t need to be complex. You need a task manager (even if it’s just a handwritten list in a notebook) and you need a timer. There are plenty out there and you can dig deeply into methods and tools, but I think that’s a waste of time, and I know, because I wasted my time doing it. 30/30 is a good little time management app. Give it a shot.

 

CRS Rice Bowl [App o the Mornin’]

Remember getting your little cardstock rice bowls each year at CCD class, folding them into shape, and dropping in change to support Operation Rice Bowl?

You can still do that (and you should) but you can also bring the practice into the 21st century with Catholic Relief Service’s Rice Bowl app (iPhone/Android: free).

CRS has created a series of daily meditations for Lent–some original, some from the writings of Pope Francis–with a focus on Catholic social teaching. All of the meditations come with the app, so it works offline as well as online, and you can sent daily reminders for a particular time.

The app also allows you to create a daily “sacrifice” for Lent, and tracks the things you’re giving up with a suggested value: $1.75 for a cup of coffee, $4.69 for a fast food combo meal, or any custom sacrifice with its name and cost. The idea, of course, is to give up things and allocate the money as a donation to CRS. This donation can be done from within the app, and it’s a pretty clever way of measuring the things we give up for Lent and turning them into a practical good through CRS, which does great work around the world.

A number of meat-free recipes and “Stories of Hope” (video and text) from people helped by CRS are included as well.

It’s a very effective use of technology to combine prayer, Lenten observance, and action. CRS has done a great job on this.

Take It Easy [App o the Mornin’]

Take it Easy (iOS: $2) is a rather nondescript title for what was, when it was released as a board game 20 years ago, a remarkably innovative twist on bingo. The game is played on a hexagonal board comprised of 19 hexagonal spaces. Players blind-draw hexagonal chips, each marked with lines going in three directions (1 vertical and two diagonal). There are nine different colors of line ranging in point value from 1 (gray) up to 9 (yellow).

These tiles are laid on the board so that, wherever possible, the lines of a single color connect without interruption from edge to edge. If you manage to make an unbroken line, you get the point values for all the tiles in that line. So, a 5-tile gray line is worth 5 points, while a 5-tile yellow line is worth 45.

As the board fills, it gets harder to place tiles without interrupting a line of color, leading to a remarkably subtle but complex set of strategies for maximizing point values. The highest possible score is 307.

The mobile version implements the design with colorful visuals and a nice drag-and-drop interface. They’ve also expanded the idea with new game modes: Progressive and Puzzle. Progressive is a timed mode with bonus stages. You’re trying to fill the board before the clock runs out, earning a certain a minimum score which increases each round. Leftover time rolls over to the next level. The goal is to go as long as high as you can before the time runs out or you fail to score enough.

Puzzle mode isn’t hugely challenging, but it’s a fun diversion. You need to make certain patterns, scores, designs, or kinds of placement to clear a level, sometimes withe restrictions like locked spaces.

The app includes internet and local play for up to four people, with various modes and round options. As with the original game, the app can be played solo or multiplayer for up to four people. It was never a particularly interactive games: people draw until their boards are filled, total up the score, and highest score wins. It is, however, as great a puzzler as it ever was, and the mobile version is a fine way to rediscover it.

Content: No issues. All ages.

Axe in Face [App o the Mornin’]

This is older game–from way back in 2011–but still a lot of fun.

If you want to get me to buy your game, just go ahead and name it Axe in Face (iOS: $1). Works every time.

If you want to be doubly sure I’ll buy it, make sure your main character looks like a tiny Viking Yosemite Sam, and have him in a perpetual state of axe-slinging rage as he tries to protect his well-tended bed of flowers.

Yes, that’s what Axe in the Face is all about: a red-bearded, highly irritated little cartoon Viking determined to kill as many marauders as it takes to protect his daffodils. All he has is his axe, some fire, a couple of powers bestowed by the gods, and a heart filled with rage as he faces wave upon wave of foes. If any enemy gets past him and begins to trample the flower bed, the level is lost.

The control is based upon an effective line-drawing system to determine the throwing path of the axe. Just trace a line (however convoluted) and then remove your finger to unleash the axe. It follows its path and then returns. The blade cuts through enemies like butter, hewing head from torso. If the path passes through a fire, then you have a flaming axe, which is just the ticket for taking out enemies hiding behind trees.

Enemies move at different speeds, and some have different defenses, which makes timing each strike a tricky business. It also makes setting up and executing elaborate strikes quite satisfying when they mow down multiple enemies at once. The two god powers are lightning, which fries 3 foes at once, and ice, which slows the enemies.

Blue Carrot games has put out a first rate little app, with a good sense of humor and colorful art. There are 32 levels total, and they get challenging rather quickly. This is a fun game, but it’s also a hard one.

Dictionary.com [App o the Mornin’]

In the best of all worlds, I’d have complete access to the OED on my computer and mobile devices with all updates for a nominal price. This not being the best of all worlds, such a thing doesn’t exist, and the price for the OED web service is far from nominal. (Last I checked it was several hundred dollars a year.)

Lacking the OED, I’ve made due with Dictionary.com (free with premium upgrades, iOS/Android), and you know what? It’s pretty darn good.

Dictionary.com does what I need: not just standard definitions, but good definitions with synonyms, sample sentences, audible pronunciation, and word origins for many words. Their sources are various, and include the old Random House Dictionary, American Heritage, Harper Collins, and others. The word origins and historical samples for some entries seem deeper than those sources, which makes wonder if they’re deriving some content from the OED.

In any case, the apps are strong in the kind of features wordies like. It’s not all that often I need to look up a dictionary definition, so I use Dictionary.com more for noodling around and browsing, and it excels in this. They provide a word of the day, blog posts on unusual word topics, lists of trending words and recent searches, and various other ways to browse through content. A thesaurus is included, with synonyms available for each word, and voice search is built in.

The appeal of the system comes from the fact that the base package is free, but a fair amount of muscle can be laid on the bone if you buy some premiums. Ad-free, expansive sample sentences, idioms & phrases, grammar & tips, and various dictionary add-ons (large slang, science, medical, and rhyming dictionaries, including some art) are all available. If you use the in-app purchase bundles, you can probably unlock the entire thing for about $14, but the $5 premium version has most of what you’ll need.

My kids use it as their go-to dictionary for school assignments, and I like being amble to meander through this great language, hearing pronunciations of obscure words and learning useless facts about etymology. It’s already taught  me that parageusia means “an abnormal or hallucinatory sense of taste,” derived from the Greek “geus,” meaning “taste.” [Cue Johnny Carson voice] “I did not know that.

ToodleDo Task Manager [App o’ the Mornin’]

I’ve lost track of how many task managers I’ve tested over the past two years. I can’t say “all of them,” because task managers are as common as match-three games in the App Store and online, but I can say “all of the major ones, plus a dozen more.” Some I used longer than others. None ever really worked for me, until I found ToodleDo (web based: free with premium options; iOS/Android/Blackberry: about $3).

Choosing a task manager is like choosing a pair of shoes. You have to try on several to find one that fits. What works for me may not work for another. It depends upon what kind of tasks you’re managing, if you’re collaborating with others, how you prefer to enter tasks, what platforms you use, what kind of tags and sorting you need, and how you like to be notified.

This was what I needed the software do: track writing assignments, including those with multiple parts (subtasks such as interviews and research); manage school projects (no longer needed since I finished grad school); track a section of the magazine I edit; try to slide in non-assigned (“spec”) work so that I don’t keep putting it off; and synchronize all of it among four devices: iPad, iPhone, laptop, desktop. It does all these things very well.

ToodleDo is free to try right here. The mobile apps cost extra, and upgrades are available to add features. I paid $15 to get subtasks for a year, but after working with them I found I could live without them and just piece out the different sections of an assignment task-by-task.

The strength of the app is in its ease of entry, scheduling/priority options, and management features. You can add a task quickly just by typing in “Quick Add Task” field on the web, or the “Add Task” field on the app.  It will add the task without any other data, or you can open up a simple submenu to set priority level and due date/time, assign to a folder, choose a repeat option, add subtasks, and set a notification alarm.

Once created, tasks can be searched and sorted in myriad ways, grouped into folders (Home, Work, School, Projects, etc), assigned to a hotlist, re-prioritized, and more. You can organize a list of tasks just about any way you’d like.

I like the ease with which you can attach documents, links, and blocks of text for each task. If you look at the web version, you’ll find some nice extra features on the tabs at the top: Notes, Outlines (simple outlining software), and Lists (field entry for making different kinds of customizable lists).

It’s simple, flexible system: a list with sorting and scheduling features. It works very well with the GTD system and other productivity techniques. It may be less or more than you need. Some people need massive collaborative software and project tracking, others are fine with a simple TaskPaper app. Some want slick mobile graphics, clever layouts, and all kinds of graphical flourishes. I wanted a sorted, data-heavy, scheduling list, and that’s what ToodleDo gives me.