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Here's the starter game pack--game, pedestal, and three action figures. The starter pack is a bit of an investment (usually between $50 and $60), but once you've got it your young player is good to go. And additional figures, if you choose to buy them, come in a range of prices and purchase options.

Yesterday I bought a Skylanders game (available for all major gaming systems). So what’s the big deal? It’s the second time I’ve done this–and our game still works. I bought the game for my son’s after-school program, which includes children who pretty much span the spectrum in age and game-play ability. And Spyro Sklanders is a game uniquely suited to accommodate players like that.

Here's a screen capture from the game--lovely colors, engaging art, nothing too scary here.

First, a quick overview. Spyro the Dragon has been around for a long time in gaming terms–I think we bought our first Spyro game back when The Boy was about five. Spyro is a charming little dragon who lollops through a series of adventures and challenges all set in enchanting, magical landscapes. It’s the sort of game that’s fun to watch, as well as fun to play. Skylanders continues this tradition. The game is designed for “free play,” which means that it can be played in a number of ways. Players can work their way through Spyro’s adventure, meeting a series of challenges and progressing along a story line. But that’s just the beginning. Players can choose to hunt for treasure, or simply explore (this is code for run around and look at stuff). But what’s nice is that, with a little cooperation, the multiple players can do those things while they’re playing together. In the same game. In real terms, what this means is that Patrick (The Boy, fifteen, and games master) can play with Olivia (three, and not yet a games master)–and they can both have a good time.

But I’ve gotten ahead of myself. What really sets Skylanders apart from other games is the way characters are selected. The game itself comes with three small action figures and a pedestal, which links to the gaming system. Players select the character they will play as by standing the action figure on the pedestal. Electronics in the figure’s base link with the game, and presto, the character comes alive onscreen. But this is just the beginning.

... and another setting...

The character can be changed at any time during game play except for when cut scenes are actually playing. In fact, to win the game characters must be changed, because the various levels each are designed to suit a particular type of character’s strengths. For example, last time I started out with a “crystal” character, switched to a “water” character, then a “plants” character, and so on. It sounds complicated, but the characters have been designed to make identifying their type simple. Water characters, for instance, all come in shades of blue, and feature splashes of water. Crystal characters all include a prism. Fire characters all include flames. Sorting the various types is simple, even for Olivia, who cannot read.

Because players are constantly switching characters, the old bugbear of multi-player games–who gets to play as whom–is non-existent. Everybody can have a turn playing as every character–and in the same game. This makes Skylanders a great choice for families and settings that include players who range in ages and abilities.

But what I really like about this game is its unspoken message. That message? That successful game play results from cooperation among a number of characters. Because the various action figures each have a unique set of skills, and because the game levels each require different skills for completion, no one character gets to be the hero all the time. Even the youngest players learn that everyone contributes to a group’s success.

Because I always overthink these things, I see an important metaphor there not only for children, but for adults. A game that fosters the idea that everybody’s talents are necessary for success is a good thing, the way I see it.

One last note: Because characters are chosen by setting a specially-designed figure on a pedestal in the real world, the game comes with three “starter” figures. However, there are many, many others available in a wide range of prices. This makes it nice for parents and grandparents, who can augment the set without breaking the budget. Fgures are designed to work with all major play systems (the game is not–you’ll need to buy the game for your own system).

One final note: Because the action figures are an integral part of the game it’s important to not lose them. We use a medium-size box, which holds our action figure collection, the pedestal, and the game. Skylanders is available in store everywhere, and online.

Here’s a trailer.

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