Ten years ago, Daniel Singer was playing the traditional game of dreidel at a Chanukah party, and he thought that there just had "to be a better way for adults to play a holiday game with their children."
The monotony of the old game was "worse than Candy Land," thought Singer, a project manager at a telecommunications company by day and a sculptor by night.
So he partnered up with his friend, Bruce Kothmann, an aeronautical engineer who designs helicopters for Boeing and teaches engineering at the University of Pennsylvania, to come up with a new type of game.
The two men, both residents of Lower Merion, regularly got together on Wednesday nights for beer-and-brainstorming sessions.
On Friday evenings after Shabbat dinner, Singer and Kothmann showed the latest prototypes of the new game to their families. Kothmann's children, now 11 and 7, are true gamers and gave the adults honest feedback, letting them know when certain variations were simply too complicated.
Singer's children, ages 4 and 2, were too young to get involved in the development process.
The inventive partners wanted a game that could be enjoyed by children as young as 6, as well as by grown men and women. Some prototypes proved unsuccessful, as their wives found the games a bit too combative in nature.
Their challenge was to create something that involved degrees of luck, strategy and physicality — elements present in golf, chess and the card game War. The result came to life in the form of "Staccabees."
It is similar to the traditional game of dreidel, but "better," according to Singer.
Each player gets his or her own dreidel and nine cubes. Players take turns spinning the dreidel and act based on the results of the spin. For example, land on gimel and choose one size of cubes from your pile for the stack in the middle. If you get shin, remove the top cube from the stack to put back in your pile.
The stack of cubes — like the "pot" in the dreidel game — grows and shrinks as the game progresses. The one to balance the last remaining cube on the stack without knocking it over wins.
Kothmann, who is the scientist and student of game theory, realized early on that the winner of the traditional dreidel game only wins when everyone else loses.
"That's kind of a bad characteristic of a game, especially for children," he concedes.
Proud All Around
The idea behind "Staccabees" is "that everyone is in it until someone wins." A typical game takes about 20 minutes to complete.
The "Staccabees" parts are bright and fun in design. They are made of responsibly harvested North American hardwood, and were assembled and laser-engraved by a 100-year-old wood-turning company in Maine.
"Staccabees" is easy to travel with, as all the pieces can be carried in a cotton game bag with the embroidered logo. Singer, the visual artist behind the game, is proud of the look.
The name "just popped in" the inventors' heads one night while singing Chanukah songs at their synagogue, Beth Am Israel, in Penn Valley. The stacking move was key to their game, and after singing about Maccabees over and over with their children, they were soon singing of "Staccabees."
The game was released a few weeks ago, and sales seem strong so far (available at: www.staccabees.com). It's also being sold at Pun's Toy Shop in Bryn Mawr and at area Chanukah bazaars.
Word of mouth is key to the sales strategy. Social networking sites such as Facebook and a number of bloggers are helping to build the "Staccabees" brand.
The Singer and Kothmann families are always thinking of new ways to play the game, and many of these rule variations are posted on the blog. They even encourage others to come up with new ways of playing.
Early response this holiday season has been great, according to the developers. Singer and Kothmann hope to connect with a distributor in time for next Chanukah, but for now, they are happy that people are catching on to "to a new way of playing a traditional Chanukah game."