25 Years of Kadon Games, by Ben Baldanza

25 Years of Kadon Games
by Ben Baldanza


In 1980, artist and recreational mathematician Kate Jones gave birth to a company that has become synonymous with high quality abstract games and polyform based puzzles. Kadon Games has served thousands of customers with hundreds of products, and their lineup grows each year. They call their products “gamepuzzles,” because most can be played as non-predatory games or as multi-facetted solitaire puzzles. Play with one of Kadon’s gamepuzzles for just a few minutes, and you’ll see why people are enamored with their tactile sense, immediate brain stimulation, and beautiful imagery.

The basis of many Kadon products is “polyominoes” — pieces that come from every permutation of a specific number of similar shapes. Consider the Pentomino series. Take five same-sized squares and put them together in every 2-D possible way, always matching sides evenly. If you assume each permutation is a piece that can be flipped or rotated, exactly 12 different shapes are formed this way. These make up the Pentomino set. Cut this set out of acrylic and include a certain number of each form, include a board with a grid matching the size of the squares, and you have a basic Kadon gamepuzzle. This set of forms can be put together to make hundreds of different shapes, like tangrams. In most cases, one such solution creates a perfect square or other aesthetically pleasing image. If the puzzles don’t suit you, you can create many games from the same pieces, such as last to legally place or connect side to side in one color. Blokus is a good example of this kind of challenge, though of course in that game the pieces are various numbered polyforms.

There is something about games derived this way that is fundamental to Kadon’s principles — you don’t destroy anything to win. You certainly challenge your opponents and try to out-think them, but your success is not based on their destruction. Kadon is based on the belief that game play and competitive entertainment can be thoroughly enjoyable by engaging the mind and thinking without the element of implied violence, predatory greed, and hostility that marks so many games published. The competition is in overcoming obstacles, not destroying opponents. As a result, their game manuals typically don’t even use the term “opponent”, but instead speak of “co-player” or “partner”. My wife Marcia loves the implicit message sent to children with this approach. If Chess were invented today, it would not be a Kadon game.

The Polyform lineup is broken into several categories. The first, "Essential Polyforms," consists of gamepuzzle sets containing all the possible shapes of one or more of the same fundamental building block, such as equilateral triangle, square, hexagon, circle, rhombus, and more. The "Polyominoes and Polycube" series includes one of Kadon's most finely-crafted products, called Quintillions. This is based on the Pentomino world described above but done with cubes instead of squares, and as you get to the Super Quintillions set not all of the constructions are 2D. Also in this series are Sextillions (take six squares this time and get 35 unique combinations), Heptominoes (seven squares, 108 different pieces), and for the truly hooked, Octominoes, with 369 different pieces from just eight squares! "Tilings and Designs" breaks out from the pure Polyomino world and presents several striking tile puzzles and the mother of all component sets called Combinatorix. "The Pentagon Universe" stretches the world of five-fold symmetry and also includes some beautiful sets with some excellent games as well.

Kadon’s gamepuzzles are not limited to the polyform series. They also have encouraged the development of abstract strategy games that meet the ideas of the company. Their website gives guidance on what games they will consider developing, such as that it must be non-violent, non-aggressive, non-hostile in theme, and preferably not involve dice. They also insist that submissions should play preferably more than one game and have solitaire challenges as well.

The result of this effort is some excellent strategy games. The most famous is Octiles, which has recently been released in mass production by Pin. The Pin version is nice, but the Kadon edition is sumptuous. You won’t find Kadon’s in Barnes and Noble, however. The Game of Y is a Go-inspired game on a great-looking Wankel-engine-rotor-shaped board. This game has evolved further into a new game called *Star, and the results are impressive.

Designer Arthur Blumberg has created a series of interesting games for Kadon, called The Power of Two, More or Less, Overpass, and Endpoint. Each of these is played on a large board and features interesting movement and strategy options, but fit solidly into the Kadon principle set. These games have been noted by Games Magazine on their annual Top 100 lists.

Kadon's newest is called Teleporters, and the game has a lively action with interesting movement possibilities on a colorful and original-looking board. Among my favorites is a small game called Void. Played on a small grid with just 16 pieces, players place in ways to try to force their partner into having no move. Where you place and how you point your piece determines where the next one must be played, and that piece must always point to an open spot. This is quite original and very clever.

A few Kadon products deserve special mention for their originality, beauty, or uniqueness. Lemma is a game with no rules — on turn, a player must play a piece and invent a rule which must be followed from then on. In Proteus, the rules on nine wood tiles determine how the players may move their pieces, trade the tiles, or even win. A rule is activated when a player's piece enters a correspondingly shaped tile, and the previously active rule is turned off.

Kadon offers wonderful well-made versions of some classic games like Nine Men's Morris and Game of the Goose. Some of the polyform sets are sold in what is known as the "Rusticana Series," where the puzzle pieces are mounted in a hand-made wooden frame. The gamepuzzles are fully playable, but also make great framed artwork for the wall.

The Roundominoes series takes the polyomino idea and bends the edges to make curved pieces — truly an interesting idea, and the result is some maddeningly difficult puzzles and games. Hexacube is a made-to-order gigantic block of 166 differently shaped wooden pieces with a naming system so that each piece can be uniquely identified. Order early, since this one takes four months just to create! A poorly named mass-produced game called Psyche-Paths has become Kaliko for Kadon, and their wooden hex tile production makes this one of the nicest and most interesting tile-path-creating games around, with a scoring system that rewards good creativity.

As a businessman, I find it interesting when a company’s product line can endure changes in culture and interests. That Kadon, with only a few employees and only grass-roots distribution, has lasted 25 years and has continued to grow is nothing short of amazing. Yet they have sold games to customers all over the world, have designed products for individuals and companies, and have made themselves more relevant through an ever-expanding line of gamepuzzles. Kate tirelessly lugs loads of her games to shows and fairs around the U.S., as seeing the pieces and playing with the games is the easiest way to sell them. I met Kate at her huge booth at the annual Maryland Renaissance Festival and we talked about things that make her and Kadon tick:

Ben:   Who are some of the more interesting people or places that have purchased Kadon’s gamepuzzles?

Kate:   We have customers in 46 countries. Isaac Asimov was a customer. We have sold games at science fiction conventions, Renaissance Festivals, teachers' conferences, math conferences, home schooling meetings, Mensa gatherings, Scottish game nights, arts and craft shows, on the beach, in the mountains, on a bus, on a train, in museums, on a plane, online, and by clones.

Ben:   Are you an artist first and gamepuzzle designer second, or is it the other way around?

Kate:   Since we are still starving, I must be an artist first. I use game design or puzzle design as the medium. I want to see beauty emerging from purposeful human intellectual activity. Our products are like little endorphin machines. The pleasure is deep and positive, not like the kick some people get by beating up another person.

Ben:   What is it about Polyominoes that is so fascinating?

Kate:   They are simple to understand, just squares stuck together like a kitchen floor. The mind can deal with a simple intersection, 90 degrees. When a child first learns numbers, 1,2,3,4, there is an intuitive reception in the brain to the cumulative or expanding function of things. Math underpins everything from the diminishing amount of food on a plate to the division of cells. “Collecting” and “sharing” are some of the first experiences of a young child. Joining and separating, similarities and differences, are the basic parameters with which the human brain interacts with the world around it.

Ben:   So this is what drives the Gamepuzzles?

Kate:   There is the most fundamental urge in humans to put things together. The youngest child wants to build and fit things into one group, even if he then knocks it down to start over again. I have watched tens of thousands of people play with my puzzles, and they all want to put them together. Is it because our mothers told us to put all the socks in one drawer? Or because an innate drive knows that union is better than dispersal? We’d rather sit in the safety of a group by the campfire than be lost alone in the woods. It’s primal.

Ben:   What would you say to Counter readers to most intrigue them to try your products?

Kate:   Nothing. They already have what they like, and these indeed are ingenious games. But if they want to try something more abstract and less arbitrary, which is a mental leap for those accustomed to emotional and predigested themes, I would invite them just for the experience. Europeans are among my most enthusiastic customers, and it’s unfortunate that shipping costs make it expensive to order online.

Ben:   That’s an interesting point. Why don’t you wholesale for broader distribution?

Kate:   All of our sales are one on one. We don’t even publish a printed catalog because of the costs, plus people can’t appreciate what a product is or does from a condensed write-up. On the website, I can give each game a full-color spread and use as much space as is needed to tell its story. Besides, our products are so unusual compared to mass market games that people have no frame of reference by which to even understand them. That’s why, for 25 years, I haul my display out to shows where people can try them hands-on. We are not opposed to licensing our ideas for other production [as they have done with Octiles—Ben].

Ben:   What is the future for Kadon?

Kate:   Keep coming up with more things. I have dozens of ideas cooking that have yet to see the light of day because they take time and money. We’ll continue to expand the website with more features. The big dream is to launch a chain of game parlors where people can come in and sit and play at little tables and long counters, like a combination museum-gallery-showroom and game shop. The admission or playing fee would be refunded with a purchase. A prototype of this operation runs at our pavilion at the Maryland Renaissance Festival. It’s a big dream, and investors are invited.

Ideas common to Kadon’s games have shown up in many other games. Besides Blokus as mentioned, all Tangram-type games (like Japan’s Glocal Hexcite), Einfach Genial, and most of Niek Neuwahl’s games are good examples. The Kadon website is a treasure trove of information. In addition to seeing all the products as Kate described above, you can play games in the online parlor, see an award-winning video about Kadon produced by Maryland Public Television, see more of Kate's artwork, find out where she'll be hauling the games to next, and more.

Kadon is a unique institution and a gift to all those who love to think for exercise and get a thrill when you can beat the system.



Copyright ©2005 Ben Baldanza. All Rights Reserved.
This article appeared originally in the March 2005 edition of
Counter magazine, published in England.
Reproduced by permission.