Have you ever dreamed about reinventing the dreidel? Granted, the game is fun, and of course a part of Jewish tradition. But year after year, families gather on Chanukah, divvy up some chocolate gelt (or M&Ms) and spin the dreidel in a seemingly never-ending loop.
This year, however, two individual Jewish inventors have taken a stab at reinventing and reinvigorating this holiday favorite.
Daniel Singer, a project manager based in Lower Merion, Pa., has been working on his version for the past decade.
Singer studied industrial design at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia and has since parlayed that into both work and play — along with his day job at an interactive media company, he’s the dad who builds complex play structures in his backyard and sews his kids’ Halloween costumes.
After years of kicking around an idea to switch up the traditional dreidel game he eventually mentioned it to his friend Bruce Kothmann, an aeronautical engineer, and the two got serious about creating a new game.
“Bruce is a hardcore engineer and I’m the guy who likes to make things,” Singer says. “I’m aesthetics and he is the math theory guy.”
For years the two men would meet on Wednesdays for beers and brainstorming sessions, and on Fridays after Shabbat dinner they’d test out the prototypes with their families.
About a year ago, the prototype for what would become Staccabees finally came together. The key ingredients were all there: “The kids and adults both liked it, it had a nice mix of strategy and chance and challenge,” Singer says.
Staccabees consists of three sets of colored blocks and a wooden dreidel. Players spin the dreidel to learn how they should build on the center “stacc” (a stack of blocks placed on top of each other). If the stacc topples, the player who knocked it over must take the blocks that fell. The goal is to be the first player to be completely rid of blocks.
Once Singer and Kothmann figured out their design, the duo tested the game on people of different ages, asking nearly everyone they encountered to try the new game.
“A lot of our other Jewish friends had played dreidel before and could sympathize with the need for improvement,” Singer says.
For now, the game is sold exclusively online (www.staccabees.com), but Singer and Kothmann hope to have it in stores next year.
“At first we were just hoping that our moms would buy them,” Singer jokes. “Driedel has been around for a long time — if Staccabees is around that long, it would be great!”
Los Angeles–based game designer Dan Siskin is also hoping his latest creation, Maccabees, has staying power.
The Chanukah-themed board game was released this year through Siskin’s company, FlasterVenture. This isn’t Siskin’s first foray into gaming, however — after working in the video game industry for years, he developed the role-playing board game Pirate King, which came out in 2008.
“After creating Pirate King and immersing myself into the mainstream game industry, it dawned on me that there really were not any Jewish-themed board games other than very basic ones for young children,” Siskin says.
At the time Siskin was experiencing a renewal of interest in his Jewish identity. He grew up in a tight-knit but small Jewish community in Chattanooga, Tenn., where he attended weekly Shabbat services, had a bar mitzvah and loved doing tricks with his wooden and plastic toy dreidels.
While he never tired of religion, he says he found a deeper connection to Judaism after moving to Los Angeles in 1997.
“After getting engaged and joining a local synagogue I began to reconnect with my Judaism,” he says. “When we started to meet with a rabbi, my strong Jewish upbringing began to bubble up.”
Siskin brought this renewed interest in Judaism to his gaming background immediately. “The first thing that popped into my head was so simple — to replace dice with dreidels. From there the ideas started to flow and everything naturally fell into place.”
When he first started developing Maccabees he used the toy driedels that he had played with since childhood.
Maccabees is a turn-based strategy board game that comes with four colored dreidels, 30 action cards and a variety of other game pieces, including cardboard oil lamps and gelt coins. The game follows the revolt by the Maccabees against the Seleucid Empire up through the miracle of the oil lasting eight days.
Participants must lead a band of Maccabees and acquire enough oil to light the chanukiah, while battling the remnants of the Seleucid army, which is trying to stop the Maccabees from advancing. Turns are spent spinning the dreidel and choosing strategies for making it to the chanukiah.
“I remember when I was little having a good time playing dreidel with other kids at parties, but the adults would rarely join in,” Siskin says. “Maccabees incorporates enough intriguing game play and strategy to keep adults involved and interested, while still being accessible to children.”
Along with engaging adults, Siskin also wanted people to be able to improve their Hebrew skills, which is why the game is in both Hebrew and English.
“Back in Hebrew school one of my teachers made the point that knowing Hebrew will connect you to every Jew in the world,” he says. “If you ever traveled to France, Russia, Ethiopia or anywhere they do not speak English, but you speak Hebrew, you could connect with any Jew in any country. By making Maccabees in Hebrew as well as English, the game can be played by Jews worldwide.”
Maccabees is available on Siskin’s Web site (www.flasterventure.com) and in some local Judaica stores (it’s stocked at Dayenu Judaica in San Francisco and Rodef Sholom Sisterhood Gift Shop in San Rafael).