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Toying

A multitude of high and low-tech toys are available to budding engineers and their parents this Christmas.

Children have an innate talent for destruction. Consider this scenario: You are making an ingenious, teetering tower from wooden blocks

for your angelic offspring/ niece/nephew. But before it is more than inches off the ground, you realise the little cutesy is scheming

an attack on the foundations.

After extensive negotiation and repeated stand-offs, the tower tops out and then - Krash! The tiny mite squeals with horrible delight as

the structure tumbles.

Any sensible grown-up has to conclude that toys and games that involve construction must be for adults. And the blurb that promotes many constructive games helps bear this out.

Though nine to five CAD slaves may find the computer modelling starter kit Kreator 3-D an irksome gift, it is designed 'for kids at

heart and adults with fond memories of Lego'. Scientific toy inventor Peter Simpson meanwhile says his designs are bought by women

for their husbands at least as often as for their children.

Toys and playing are, of course, a well established part of growing up and of cultivating skills, including those for creating and making. Contrary to appearances, adults do not stop playing; it is simply that they give their toys and games different names.

Simpson observes: 'Toys can set your imagination free. And that's where engineering starts.'

For the first-time property developer, Small World Toys offer two clay bricks, mortar and roof tiles kits: 'Rick the Brick the Journeyman' and 'Rick the Brick the Master Mason'. There are 194 miniature bricks in the Master Mason self-build pack which, when bonded together, create a compact 300mm3 suburban Hansel & Gretel style bungalow. Once the proud home owner has grown tired of their tiny pied-a-terre they can wash out the water-soluble mortar from between the bricks, demolish it and build another one.

K'nex is a sort of Lego-Meccano hybrid - clip together construction with lightness and flexibility. As with the tried and tested oldies, its modular kits allow a huge range of structures to be built. It also has some innovative add-ons like solar powered motors. One kit uses a solar powered motor to power a 1.5m tall tower crane. K'nex has also loosely themed several kits around the fictional mines of K'nexor. Goodies and baddies slug it out for mining rights with the aid of Mega Mashers and Rock Rippers - not on show at the next Bauma.

In case anybody needed reminding, Meccano is that wonderfully fiddly nuts, bolts, and stamped steel plate engineering system that barely classifies as 'toy' and would be hard to describe as a 'game'. It is 100 years old next year, and to mark its historic anniversary Meccano has launched a 450mm tall, 547 piece 'centenary crane'.

With the first components of a stellar structural engineering project, the International Space Station, now orbiting around the earth, Robotix space vehicles make timely if expensive (99) stocking fillers. The Robotix 4000 kit includes grab-arms, a space crane, a two-legged walking mechanism, a command capsule and frightening T-rex-like jaws. The sci-fi assemblage is powered

by four motors. The kit can be reconfigured to create eight machines that are more Star-Trek than NASA - perfect for staving off

post X-Mas boredom after you've watched re-runs of The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi.

The eagerly awaited successor to the popular SimCity 2000 will be launched just too late for Santa to put on his sledge this year. Maxis' SimCity 3000 is due out in February and will introduce dozens of new features for more realistic gameplay. In SimCity 3000, cities will more lifelike with enhancements like realistic traffic and pedestrians, detailed 3D rendered buildings including real world landmarks, animations and sound effects. A new building architect tool will allow players to design their own houses, factories and skyscrapers and place them in the cities they create. Also new to the game will be the SimCity.com web site, where players can interact, participate in contests and even publish their cities. 'Players will become immersed in the cities they create and identify with their creations like never before,' says executive producer Lucy Bradshaw.

But if you want to get some practice before the new game comes outs, a special edition of SimCity 2000 will be launched tomorrow at 14.99.

LR

Tonka Construction's virtual building site game offers five structure 'types' for the budding engineer to build and six construction sites on which to build them. To give extra realism, the game comes with sound effects and, after driving a fleet of pixellated Tonka trucks

around on a muckshift, the foreman is required to carry out maintenance. The game stresses that construction sites are not purely

about big yellow diggers, although that is undoubtedly where a lot of the emotional action is at.

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