STEM Toy Review: MindWare Q-BA-Maze
One recent rainy, soccer-free Saturday, RocketteGirl, Lightning McQueen, and I took the opportunity to liven up our dreary confinement by opening a new box of building blocks from MindWare. These weren’t just any ordinary blocks, of course. They were MindWare’s multi-colored, Q-BA-MAZE 2.0 Ultimate Stunt Set marble run blocks. A perfect STEM Toy to entertain the kids on a rainy day.
The TV-sized box had been sitting under our makerspace table since late-March, patiently waiting for us to finally find some free time to test it out. The good people at MindWare provided this Q-BA-MAZE 2.0 Ultimate Stunt set free in exchange for our unbiased, unfiltered Raising Nerd review. (NOTE: MindWare has several smaller marble runs and Q-BA-MAZE 2.0 sets from which to choose.)
So, I fired up Netflix and began a mini-MST3K Revival marathon while we broke into the Q-BA-MAZE. To start things off, I had the kids unbox everything to inspect the set’s 200-piece inventory, which included:
- 4 kinds of cubes (single-, double-, bottom-, and quad-exit) in 9 different colors
- 7 kinds of stunt pieces
- 8 marble catchers (i.e., finish line for the marble runs)
- 20 steel “marbles”
- Instruction booklet for how to build the “Ultimate Stunt Tower”
Input From My Nerds
My 9.5-year-old and 7.5-year-old spent an hour of “free-build” time to figure out how the blocks stack and connect, and experiment with the various stunt elements. Here were some of their spontaneous reactions as they familiarized themselves with Q-BA-MAZE 2.0 and its funky stunt parts:
“This is complicated…maybe too complicated.”
“This is cool!”
“[laughing] It spins around here and then comes out the butt!”
“This looks like a Chinese finger trap…you can twist it.” [Referring to the set’s “coaster tubes” made of blue plastic mesh]
“I like it because it’s not super flimsy.”
“These [blocks] are easy to put together.”
The kids’ reactions to the product were exactly what you’d think a toymaker wants: excitement, intrigue, laughter, anticipation, and, most importantly, quick engagement.
What my kids loved about this self-proclaimed “Next Generation Marble Maze”:
- Like LEGO, they liked destroying/deconstructing their creations when done. Perfect for any STEM toy.
- While playing with the blocks, even without instructions on what to do, they were able to figure out the product on their own – even coming up with new ways to use the product. “Hey, maybe we can race the marbles…”
- “It’s a lot bigger [than other marble run sets] and has all these awesome things.”
- The large box and number of building blocks included.
- The unusual construction and functions of the stunt pieces.
My Nerd Dad Perspective
After the kids tinkered a bit, I set out to tackle the set’s Ultimate Stunt Tower build myself. Start to finish (including sorting/organizing the blocks at the start), the build took almost two, full MST3K Revival episodes to finish (Ep. 3 Time Travelers and Ep. 4 Avalanche), or about 2.5 hours. Yes, I was a little distracted. But, even so, the sorting took time and the diagrams in the 34-step instructions can be challenging to follow.
Here are the things I loved about Q-BA-MAZE:
- Wow factor. At first glance, Q-BA-MAZE and its stunt pieces reminded me a little of the Perplexus hand-held puzzles. The colorful blocks and mechanical stunt elements make the final product look like a gorgeous STEM sculpture. I’m a big fan of anything that can combine science and art. It’s just another way to fuel the kids’ creativity. Once built and operational, the Q-BA-MAZE stunts are awesome to watch perform, over and over again.
- Good, under-the-radar emphasis on STEM: physics/gravity, trial-and-error, predictive/thinking ahead, spatial reasoning, problem solving, and principles of sound construction – e.g., where to start, where to insert stunts, lining up and angling the trampoline to consistently hit the catcher target, how wide to make your foundation, how to keep your marble running downhill without falling out of the maze early, etc.
- Zen. Watching the kids feed the Q-BA-MAZE while marbles cascaded through the almost three-foot high structure’s stunts was as mesmerizing as a lava lamp, only louder.
- Sturdy construction. From the plastic connection points to the stunt elements, everything seemed ready to take on the wear and tear of young demolition crews. Once kids build and test it out awhile, they’re going to want to destroy it. This set should bounce back, build after build.
What I didn’t love as much (Spoiler: mostly, accuracy of the age rating):
- The set is rated for ages 6 and up, but with some rough/not-quite-sharp plastic edges, smaller fingers could get scraped and pinched.
- Getting the full benefit. Many 6-year-olds might be able to free-form play (at least for a little while) with this set purely as funky building blocks. But that’s not really the intent of the toy, which is to build a gravity-powered maze that enables a marble to go from start to finish. I’m not sure how many 1st-graders would be able to stick with this set long enough to achieve that more challenging goal.
- Configuration of blocks can be tough at first. Also, the blocks are not exactly LEGO. Even in the simpler top-to-bottom “stacking” configuration, kids’ (and adults’) motor coordination must be good enough to get these blocks to fit together. Connecting them side-to-side can be a little bit trickier, especially as your structure grows taller and more complex, as it does during a build like the Ultimate Stunt Tower.
- Instructions. As mentioned above, the instructions for the Ultimate Stunt Tower may not be clear enough for a 6- or 7-year-old to follow. Not saying they’re impossible for younger kids, it’s just more likely that they might get frustrated and lose interest more easily without help from an adult.
- Storage. Would be nice if the giant set had a zippered or otherwise re-sealable container to keep all the pieces secured. We used the non-resealable, packing bag for blocks, left stunt pieces loose, and put marbles in a Ziploc. That won’t last.
NERD RATING (out of 5):
This might’ve been higher, except my kids haven’t played with the set much since the day we opened the box. They’ve run marbles through the Ultimate Stunt Tower a few times, but have yet to build new structures of their own.
Overall, if you’re a parent with a 7-or-older Nerd that’s really into building, and you’re looking for a solid STEM toy, we highly recommend you give Q-BA-MAZE a try. Ditto, if you’re a teacher looking for a fun, new way to teach students creative problem solving and physics. So, if you’ve got space for a big box of colorful, unconventional blocks that can make marbles dance and jump, this marble run would be a fine addition to your play room.