During Toy Fair last month, I saw quite a few marble runs on display, which is not at all surprising. This particular toy has been around since my own childhood and never seemed to go away for any prolonged span of time. Meanwhile, one of the vendors I spoke to said marble runs have actually increased in popularity over the past year, thanks to the growth of the construction toy category. He also said that many customers opt for larger sets—or else buy multiple small ones of the same brand—and that the ability to combine sets to build ever-larger runs makes for exceptional toy value in their eyes.

Personally, I think marble runs are a thing of beauty: You drop in your fateful spheroid and watch as it winds its way toward its ultimate destiny, guided only by physics and skilled engineering. For young builders, they are a terrific means of developing an understanding of cause and effect, not to mention patience–as any seasoned vet can tell you, it can take repeated tries and multiple setbacks before a marble run is put together perfectly. But it’s worth it: A well-built run can have a downright pacifying effect, as watching the marble traveling along can put the mind in a focused, relaxed state.

Despite what they may have in common collectively, marble runs come in a range of different shapes, materials, and styles. Here are a few of my favorite companies currently producing them, but by no means should it be considered a definitive list. The breadth and scope of these toys is certainly worthy of a longer discussion; I’m just here to get the proverbial ball–or marble–rolling:

Phil.2.28.Pic2Hape is known around the world for its terrific bamboo toys, and Quadrilla–which is part of the Hape collection–is responsible for some of the most satisfying marble runs I’ve ever play-tested. Each set comes with its share of translucent marbles and wooden tracks, as well as specially designed blocks and accessories that only make play experiences more engrossing. Last year, the company released several new sets, and even the most “no-frills” of them, Quadrilla Roundabout, boasts careful craftsmanship and pieces with real heft; one does feel as if they’re building something solid that won’t be easily knocked down.

The title roundabout itself is a circular track that loops several times before dropping the marble through a hole in its base. Along with being visually compelling, it slows the marbles down a little during their gradual descent–a nice contrast to other pieces such as chutes and ramps, which speed them up. On the whole, Quadrilla marble runs achieve the right balance of speed and showmanship–the hallmark of the best toys in this genre. Quadrilla marble runs are suitable for kids ages 4 and up.

Phil.2.28.Pic3Not to be outdone, PlanToys has its own line of marble runs with durable and compelling components. Both the standard and deluxe runs feature brightly-colored chutes and spiral pieces, columns with a natural wood finish, and glass marbles for rolling. While they may not seem as expansive as others on the market, they’re still lots of fun, and feature innovative construction: The vivid red spirals, for example, can serve as tracks for the marbles, or can be flipped over to use as a bottommost piece that catches the spheres before they spill out onto the floor.

In addition, each track segment makes a slightly different sound when a marble hops down onto it, which means a fully-assembled marble run with multiple tracks in a series isn’t just great to look at, but is a downright musical experience as well. PlanToys’ sets are suitable for kids ages 3 and up.

At Toy Fair, I also got to check out the latest Wonder Trix Track marble runs from Smart Gear, which releases them through its Wonderworld brand. The line will undergo an expansion this year with seven new models, each featuring a trick intended to turn all preconceived notions of marble runs on their head. I’ve been play-testing a yet-to-be-named set that resembles a Rube Goldberg device: A colorful, over-sized marble—a Wonder Trix Track trademark—rolls down a chute and into a wooden mallet, which subsequently swings, causing a second marble to go flying through the air. The set comes with stack-able wooden bricks for kids to test their aim; but even in the event of a miss, the chain reaction-style design is more than compelling enough on its own.

The new Wonder Trix Track sets, which ship toward the end of this month and start of April, include a set that sends a marble back up the run—reportedly a first in the toy industry. These sets are suitable for kids ages 3 and up. Like the other marble runs we’ve mentioned, Wonder Trix Track sets are eco-friendly products.

For more commentary from Phil, check back often. Views expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Toy Book as a whole. We hope that you will share your comments and feedback below. Until next time!