[This review was originally published at www.majorfun.com]
In an effort to bring the kind of thinking that programming requires to younger audiences, ThinkFun has provided the world with the fantastic little board game Robot Turtles. The game, designed by Dan Shapiro, was successfully funded on Kickstarter. And when I say successfully I mean funded about 25 times Dan’s initial goal.
And deservedly so. Robot Turtles is a great game that does a wonderful job of introducing young players in to the game mechanics. These game mechanics are also the basics of programming. It needs to be said that the game does not involve actually programming a computer. Instead, the game mechanics mimic the skills and reasoning that good programming requires.
The goal of the game is to move your turtle to your target gem. You have cards that you play in sequential order that tell your turtle to turn, move ahead, fire a laser, or repeat a series of actions. Each of these actions is introduced over a set of games that gradually increase the complexity of the tasks. This approach to teaching the game might be a little frustrating to older players but it makes the game accessible to very young children. The youngest players will appreciate just moving the turtle around the board. Once they have mastered basic sequential commands, they can progress on to more complex games. In the parlance of most computer games and role-playing games, they can level-up. Adults could probably jump in to higher levels without playing the “tutorial” levels but this is designed to teach very young children.
The pedagogy is solid and each level is fun.
Another aspect that I only appreciated after playing with my kids was the cooperative nature of the game. It can be competitive but it is not written that way. The game encourages you to play with pairs on each team—a young “Turtle Master” and an older “Turtle Mover.” The younger player chooses the cards and makes the decisions but does not actually move the turtle. That is the job of the “Turtle Mover.” In this way, the younger players get to order around the adults who are supposed to follow the instructions chosen by the kids (and provide entertaining sound effects). I’ve been a teacher for 18 years and it still took me by surprise just how exciting it was for the kids to boss around the adults. My daughter chose the cards and I did just what they told me to do. This was a great simulation of digital programming in which the programmer provides instructions that something else (the computer) has to follow.
The most interesting and complex cards were the function cards. These served as markers representing a set of action cards. The actions would always be carried out in the same way whenever a function card was played. For example, in order to turn around the turtle on the most basic level, a “programmer” would have to play two cards (right turn, right turn). At higher levels, the programmer could place two right turn cards and a function card off to the side. If the turtle ever needed to turn around in the game, the programmer would now only need to play one function card.
The game comes with three kinds of barriers which can impede the turtles. Ice blocks can be melted by a laser. Boxes can be pushed. Stone blocks are permanent. The instructions come with some suggested “maps” but you are encouraged to come up with your own challenges and then figure out how you can overcome them with the fewest moves.
Creativity is highly prized but so is efficiency.
The art and instruction are fantastic. The pacing is great for a very wide range of players, and the game play becomes remarkably robust after only a few instructional levels. This is Major Fun for kids and parents and teachers and anyone (like me) who sees that programming should be taught to everyone — neither for purely economic reasons nor for purely pragmatic reasons but rather because the skills are intrinsic to our development as a species.
And playing with them is fun.
And our new robot overlords are probably going to feed the programmers who brought them to life before they feed the humanities majors who keep churning out post-singularity dystopian fiction.
So maybe there are some pragmatic reasons…