Monday, September 15, 2014


Unplugged Dilintia: Robot Turtles

If there's one thing I love, it's a board game that contains many different board games inside itself.  You know the kind -- games that offer different scenarios, different playable characters, or even completely different play styles.  If there's two things I love, the second would be goofy little programming languages.  And if I could go so far as to love a third thing, it would be anything that ThinkFun makes. If you were to add to that laser-mounted robot turtles, well that's game of the year, isn't it.

The Basics

Robot Turtles is billed as a preschooler's introduction to programming concepts.  And... yeah.  I can see it.

The idea is that there are these four turtles on the gameboard.  One to four players are the Turtle Masters.  They use movement cards -- forward, turn left, turn right -- to make a program that the turtles will follow.  Another player -- the rules suggest an adult or a child who understands all of the rules -- actually follows the program, moving the turtles around and making little "beep beep" noises.  The game comes with obstacle tiles that you can use to build a sort of maze, and the object is to get your turtle to its matching gem.  If, as their turtle is moving, a Turtle Master notices there's a problem with their program, they can hit the Bug button to request a do-over.

This is just a brilliant setup.  Some of these rules seem kind of arbitrary or even disposable, but no.  It's clear that the designer spent a lot of time thinking about this game and playtesting it with his kids, because every single aspect of it reinforces the idea of simulating a programming environment.

One Amazon reviewer complained that the kids were unhappy that they didn't get to move their own turtles.  And yeah, on the face of it, it looks like there's no reason you couldn't make this a single-player experience, like most ThinkFun puzzles.  (In fact, this is the way I've had to use it.  No kids, you see.)  The rules repeatedly state that this is an opportunity for kids to boss the adults around, and while that's a good reason, it's not the best one.  One of the most satisfying things about programming is writing a list of instructions and watching the thing you created behave the way you expected.  (The second most satisfying thing, of course, is figuring out why the thing you created didn't behave the way you expected.)  Kids tend to regard pieces on the gameboard as their avatars; having someone else move the turtle for them reinforces the idea that the turtle isn't them, but something that they made.

Then there's the Bug button.  It doesn't really do anything.  A child could just as easily tell the Turtle Mover to stop and undo or, even worse, an adult could foresee a problem and correct it automatically or even veto the move altogether.  But that's not how computers work.  By making the undo command into a physical button that the player has to actually touch, you're reinforcing the idea of learning an interface.  Computers are getting better at natural conversation with humans, but they're still not perfect.  If you want a program to do something, you often have to learn to play by its rules.

And the beeping.  Do you really need to make robot turtle noises while you move the turtle around?  Well OBVIOUSLY YES.  Watch children play.  Whether they're giving a voice to their teddy bear or gunning the engines on their toy cars, child's play always has a soundtrack.  If you want a child -- or even an adult -- to believe that the little piece of cardboard you're pushing around the board is, in fact, a custom-programmable laser-mounted turtle, then for the love of everything, BEEP.  Put your heart into it.

Because the moment you believe in your robot turtle, magic things start happening.

The Game

The thing is, Robot Turtles isn't a game so much as it is a toy.  The turtles behave exactly like those remote control robots that were so popular in the 80s, except that you play cards instead of pushing buttons, and they're powered by mom or dad rather than $10 worth of AAs.  But it's a toy that you can use to play a game.

At its most basic level, Turtle Masters play one card at a time and roam freely around the board.  You get unlimited undos, there's no restrictions on what cards you can play or how many, the game continues until every player reaches their goal -- it's a total sandbox.  The very youngest players can spend as long as they want getting used to the "controls" and wrapping their heads around the difference between "turn left" and "move left".  They might even just spin around the board for the sheer thrill of it, as one would steer a remote controlled car around a kitchen.

As with most ThinkFun stuff, the game allows for gradually more complicated scenarios as the players become ready for them.  First we'll place ice walls on the board to create a kind of maze.  Then we'll give the Turtle Masters a Laser command to fire a laser and melt the walls.  Then we'll add indestructible stone walls.  Then we'll add pushable boxes.

And when our Turtle Masters are confident with how the turtles move and interact with their environment, we'll encourage them to start thinking several moves ahead and writing proper programs.  First, we'll have them play three cards at a time on each turn, and show how they make several moves in sequence.  Then we'll make our sequences longer and longer, until the challenge is to make a sequence that will clear an entire maze in one turn.  And last of all, we'll introduce the Function Frog -- a subroutine that will allow us to reuse useful patterns in our sequence.

It's so great.  Instead of just having a fixed board, you can design -- or kids themselves can design -- all sorts of little obstacle courses, and then challenge themselves to figure out a way through them.  It's kind of an amazing little learning environment.  Kids can learn all sorts of things about writing instructions, putting things in the right order, and seeing things from the perspective of "what will it do if I tell it this?"

The game makes one important decision, and it can be seen as a controversial one.  The game doesn't end until everyone wins.  And while I understand the argument about, oh, that's not the way the real world works, we have to teach kids to be competitive, how to win and lose gracefully, they can't all be a special snowflake -- that's all well and good and important in its own way, but this isn't really a "game".  It disguises itself as a game to reel kids in, but in reality, it's an exercise in problem-solving.  There isn't a lot of direct cooperation or competition between turtles, so it's essentially a single-player puzzle game that four players attempt simultaneously.  Kids can learn tactics from each other.  They can see some common mistakes and how to correct them.  If the game ended when someone won, then everyone else at the board would be denied the responsibility of completing their own piece of the puzzle.  It's not a game about winning or losing so much as it is about finishing what you started, persevering, and not giving up until you find the right answer.  And that, in its way, is also a part of real life that kids need to learn.

Robot Turtles After Dark

Still, if I have one criticism of the game, it's that it is perhaps a little milquetoast.  That's perfectly appropriate for an educational environment, but I'm not sure if I would have found it particularly gripping when I was a kid.  Kids like confrontational games.  They like competition and challenge.  When I was in Robot Turtles' target demographic, I was into Checkers, Monopoly, you name it.  Once you've picked up on the basics of how the turtles behave, there's not really a lot of challenge to getting them to the gem.

When the creator of the game was asked why he turned his concept into a board game instead of an app, he responded that he had no trouble getting his kids to sit down in front of a screen; that he wanted them to do something physical, and make it something that they could do together.

Again, that's a good reason, but not the best one.

The great thing about making a plaything that's more toy than game is that you can do ANYTHING with it.

The game has this nice, tight little core mechanic -- string movement cards into a sequence, then let your turtles rip.  It has this nice modular gameboard concept with completely customizable terrain.  You can take this thing apart and build just about any game you want out of it.

ThinkFun already has an expansion pack of "Adventure Quests", special maps and scenarios for experienced players to attempt, plus free online tools for creating, sharing, and downloading more.  And buried deep in the website, you'll find the forbidden Galapagos Rules, a competitive race to the finish line with luck, strategy, and some good old fashioned screw-over items.

But that's just scratching the surface.  Since the rules are nothing more than what the players agree to, you can come up with all kinds of crazy variations.

It may not seem very educational to have your kids deviate from the strict learning experience of playing around with the rules that the game comes with and turning it into a competition, but in fact it might be the single most important thing that they do with this game.

See, I've dabbled in making my own games.  And the conclusion I've come to is that programming is nothing -- nothing -- compared to having a good design in the first place.  Kids who get these modular pieces and use them to build their own games will learn all kinds of things about level design, game balance, puzzle design, even art design.  And they'll do it in the best way possible -- by making something that they themselves will want to play.

All in all, this is an amazing little box.  If you have any kind of interest in games about programming, it's worth looking into.  But adults should take caution -- you have to supply your own children and turtle noises.


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