Thursday, August 7, 2014

GJJG Game Reviews - Robot Turtles - by Think Fun

Robot Turtles
Designer: Dan Shapiro
Publisher: ThinkFun
GJJG Game Reviews - Robot Turtles - by Think Fun

Game Overview:
Robot Turtles was the most backed game in Kickstarter history when the Kickstarter campaign ended and I'm happy to say I was one of those backers.  Since then the game is now being published by ThinkFun.  There were a few minor components changes between the versions, but nothing significant.

The game is geared at younger kids so they can start learning the basics of programming.  Each player controls a turtle and has their own deck of cards.  The players attempt to use the cards to 'program' their turtle around obstacles and each other and acquire a gem.  The main cards let the player make the turtle move forward, turn left, turn right, or shoot a laser.  There is also a 'Function Frog' card that lets players 'call' another function for more advanced play and a 'Bug' card that lets players rewrite a portion of their program if they find an error.

The game is supposed to be played by one to four players, with one non-player controlling the turtles.  It is not a competitive game, but rather a game to see if everyone can complete the task of acquiring a gem.  There are alternate rules to make the game competitive, too, but those are not encouraged for younger kids.

Components & Packaging:
To be fair, I only have the Kickstarter edition of the game, so the components and packaging will vary a bit from what you can buy at the store.  My understanding though is that the components and packaging in the retail version are a little bit nicer (individual storage compartments for different pieces, etc.).  Overall the components of the game are great.  The cards are large, durable, and vibrant.  The tiles are thick and well printed.  And the game board is large and sturdy.  The packaging is good, but not great.  The box is nice and sturdy, but the cardboard insert does little to help organize pieces inside.  Also the rules are just several sheets of (nicely printed) paper that are loose, not stapled into a booklet.  I believe that is another aspect that is a bit different from the retail game.

Score: 6/10 x1 (although from what I've heard I'd probably give the retail version a 7/10)

Rules & Setup:
The rules of the game are easy to understand and straight forward.  The rules are designed to gradually introduce players to the concept of the game.  As the players get more skilled at programming their robots additional challenges are introduced, like new obstacles, new program cards, or requirements that multiple cards be programmed at a time before the program is run, etc.  The game is simple enough for even very young kids to pick it up quickly.  Because one non-player (an adult recommended) is designated to control the turtles and run the programs it reduces the possibility of rules mix-ups and allows for as much or little help to be provided to kids as necessary.

Setup isn't too difficult, although it's generally not something younger kids can do on their own.  Because the game isn't supposed to be competitive the person setting up the game needs to make sure that the courses for each player are both fair and appropriate for each player's ability level.  I've found that symmetrical boards for multi-player games work best, however that does make unique solutions less likely.  There aren't any pre-defined mazes included with the game, however there was an Adventure Quest pack sold shortly after the Think Fun edition came out that has a number of pre-defined mazes (I don't have a copy of that) and also a few webpages that have maze ideas:

Score: 7/10 x2

The gameplay in Robot Turtles is a bit odd.  Because there is no competition and no collaboration to complete a goal before defeat, I'm actually reluctant to call this a game.  It's more of a puzzle that players can work on completing at the same time.  My sons enjoy playing Robt Turtles, but they don't really treat it like a game.  They ask for me to set up a maze and then they work simultaneously to get their robots to the gems.  They enjoy this, but usually only for short periods of time.  I've tried acting as the program manager as the rules suggest, but it quickly becomes boring for me as an adult.  I've also tried playing along with my boys by having my own maze to follow, but again, everyone quickly became a bit bored.  They enjoy the game, but only one or two games in a row.  It's not the type of game they enjoy playing one after the other.


Unless I work to create challenging boards for them.  I've worked to create challenging mazes that they need to complete individually and they seem to enjoy those much more.  These mazes have challenges where they need to perform actions in a specific order to complete them.  E.g. they may have to first fire a laser at an ice wall in order to be able to slide a crate past that location.  These are much more challenging and they seem to enjoy these mazes more, however they are rarely appropriate for more than one player due to their size.  I have created some multi-player collaborative mazes as well, where the players have to work together to retrieve the gems, e.g. one player has to fire a laser at an ice wall in order for another player to then move a crate out of the way.

Score: 6/10 x2

Educational Value:
Robot Turtles is pretty good at getting kids thinking about programming and sending instructions to an independent processor, however, I think it is very limited in its ability to do much more than teach the absolute basics of programming without some enhancements.  The Function Frogs are a nice addition, and the newer Adventure Quests that use pre-built functions are pretty good, but what the game needs to really move beyond the 3-7 year old interest range is more logical commands.

Conditionals (If/Else blocks), Loops, Sub Routines, APIs are all possible with the game, but would need additional components created.  I've created files and rules for these and plan to add them in as the boys get older and more involved in programming, however by that time they'll probably be into actual programming.  But my hope is that they'll be able to use the additional pieces (especially the conditionals and loops) to do some pretty cool mazes and also start learning about making code more efficient.

So Robot Turtles is a very small step into learning programming, but unfortunately due to the lack of enough other elements in the base game to keep the game interesting, I think other games (like RoboRally) do a bit more to teach basic programming elements while also keep games engaging.  I think Robot Turtles is a good start, and will help kids get the concepts behind more complex games like RoboRally quicker, but the game won't remain educational or engaging enough to keep kids interested long term, at least without some new rules and/or components.

One other problem with the educational value of the game in multi-player mode, particularly when there are players with similar skill levels, is; to make the game fair to each player the board should be set up symmetrical, but then players can just copy the program written by the other players.  This can be avoided by carefully setting up courses that have the same number of moves required, but different sequences of obstacles so that each player requires a different solution.  But this means more thought has to go into the initial setup of the board (another reason a booklet or other source of pre-defined layouts would be great).

Score: 7/10 x1

This is a bit difficult to gauge here.  Because each board is different and you can create nearly infinite different mazes and puzzles for kids to figure out there is a lot of potential replayability here.  However, it largely will depend on your child's personality.  If they really like solving puzzles and independent play I think they'll be able to get a lot out of the game and will probably play it regularly, as long as you are willing to set up new and challenging mazes for them (which will require some effort on your part) or if they are savvy enough to create their own mazes to try to solve.  There are rules variations that make the game much more fun for adults (the Galapagos variant is pretty good) and will definitely add to the replayability factor, especially for older players.

Score: 7/10 x1

General Fun:
My boys have had fun with Robot Turtles every time they've played, however they rarely ask to play a second or third game when we're done.  And for adults, the basic rules are rather tedious.  The rules variations and potential expansions can make things more fun, but unfortunately the basic rules are limited.  A lot of the 'fun' comes from the interaction between the kids and adults playing (the person controlling the robots is 'required' to make silly noises), but fun adults can make almost anything fun.  That's one of the whole challenges of being a parent!  Games should be fun in and of themselves so that parents can just make them more fun =)  Robot Turtles by itself is just so-so, but playing it with creative adults makes it more fun for the kids.

Score: 8/10 x2

Overall Value:
Overall, I think this is just an OK game as it is out of the box.  The components are pretty nice and the educational target are great, and for the $25 retail price, this is a good starting point to learning programming for younger kids.  But if you have slightly older kids there are other games that teach programming concepts with more engaging strategy and competition.  Those games are generally more expensive, but will most likely endure for the long term, whereas Robot Turtles will quickly become a shelf tenant unless it is supplemented with additional pieces (which have to be home made) or additional rules.

Score: 7/10 x1

Final Thoughts:
I am glad that we got Robot Turtles.  It was neat to feel like I was part of something groundbreaking when I backed its Kickstarter campaign (and it was the first campaign that I ever backed).  But after we received it and I played it with the family for the first time I realized that it was going to need a lot of tweaking to be a mainstay in our home.  The boys do still play occasionally with the basic rules, and they have a few friends that ask to play it whenever they come over, but it's definitely not a huge favorite in the home.  However my wife and I did give the Galapagos rules a try with just us and we actually had a blast playing it.  There are several other rules variations (e.g. where the turtles leave Tron-like paths behind them as they move, etc.) that sound interesting, too.  The game itself is very open ended and lends itself to modification.  I'm not sure if that's a good thing or not though.  Shouldn't a game be fun to play right out of the box?  But even if the game has a limited lifespan with its standard rules, I'm printing out collections of variants that will hopefully keep the game interesting for longer.  Maybe someday there will be expansions and a book of alternate ways to play, but for now the game is a little underwhelming right out of the box (yet much better than Candyland or Shoots and Ladders).

Overall Score: 69/100

UPDATE: We lent this game out to some friends of ours and they said it is a HUGE hit in their household.  Even the neighborhood kids come over and ask to play Robot Turtles!

Getting ready to program his turtle.
Sitting down to a four player game.

At least one program got pretty looooooong!

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GJJG Game Reviews are independent, unpaid reviews of games I, George Jaros, have played with his family and friends.  Some of these games I own, some are owned by friends, some are borrowed, and some are print and play versions of games.  Where applicable I will indicate if games have been played with kids or adults or a mix (Family Play).  I won't go into extensive detail about how to play the game (there are plenty of other sources for that information and I'll occasionally link to those other sources), but I will give my impressions of the game and how my friends and family reacted to the game.  A score of 1-10 (low-high) is given to each game in six categories: Components & Packaging, Rules & Setup, Gameplay, Replayability, Overall Value, and General Fun.  Rules & Setup and General Fun are weighted double and Gameplay is weighted triple.  Then the game is given a total score of x/100.

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