Designer: Dan Shapiro  |   Players: 2 – 4   |   Playtime: 15 minutes

For my next four reviews, we will be looking at four different programming games that already have achieved notoriety in the gaming industry. Programming is a fascinating board game mechanic to me because it honestly doesn’t sound fun, and yet reviewers rave about games like Robo Rally and Lords of Xidit. I also feel like programming games couldn’t be that much different from one another as the thought of this mechanic seems a bit one-dimensional for board gaming. But I’m here to say that these four games have a very different feel to them as they’ve fleshed out this mechanism into playable formats.

I bought Robot Turtles on a whim. As a game for 4 years-old and up, I’m always looking for games I can play with my kids. And while I thought they would be bored with the game after a couple of plays, this game gets constant requests by the little ones in my house. Regardless what I think, the 3 and 5-year-old in my house would give this 5 mugs and a BUY IT review. So what do I think as a parent?

THEME AND COMPONENTS

The whimsical theme of laser strapped turtles is definitely a plus in my book. The kids never question the whole concept as they trudge along the maze, blasting ice walls (“castles”) into puddles, but as an adult, I’m wondering what these blaster-packing turtles plan to do with the giant gems they’re racing to swipe. It’s definitely something original and hooks the kids into playing.

And it’s a pretty game. Lot’s of colors and cartoony artwork with some embossed and textured playing pieces. But as a kids’ game we need to know how well the components will hold up in little hands:

We’re not looking at Fisher-Price indestructible, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Fortunately, the board, gems, turtles, and obstacles are all made out of sturdy chipboard stock which will hold up to all the moving and manipulating that will happen, and the pieces are easy to pick up and shift around. The cards themselves are decent enough but still need the usual sense of care if they are to remain uncreased. And I really think this is okay. Part of teaching kids to play games is to teach them game etiquette (in this case, how to handle cards). And as a game where the card mechanics don’t necessitate “unmarked” cards, damaged or creased cards won’t affect the game itself – it’ll just make us obsessive hobby gamers cringe.

MECHANISMS

Each turtle is racing to grab one of four gems on the board and gameplay is fairly simple. Players should first separate their individual deck into five stacks of each kind of card so you can always see what your options are. On your turn, choose a card to play and perform its action, discarding the card afterward.

For the most part, this will one of three simple move actions:

Move Forward

Spin Left

Spin Right

A lot of thought went into this concept as the orientation of the turtle piece plays a huge part in what card to play. So there is some abstract/spatial thinking that must go into how a left or right turn might actually play out when the turtle is facing a different direction than depicted on the card. There are nice color-coded flowers printed on the cards and the turtle tokens to help visualize the outcome. Additionally, there is an undo “Bug” tile that can be slapped to take back a move that didn’t have the planned result. While this undo feature might be considered out of spirit for a programming board game (where your decisions are typically final), this is great for teaching the kids and plays an important part in achieving the designer’s goal (more on that in my final thoughts).

The other two available actions are included optionally as players become more advanced. The first one is a simple laser that melts ice walls while navigating around a maze (super fun).

ZAAAAAAAAAP!

The second is a bit more complex but important nonetheless. After practicing with an instructional step where kids begin playing sequences of cards instead of one at a time, they can string a short sequence of cards next to each other as one playable move.

Function Frog at work

To play this string, they play the Function Frog card which, remarkably, performs the function of the sequence. This is definitely an advanced mode of play and designed to grow with your kid, so consider some of these items as modular components.

In addition to advanced actions, there are also maps and obstacles that can be tiered for different ages and abilities.

Pushable crates, zappable ice walls, and immovable stone walls can be slowly added to repeated plays to introduce new challenges and keeps the game fresh each time.

RULEBOOK

The rulebook is so amazing, it gets its own feature in this review. As much as this game is designed to teach programming, its rulebook is designed to teach this game. It begins on a very basic level with limited options and skills to master. Games and components are played as unlockable achievements, like video games, and as players master certain skills, new options are available to them. We started looking ahead and getting excited about unlocking certain maps and components. It’s a great way to keep the excitement up while not overloading too many concepts at once. I wish more rulebooks and games for adults would do this. The closest (and coolest) I’ve seen to something like this is the infamous Krosmaster: Arena tutorial. More of that, please.

FINAL THOUGHTS

I’m only recommending this rating for people in my situation: with young children ages 3 to 7. There are so many teaching moments in this game and those lessons span three different categories:

  • The designer of this game set out to teach programming concepts to young children. This is specifically geared around computer programming and I personally think he achieved his goal. The amount of object and spatial processes packed into these simple concepts will go beyond the intent of programming and start some abstract-to-concrete connections in their mind. There is also an element of trial-and-error that is standard fare in programming and as a board game, it is included unapologetically in the undo Bug button. The kids love slapping it and yelling “Bug!” to take back their move.
  • Along with programming, there is a fantastic element included in this game that middle schoolers could glean from play, and that’s use of the Function Frog. While this is an important aspect in programming, it transcends that specific field and preps for the basic pre-algebraic concept of functions. Functions tend to really trip up students until they get some kind of practical application. Unfortunately, it isn’t until a programming class that their use starts to make sense. But my 5-year-old gets it because she knows that playing a single card to pull out three predetermined moves is sometimes better than an action of a single move, especially if it works for more than one turn. While the game is geared toward smaller children, the concrete application might be useful to illustrate this abstract concept.
  • Something every gamer-parent wants to pass on is game etiquette. And most games teach the basics like taking turns, how to lose well, how to win well, and particular standards and mechanics that we see traverse the varying genres. This game is no different, but it is one that doesn’t feature dexterity which is rare in children’s’ games. From organizing the cards so choices are clear to taking steps in playing a card -> moving a piece -> discarding the card, we get some universal motions that are intrinsic in many games for older folk. It’s nice to see these in a game for the youngest of gamers.

I love this game because my kids love this game and I see them engaged and learning. We’ve got a lot of games on our shelf for them, but this is one of their favorites.