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Robot Turtles Review | The board game that teaches kids about programming

I really enjoy board games, it’s probably one of the geekiest things about me (though I’m pretty geeky, so it’s hard to say for sure). And just to be clear, when I say board games, I’m not talking about Candyland and Monopoly. I like games that are challenging and make you think. One of our favorite family activities is to sit down together and play a board game so when I first heard about Robot Turtles I was excited.

Robot Turtles is a board game designed to help teach kids the fundamentals of programming. As a web developer by trade, father of two young kids and avid board gamer, this appealed to me on pretty much every level.

When it was launched on Kickstarter in 2013, Robot Turtles became the best selling board game on Kickstarter (it’s since been surpassed but for a game designed for kids that’s still impressive). The game is designed for kids ages 4+ and anywhere from one to four kids can play at once (they will also need an adult to help facilitate play). Each player is in control of a “robot turtle” which they must guide through an obstacle course designed by an adult (or another child once they’ve got the hang of it). The players do not physically move their turtle but instead play cards with different commands telling the turtle where to go next. The adult then moves the turtle according to their commands.

You can get a good idea of how the game is played in this “How to Play” video.

How to Play

Setup

The game is set up by placing a turtle on a space in one of the corners of the board and then placing that turtle’s corresponding jewel token somewhere on the board. The adult facilitating the game (affectionately known in the game as the “Turtle Mover” can then add a series of obstacles to the board for the player (referred to as the “Turtle Master”) to guide their turtle through. There are several different types of obstacles that can be slowly introduced to not confuse and overwhelm younger players.

Each Turtle Master then takes the deck of cards for their player and separates it into different piles for each type of card. There are 5 different cards the Turtle Maters can use, Move Forward, Turn Right, Turn Left, Laser, and Function Frog. It is recommended to play without the Laser and Function Frog to start and introduce them as players become more comfortable with the game.

Obstacles

  • Stone Walls – stone walls can not be moved or broken
  • Ice Walls – ice walls can be melted by lasers
  • Crates – crates can be pushed by moving into them

Cards

  • Move Forward
  • Turn Right
  • Turn Left
  • Laser – melts ice walls
  • Function Frog – a more advanced card that can be used to represent a repeating sequence of cards

Playing Robot Turtles

Gameplay

Each Turtle Master will take turns playing cards that instruct the Turtle Mover what to do with their turtle. Depending on the age and familiarity with the game of the Turtle Master they may play multiple or just one card at a time. After the Turtle Master plays their cards the Turtle Mover will move their turtle according to the instructions on the card. Players will keep playing cards this way until their turtle makes it to their jewel.

Learning coding through play

It may seem a bit strange to introduce programming concepts to kids without using a computer but I think it provides some advantages. So much of what a computer does appears to be “magic” to people without any programming knowledge or background. Removing the computer from the equation removes this “magical” tool and exposes the fundamentals of what programming is without a device getting in the way.

I R ProgrammerTalking to a Computer

One of the reasons that the “Turtle Masters” don’t move their own turtle after giving it commands is that it helps show the separation between the code (the cards they place down) and the computer (the “Turtle Mover”). This helps teach kids concepts of how to communicate with a computer.

Writing Code

In the same a programmer typically doesn’t built an entire program first before testing it placing a small number of cards down at a time allows kids to see their program develop in small steps and lets them observe what the program is doing as they built it.

Code is a Language

Using simple commands (move forward, turn right, etc.) to control their turtle demonstrates how programming languages speak to computers to make them perform various tasks.

It’s okay to make mistakes

In Robot Turtles if a Turtle Master plays a card that they later realize is incorrect they can tap the “Bug” token and fix their mistake. There is no penalty for doing this, mistakes happen! This teaches kids the skill of reviewing their “code” to see where the mistake was and how to fix it.

Problem Solving

Robot Turtles is ultimately a puzzle game. The puzzle can change each time so players must use critical thinking and logic skills to solve it. Robot Turtles fosters problem solving life skills including

  • Breaking big problems into small steps
  • Working backwards from goal to solution
  • Perseverance and experimentation Patience

Robot Turtles is full of teachable coding skill moments. Laying down cards is writing code, discussing their strategy is commenting code, rearranging cards to fix what didn’t work is debugging.

Robot Turtles game board

Okay, but is it fun?

If you’ve played any kids board games in the past you’ve likely realized that “fun” and “kids game” don’t typically go hand in hand. Most games designed for kids are somewhat painful to play with them (I’m looking at you Candyland…). Robot Turtles was the first game we bought for our kids that I actually enjoyed.

Obviously “fun” is somewhat subjective but I can say that our daughter had a lot of fun playing this game when we first got it. I don’t think we ever had a play session where we only played one time. As she got older and more experienced she enjoyed creating her own obstacle courses as well which added to the fun.

Watching the look on your kids face as they problem solve their way around a tricky obstacle is so much fun.

If you are looking for a game to play with your kids that encourages learning and critical thinking is actually fun to play I highly recommend Robot Turtles. It is a well designed and thought out game that is well worth its relativity cheap price point (around $25 an Amazon). When kids are learning while they think they are just playing, that’s a win!

Robot Turtles, teaching programming to kids

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