Tuesday, August 04, 2015


Unplugged Dilintia: Code Master

As much as I loved Robot Turtles for what it is, there's not a lot I can actually do with it.  It's very much "LOGO for four-year-olds", and since I don't have a four-year-old handy most days, all I can really do is sit it on the shelf and look at it.

So when I saw Code Master in ThinkFun's 2015 catalog, naturally I was excited about it.  Here's a more sort of traditional puzzle game with a programming theme.  I've waited all summer, and even went so far as to bust the doors at Target on the morning of its release.  So is this the programming board game I've been waiting for?

Well, yes and no.

The game is based on traditional state machine diagrams, and before I scare you off, that just means that there are spaces on a gameboard, and there are colored paths connecting them: red, green, and blue.  There are ten maps altogether, all bound up in a neat little booklet, with later maps becoming more complicated and introducing ideas like one-way paths and spaces that lack one or more of the colored paths, limiting your escape options.  Each map has six different level configurations, for a total of 60 levels, ranging from Beginner to Expert.  Every level has a "Guide Scroll", which is a flow chart that you fill in with colored dots to dictate which path your Avatar follows at each step of the process.  The objective is to traverse each map, gathering all of the "power crystals", and ending up at the Portal, which takes you to the next map.

It's a fun game.  The puzzles are challenging, the difficulty ramps up nicely, and it kept me occupied for a good few hours.  But in the back of my mind, I couldn't help thinking that... a lot of these levels don't really feel like programming puzzles.

I was disappointed to discover that the Guide Scrolls for nearly half of the levels are completely straightforward pathfinding puzzles.  There are no loops and no conditional elements; you're just given a handful of tokens that dictate which paths your Avatar can cross, and you have to put them together in the correct order so that it gets all of the crystals and finishes on the portal.  And the more complicated the maps become and the more devious the layouts are, the harder it becomes to logically deduce the route that you need to take, to the point that I was sometimes reduced to brute forcing my solutions -- something I never want to do in any logic game.

I mean, it's a perfectly good puzzle.  There's nothing wrong with a game where the objective is to pick your way through a maze by using limited resources.  The trouble is, that's not really what I think programming is about.  I think that these kinds of challenges are good for a warmup, but they're not what I bought this game for.

Luckily, the other half of the puzzle are what I would call good programming challenges.  Instead of following a straight line, the sequences have points where you check a condition, such as how many crystals you've collected or whether you've landed on a space with a troll on it.  Depending on these conditions, the paths branch off and even loop back on themselves to create more sophisticated behavior.  Instead of having to plot your entire trip in one go, you create smaller movement patterns that repeat until you've achieved a desired effect.  I can see how some players may find thinking in this way more difficult or complicated, but I found myself whizzing through these kinds of puzzles speedily.  When you know what conditions you're aiming for, it's easier to think of your journey in terms of "road marks" and what you want your Avatar to do under certain circumstances.  For example, say you're playing on Scroll 9, which repeats four instructions until you land on an orange troll, then does three more instructions and finishes at the portal.  You can look at the map, figure out which three instructions will take you to the portal from the orange troll, and place those instructions immediately.  Then you just need to work out the four-instruction loop that will take you to the troll.  This kind of planning -- breaking down your task into specific situations and the actions that you need to take in those circumstances -- is more the sort of thing I think about when I'm programming.  And it's awfully satisfying when you work through a program and see how your nested if-then structure takes you on a full circuit of the map and deposits you neatly at the gate using only four commands.

The package itself is pretty good.  Binding the gameboards into a booklet works a lot better than, say, slotting cards into some sort of plastic gameboard, but it does mean that the game's a little less stable in a moving car.  Every map has some cool art to it, and it's fun to flip through them repeatedly as you advance through the levels; the third time you reach Map 4, you'll say, "Oh, the mountain level!  I like that one," and the sixth time you reach Map 9, you'll feel the dread sitting at the bottom of your stomach.  Think Fun claims that the art direction takes inspiration from Minecraft, but to me it more vividly recalls Atari 2600 games and the kinds of board games that were adapted from them back in the 80s, and the instruction manual seems to have the aspect ratio and layout of a classic NES manual.  The playing pieces -- your Avatar and the Portal -- are practically begging for a custom paint job, if you're into that kind of thing.  If I had one complaint, it's that the playing pieces are a bit too big for the gameboard, which makes it hard to fit multiple pieces into the same space on the gameboard.  In fact, it can sometimes block information from view, like which paths leave a space.

All in all, it's not a bad little package.  It's almost like you're getting two games -- one a pathfinding game, and one a programming game.  And I just like the second game better, and I wish there had been less of the first.  But y'know.  I'll take it.


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