Blocksworld

What is it

Blocksworld (not to be confused with similarly-titled games such as “block world”) is one of many Minecraft-inspired games, but Blocksworld stands apart in the quality of the game, the number of features, and the implicit instruction of programming fundamentals.

What Lego is to Minecraft, Duplo is to Blocksworld.

Who is it for

The game is complex enough to be fun and satisfying for almost any age. The controls are simple enough that kids as young as five can get something out of it.

There is a social component to the game, where users can share their creations. While a nice idea, this can lead to some inappropriate creations being available to everyone. Blocksworld has moderators to sift out the inappropriate stuff, but parents should be aware that sometimes nasty things get through.

What Kids Like

This is currently my kids’ favorite game. They would spend ten hours a day playing it. It’s very easy to build stuff, and not just static things like buildings, but driveable cars with lasers and the like. There are the usual game components such as credits and badges and levels, which help motivate and get a sense of accomplishment.

What Parents Like

My favorite aspect is the pseudo-coding that the game uses to give functionality to the creations. If you build a car with laser beams, you need to “program” how the car and lasers operate. This kid of coding is perfect to teach kids fundamentals of programming.

There are so many STEM apps out there, and most of them fail because they try to teach overtly. But most kids don’t want a game that teaches coding. They want a game that is fun, where the teaching is implicit.

The best educational games are those where the education happens in the background. People who played RISK! or Axis & Allies as kids know world geography, not because they were explicitly taught, but because knowing that stuff helped in playing the game.

What the Critics Think

The critics don’t seem to like the game as much as I or my kids do.

6/10 Steam
3.8/5 iTunes – Apple
3.1/5 Apprview.com

A review at gameslikefinder.com
and one at GeekDad

Concerns/Flaws

A couple things:

• Wow, so many ads! This game has more ads than other games I let my kids play. I allow it because I think the game has enough merits, but the volume of ads is a concern. And since you don’t know what ads are going to be displayed, you need to supervise the kid a bit more than you would otherwise.

• The social/sharing/multiplayer/community feature is well-done. The kids are motivated to share their creations and see what other kids have built. But it’s not hard to imagine what happens when some middle-schoolers find out that they can upload their “Momo” or “Evil Elmo” creations. Blocksworld has moderators who flag this stuff, and it’s generally a safe environment for kids, but again, supervision is strongly recommended.

Who Made it

Blocksworld is made by Linden Lab, A.K.A. Linden Research, Inc., who are best known as the creators of Second Life.

Most Minecraft-like games are made by random teenagers learning to program, but Linden is a group of very experienced developers, and their experience is evident in the quality of the game.

History

From the Blocksworld Wikipedia page:

Blocksworld was initially developed by Swedish independent video game developer Boldai, which was acquired by U.S.-based Linden Lab in early 2013.[3] An earlier version of the game was briefly available in 2012 in Sweden, Iceland, Finland, Denmark and Norway.[4] However, for the subsequent global release, the game was repositioned as a freemium offering where players have the option to purchase premium sets and games, additional building objects and pieces, coins, and other upgrades and extras for a small fee.

Virtual coins serve as the in-game currency, which can be either purchased via the in-app shop or rewarded through various community actions such as having creations rated via stars.

Players used have the option to pay 7.99 (US) or (CAD) dollars for Blocksworld Premium, which gives an infinite amount of designated blocks. Now, Blocksworld Premium is a subscription which has to be paid monthly/yearly and gives more benefits than the original Blocksworld Premium.

In September 2017, Blocksworld was released on Steam, prior to that, you could only play it on your browser or on your mobile device.

Where Can I Get it

Blocksworld is not available for Android, but is for iOS and is now on Steam as well.

The Battle of Polytopia

What is it
The Battle of Polytopia (or simply, “Polytopia”) is a free (ad-free as well) turn-based mobile strategy game.

Who is it for

Winning the game requires some strategic thinking and there is some very mild cartoon violence (about as much violence as in a game of chess) so I would put the lower limit around 7 years old. It’s fun for adults as well, so no upper limit on age.

If you or your child is a fan of Age of Empires, Civilization, or similar resource-management, leveling-up, strategic conquest kinds of games, this is the same but simplified, optimized, and minimized so that you can play on a small screen.

What Kids Like

The game is very addictive. The gameplay is very well-balanced so “just getting by” is possible with some effort but really winning can be tough.

The graphics are very appealing.

What Parents Like

I like that it’s free, with no ads. Too many games (even many paid ones) are full of ads. Polytopia makes revenue by charging for the online multiplayer option or for letting a player buy a tribe that is unavailable in the free version. The game clearly states that the multiplayer option requires spending “real money” so kids won’t be tricked into thinking that they can get it via credits earned in-game.

You can still play “hot-seat” multiplayer games for free, handing the device back and forth in a way that feels like playing chess.

And the game is just fun, very well-polished and balanced in a way few other mobile games are.

What the Critics Think

Apple/iOS/iTunes gives it 4.7/5 stars

as does the Google/Android Play store

The Battle of Polytopia wins gold in Lovie Awards 2018

The game has attracted a large following and there is now a subreddit and a fan wiki

Concerns/Flaws

Being free and ad-free, I have none of the usual complaints about the apps I let my children use. The theme is of conquest, so there is the suggestion of violence, but not more than you have in chess or checkers, or even tic-tac -toe.

The only real complaint is that in fitting a complex game into a simple mobile-friendly interface, the developers packed a lot of detail into the little isometric tiles. You sometimes have to look very closely to see where your players are.

Who Made it / History

Polytopia was made by a Swedish developer and released in 2016.

From the wiki:

The Battle of Polytopia, formerly known as Super Tribes, is a turn-based world-building strategy game developed by Midjiwan AB. The player leads one of fourteen Tribes to conquer a square-shaped world by capturing Cities. Cities earn Stars that can be used to research Technology, train Units to engage in Combat, and develop the surrounding Terrain to gain Population. Be warned, however: the more Cities that are added to the empire, the higher the cost of technological research… and the greater the area that must be protected from the endless onslaught of the other tribes!

You may play in Single player, where the goal of the game is either to gain the highest possible score in 30 turns (Perfection), or to destroy all opposing tribes (Domination).

Alternatively, you could engage in a local multiplayer “Pass & Play” with your friends, or connect with them online and play games from the comfort of your homes!

Where Can I Get it

iTunes for iOS

Google Play store for Android

and Steam will have a desktop version in ‘early 2019’

Duolingo

Duolingo

I often have a desire to better myself, but being extremely lazy I seldom make the time. So it’s good for me every time I stumble across a “life hack” that offers a positive change for minimal investment of time or effort. The first such thing I tried was the “7-minute workout“, which is essentially just good, old-fashioned calisthenics, in 30-second sets. It’s a good workout and seems to be at least as beneficial as running a few miles, which is usually too much of a commitment for me to make.

Another one of these life-hacks is Duolingo, which operates on the premise that you only learn effectively in 10-minute chunks. Trying to do more than that has diminishing returns – it’s a waste of time to try to cram for two hours when only that first ten minutes will be effective. I’ve been using Duolingo for several months and can vouch for its ease and effectiveness.

What is it
Duolingo is a free (ad-based) language learning app available on all platforms, including a website. They offer dozens of languages.

Who is it for
It doesn’t seem geared for any particular age group, but a child using it needs to be a competent reader in English, since most of the prompts in the app are written English. Our 7-year-old is a good reader and has been using Duolingo to learn French.

What Kids Like
The interface is heavily gamified, with constant feedback, badges, leveling-up, etc. So there is continual affirmation and a sense of progress.

They see it as yet another game, yet instead of learning about how to defeat zombies or level up their spaceship, they are learning a foreign language.

All instruction is passive and indirect. There is no overt instruction – no lectures, only translation of words and sentences. If you translate correctly, you get a happy chime and your progress bar goes up. If you fail, you get a chance to try again and you can’t complete the level until all the sentences in the level have been translated correctly.

What Parents Like
I like that it works and I need to do nothing to motivate my child since the app is fun on its own. I like that there is an app on my phone that I can share with my child that isn’t yet another game or Youtube, or whatever.

The interface is really one of the most effective teaching environments I’ve ever seen. I wonder whether other subjects could be taught this way.

What the Critics Think

iTunes users rate it 4.7/5 as do users on Android

Language-learning site Fluent in 3 Months has a review https://www.fluentin3months.com/duolingo/ and gives the app 4 out of 5 stars

PCMag gives it 4.5 stars

Concerns/Flaws

My complaint is that not all language courses on Duolingo are good. The Chinese one, for example, is terrible. I think the Duolingo interface works best with Roman alphabet languages. Trying to learn Arabic, Russian, or any Asian language will be a challenge – too big of a challenge for a kid because they have to learn the alphabet as well as the vocabulary and grammar.

Who Made it

Duolingo is based in Pittsburgh and was started in 2011. There are currently 300 million users

Where Can I Get it

Download from iTunes or the Google Play Store
or just visit the Duolingo site

Dig Out!

What is it

Dig Out! is an app game on Android and iOS. Control a miner in a 2D world, digging gems while avoiding falling boulders and monsters. The game is similar to many others I’ve seen, but this one is polished and developed much more, giving it high replay value.

The game has an infinite number of randomly generated maps, ways to level up and trap monsters, and competitive leaderboard to compete with others or against previous scores.

Who is it for

Anyone can play, but from my experience, the age that enjoys it the most is 6 to 9.

Apple rates the game 9+ while Google rates it Everyone. Our 7-year-old loves it.

What Kids Like

I should point out that of all the games we’ve downloaded to the tablet or phone over the past year or so, this is one of the top 5 that gets replayed the most. (Others include Tiny Rails, Plants vs. Zombies, Whoowasit, Clumsy Ninja, and of course, Minecraft).

I’m not sure what the kids like exactly, but I think it’s the random generation of levels that keeps it fresh, along with the simplicity of the controls. Also, the game permits very quick games or extended ones.

The graphics are very appealing as well.

What Parents Like

Although one aspect of the game is crushing enemies under rocks, the cartoony graphics and otherwise non-violent content makes the game harmless fun.

There is not much to the game in terms of education, other than the kind of problem-solving in most computer games.

What the Critics Think

The game gets 4.6/5 on iTunes and 4.5/5 on the Play Store

Concerns/Flaws

The game is not educational, doesn’t encourage cooperation or anything like that. It’s “just” fun.

The game has ads and in-app purchases, so parents need to keep an eye on that.

Who Made it/History

Dig Out! was made by ZiMAD, an established Russian game developer best known for their Magic Jigsaw Puzzles

The game was launched in 2016 and has been tweaked multiple times since then.

Where Can I Get it

Available on Apple’s iTunes for iOS and Google’s Play Store for Android.

Clumsy Ninja

This is one of the many games the kids have tried on the iPad and the Android phone, and months later they still play it.

What is it

The free ‘action-adventure’ game shows a 3d character dressed as a ninja who reacts to the user’s actions in the same way used in the ‘ragdoll physics’ games from a few years ago.

The player can pick him up, give him high-fives, throw objects at him, tie balloons to him to make him float. Each action has the potential to help ‘train’ the ninja, earning points, leveling up, etc. There is a narrative in the game, about getting the ninja to find a missing friend, but that is not overt.

Most of the actual gameplay is flicking balls and other stuff at the character to make him dodge them.

Who is it for

The game is rated ‘family’/’everyone’ and is very G-rated. There is the violence of throwing objects at a virtual character, or dropping him from heights, but it’s very cartoony and not violent like many other games are.

What Kids Like

The kids seem to like the toy aspect of the game rather than the narrative. They like playing with a virtual doll. And they like earning points they can use to ‘buy’ new objects. They also like competing against each other to see who can get to a certain level first.

What Parents Like

It’s not a game that I have any interest in playing, but it seems like harmless fun for the kids.

What the Critics Think

MacWorld rates the game 3.5/5. They have a lengthy review.

That rating seems unfair given that the game gets 4.8/5 on iTunes and 4.4 on the Play Store. And the game was an iTunes ‘editor’s pick’

Concerns/Flaws

The game used to have ads, including those awful ‘watch to earn’ ads. The latest version of the game is supposed to have removed those.

There are also in-app purchases, which is presumably how the developers make money, so you have to be careful to restrict that action on your devices.

Who Made it

Clumsy Ninja is made by NaturalMotion, who also makes games such as “Dawn of Titans” and “My Horse”

History

The game was first released in 2013 and is the first mobile game to use the Euphoria game engine

Where Can I Get it

iTunes for iPad and iPhone

Google Play Store for Android devices

Whoowasit?

What is it

Whoowasit? is a board game as well as an app where players work together to win. Unlike most games that are essentially zero-sum (a player can win only when another player loses), Whoowasit? is collaborative and players either win or lose together.

The game is a bit like Clue or Cluedo in that the players have to deduce who the culprit is based on limited clues.

Here’s the description from BoardGameGeek:

In Whoowasit?, players must find the magical ring that was stolen from the wise king by the evil wizard. Playing against a running clock, players move their playing pieces through the various rooms on the game board to uncover clues to who stole the precious gem. Along the way, talking animals help players solve the mystery of the stolen item with the help of a treasure chest that randomly supplies clues on behalf of the animals. Whenever players meet animals, they must feed them so the animals — that can only be understood by children — can provide the clues that advance gameplay. The clues supplied by the electronic treasure chest ensure that no two games are alike. All players must work together to find the stolen ring, and they win or lose as a group, depending on whether they can master an assigned task.

Who is it for

The game is recommended for gaes 7 and up, but kids as young as 4 enjoy it, even if they don’t quite get all the strategy.

What Kids Like

Our kids love it and ask to play it on the iPad all the time.

The theme of a cursed castle with an evil wizard and helpful fairy and talking animals are fun and keep them playing.

The level of logical thinking required is also just right for kids – complex enough to be stimulating but not so complex that it becomes boring.

The length of the game is just right as well. The players sometimes lose but the game is quick enough that they can just try again. A longer game would be frustrating to lose, after having spent so much time on it.

What Parents Like

Our kids (like kids in most families) sometimes have trouble sharing and sometimes compete with each other a little too fiercely. Whoowasit?, by forcing them to work together, lets them see the benefits of doing so.

It’s also nice to have a game that is one with wits, not with agility, and is an alternative to all the building games our kids like.

What the Critics Think

The original board game won the ‘Most successful board game’ in 2008 and 2009 in Germany, was the 2011 Disney FamilyFun Toy of the Year, the 2011 Creative Child Magazine Game of the Year, and the 2011 National Parenting Center Seal of Approval.

Concerns/Flaws

I can’t think of any flaws.

The developers did lose a chance to broaden the theme when they made the app version. A board game, by necessity, has a limited theme because it can only have one board and only so many tokens. But the app version could have had multiple locations and characters. Even if the gameplay remained the same, a new location would help keep the game fresh.

Who Made it

Ravensburger (ravensburger.com) is a very established game and puzzle company based in Germany. They are well-known for their 3D puzzles and games such as Labyrinth, Make ‘n’ Break, and Scotland Yard.

Where Can I Get it

The original electronic board game is out of print as far as I can tell, but the app version is available in iTunes and the Google Play Store