Spaceflight Simulator

Every week we try out at least 5 different apps, either on an Android phone or the iPad. They are all free except for the rare occasion when we decide that the paid version will be worth it (e.g. in the case of Plants vs. Zombies). The apps are free usually because they have ads, and often the ads are so frequent and interrupt gameplay so inconveniently that we delete the app altogether. Some apps are free because they are promoting a product, such as all the Lego games. But I was surprised to see that the Spaceflight Simulator app was entirely free. The developer decided to use the mobile version as a free trial, hoping that those who like it will spend money on the Steam or console versions. I hope this monetization model succeeds. Mobile is the obvious place to casually try things with minimal commitment.

The game itself is a stripped-down Kerbal Space Program clone, in which you build rockets out of various components, try to get the rocket into orbit, and ultimately reach other planets. It’s fun for adults and kids but is an absolute sensation with our 7-year-old, who has only ever gotten into orbit once, yet still has a blast just building and testing.

One problem we have with many of the free mobile games (apart from the ads) is how so many of them rely on violence and aggression to play the game. Spaceflight Simulator does have explosions, but they are the negative consequence of poor building, not the objective. Instead of trying to blow up other people’s virtual property, in this game you inadvertently blow up your own creation. So the child still gets the little thrill of seeing a crash, but not the reinforcement equating violence with success.

The interface is very simple and plain. Anyone who wants the garishness of games such as Candy Crush will be disappointed.

The game is great way to teach physics and basic engineering, and I would recommend it to anyone looking for STEM/STEAM-type apps.

On Google Play Store
On Apple iTunes

Games World of Puzzles


Games Magazine has been around for 40 years. I was around 8 when I started getting it. I couldn’t do most of the puzzles in there but enjoyed the ones I could, and strived to do better each issue and try new puzzles. The format of the magazine has changed quite a bit since those early days and gone are some of my favorite sections, such as the Hidden Content. Also, they have since merged with World of Puzzles magazine to become ‘Games World of Puzzles’.

But the magazine is still the single source for puzzles by the best puzzle designers in the country. No other magazine or website comes anywhere close to having the wealth of styles and quality as Games.

They have finally updated their website where you can get a sense of what the issues are like.

Games Magazine - Games World of Puzzles

An issue typically has lots of standard pencil puzzles (crosswords) more challenging ‘cryptic crosswords’ (like the kind you see in the Times of London) and unique puzzles such as solo battleships and many others. There are also brain teasers, logic puzzles. And also game reviews (both board and electronic) and contests. There are also usually two pages devoted to kids’ games, which are easier versions of some of their standard puzzles.

It’s a magazine that can sit on the coffee table for weeks with something for just about everyone in the family. An annual subscription is a good gift for a precocious child, and is a good alternative to videogames.

Plants vs. Zombies

We didn’t even had kids yet when this game first came out. And there is a whole group of elementary school-age kids who can now rediscover what was a huge hit back in 2009/2010.

I think it’s one of the great games, in terms of theme, design, and extensive gameplay. There is probably 100 hours worth of gameplay with all the mini-games, and it has high reply value.

The basic mechanic is ‘tower defense’ but with weaponized plants being the towers and zombies being the invaders. I would argue that the game teaches concepts such as planning ahead, rationing resources, and basic intuitive math.

We don’t like our kids playing violent games, but zombies are already dead, so it doesn’t matter. Also, the zombies are aggressive as they try to eat our brains, so we have the moral high ground in blasting them with frozen peas. And a cute little cartoon plant is so far removed from the realistic-looking weapons in other games that I don’t have a problem with the violence at all.

The game is available on just about every platform and there are free versions for Android and iOS with some ads (you watch an to get extra powers, such as a rake that a zombie steps on to decapitate himself).

The sequel has gotten mixed reviews (made by a different developer who had bought the rights to the first one) but we haven’t tried it.

Kratts’ Creatures – Zoboomafoo – Wild Kratts

It all started when brothers Martin and Chris Kratt grew up in New Jersey, went camping, and took some pictures of local wildlife. This blossomed into lifelong love of nature and specifically of documenting it and sharing their knowledge and enthusiasm.

Their first show together was Kratts’ Creatures in 1996. They evolved the concept a bit and ran Zoboomafoo in 1999, Be the Creature in 2003, and Creature Adventures in 2008. They have been making the current incarnation, Wild Kratts since 2011. This more recent version has much more animation, which my kids find appealing. (They aren’t so interested in long-form nature documentaries with nothing but video clips of animals)

The older content, such as the Zoboomafoo series, has aged well (although the brothers themselves are visibly much younger) and I’ve found used DVDs for very cheap. (The hard part about DVDs these days is finding a working player).

There are also several free onlne spinoff games on PBS Kids Games. Monkey Mayhem is my kids’ favorite.

There are also lots of books based on Wild Kratts and even action figures, and even also a live stage show!

The Kratt Brothers’ enthusiasm is infectious and I find myself jealous that these guys can travel the world, making a living from doing what they love.

The videos and everything they do is wholesome, entertaining, and educational. It’s the kind of thing I have no hesitation of letting my kids watch during their allocated screen time.

There are free videos, games, and other activities on the Wild Kratts website at PBS kids dot org.
(The games are all done in HTML5 so they work on all types of computer, iPad, etc. with no need for the now-deprecated Flash plugin.)

LEGO Scooby-Doo and the Haunted Isle

My kids didn’t even know who Scooby-Doo was before stumbling across this game while looking for Lego-related apps.

The game is rated 10+ but we tried it anyway and I haven’t seen anything particularly ‘mature’ about it and our 4-year-old enjoys it without being scared (and this is someone who is sometimes scared of things on Sesame Street)

This is an official Lego app, and has the quality is consistent with all other Lego products I’ve seen. And like most other Lego apps, this is free, without ads, because the game itself is promoting the Lego sets.

The game itself is a platformer with some simple fighting of monsters in order to collect keys – a basic premise, but done well and manages to be not frustrating for younger kids while not boring for older ones.

Once a Pawn a Time

I’ve heard of chess prodigies as young as 6 and have played chess against 6- and 7-year-olds who knew what they were doing and were even able to beat me (although I’m not a great player). So I was eager to introduce chess to our oldest at that age. Once a Pawn a Time was a gift that arrived at the right time, when I was considering buying a set anyway.

The game includes a standard board and pieces as well as two books that explain the rules in a fun, kid-friendly way, by anthropomorphizing the pieces and by introducing the rules slowly, one-at-a-time. I’ve seen kids get overwhelmed by the number of rules and the amount of abstract thinking that chess requires, so this method of explanation seemed good to me. Our older kids took to it right away, choosing to read the books and learn the rules even when the board and pieces were not at hand. And they talked incessantly about chess for many days after.

It turns out that our kids are not quite as precocious as I had assumed they would be and the rules took a while to sink in, and I still have to sometimes remind them of certain details (en passant in particular) but other aspects seem very easy to them, such as visualizing which squares the knights are attacking. All kids are different of course.

We use the board and pieces for lots of inventive play – playing checkers using nickels and pennies, or adding extra pieces such as Star Wars figures or Hot Wheels cars to the board and giving them special abilities. Chess can seem dour and serious, but it can also be lighthearted and silly.

Many months later, we don’t read the Once a Pawn a Time books anymore but we still pull the board and pieces out every other week or so. We keep it on a shelf in the living room, so it benefits from high visibility. I love that we can sometimes take 15 minutes to play a quick game in the morning when there’s time between breakfast and catching the bus.

Even if you don’t buy this particular one, get a chess set if you don’t have one. I feel every home with kids ought to have a chess set. It’s one of those obligatory possessions along with a copy of Goodnight Moon or a teddy bear.

Count Your Chickens

Peaceable Kingdom has something of a corner on the market for ‘cooperative games’. These are games where everyone playing either wins together or loses together. There are no individual winners or losers.

I had a conversation with a friend a while ago and he was saying how important playing sports was for kids. They learn teamwork, reliance on others, etc. I agreed but suggested that playing in a school orchestra or band can be just as good for teaching those concepts. And music has one advantage over sports in that performing is not about winning and losing, which is not how most situations work in life. Instead, everyone in a band contributes and the group’s success is determined by the participation of everyone. These Peaceable Kingdom games are meant to promote that idea. They have lots of similar board games with the same idea.

So, the cooperative game we got was ‘Count your Chickens’. Kids take turns moving chicks into the coop, and if all 20 make it in before mama hen gets home, everyone wins. Otherwise, everyone loses. We have one child who is particularly competitive, overly competitive, and we had hoped this game would offer an alternative to the zero-sum attitude. Whether it has or not, who knows. But everyone likes it regardless.

The pieces are pretty cheaply made – like a dollar’s worth of cardboard and ink – but the game was a hit and the kids continue pulling it out every now and then. The game is so simple, on the level of ‘Candy Land’, but also includes a counting component that makes the game educational even if you don’t care about the collaborative aspect.

Block Craft 3D

This is essentially a clone of Minecraft and the main reason to play this is if you want to play Minecraft but don’t want to pay for it. It’s a pretty faithful copy with some slight differences and is close enough to the original that even kids who have played real Minecraft should have fun with this one.

The game has ads but they are not intrusive – certainly much less annoying than the ads on most other free phone games I’ve played.

The game gets 4.5/5 on Google Play and 4.9/5 on iTunes and is one of the top results when searching for “minecraft” or “minecraft clone” or “free minecraft”

We actually have a Minecraft account but still play Blockcraft for 2 reasons:

• Blockcraft is slightly simpler than Minecraft, which means the interface is less complex, which means the screen is less cluttered. Minecraft is great on a large screen but can be a bit frustrating on the small screen of a phone, while Blockcraft is a little easier to manipulate.

• The newer versions of Minecraft seem to emphasize all the ways you can destroy things with T.N.T., fire, etc. while the emphasis on Blockcraft seems more about the building. What we were looking for in the first place, when we first used Minecraft, was “virtual legos” and Blockcraft actually satisfies that description a bit better than Minecraft. (Lego also has good, free games that let you play virtual legos, My kids’ favorite is “Lego City 2”)

Block Craft 3D on Google Play for Android devices

Block Craft 3D on iTunes for Apple devices

Blockcraft is made by (I believe) a Brazilian developer that calls itself TFG.co and they make a lot of games for older kids (i.e. violent games). You can read more about Blockcraft on their site

Minecraft’s developer, Mojang, was bought by Microsoft for $2.5 billion in 2014, and I had assumed they would use their new pile of cash to sue developers such as TFG.co since the latter is so obviously ripping off Minecraft and is surely denying Microsoft revenue, but I haven’t heard about a lawsuit yet.

Robot Turtles board game

This is a clever game that got a lot of media attention when it came out, touting its ability to teach STEM concepts, specifically logical thinking.

The box says for ages 4 and up but I don’t think 4-year-olds are able to grasp all the rules of the game, which are a bit complicated even for me. However, once we laid out all the pieces, we came up with all sorts of new games to play and had quite a lot of fun building ‘snow forts’ and taking turns trying to move the ‘lasers’ around in order to melt them.

My son got quite obsessed with the game in fact, even though we had yet to actually play it according to the official rules, and every day for about a week he wanted to play again, until he eventually got tired of it. It sits prominently on a shelf in the living room and we’ll get it down again soon. The reason we haven’t yet is because the rules are complex enough that an adult has to sit with the kids and walk them through each step.

Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus! board game

This is based on a book by Mo Willems. None of us were familiar with his stuff until after we got the game, but that didn’t matter.

The box says it’s for ages 3 and up, but the rules are too complicated for our 3-year-old. However, the board and pieces lend themselves to making up new rules and we’ve been able to have fun playing the game even when skipping some of the rules.

The box also says for 2 to 4 players, but it’s not much fun with only 2 players. It’s much better with 4. So I wouldn’t advise this game if it’s just going to be, for example, one parent and one child playing.

The spinner is cheaply made and was sometimes frustrating to spin, but generally the look and feel of the board and pieces are very appealing to children and they wanted to play it as soon as they saw it, even without any understanding of what the rules were.