bot.land

What is it:

“An online strategy game with a focus on automation”

bot.land is a free (and ad-free) game where you design robots to fight other robots. The design takes the form of drag-and-drop code blocks, similar to Scratch and other kid-oriented programming environments. The game is multiplayer and allows you to compete against AIs or other players.

Who is it for:

The game is for anyone who can think abstractly enough to code virtual robots (perhaps 8 or 9 and older) and who enjoys battling virtual robots. The coding is not complex but would be frustrating for younger kids.

Many older kids and adults would enjoy this as well.

What Kids Like:

My kids are motivated by the idea of building a robot army that crushes the opposition, motivated enough to figure out how to do the necessary coding.

What Parents Like:

I like that there is a bottom-up way to teach programming concepts. That is, rather than watching a lecture and then doing an exercise, bot.land presents open scenarios and it’s up to the player to figure out the best way to win.

Being free and ad-free is a big plus as well.

If you find your kid likes this game, you might want to also look at Adventuron and Puzzlescript

What the Critics Think:

The Apple store gives it 4.4/5 (and rates it 12+)

The Google store gives it 4.1/5

on Steam it has a rating of 78%

(these three average to ~82.7% or ~4.1/5)

Concerns/Flaws:

The learning curve is challenging. There is not a lot of explanation and the first few levels feel like a sink or swim situation. Unless the user is highly motivated they won’t stick with it.

Who Made it, History:

bot.land is a group project by xtonomous and has been in active development since 2015

Makers’ itch.io profile

Where Can I Get it:

main site at https://bot.land/

on iTunes

Google Play

Steam

itch.io has more information, user comments, and links

Prodigy math game

What is it

Prodigy is an online game that relies on math to engage in battles with fantasy creatures. The game is a MORPG (multiplayer online role-playing game) and there is a limited social element where players can interact with other players. The game is free but the user is occasionally bombarded with in-game ads for the full membership.

Membership costs $8.95 per month or $59.88 per year. Membership removes ads and allows the player to do additional things in the game. These things (e.g. permitting a player to have more than 8 in-game pets) seem trivial to me but may matter to kids.

Prodigy is essentially gamified flash cards. Prodigy does not teach math, but instead drills players with grade-appropriate questions. Getting the question correct allows the in-game character to use some kind of spell in a battle. Winning battles earns credits, which can be used to level up armor, buy pets, etc.

Who is it for

Our kids don’t play any other MORPGs, so this is the game that permits them to have that experience. A kid who already plays online RPGs would probably find Prodigy to be inferior.

The educational part of the game is essentially identical to ALEKS. But while ALEKS has almost zero visual design or user feedback, Prodigy has loads. So a kid who needs/wants math drills but is frustrated by the flaws in ALEKS, might enjoy Prodigy.

Prodigy is in no way a substitute for a math course. It is useful as an ancillary activity, reinforcing the concepts that a child has learned elsewhere.

What Kids Like

My kids loathe ALEKS and love Prodigy. They enjoy the virtual environment, having an in-game character that they can name, dress, etc. They like all the game aspects of leveling up and earning credits. The math part is sometimes frustrating – because there is never explanation of how to solve the problems – but the fun of the game is usually enough to motivate them to continue.

What Parents Like

I like that instead of just playing a game, the kids are getting some math practice. We’ve tried other forms of math exercise, but Prodigy is the only one anyone has stuck with.

I have not used these features, but Prodigy allows parents to set goals for the kids, and set the rewards. It also allows parents to monitor progress and receive Report Cards.

What the Critics Think

Prodigy has loads of critics. The fact that the game does not actually teach anything, and solely relies on drills, is a frustrating surprise for some.

Common Sense Media has very mixed reviews, but ultimately gives Prodigy 4/5 stars.

Concerns/Flaws

• The excessive pressure to buy a membership can be annoying. There are not ads for other things, as there are in many of the apps my kids play, but still the ads for Prodigy membership may be enough reason to not play it.

• The game relies on a thirst for violent competition. The violence is very cartoon-y, without blood or gore. And the competition is not really different from what you would see in a game of chess.

However, most math-education tools/games rely on the desire to solve problems as the motivator. Prodigy uses the desire to win as the motivator. This may seem a subtle distinction, but it will appeal greatly to some students and not at all to others.

Who Made it / History

Prodigy was founded in 2011 by Rohan Mahimker, Alex Peters and is now developed and maintained by a rather large (70+) team based in Toronto.

Where Can I Get it

The Prodigy game website

Brain Bashers

What is it

Brain Bashers is a collection of free logic puzzles updated every day.

The puzzles come in easy, medium, and hard varieties and are implemented in JavaScript so can be played on any computer or smart phone.

Puzzles include: Sudoku, 3-In-A-Row, ABC Path, ABC View, Battleships, Bridges, CalcuDoku, Fillomino, Futoshiki, Hitori, Kakurasu, Killer Sudoku, Light Up, MathemaGrid, Neighbours, Net Slide, Network, Nonogrids, Nurikabe, Range, Skyscrapers, Slants, Slitherlink, Sudoku, Tents, Tracks, and Web Words.

Most of these are so-called Japanese-style paper-and-pencil logic puzzles that you see in many newspapers.


Who is it for

Anyone who likes puzzles will like the site. Kids need to be old enough to think abstractly so I would say 7+ for some of the easier variants of the simpler types of puzzles.

What Kids Like

Puzzles are fun, and kids like mini-challenges that don’t take much time but make them feel smart.

Web Words is fun. The New York Times has a similar (and slicker) version of this, called Spelling Bee.

Nonogrids is like a paint-by-number puzzle.

The site also has various brain teasers, optical illusions, and word puzzles.

The site also saves your progress, if you want, without requiring an account.

What Parents Like

It’s free! And there is a huge amount of content. You could spend hours every single day on the site since it’s updated daily. I have to assume the creator has a program that generates all the puzzles automatically.

Logic puzzles are a great way of exercising the brain and I’m happy to let my kids spend as much time as they like on it.

Many sites have logic puzzles on them, but require you to print them out. Brain Bashers let you play right on the screen

Concerns/Flaws

The interface has not changed all that much since it was started and it now seems a bit clunky, and not quite as mobile-friendly as other sites. This site really ought to be an app at this point.

Who Made it / History

The site began as Puzzles4U way back in 1997 by Kevin Stone

More here

Adventuron

What is it

Adventuron is a free web-based coding environment for creating text-based games.

The games created in Adventuron are similar to the classic Infocom text-based games such as Zork or Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. (My personal favorite from that era was “Infidel”)

Who is it for

The user needs to be able to read at a 3rd- or 4th-grade level to get much out of this. There is a fair bit of documentation, and the code itself requires accurate spelling.

Some adults will have fun with this as well.

What Kids Like

Kids always like making their own games, whether its coming up for new rules for ‘Tag’ or for a board game that’s missing half its pieces. Most programmers I know got their start and developed their initial interest in programming by making computer games. Unlike developing high-end console games, though, creating simple text-based adventures is easy enough that an entire (simple, but complete) game can be created in a few hours with Adventuron.

There are other game-making tools out there. PuzzleScript is one, that creates simple 8-bit style puzzle games. And MIT’s Scratch is another. As is Blocksworld

Choicescript is another interface for creating text-based games, but the coding for Choicescript is a bit more advanced and the games are more like interactive novels than text-based games.

What Parents Like

I like that this system teaches actual programming concepts. Most junior programming environments have a drag-and-drop interface, which is a fun and easy introduction to programming, but such an interface is limited in how much the child can do, and it doesn’t teach aspects of coding such as the importance of syntax.

In Adventuron, variable names have to be spelled correctly and a stray quotation mark, or missing semicolon can mess up everything – just like with real code.

I also like that the games created are not violent. The games require typing answers and so can not include the kind of violence seen in most computer games.

What the Critics Think

Adventuron came out in 2019 and there doesn’t seem to be much awareness of it yet.

A more thorough review and description of Adventuron is here

Concerns/Flaws

Some kids just won’t care for text-based games, so won’t have any interest in trying to create them. Modern games are so sophisticated compared to older ones and most kids I know are so used to sophisticated graphics that they just don’t have any interest in the 8-bit style.

The coding is potentially frustrating. Because the child writes actual code (mostly defining arrays and if-then conditionals) there is necessarily some debugging aspect. Introducing this kind of experience to a child before they are ready can backfire and they could end up thinking that writing code is just too hard for them. For a child with no coding experience, I would advise starting with Scratch or something similar and then graduating to Adventuron once they have a little mastery over writing code.

Who Made it/History

Adventuron Software Limited is based in the UK (Ireland, I believe) and has been developing the software since 2017

Where Can I Get it

Play some sample games:

The Beast of Torrack Moor (30th Anniversary)
Excalibur: Sword of Kings (TALP)
The Path
Hamurabi

Visit the creator website

And try out the “Classroom” where you can get started.

Machinarium – Amanita Design

What is it

Machinarium is a point-and-click adventure game featuring a cute robot solving puzzles in a beautifully-drawn quasi-steampunk city.

Who is it for

It’s for anyone, young and old, but some of the puzzles are pretty tricky and even precocious children under 7 or so would need some grown-up help. But it’s a great game to play with a child.

What Kids Like

The character is cute, the atmosphere is immersive and captivating, and most of the puzzles are very satisfying. There is no speed/dexterity component, so players do not need to rush and can go at their own pace.

What Parents Like

The puzzles make you feel smart when you figure them out, so the game feels almost educational. It is aesthetic, and as stated above, is a good game for an adult to play with a kid. The music, by Tomáš Dvořák, is fun, happy, and pleasant.

It’s been at least 15 years since the ‘Golden Age of free Flash web games’ if there ever were such a time, back when Homestar Runner was the best thing on the Web, and Machinarium came out toward the end of that era. There were so many Flash games that I loved that my kids won’t ever see because Flash will no longer be available soon, but thankfully there are some relics of that period, such as Machinarium, that remain.

I also like the Eastern European aesthetic of the game. The developers of Machinarium, Amanita Design, are Czech, and the look and feel of the game, the characters, the puzzles have a quality that is simply different from the American and Japanese games that flood the market.

What the Critics Think

Machinarium gets 9/10 on Steam, 4.6/5 on Google’s Play Store for Android, 4.3/5 on Apple’s iTunes for iOS, and 4.6/5 on Jay is games, which also has a nice write-up of the game.

  • IGF 2009, Excellence in Visual Art Award
  • Nomination for 13th Annual Interactive Achievement Awards (DICE Awards)
  • Gamasutra, Best Indie Game Of 2009
  • VGChartz.com, Best Indie Game Of 2009
  • PC Gamer, Best Soundtrack of 2009

In 2011, Adventure Gamers named Machinarium the 17th-best adventure game ever released.

Concerns/Flaws

The only complaint is that some of the puzzles have the quality common to point-and-click type games, where you sometimes have to click on just the right pixel to prompt a reaction and there is sometimes a lot of frantic clicking trying to find that one spot.

Who Made it/History

Machinarium was the first full-length game, made in 2009 by Amanita Design, based in Brno, Czech Republic (more on Wikipedia) after years of success with shorter games such as their Samorost series

Where Can I Get it

You can play the free demo online using Flash. You may need to activate the Flash plugin in your browser.

The full set of links (Humble Bundle, Steam, iOS, Android) is on the Machinarium page

The game is going for $10 these days. If you don’t want to spend any money, or want more of a preview, check out Amanita’s other games, such as the free Samorost or The Quest for the Rest

Puzzlescript

What is it

PuzzleScript is an open-source HTML5 puzzle game engine. Open-source here means that it is completely free and all code is visible to anyone who wants to learn from it. HTML5 is what we used to call DHTML back in the day, and essentially means it’s made with JavaScript, and runs in a web browser. Puzzle game, meaning that the games produced are of the logical variety, as opposed to the action kind. And game engine means that the PuzzleScript libraries include all the logic you need to make a game. You don’t need to do any base-level coding, just design the levels and configure the libraries.

Visit the PuzzleScript site for more

Puzzlescript is JavaScript-based game engine that is very easy to use and is a great way to introduce people to programming. Just about everyone I know who is paid to write code got their start because they were motivated to create games.

Puzzlescript games are very blocky and retro-looking, which may not appeal to kids used to the cinematic look of modern video games, but that is part of the price of having such a simple engine.


[typical puzzlescipt game screenshot]

Many of the games are good, however. Most are of the “sokoban” push-the-blocks around type.

Some examples are “Flying Kick” by Aaron Steed and “Boxes and Balloons” by Ben Reilly and many others can be found in the official gallery

Some games include the concept of bullets but most do not and none could be described as violent. The nature of the engine means games end up being logical puzzles.

Puzzlescript code looks like this:

[Enemy | Wreck] -> restart

[ > Player ] [ Ship ] -> [ > Player ] [ > Ship ]

[ >  Ship | Iceberg ] -> [  >  Ship | > Iceberg  ] Sfx1
[ Enemy | ... | Ship ] -> [ > Enemy | ... | Ship ]

So, rather than lots of intimidating jargon, the code uses names and simple punctuation to set the rules.

Puzzlescript is completely free, and creator Stephen Lavelle deserves a lot of credit for opening his creation to the world. Even better, games made with Puzzlescript have the code immediately available, so if you want to see how something is done, just look at the code someone else wrote. For example, all the code used in the Flying Kick game mentioned above is here, open in the code editor no less, so you could start modifying that game.

Any good instructional system has to reward curiosity, and the Puzzlescript engine does that very well.

Main Puzzlescript site
How to make a Puzzlescript game

Who is it for

Most of the games I’ve seen written in PuzzleScript have been made by young adults, but the interface is simple enough that adolescents could learn it.

What Kids Like

Kids like making things they enjoy. They see a funny video, they want to make a funny video. They see a cool stop-motion animation, they want to make a cool stop-motion animation. They see a computer game they like, they want to make a computer game they like.

PuzzleScript is simple enough that a kid can make something playable very quickly, and since every game made in PuzzleScript has its source available (click ‘hack this game’ below the game) they can easily learn how others have achieved the mechanics of their games.

Also, becasue HTML5 runs pretty much anywhere, publishing your game and sharing with others is very easy.

What Parents Like

JavaScript is a great way to introduce kids to the concepts in programming, and PuzzleScript makes this much easier by skipping over the more boring and frustrating aspects of coding, thus keeping kids’ attention a bit longer – long enough to stay motivated and actually build something.

What the Critics Think

I have not seen any reviews of PuzzleScript. Because it is free, there are no advertising dollars that would lead to reviews.

Itch.io has lots of PuzzleScript games which is a sign that developers at least are taking it seriously.

Concerns/Flaws

If you look at examples of PuzzleScript games, you will see that they all have the same low-resolution look that may remind you of old Atari games. Kids today are used to photo-realistic graphics and the retro, old-school appearance of PuzzleScript may be a turn-off to some kids.

Who Made it

PuzzleScript is the work of Stephen Lavelle, who goes by the handle increpare. He is a prolific developer with many experimental projects on his site.

History

PuzzleScript began in 2013 and has been regularly updated since then. New games written in PuzzleScript are released all the time – every week if not every day

Where Can I Get it

Visit the PuzzleScript site for examples and full documentation. The coding interface is right in the browser window so nothing needs to be installed.

There is a Google Group where users compare notes, troubleshoot code, and share games they’ve made.

And there are books that can help walk your child through the process.

If you just want to play the games, the official archive has plenty to choose from, although it is not at all an exhaustive list.

Some of my favorites are

Cratopia
https://www.puzzlescript.net/play.html?p=7114130

Heroes of Sokoban I, by Jonah Ostroff
https://www.puzzlescript.net/play.html?p=6860122

Heroes of Sokoban II: Monsters
https://www.puzzlescript.net/play.html?p=6910207

and Heroes of Sokoban III: The Bard and the Druid
https://www.puzzlescript.net/play.html?p=7072276

ABCYa

ABCYa.com has 300+ kid-friendly games, some of them quite challenging and fun. The site is free, with banner ads (for things like Froot Loops) or you can pay $7/month to sign in and avoid ads. Unlike some other sites, ABCYa doesn’t seem to use video ads, which we find more intrusive. We tried using ad-blocker with the site, but the games were disabled when we did so. If you have trouble seeing the games, try disabling your ad-blocker.

Most (or all) of the games had been made with Flash, which is supported less and less each month. (Chrome will soon drop support for the Flash plugin altogether, but you should still be able to use Flash games with with Firefox, Opera, or Edge.) But ABCYa has been porting its games to HTML5, which is supported well by all browsers and you should be able to access the games with any device.

Our 4-year-old asks for this site all the time, a few ties each week. There are so many games that they can find something new every time. While some of the games are pure fun, none are violent and most reinforce some educational concept such as addition, letter shapes, etc. We occasionally let the kids use sites such as HTML5games.com but that has more intrusive ads. We prefer that the kids play the games on PBS Kids but many of those games are a bit too difficult for the younger kids.

Chrome Music Lab

Chrome Music Lab is a collection of 13 free online musical ‘toys’ that let kids (and adults) play with music and in the process, learn something about pitch, rhythm, and structure.

Chrome Music Lab

They require no instruments or musical knowledge. The site relies on JavaScript, which is supported on all browsers on all devices.

Each ‘toy’ (or ‘experiment’ or ‘app’ etc.) focuses on a different aspect of music and all differ in how technical they are. None are difficult to use. Young (3- or 4-years old) kids seem to enjoy Kandinsky and Oscillators, which make fun musical sounds based on the user’s mouse movements. While slightly older kids can get into constructing melodies, playing with modifications of their voices, or exploring visualization of tone and rhythm.

Overall, it’s fun and educational for kids, and a great alternative to videos or video games during ‘screen time’.

From their website: "Chrome Music Lab is a collection of experiments that let anyone, at any age, explore how music works. They’re collaborations between musicians and coders, all built with the freely available Web Audio API."

musiclab.chromeexperiments.com

The site is not just free, but has no ads of any kind.

One drawback we found is that there seem to be memory issues with JavaScript on some browsers, so using the site for a while will fill up memory and slow everything down. Quitting the browser and opening it again seemed to take care of it.

Peppa Pig

Peppa Pig is a British animated show for younger kids. The owners of the trademark have been liberal with licensing the image and there are Peppa Pig playsets, dishes, even bicycles, as well as books and DVDs. Based on the licensed products, it seems the show is aimed exclusively at girls but our boys love it. There is an idea in children’s media that girls don’t mind watching shows with boys as protagonists while boys don’t like girl protagonists, but Peppa Pig has shown that idea to be untrue.

Part of the appeal for our kids is the snarky, even rude tone of many of the characters. They are frequently bickering and mocking each other in a realistic way that most kids can probably relate to. In one episode, the kids make fun of the dad for being fat and spend a lot of the episode fat-shaming him. I feel like an American show would not depict this kind of thing.

The dialogue is witty in a dry, British way that makes it appealing to us grownups as well. I laugh at some of the lines, even if the kids don’t quite get it. Other subtle aspects are funny as well, such as that all the animal characters speak in British English, with various U.K. accents for each species (Irish for one, Yorkshire for another) while the talking vegetables all have ridiculous French accents.

The animation is extremely simple. It looks like they drew it in Flash. You can even see where the vector lines don’t quite match up in places. But that simplicity is probably part of the appeal as well. My kids just don’t seem to like photo-realistic media. They much prefer highly abstract cartoony-looking stuff.

The official Peppa Pig website has games, videos, and activities.

And you can watch free, full episodes at the Peppa Pig Nick Jr site

The videos are all on YouTube as well, but those have ads, and not always appropriate ones.

If your child is a fan of Peppa Pig, they will probably like Ben and Holly’s Little Kingdom which is made by the same company (Neville Astley and Mark Baker, and produced by Astley Baker Davies and Entertainment One) and has the same look and feel, even the same voice actors. It also has music by Julian Nott, who may be best known for creating the music for the Wallace and Gromit movies.

Steam Powered Giraffe

It has been fascinating to watch this band evolve over the past ten years. From busking at Balboa park in San Diego to a huge theatrical production on a constant nationwide tour.

From their website:

Steam Powered Giraffe is a musical project from San Diego, California. It was formed in 2008 by twin siblings David Michael Bennett and Isabella “Bunny” Bennett. Together, along with a cast and crew filled with theatrical backgrounds, the group takes on the guise of singing antique automatons and the fictional robotics company that made them.

The quirky act combines comedic sketches, improvised android banter, and original music fused with multimedia visuals, billowing steam effects, and robot pantomime.

Our 4-year old often asks to watch their songs on YouTube, the two below being the favorites:

The concept is of self-aware robots that perform music, but the story is far deeper than that, with an almost unbelievable amount of backstory that explains the origins of the robots as well as a set of very surreal comics.

The songs are fun and energetic with a combination of old-timey melodies and steampunk stylings. Although some aspects of the performance are outrageous, it remains family-friendly.

More at their site