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.

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

RoverCraft

What is it

RoverCraft is an app that lets players build “space cars” and drive them along bumpy alien landscapes, collecting coins and avoiding crashes.

Who is it for

The game is simple enough for kids as young as 4 to have fun with it, although only older kids would be able to understand it well enough to get high scores.

What Kids like

They like the building, and they like the driving, and they like the upgrades. As the player collect coins, they can use the money to buy more and stronger materials for their vehicle, and unlock other worlds (Mars, Titan, etc.) The achievements are attainable, but take a little work, so the reward system is well-balanced and engaging.

They also like the catastrophic failure that ends every driving run. The player basically drives their car until it crashes, and the crashing is fun, so even when they lose they can enjoy it.

What Parents like

The building part is creative and forces problem-solving (how to structure the chassis so that the vehicle can cross the chasm without falling in?)

The driving part is thrilling but not overly competitive. The players are effectively racing against their own previous times.

What the critics think

The app gets 4.4/5 on Google, 4.5/5 on iTunes, and 4.6/5 on the Microsoft store.

Criticisms are that there are too many ads and that the developer (Mobirate) doesn’t update the game frequently enough.

Concerns/flaws

There are a lot of ads that the player has to endure or click off. There are in-app purchases that can distract from the gameplay, and we as parents need to make sure that the purchasing feature is disabled on the phone/tablet.

Who made it

RoverCraft is made by Mobirate, who also makes the Parking Mania series, other space-themed games such as Space Expedition and Space Bikers, and several others (Stick Fu, Jelly Jumpers, Dead Ahead).

When was it made/history

Mobirate was founded way back in 2003. RoverCraft was first released in 2015 and has had sporadic updates since then.

Where can I get it

Google Play Store, iTunes, and the Microsoft Store. You can even use Amazon to get it for Android devices, if you wanted.

Bloxels

What is it

Bloxels is a free make-your-own videogame app that lets kids (or adults) create 8-bit style sprites and levels for 2D platformer games without needing any coding. The Bloxels kit includes a 13×13 grid with colored blocks so that younger kids can manipulate ‘pixel blocks’ (bloxels) physically before committing them to the game.

There is now also a Star Wars version

Who is it for

Bloxels is recommended for kids age 8-12, but our 4-year-old has had a lot of fun with it. Older kids will get more out of it, but it’s fun for just about any age. The bloxel cubes are about 1 cm2 (¼”2) so it could be a choking hazard for very young kids.

We’ve had fun with it at home, but PixelPress is pushing for the games use in classrooms and I can easily see it used as an educational tool.

What Kids like

Our kids have played with Bloxels on and off for the past few months, since we got it, so it has passed the ‘lost in the closet’ test – that is, the kids choose to pull it out every now and then. The older ones do everything on screen, using only the free app. The younger ones like designing characters using the physical bloxel cubes. Everyone enjoys playing the levels they make.

There is a community aspect to Bloxels, where you can play other people’s games, but we haven’t gotten into that.

What Parents like

Bloxels seems like a great way to introduce basic ideas of programming without having to get into actual code. The kids spend much more time creating (designing characters and levels) than they do playing (running and jumping and shooting).

What the critics think

Bloxels has been nominated for several education and game awards and most reviews I’ve read have been positive.

Concerns/flaws

Most of the criticisms I’ve read have to do with how the app captures the image of the 13×13 bloxel grid. The image capture relies on the camera in your phone or tablet and can be frustrating to use, although we haven’t had much trouble with it.

There is really only one type of game that can be created with Bloxels, and that’s the 2D platformer, where a character runs, jumps, collects power-ups, shoots monsters, etc. There are so many other kids of games, and if your child doesn’t like 2D platformers, they won’t have much interest in making them. But that is a theoretical concern in our case, since our kids like that kind of game. As a parent, I would rather the games involve puzzles or problem-solving, rather than shooting monsters, but as a former game designer, I realize that those sorts of games are much more difficult for children to do well.

And the Bloxel pieces are quite small – possible choking hazards for little siblings, and they hurt to step on when not put away properly! but that’s a problem we have with lots of toys (e.g. Lego) and is not an inherent flaw with Bloxels.

Who made it

Bloxels is made by Pixel Press, which makes a few other similar make-your-own game apps, such as Floors and Adventure Time Game Wizard. Pixel Press has since been bought

When was it made/history

Bloxels started as a Kickstarter project in 2015 and got enough funding to go mainstream and eventually partner with Mattel.

Where can I get it

You can get the Bloxels app on iTunes, Google Play, and for the Kindle Fire. And you can get the physical kit on Amazon or the Bloxels site

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

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.

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.