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.

Idle Human

What is it

Idle Human is a game app that teaches human anatomy in a surprisingly fun way. It’s not easy to gamify a subject as dry as anatomy, but the developers of Idle Human (Funcell Games) have managed to do so.

From the iOS app page:

Have you ever wondered how the human body works? In IDLE HUMAN we give you the unique chance to discover and create the various parts of a human right from the first cell! Discover the amazing sequence in which a human body unravels, starting from the very first bones to every organs leading to the nerves and muscles then, finally, a complete human body!

Ultimately, it is an ‘idle’ game, which means lots of mindless clicking in order to unlock levels and components. But unlike other idle games, the things being unlocked are bones, organs, and facts about the human body.

Who is it for

The app is rated 12+ but that’s only because it shows certain body parts. The game is not at all explicit when it comes to sexual organs and the developers handle that is a tasteful way. I would say the game is appropriate for kids 5 and up and adults looking to learn something while killing time would enjoy it as well.

What Kids Like

The benefit of idle games is that you can’t really lose, you control how quickly you win. So there’s no frustration like there often is in action or strategy/puzzle games. The gamification is strong and there is constant feedback about achievements and unlocking new bones and organs.

What Parents Like

Idle Human is both genuinely educational and actually fun. Our 6-year-old literally said, “This game is making me smart” and it’s obvious that there is a lot of knowledge in the game: names and positions of the organs and bones and “Snapple cap”-level factoids about the body, such as “The cornea is the only part of the body that does not need a blood supply. It gets oxygen directly from the air.” I did not know that.

What the Critics Think

Idle Human gets
4.8/5 on the Apple iOS/iTunes App Store
4.4/5 on the Google Android Play store
5/5 from Sensor Tower – which is a meta app review aggregator

Concerns/Flaws

The game does have ads. They are not as intrusive as on many other games, but a disadvantage of clicker-type games is that when you’re actively tapping the screen an ad may suddenly appear, which you then inadvertently click.

I have mixed feelings about idle/clicker games because they are so passive. The kid playing is not actively engaged the way he/she would be with a different kind of game. If the game were not educational I wouldn’t want my kids to play it.

Who Made it

The developer of Idle Human is füncell games, a very small (3-person) development team in India. The game is published/distributed by Green Panda Games which is a developer and publisher based in France.

History

Version 1.0 was released in July, 2019 and version 1.5 in October, 2019

Where Can I Get it

Apple iOS/iTunes App Store
Google Android Play store

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