“Programming” in board games — where you record instructions ahead of time and then execute them in sequence — has cropped up in everything since 1984 RoboRally until 2014 Colt Express† Some of the most interesting games I’ve played this year rely almost entirely on this mechanism, which makes the games fun to play while also introducing the concept of programming to young players who may have little to no experience with it.
Here are three of my recent favorites.
Lovelace & Babbage
Scott Almes’ Lovelace & Babbage (buy on Amazon) is the most interesting programming game I’ve seen in ages because it feels like a real board game as players are asked to do math on the fly. Granted, the “math” is just arithmetic, but the game actively rewards players who are quick in mental calculations, and the limitations it imposes force everyone to think in different terms about how to get from point A to point B.
The game takes its name from Ada Lovelace (the woman who usually wrote the first computer algorithm) and Charles Babbage (who designed some of the first computer machines but never saw them completed in his lifetime). Play as one of those two characters (or choose from two others), trying to move from your two-digit starting number to another number in up to five steps in each round. To do this, you can use the allowed operations prescribed on the main board, such as “add/subtract from 10” or “multiply/divide by 2” or “return the number to 55”.
As the game progresses, the board gets more operations, but they no longer contain round numbers, so you might end up with instructions like “add/subtract 37”. (You can’t go above 99 or below 0; such an instruction will simply stop at those numbers, rather than return an error.) We recommend using these more difficult instructions, as they can earn you a few extra points, while the round number instructions will not give you such rewards.
Lovelace & Babbage makes this even more challenging in two ways. First, it introduces a timed element, where the clock for all other players starts ticking as soon as the first player achieves their goal for the round. Second, players can get additional bonuses for achieving different numerical goals along the way from their starting number to their goals.
In each round, multiple “pattern” cards each show a two-digit number and two symbols; the first player to receive that number after an intermediate instruction in his code may claim one of the two symbols, while the other remains available to another player (except in two-player games). At the end of the game, players score for getting the most of each available symbol, for completing their goals in each round, and for using the more complicated commands available in the second through fourth rounds of the game. game.
The combination of math and programming reminded me of my first foray into coding in elementary school, using the now-archaic BASIC programming language to write all sorts of useless but very satisfying bits of code. Just the idea of making a computer do something because I wrote a series of commands was enough to get me interested in coding, a skill I worked on until my early 30s. Lovelace & Babbage‘s mechanic, as with all programming games I mention here, asks players to work in pseudocode, where you don’t need the programming language itself, but write a general set of instructions (an algorithm) that you can later translate into the language of your choice. Games last less than half an hour and although the box says it’s for ages 14 and up, you can play with any kid who can count with two-digit numbers.
Quirky Circuits (buy on Amazon) is a cooperative programming game in which players alternately place instruction cards on the table, but the cards themselves remain face down until everyone has played at least one card. Using the Adventure Book format of the company’s other games (Filled Fables† comanautsand the new one Aftermath† Quirky Circuits contains a puzzle of one game on each page. To solve it, players must give commands to a robot to move it around a room, pick up certain items and avoid other obstacles. Instruction cards can be as simple as one to three spaces forward/back, turn left/right, or rotate 180 degrees. But certain robots – the game has four – have unique features or default moves, so the deck you use will change every game and may contain instructions specific to each robot.
When an instruction card is face down, players can only see what type of the command it displays: a forward/backward movement, a rotation or turn, or a pick-up and drop action. Players cannot communicate which cards they have played, nor can they tell other players which cards to play. (You can tailor this to the skill levels of younger players, though; I found it helpful to ask my daughter out loud to think about which moves she thinks I played, and let her talk about them, without explicitly telling her which cards i’d played.) Once all players have played at least one card and at least five instructions in total have been played, the players turn over all the cards and carry out the assignments in order. After each round, the robot’s battery level drops by one. The goal is to complete the robot’s task, usually by picking everything up and returning to the launch room, before the battery reaches zero.
The core challenge of the game, trying to anticipate what instructions other players will play, centers on deductive reasoning, which I found more akin to debugging than plain programming. The process after each round is very clearly a debugging process, where all players can discuss what went wrong and how to fix it next time. The first few challenges of the game are simply and clearly designed as a tutorial to help players get used to the idea of programming moves and making mistakes, as you quickly come across signs where a wrong move will set you back (e.g. an object” break” that must then be cleaned up).