PuzzleNation Product Review: ThinkFun’s Robot Turtles

ThinkFun has always specialized in games that educate as you play, from the optics and angles of Laser Maze and the chain problem-solving of Gravity Maze to its Brain Fitness line of puzzles-for-one.

Robot Turtles is their newest game, designed for players age 4 and up, and the premise of the game is quite intriguing: it’s a board game designed to teach young minds rudimentary programming skills.

[The first game board the Turtle Masters will encounter.]

Robot Turtles is a game where players have to navigate their turtles to their chosen gem. In order to do so, the player (or Turtle Master) plays cards that dictate the turtle’s movements. An adult or older sibling serves as the Turtle Mover, following the instructions of each Turtle Master as each card is played.

As the Turtle Masters grow more proficient at selecting their cards and directing their turtles toward the gems, the Turtle Mover sets up more difficult game boards, incorporating towers to navigate around, crates to push, and even ice towers to melt with lasers! The solutions to each game board grow more complicated, and the Turtle Masters must plan steps in advance in order to reach the gem.

There are no losers in Robot Turtles; each player selects cards until their turtle reaches its gem. But the real genius behind the game is that the Turtle Masters are learning the basics of programming as they play. The player lays out sequences of commands (move forward, turn right, activate laser, move forward, etc.), and then “run” the program by having the Turtle Mover execute each command.

[Here, one Turtle Master has navigated his turtle between two towers, melted an ice tower with the laser, and awaits the next command: to cross the puddle left behind by the ice tower. This turtle’s gem can be seen on the left, behind a wall of towers.]

As players develop, they can program small macros by replacing a sequence of cards with a “function frog” card, saving several moves and reaching the gem sooner. (There’s even a “bug” button for each player to hit when they’ve played an incorrect card, allowing them to remove the last card played and try again. Players are debugging the programming as they play!)

With a Turtle Mover determining the difficulty of the game board (there are a few suggestions from ThinkFun, but parents and siblings are encouraged to create new challenges for the Turtle Masters), the game has the potential for endless variations, all of which encourage players from age 4 and up to plan more detailed, more challenging “programs” for their turtles.

[One of the tougher suggested layouts.
A bit different from the starter layout, isn’t it?]

Robot Turtles is a fine addition to the ThinkFun lineup. The mechanics are simple, the educational aspect is couched in enjoyable steps, and everybody wins. Robot Turtles was the most backed board game in Kickstarter history, and in your very first game, you’ll easily see why. I can’t wait to serve as Turtle Mover again for the young programmers in my family.

Last year, in one of our earliest editions of 5 Questions, author Robin Sloan said, “I really do think that, in the year 2013, people ought to know how to code, at least a little bit.” I think Robot Turtles could play a big part in making that a reality.

Thanks for visiting PuzzleNation Blog today! You can share your pictures with us on Instagram, friend us on Facebook, check us out on TwitterPinterest, and Tumblr, and be sure to check out the growing library of PuzzleNation apps and games!

5 Questions: Alumni Edition

Undoubtedly one of the most popular features on the blog in 2013 was 5 Questions, our interview series featuring puzzle constructors, authors, filmmakers, game designers, puzzle enthusiasts, and creative people in general whose work and play relates to puzzles.

As 2013 was winding down, I reached out to our 5 Questions alumni to catch up and ask them what they’d been up to since appearing here last. (Or when I’m not pestering them for crossword construction advice or New Year’s Resolutions. *laughs*)

And so many of them were happy to share their latest projects with the PuzzleNation audience!

Author Robin Sloan’s marvelous novel Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore is out in paperback, and the prequel story Ajax Penumbra 1969 is available as an eBook. I asked him about what he’s been doing, and his answer was brief and exciting:

Let’s see… I’m hard at work on a new novel!

That’s about it 😀

Can’t wait to see what he’s got in store for us next.

[Click here to check out Robin’s session of 5 Questions, as well as our book review of Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore here.]

Great Urban Race Senior Manager Jordan Diehl was also happy to bring us up to speed on what the GUR crew has been up to:

We just finished a successful Championship event in San Juan, Puerto Rico. It was our first time outside of the continental US, and the race was really well-received. Like in years past, a total of $10,000 was given out, but this year it was divided among the top 8 teams as opposed to years past where only first place received cash prizes.

The division of prizes will remain as we enter our 2014 season:
First place: $6,000
Second place: $2,000
Third place: $1,000
Fourth – Eighth place: $200 each

And speaking of, we are excited that our 2014 season is just around the corner!

We’ve consolidated our schedule for 2014; our first event is in late January and the last regular-schedule event of the season will be June 7. This leaves us room for another new Championship location in a potentially colder climate that we could not typically do in November/December (the usual dates of our Championship) as we are looking at an August/September Championship date.

Here at Great Urban Race, we’ve decided that 2014 is the “Year of You,” and we are focusing on listening to participant feedback more than ever. We put out a vote for Championship locations as well as several other campaigns like it through our social media pages.

[Be sure to check out the Great Urban Race website for more details, and click here to read Jordan’s session of 5 Questions.]

Kathy Matheson (a.k.a. puzzle blogger Crossword Kathy) had some interesting news to share, not only regarding her puzzle-constructing aspirations, but interacting with the PuzzleNation readership as well!

After the 5 Questions interview appeared, I was pleasantly surprised to get feedback from a couple of your readers! One is a fellow journalist here in Philly — I recognized his byline but have never met him, and didn’t know he was a puzzler, too. He told me about a local constructor he interviewed a few years ago, when she was 95! Now she’s about to turn 100, and he said she’s still making crosswords. Amazing. I hope to write a story about her myself, somehow tying it in to the just-passed centennial of the crossword.

The other person who contacted me is a constructor I admire who very kindly offered to help with my grid-building dreams. Part of me really wants to take him up on the offer, but part of me is very independent and wants to do it alone.

The truth is that I haven’t spent as much time constructing as I should, so perhaps I should do more of that before asking for help. I did send the L.A. Times one of my puzzles, which was rejected by a very nice note saying that “there’s some good work in your grid, but the theme puns are too stretchy” for their taste. Oh well.

[I have no doubt we’ll be seeing Kathy’s name in a puzzle byline in 2014. Click here to check out her session of 5 Questions!]

Puzzle poet Peter Valentine regularly posts his latest creations on Twitter and Tumblr — I’ve posted his poem “Birthday” for the 100th Anniversary of the crossword above — and has recently added another social media platform to his arsenal.

I’ve started an instagram feed, @peterboothby, which helps to reach many more folks and generate discussion.

[You can check out the full archive of his poems here, as well as his session of 5 Questions here.]

As you might’ve expected, constructor and puzzle historian David Steinberg has kept himself very busy between his own crossword construction and his work on the Pre-Shortzian Puzzle Project, which recently passed the 14,000 puzzle mark!

On December 21, the crossword centennial, I gave a talk at the Palos Verdes Peninsula Center Library on crossword history, the Pre-Shortzian Puzzle Project, and crossword editing, solving, and constructing. Also, I constructed a special centennial puzzle for the Focus page in The Orange County Register.

[Check out The Orange County Register, where David serves as crossword editor, as well as his session of 5 Questions here.]

Prolific constructor Robin Stears has been puzzling up a storm since last we spoke.

The dust has settled from the 100th anniversary celebrations, and of course, the other holidays took up some time, but I’m ready to get back to work. My daughter took pity on me and spent a day fixing my Tumblr blog so that it’s easier to find, sent out messages to all my Tumblr followers, and helped me set up a Tumblr-exclusive giveaway (to make up for my ineptitude). She even tweaked it for the holidays!

I’m starting off the year with a 21×21 StearsWords puzzle entitled “Things to Look Forward to in 2014.” There’s so much to look forward to, it needed a giant-size puzzle.

The Trivia Challenge puzzles seemed to be popular, so there will be more of those. I’ll continue to invite social media fans to send me their ideas and watch them come to life–a Reddit fan suggested “Doctor Who,” a Tumblr fan is responsible for the “Game of Thrones” puzzle, and a Facebook fan challenged me to do a “420” puzzle; clearly, I’m open to just about anything. (Someone asked me to do a cryptogram/crossword, where solvers have to decipher the clues, and then solve the puzzle. It sounds like a lot of work, but also a lot of fun; it also sounds perfect for a contest.)

Naturally, I’ll be keeping a close watch on what’s hot, just in case there’s another “Sharknado”-like event that begs to be immortalized in crossword. And solvers will still find the majority of my work in Penny/Dell puzzle books. They’ve been printing my puzzles for over twenty years, and I’m a huge fan of their puzzle books, as evidenced by the ginormous stack of Good Time Crosswords in my office.

[You can also join Team StearsWords by clicking here, and check out her session of 5 Questions here.]

As you might expect, David L. Hoyt has been busy. The most syndicated man in puzzles continues to produce his signature Jumble puzzles, but he also has a new puzzly product to share.

Just 2 Fun (pictured above) is David’s latest creation and his first app for younger players (ages 9 and up). The app is available for iPad, iPad mini, iPhone 4 and 5 and iPod touch devices. Just 2 Fun is a kids’ version of the enormously successful puzzle app Just 2 Words.

[You can explore all of David’s puzzly creations on his website, and check out his session of 5 Questions here.]

Even our latest interviewee, New York Times crossword editor Will Shortz, had something to share with us in the few weeks since appearing on the PuzzleNation Blog.

You may recall him mentioning his favorite pastime:

At the moment I’m close to finishing a personal goal — to play table tennis every day this year. As I write this (on Dec. 17), I’ve played every single day since Jan. 1 — 351 days in all.

I’m happy to report that Will did in fact complete his 365 days of table tennis for 2013, even throwing a party to celebrate. (I suspect New Year’s Eve may have also contributed to the festivities.)

[Check out Will’s contributions to NPR’s Weekend Edition here, as well as his session of 5 Questions here. We hope to have more information on his new puzzle magazine Will Shortz’s WordPlay very soon.]

Thank you to all of our 5 Questions alums! They helped make 2013 a banner year for PuzzleNation Blog, and as we head into 2014 with new interviews to come, I promise to keep you posted on everything these brilliant puzzly folks are up to.

Thanks for visiting the PuzzleNation blog today! You can like us on Facebookfollow us on Twitter, cruise our boards on Pinterest, check out our Tumblr, download our Classic Word Search iBook (recently featured by Apple in the Made for iBooks category!), play our games at PuzzleNation.com, or contact us here at the blog!

5 Questions for author Robin Sloan

Welcome to the second edition of PuzzleNation Blog’s newest feature, 5 Questions!

We’re reaching out to puzzle constructors, video game writers and designers, writers, filmmakers, and puzzle enthusiasts from all walks of life, talking to people who make puzzles and people who enjoy them in the hopes of exploring the puzzle community as a whole.

And I’m excited to have Robin Sloan as our latest 5 Questions interviewee!

Robin Sloan is the author of Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, which has garnered critical acclaim for both its writing (named one of the best 100 books of 2012 by the San Francisco Chronicle) and its cover design (named one of the 25 best book covers by Bookpage).

The book spent time on the New York Times bestseller list (Hardcover Fiction section) and was named Editor’s Choice by the Times. (Check out our review of Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore here!)

Robin was gracious enough to take some time out to talk to us, so without further ado, let’s get to the interview!

5 Questions for Robin Sloan

1. Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore has that wonderful new-medium-vs.-old-medium conflict at its heart, but as a puzzle fan, I found a similar conflict beneath the surface. Some puzzles are too tough, some answers will elude us, and that’s part of what makes the challenge so enticing. But there’s also the disappointment that can follow victory. After all, if the unsolvable puzzle turns out to be solvable after all, the answer might be unsatisfying. And where do you go from there, once the quest is over?

Were those questions that were important to you during the writing of the book? How do you view the puzzle at the heart of the story?

J. J. Abrams often talks about something he calls the Mystery Box—basically, it’s the secret at the center of a story. And it’s amazing how potent it can be; I mean really, you just close a door or lock a chest and suddenly, you’ve got the basic kernel of a narrative; you’ve got a reason for readers to ask, “What happens next?” But it’s a double-edged sword: the heavier you lean on a Mystery Box for narrative momentum, the higher the stakes for the ultimate reveal. It turns out there aren’t too many secrets that can stand up to a book or movie’s worth of anticipation. So, I think it’s a balancing act: you can set up your Mystery Box, but it can’t be the ONLY thing drawing readers forward. You need to buttress it with smaller challenges; with fun characters; with a compelling voice.

2. The book also features a truly high-end bucket list item of mine: uncovering and infiltrating a secret society. Penumbra and his fellow devotees are like many hardcore puzzle fans, operating by an internal logic and set of rules entirely their own (as most fandoms and hobby groups do). Was there a particular group or organization that served as inspiration for you?

None of these are nearly as arcane as the secret society in Penumbra, but I do have a real fondness and respect for old-fashioned private lending libraries. I’m thinking, for instance, of the New York Society Library in Mahattan, or the Mechanics’ Institute Library & Chess Club here in San Francisco. I love public libraries too, of course; but every time I’ve walked into one of these private libraries, I’ve gotten a little thrill that is, I imagine, similar in flavor—if not magnitude—to the feeling of discovering an honest-to-God secret society.

3. If you’d been presented with a mystery like the one in your book, would you have taken the Google road or the slow-and-steady grind of Penumbra’s visitors?

Oh, Google all the way. I mean, we live in a remarkable time! It’s possible for anyone with a modicum of technical ability to sign up for Amazon’s cloud services and bring dozens—or hundreds, even thousands—of virtual computers to bear on a problem. I’ve poked at those tools around their edges—when I worked at Twitter, for instance, I got to know the distributed data-processing software called Hadoop—and I find them totally thrilling. It’s a different kind of problem-solving… a different way of using your brain and, ultimately, your time.

4. What’s next for Robin Sloan?

I’m working on another novel. It’s not perhaps quite as puzzle-y as Penumbra, but I think there will be plenty of secrets waiting in this book’s plot, too.

5. If you could give the readers, writers, and puzzle fans in the audience one piece of advice, what would it be?

Well, following up on what we were talking about earlier, I really do think that, in the year 2013, people ought to know how to code, at least a little bit. The good news is that there are better resources to learn than ever before—services like Codecademy. You can find tutorials for almost any kind of programming problem; I feel like I’ve learned to code mostly through the Google search prompt. And finally, some people share their own tales of learning; Diana Kimball’s post here is a great example. It all starts with a problem you yourself want to solve—something small, something personal. Maybe even… a puzzle?

Many thanks to Robin Sloan for his time. Check out Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore on his website, and follow him on Twitter (@robinsloan)! I can’t wait to see what he’s got for us next.

Thanks for visiting the PuzzleNation blog today! You can like us on Facebook, follow us on Twitter, check out our Classic Word Search iBook, play our games at PuzzleNation.com, or contact us here at the blog!

PuzzleNation Book Review: Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore

Welcome to the fourth installment of PuzzleNation Book Reviews!

All of the books discussed and/or reviewed in PNBR articles are either directly or indirectly related to the world of puzzling, and hopefully you’ll find something to tickle your literary fancy in this entry or the entries to come.

Let’s get started!

Our book review post this time around features Robin Sloan’s novel Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore.

Clay Jannon just lost his web-development job, and on a whim, he stumbles into a strange bookstore looking for a new night clerk. With stories-high shelves loaded with strange books that aren’t for sale, Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore is more like a library for an eccentric smattering of visitors who come and go at all hours, checking out a single book at a time for reasons that elude Clay.

As Clay’s small circle of friends is drawn into the mystery of Mr. Penumbra’s store, Clay discovers a curious pattern dictating which book each visitor will select next, unintentionally taking the first step into tackling far greater and more peculiar secrets.

Whimsical yet still grounded in a believable world, Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore is never what you expect. Wrapped in layers upon layers of curiosities — a puzzle within a puzzle about a puzzle, you could say — the book incorporates elements of urban fantasy, coming-of-age stories, and old-school mysteries to tell a wonderful story about the irresistable allure of a quest.

Every character in the book, from Clay’s friends to Mr. Penumbra’s patrons, falls into a situation plenty of puzzle devotees are quite familiar with: confronting a puzzle that seems unsolvable. That thread, that idea of a challenge awaiting if you’re just clever enough to conquer it, is a tantalizing one, and it drives a good chunk of the book’s plot.

What’s truly engaging about Sloan’s story, though, is its willingness to acknowledge the potential for disappointment from both sides. After all, some puzzles are too tough, some answers will elude us, and that’s part of what makes the challenge so enticing. But there’s also the disappointment that can follow victory. After all, if the unsolvable puzzle turns out to be solvable after all, will you be satisfied with the answer? And what comes next?

This double-bladed sword of possibilities elevates an already-intriguing plot and a thoroughly likable cast of characters into something truly enjoyable. This is a book rich in detail, setting, and charm, and even in the slow moments, your interest never flags.

The modern setting also added depth to both the mystery and how the characters confronted it. The book could’ve easily condemned paper books as old fashioned or e-readers as an obnoxious affront, but instead, it charts the highs and lows of the crossroads between print publishing and electronic media, allowing the best of both worlds to shine as the characters delve deeper into the mysteries surrounding Mr. Penumbra’s bizarre bookshop.

You know, the puzzle world can seem like such a secret society sometimes, working by its own weird rules and internal logic, and to see a book tackle that idea with such charm and lightness was a real treat. I look forward to seeing what Robin Sloan cooks up next.

Well, that’s it for the latest installment of PuzzleNation Book Reviews. I hope you enjoyed the post and look forward to more book discussions in the future. In the meantime, keep calm, puzzle on, and I’ll catch you later.