Game Review: CODE MASTER

 code master 1

Designer: Mark Engelberg
Publisher: Thinkfun
Players: 1
Playing Time: variable

Complexity: light/fun
Random Interference: none
Components: A
Aesthetics: A
Overall: A

(For general information on my ratings systems, CLICK HERE.)

Short Version:
It’s a solitaire puzzle game like the ones you’d find in a magazine by Penny Press/Dell.  But instead of working your logic out with pencil on paper, you get to use some really cool-looking manipulatives that look like they came from Minecraft.

Play Summary:
code master 2Each of the game’s 10 different boards is a geometric arrangement of numbered positions connected by a network of different colored lines.  You have a pawn (called your avatar) that begins at one position of the board, and your goal is to move the avatar along the colored lines and to land, by exact move count, on a target position (marked by another pawn called the portal).  Each game board can be used for six different positional puzzles of increasing complexity and difficulty (for a total of 60 possible puzzles in the whole game).  The stipulations of the chosen puzzle indicate (a) how many moves the avatar must make, (b) how many and which color paths the avatar must use, and (c) whether or not the avatar must make stops at intermediary positions along the way to collect crystals (another game token).  The player is given a corresponding “guide scroll” for the chosen puzzle—essentially a blank flow chart, which dictates the avatar’s move limit.  The player then proceeds to work out the puzzle by laying colored disks (corresponding to the colored paths) on the guide scroll, plotting out the course the avatar would take.  The simplest puzzles can be worked out (even by the 8-year-old recommended age group) entirely in the mind, but as the puzzles become increasingly difficult, it is essential to use the guide scroll and to physically move the tokens on the board in order to keep track of the sequence and to check your solution.

code master 3Thus, the length of the game is entirely dependent on how long it takes you to solve any given puzzle, and how many puzzles you want to work at in a given sitting.  As for complexity, the “rules” of the game remain simple, even at the highest challenge levels; it is only the proper sequencing for the solution that becomes increasingly evasive.  Like any good puzzle book, it does come with a catalog of solutions for all the puzzles, but when my son got this game for his birthday, I immediately discouraged him from looking at the solutions.

(I’m still wondering whether or not I should tear that part of the instruction manual out and hide it…)

What Doesn’t Work So Much for Me:
I really only have one gripe about this game, but it’s a small gripe, and it’s essentially unavoidable, given the nature of the game.  My gripe is that the game has a finite lifespan.  Because it is essentially a “3-dimensional puzzle book,” replayability is limited.  Once you’ve solved all the possible puzzles in the game, you are essentially done.  You “beat” the game.  (True to its video game theme, perhaps?)  Short of expansion packs with new puzzles and variations, you can have no new games.

Having stated that, this problem is mitigated to a certain extent by the fact that the game is NOT, in fact, a puzzle book.  Puzzle books get consumed, destroyed, and revealed by the pen and pencil.  In Code Master, all of the tokens come off the board and the guide scroll.  Thus, short of writing it down, consulting the manual, or being possessed of a eidetic memory, the solution is lost as soon as you put the components away.  In this way, there remains some level of replayability, at least among the more difficult levels, and especially across time, as you forget the solutions.  And certainly the game is replayable among different players in the same household—ideal for siblings.

What Really Works for Me:
From the perspective of an educator, Code Master is a clever learning activity.  It stands out immediately as an educational game, but one that is obviously very attractive to youth.  The aesthetic similarity to Minecraft is deliberate and appropriate.  In fact, I’m very taken by both games and their counter-intuitive approaches to learning:

  • Minecraft, a 2-dimensional video game, teaches spatial reasoning through a visual modality.
  • Code Master, a 3-dimensional tabletop game, teaches programming through a kinesthetic modality.


There is PLENTY of storage room in the box, including a molding for a die (?) that isn't necessary. Possibly a generic mold from Thinkfun.

There is PLENTY of storage room in the box, including a molding for a die (?) that isn’t necessary. Possibly a generic mold from Thinkfun.

From the perspective of a gamer, Code Master is an elegant little game.  The components are high quality and colorful.  The tokens are punched from a nice, glossy board, and the puzzle boards and guide scrolls are heavy, laminated stock, bound into sturdy booklets.  The pawns and crystals are solid plastic molds, like Legos.  The toy factor is very high.  Meanwhile, the wide range of “difficulty settings” meets the players at their respective levels, really regardless of age.  My son picked the game up at 8.  My Grammie was doing Penny Press puzzles into her 90s.  Additionally, with a little reverse engineering and some basic art skills, creative players could conceivably build their own puzzles the challenge their friends/siblings.  Multiple copies of the game could be employed to a competitive variant like time trials.  There’s lots of goodness packed into this one.

Let’s put it this way: my son got this game as a gift for his 8th birthday, but while he was playing outside, I asked him if I could play with it.

Final Remarks:
I’m very impressed by Code Master.  Engelberg set out to essentially make a toy that would stimulate the logic centers in the brain and exercise those same processes needed for writing programming language—and he nailed it.  This game is fun, challenging, and above all, relevant.  As a professional educator myself, I am flabbergasted as to why our curriculum insists on training our youth in the same tired forms as the pre-industrial era.  Vocational curriculum is fading into obsolescence, and even in this self-proclaimed “Digital Age,” the only real role that computers play in public school is to save on printing costs.  Students, by and large, do not know how to farm or how to weld, let alone how to properly interact with the single-most dominant technology in human civilization.  Shakespeare isn’t any more relevant in 24-bit color.

The fact that Engelberg wants to stimulate the parts of the mind that will be most important to the future—the programming parts; the computer parts—that’s just good sense.  That’s science.  The fact that he did it in a way that doesn’t even require a computer—now that’s art.

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Have you played Code Master?  I’d like to hear your input on the game, and so would the other readers.  It also seems like “programming games” are starting to become a standard in the field of educational toys.  What other ones do you know about?  Leave me some comments below.

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