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Zachademics: Free games for schools (zachtronics.com)
243 points by Reedx 12 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 53 comments





When I was 9 I played Robot Odyssey, a notoriously difficult game even for electrical engineers, obsessively all summer.

I got to the last level on my own and learned a TON about logic gates. Maybe it's why I'm in robotics today.

The point I want to make is to never underestimate the capacity for children to learn and never assume something's too difficult. You don't have to get far for it to be a worthwhile endeavor.

Spacechem gave me a strong feeling of nostalgia for Robot Odyssey. It was very difficult. Didn't hold your hand. And was totally open ended on how you solve problems. Which results in feeling incredibly fulfilled when you do solve a puzzle. That feeling was what hooked me. I was so proud.


It's available online https://www.robotodyssey.online/

I just tried this and the 'Rewired Palette' doesn't work for me, just gives a white screen. The other two palettes seem to work fine though.

I love that. I've played most Zachtronics games as well as Robot Odyssey at 15, was hooked on Robot Odyssey for a week for the same reasons. The difficulty was a challenge rather than an impediment.

What really got me was that the games encouraged something like hand-optimizing the size of your program. The levels were open-ended and the solution could be anything, but each solution has a cost, for example, least number of gates used in Robot Odyssey. In SpaceChem, it's number of symbols. In The Codex of Alchemical Engineering, cost is measured in total number of instructions, which encouraged solutions involving many different parts moving perfectly in sync. Those solutions were really difficult but rewarding to craft. However, cost in Opus Magnum is measured in total cost of parts (not instructions) used. That's less interesting to optimize, since the 'best' solution is often one part doing all the work (easy to optimize for), which in my opinion makes it a little less fun to play. Similarly, I remember the last few levels of Robot Odyssey didn't have much space in the way of optimizing (there is just one Correct Solution) which was underwhelming.

I guess my point is that the games were fun not because I had so much freedom in how I can finish each level. Rather it was the difficulty of optimizing each solution that attracted me. And it's hard to find games like that outside Zachtronics.


Opus Magnum keeps separate leaderboards for cheapest price, fewest cycles used, and smallest area. I generally tended to optimize for fewest cycles and ended up with the kinds of stuff you describe for Codex.

That's also fun up to some point. Whenever I optimized for fewest cycles in Codex it usually turned out to be "work with as many atoms per cycle as you possibly can", or something silly like building a solution on one side and mirroring the solution on the other side to get less cycles. The tedium of adding more and more tends to make least-cycle solutions less rewarding to craft, at least for me. (It's still fun though!)

If you open up a least-symbol solution for Codex you'll find a lot of interesting tricks used to reduce symbols. For example, grab-left-left-release-left-left can be accomplished with just grab-left-release-wait, if you sync it so the released atom is removed by another arm at exactly the right time. It's a nice feeling to successfully shave off even one more symbol using these hacks!


If Robot Odyssey really is open-ended, that would solve my problem with the Zachtronics games, which is that they aren't. SpaceChem gives you interesting goals and makes you fit your instructions inside a square. It's sort of like programming, except you have to do it in Befunge on a 4x4 (!) canvas. Or later... TWO 4x4 or 5x5 canvases. So I get frustrated that rather than the difficulty being in the programming, where I wanted it, it's in designing the spatial layout of the programming.

In Opus Magnum, there are a lot of interesting things you can do to get more parallelism going in your solution. Except that, again, "fake" difficulty is added in the form of restricted inputs. Maybe I could build the molecule faster with two sources of water, but I only have one, and one source can't produce more than one particle per two cycles. The parts with costs are unlimited -- they just count against your cost. Source and sink parts are "free", but limited in bizarre ways. So much for the parallel approach I wanted to try. :/


SpaceChem was the best iPad game I’ve ever played. It’s a shame Zachtronics decided to drop support due the changes with iOS 7.

> Robot Odyssey

Would give the game a try but, 15 year old electrical school guy would find this useful


Aside, but I notice that none of the games here are marked as a 5/5 in difficulty. Having played some of their games, I wonder what constitutes a 5/5 in the creator's mind?!

Well. If you want a 5/5 challenge, fire up Shenzhen.io and set the language to Chinese. It seems to be beautifully translated to my limited ability to discern, but boy is it hard to learn enough Chinese to play the game! Difficulty: 5/5


> Well. If you want a 5/5 challenge, fire up Shenzhen.io and set the language to Chinese.

Ironically, in China some gamers complained that the game is kind of unrealistic as all the datasheets are available in Chinese, it shouldn't and it has made the game less challenging... In real life, engineers in Shenzhen rarely read or write formal datasheets in Chinese, even when the IC is completely designed in China.

Doing it in English can be a bit difficult for a freshman who is unfamiliar with the terminology, which can make the game a bit more interesting. I wonder if the developers should add a "native language w/ English documentation" option for those who want a more authentic experience.


> Ironically, in China some gamers complained that the game is kind of unrealistic as all the datasheets are available in Chinese

Heh, I'd count it unrealistic if all the datasheets were available in any language. As much as I rag on Google sometimes, Google Translate has been very useful from time to time.


The game strongly encourages the player to print the PDF of the data sheets, so there's nothing stopping the player from simply viewing or printing the English-language PDF. My Chinese is awful, but that actually sounds pretty fun.

I wonder if he reserves that score for SpaceChem. He revealed in a talk[1 @ 19m20s] that he has never personally beaten the last level. Instead, he just proved it was possible using pencil and paper.

1. https://www.gdcvault.com/play/1017983/Ahead-of-the-Curve-The


I didn't get the impression that Zach hadn't beaten the last level for being too difficult, it was just a matter of time and having play testers at his disposal.

I finished SpaceChem years ago, so I don't recall the individual levels, but the last one didn't strike me as being harder than the rest of the game.

In case you missed it, ZACH-LIKE (the book of Zachtronics's history, design documents, and prototypes) was recently released for free on Steam: https://store.steampowered.com/app/1098840/ZACHLIKE/

And it's more than just a book, it includes playable versions of the web games, which was the last thing I still had Flash installed for.

I backed a physical copy of it. It's very interesting. I didn't know he released the digital copy for free, thanks for the heads up!

SpaceChem is currently $2.50 on steam. I picked it up because I've never played a Zachtronics game before. Despite the trailer looking stupid, I have been blown away so far.

Infinifactory is also $5, and it might be a better introduction to the Zachtronics genre for most people.

This is subjective, of course, but I think SpaceChem is actually ranks at best middle-tier compared to other Zachtronics titles.

Opus Magnum > TIS-100 > Exapunks > SpaceChem > Infinifactory > Shenzen I/O


I watched the trailer for opus magnum, and it basically looks identical to SpaceChem, just on a hex grid with better graphics?

It's quite different. In SpaceChem the space is limited, the number of instructions is limited (because the instructions share the physical space), and you can only have 2 parallel operations.

Opus magnum has an unlimited space, unlimited instructions, and unlimited parallel operations.

The similarity is just that they're both about linking elements to form shapes.


Why just public schools? At least in California (and I suspect elsewhere), teachers at private schools are paid quite a bit less than public school teachers.

I know this because I used to work at a private school! I did that for two years, then left all of it for a tech job so that I could climb out of student loan debt and actually have a decent life. (The basic issue is that parents can't afford to pay more because they pay twice for education: first they pay taxes to send other kids to school, and then they pay private school tuition on top of that for their own kids. The result is tens of thousands of dollars in lower pay for private school teachers.)

Anyway, the point of this isn't to dump on anyone's school. I just want to help correct the idea that private schools are somehow less worthy of care and attention than public schools are. The truth is that private schools are often in financially precarious circumstances!


Private schools can use the games, they just have to be not-for-profit (as opposed to a for-profit school, like DeVry). The vast majority of private schools are not-for-profit.

What about the school I worked at? Students were aged ~4-13. We were definitely for-profit, but we never managed to make a profit.

Those are just really rare - only a few states (Wisconsin, California, Michigan, Massachusetts, and Arizona) even allow private companies to accept charter money, and for-profit charters make up the vast majority of for-profit schools in America (see https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/For-profit_education and https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Education_management_organiz...). Whether these corporations should even be allowed to exist is controversial and it’s entirely possible Zach doesn’t support them. Sounds like the place you worked was an edge case.

> Charter schools

We didn't take any charter money because it comes with strings. We were doing our own curriculum development. (Everyone there had a healthy distaste for the standard curriculum that gets taught in most places.)

And before you start, we were secular. Most of us, including myself, were/are atheists!

Maybe I did work at an edge case, but I still think that this is an edge case the world needs more of.


Nothing at all against your school! Sounds like you were doing great work

A for-profit grade school? Interesting. I'm not sure I've ever encountered one of those.

But yeah, an entity's ability to draw a net positive profit doesn't change their for-profit status, obviously. As for why Zachtronics is limiting this to non-profit schools, my guess would be for tax purposes. There's a good chance there's a benefit from providing something like this for non-profit institutions, but not for for-profit ones, although it's been 7 years since law school for me and my tax law is rusty.

Although there's always the chance that he just didn't know for-profit grade schools exist, because I sure as heck didn't.


The page makes provisions for for-profit schools:

"Private and/or for-profit schools are not included. However, if you email us with the information listed above we can put together a quote that includes an educational discount (usually 25% - 75% off depending on the number of licenses)."


And school-like nonprofits. Harvard can have them. Phoenix can’t.

I worked on a team that was giving away a video game to public schools, but we had a really hard time convincing anyone to take the game. They wanted technical support and other things we couldn't provide. We just had the game.

Someone could form a company or nonprofit to support such games/tools.

I would give money to something like PBS but for smart, DLC-free, ad-free open source games.

Sometimes all you need is a passionate parent or other volunteer.

Zachtronics is a beautiful developer. Such a niche genre, so perfectly executed. I'm a bit behind but just started Shenzen I/O. It's a programming puzzle game done right. This is perfect for schools, it's genuine programming-thinking packed into a game-like challenge.

It's interesting that SpaceChem apparently isn't included? Maybe because the kinda fake chemistry would drive science teachers mad?


SpaceChem's omission is probably just oversight. The SpaceChem page itself makes a similar offer, with the same link to Zach's e-mail: http://www.zachtronics.com/spacechem/

A fun anecdote from a GDC talk (https://archive.org/details/GDC2013Barth at 21:57):

U.K. schools: We want to use SpaceChem to teach programming familiarity.

Eastern European schools: We want to use SpaceChem to teach problem solving.

U.S. schools: We want to use SpaceChem to teach chemistry.


This is a very popular model for educational/education-adjacent titles. Not surprising that zachtronics has also filed suit.

Schools generally don’t purchase solutions that don’t have content that fills their entire curriculum’s needs (eg. think a product that covers all of a subject from grades 1-8)

This way, schools act as a great marketing channel for these educational products which are downloaded at the discretion of individual teachers for their particular one-off introductions/lesson plans. Then parents purchase paid versions for their kids at home.

This model can be seen (and has found success) with educational apps Prodigy, Codespark Academy (Foos), and more.

This is not to say it’s purely a marketing ploy- there’s plenty of social good too to being able to expand your content’s reach for educational purposes to many many more players and students than you may have otherwise without a free for schools model.


> This is not to say it’s purely a marketing ploy- there’s plenty of social good too to being able to expand your content’s reach for educational purposes to many many more players and students than you may have otherwise without a free for schools model.

Especially games that teach something as fundamental to the future, and lacking in good course work, as programming. These are probably one of the best collection of tools for such content.


In addition to their engineering games Zachtronics made Infiniminer, the main precursor to Minecraft.

Zach's games are great, I'd heartily recommend TIS-100, Shenzhen I/O, and Exapunks to anyone. Despite his ratings on the site, I actually found Infinifactory the most difficult of the bunch for me, but maybe that just means I'm not as good at spatially oriented puzzles.

I'm the same, I find TIS-100 and Shenzhen I/O reasonably comfortable in comparison to the other titles. I haven't completed either, I've almost completed TIS-100, but shenzhen I/O really pushes me way beyond my comfort zone but is more fun. I struggled to even get into spacechem or infinifactory at all. I found exapunks trickier to reason about but in a different way, I got stuck on a tree search puzzle where I find it tricky to match what I expect to happen with what actually executes because of I struggle to reason about the lifetime of the workers. (I've just realised I think I also struggle to program in Rust because of similar problems reasoning about lifetimes and borrowing).

I love all of the TIS-like Zachtronics games. I remember ignoring a professor and finishing the hidden puzzle during a 6-9 humanities class a few semesters ago.

It's the perfect mesh between "fake" and a real skillset.

I could also definitely see having a school leaderboard (to optimize for the best solutions against class mates) being very fun.


have a lot of respect for companies who do this. Just want to chime in from a developing nation perspective.

we have no computers - no laptops, no desktops. All of India is on mobile phones (usually Android). It would be awesome if future educational content is developed mobile only.

Toolkits like Flutter, AWS Lumberyard and React Native allow for ios+android games being built.

The only reason that mobile based education games for children are not as popular as they could be in the US ..is because of the fundamental concern around "smartphones==bad". I think Steam can do a lot here by allowing parental+time based locks around games.

A problem worth solving.


`SHENZHEN I/O contains minor references to drugs and alcohol and a little bit of swearing. It takes place in China and includes Chinese characters and situations. Students may acquire an increased sense of the ridiculousness of modern capitalist society.`

LOL. Shenzhen I/O is the only Zachademics game I bought on Steam and is actually an addictive card game, with a programming game as an Easter egg.


By the way, you can get Shenzhen Solitaire on iOS [1]. I play it on my phone all the time!

[1] https://apps.apple.com/ca/app/shenzhen-solitaire/id120603777...


I feel the same way about Opus Mangum: I have all the achievements for Sigmar’s Garden, and am a third of the way through the “real” game.

Also, these games work great with Steam Link from elsewhere in the house—no beefy GPU required.


I would love to use these games as activities in my undergraduate software engineering course, but it says they must be installed on school computers :(

All of our students are required to purchase their own laptops so we aren’t eligible.


Damn I need to revisit my solutions to compete with millions of new submissions :-)

I thought KOHCTPYKTOP would be featured :( It got me into pondering how actual logic circuits work (as opposed to theoretical circuits with instant output).

I wish there had been an exa-punks club when I was in school. I'd have spent less time NOOPing around.



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