Game Name – Space Chem
ESRB Rating – N/A
Genre – Puzzle
Educational Values – Logic, Chemistry, Critical Thinking, Problem Solving
Platforms – Windows, iPhone, iPad, Steam, OSX, Linux
Where to buy – iPhone App Store, SpaceChem’s website,
Would we buy it? – Yes! I picked up a copy of this app just after my daughter was born and spent many long nights feeding her and building out my reactors. They even offer an educational discount.
Behind this innocuous title screen lies an incredibly fun and engaging puzzle game.
About the Game
The marketing for SpaceChem says it is an “obscenely addictive, design-based puzzle game about building machines and fighting monsters in the name of science!” I am usually very skeptical about such things, but in this case, it is pretty accurate. SpaceChem begins with a simple request: combine some atoms to form a molecule. It gradually increases in complexity; now combine multiple atoms in multiple configurations. Pretty soon you are staring at your screen thinking, “If Beta is supposed to pause the movement, and Alpha rotates it, why isn’t this bond working?”
This is the view inside the reactor. Trying to bond a Carbon and an Oxygen atom.
SpaceChem reminded me of the old games I would play on the Apple IIe in elementary school, with the complexity and the immersion ramped up to Eleven. I spent many hours trying to make a laser bounce off of mirrors at the proper angle, and just as many trying to figure out how to create a proper Acetaldehyde molecule. It is, as so many great games are, deceptively simple. Atoms come into the reactor, and you have to adjust the paths they take. You set points where they will connect with one another to form molecules, and you send them on their way. That’s about it.
In the initial levels, the game is played inside the reactors, but later you have to have different reactors create different sets of molecules that you then merge in other reactors.
One of the later rounds. Each screen represents a separate reactor and puzzle. Each reactor fits together into a larger puzzle that must be completed.
What the Game Teaches Us
SpaceChem was built with teachers in mind. It actually has a 9 page document “SpaceChem – A Guide for Educators.pdf” on its website which talks about what the game teaches, and what it does not. If you are on the fence at all about this one, spend a few minutes reading their website.
When you hear people talking about how important it is to learn to write code, this is what they are talking about. Games like this teach the gamer how to think.
When we talk about learning Logic, what we really mean is things like In-Order Execution, loops, branching, synchronization, subroutines, etc. Leaving aside my favorite thing that games teach, that it is alright to fail and try again, playing this game makes you feel like your brain is growing.
General Feelings on the Game
The first couple of puzzles are interesting and you will find yourself rushing through them. After an hour or two, you may start to hit a wall. On a couple of the later levels, I was forced to go to Youtube, or the Internet for help on how to get past a puzzle. There was a certain amount of frustration involved in that, but I was playing through most of it when my infant daughter kept trying to touch my iPad. So your experience will likely be much different than mine.
There is no specific ESRB on this game, which is common among the ‘indie’ titles. But the website recommends 10 and up, and I completely agree with that. There are some sections with blood and fighting that can be removed if requested by the educators, but really this kind of higher order thinking would be above the head of smaller children.
While the later levels had me scratching my head at times, the game is a blast. The fiero moments of seeing my four reactors all work in tandem and have the timing of the molecules work out perfectly was breathtaking. It felt even better to compare my solutions with other people’s online and see that there were dozens of solutions to each one.
SpaceChem is the game I wish I could give to my 12 year old self and let him go crazy. You can play the demo for free, and I would not be insulted at all if you took a break from reading this post to download it and play a couple of rounds.