When you think "board game," you're probably thinking of something like Monopoly, Sorry, or Life. And while those are fun, they're not exactly games that engage the ol' gray matter between your ears. Chess can certainly get you thinking, but it's not exactly the most exciting game. Worse, you can't play as a family.
That is not the case with ThinkFun's Circuit Maze board game. Not only is it a game the whole family can play together, but it's also a sneaky introduction to Science Technology Engineering Math (STEM) concepts. It makes learning fun, and any game that can teach electrical engineering in a fun way is something worth paying attention to.
Part of ThinkFun's Maze series, the Circuit Maze board game challenges players to solve increasingly difficult puzzles using nothing more than their critical thinking skills and a few simple playing pieces. The simplicity of the game is part of its appeal, and it makes the learning so much easier. STEM may seem complicated, but even the most advanced science starts off with the most basic rules. And that's where games like this excel at imparting that knowledge disguising as "mere" gameplay.
STEM is the foundation of pretty much everything around you. The car you drive. The bus or train you ride. The phone or computer you're reading this on. The television you watch. The house or apartment building you live in. The water you drink. The food you eat. The air you breathe. All of it is affected and influenced by science, technology, engineering, and math. Our entire modern world would cease to exist without STEM.
That means, as a part of our education system, STEM is absolutely essential to our future. Even before we called it STEM, the combination of science, technology, engineering, and math is what allowed the United States to put a man on the Moon and land a probe on Mars with a giant parachute and rocket boosters. STEM is how we launched the Computer Age and changed the world. Then, just a few decades later, we invented the internet and changed the world again. Imagine what we'll do a few decades from now if we keep applying the power of STEM.
Putting aside international competition to be the king of the technological mountain, to maintain what we already have will take millions of professionals trained in STEM fields. Advancing our society will take millions more. That's why so many schools have begun to incorporate STEM into their curriculum. And now you can do the same at home and have a blast while doing it with the Circuit Maze board game!
ThinkFun Makes Thinking... Fun!
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Founded in 1985 by Bill Ritchie and Andrea Barthello, ThinkFun has been in the business of making your brain work overtime for over thirty years. Their original mission was "To translate the brilliant ideas of the craziest mathematicians, engineers, and inventors into simple toys that can be appreciated by boys and girls around the world." We think they've done just that.
With games like the famous 1996 Rush Hour that has you moving cars around a small grid to clear a path to Adam's Cube which makes the Rubik's Cube look dull in comparison, ThinkFun has emphasized building critical thinking skills during play time. They've even commissioned studies on how gameplay affects the brain, finding that regular interaction with challenging games can boost your IQ.
ThinkFun's Circuit Maze board game is part of a series of logic games the company has produced to make you think. There's also the Gravity Maze, which makes you figure out how to use gravity to your advantage. They have the Laser Maze which is similar to the Circuit Maze in that you have to get the laser from point A to point B using mirrors instead of a circuit. There are also several Code games that introduce kids to computer coding skills without the need for a computer. If that sounds impossible, you don't know ThinkFun!
Currently only available online, the Circuit Maze board game is perfect for families looking for games that don't rely on the random roll of the dice or the draw of a card. Even strategy games like Risk and Axis and Allies can sometimes feel too random to be genuinely challenging. Circuit Maze, on the other hand, is 100 percent up to you and your brain. There aren't any random elements here. Just you, your thinking cap, and the laws of physics. And the best part is that no one has to sit out the round waiting for everyone else to solve the puzzle. Everyone can work together to win the round and move on to the next!
The set up is deceptively simple. The board itself is a five by five grid that allows you click the pieces into place to build your circuit. There's the power source that is two parts. The first is the battery tower that holds three AAA batteries. The second is power "token" that is attached to the battery tower by a wire. That allows you to place the power token wherever you want on the grid (more on that later). There three LED tokens, two straight tokens, two bridge tokens, two double corner tokens, two T-shape tokens, five corner tokens, one switch, and three blocker tokens. Additionally, there are 60 challenge cards.
It doesn't sound like much, but if you've ever played Sudoku, you'll know that a small grid can provide an almost infinite amount of entertainment.
How to Play
Each challenge card gives you an image of the grid. On that image are the locations of both the battery tower and the power token. Along with the battery tower and power token will be anywhere from one to three LED tokens along with potential obstacles. These will be placed on the grid as per the instructions. Finally, you will be given a specific set of tokens you are allowed to use to complete the puzzle. After that, it's up to you to figure it all out and connect the circuit.
Sure, it sounds easy enough, and the introductory levels are. After all, the makers of the Circuit Maze board game are assuming you don't have a degree in electrical engineering. They're going to start you off nice and slow, introducing you to the fundamentals. But once you've got the basics down, it gets more difficult. By the time you get to the end levels, you're either going to be pulling your hair out or begging for more. We bet that if you've stuck around this long, you're hooked.
But if you get stuck and the frustration is too much, don't worry. The answer is on the back of the card-- but that's cheating. Wink wink.
Completing the Circuit
At its heart, the Circuit Maze board game is really a logic puzzle. The laws of electricity are simple but rigid. You can't cheat Mother Nature to get that LED light to start glowing. The tokens have to be placed in just the right way to complete the circuit and win the round. The more advanced levels are maddeningly complicated, but the rules are still the same. You have to figure out how to apply them to succeed. It's almost like filling in a crossword puzzle but with electricity instead of letters!
Sixty challenges don't seem like a lot, especially considering a good number of the easy ones will be too easy by the time you get to the finals levels. However, unless you have a photographic memory, the later levels are so complex that you won't remember the solution by the time you get back to trying them again. Maybe by the fourth or fifth time you've done a particular challenge, you'll have it committed to memory but by then, several months will have gone by at least. And let's be honest, if you're playing with it that much by then, it was worth every penny.
If you do ever get bored with the challenges, you can always try to come up with your own. Trying to stump your family members might be just as much fun as solving the puzzle together!
Image via goodhousekeeping
The Competition: Snap Circuits
ThinkFun's Circuit Maze board game is very similar to Elenco's Snap Circuits. Both require you to build a circuit using colorful plastic pieces. Both are a heck of a lot of fun. However, while Snap Circuits has a much broader range of activities you can do, you won't necessarily learn anything while doing them.
Here's the problem: As much fun as Snap Circuits is, you can just follow the instructions. Once you put together the circuit, sure, you can play music but do you understand why it's working? Not unless you already understand the basics of electricity and circuity or if someone is explaining it to you.
On the other hand, you can't beat the challenge cards in the Circuit Maze board game without understanding the basic principles behind electrical currents. Yes, the first several levels are simple enough that you don't have to follow the "why" but later? You have to understand what a short circuit is. You have to understand how electricity flows from point A to point B and why. It's impossible to play the game otherwise.
In Snap Circuits, you build a circuit according to instructions and understanding is optional. In the Circuit Maze board game, you create a circuit according to the laws of physics and understanding is mandatory. Even if you don't know the technical jargon that goes along with that understanding.
Deal Breaker or Circuit Breaker?
The best games are the ones that make you think while you're playing them. With the Circuit Maze board game, you get hours of fun and some serious education all disguised as brainteasers. Even if you don't give a hoot about STEM or electrical engineering, this game is worth playing. At the absolute worst, you're going to pick up some problem-solving skills. At best, you're going to get a decent grasp of the fundamentals of electricity and circuity.
There are a few minor drawbacks to the game, however. One of them is that the tokens don't always connect to each other properly. The leads, or metal bits that touch each other to let the electricity flow, don't always touch. That means that even if you solve the puzzle correctly, the LED light won't turn on. You can tinker with the pieces to make them work better, but it's a temporary solution. The tokens are designed to be resistant to tampering, presumably to make sure they don't break easily. Also, the tokens occasionally pop put while you are placing in a token next to it. It can turn into a short round of “whack-a-mole” as one piece pops out and then another as you push that one back in.
These are minor design flaws and only slightly take away from the overall product. With a manufacturers' suggested retail price of only $29.95, the Circuit Maze board game is worth a purchase.