Make Incredible Machines With ‘Contraption Maker’ From Spotkin

Screenshot: Jenny Bristol. Graphics: Spotkin
Screenshot: Jenny Bristol. Graphics: Spotkin

In the early 1990s, there was a fantastically geeky game called The Incredible Machine. I was a young adult, probably older than the intended demographic, but I ate it up. (I’m sure some of you out in Readerland did, as well.) I played for hours, trying to solve the included puzzles, usually succeeding. I kept on the lookout for new versions of the game for my own kids to play, but didn’t find much.

Now Contraption Maker, made by some of the same people who worked on The Incredible Machine, carries that torch forward. If you’re not familiar with this type of game, it’s a lot like creating elaborate Rube Goldberg devices. You have a goal, and you need to arrange objects and machines to make the goal happen. Each level is different, and you use objects such as scissors, flashlights, magnifying glasses, conveyor belts, motors, pulleys, see-saws, balls, and more to facilitate goals such as releasing balloons, exploding bombs, knocking balls off the screen, turning on lights, firing rayguns, or capturing a mouse.

Screenshot: Jenny Bristol. Graphics: Spotkin
Screenshot: Jenny Bristol. Graphics: Spotkin

You begin by playing your way through a tutorial section, which has dozens of puzzles that teach you game mechanics. Then you continue with Easy, Medium, and Hard levels, as well as puzzles submitted by the community. You can make and share your own puzzles, and there are also multi-player options.

Once you get into the main puzzles, there is often more than one solution per puzzle. If you get stuck, I always found it helpful to hit play on the partially completed puzzle to see what will happen if you don’t add anything. Then start adding the next steps that are required to complete the puzzle, working backward from the goal if necessary.

There are over 200 built-in puzzles to solve, and you can also create your own unlimited levels to save or share with others. You can even record video of level solutions. The game includes a community of forums to chat with other players, perhaps exchanging puzzles, along with a detailed wiki which contains instructions on getting started. The wiki also has instructions on how to program your very own Contraption Maker mods.

From the folks at Spotkin:

We’re excited about all the things we can do now that we have so much more processing power than we did 20+ years ago. We’ve added in Javascript Modding, Contraption Sharing and collaborative Maker Lab just to name a few.

This is truly a passion for our team, but we are always looking for ways to improve – we recently created our Contraptioneers team that are helping us to craft projects, lessons and a wide array of ways kids can get involved with building contraptions.

For those who like their standards and acronyms, Contraption Maker fits in solidly with STEM education and activities, and probably fulfills a decent number of the Next Generation Science Standards.

How will kids like it? I have a sample size of two kids here at my house: my daughter, almost 14, and my son, age 11. My son is the game-fiend. He likes this game very much, even continuing to play after he’d given me his review. He likes the variety of levels, found the tutorial helpful, and likes the challenge of solving different types of puzzles. The fact that he chooses, on his own, to play this game again and again says a lot for this Minecraft-obsessed boy.

My daughter enjoys games, but they aren’t her go-to activity. Still, she enjoys this game very much. She likes how many options there are, and loves to design her own levels. She likes being able to do things in the game that you can’t do with real-life marble runs, such as suspend balls in the air that will drop when you press Go. She needs to be in the mood to play the game, but it definitely speaks to one side of her personality.

This game is fantastic for critical thinking, engineering, design, cause and effect, and puzzle solving skills. It’s great fun for kids (and adults), but it’s also very educational. A perfect summer activity to keep young minds engaged, since they’ll be thinking spatially, sequentially, and learning to solve problems. This game is about as solidly in the intersection of fun and education as I can conceive.

Available for Windows and Mac, Contraption Maker is a downloadable game and only costs $9.99. For hours and hours of unlimited play, that’s a bargain. In addition, for a limited time, teachers, after school program directors, parent educators and homeschoolers, and librarians can get the Teacher Edition for free.

Using 'Contraption Maker' in schools. Image: Spotkin
Using ‘Contraption Maker’ in schools. Image: Spotkin

Note: I received a copy of this game for review purposes.

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Jenny Bristol is an Editor at GeekDad and a founding Director at GeekMom. She is a lifelong geek who spends her time learning, writing, homeschooling her two wickedly smart kids, losing herself in history, and mastering the art of traveling on a shoestring.