Piper: A Hackable ‘Minecraft’ Adventure

Piper Blueprints
This is what we’re going to build! Photo: Robin Brooks

When I first heard about Piper, and its “Bring Minecraft to Life” premise, I thought it sounded too good to be true. First off you have to build your own computer. Okay – not the circuit board and screen, but the box it goes in, and its connections. Not only will you build this but you’ll also be able to play Minecraft on it. Better than all of that, you’ll be able build things in the real world that respond to what you’re doing in the Minecraft world, AND you can build real world switches that will work things inside the computer. Yes INSIDE the computer! What alchemy is this?

Now I know for all the many marvelous, computer literate, makers out there, this is neither news nor sorcery, but if you’re a ten year old, or his DIY incompetent, techno-duffer of a dad, then the idea of Piper is something close to magic.

piper components
From chaos will come order. Maybe. Photo: Robin Brooks

When the Piper set arrived, and I pulled out all the pieces, and its massive blueprint, I was not hopeful. I have a history of finding simple-build kit anything but, and, even when they are built, finding the end product disappointing. Not so with Piper.

I won’t say the build went without a hitch, because that wouldn’t be true, but after some initial head-scratching, the blueprint is reasonably simple to follow, everything fits together as it is supposed to, and all the tools you need for the build are provided. My ten year old loved it, my seven year old enjoyed helping (though the rate of progress wasn’t fast enough for him), and my four year old helped tighten some of the screws.

building piper
Piper fosters problem solving and teamwork. Photo: Robin Brooks

Over the course of two post-school afternoons we turned some bags of screws and wires, and a pile of laser-cut pieces of wood, into a fully functioning Raspberry Pi in a box. The sense of accomplishment was extraordinary. And that was just me.

Once we were up and running, I barely had a look in. Both of my bigger boys have immersed themselves in the Minecraft Story Mode. This has taught them how to build a control box for the story’s main character, a proximity sensor, a physical switch, and, what my son calls a “danger sensor.” They have thoroughly enjoyed themselves doing it. The controller is a little fiddly, and there has been a small amount of moaning that they can’t control their character with as much precision as they’d like, but then my oldest likes to grumble when his diamond shoes are too tight.

Piper Finished
Playing with our finished Piper. Photo: Robin Brooks

Piper can be played in Story Mode, and comes with four missions ready to play. These teach the basics of building the game’s physical components. More missions can be downloaded, once you’ve hooked Piper up to the internet. The first time we did this, there was also a general update to the latest version of the software. Again, this all went smoothly. It’s also possible to play the game in sandbox mode. This was locked at first, but after completing the first four story mode missions, and running the update, we can now play it freely.

Piper back of box
Even the box is great.

I’ve been seriously impressed with this Piper set. From my first impression of its extremely appealing Minecraft style box, though the build and execution of its software, it has been a great family bonding experience. The boys have learned lots, we’ve shared something great together and it continues to teach them about coding and electronics.

Piper Minecraft really is an impressive piece of kit. I find that a product of this nature rarely reaches the expectations whipped up by  its marketing department. Piper not only reaches them, it goes beyond. It might not be alchemy, but Piper Minecraft is magic.

Disclosure: I received a Piper Minecraft to build and test with my boys. Piper Minecraft is available now in the US. 

Dad of Boys, Reader of Books, Player of Games. Haven't had a 'real' job or a full night's sleep since 2005