I will preface this review for my regular readers: Spintronics is not a boardgame. It’s an educational puzzle ‘game’.
Deep in the American mid-west, a daughter of clock-makers is exploring an interesting new phenomenon, Spintronics! In the absence of electrical power, but the abundance of old clocks, a strong desire to avoid doing laundry has driven our hero Natalia into inventing a range of devices that can be linked together to perform some very interesting tasks. We are here to learn, and to help her along the way. We are here, to Spin.
1 Player | Designed by Alyssa and Paul Boswell
Following the success of the Turing Tumble, creators Paul and Alyssa Boswell spent their next few years developing their company Upper Story, and diving into the development of a mechanical system for teaching electronic circuits. Spintronics was carefully developed and brought to Kickstarter in mid 2021, a very successful campaign! The development process of the Spintronics is truly fascinating. I read through Paul’s posts detailing the iterative development of the Spintronics components. To get them to behave like real electronic components required immense ingenuity and so much testing and refinement. It’s pretty crazy to see the final solutions for some of the components, with tens of parts. I’m pretty blown away that this could be manufactured at all, let alone sold as a viable product at a reasonable price point.
How does it work?
Spintronics is a puzzle game, where players learn about how electronics work while solving puzzles of increasing difficulty. To solve puzzles, players build circuits using sprocketed rotating components linked with lengths of chain. Spintronics is spring powered, no batteries needed!
The various Spintronics widgets implement electronic components. Act One includes a battery, capacitor, ammeter, and some switches, junctions and resistors, along with a puzzle book containing 67 puzzles and accompanying story. Act Two adds some advanced components (and more of the above), plus additional puzzles.
The puzzle book leads you through a story (wonderfully illustrated by Aleksandar Zolotic) and presents puzzles one by one. Each puzzle has an initial set-up of components, a desired ‘end’ condition, and then a list of components that are allowed to be used to construct a solution. The player adds the components to the circuit in a way they think will solve the puzzle and then pulls the cord on the battery to ‘charge it up’ and see what happens.
The battery provides current and voltage to the Spintronics circuits in the form of powering loops of chain that link the circuit components together. As the battery pulls the chain, circuit components spin. The various components add their behaviours to the motion of the circuit. Resistors slow down the chain, junctions split it, switches can start and stop sections from spinning, and the capacitor and ammeter can be used to measure output. Puzzles will give you a stated goal (e.g. make this component spin only while the switch is off) and a list of what you can use, often with some components placed in fixed positions. Then it’s up to you to link everything up in a way that works.
As you move through the puzzles more complicated components and concepts are introduced, and concepts such as logic gates are taught, building up your problem solving toolkit and allowing you to tackle the harder and harder challenges as they are presented. There are 67 puzzles provided in the Act One book and limitless opportunity for experimentation and reconfiguration of the parts provided is possible.
What do I think?
At the point of writing this review I’ve just finished the Act One puzzle book. All the components have now been introduced to me and I’m (re)learning the concepts of electronics pretty intuitively. I will say that compared to the Turing Tumble, Spintronics has certainly felt more like an educational/tutorial experience in learning the principles of electronics than a puzzle experience. There is a broad similarity between Spintronics and Turing Tumble, so if you recognise very familiar comments here to my Turing Tumble review, that’s because, well, they are pretty similar products!
The Good Stuff
- The Spintronics is just really fun to play with. Building and testing your own circuits to solve the puzzles is something that I can get extremely excited about. It’s both engaging to set-up and ponder over, and then fun to build your solution. It’s very satisfying and rewarding to watch what you’ve assembled ‘work’.
- The story that comes along with the puzzle book is fun and thematic, if a little bit silly. I can see it really engaging children by giving the puzzles they are solving some meaning. The artwork is lovely and the little comments and annotations that you find as you move through the puzzle book are entertaining.
- The way that the puzzles ‘ramp up’ is great. You begin using only the most basic components, and then the puzzle book introduces new ideas, mechanics and components slowly so as to build up your familiarity and tool set at a manageable pace. By about halfway through the puzzle book you have been introduced to all the components and the puzzles start to get very interesting!
- The component quality and production of the components is very good, honestly I’m so impressed by the intricacy of this product. The box has a great storage solution which neatly lays out all the components, and has appropriate places to everything, including storing the puzzle book open to the page you were up to.
- Unlike other puzzles (e.g. jigsaw puzzles or things like Rush Hour), the Spintronics also has scope to simply be experimented with or played with. I’ve found myself just laying out pieces to see what crazy contraptions I can come up with, or thinking ‘Hey I wonder if I can do this!’ and trying it out.
- I’m an Engineer and Programmer, and I among my studies were the intricacies of how electronics work. As an educational tool, I think that the Spintronics provides a great insight into how the combination of basic electronic components can form very complex systems. I think that in a world where ‘how electronics work’ is increasingly abstracted from the average person, it’s important for children (and adults!) to have an appreciation for how these things work at a basic level.
- Along with the game teaching useful things about how electronics work, it also teaches (children especially) very good problem solving skills. The way the puzzles are structured and solved encourages building solutions out of smaller blocks (partial problem solving), as well as testing and evaluating solutions as they are made. You can trace paths through the contraption before triggering it to get a good idea of what will happen when you do. This skill of planning and prediction is something that is very useful to have, and hard to teach!
- Unlike the Turing Tumble, set-up and tear-down is really quick. The magnetic attachment system is quite ingenious and works very well. Assembling my first few puzzles, I was initially thinking “oh no, I’m going to have to make minor chain adjustments constantly” but it’s very easy to just slide things around until everything first nicely with chain loops you already have.
- Overall the Spintronics is a really impressive analogy for how electronics work. I went in imagining some of the concepts presented might feel a bit of a stretch or a bit fictional, but everything is very much grounded in very realistic terms, it all makes sense and feels correct.
The Bad Stuff
- Being an analogue device there are occasionally one off ‘bugs’ which happen that throw off your solution. The chain can fall off or sometimes get a bit jammed, and components can fall over You do learn to cater to these quirks though.
- The capacitor is a bit hard to use effectively. Just due to the mechanical nature of it, friction and the springs inside it. Having to tap it to get it to read the ‘correct’ voltage, and then trying to judge if it’s close enough to the solution or not to be ‘correct’ is a bit hard. Based on everything else in the Spintronics, I’m sure it’s the best possible solution, but it’s still something that held me up a few times.
- The Ammeter is so noisy! Again I’m not sure there’s a better option here but I actually mildly dread having to use it, I can’t stand the high pitched whine it makes!
- Assembling the chain was AN ORDEAL. Thankfully this only happens once, but with my larger fingers and the 300 odd links that need to be connected, this really held me up in the beginning. Be prepared to set aside some time for this before you get started, and maybe even do it before giving it to excited kids who will want to dive into this right away.
- While the story book contains very comprehensive and friendly instructions, you sort of have to read everything. It’s not obvious what is ‘fluff’ and what is critical tutorial. While I personally don’t mind this, I know there is a significant percentage of the population that ‘skips the cutscenes’.
- Maybe this one is because I’m an adult, or maybe it’s because I’ve studied electronics before, but I found many of the puzzles (probably about half) I would look at and dismiss, being able to clearly see how they are solved in my head. This was especially true of the ‘tutorial’ puzzles (the puzzles immediately following the introduction of a new concept), which I will discuss more below. I do think that Act Two probably won’t suffer from this issue anywhere as much.
- Compared to the Turing Tumble, there are a lot more learning/example ‘puzzles’ than actual puzzles. Overall, (at least for Act One) Spintronics is less of a puzzle game and more of an educational experience than Turing Tumble. I personally found this a bit of a let down, because I didn’t really go in wanting to learn electronics, more wanting to experience the ‘puzzles’.
This isn’t my traditional sort of review as the Spintronics isn’t really a game so much as an educational puzzle experience. As far as recommending it though, I certainly find it an extremely enjoyable ‘thing to do’ and can definitely see its value as an educational tool for kids. If you liked the look of it from my description and pictures you can find out more about it at the Spintronics Website, and I can definitely say it’s very fun, very satisfying, and comprises a wholly unique puzzle solving experience that is perfect for kids and adults with an interest in electronics or puzzles.