Tracy Boswell Critical Thinking

West High School freshman O’Ryan Gardner stood behind a blue line on the floor, raised his right hand and repeated the U.S. Air Force Cadet Honor Code in front of his classmates.

“I will not lie, cheat or steal; nor will I tolerate those amongst us who do,” Gardner promised before stepping across the line as an Air Force JROTC cadet — one of Tracy’s first in the inaugural program at West High this year.

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Contact Glenn Moore at or 830-4252.

Turing Tumble is a new type of game where players (ages 8+) build mechanical computers powered by marbles to solve logic puzzles. It's fun, addicting, easy-to-learn, and while you're playing, you discover how computers work.

I'm all about teaching kids to code. When I was a professor at the University of Minnesota, I saw how valuable it is for all students to be coders. I have three young kids and I've tried all sorts of games to build their interest in coding. The problem is that they all treat computers like abstract, black boxes. They overlook the fundamental, most amazing concept: how simple switches, connected together in clever ways, can do incredibly smart things.

Kids learn best when they use their senses to explore concepts. Turing Tumble is the only game that lets kids see and feel how computers work. The logic isn’t hidden inside a computer chip – it’s all right there in front of them. It builds logic and critical thinking skills, fundamental coding concepts, and grounds their understanding of computers. 

And adults, this game is not just for kids!

It's a game unlike any you've ever played. It takes creative thinking to come up with a solution to each puzzle - you can't just stumble across the solution by trial and error - and it's extremely gratifying to build it and watch it work. Even if you're an expert programmer, I guarantee you'll find the latter puzzles a challenge.

The Game

Turing Tumble comes with 105 parts:

  • 1 game board
  • 1 game board stand
  • 30 ramps
  • 10 bits  
  • 8 gear bits  
  • 6 crossovers  
  • 4 gears  
  • 3 interceptors  
  • 1 presser 
  • 20 red marbles
  • 20 blue marbles  
  • 1 puzzle book

How it works

The game board releases one marble at a time from the top. Each marble falls down the board and when it reaches the bottom, it pushes down one of two black flippers at the bottom that release another ball. If it pushes down the left flipper, a blue ball is released. If it pushes down the right flipper, a red ball is released.

Players add logic by putting 6 different types of parts onto the board:

The ramp directs balls in one direction, either to the left or to the right.

The crossover lets ball paths cross over one another. Balls come in one side and exit on the opposite side.

The bit adds logic. It stores information by pointing to the right or to the left, like a 1 or 0. It becomes more and more important as the puzzles progress.

When the computer’s objective is complete, the interceptor is used to stop the computer from releasing any more balls.

Like the bit, the gear bit stores information by pointing right or left, but when the gear bit is flipped, it also turns other gear bits connected to it by gears

The gear bits are mind-bending, but they add a whole new level of functionality to the board. They also make the computer "Turing complete", which means that if the board was big enough, it could do anything a regular computer could do!

Turing Tumble comes with a book of 51 puzzles. They start out easy and become steadily more challenging. Each puzzle leads the player to discover new concepts that can be applied to more complicated puzzles later on. The puzzles are woven into a 20-page comic story, beautifully illustrated by Jiaoyang Li, where each puzzle brings Alia the space engineer closer to rescue from a seemingly deserted planet. Jiaoyang is a senior at the University of Minnesota, majoring in both art and computer science. This will hopefully be her first published artwork. 

"I've had the chance to preview the material with my 8 and 10 year old children and they loved the story-based approach. The graphics are very high quality and the story is fast-paced and engaging. The puzzles do a great job of showing how you can build complex systems from simple building blocks." -- Dr Tracy Gardner, Director Tech Age Kids

How to Play

The goal of each puzzle is to build a computer that completes an objective. For example, here's challenge #1:

The objective of this puzzle is to make all of the blue balls (and only the blue balls) reach the end.

You begin by building the starting setup. 

Your job is to figure out where to put the parts listed under "Add to board" in order to complete the objective. It tells you to add four green ramps to the board...but where? Here's what happens when you run it with just the starting setup:

Without those four green ramps, it doesn't work at all - there's nothing to catch balls coming off the third ramp down, so they fall freely and bounce all over the place. And it doesn't complete the objective, since sometimes red balls reach the end, too.

Can you think of the solution?

To solve this puzzle, place the four ramps in such a way that they complete the path from the top of the board to the bottom of the board. 

Here it is running:

Way to go!

What Kinds of Things Can It Do?

The Turing Tumble mechanical computer can do all sorts of things. It can:

  • count
  • add
  • subtract
  • multiply
  • divide
  • compare numbers
  • it can do logic
  • it can create patterns  
  • …and much more 

Here are a few examples...

Example 1:

This computer is the solution to puzzle 11, where the objective is to create a computer that generates the pattern: blue, blue, red, red, blue, blue, red, red…

Example 2:

When you reach puzzle 19, binary numbers are introduced into the puzzles. In the following picture, a number is represented by four bits. To read the number from the bits, all you have to know is that the top bit is worth 1, the second bit down is worth 2, the third bit is worth 4, and the fourth bit is worth 8. Simply add together the values of the bits that are pointed right. For example,

Now, here’s a computer that counts up to 8 in binary. You can ignore the other parts, just watch those four bits.

Example 3:

Here's one of the more difficult puzzles. The goal of this puzzle is to create a pattern that starts with a group of 2 blue balls, then a group of 4 blue balls, and then a group of 8 blue balls, with each group separated by a single red ball.

Stretch goals

Stretch goal #1 ($150,000 - reached!): We’ve heard from many of you that with kids at home or in classrooms, it's important to be able to glance at the box and see that all the pieces are accounted for. If total funding reaches $150,000, we'll upgrade the box insert to a vacuum molded insert with shaped holes for the individual parts. 

Stretch goal #2 ($200,000 - reached!): We think it's important that the Turing Tumble box is sturdy enough to stand up to repeated use. Both at home and in a classroom setting. If total funding reaches $200,000, we will upgrade the box to a premium design with a magnetic latch, and we'll make it out of thicker cardboard. 

Stretch goal #3 ($250,000 - reached!): Sometimes you just need a little extra help. We'll put hints to each of the puzzles online. This is in addition to the solutions that are already in the back of the book.

Stretch goal #4 ($300,000 - reached!): Four extra red balls and four extra blue balls in every copy. By now, we've probably got a full set of balls hiding under our fridge. And our couch.

Stretch goal #5 ($350,000 - reached!): Stand upgrade! We'll give the stand adjustable tilt so you can speed up or slow down your computer. Might need to add a CPU cooling fan if you get it going too fast. :)

Stretch goal #6 ($400,000): This is the big one. Can we reach it? If we can hit this stretch goal, I'll create *9* more puzzles – up to 60! We'll also make an educator’s version of the puzzle book online, and we'll create a website where you can share your own puzzles/creations.

International Shipping

Good news! We have enough backers that we can import Turing Tumble into several countries and pay customs fees ourselves. Check the FAQ to see a list of the countries that will not have to pay VAT. 

The cost of international shipping is reduced by $10 for our international backers (excluding Canada)! See this update for more information.

Creating Turing Tumble

I spent a good part of the last two years designing Turing Tumble. I started by attempting to make it something like a board game version of the wonderful browser-based game, Manufactoria, where you build Turing machines to sort objects and create patterns. It wasn’t long before I ran into the same problem other programming board games have—if your program has more than a few instructions, it becomes a long, tedious process to run it by hand, and the person running it is prone to error—especially because they’re the one who made the program in the first place.

I knew the game had to be able to run the programs itself, and that’s when I started looking into mechanical computers. An old toy from the 1960’s came up in my searches—the Digi-Comp II. The Digi-Comp II was probably the first mechanical computer powered by marbles. It was a great place to start, but I still had a long way to go. It wasn’t programmable, it wasn’t Turing complete, and it wasn’t a game. 

I began by creating a system where parts could be placed anywhere on the board to program the computer. The first part I created was the bit. I thought a simple T-shaped part (a) would do the trick, but I 3D printed it and found that it didn’t. When it was angled at 45 degrees, the ball sat directly on top of its rotational axis, so there was no force to rotate the part. I played with the shape, size, weight, balance, and surface friction, and eventually arrived at a working design (g). However, when I altered the design to make it injection-mold-friendly and CNC milled it (h), it became too light and bouncy. A ball would flip it one way, and it would bounce right back the other way again. I made a few more adjustments and finally arrived at (i).

The ramp was the next part I designed. I thought it would be easy, but a simple ramp (a, b) didn’t work at all. If two or more ramps were placed in a row, balls got going too fast, and by the time they hit another part, they’d bounce off the board. To slow the balls, I tried all sorts of things, but eventually arrived at a counterweight system (c) that carried through to the final version (f).

The crossover was another tricky part. At first, I tried to make it like a tube that took a ball over another part and back down on the other side (a). But since the only part that could fit behind it was the ramp, the next version had a ramp built in (b). It worked well enough, but it stuck too far out of the board, leaving no room for the gear bits. The next version was flat (c), then more reliable (d), and then injection-mold-friendly (e and f).

I tried a few different approaches to make bits that could turn each other. Eventually I arrived at a design using gears. I found that the gear bits had to be balanced differently than the bits. Bits needed extra weight at the top of the part so that after it flipped it had some weight to keep it there. Gear bits, on the other hand, needed to be balanced because the extra weight on top became too much when, say, three gear bits were connected together. The later designs had equal weight on top and bottom.

The interceptor was, as you might expect, the easiest part to make. The first was 3D printed (a), and the final version was CNC milled and compatible with injection molding (b).

The game board also went through several iterations. At first, I 3D printed a test board with just 6 places to insert parts (a). As the parts evolved, the test board did, too. By the time I created test board (e), things were working well, so I designed a complete game board (f). I had it 3D printed elsewhere since my 3D printer wasn't nearly big enough. I used that game board a lot to continue improving the reliability of the parts and to do beta testing. Then I designed a final, injection-mold-friendly version and made it by CNC milling (g).

How will the funding be used?

This game has a higher funding goal than most tabletop games because of the large number (and size) of plastic parts - it's sort of like a LEGO set, but without the massive quantities that would normally bring costs down. The injection molds for the 14 different plastic parts will require the majority of the funding goal. The rest of the funding will go to per-game costs for 75 plastic parts, 40 painted balls, 30 stainless steel counterweights, a 100+ page booklet, and packaging. A small fraction will be left for unforeseen costs.

Special thanks for the wonderful articles!

Popular Mechanics: This Brilliant Mechanical Computer Is Built for Gaming

Boing Boing: Cool marble-powered mechanical computer to solve logic problems

TechCrunch: The Turing Tumble lets you and your kids build real mechanical computers

The Mac Observer: Turing Tumble on Kickstarter Has Kids Building Mechanical Computers

GeekDad: Kickstarter Alert: Program a Mechanical Computer With ‘Turing Tumble’

Tech Age Kids: Turing Tumble: Gaming on a Mechanical Computer

The Toy Insider: Turing Tumble Has Potential to Create a Coder in Everyone

Engaged Family Gaming: Kickstarter Preview: Turing Tumble

The Laughing Squid: The Turing Tumble, A DIY Mechanical Computer Powered by Marbles That Solve Puzzles of Logic

Risks and challenges

Besides some cosmetics, the game is fully designed, so there is relatively little risk. The change to injection mold manufacturing introduces some risk. Though the parts are already designed to be compatible with injection molding, it may be that the when parts are made with this new process, they have a different balance or need to otherwise be adjusted to meet tolerance requirements. These types of things could cause delay or additional cost, but of course as a Kickstarter backer, the additional cost would not be passed on to you.

If the project is fully backed here on Kickstarter, we will likely work with Panda Game Manufacturing to create the first production run (for everything except the injection molded parts). They are a mainstay of game manufacturing, having manufactured popular games like Pandemic, Mice and Mystics, and more. They require a 5 month lead time. We're adding an additional 2 months to our projected delivery date to make sure we meet our goal.

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