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Posts Tagged ‘kids

Minecraft kids

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If you have not yet heard about Minecraft, you owe it to yourself to just give it a try. The game can be played for free in many ways, though you can always opt to contribute 20 euros to Mojang to thank them for their efforts and creativity. Being a paying customer also gives you access to multi-player games on public servers, though that could also be achieved for free with a bit of tinkering. But hey: 20 euros for literally hundreds of hours of gaming is really nothing. Compare that to the price of a small Lego Star Wars box for instance. Just try the free version and see for yourself.

Simply put: Minecraft is just as fun as Lego in real life, except this all happens on computers and you do not risk loosing a toe stepping on pieces in the dark, teaching your kids a whole lot of new swearwords in the process. Minecraft takes place in an unlimited virtual world composed of big blocks that stick to each other by magic. There is nothing else to it, really. Blocks have textures, they can be transformed, attached, dug, destroyed, but what you mostly do is shove them around. The main player’s interface is a first-person view with an inventory and that’s it.

The initial story was a bit more elaborate: you were left on your own on a desert island and had to build your own shelter before night when zombies attack. You could combine blocks of different kinds to build objects or other materials, e.g. burn sand to produce glass, or combine woodsticks to create a pickaxe.

Since about a year, the game added a new dimension by introducing a creative mode. You can now fly around the world and have unlimited access to all building blocks you want. Forget about zombies and monsters, if you want to fight bad guys there are much better games than Minecraft out there. Creative mode is all about making stuff. Start from scratch, have ideas, make something ugly, destroy it and start again or enhance your initial ideas and reach something you can be proud of. Get ideas from other people and build your own world.

Minecraft in creative mode sounds a lot like software writing, in more ways than one. You start with great ideas, you cut it down into manageable components, perform side experiments, try a prototype, then you realize you had it all wrong from the start and begin anew for the best, getting better at it in the process. Of course this is the same thrill you had as a kid when creating your own toys from random Lego pieces. All engineers will tell you Lego was the first step in the direction of learning about the pleasure of building things.

Minecraft is not the first game to try and adapt the Lego concept to a virtual world, but it is definitely the first successful one. Douglas Coupland described something very similar in Microserfs in 1995

Technically: Minecraft is a pure Java application which is supposed to run everywhere. In practice you get different bugs on various platforms but all in all you get more trouble with the Java runtime than the game itself, and Oracle is not making this any easier with each Java release. If you do not know how to install Java, I suggest you find a helping hand and make sure they are ready to maintain your computer every couple of weeks or so. From my experience: I spend more time fixing Java installs than anything else in the neighborhood.

What neighborhood? Let me explain.

My kids started playing Minecraft about a year ago. We have several computers at home and they would each build their own world on a different machine. Problem started when they wanted to switch machines for whatever reason. I first started by putting their save files on a network share but that turned out to be quite a mess and they were still each locked into their own world. First attempt: start up a Minecraft server on a local Linux box and have the kids share a world through it. Worked for a while, but it required booting a noisy Linux box in addition, even for just one player. Not hard to do but certainly an obstacle.

Second attempt: use a rented box at OVH to host the Minecraft server. This way it is always started and who cares if it is noisy? Inconvenient: needs a working Internet connection to play. Advantage: the kids can play from wherever they want. Of course the word spread around pretty fast. We shared the server address with a lot of friends, to the point that I had to install a white list to limit incoming users to people we know, or at least friends of friends.

There are implicit rules on this server:

– Never destroy anything you did not build yourself
– Do not use dynamite or spawn explosive monsters
– The rest is left to your imagination

Since I am running a vanilla Minecraft server there is no possibility to ban the use of monsters or dynamite so I have to trust the kids to behave. It does not always work but in general we do not have too much vandalism to deplore. There are compatible versions sporting plugin systems that allow banning this or that, but I just could not figure out how to use them with the existing world we have. Oh well.

Kids are completely unattended on the server. Ages range from 10 to 15, boys and girls, and everybody is completely responsible for their actions. I made very clear that I am no Deus Ex Machina and will honor their requests as an Admin without questions. Over the past six months this server has been blooming beyond my wildest expectations. Crossing it from side to side takes maybe 10 minutes flying full speed, and every single inch is built. Screenshots along this page will show you how creative kids can be when left alone. It is one thing to see a YouTube video of a Minecraft castle, but building one yourself from scratch with 2-3 friends is really an experience. And if you end up with a half-broken castle with too many towers and no doors, who cares? The kids are so proud with what they have accomplished, it is a real treat to observe.

They did not just create buildings or statues, mind you, they also created arenas to fight monsters, water chutes, mazes, and all sorts of other games for one or more players. From a construction game, this has turned into a game construction game.

As I recently added a name to the server white list, I noticed that most kids playing on this server are now completely unknown to me. When walking around the neighborhood, I sometimes get greeted by young’uns I have never met before, who let me know the server needs to be updated or restarted.

Last week, my son got home and told me he was meeting friends in Minecraft to build an underground castle. As I inquired “friends from school?”, he answered: “yeah, most of them. Some I don’t know”. He told me they had an appointment at the Market around 6pm. Market? Yes, they named a lot of places. You would not know because they did not bother putting signs, but they have names for all landmarks. I realized at this point that this is much more than just a game server. For many of these kids, this is an open window into another world. Their world.

Maintaining the server alive has now become a crucial question. And I should certainly mind my backups to avoid catastrophes.

Here are some landmarks they achieved over the past year.


Pretty amazing stuff. And lots of patience, too.

Not sure what the kids will get from it in the end, but this is certainly building more than just virtual houses on a remote server.


Written by nicolas314

Tuesday 8 January 2013 at 12:18 am

Posted in fun

Tagged with , ,

Stormy Sunday

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Orcs vs Dwarves

Orc and dwarf fighting for gold

My kids were bored on one of these unkind-weathery Sundays so we decided to invent a new war game. Creating the game from scratch took us most of the afternoon and we had to modify rules several times to make it balanced. This is what we ended up with.


We picked a bunch of Lego characters, dwarves and orcs. I stumbled upon these in a toy store one day and got them for pretty much nothing, thinking they might be fun for the boys. Six dwarves will be fighting 12 orcs.

The proud dwarf team wants to get some gold

Proud dwarf team on the way to gold

Orc badasses

Orc are badasses

Game setup

Game setup

Game setup (2)

Game setup (2)

For the board itself we used our carpet: a blue background with yellow dots organized along an orthogonal grid, perfect to align pieces. Walls are delimited with Kapla pieces because they happen to have the correct length to align with the carpet dots, but we could have used books, rulers, or larger pieces of Lego.

We created a maze with the wooden blocks, with long narrow corridors, wide rooms, choke points and two entrances. This was a lot more difficult than initially expected as paths need to be created to avoid making an obvious, shorter route to treasures.


Time to make up rules: the dwarves ought to be much stronger than the orcs because they are the good guys. So the orcs should be in infinite numbers to compensate, which pushes for a mission-based game where the six dwarves have a goal to achieve and countless orcs are trying to prevent them. We distributed three gold gems on the board: the dwarves have to pick them up and bring them all back to their entrance to win the game.


Each player plays in turn. We have an orthogonal grid so movements should be in all directions but diagonals. Dwarves can use up to 6 movement points each turn, orcs can use up to 8. Once a player has moved all his pieces he can attack.


Orcs have 1 attack, 1 defense, and 1 hit point. Once an orc has been hit it is dead and removed from the game.

Dwarves have each 2 attack, 2 defense and 2 hit points. The first time a dwarf is hit it looses its helmet or shield and reduces to 1 attack, 1
defense and 1 hit point. Dwarves are killed on the second sucessful attack.

Attacks are solved using this table:

Lego battles resolution table

Combat Resolution Table

Att-Def is the total attack points minus the defense points for the attacked piece, the leftmost column is the result of a tossed six-sided dice.

  • A-1 means: attacker looses one hit point
  • D-1 means: defenser looses one hit point
  • AE means Attacker Eliminated, DE means Defender Eliminated

Each piece may only attack once during its turn.

Several pieces may attack the same one, cumulating their attack points. The player who receives hit points decides how to distribute them to his pieces.

Building the game turned out to be much more fun than actually playing it. The first few games had to be re-balanced with everybody contibuting new rules and the final result is quite simple and satisfactory.

Beyond Orcs and Dwarves

Starting from there we created more Lego-based games around the same set of rules: Jedi knights against stormtroopers and clones, with special rules for heroes, long-range weapons, line of sight and buildings. The same rules were then extended for space battles: ships have several weapons, shields, and hit points corresponding to various parts of their hulls.

Opening the game to three players was a bit more difficult: if the three have equal power two of them will unite against the third, who will be immediately overwhelmed. The poor third player has then the privilege of choosing who of the remaining two will win, by concentrating attacks on one of the two players before he gets eliminated from the board. Our best bet was to spread power as 2 vs 1+1: one player has as much power as the other two combined, which brings the game back to a classic 1vs1.

And then Spring started showing up and it was much more fun to go rollerskating around the neighbourhood with friends. Can’t say we miss stormy Sundays though.

Written by nicolas314

Monday 25 April 2011 at 5:56 pm

Posted in fun, gaming, lego

Tagged with , , ,