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Bugs in the Kitchen: A battery-powered robot fuels a frenzy of fun

Bugs in the Kitchen

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It's unclear to me whether the seven-year-old boy with whom I played a game of Bugs in the Kitchen ever truly grasped the intricacies of its process. I'm not at all that sure that I figured it out. It's a little like being blindfolded and swinging a bat at a pinata. With no point of reference, you keep stumbling around swinging at air, hoping to eventually hit the thing. With Bugs in the Kitchen, you're pushing gates around in a labyrinth, hoping to get the game's battery-powered "Hexbug" into your trap on the board.

The box and board
Publisher (Ravensburger) and Skip Maloney

The "hexbug" is the key to this game's charm. About thumb length, with a plastic orange body, adorned with flexible, black plastic legs, the 'on' switch sets this thing in motion. Basically, it just vibrates, but on the game's board, that vibration, directed by walls, sets it in motion, careening around the surface of the board, bumping into those walls, or traveling down corridors you've created on your turn to direct its movement. It's quick, which imparts a sense of urgency to the process. In a single round of play, this will last about a minute, but it's a frenzied minute, as you try to figure out how to get this little bug into your trap.

There's a bit of construction involved at the outset, as you prepare the board for play. There are 24 holes in the board into which, from both sides, you have to anchor and place a set of finger-length plastic knives, forks and spoons. These implements rotate around the plastic anchor that you've inserted into the hole on the board. They 'click' into any of four positions; up, down, right, left. You arrange them initially in any of three suggested patterns. Make sure, at the start, that the beginning arrangement of the implements matches the manual's design, because it spreads the implements out in a way that balances things. You don't get four forks in one corner of the board, for example.There is a single die with, instead of numbers, images of a knife, fork, spoon and three wild-card question marks.

You turn the Hexbug on and set it in the middle of the board, which will place it in the center of a 'room' (four of the implements arranged around it) from which, initially, it cannot escape. You roll the die, and the image you roll determines which implement on the board you can rotate (a "?" roll is anything you want it to be).

So now, with the Hexbug buzzing, you have to figure out which gate you're going to alter that will move the bug toward your trap. Not only which gate (because that might have been decided by the die roll), but in which direction you're going to turn it; one quarter turn only. And you can't figure it out. Your head is trying to go through the process it would attempt in any kind of maze situation - "If I move the gate this way, the bug will go over here, and then over here, but wait a minute, it'll hit a wall, so how about I move the gate in this direction. . . " - while the seven-year-old is bouncing up and down, telling you to hurry up, and the thing is buzzing and jumping around, and the first thing you know, you reach out and turn the implement with no clear idea of what the result will be. You're guessing because of the inherent pressure of this buzzing little robot.

Every time you get the Hexbug to jump into your trap, you get a round, cardboard scoring disk (with the picture of a cockroach; or, in Spanish translation, un cucaracha). First person to secure five of these, wins. All versions, except for the English one, use the cockroach as a title; Kakerlakak, in German, La Cucaracha, in Spanish.

So once the bug has dropped into one player's trap, you re-set the board, re-arranging the implements in one of the three provided patterns, and start over.

I am assuming that careful consideration of each option as you ponder your gate-moving equation would elicit a fairly straightforward escape pattern. . . move this gate this way, that gate that way, this one over here in this direction, and bingo, the little bug zips along right into your trap. . but the game doesn't really play out like that. First of all, the die knocks two of the three implements off your list of gate-turning options. The "?" roll is almost worse, because it forces you to consider all three. It is a frenzy of indecision, made more complicated by the addition of a seven-(or -eight, or -nine) year-old, who's guessing all the time anyway, and probably keyed up, because of the bouncing, buzzing bug.

There is even an instruction in the manual, suggesting that if someone is taking too long to make up their minds, you are encouraged to prompt them into action.

"Hey, I've got work in the morning, you think you could speed this up?"

The little bug gets stuck on occasion, too, which leads to little finger flicks to get him on his way. And having just opened a gate to get him moving in one direction, one tends to prompt the little bugger in a self-serving direction. With two open 'doors,' you're going to see if you can't poke him towards the one that will lead him in the direction of your trap. I can see adults hollering "Foul" over this, although not too seriously.

Quite often, in my experience, not only do the rapid-fire decisions you're forced to make, not turn out the way you had planned, but on many occasions, you will assist your opponent; turn a gate, the bug starts moving and bingo, there it is, in your opponent's trap. I did that three times in my first game, and though I did manage to pick up a couple of my own cockroaches (one of which the seven-year-old gave me when he made a similar mistake), I was beaten soundly.

Two disk batteries are included with the game; one already in the bug, and another for when the first one runs down. Not sure about the battery life with this, because at the moment, it's spending a lot more time off, than on.

Great fun, and since it forces you to stay calm as you ponder decisions, it's a good "how to control anxiety" exercise. Decision-making, under pressure. For the seven-year-old, it didn't require a lot of hand-eye coordination, and any careful consideration of options was pretty much beyond him. He just rolled the die, jumped up and down a few times while looking for which gates were forks, knives or spoons and just turned one. He did, however, on a couple of occasions, use a turn to move a gate, far removed from the bug, as if planning for a future move. In my experience, there's not enough time for subtleties with this exercise, because while you're planning on a series of gate moves that will put the bug in your trap, it's already found a home.

And don't forget moving gates to block your opponent's plan. There's that to consider, as well.

It's almost better with fewer players. With four traps open on the board (the maximum; you close traps with fewer, so the bug can't go there), the bug is off the board in a proverbial heartbeat. Less than a minute, normally. With two traps, chosen to be diagonally opposite each other, the bug might stay out there a little longer. Not much longer, mind you, but a little.

It's a game/toy that you'll want to bring down off the shelf for a game or two, and then carefully put away. Leaving it out for the lower end of the age spectrum will invite deconstruction disaster.

It won the 2013 Deutscher Spiele Preis (German game prize) for Best Children's Game. This award is different than the more well-known Spiele des Jahres (Game of the Year), which recognizes achievements in family games. The Deutscher Spiele Preis is awarded to what are described as "gamer's games." The Spiele des Jahres is voted on by a panel of board game critics. The Deutscher Spiele Preis is voted on by "industry stores, magazines, professionals and game clubs."

It's my hope that someone, somewhere is trying to figure out how to bring this "tiny robot" idea to an adult game; maybe using four robots and a task not quite as simple as letting them bounce around a board in search of a first-available exit. If it happens, I'll get back to you.

Bugs in the Kitchen, designed by Peter-Paul Joopen, with artwork by Janos Jantner and Maximilian Jasionowski, is published by Ravensburger. The lower end of its age recommendation is five years old. It can be played by up to four players and start-to-finish won't usually take longer than 15 minutes. It is currently available only at Target (http://www.target.com/p/bugs-in-the-kitchen/-/A-14623228#prodSlot=medium_2_52). That site is offering a "temporary price cut;" down from $24.99 to $19.99