Wot I Think: Learning electronics with Bomb Squad Academy

If there’s one thing I’m sick of, it means I’ve had some sort of head injury and forgotten the many, many, copious things I’m also sick of. But amongst their number is the cavalcade of recent games that feel the need to try to trick me into learning computer programming. You know, I’m good thanks. I’m 40 this year, my brain has pretty much established over multiple attempts that it just isn’t willing to let in computer programming, along with French, the difference between “affect” and “effect” [not to mention “defuse” and “diffuse” -ed.], and the HTML for embedding an email address. You program the games, I’ll play them. Ta.

Anyway, so there’s a nice new puzzle game out called Bomb Squad Academy [official site], a game about defusing bombs against the clock, and – WAIT A SECOND! This game’s teaching me electronics! Why I oughtta…

And it does it really rather well.

The key difference here, from my mini-rant above, is that this isn’t pretending to be something it’s not. It’s not a platform game where you weirdly have to keep running through OR gates. Bomb Squad Academy is very unashamedly about teaching the basics of electronics, and the crucial thing is, it’s managed to make that process immediately applied, and decent fun. As I play through its relatively simple challenges, I just keep thinking, “Good grief, if only I could have had this in 1994 instead of a tired physics teacher and some clapped out electronics boards.”

Approach it as an educational tool, rather than the latest in puzzle gaming innovation, and it does its job splendidly. The game is, in effect, one long tutorial, each new level adding in a new component (best pun I’ve ever used) like wiring, capacitors, XOR gates, and so on. But what’s so crucial is that it’s instantly applied.

I think the main reason all these basics went over my head at school was that so much was taught as floating theory, pencil-drawn circuit diagrams and faith. The theory of AND, OR and XOR gates are simple enough, but if you want to truly learn something, have it embed in your cranium, you need to apply it.

What better application than pretending if you make a mistake you’ll die. You’re disabling bombs, and that involves studying the circuit board, looking what’s powering what, and working out a way to send power from the source to the LEDS marked “Disarm”. Except without accidentally powering up “Detonate”. That leads to a rather big bang, and a message informing you of your demise. With its digital countdowns, there’s always plenty of time to solve a puzzle, but limiting you to a minute or two ensures there’s a degree of pressure. (Sensibly there’s an option to make these times much longer, for any who might need that.) When the boards start getting a lot more complex, it requires a deliberate effort to stay calm, do the diligent work, and not just panic and cut wires at random. Because when you do make a mistake, the explosion is instantaneous and makes me jump every single time.

Bomb Squad is neatly presented, if a little stuffily. It can’t really escape from being a collection of circuit boards with a countdown timer, but it’s all tidy and clear. The writing in those rather formal-looking pop-ups, however, is bright and cheerful, and most importantly, encouraging. And when it comes to games as educational tools, it entirely avoids the most dreadful pitfall of them all: wackiness. Phew.

There are a couple of issues. I’ve encountered a bug where I couldn’t get the Level Select screen to do anything, which required a restart. And oh good lord, the music is horrible. The music played in the lift that descends to hell. Kill it, kill it with bombs and options screens. But beyond this, it’s a solid set up, functional rather than snazzy, but that’s appropriate to the task.

It also manages to achieve that bomb defusing essential – the moment of nervous uncertainty when you cut a wire, either leading to a sudden explosion, or the relief of simple nothingness.

You may be thinking, “Hang on, weren’t Introversion working on a bomb game?” and you’re right. This time last year they revealed Wrong Wire alongside Scanner Sombre as a prototype, and I had a play of it at the time. It was pretty good! But Bomb Squad Academy really doesn’t tread on its toes. Introversion’s game is a pure puzzler, and a lot more involved in terms of techniques. Although we’ve not heard a peep about it since. Meanwhile, Academy is entirely focused on tricking you into learning some basic electronics.

And that’s enough. I heartily encourage you to grab this if you’ve got a kid trying to learn it at school. Heck, if you’re a physics teacher you really should buy a bunch of copies, as this’ll be a surefire way to gain the attention of some of your students. Or if you just fancy reminding yourself about logic gates, pulse generators and capacitors, this is a neat little thing. I’d love to pretend I viewed it all as a smug expert pondering its usefulness for younger players, but that’s just flat-out not true – it taught me a whole bunch, as hard as I tried not to learn anything.

Bomb Squad Academy is out now on Steam for Windows, Mac and Linux, for £5/$7/€7. There’s also an old free demo on Itch.

34 Comments

  1. Premium User Badge

    Drib says:

    Hm, seven bucks? What the heck, might as well. I’ve wondered about the magical realm of electronics engineering and I may as well have a baby’s-first-course of it.

  2. StevieW says:

    Hadn’t heard of this until 15 minutes ago, liked the sound of it so brought it. My first detonation, really wasn’t expecting it, and literally jumped in my chair when it went of. Great game :)

  3. Bleiz says:

    Electronics noob here, but I always thought current had to have a way back, and that it didnt simply “flow” from one direction to another. Can anyone explain, I feel like this game is making me unlearn things!

    • jgsrps says:

      You are absolutely right! Current has to flow in a complete loop, ultimately from a power source (positive terminal of the battery in this case) to a ground reference (negative terminal of the battery). However, this game is still perfectly realistic. Most circuit boards have at least 2 layers of copper (one on top, one on bottom, and can have more inbetween). Often circuit board designers will chose to use one of those layers exclusively as a ground reference; this can often simplify the design of a circuit board.

      Signals can flow back to the negative terminal of the battery by passing through a ground plane on separate layer of the circuit board which is not visible. Signals on one layer can connect to other layers via a small cylinder of copper that passes through the circuit board, called a via.

      The only thing that is really missing is that none of the circuit boards in the game show those vias (which themselves are usually very small, about the size of a mustard seed)… but other than that, the circuit boards look completely reasonable to me!

      Btw I’m an electrical engineer :)

  4. FredSaberhagen says:

    You are correct. It looks like they’ve either simplified that out or assumed/implemented a ground flood of the circuit board (would act as a damn good return path and keep all batteries referenced at the same potential)

  5. Glacious says:

    Fun review:) That was definitely the perfect pun too. Triggered a laugh from me.

    I likewise remember mucking around with some electronic boards back in the 90s, but courtesy of my dad rather than a school teacher. This game could bring back some good memories.

    At least the lousy music will prompt alternative soundtracks. Play with a swelling orchestral movie soundtrack to feel like a hero saving the day in the nick of time. Or a driving electronic beat to dial up the tension. Or put on some classical tunes and an extended timer to chase the relaxing puzzle brain space. And whatever mood you set, be prepared for it to break at the sudden explosion and the music carrying on afterward.

  6. Kommander says:

    Sadly bringing anything with the word bomb in it to an American public school would just be asking for trouble. Perhaps it could be reworked to get around this issue.

    • Otterley says:

      Good point. Perhaps it could be about the circuitry of critical infrastructure instead? ;)

  7. Blad the impaler says:

    French never sticks, John. At the very least you’re not dealing with these maudit(e?) Quebeckers we have in Canada. Absolutely incomprehensible.

    I do however love these little titles that teach you something. Doesn’t matter the subject, they make me feel good about myself.

    • batraz says:

      Come on guys, french is not that hard. If you manage to launch and play dwarf fortress, it should be a walk in the park. Un petit effort !

      • Chaoslord AJ says:

        Il est tres difficile. Sept annees d’ecucation et pas de succes.
        Excuse the spelling.

        • JPRacer77Qc says:

          That was very good actually! Just missing some accents:
          “Il est très difficile. Sept années d’éducation et pas de succès.”

          You misspelled “eCucation/éDucation” but otherwise very good!

    • phuzz says:

      I’m reliably informed by French pals of mine who’ve spent time over there, that Quebecois can’t actually speak French.
      Mind you, they also pretend that they can’t understand me speaking French either :p

      • Ben Damage says:

        A couple of French friends of mine have said the same. I wonder what it is they speak?

        • that_guy_strife says:

          It’s funny because while French (France) people tend to have a clearer elocution, their vocabulary is much more anglicized than what you’d expect from someone living on an english-speaking continent. Québécois French retained more vocabulary and expressions from the Renaissance than France French did, so they sound different.

          Go into the villages of Québec and it’s the same thing as the villages of France – an incomprehensible patois.

          • Rindan says:

            Isn’t something like that true of the US as well? I think I recall reading somewhere that the original English accent from 1600s sounds more like a modern day American New York accent than anything in England today, and the English accent today is looted from English aristocrats.

          • Premium User Badge

            Grizzly says:

            Likewise with the Dutch’s accents and sister languages: Flemish has a lot of “old dutch” in there, where dutch langauges prefers borrowing from german or french or english. Afrikaans, which has it’s roots in Dutch, has more dutch words for things that the Dutch just use english words for, such as anything computer related.

            Dutch people: Try setting your browser to Afrikaans!

  8. Premium User Badge

    Wisq says:

    Just finished it … in only 43 minutes. So, until they add more levels, or some sort of community puzzle sharing system, this is going to remain a very short title.

    I don’t actually have very much electrical engineering background, but from even my limited knowledge, I’m pretty sure this isn’t really teaching you very much about it. I mean, if you don’t know what a capacitor is, then sure. But you’re not even completing proper electric circuits here. The current in the wires could just as easily be lasers in tubes, or water in pipes.

    I found the music fine, so, no idea what John’s issue was there. Not great, but serviceable.

    • Imposter says:

      It does seem a bit short, but I’m not sure how much of that is me already knowing the material. What bothers me more is just how very much they’ve simplified their version of electronics.

      They’ve completely gotten rid of the concept of circuits, and I’m not sure I buy the “clearly they just have a buried ground plane they’re not telling us about” explanation. The way they represent capacitors is actually just wrong since they seem to have both leads going to the same trace, they’re calling latches flip-flops, and one of the puzzles has a magic perpetual electricity machine that only works if you assume that the logic gates have power pins that aren’t shown. That seems unlikely since they’re using SOT23 packages for their logic gates, which I was willing to forgive until then. The entire game would have been considerably more “educational” if they’d been willing to be honest about it being an introduction to simple boolean logic pretty much unrelated to electronics, but I suppose circuit boards look cool.

      Essentially everything specifically electronics in the game is either subtly or entirely wrong, and the “gross oversimplification” comment on the menu screen doesn’t seem like nearly enough of a disclaimer considering this review.

      • Merry says:

        I think this is a bit pompous. As I’m sure you’re aware, modern CPUs are designed to use the absolute minimum power, so each Field Effect Transistor will pass only a very tiny current. Pretty much all the functionality is about potential difference, and the logic is about 5V or 0V being true or false. The fact that, in practice, there must be a reference point and a current flow is neither here nor there. People aren’t going to try to build anything based on this game any more than they are going to treat Call of Duty as training for the Army

        The disclaimer says

        The principles of electronics taught in the game are a gross oversimplification of the way actual electronics work. If you have an EE background, please don’t overthink things.

        I think that’s perfectly adequate, and I think you need to re-read the second sentence

        • Imposter says:

          You’re right, in retrospect the tone was fairly uncalled for. I am going to stand by my criticisms though, especially since most of them are so easy to fix. The capacitor problem particularly could be addressed by just changing the graphics slightly so they’re not in-line with the signal trace.

          I’m also going to take issue with your own mild pomposity on the topic of transistor behavior since I do know how cmos logic circuits work, thank you very much. The circuit does obviously work if we accept that each component has a both hidden power and ground contacts, but that makes it a bit odd that some components have explicit power pins. And while you’re right that fets have negligible leakage current through the gate, we can tell that something in these circuits is sinking current by way the capacitors discharge and signals don’t float. The game really is simplifying an extraordinary amount for the “this is how electronics work” impression that it puts forward.

          I was unnecessarily harsh the first time around, but I really do think they need to either sacrifice some of the visual clarity to put in the boring infrastructure bits of digital logic in the graphics, or put more emphasis on the “has little to do with electronics” disclaimer and make it clearer quite how much they’re leaving out. The game very much does present itself as educational (that the title of this review is “learning electronics with bomb squad academy” seems like pretty good support for that idea) and simplifying electronics by removing voltage, current, and circuits in general just leaves you with a nicely themed boolean logic. Which is fine! It’s really quite good as an introduction to logic gates. It’s just not the game this review mistook it for.

  9. Babymech says:

    So will the lessons from the game actually have any sort of lasting affect, or will it just leave you with a defuse je ne says pass about electronics?

  10. geerad says:

    Have You Played…Rocky’s Boots? That’s the game that taught me electronics as a kid.

    • mangodrink says:

      Rocky’s Boots! I hoped (and was glad to find) someone else already mention it. I definitely played this at my grade school lab around 1994, and the game was around since 1982. Retro gaming started early for me :D

      That and Gertrude’s Secrets were probably among the top 5 games along with SMB3 and LTTP to really get me into gaming. Industry needs something like The Learning Company back. That’d be a comeback kickstarter I could get behind.

  11. LionsPhil says:

    I’m looking at the one 18 seconds into the trailer, “C4 what you really are” (…I only just got that terrible pun), and if I’m reading it right, wondering how it’s possible. To get disarm signal B you need to have C and D switched, but you’ll get a detonate signal if either D or B are switched.

    They also just cut a wire signalling the AND leg leading to disarm C, so that looked like a bad move. :/

    • Premium User Badge

      Wisq says:

      Cut the tiny black wire between D and the Detonate OR gate. Then turn on A, C, and D.

      And yes, cutting the long black wire was a mistake.

      • LionsPhil says:

        Hunh, I completely visually failed to parse that as cuttable; I guess it looked too much like a resistor. (No, I don’t know why there’d be a resistor in a logic circuit, but if being on the periphery of sparkies has taught me anything, it’s that electronics is always an order of magnitude more complicated than the level you learned.)

  12. haldolium says:

    If you can’t put your tongue on the 9V block battery, it doesn’t teach you anything about electronics.

  13. Bleiz says:

    RPS! I love these educational games. Please make a top 10 of games that actually teach you things. I will read it and even click on ads.

  14. Dynamique says:

    Well, that was great fun! The bright side of its shortness: It’s not one of them frustrating brain***** I rage-quit & uninstall sooner or later. :-) Would be great to see future bomb updates; yet I enjoyed what I played.

  15. Just Endless says:

    Yeah so I made an error in buying this. It’s been remarked above that it’s short (maybe an hour if you know what you’re doing, maybe 2 if you don’t: don’t get lost in the people debating the technical merits because it’s very easy on just a basic process-of-elimination level), but even more grating is just that it has no sense of presentation or style or humor or competant writing at all.

    There is a place for work like this, frankly I think it’s a very cool piece of teaching software for a website or something, but it is not much of a game.

  16. tnankie says:

    With the real issue being that when disarming explosives one generally removes the detonator from the explosive, before fucking around with the timer.
    (Or remotely shoot the thing using a robot.)