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Toca Builders app review

toca-builders-titleToca Builders (Toca Boca, May 2016; iOS and Android) opens with a choice of an empty platform or one of several options where work has already started. That work involves constructing towers (or whatever you want) with colored blocks and painting these structures and/or the space around them. Each grid floats in what appears to be water; neither the builders nor the blocks are able to move beyond the edge.

The six builder characters (whose names and attributes are listed in the section for parents) have different construction-related abilities. The Vex character jumps, releasing blocks from its feet. Blox can lay out blocks from an apparently limitless supply in a backpack, or smash them with mallets into a cloud of realistic-looking dust. Stretch has exactly the sort of neck you’d imagine from that name; turn a dial to expand or contract it and place a block anywhere, even in midair. If Stretch is below an existing block when you tap the block icon, it will explode. Connie, a crane-like builder, took me the longest to figure out: in order to lower blocks onto a surface, those blocks have to be retrieved from elsewhere, which means moving back and forth between a source of blocks and your current building site.

Cooper and Jum-Jum are painters. Cooper balances on a ball of paint, which you can roll to paint the ground. (You can also turn off the paint function so that the character can move without releasing any paint.) Jum-Jum sprays paint at a target, which you can move onto your block creations or anywhere on the platform. To select the color of your blocks or paint, tap an icon in the top right corner to access a color wheel.

Here’s the thing about this app: it’s not immediately obvious how its controls work. My initial instinct was to play with the circle-and-arrow icon that appears around the selected character, thinking that would make the character move. It doesn’t — but it does allows you to rotate your perspective around that character. You can see more of the construction platform, check out the other side of a structure, or, perhaps most helpfully, view everything from above. But to do things, instead of just looking at things, you have to get to know the controls on the sides, which vary depending on the characters’ abilities. In many cases, rolling a trackball in the corner makes the character move; others can be moved, lifted, or lowered using levers.

toca-builders-ground-level

toca-builders-from-above two views of Blox at work

The bouncy music and unobtrusive sound effects made for a pleasant experience while I figured out how everything worked, even if the first few minutes were frustrating. It took some time to build my self-confidence, but once I got the hang of it, I was actually pretty proud of myself. This is an app that rewards patience; once you understand what it can do, the building possibilities are endless. (As long as you stay on the platform, that is.)

Available for iPhone, iPad, and iPod touch (requires iOS 6.0 or later) and Android devices (requires Android 4.0.3 and up) $2.99. Recommended for primary users.

Shoshana Flax About Shoshana Flax

Shoshana Flax, assistant editor for The Horn Book, Inc., is a former bookseller and holds an MFA in Writing for Children from Simmons College.

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