Review by Mark Chen, Common Sense Education | Updated April 2015
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FTL: Faster Than Light

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Failure is frequent and fun in this strategic starship sim

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Grades
6-12 This grade range is a recommendation by Common Sense Education and not the developer/publisher.
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Pros: Multiple playthroughs and just the right amount of challenge get students thinking critically about systems.

Cons: Easily frustrated kids who are uncomfortable with trial-and-error learning may have problems staying engaged.

Bottom Line: This starship simulator isn’t easy, but gritty kids will learn from failure and practice systems thinking.

Since most games take about 30 minutes to play, teachers could use FTL in the classroom to encourage students to develop a “gameful” attitude that values learning through failure and practice. This could be a good introduction to a science or engineering course, helping frame the kinds of practice STEM thinking requires.

Teachers could also use this as homework or in an after-school setting, allowing students the freedom to try it out informally. Since the game keeps track of high scores, students can compete with each other and document progress. Additionally, some of the in-game events require students to make moral decisions (whether to fight or side with pirates and slavers, whether to send crew members on dangerous rescue missions for little reward, etc.), and these quandaries could be used for launching discussion topics in a social studies or humanities course. Students may be surprised by how difficult these choices are.

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FTL: Faster Than Light is a strategic role-playing game, but instead of controlling a person, the player controls a ship and its crew. It's meant to be a hard game, so a fiery wreck is more likely than success, especially early on. For the gritty, though, it will be engrossing.

Initially, the player starts with a basic ship and three crew members controlled via a top-down, blueprint-like view with charming retro line art and pixelated fonts. When ready, the player makes a hyperspace jump to a new location, often resulting in a battle with another ship. Battles are intense, as the player allocates power to various on-board systems (weapons, shields, engine, etc.) in an attempt to destroy the enemy ship before being destroyed. After a victory, the player collects scrap metal from the wreckage and sends crew members to damaged areas of the ship for repairs before the next jump. This pattern -- calm moments of preparation to hectic, chaotic combat -- repeats for as long as the player’s ship survives.

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Each encounter in FTL is crucial to improving the ship so that it's powerful enough to defeat the final boss mothership. After each harrowing battle, and even after total defeat, students can think about what went wrong and strategically plan and account for previous failures in their next playthrough. Students learn to make difficult decisions about scarce resources as they upgrade their ships. Once certain systems are upgraded, more abilities and even more systems are unlocked. In other words, FTL is a great game for learning about the interdependence of systems. This practice of trying something out, seeing it fail spectacularly, rethinking, and trying again is akin to how things get done in science and engineering, and is an invaluable skill in school.

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Overall Rating
3

Engagement Is the product stimulating, entertaining, and engrossing? Will kids want to return?
4

FTL's challenging and habit-forming play is sure to engage strategy-loving kids, especially if they're into science fiction.

Pedagogy Is learning content seamlessly baked-in, and do kids build conceptual understanding? Is the product adaptable and empowering? Will skills transfer?
2

The tactical action forces players to stop and think before acting. Kids will need to learn to prioritize emergencies, make strategic sacrifices, and plan for the long term while focusing on immediate events.

Support Does the product take into account learners of varying abilities, skill levels, and learning styles? Does it address both struggling and advanced students?
3

In-game instructions should prove sufficient for most players. Little official support exists outside the game, but some lively fan-based online communities have sprung up. 


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Mark Chen Researcher

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