The best robot kit for kids is getting a major upgrade and a heavy dose of Star Wars magic. Due out September 1 for $199 U.S, the Lego Boost Droid Commander set features all the tools your child (or you) need to build a working R2D2, a Gonk Droid and a Mouse Droid while learning a lot about programming.
The Lego Boost Creative Toolbox, which launched in 2017, remains the toy of choice for budding engineers and developers under 12 because it combines the fun of building Legos with the best companion app I’ve ever seen. Unlike many other robot programming apps that give children a giant toolbox of block-based code with limited instructions and no goals, Lego Boost’s software gamifies the learning experience, making children complete a series of sequential challenges in order to unlock new features.
With the Boost app, kids don’t ever get stuck because the program always offers guidance about how to complete each task, while also leaving them enough leeway to write their own programs from scratch. The Boost coding language is completely block-based, with icons on each block to show you its function. Because there’s no reading required, even preliterate children can learn.
Lego Boost Droid Commander builds on this rich tradition with a new app that turns the gamification volume up to 11. The app, which will be available for iOS, Android and Amazon Fire devices at launch, and its lessons are part of an exciting, interactive Star Wars story.
You start on the planet Tatooine, where different characters, including Luke Skywalker, give you coding missions. There are different missions for each Droid, so you’ll need R2D2 for some challenges and the Gonk Droid or Mouse Droid for others. During a demo, I witnessed a mission where Luke asked R2 to help him map Beggar’s canyon.
As you advance, you go to the Millenium Falcon, where you use to travel to different locations, each with its own set of missions and characters. The locations include Bespin, the Death Star and (unbelievably) Alderan. Yes, you can travel to Alderan -- the planet where the Death Star blows up in Star Wars: Episode IV - A New Hope -- and do some coding missions there. When you swipe past Alderan in the list of planets, you see an animation where it breaks apart (a clear callout to the movie).
Lego also told me that, at one point in the game’s story, you participate in the Battle of Yavin. There’s a coding challenge that involves R2D2, but you’ll also get to fly an X-Wing fighter within the app. Lego said that one of the subplots in the story involves the Empire planning a birthday party for Grand Moff Tarkin. There are 43 missions in all.
Unlike original Lego Boost, which makes you take each of its five robots apart in order to create the next one, the 1,177 pieces in the Droid Commander kit give you enough elements to build all three Droids at once. However, as with the original Boost, there’s only one set of electronics: the Bluetooth Move Hub that contains the controller and a motor, a color / distance sensor and an external motor. Each Droid pops open to allow you to swap the electronic components in or out, without destroying it.
The Boost Droid Commander kit also comes with a slew of Lego elements that help you build accessories for different missions. For example, the Gonk Droid has different removable arms that you can pop on or off, and R2D2 has (non-electronic) computer terminals to which it can connect.
The robots move in different ways. While R2D2 and the Mouse Droid roll around on wheels, the Gonk Droid walks on feet. If you just want to move one of these robots around the living room without writing a program for it, the app has a driving mode with an on-screen joystick and buttons. You can even write custom programs to attach to each of the six buttons.
If you’ve finished all the programming challenges or just want to work from a blank canvas, you can create your own custom programs by heading to the Jawa’s sandcrawler. There, you have access to all the blocks, which you can use to control one of three Droids or a robot of your own design.
With a fall launch date, Lego Boost Droid Commander is set to be the hottest STEM toy of the 2019 holiday season. Lego told me that it is targeting children 8 and up (original Boost is labeled as 7 - 12), but because there’s only minimal text in the app (planet names are labeled as are some help screens), much younger kids should enjoy it. My son mastered original Lego Boost at the age of five-and-a-half.
At $199.99, the Boost Droid Commander set is about $40 more expensive than the original Boost set, which is still for sale. However, you’re getting about 400 more pieces and an exciting Star Wars game, which should make it well worth the premium.