Game of Life Kit





Introduction: Game of Life Kit

The Game of Life Boards are a scalable platform for cellular automata visualizations. Each board contains 16 LEDs in a 4x4 grid, a microcontroller, and a communications and power distribution network. With the available firmware, they execute Conway's Game of Life. Boards can act alone, or can be plugged into other boards to create a larger display. You can get this kit from the MAKE store.

Each kit comes standard with green LEDs, but any LEDs can be used by adjusting the values of the resistors. The board accepts 6 to 12V DC power, and each board draws a maximum of approximately 0.25 amps.

This kit is great for soldering beginners. To learn the basics of soldering check out this great guide by noahw. Also, here's a good video tutorial from the MAKE blog. Bre has a cool video about this on the MAKE blog.

Currently, this guide details basic construction. An explanation for connecting multiple boards will be up soon, too!

Step 1: What You Get and What You Need.

Check out the pictures for what you get with the kit, the tools you'll need, and what extra components you'll need.

You may want to check out Dropout Design's own documentation, and print it out. They have a nifty placement diagram as well as a schematic.

What you get:
Atmega48 IC
16 Leds
16 Resistors
2 Capacitors

What tools you need:
Rosin core, 60/40 solder
Soldering Iron hopefully with a pencil-like tip
Wire clippers
A vice to hold up the PCB
(You can get all this stuff really cheap at or

What components you need:
6V-12V power supply
Wire to connect power supply to board
(An easy way is to get a 9V battery with a clip, as pictured)

Step 2: Resistance!

Lets start populating the board with components in size order (as Dropout's documentation suggests). The first would be resistors.

Bend the wires at the resistor and stick them into the holes labeled R1-R16. (Orientation doesn't matter in this case, but it will for the LED's so keep that in mind).

Bend the wires back a little after stick them in so the resistors don't fall out when you turn the board over.

Now that they're all in, you can solder them into place.

Finally, use the wire clippers to snip off the long wires, leaving a small tail sticking out just like on professional grade boards. Take caution not to poke any parts of the board with either left over wire or the wire clippers.

Step 3: Light!

Similar to the previous section, lets put in all 16 LEDs.

Now, this is minutely tricky! Because LEDs have positive (longer) and negative (shorter) terminals it's important to orient them correctly (or nothing will work, etc.) Check out the picture for orientation. This is a good way to learn a bit about schematics: you can follow the connections on the schematic to to see which end of the LED runs to the resistor -- then check the wires on the board itself.

Again it may help to bend the wires after you've stuck the LED into the board so it doesn't fall out. (And be careful not to break anything and all that.)

Before soldering double check that all the LEDs are oriented correctly. After soldering cut off the excess wires.

Step 4: Capacity and Regulation

More sticking, soldering, and cutting here.

Stick the yellowy capacitors into C1 and C2, and solder them into place. Then cut the wires. Just like in steps 2 and 3.

The regulator is also polarized so make sure it matches the orientation in the picture.

At this point you can also solder the IC on if you want, but from experience it's never fallen out or lost contact. If you have a way of programming it or want to you don't have to solder.

Step 5: Power!

The main construction is complete!

You'll need to find the power terminals. Look for the PWR label, and check the picture for orientation.

If you have a clip or some kind of battery holder. The procedure is the same, you put the negative (usually black) end on the terminal closer to the MAKE sign. The positive (usually red) goes on the other. This way the battery doesn't fall off.

Step 6: Connections!

You can connect a bunch of Game of Life boards via the side terminals. The boards have to be aligned in the same direction, eg., you should connect a board's "N" connectors with "S" connectors on the other board. In other words, all the connected boards will have the same orientation. You only need one power supply per board.

Soldering the boards together at the terminals should keep them connected.The game is more interesting when there's a few boards connected.

Step 7: Add a Switch (optional)

One of the problems with this kit is that it doesn't have an easy way of switching the thing on or off without disconnecting the battery or pulling the cable. The easy solution is to solder on a switch!

Radioshack carries a perfect switch (275-645A). Solder it onto the board in the appropriate place. It doesn't matter what orientation it's in. Solder the wires to the switch, not the board. This seems difficult because the terminals are tiny, but it actually isn't. However, when you solder, remember orient them correctly. The negative is close to the "MAKE" logo.

See photos below.



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    21 Discussions

    Just a head's up: instead of suggesting folks just "plop" the Atmega48 into the pcb for reusability, it would be better to solder a 28-pin DIP socket to the board so the Atmega48 is removable, yet fits nice and snug. ;)

    Hey I was just wondering if there were any schematics for this. I'm just wondering you know cause it would seem more interesting if I could build the entire thing instead of just solder some diodes and stuff to it ya know.

    Where can i get the .hex file? i burned the chip and i have another one without the program :) my new chip is the atmega8.. can i use that one?

    It's a popular kit, but i'd be wary of a craze of manual re-writing going on. There's not much point in going back in time and documenting all the electronics kits ever released. But still a good instructables

    Would it be possible to cover a large sphere (llike a big toy ball from walmart) with these boards, and wire them all together in such a way that there would be no beginning or end? And if so, how tacky would it look as a ceiling light/chandalier in my apartment? -Abram

    1 reply

    They're flat boards. So you can cover a ball, but it'd look weird. It would look very strange, indeed.

    I am curious about the possibilities of combining this project with another one I found online for a Frosted-glass-top table (I assume though that the display would have to be in a square form to look best). I am new to LEDs , but I am confident I could handle the work involved. Unless, of course, the costs start to skyrocket, I think it would be interesting to watch the Game of Life while I am eating dinner, perfect when there is a lull in the conversations. Any advice would be appreciated. -Abram

    1 reply

    That's not a bad idea. I'm not sure what construction goes into the frosted glass, but the game of life setup would be pretty simple. Just wire together as many of these squares as needed for the table, be sure to install a switch to turn the game of life on and off. You'll only need to power one of the boards, and maybe getting a 12v ac/dc adapter wouldn't hurt depending on how huge the table actually is.

    These boards are interesting, but something bothers me. On the game of life, there are 8 cells surrounding every cell, right. Yet the side inputs only have enough for 16 LEDs. This means, the corner LEDs are not factored in. I don't know how to visually show this, but if you have 4 of these boards, say these numbers represent the led's at the corner: [12|34] 56|78 In this, 2 cannot affect 7, as it has no input onto the board, unless its sent from board-to-board, does it?

    2 replies

    Yep, they have included corners in their algorithm. 2 will affect 7, assuming the board to the right of three and above 7 is in place to take the data and pass it on.

    I'm not an expert on the software, but from experience, the game works much better when you attach boards together, the "game" is much more interesting. I would say that information is sent board-to-board. Check out the documentation from Dropout Design, which explains how interaction works.

    Actually, in Conway's Game of life, it assumes the board is infinitely large. Because of realistic boundaries, people attach the edges for a old school space invaders-like movement. You know, where if you go too far left, you come back from the right edge. But this causes interference with other propagating cells.

    2 replies

    On that note, I wonder what happens when you connect a board to itself, i.e. the 4 things on the left to the 4 on the right, and 4 on the top to the 4 on the bottom...

    Ok, I did this, and the results are interesting at best. Sometimes nothing strange happens, but one time i had all the lights go on and then they cycled in rows until they finally died save for one or two. I did this by just connecting them all to each other with a wire.

    eh, sorry, not yet ok, "220Ohm Watt Resistor" makes no sense :)

    1 reply

    Thanks for the corrections! Some people tend to read the image comments over the main body. I think from now on I'll just put the (hopefully correct) technical stuff into the body.