One of my favorite toys as a kid was a wooden marble game (as I call it) that my parents gave me one year for Christmas. It was a simple one: put a marble in the top, watch the marble go back and forth, dropping at each side until it skittered into the catch basin at the end. Being made of wood, a natural material, each level of the marble game made a slightly different sound, creating a lulling pattern of music, which was calming to my young anxious self.
As I got older, I still loved my marble game—I still have it—but longed for something more involved, interesting, and customizable. I got my kids one of those plastic marble run sets that you can put together yourself, but it wasn’t terribly satisfying for me, as it was difficult to build anything complicated. Recently, though, I had a chance to try out the GraviTrax PRO set, an improvement on the basic GraviTrax set that GeekMom Sophie reviewed for us previously.
The GraviTrax sets are designed for anyone aged 8 and up (though I might recommend 10 and up for the GraviTrax PRO) and are perfect for solo, group, or family play. They are sophisticated enough to be fun for adults on their own, as well.
The biggest difference between the regular GraviTrax and the GraviTrax PRO sets is height. The PRO set adds considerable height options, which, all on their own, expand the possibilities for the set. With multiple new ways to build upward, taking advantage of gravity—and controlling the marbles as they zoom down tracks and careen around curves—is a much bigger focus with the GraviTrax PRO.
This is not your kid’s marble run—GraviTrax PRO setups can be designed with either simplicity or a lot of planning, but they use a lot of sophisticated pieces that require some forethought and a bit of trial and error to keep the marbles from jumping the track. You can also make use of your high school physics! Think potential and kinetic energy, inertia (Newton’s First Law), momentum, friction, and equal/opposite reactions (Newton’s Third Law). Though fun for everyone, this is an ideal homeschool activity. You don’t need to have taken physics to make the most of this set, however. Lots of experimentation, trial and error, and fast reflexes to catch wayward marbles will get you all you need to enjoy the experience to the fullest.
The GraviTrax PRO Starter Set
The GraviTrax PRO Starter Set is similar to the regular GraviTrax Starter Set except that it has more pieces and it allows for considerable height for your builds (plus it has 153 pieces instead of 122). In addition to the thin hexagonal plates that were included in the original set for stacking together to create height changes, this set comes with pillars, walls, and balconies (that attach to the walls), allowing for even more combinations and possibilities.
To start, a little bit of assembly is required. Hexes need to be punched out of the four base plates (tip: save these to be used as game pieces for other games you play!), and the pillars and balconies need to be assembled—this is pretty easy as everything is marked with letters and there are instructions in the booklet. Once those are set up, though, you won’t need to do it again.
If you’re new to GraviTrax or GraviTrax PRO, I recommend working your way through the configurations in the included booklet before going out on your own. There is one easy setup, one medium setup, and three hard setups. Working your way through these acts as a tutorial, teaching you how all the pieces work and what their capabilities and limits are. My almost-20-year-old daughter, ever the inventor, of course, improved upon some of the base projects. Don’t be afraid to experiment, even with the included projects! They are a perfect departure point for designing your own setups.
In all, the starter set comes with:
- Instruction booklets
- 12 pillars (8 closed, 4 tunnel)
- 2 transparent walls long
- 2 transparent walls medium
- 1 transparent wall small
- 16 classic balconies
- 4 double balconies
- 4 base plates
- 1 transparent level
- 6 marbles (3 silver, 1 green, 1 blue, 1 red)
- 20 large height tiles
- 9 small height tiles
- 28 curves
- 4 junctions
- 2 switches
- 1 3-in-1 block
- 1 vortex
- 1 launchpad
- 1 magnetic cannon
- 1 finish line
- 3 basic tiles
- Inserts for basic tiles
- 2 catchers
- 1 freefall
- 1 splash
- 1 landing
- 3 long plastic tracks
- 6 medium plastic tracks
- 9 short plastic tracks
- Short Bernoulli plastic tracks
- 3 left curved
- 3 right curved
- 2 straight
In addition to the tall pillars, thinner black and grey hex tiles, like are included in the original GraviTrax set, allow for support at different, shorter heights, or to create subtle differences along the route. They are placed under the tiles and curves, but can also be integrated into the towers and balconies.
Though you can technically start your run with any number of marbles from any location, you are meant to start with three marbles in the launchpad piece. Pushing down on the pad pushes the three marbles off onto their respective tracks. Through twists and turns, redirections and boosts, you get to see which marble makes it to either the finish line or a finish receptacle first.
The marbles are made of metal and are decently heavy for their size, so they roll really well and keep their momentum. You can design your setup to make marbles go up, down, whip around corners, or whoosh down vortices. Planning is half the fun with this set, as is swapping out pieces and trying new combinations to create thrilling and sometimes-unpredictable runs.
The magnetic cannon is a really cool inclusion in the base set, since it takes one marble that might not be moving very quickly and, when that marble hits the cannon, propels another marble with a lot of speed, possibly giving it enough momentum and energy to go uphill on another track piece, extending the marble’s potential run.
There are two obvious ways to end your marble run. One is a landing pad, and one is an actual 1-2-3 finish line. The finish line piece is fun because it is marked, making it labeled as to which marble made it there first, second, and third. It snaps into place because sometimes the marbles will come in hot, and might knock the finish line piece out of place otherwise. The landing pad is also a useful tool, especially for routes that are coming from different directions. There are probably other “finish lines” you can create with the included pieces, though; just use your imagination.
It’s helpful that three of the marbles are a color other than silver, which helps you follow them around the track and know which marble started where and which one ended up in which place. There are so many opportunities for marbles to change tracks and directions along their routes, and everything moves so fast, that it’s hard to keep it all straight; the colors help.
If height is really, really your thing, even the number of pillars and walls included in the PRO’s starter set may not be enough for you. The Extension Vertical set provides additional pillars, walls, and balconies, totaling 33 pieces (and require similar assembly as for the starter set). You will need the base set to play with these, though, as no tracks, tiles, or marbles are included. I recommend playing extensively with the base set first before adding this set on, so you know just how quickly the marbles roll down the tracks and how to best make use of additional height.
This Extension Vertical set comes with:
- Instruction booklet
- 12 pillars (8 closed, 4 tunnels)
- 2 transparent walls long
- 2 transparent walls medium
- 16 classic balconies
GraviTrax has produced a wide variety of accessories for their sets, including many I didn’t get to try but want to (e.g., the zip line). But I did have the chance to try the GraviTrax Pro accessories called Splitter and Mixer. These didn’t come with any extra tracks or tiles.
The Splitter accessory provides multiple direction outcomes from multiple direction inputs. If marbles traverse the Splitter very quickly, they will go right over it to the other side. But if they are going more slowly, they will fall through the trap door and be redirected.
The Mixer accessory provides a random element. Marbles that reach the Mixer, from multiple directions, swirl down the vortex center and are redirected to one of three directions below.
These two accessories can add to the randomness of the run, and the Splitter specifically can hold multiple uses simultaneously; direct marbles to cross in one direction quickly, passing over, and in the other direction more slowly, falling through.
If one of these accessories doesn’t provide the added fun you’re looking for, check out the rest of GraviTrax’s extensive accessory line. I’ve got my eye on the zipline, the bridges, the tunnels, the loop, the spiral, and the trampoline.
Should I Buy GraviTrax PRO if I Have the Regular GraviTrax set?
This depends on whether you feel constrained by your regular set. Do you wish you had more space (both vertical and horizontal) to build? More tracks? More marbles? If so, then yes, combining this GraviTrax PRO starter set with the original one would be an ideal combination. If you just want to add height but not width or additional options, you could probably just add the Extension Vertical set, but it doesn’t add any additional tracks or marbles.
Thoughts and Takeaways
- My first thought about the set was that it is amazing. Building the included designs was fairly straightforward and didn’t require a lot of thinking, but building your own sets, both simple and sophisticated, really got our mental juices flowing. It was so much fun to watch the marbles go and make changes to our runs over time.
- My next thought was that multiple marbles running at the same time sometimes moved too quickly to follow them all at once, so sometimes we just ran one marble at a time down the run to see what happened.
- I also wish the set came with more than six marbles because even though six sounds like plenty, it can limit your options because of how these sets work. (Plus they’re easy to lose!) Some of the accessories, such as the zipline (not tested) and the magnetic cannon (included in the starter sets) require you to use extra marbles to make them work, but those accessory sets don’t seem to come with extra marbles. This limits the complexity of your system, unfortunately. The only extra standalone marbles I’ve found that are supposed to work with the GraviTrax system were off-brand, which seems like a missed opportunity for Ravensburger. I also wish this came with more tracks (the Extension Vertical set would particularly benefit from including some extras), but you can always get a few extras in some of the accessory sets, or spring for the Expansion Trax set, which comes with additional grey and black hexes, curves, tracks, and even marbles.
- We learned that having a level table is vital for this because sometimes the subtle height changes in a design aren’t significant enough to keep a marble rolling if the whole thing is tilted a bit in the wrong direction, and sometimes marbles would roll backward out of a landing area if it bumped into something. Similar to needing a level table, you must make sure that all of your hexes, tiles, and pillars are seated snugly and pushed down completely.
- The fact that 1/3 of the pillars don’t have a tunnel through them seems like a missed opportunity. There is no disadvantage to having a tunnel through a pillar, and having some without a tunnel limits your options.
- The base tiles have some hexes marked in green, making it easier to correctly place pieces according to the included plans. The base tiles being cardboard, though, means that they could easily wear out with a lot of play, with the constant insertion/removal of pillars and tiles. They’re sturdy cardboard, but they are still cardboard. If you’re using GraviTrax on the floor, stepping on it wrong might bend or dent the base tiles, too, making them less useful.
- The plastic tracks just sit in place loosely rather than snapping in. This allows for more flexibility, allowing them to sit at multiple angles, but makes the whole structure a bit looser. So, there are some pros and cons there.
- We learned that you need to be careful when attaching, using, and detaching the balconies. They don’t hold onto the walls too securely, so you have to be careful not to push down too hard on the hex portions of them when attaching or building upon them.
- The walls have so many locations to place balconies that people who love to design and experiment with different configurations will have so much fun. Those who prefer to follow building instructions will need to be creative to make use of their options, but at least they can use the included designs to use as a starting point.
- The instructions for the included projects are pretty clear, but for some of the more involved setups, it can be difficult to tell where to attach the balconies, since they are transparent and harder to see on the busy diagrams.
The GraviTrax PRO, along with its expansions and accessories, is a marvelous set that can build both simple setups and elaborate configurations, depending on the ages and desires of the people playing. It can be relatively affordable, just by purchasing a base set, or it can be something you literally build on over time, with expansion sets and accessories. Other than needing to be careful with your cardboard base tiles, the set is pretty sturdy and should last for a very long time, bringing joy to multiple generations. It’s already had plenty of play in my house, and I look forward to bringing it out for any design-minded visitor.
While, at about $80, the GraviTrax PRO is not a no-brainer purchase for some of us, the set is more affordable than some of the fancier wooden marble sets out there. And, unlike traditional marble sets, you can use more than just gravity for this one, as the magnetic cannon can push marbles up hills as well as down them (the Lifter accessory can also help add more potential energy to the system). Folks who want to start smaller can check out the regular GraviTrax Starter Set (about $42), or for those who want more (242 pieces!) but don’t need much height, the GraviTrax XXL Starter Set (about $130) might be the ideal starting place.
Tl;dr: All in all, GraviTrax and GraviTrax PRO are incredibly fun marble run sets for STEM-minded kids and adults.
Note: I received samples for review purposes.