Talking tech since 2003

It’s no secret that kids need to learn more about how to code to make the next generation of programmers. The rush to make the next great app or game is like a new gold rush, and educators are taking notice—a fact exemplified in the Kentucky State Senate having recently passed a bill allowing high school students to count computer programming classes as fulfilling their state-mandated foreign language requirements.

But what about starting a love of coding earlier than high school? Like, way earlier? That’s the niche that Robot Turtles is looking to fill, a new board game created by programmer Dan Shapiro. Based in part on Logo, the early computer programing game taught to elementary school-aged kids, Robot Turtles is a game meant to give young kids the logic-based foundations of how to think like a programmer, all in the guise of a fun game featuring, well, robot turtles. What’s not to love?

robot-turtlesThis past fall, Shapiro launched Robot Turtles on Kickstarter, and was looking to raise $25,000 to make his prototype into a real game. The result, however, was staggering: Robot Turtles managed to rack up twenty-five times as much funding, with a final pledge total coming in at $631,230. The fundraising campaign set a record for highest-funded board game on Kickstarter.

Robot Turtles found a home at publisher Thinkfun Games, and is set to be released this June—and based on the reaction of Kickstarter backers, chances are good that Robot Turtles will be a hit. Creator Dan Shapiro was kind enough to answer a few questions via email to talk about how the idea for his hit game, and where he sees the game going in the future.

BestTechie: Where did the idea for Robot Turtles come from? What was your “aha” moment?

Dan Shapiro: I realize it’s a terrible cliché, but the idea came to me while I was taking a shower.  My amazing wife was taking a weekend to visit her family in Wisconsin and I was going to get to have my 4-year-old twins (boy and a girl!) solo for the weekend.  I was trying to think of something fun we could do together, and hit on the idea of introducing them to some board games.  But we’d already done Candyland (random luck) and Checkers (an exercise in trying to throw the match without them noticing) and they both were a dreary mess.

At the same time, I had some thoughts running around in my head about programming.  Why is it that, more than a century and a half after Ada Lovelace invented programming, we’re still programming with plain ASCII text?  Shouldn’t we have more expressive ways of programming now?

Somehow while I was washing my hair, those ideas collided and it occurred to me that I could make a board game out of Logo, one of the first programming languages I ever learned.  I dried my hair, drove my wife to the airport, and fired up the inkjet printer to try it out with my kids.

BT: How many other board games have you created?

DS: Exactly zero.  I never set out to make a board game… I just wanted to spend some quality time with my kids.  Call me an accidental board game designer!

BT: How long did it take you to go from idea to prototype? And from prototype to finished product? What was the testing like?

DS: It’s kind of embarrassing to share the “development process” because it was so haphazard.  This was intended as a way for me to have a few hours of quality time with my kid, not a record-breaking board game!  We were playing within a few hours of when I thought of the idea, using hastily chosen clipart from around the internet.  Version two I made that night, and it was far more refined: I drew shapes in PowerPoint and laminated the results.  Fancy!

Over the next few weeks it became clear that my kids really loved this and they kept adding ideas.  My daughter, for example, suggested turtle-mounted lasers when she got annoyed with one wall too many.  They’ve really been my co-inventors in this project.  I got some better artwork, shared it with a few friends who liked it, and thought I would see if I could generate enough interest on Kickstarter to justify a real, small production run of 1,000 units.

To test it, I invited over a half-dozen families, handed them a version of the game I printed on my inkjet and had glued to cardboard, and stood back to watch.  After each family played, I hastily revised the rule sheet, printed out a new one, and started over.  All this happened in about eight hours one afternoon.  I videotaped these, which turned in to the footage of families playing in the Kickstarter video.

Like I said…this was not something I expected to be a runaway success!  It was embarrassingly haphazard, and I’m tremendously fortunate the game worked out as well as it did.

BT: Tell us more about your reasoning behind making this a board game and not an app.

DS: Robot Turtles was created for purely selfish purposes: I wanted to find a new way to spend quality time with my kids.  Teaching them programming fundamentals was an awesome bonus once I figured out how it was going to work.

My wife and I give our kids time on tablets and phones, and they’re great learning tools.  When they use them, we try to talk about what they’re doing and make sure it’s meaningful and relevant to them developmentally.  Great kids’ apps are something I really appreciate.

But for me, quality time is about sitting around the dining room table, not staring at a screen.

That said, I did write an eBook that teaches kids about the Function Frog, one of the most advanced components of the game.  It was inspired by the “Choose Your Own Adventure” books I read when I was a kid, so you can sit with your computer or tablet, read a page, and then click or touch a command card to tell the Robot Turtle what to do next.  It was a reward for some of the higher-level Kickstarter backers, and is available now for sale at robotturtles.com.

BT: Do you have plans to follow this game up digitally for more advanced “players”?

DS: My friend Dan Rosen once told me “companies die of indigestion, not starvation.”  Right now I’m just deliriously excited at having found a partner in Thinkfun who not only understands what Robot Turtles is about, but has the distribution and experience to bring it to an even broader audience.  The unfortunate side effect of launching on Kickstarter is that most of the kids who got it were going to probably be exposed to programming anyway.  But with Thinkfun behind the Robot Turtles experience, it’s going to reach a vastly wider audience!  I think a lot of kids whose parents might not have a background in technology will now have a chance to play Robot Turtles.

[Pre-Order Robot Turtles right here to get a free expansion pack]

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