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Board Games Are Back, And Seattle’s Techies Are Fueling the Movement

Dan Shapiro, inventor of the board game Robot Turtles (Photo courtesy of Dan Shapiro)

When a lot of us were kids, playing games meant Candy Land, Hungry Hungry Hippos and Checkers. Then Super Mario strode onto the scene and “playing games” meant video games. According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, on average, kids ages 8-18 spend 7.5 hours in front of a screen for entertainment each day.

But guess what. The board game is back, but it now has a strong digital backbone. Many of the new board games are made by people in the tech field and they are often being played by people in the tech field.

Seattle’s Dan Shapiro, who has worked for Google and Microsoft, recently invented a kids board game called Robot Turtles. The idea hatched while spending a weekend with his kids while his wife was out of town.

“I thought, hey, let’s play board games together. My twins were four and I was looking at Chutes and Ladders which is just awful. I thought, there’s got to be some sort of game where I can be really, really engaged and be doing something fun and they can be engaged and doing something fun.”

So that weekend he developed a crude version of Robot Turtles, a board game that teaches young kids the basics of programming, while the parent acts as the computer.

“It was just some pieces of Clip Art off the ink jet printer and they had so much fun we played it several more times.”

Normally, if you have an idea for a board game, you’d try and pitch it to a company and hope they make and sell it for you. But Dan didn’t do that. He went the modern, tech route and used Kickstarter.

“I set out to raise $25,000. As it happened, we hit $25,000 in the first five hours. Then $100,000 in the first two days. It wound up with more than 13,000 people from 65 different counties buying 36 tons of Robot Turtles and raised just over $630,000 in total.”

Robot Turtles is the most-backed board game in Kickstarter history. So obviously there is a demand for a game like this, but if Dan went the traditional route, it would have never gotten off the ground.

“When I showed this game to some friends of mine who are game designers, early on, they said, ‘This isn’t going to work.’ Not because it’s about programming but because it’s about parent/child interactions. Board games are something that kids use to entertain themselves. Parents are supposed to be optional. The game industry has never had a successful game where the parent is required. That was kind of disheartening to me. I wasn’t sure I believed that. Part of this Kickstarter campaign was about, is there demand for a tool that parents can use to really have quality time with their kids? Because I wanted that and I figured some other people must want it as well.”

Dan, who loves playing board games like Settlers of Catan, instantly sold 25,000 copies of Robot Turtles through the Kickstarter campaign.

“I’m now working with ThinkFun, who is an amazing publisher of kid’s educational games, to bring this to stores. So it’s going to be in Target stores in July. That wouldn’t have happened if I was going through the traditional way of gatekeepers who validate ideas and decide if they’re going to make sense before they invest in producing them.”

Over at Card Kingdom, a game shop in Seattle’s Ballard neighborhood, Seattle’s Tifa Robles is leading one of her weekly Magic the Gathering tournaments through her group, Lady Plainswalkers Society.

“It is a Magic group for women and all players to come play in a fun, safe, welcoming environment,” Tifa says.

In three years, the group has collected 700 local members and there are 30 chapters worldwide. Tifa has always been a hard core gamer, who currently works on Microsoft’s XBox. Gaming is basically her life.

“My husband and I actually met at Wizards of the Coast. We call ourselves lifestyle gamers and I would say the most important aspect of our marriage is understanding our passion for games. Our wedding was very much gamer themed. We opened our vows out of Magic Booster packs. We had references to Magic and other video games in our vows. For the reception we had lots of board games.”

She says the return to the board game is simple: even online gamers crave social interaction.

“The in-store play gets more and more [popular] every single year and I do think that’s because people that are into games want elements of social activity that they can’t get from other games online.”

Because there is no substitution for sitting across the table, face-to-face, playing a game.

“The thing I love best about Robot Turtles is you get to see these little brows furrow and you get to see these little gears spinning in their head and then suddenly their eyes light up and they figure out a solution to the problem,” says Dan. “They put a card down and they feel so proud. You just don’t get that kind of interaction in a digital experience the same way that you can sitting across the table from a kid who is learning something.”

To preorder Robot Turtles, click here.

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