DIARY OF AN INVENTOR: Dan Shapiro and Robot Turtles

Billy Langsworthy

By Billy Langsworthy

January 22nd 2015 at 12:30PM
UPDATED January 22nd 2015 at 11:18PM
DIARY OF AN INVENTOR: Dan Shapiro and Robot Turtles

Ex Google and Microsoft employee Dan Shapiro explains how he accidentally launched the bestselling board game in Kickstarter history.

I’m a software guy who’s been programming since my dad taught me how when I was seven.

I love building things that make people happy, and most recently that's been Robot Turtles, a board game that teaches programming fundamentals to kids.

I've started some very small technology companies and worked at some very big ones, and now I’m the CEO and primary turtle wrangler at Robot Turtles, the company I accidentally invented when looking for something to keep my four-year-old twins (now six) occupied one weekend whilst passing on my love of technology.

It all started one morning when I was pondering these questions in the shower:

  1. Why are kids’ games either pure luck, or a frustrating exercise in trying to lose on purpose without the child noticing?
  2. How old does a child need to be to learn to program? Do they even need to read?
  3. What’s something cool I can do with my kids this afternoon?

I got out of the shower, printed out some generic robot clip art, and told my four-year-old twins that I had a new game for us to play. We started experimenting with the rules. The kids couldn’t get enough of it.

I got so excited about the game that I took a leave of absence from my job at Google and spent the summer working full time to develop it.

Robot Turtles is now a board game for kids aged four and upwards. It takes seconds to learn, minutes to play, and will keep them learning for hours. Kids won't know it but while they're playing, they're learning the fundamentals of programming.

Teaching my kids to program a computer is the single greatest superpower I can give them.

I made Robot Turtles so that my kids could learn programming basics without needing a computer. In fact, they don't even need to be able to read! One of the unique things about Robot Turtles is that only the grownup (“Turtle Mover”) needs to read the rules, so the kids can just start playing.

In the game, the kids are programmers who put instruction cards down, driving the turtles through the maze, while the grownup is the computer, executing commands on the board. At its heart, Robot Turtles is a game about bossing around adults, just like programming is about bossing around computers.

It may not look like it, but Robot Turtles is a very simple programming language. It drew its inspiration from Logo, the first programming language I learned as a kid (and the first programming language to prominently feature a turtle).

While the Robot Turtles programming language isn’t Turing complete, it prepares kids with the skills they’ll need to learn to love programming as they grow up.

I was told that this would never sell in the toy aisle. I showed it to board game designers and manufacturers; they told me this would never work on store shelves. Learning programming just sounds too complicated. But I disagreed. I think programming can be as simple as playing with these four turtles.

That's why I took to Kickstarter. I knew I wasn’t alone in believing that programming literacy is going to be key to our children’s future.

The goal I set was for $25,000. That would give me the minimum run to put in a factory order of 1,000 and not have them all sitting in my garage afterwards. We hit the target within five hours. My super-secret dream goal was to hit $100,000, and that happened on the second day. It snowballed and ended up with 13,765 backers pledging $631,230.

The final games weighed as much as eight elephants and actually physically filled up three semi-trucks, which felt totally surreal.

I realised this was something different than what I was expecting. It was getting people excited in some way that I just had no possible concept could happen, and then it was just like trying to keep up with this giant boulder rolling down the hill.

The game went on to sell more than 20,000 copies in just four weeks. Robot Turtles is now in the homes of tens of thousands of families, and hundreds of schools as well. It’s been seen on NPR, Bloomberg, Make: Magazine, Boingboing, Techcrunch, Reddit, Geekmom, Geekdad, and the front page of the New York Times. It's received hundreds of glowing reviews on Twitter and Facebook.

I spent months learning everything I could about the process and interviewing some of the greatest game developers around. I catalogued a huge litany of problems and mistakes, and made plans to avoid them.

I spent a lot of time figuring out the best manufacturer for Robot Turtles, but in the end the decision was easy. Delano Service, based in Michigan, is over a century old and manufactures fantastic games like Anomia and Fluxx. The company’s CEO, Kim Drayer, is wicked sharp and a pleasure to work with. Because Delano is in the US, I could just hop on a plane if something went wrong. Since Robot Turtles uses standard cardboard parts, the risks of unforeseen production difficulties were minimal (but not zero).

Shipping is something that trips up many Kickstarters, so I shipped the games to Amazon and used their third party fulfilment services, which saved costs (as well as my basement and my sanity). I spent some time working with an ex-Amazon consultant to do my best to ensure that everything went smoothly.

Robot Turtles has the most amazing backers imaginable. 47 volunteer translators offered their services to help localise the Robot Turtles instructions into 21 languages. The game has no text except the instructions and the box art, so it's perfect for audiences around the world.

ThinkFun has now released a new version of the game. The company’s commitment to code literacy is rooted in its co-founder’s family, with Bill Ritchie’s late brother Dennis Ritchie considered by many to be one of the greatest programmers of all time.

If you are a toy inventor or designer and you'd like to share your story, email us at blangsworthy@nbmedia.com.