Made in Seattle: The board game that teaches pre-schoolers to code

Former Googler Dan Shapiro invented Robot Turtles practically by accident, but that didn't stop it from becoming Kickstarter's best-selling board game of all time.
Former Googler Dan Shapiro invented Robot Turtles practically by accident, but that didn't stop it from becoming Kickstarter's best-selling board game of all time.

Dan Shapiro never meant to go into the board game business. Which is perhaps why he was so surprised when, just five hours into the Kickstarter campaign for Robot Turtles, a coding game he'd originally made for his kids out of scissors and printer paper, he'd already raised $25,000. By the end of the day, that figure had jumped to $100,000.

Crosscut archive image.He probably shouldn't have been that surprised. A lifetime of leadership in tech companies (Google, RealNetworks, Microsoft, his own SparkBuy and Ontela) meant he was a good deal more connected in the worlds of tech and media than the average crowdfunder. (His brother is NPR correspondent Ari Shapiro.) And, when he launched the campaign, he'd rallied the troops.

“I had a good network of people who would at least take a look at what I was doing,” he told me modestly, after a recent talk he gave at Sun Valley's Dent the Future conference.

By the time Shapiro's 26-day fundraising campaign came to a close, he'd pre-sold 25,000 copies of Robot Turtles — about 25 times what he expected. His LinkedIn bio calls it "the bestselling board game in Kickstarter history."

Crosscut archive image.Shapiro is the father of a predictably adorable pair of 5-year-old twins — a son and a daughter — who, before his Dent talk, wriggled excitedly in their chairs, waiting for their dad to come onstage. (When he finally did, his daughter stood up excitedly, craning her neck over the chair in front of her.)

Shapiro, at right, with his son at Sun Valley's Dent the Future conference. Photo: Kyle Kesterson.

The two of them served as product testers and developers for Robot Turtles; had in fact oftentimes dictated exactly what the game was missing and how they thought it should be played.

"Programming is about bossing around computers," Shapiro said after his talk. "The game is about bossing around mom or dad, which they love."

"The grownup also has to make silly noises," he pointed out, pausing before playfully adding, "which is very important, I learned."

Robot Turtles seemed to come at the perfect time, touching on a larger conversation about kids learning to code. Nationally, has been pushing the idea of integrating computer science into high school curriculums; locally, that's been embodied by groups like Redmond's gaming institute Digipen.

Robot Turtles takes things even further: Aimed at kids ages four and up, (which is how old his twins were when they helped design the game) kids don't even need to know how to read to start playing. “The notion of code literacy without written literacy was kind of strange, even to me,” he said.

Crosscut archive image.

Shapiro also had time on his hands. He'd taken three months unpaid leave at Google, ostensibly to write a book. But instead he came down with a bad case of Robot Turtles and spent those months developing the game, making a video to drive his fundraising campaign and really nailing down his production model. (Later, in an attempt to mollify his publisher, he gave them exclusive retail rights to the game in the pre-Christmas rush. They sold out 1500 copies within the space of eight hours.)

The production model part was important. Kickstarter is plagued with a host of entrepreneurs who, faced with sudden and voluminous success, realize that they now actually have to create and deliver all 10,000 of those dog-walking robots they so-optimistically promised.

And the shipping on a dog-walking robot? Not cheap.

Shapiro was not going to be one of those people, so he found a producer, priced everything out and developed a supply chain ahead of time that could fulfill all of his orders for him. His only mistake, or perhaps weakness: A laser-cut special edition of Robot Turtles, which he'd promised as a special prize for large donations. He wound up having to buy his own laser-cutter, which he spent long hours carousing with in his Mercer Island garage.

By the time Shapiro and I talked at Dent, he'd licensed Robot Turtles to ThinkFun, a gaming company that would do all the heavy lifting for him. They'll be releasing their version in June. 

Crosscut archive image.

Shapiro speaking to the crowd at Dent. Photo: Kyle Kesterson

His viral board game success aside, he's still not sure exactly where his future lies: "I’m dabbling with some game ideas, I’m dabbling with some startup ideas.” He's also passionate about getting involved with local public education and sending his kids to public schools. Even if, for Shapiro and his wife, that meant moving to Mercer Island, so that they would feel good about the public schools they attended.

“I’m lucky because having a partner like ThinkFun means I get to think of all kinds of new things to do,” he said.

New things, yes. But there's also still that book project.

Watch Dan Shapiro's Dent 2014 talk, "The Six Things You Can't Delegate," below.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Berit Anderson

Berit Anderson

Berit Anderson was Managing Editor at Crosscut, following tech, culture, media and politics. She founded Crosscut's Community Idea Lab. Previously community manager of the Tribune Company’s Seattle blogging network, her work has also appeared in YES! Magazine and on the Huffington Post, Geekwire, and KBCS 91.3 radio. She served as Communications Director at Strategic News Service, a weekly newsletter that predicts global trends in tech and economics, and Future in Review, an annual tech conference which gathers C-level executives to solve global problems. Her weaknesses include outdoor adventure, bananas with peanut butter and big fluffy dogs.