Kickstarting Your Little Game Designer

by Amy Kraft on April 17, 2014


I recently reaped the rewards of two board games that I backed on Kickstarter, both of which caught my attention as a game designer mama.

The first is Robot Turtles. With a goal of $25,000, the Kickstarter for this game closed at $631,230. Not. Too. Shabby. That money shows incredible support for a game designed to get kids 3-8 to learn the fundamentals of programming.

To play the game, you play a set of instruction cards (like left, right, forward, etc.) to get the robot turtle to the match robot jewel. But I’d argue that that’s not the real game. The real game is setting up the board. You lay cards that feature a variety of obstacles anywhere along the open grid of the game board. Of course, I say this because I do a lot of level design, and in setting up the board, Olive and I had great conversations about how we’d set up the board for players of different skill levels. We could make a super easy version for Ozzie, and then a nearly impossible one for Daddy. (*sniff* My little girl understands scaffolded design.) And then, to the game’s credit, there’s a certain amount of “debugging” that needs to happen, like when a crate slides to where you didn’t expect it and it blocks a player’s path to the jewel.

If you’re reading this and are bummed that you missed out on the Kickstarter campaign, I have some great news. The ever-awesome ThinkFun Games picked this up for distribution. They’re making some enhancements to the game and are taking pre-orders now. The games start shipping in June.

The next game had one of the most intriguing Kickstarter campaigns I’ve ever seen. It was developed by GeekDad Jonathan Liu, a name I knew I could trust as I gamely kicked in some bucks to go along for the ride. The name, The Emperor’s New Clothes, indicated that it would indeed be some kind of ride. Sure, the descriptions were always a little cagey about how the game actually worked. And the Kickstarter page boasted the help of an amazing list of my favorite creators, like Tom Angleberger, Bob Boyle, Raina Tegemeier, and Adam Rex. Every update had something a little eyebrow raising, like “Doctor” Mac Barnett describing amazing technology that makes game elements only visible to certain people.


The game arrived, rather fittingly, on April Fool’s Day. Inside a completely blank white box were a slew of blank white playing pieces — dice, tokens, cards, instruction booklet. I loved it, but even better than that, Olive’s eyes completely lit up with possibility when she saw it. The game did come with stickers and possible instructions, but the blank pieces were too big of an invitation.


Olive asked several times to “play” the game. I’ll admit that since I’m a game designer by day, it felt a little too much like work and I kept putting it off. Then came the first day of spring break. Olive needed something to do besides watch the iPad and loom rainbows, but I had a ton of work to get down. She again asked to “play” the blank game, so I pulled it down and suggested that she get started designing her game and I would play it when she was finished but offer any help she needed along the way.


Cut to time-lapsed video of a clock as hours passed, with Olive laboring happily over her game. She decided to base it on her recent comic book, Seed & Strings Do Not Like Each Other. It’s worth noting that my girl starts many a comic book, but this is the first one she’s finished. It’s a hilarious tale of seed people and weed spiders that are out to get each other.


In her version of The Emperor’s New Clothes, you get to play as one of her characters. The spaces on the board feature her characters, too, and the instructions tell you what to do when you get to one of those spaces. Often you move forward or back or you get an extra turn. But, when you land on the special spaces of the pony-tailed girl, you draw the Emperor’s clothes. Now, there is no information on who this Emperor is or criteria about what his clothes should look like. Rather, the game invites you to be a fashion designer. You grab one of the notebooks that she made and draw whatever comes to mind. Then, your fellow players vote on whether these clothes are good or bad, and you move forward or backward accordingly. (The goal is to be the first to the finish line.)


Her game is a lot of laughs as everyone tries to have the most outlandish Emperor’s clothes. We still have a completely blank deck of playing cards, so I can wait to see what the next game will be. I highly recommend giving your kids blank playing pieces. Also, give them blank comic book pages.

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