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ThinkFun’s Presient & Co-Founder Bill Ritchie on 21st century thinking and gameplay
Updated: 38 min 58 sec ago

Ready, Set, Play…Online!

Wed, 11/12/2014 - 04:00

I recently sat down with Co-Founder and President of ThinkFun, Bill Ritchie to talk about ThinkFun’s newest offering, Play Online. This new and improved section of the site features thousands of challenges for some of your favorite ThinkFun games like Laser Maze, Chocolate Fix and Solitaire Chess. While talking to Bill, I wanted to get his thoughts on the future of digital and physical products and how learning can be incorporated.

 

Co-Founder and President Bill Ritchie playing his favorite Play online game, Chocolate Fix!

 Q: ThinkFun is mainly known for their physical games; what inspired the addition of a more robust Play Online offering?

A: The Play Online program is very exciting because this is our first showing of a much larger idea that we’ve been working on for years.  When we launched Rush Hour in the mid 1990’s online versions of our games started to surface – some we supported and some of them were pirate knockoffs. What never felt right to us was an online game version where players only got to play a fixed number of challenges. That meant that players would play some and then leave, and we wanted them to keep coming back.

Our Play Online program is built as a BLITZ GAME, which means that each game comes with a reservoir of 1000 challenges, specifically selected by us. These are randomly served each time a new player comes to play a challenge; so they can play to their hearts’ content and never face the same challenge twice. Then we can put on our Admin hats and refresh the challenge reservoir with a new collection of challenges, so players will continually get a whole different ThinkFun gaming experience.

For each of the five new games in Play Online, we now have tens of thousands of challenges in our database. We continue to develop and refine to find which of these challenges are the most fun and which are the best to help you stretch your brain to build your thinking skills.

In terms of motivation, it was mainly us trying to give our fans what they wanted. We noticed players definitely wanted to engage with our games in digital form as well as in physical, hands-on logic puzzle form. We hope the end result is a “BOTH/AND” experience—a ThinkFun puzzle challenge experience that doesn’t just mimic our physical game play, but enhanced it in an inherently digital manner.

 

Q: What has been the reaction so far to the online offering?

A: People are definitely starting to find the Play Online section. It’s becoming one of our top pages! This feature is a great way for consumers to test our games out prior to purchase, so it’s perfect for the upcoming holidays.

 

Q: Which are the newest games? Which are updates or upgrades to older games?

A: Our newest Play Online game is Laser Maze, which has been a huge hit for us.  The physical version of the game sold out on Amazon at holiday 2013, is now selling better than ever on both Amazon and in-store at Target, nationwide. This is one that everybody really should try—we got the play experience just right with the Play Online version, all the brainwork plus a great payoff when you hit the FIRE button.

Rush Hour is our most famous game, and one that everyone seems to want to play in both physical and digital forms. We’ve updated this game so that it’s accessible to more people. We want everybody to experience the fun of getting lost in these wonderful challenges!

Solitaire Chess is worth mentioning here also. I describe it as “The distilled essence of chess” because it’s an exercise in both critical thinking and strategic thinking. Playing the online Solitaire Chess will give players a leg up at mastering the offline version of this marvelous puzzle.

 

Q:  Can you tell us about your plans for your digital games roadmap? What’s next for you?

A: We’re moving toward developing a more sophisticated set of digital challenges that will allow us to measure the effect on critical thinking skills in a more standardized manner. We want to help players to build mental models and to learn about the mathematical structures that underlie these puzzles. This wasn’t possible with physical games only, because we didn’t have access to how kids’ play progressed without a repeatable way to track their activity.

Coming in 2015, we will be launching our ThinkFun BrainLab Tournament Competition program along with ThinkFun University where we teach university level thinking skills to grade school kids. I’ve been working on this for more than 10 years now and it’s finally starting to come together. It’s all very exciting, and it really takes the ability to track progress to the next level.

 

Q: For you personally, what is your favorite Play Online game by ThinkFun, and why?

A: I love them all but my personal favorite Play Online game has to be Chocolate Fix. We have put so much development energy and love into this one over so many years. Chocolate Fix is clever and fun, kind of like a mini-Sudoku style game, but underneath it is really just a manifestation of pure logical reasoning. In various experiments we have taught kids how to analyze the tree structure of a given challenge and also to understand different types of logical contradiction and how to describe your reasoning in the form of a mathematical proof. In one pilot program, we taught kids how to make their own Chocolate Fix puzzles that they could send out to their friends to challenge them. This was fun!

 

Feeling ready to give Play Online a go? Log on now!

 

 

Darn That Pesky Dragon!

Tue, 10/28/2014 - 11:36

Don’t be deceived by the tricks your eyes are playing on you! Recently, our very own Thinky the Dragon was featured in a BBC article that reflected on the life of Martin Gardner, a very influential man who puzzled the minds of many.

Gardner’s brilliance translated into creating optical illusions and paper-folding games, which brought about the eventual creation of Thinky the Dragon kit, a hollow face illusion and ThinkFun spokesdragon!

 

So how does this illusion actually work? Our brains are fooled into believing that this image is following our every move. Don’t let this thought haunt you — the combination of lighting and our personal perception is not strong enough to visualize the hollow face. We can be misled by ambiguous images and visual distance cues. Not so scary after all, now is it? To learn more, Bill Ritchie dives deep into the mathematics and psychology behind the illusion.

You can make your very own Thinky the Dragon with a printable PDF and trick your friends this Halloween with this great illusion!

The Return of the Man Behind the Laser!

Thu, 10/23/2014 - 09:08

I had the chance to speak to award winning game designer Luke Hooper this week. Luke designed our smash hit Laser Maze, the logic game with a frickin’ laser!

Don’t know much about Laser Maze? Well, here’s the deal: Laser Maze is a beam-bending logic game that challenges players to strategically arrange the tokens to reflect and split the laser beam according to a set of challenge card instructions. Laser Maze has been recommended by American Mensa and earned a flurry of other distinctions, including Oppenheim Toy Portfolio’s Platinum Award (2013), Good Housekeeping’s Best Toys Award (2013), the Parents’ Choice Gold Award (2013), and ASTRA’s Best Toys for Kids (2013).

Now back to Luke…

The brains behind the game, Luke is a BioMedcal Engineer by training and a seasoned entrepreneur who has co-founded Innovention Toys, Blu Wine Bar, and Reyn Studios: Power Yoga.

Prior to designing Laser Maze, he was winning awards and challenging players with a different laser game, Laser Khet 2.0. Currently, he’s the Co-Founder and Creative Director of Factor 10, a full-service design and consulting studio.

 

Here’s how our conversation went…

 

Q: How do you feel you’re game design approach has changed since your early years designing Khet to your more recent work with Laser Maze?

A: We self produced Khet, so it was a lot of work on the manufacturing end as well as concept design. I mean, we were literally shipping product out of a garage. For Laser Maze, the focus was more on finding the right partner to produce a product that would appeal to everyone, and getting that product into the right hands. ThinkFun was ultimately a perfect choice to for us because your products are in line with the audience we were seeking.

 

Q: Can you tell me what you think sets you apart from other game designers?

A: I tend to integrate innovative technologies into games. This probably has a lot to do with the fact that my design company designs more than just board games, including things like medical devices, custom testing equipment and even golf clubs for Nike. So our philosophy is more about using technology in ways that people haven’t really seen before to inspire children of all ages. We want to wow them with concepts that make them see the world & technology in new ways.

 

Q: Can you give me an overview of what a typical engagement at Factor10 entails?

A: There really is no typical engagement. We consult with companies ranging in size from start-ups to Fortune 500 companies on everything from branding & marketing, turn key product development, digital systems and strategic licensing like we did with ThinkFun.

Basically, we believe that when you set out to build a product, you really have to consider the full experience. We help people to build a compelling user experience, from the moment they hear about the product all the way through to the impression you get the first time you unbox that new toy or device. At the end of the day, our engagements are about building new businesses or growing existing businesses in a sustainable way.

 

Q. I hear you’ve added a new member to your family recently. Congratulations on that, Luke! Do you have any advice to give to parents on how they can keep their kids curious and excited about learning?

A. I speak at schools and do programs with them on this type of topic. The big thing I try to remember with my own son is that kids are naturally interested in new things. You can’t force kids into doing new things, but with games like the ones ThinkFun puts out, you can get them interested authentically, to discover and get excited on their own. I suggest walking through the toy aisle with them regularly. Kids love innovation, and they love creating. Best of all, they can help us adults remember that we are all curious and creative and love these things too.

 

A Conversation With Puzzle Master Wei-Hwa Huang

Mon, 09/29/2014 - 20:02

Wei-Hwa Huang getting his smiles and puzzles on.

ThinkFun CEO Bill Ritchie and Puzzle Master and Challenge Collaborator Wei-Hwa Huang have crossed paths quite a few times over the years—most notably when Huang created the majority of the challenges for the ThinkFun games Laser Maze and Gravity Maze. Bill Ritchie had a moment to catch up with Huang again recently, and their conversation went something like this…

Bill Ritchie: Can you remind me where you grew up and when you started to get excited about puzzling?

Wei-Hwa Huang: I grew up all over. By time I was in high school I’d lived in two countries and five states. I was born in Eugene, Oregon and went to Kindergarten in Chicago; my dad was a researcher at Argonne Labs at the time. I went to half of elementary school and junior high school in Taiwan when my dad became a professor. By the time I hit high school, I was back in the US, in suburban DC.

It was while I was still in Kindergarten that I began to be interested in puzzles. At the time, puzzles were mainly just brainteasers that came in little books or small mechanical puzzles, like the Rubik’s Cube, which came out around that time. For me, the draw to puzzling is still just about doing something I’m passionate about.

Bill Ritchie: And yet you’re a world-class puzzler! You’ve been on the US team for the World Puzzle Federation for years, and you won the annual World Puzzle Championship on four occasions: 1995 and 1997-1999.

Wei-Hwa Huang: Yes, but now I’m ranked 20-something instead of #1. I wonder sometimes about what’s changed over the years, and I think that in the 90’s puzzle competitions were new, and less of a competitive game. Now people are practicing everyday, and are just more driven to solve than I am.

Bill Ritchie: So do you think there’s a difference between a puzzle and a game? Can you define that for us?

Wei-Hwa Huang: I would say that the word “game” is a very general word—people define it so many ways. Ultimately I’d say it has something to do with the number of players. Games need more than one player, whereas when you play a puzzle you’re playing by yourself. I believe you have an opponent in both though. Even when you’re playing a puzzle or a single player game, you’re playing the puzzle or game designer. The designer becomes your opponent.

Bill Ritchie: That’s a nice segue into my next question! You developed the lion’s share of the challenges on two of ThinkFun’s games: Laser Maze and Gravity Maze. Can you share a little bit about this with our readers?

Wei-Hwa Huang: Sure. For both of these games, the original designer only provided a sample set of 10 or so challenges. In both cases I did a lot of the work to increase complexity and flexibility of play by creating hundreds of challenges—much more than actually appeared in the final production versions.

In both cases there was an initial exploration phase, where I probed on whether changing or adding extra could create more interesting experiences. In Laser Maze, for instance, there was an additional piece—later dubbed the “shorty” piece—which I lobbied to include. The shorty piece doesn’t interact with the laser in any way, because it’s too low for the laser’s trajectory to reach. I thought this piece was interesting as a blocker, because having that piece means players are blocked from adding a full piece there, thereby complicating their path to maze completion.

I took the same approach when developing challenges for Gravity Maze, but because the pieces were more intricate and the marbles zig-zag around unpredictably, a lot of my suggestions didn’t get used. For example, I wanted to have the tower connectors separate from the towers, which would have allowed more variety in how the player could stack very tall towers. That didn’t end up getting produced in the final version, but it’s a good example of my thinking.

Bill Ritchie: Do you have any advice for parents on how to keep their kids’ minds sharp?

Wei-Hwa Huang: Keeping your mind sharp is an interesting analogy because you’d have to keep sharpening, but a pencil that’s sharp enough to write is good enough for me. Really, if the only goal of doing puzzles was to keep my mind sharp, I probably wouldn’t do it. I do puzzles and games because I think they’re fun.

But if parents want their kids to learn from this type of activity, the advice I’d offer is to motivate the children to really enjoy it. I realize not everyone is like me, so parents may need to rely on external motivation, like a positive reward of some kind, anywhere from verbal encouragement to more tangible reward—whatever works. Fear is a motivator too, but I wouldn’t recommend that for parents who love their children!

Bill Ritchie: What’s next for you?

Wei-Hwa Huang: I have a complex dice-based strategy game that’s coming out in October, and I playtest puzzles for a friend’s puzzle blog called Grandmaster Puzzles. But the big ambitious project that I’m aiming to do in the next few months is to run a large-scale puzzle hunt. It’ll include 10 teams of 12 people per team, and they’ll receive some hints on the Internet to get through the full hunt. I live in SF Bay Area and there’s a huge community of puzzle hunt fanatics out there. I haven’t committed to or publically announced the event yet, so keep your eyes and ears open for this hunt if you’re nearby.

A Conversation with Puzzle Master Wei-Hwa Huang

Mon, 09/29/2014 - 18:42

Wei-Hwa Huang getting his smiles and puzzles on.

ThinkFun CEO Bill Ritchie and Puzzle Master and Challenge Collaborator Wei-Hwa Huang have crossed paths quite a few times over the years—most notably when Huang created the majority of the challenges for the ThinkFun games Laser Maze and Gravity Maze. Bill Ritchie had a moment to catch up with Huang again recently, and their conversation went something like this…

Bill Ritchie: Can you remind me where you grew up and when you started to get excited about puzzling?

Wei-Hwa Huang: I grew up all over. By time I was in high school I’d lived in two countries and five states. I was born in Eugene, Oregon and went to Kindergarten in Chicago; my dad was a researcher at Argonne Labs at the time. I went to half of elementary school and junior high school in Taiwan when my dad became a professor. By the time I hit high school, I was back in the US, in suburban DC.

It was while I was still in Kindergarten that I began to be interested in puzzles. At the time, puzzles were mainly just brainteasers that came in little books or small mechanical puzzles, like the Rubik’s Cube, which came out around that time. For me, the draw to puzzling is still just about doing something I’m passionate about.

Bill Ritchie: And yet you’re a world-class puzzler! You’ve been on the US team for the World Puzzle Federation for years, and you won the annual World Puzzle Championship on four occasions: 1995 and 1997-1999.

Wei-Hwa Huang: Yes, but now I’m ranked 20-something instead of #1. I wonder sometimes about what’s changed over the years, and I think that in the 90’s puzzle competitions were new, and less of a competitive game. Now people are practicing everyday, and are just more driven to solve than I am.

Bill Ritchie: So do you think there’s a difference between a puzzle and a game? Can you define that for us?

Wei-Hwa Huang: I would say that the word “game” is a very general word—people define it so many ways. Ultimately I’d say it has something to do with the number of players. Games need more than one player, whereas when you play a puzzle you’re playing by yourself. I believe you have an opponent in both though. Even when you’re playing a puzzle or a single player game, you’re playing the puzzle or game designer. The designer becomes your opponent.

Bill Ritchie: That’s a nice segue into my next question! You developed the lion’s share of the challenges on two of ThinkFun’s games: Laser Maze and Gravity Maze. Can you share a little bit about this with our readers?

Wei-Hwa Huang: Sure. For both of these games, the original designer only provided a sample set of 10 or so challenges. In both cases I did a lot of the work to increase complexity and flexibility of play by creating hundreds of challenges—much more than actually appeared in the final production versions.

In both cases there was an initial exploration phase, where I probed on whether changing or adding extra could create more interesting experiences. In Laser Maze, for instance, there was an additional piece—later dubbed the “shorty” piece—which I lobbied to include. The shorty piece doesn’t interact with the laser in any way, because it’s too low for the laser’s trajectory to reach. I thought this piece was interesting as a blocker, because having that piece means players are blocked from adding a full piece there, thereby complicating their path to maze completion.

I took the same approach when developing challenges for Gravity Maze, but because the pieces were more intricate and the marbles zig-zag around unpredictably, a lot of my suggestions didn’t get used. For example, I wanted to have the tower connectors separate from the towers, which would have allowed more variety in how the player could stack very tall towers. That didn’t end up getting produced in the final version, but it’s a good example of my thinking.

Bill Ritchie: Do you have any advice for parents on how to keep their kids’ minds sharp?

Wei-Hwa Huang: Keeping your mind sharp is an interesting analogy because you’d have to keep sharpening, but a pencil that’s sharp enough to write is good enough for me. Really, if the only goal of doing puzzles was to keep my mind sharp, I probably wouldn’t do it. I do puzzles and games because I think they’re fun.

But if parents want their kids to learn from this type of activity, the advice I’d offer is to motivate the children to really enjoy it. I realize not everyone is like me, so parents may need to rely on external motivation, like a positive reward of some kind, anywhere from verbal encouragement to more tangible reward—whatever works. Fear is a motivator too, but I wouldn’t recommend that for parents who love their children!

Bill Ritchie: What’s next for you?

Wei-Hwa Huang: I have a complex dice-based strategy game that’s coming out in October, and I playtest puzzles for a friend’s puzzle blog called Grandmaster Puzzles. But the big ambitious project that I’m aiming to do in the next few months is to run a large-scale puzzle hunt. It’ll include 10 teams of 12 people per team, and they’ll receive some hints on the Internet to get through the full hunt. I live in SF Bay Area and there’s a huge community of puzzle hunt fanatics out there. I haven’t committed to or publically announced the event yet, so keep your eyes and ears open for this hunt if you’re nearby.

How ThinkFun’s Head of Inventor Relations, Tanya Thompson, is Changing the World Through Play

Wed, 09/17/2014 - 16:28

Recently, ThinkFun’s Head of Inventor Relations, Tanya Thompson, had the amazing opportunity to speak at July Catalyst Week in Las Vegas. Her talk is a fantastic overview of how ThinkFun’s mission of “Changing the world through play” inspired her to move out of her comfort zone as a teacher, and into the world of business.

In the video, Tanya also touches on how she found Dan Shapiro’s Kickstarter campaign for Robot Turtles, and she teases the upcoming collaboration with Philip Sheppard, a world-class cellist. This collaboration is especially exciting because the resulting product will allow children to compose and play with music. Intriguing, huh?

Check out the video to hear more about Tanya and  details on what 2015 has in store for ThinkFunners. Oh, and let us know what you think – We’d love to hear from you!

Gravity Maze is Here!

Wed, 08/27/2014 - 13:53

Gravity Maze is the follow-up to our much beloved Laser Maze game, and we’ve been pouring love and attention into it for well over a year. It was very important to us to get all the details just right. It’s here, I’ve been playing it, and it’s just what we intended.

Why We Made Gravity Maze

One theme I am starting to hear again and again is that Gravity Maze reminds people of classic marble races. We’ve even begun posting some homemade marble runs to our social channels to support all the nostalgia. Our version has more of a bite to it though. Gravity maze is not just any marble run or logic puzzle—it’s a complete, hands-on, playful, open-ended STEM engineering experience. We made the game to encourage the usage of visual perception, creativity, and deduction to find single solutions to 60 challenges ranging from beginner to expert. That said, it’s ultimately an immersive and tactile physical experience. Just as we’re targeting the digital natives of Gen Z (and younger) with Gravity Maze, we’re also hearkening back to the old Erector Set, that classic builder-based engineering toy from the 1950’s.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Who Helped Us Make Gravity Maze

So how did Gravity Maze get so awesome? Enter Wei-Hwa Huang, world puzzle champion and design master, and a good friend. Working with inventor Oliver Morris and a team of ThinkFun experts, Wei-Hwa breathed his magic into the maze challenges and into the underlying system architecture. So take note: When Andrea and I launched ThinkFun in 1985, we said that our mission was to translate the best ideas of the wackiest geniuses into simple puzzles and games to be played by all the boys and girls of the world. I think we nailed this mission with Gravity Maze!

Join us in Building our own Collection of Marble Runs on ThinkFun.com!

Throughout the Fall and Holiday season we’ll be building a growing collection of YouTube, Vine, and Instagram videos of our customers playing Gravity Maze on our site. The objective: To salute the old school marble runs with a new school logic game twist! We’ll be updating our progress regularly, so please check back in early and often. If you want to create your own Vine video and have us feature it, send us an email. I just did it…it’s easy!

Here is my own first shot at this project. What do you think? Is this the seed of a good idea? Could you do better? Then shoot us a video!

Until next time,
Bill

Reflections on: ThinkFun and Robot Turtles in the Media

Tue, 07/29/2014 - 07:09

I’m extremely excited to share that we’ve been popping up a lot in the media lately, so things have been kind of hectic—but in the best way possible. So without seeming overly self involved (*ahem*), I would like to share a few of the more interesting news items here, and then add some supplemental info about one of the articles. I can’t help it– I’m proud of our games! And I’m thrilled that they all seem to touch on the theme of igniting the mind through play. Sound familiar? It should—it’s our mission.

Swish in The Atlantic

On July 16, The Atlantic published the article How Family Game Night Makes Kids Into Better Students. The author, Jessica Lahey spotlighted our game Swish, and its benefits for kids with impulse control and working memory deficits.

Within the article, Lahey consulted with Dr. Bill Hudenko, child psychologist and assistant professor of psychiatry at Dartmouth’s Geisel School of Medicine, who elaborated on which executive function skills Swish can most benefit:

Children with executive functioning deficits often struggle with the heavy working memory demands of mentally rotating the cards and sequentially identifying additional card matches. This game also is particularly helpful for developing an appropriate balance between impulse control and increasing processing speed as the child is trying to be the first to identify a “swish.”

Robot Turtles (and the history of ThinkFun) in Wired
Then, last week on Thursday, the Twittersphere really blew up with mentions of ThinkFun when Wired published this article, The 75-Year Saga Behind a Game That Teaches Preschoolers to Code, by Cade Metz. The title does a fantastic job of surfacing the major themes of the article: My family’s tech-centric lineage, and our vision of Robot Turtles as the hero product in the evolution of gameplay as a technique for teaching the fundamentals of code. I touched on what Robot Turtles can teach children in my first post on this blog. If I’ve piqued your interest at all so far, please do take a minute to read the Wired article. It’s very thorough and entertaining.

How we’ve changed the game
As Cade Metz points out in the Wired article, we acquired Robot Turtles from Dan Shapiro. But we didn’t stop evolving the product, and this is where the supplemental info I alluded to in the intro begins…I’d like to unbox this topic a bit further.

Of course, once we acquired Robot Turtles we made changes to enhance game play with new instructions, clearer graphics, more durable cards, bug tiles instead of cards, and a sturdy box for better storage. But that was just the beginning. ThinkFun has made Robot Turtles a flagship product in its support for Kids and Coding. We’ve added several dimensions to the game and our thinking. I want to touch on some of these upgrades:

• Programming as Storytelling: Using our “Adventure Quest” generator, parents and kids can submit board presets and stories that make being a Turtle Master kid more fun than ever. We also include some board presets to spark your imagination.
• Using Programming To Model Parent-Child Interaction: In our instruction manual, we use our teaching experience to help families make the most of time together with Robot Turtles by providing kids instructions about programming and parents instructions on how to execute their kids commands in a fun, engaging way.
• Community Interaction: We evaluate submissions and post the best for use to the Quest Library.
• Kids & Coding Resource: We’ve aggregated an amazing list of people with products, programs, gatherings and more to make sure that Robot Turtles is just the beginning of your child’s introduction to coding.
• Partnership program: Recognizing that the employers of tomorrow want the children of today to have these skills, ThinkFun is actively donating games and activities to partners. Contact us if you’re interested.
So now I’ll put the question to you, our community: Where would you like to see game enhancements and extensions? Please tweet us @Thinkfun or email us at Info@thinkfun.com with your feedback. We’re listening!

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